Dancing the Constraint
Fall 2012, Montreal. 26 people gather for a collective SenseLab1 event entitled Into the Midst.2 The initial project: how to use an immersive dome structure (the Satosphère at the Society for Art and Technology [SAT] in Montreal) against its tendency to foreground only the activation of its external surfaces (its domed projection screen). How to open the idea of screen-based interactivity such a dome is premised upon to include the activating of the space as a whole? How to modulate the environment such that the projection surface becomes only one porous surface in the complex interplays of relational movement? The wider challenge: how to activate a passing, a crossing, a meeting, that celebrates the complex intertwinings of a recently built environment and the outside space of the city, particularly that of the red-light district where the dome is housed. Our research question: is it possible to activate lines of intensity between these two collective environments? Is it possible to use the dome – a tightly run, exclusive platform combining sound surround, immersive image projection with possibilities for interaction design – to rethink current concerns, in Montreal, as regards the place of art in the neo-liberalization of the art economy?3
Our approach to this question involved a year of experimentation, including bi-weekly Skype meetings/reading groups, the creation of a bank of images made to experiment with opening up the space of projection to its milieu, a workshop at the SAT to understand the parameters of the software program and many discussions about how to create openings between the cityscape and the domescape.
10 months into our preparations, we made a first attempt at concretely addressing the role the neighborhood might play in our collective process. This involved a few of us going to the Peace Park, a park next to the SAT known for its junkies and skateboarders, situated, like the SAT, in the heart of the red-light district. Our approach was well-meaning: we wanted to interview the “locals” to see how they felt about the dome, a recent construction in their neighborhood. We wanted to know whether they might also want to make images that could be projected inside the dome, or contribute in another way. Did they have something to say about gentrification, about the increased exclusion between the built “cultural” environment and the “open” cultural spaces such as the Peace Park? Did they feel that their “open” space was threatened? Our experiment failed. The park dwellers resisted the conversation as long as there wasn’t a fair exchange: drugs? money? For these, they were willing to offer anything in exchange. We were caught in our own game, left wondering why we thought our concerns would be theirs.
In the Skype discussions that followed, leading up to the event, we returned to the question of encounter. Was our desire to create bridges simply another kind of neo-liberal benevolence? Who were we to even say that the SAT played a role for the inhabitants of the neighbouring park (pictured above)? Perhaps we had overestimated the place of gentrification in their everyday lives. After all, the immediacy of drug addiction is all consuming. Questions of neighbours may not be foremost in their minds.
Built in 2010-2011, the Satosphère opened its doors in the spring 2011. The dome, strangely mirroring the mosque now dwarfed behind it, situates the SAT, a non-profit community-arts organization, as the site for what is the most technologically advanced interactive projection and sound-surround environment in Montreal. Their website reads: “First immersive theatre permanently dedicated to artistic creation and to activities of visualisation, this dome forms a 360 degree spherical projection screen. As a new instrument for the creation of tangible and englobing human experiences, the Satosphère places the public at the heart of audiovisual works.”4
It is always a fine balance to negotiate between cultural experimentation and entertainment – particularly in countries such as Canada where funds are for the most part based on government grants, which increasingly demand products and clear benefits to society. An appeal to the masses is always an easy way to go and there is no question that the dome technology appeals to the senses. What happens to the arts community when a dedicated environment for art becomes a site for cultural capital? Is it a necessary evil to become tied to the entertainment industry? Have we made it as artists when we become a tourist attraction? The SAT achieves this with the dome – Tourism Montreal cites the SAT as a clear player in the “quartier des spectacles” (“entertainment district”) emphasizing the key role the dome plays in the city’s entertainment landscape.5 A boon for the pocketbook (the SAT dome is not free for the public), necessary, perhaps, in times of renovation-overspending, but a detriment, perhaps, for the wider cultural community, made up as it is of artist-run centres for whom the question of process and experimentation remains paramount, and for whom “benefits” must for the most part remain intangible.
For us, a further question loomed: How to reconcile the turn toward (paying) entertainment with the current atmosphere in Montreal, coming out of a 6-month student strike on the necessity for free education, a strike which mobilized the whole city and its cultural imagination? For in Montreal, to demonstrate, to fight back, is never to be outside of art – Montreal is an arts-oriented city where mobilizing across different locales and grids of allegiance involves coming up with creative strategies such as the ubiquitous red square still worn by so many, the organization of a continual roster of performances, and, in May and June 2012, a collective practice, at 8pm every night, of banging on pots and pans to speak out for education.6
The SenseLab residency at the Dome in October 2012 was an opportunity to explore these questions, and to ask how such a space might be opened up to reorient the cultural environment to the very “outsides” that had compelled its founding members, in 1996, to work together to create an exploratory site for new media experimentation coming out of the euphoria of ISEA 1995.7 Having benefited from the SAT’s generosity in the past (the SenseLab was housed at the SAT from 2006-2009 and we held two of our Technologies of Lived Abstraction8 events there), our goal was to productively orient the dome toward the question of collective experimentation in a way that did not presume the posture of passive entertainment. Was it possible to experiment with but also move beyond the software platforms dedicated to the 360 degree projection space, working with images such that they might be able to make visible fissures in the arena of the visual projection environment? Was it possible to work with sound such that it accentuated the complexity of differentials created by sound, movement and projection? Could sound become a way of activating a public such that a movement constellation might emerge? Was it possible to problematize, in a creatively generous way, the limitations of a cultural centre that closes itself off to its most ungentrified neighbours?
We went back to the drawing table to consider how to proceed after the misstep of the interviews in the park. To choreograph an event, a constraint must be set up that is equal to the complexity of the event. With the interviewing process, there was no strong sense of a constraint – the invitation was too open. We wanted anything they were willing to give us except what they really wanted – “you can have anything you want if you give me drugs or money” was not what we had expected. Despite our best intentions, we were too quick to draw a separation between “us” and “them,” – we, the “cultural providers,” they, the “down and out,” the “excluded.” Too many presuppositions guided our experiment, the most glaring being that they “should” have an interest in the preoccupations that are central to we who feel strongly about the place experimentation must continue to play within the wider cultural sphere. This, we realized, positioned us as having already worked out what direction our process should go: from outside to inside, from the “junkie” park to the Satosphère.
We needed an “an enabling constraint,” that is, a constraint that would enable the emergence of a collective process. For this, certain conditions would have to be in place. There had to be a sense of what is at stake: what did we hope to generate? There had to be a sense of the dimensions of the process. Did we want a single iteration, or did we hope to create the conditions for a series? There had to be a sense of who might be involved: were we concerned about a shared vocabulary or were we interested in creating the germs for a collective utterance that had not yet found its sense? How willing were we to reinvent on the spot? Would this be a practice that involved a structured improvisation or were the rules tight?
Each event evolves from its own conditions. There is no constraint that can be used across events and be expected to yield interesting results. The event makes its constraint, and how enabling it is depends on the event’s capacity to evolve beyond – to outdo – its original configuration. What we know for sure: going from the collective to the personal unsettles the event. To make the event adress the individual or to explicitly invite individual expression is to curtail the openings a new creative process affords. The process must not stop there. The goal then: to create conditions that enable a collective individuation.
A new proposition began to take form: we would take 12 skeins of white yarn to the Peace Park on a sunny Thursday morning. We would collect day-old strawberries, blackberries and raspberries from the local grocer (given to the event free of charge) and bring them to the park. The red would stand in for two things – the red square of the student strike, the red of the “red light district.” The berries would also bring a sense of summer’s reminiscence in the cooler fall days. We would purchase cheap white coveralls and distribute them to the participants. We would collect crochet hooks.
The proposition was for the creation of a choreographic object. Following the logic that choreography is about the “what else,” about what else the event can do when movement becomes its generative principle, we defined the choreographic object as William Forsythe does as “a model of potential transition from one state to another in any space imaginable” (2008: 6).
The choreographic object we proposed was an interplay between smell, red, and knots. Pallets of red fruit were brought to the park in the morning of the 18th of October, much of the fruit perfectly edible (and quickly consumed by hungry passersby and event participants). A bucket was there for the mashing of the fruit, hands squishing the fruit to create the red, sticky, jam-like dye for the yarn. The skeins were then pushed, submerged, pulled, squished into the red-mix. Once dyed, a few were attached to stable objects (a tree, a sculpture) to create an initial platform. Crochet needles were passed around, and with them the instruction of how to wind the hook to create a crochet knot though it soon became apparent that for many the crochet needles were not necessary: a crochet knot is more easily taught by standing beside the learner and simply weaving strands around their wrist or fingers, engaging them in the kinesthetic act. More skeins of yarn were dyed, and with them (and the enticing smell of fresh berries) came the wasps, their presence often dictating where the participants would move to create the web of knots.
The idea was that participants would make crocheted loops that would eventually knot across more and more lines of yarn, creating a complex, multi-dimensional surface. The act was simple: three initial loops, the pulling of one loop over the other, following by a rhythmic overlooping. The constraint was productive: the manoeuver was easy to learn, inviting little stress into the process of collectively knotting the ever-increasing structure. Because of the linear nature of the line of knots crocheting creates (unless you start to loop back to create a weft, which few participants did), soon participants were reaching one another, the crocheting enabling encounters moved not by the participants’ individual wills, but by the movement initiated by the knotting process itself.
More and more people joined. Hours passed, the web taking over more of the park, bystanders participating sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours, the exchange of white coveralls marking the transition between a more active or more passive engagement. Event participants who weren’t knotting made photographs, or took video and mobile scans that would be used later in the dome. Others ate. Alongside the berries, we had prepared an array of red sweets, many of them playing on the incompatibility of vision and taste, working with ingredients that might confuse the palette (red key-lime pie, raspberry-dyed pistachio nougat).9
There was a grace to the event – the choreography was subtle. It engendered a participation that was unselfconscious. There was no demand placed on the public, but the invitation was palpable. How people participated was up to them, with participation itself open to redefinition. The web grew, the white coveralls got redder and redder, the boxed berries were given away, the sweets got eaten, and night fell. And with all of this came a renewed sense of the necessity of rigour in experimenting with creating conditions for an event to take form.
But this was just the beginning. Now we had to take not the work itself (we hadn’t realized how quickly the web would rot!) but the expression of collective individuation inside the dome. And we had to find a way to generate from it an expression of movement elasticity within a dome-space that demands, insists on, and even negates any posture that does not strictly attend to the limits of the dome’s curved exterior surface: almost without fail, people entering the dome space walk toward the middle and crane their neck, their eyes directed at the walls and ceiling, before lying down on the cushions placed on the floor. Projection spaces are not easy to activate.
Back in the dome, it was time to create new constraints, but the spectacular architecture kept diverting us. The desire to give in to the virtuosity of the space was palpable, as was the anxiety of performance – a public awaited us in 5 days. How to not “perform” for the public? How to generate conditions that would be as productive as those we had managed to put into place in the Peace Park?
We took 4 passages from Arakawa and Gins, making the idea of the landing site our first grounding gesture, returning to these when we found the constraint got too loose, or when the event began to feel as though it was making demands from outside its own process:
• That which is being apportioned out is in the process of landing. To be apportioned out involves being cognizant of sites. To be cognizant of a site amounts to having greeted it in some manner or to having in some way landed on it (2002: 5).
• An imaging landing site […] lands widely and in an un-pinpointing way, dancing attendance on the perceptual landing site, responding indirectly and diffusely to whatever the latter leaves unprocessed (2002: 7).
• Landing sites dissolve into each other, or abut, or overlap, or nest within one another (2002: 8).
• Landing sites abound with landing sites. Anything perceived can count as both a landing site in and of itself and as part of a larger landing site […] These events are decision-like […] (2002: 9)
The concept of the landing site provided us with a vocabulary to begin to articulate the kinds of transitions, passages and lines of flight that continued to be central to our process. The passages between the surface of the dome and its milieu, between inside and outside, between experimentation and entertainment, between the active and the passive collective body, were composed of many kinds of landings, and to honour the rigour of the differences in these landings, we needed to better understand, in Arakawa and Gins words, how “that which is being apportioned out is in the process of landing.” What is the process of greeting a site composed of? How do we compose with this greeting without making the landing a spatial phenomenon? We developed a relational movement exercise to become collectively more aware of how sound and image inflect a collective moving. We composed sound that activated and modulated our movement, working with local sounds and also with pieces of conversation taken outside during the web-making in the park. We collectively composed images and videos that challenged the “perfection” of the dome, sometimes refilming from inside the dome to create a palimpsest of perception. We worked with a mobile scanner to compose anamorphic images. And then we experimented as a group with different constellations of sound, movement and image to explore how the space of the dome might become a choreographic object in its own right. Each proposition was encountered. But the issue was not consensus. The issue was how to create the most generative conditions for the creating of a complexity of landing which would allow the environment to propose more-than the posture it seemed to so thoroughly regulate.
Landing sites are not about sites per se. What lands is an intensity, a choreographic tending, a dance of attention. For the public, what we hoped to be able to achieve was the creation of co-composing landings, some diffuse, some unprocessed, some overlapping or nesting, all of them on the edge of cognition. Would we be capable of activating events that were “decision-like” without dogmatically directing the public to the undermining of convention we were striving toward?
For Alfred North Whitehead, there is an elastic relationship between freedom and constraint, between an immanent process of decision and an open process of change. In his process philosophy, the event is composed not of pure process, but of the cut that subtracts it from undifferentiated potential. The occasion of experience is singular, growing out of its separation from a more amorphous whole into its singularity, the occasion defining itself in its difference from the flux. The trick is to understand how the singularity of the occasion co-composes with the flux of its potential. Too often, the flux and the singular are placed into a dichotomous contradiction, as though one must be chosen over the other. The effect of this is to fall either into an absolute system or into pure chaos. Whitehead’s process philosophy recasts this problem, speaking not of absolutes but of the necessity for what he calls “elbow room in the universe.” Were all occasions relational at their core, there would be no room for difference. The occasion must therefore be seen as the punctual edge of the flux which continues to inhabit it as its more-than. An occasion is not process: it is “what is” and “what has become.” Whitehead writes: “The causal independence of contemporary occasions is the ground for the freedom within the Universe. The novelties which face the contemporary world are solved in isolation by the contemporary occasions. There is complete contemporary freedom. It is not true that whatever happens is immediately a condition laid upon everything else. Such a conceptual of complete mutual determination is an exaggeration of the community of the Universe. The notions of ‘sporadic occurrences’ and of ‘mutual irrelevance’ have a real application to the nature of things” (1933: 198).
Whitehead’s insistence on the necessity of pure difference is key to understanding the role the enabling constraint plays in a choreographic process. The occasion of experience (this twisting of the yarn over the wrist, this meeting of two raspberry-infused lines of yarn, this gravity-induced movement, this sound-smell landing) quickly perishes. In its perishing it potentially co-composes with new occasions. But how it co-composes depends on what has evolved in the interim, even if the interim is simply a quarter second. Much is left behind, much is lost. Some lands. Some is apportioned out. Some dissolves. Some abuts.
There is no absolute continuity. There is an infinite web of decisions, immanent to the event. These decisions are its constraints. Many of them are disabling. A few of them – enabling constraints – create the conditions for the event to outdo its initial conditions. Freedom is contingent on constraint.
There were many failures. The initial web rotted. The production of image-events were held back by a software team that wasn’t part of our event, and found our process frustrating, or perhaps simply uninteresting. Why, they must have asked themselves, are these folks working so hard to undermine what is a perfectly stable system? Despite muddled constraints – we were torn, despite ourselves, between giving them a “show” so as not to disappoint them, and wanting to subvert this very dichotomy between entertainment and experimentation, certain things worked well and the public was interested in our process. In the end our own tendencies for spectacle got in our way – leading us in the end to “program” a full 2 hours of images and video when we knew better than to “fill” the dome with sound, with images, thus undermining the potential of the space itself to open itself to new kinds of encounters and movements. But the images were striking, and powerfully complex. And the sound was haunting, and potentially generative of movement.
It was perhaps the yarn, once again, that worked best as a choreographic object, able as it was to bring into focus the intimate relation between movement, image and sound. We bought new yarn, red this time, and with the public, many of whom lay on their backs looking up at the images, we began to hand-crochet, once again teaching people who were interested how to do so. As the web grew, strands of yarn criss-crossing the inner space of the dome began to cover the participants. In a surprising collective movement, participants then began to assist us in holding it up, using their hands and legs to create a webbed surface between them and the projections. For a short time, there really was a sense of a different kind of seeing, of experiencing spacetime in this curved environment. But then the web lost its sense and we let it drop, finding ourselves at a loss, unable to create a collective movement for an audience lulled, it seemed, by the vastness of the projections and the darkness of the space. The discouragement was palpable amongst us, eventually leading us to stop the projections and have a conversation. And it was here, in the sharing of concerns with regard to collective space, to the force of the animate and the power of images, to the problems of cultural capital, that the event found the voice it seemed momentarily to have lost in its desire to entertain.
Call them “enabling failures.” And go from there, crafting, always, with the limits of the event, the tendings the event provides, the landings it affords. Explore the limits of “greeting” the site in its landing. Explore the unprocessed. Encounter the multiplicity, the convergence, the disarray of landings upon landings. Tend to the decisions, but don’t act like they belong to you. Leave them to the event, and choreograph with them. Keep the conditions clear, and make them simple and open enough that something can happen, but closed enough that the limits can help shape them.
Enjoy that collective individuation often lands widely, imperceptibly, and much of the work is in composing with what has abutted, landed crookedly, or been lost in the process. This, it seems to me, is the art of dancing the constraint.
Arakawa and Gins, Madeline. Architectural Body. Alabama. University of Alabama Press, 2005.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Adventures of Ideas. New York: Free Press, 1933.
2 The participants include: Andrew Goodman, Annette Svaneklink Jakobsen, Benjamin Burpee, Johanna Cairns, Rachel Nelson, Charlotte Farrell, Eleanora Diamanti, Hannah Buck, Mayra Morales, Nathaniel Stern, Patrick Lichty, Zila Muniz, Mahasti Mudd, Ana Ramos, Emily Beausoleil, Gerko Egert, Silvia Pinto Coelho, Andreia Oliveira, Marie-Pier Boucher, Louise Boisclair, Erin Manning, Brian Massumi, Alanna Thain, Bianca Scliar, Toni Pape, Troy Rhoades.
3 See Erin Manning, Brian Massumi, “Generating the Impossible” in Thought in the Act (Minnesota UP, forthcoming) for a more in-depth exploration of the issue of the neo-liberalization of art, and the SAT’s place in the economy of cultural capital in Montreal.
4 My translation: “Premier théâtre immersif permanent dédié à la création artistique et aux activités de visualisation, ce dôme forme un écran de projection sphérique sur 360°. Nouvel instrument pour la création d'expériences humaines tangibles et englobantes, la Satosphère place le public au coeur des oeuvres audiovisuelles.” source
6 Theory and Event published a journal issue on these questions. My own piece in it discusses the creative solutions for group mobilization. See “Propositions for Collective Action: Toward an Ethico-Aesthetic Politics”.
7 The International Symposium on Experimental Arts, formerly the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts was founded in 1990. From the founding of ISEA until 1996, the organization was based in the Netherlands. From 1996 to 2001, ISEA moved the headquarters to Montréal, Quebec, Canada. It is once again headquartered in The Netherlands.
Erin Manning holds a University Research Chair in Relational Art and Philosophy in the Faculty of Fine Arts at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada). She is also the director of the SenseLab (www.senselab.ca), a laboratory that explores the intersections between art practice and philosophy through the matrix of the sensing body in movement. Her current art practice is centred on large-scale participatory installations that facilitate emergent collectivities. Current projects are entitled The Knots of Time (for the opening of the new Flax Museum in Kortrijk, Belgium) and Minor Gestures. Publications include Always More Than One: Individuation’s Dance (Duke UP, 2013), Relationscapes: Movement, Art, Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009) and, with Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Minnesota UP).
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