Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Irish Times Review

Michael Seaver's review of Tattered Outlaws of History pleases me not only because it is sympathetic but because it recognises the choreography in the work that extends beyond the steps.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Toyo Ito: An architect for individuals

“I sometimes feel that we are losing an intuitive sense of our own bodies,” Mr. Ito lamented at one point during my visit. “Children don’t run around outside as much as they did. They sit in front of computer games. Some architects have been trying to find a language for this new generation, with very minimalist spaces. I am looking for something more primitive, a kind of abstraction that still has a sense of the body.”

“The in between,” he added, “is more interesting to me."

Nicolai Ourousoff's essay in the New York Times on Japanese architect Toyo Ito caught my attention because it contrasts the 'unassuming' Ito to the 'diva' Zaha Hadid and 'intimidating' Rem Koolhaas. The essay paints

Looking for a way forward Mr. Ito was drawn to the work of Kazuo Shinohara, a vocal critic of the Metabolists who believed that if architecture could change the world at all, it would do so not by promoting radical social visions but by creating small, modest spaces to nurture and protect the individual spirit. His houses, mostly build it in the 1960s and 1970s, were conceived as private utopias, with delicate interiors supported by muscular concrete pillars that seemed designed to resist the outside pressures of a corrupting society.

But eventually this vision seemed as limiting ... and Mr. Ito would locate his architecture in the space between two extremes: the social idealism of late Modernism and the inwardness of Shinohara’s work.

Much as I am a guardian of the individual spirit and an advocate for the protected spaces that nurture that spirit, I acknowledge the need to connect individuals through their idiosyncrasy. I've been imagining how we could create public spaces which support people to be alone with themselves - among others. Perhaps it's something like a cloister where there is traffic and passage but which have a contemplative quality that allow people to reflect and revive.

I guess I was also attracted by the comparison drawn between Ito's latest design for a new opera house in Taichung and a choreography that acknowledges the complex contradictory quality of humanity.
The sense of inside and out, of stillness and motion, becomes a complex, carefully composed dance.

It is a striking vision, as beautiful as anything built in the past decade. And it sums up Mr. Ito’s philosophy about both architecture and life, about the need to accommodate the many contradictions that make us human.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Choreography

I suppose I was concerned that the TV coverage of Tattered Outlaws didn't really mention anything about the choreography. But then I realised that by focusing on the opportunity for people to get inside the towers and to reflect on what that heritage means, the coverage is acknowledging the most important aspects of the choreographic work. For the people who enter the tower, the experience is a structured physical experience. They shift from the relative warmth of the outdoors to the towers cool damp interior. Their eyes must adjust to the interior gloom. They may queue until it's time to stoop carefully to climb the switch-back stairs we've built until the arrive on the viewing platform in front of the screen. Only six adults can fit on the small platform at a time - it's a dance which many can experience but not as a big group. Standing in front of the screens, the viewers are encouraged to connect beyond the immediate physical experience of the Skerries tower (they rain my drip on them) to the other towers and to performances glimpsed on them.

This experience of visiting the installation corresponds to my own physical engagement with the tower. They came alive to me when, on the advice of some passing schoolboys, I was able to climb in to the tower at Loughshinny and make my way on to the roof. The physical buzz of climbing into the towers, the nervousness of making my way around the spiral staircase in the dark, the emergence on to the roofs which open to the sea and the surrounding coast, dark, light, sunshine, rain, all fed in to the dances I made for the films.

After those initial visits to the towers I went back to the studio to develop some physical material, phrases of movement that had enough nooks and crannies for me to explore each time I danced them. I brought that material to the towers for the filming and adapted it to each tower, the conditions I found there and the feelings evoked in me by the encounter between my movement and the place.

When you dance in a studio and on a stage, for the most part, there is a relationship between the movement and the space that you can take for granted. The floor will be even, with a particular texture. Dancing on the towers is a constant dialogue between the movement I'd prepared and what the tower offered. For the most part, I danced in the derelict towers. There's broken glass, rough stone, grass, bird shit, steps, wind, rain. So each time I put my foot down and slid and rolled, my intention was challenged by the tower. In an instant, I had to adapt and a whole new set of images, memories, feelings flooded my body. I may have prepared the material but there was nothing predictable when I brought it to the tower. Though the tower is strong and my interaction with it temporary , I leave traces of myself on it, small bits of my DNA scraped off, pebbles shifted, grass disturbed - small, impermanent traces - but tokens of my presence nonethless.

Bernadette's encounter with Balcarrick followed the same process. Her material is prepared but transformed by what she finds in the tower. Her DNA in the smeared in spit on the surfaces of the tower.

And why the other people? Zach and Eva play, a kind of connection between imagination and physical exploration that I think is a good way to help people understand what the 'dancers' are doing. Dorothy tells the story of her personal history with the tower. Hers is a process by which memory becomes movingly present, a process we can read in her body as she circles the tower to keep up with the camera, making sure that it hears what she wants remembered. Joe, at his bench calls each of the towers in turn with his Morse code. We know there will be no response but the gesture of calling is important nonetheless.

And Tom, reading his book, silently, is also a renowned broadcaster. He is the owner of the tower but his background in communication makes him an appropriate presence. I read in his stillness a calmness and self-assuredness that provides a counterpoint to the fretful physical explorations elsewhere in the films.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Tattered Outlaws: On the RTE 6 o clock news

A friend of mine was tickled by the sight of Dan and me side by side at the start of this piece. The physical differences between us are matched by differences of approach and temperament, however Tattered Outlaws has been about connecting the different and acknowledging the common DNA of buildings/people/experiences that don't look so similar on the outside.

I'm always surprised when I'm asked my why I collaborate with people who are so different from me. It seems that I need the stretch and challenge so that there is something for me to learn in the process. Working with people who are too similar may be comforting but it reinforces where I'm at already rather than move me to a new understanding. Dan's way of looking at a project is more technical and hard-edged than my intuitive, person-centred approach. But when I saw his photos at the Screens in the City conference in 2006, I could see in his work a sensibility that we shared, a cherishing of texture and perhaps, a romantic celebration of the fertility of decay, life in death and death in life.

Photographs from Fascism in Ruins series by Dan Dubowitz and Fearghus Ó Conchúir

Tattered Outlaws: We opened

Owners came, friends came (having painted walls in the tower while rain seeped down them), a mayor spoke. Dan and his son, Zach, wore linen suits.

We gave Caroline flowers to thank her for joining us on the journey. We had a big marquee and Irish music. There were queues of people to make it to the viewing platform. I had to breath deeply when I couldn't turn on the power and Dan couldn't turn on the power. But Zach saved the day with the rhetorical question: 'Shouldn't that be plugged in?'

And here's how it all began and ended up. Footage from our very first visit to Skerries and from the day of the opening.

Tattered Outlaws of History / Public Arts Project from Fingal Arts on Vimeo.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Tattered Outlaws: Braving the elements, indoors

Even though I am used to the vagaries of Irish weather, when you organise an indoor event for the middle of July, you don't expect that torrential rain will be a problem. I arrived in Skerries today to start the preparations for the opening of Tattered Outlaws of History on Thursday. When we opened the door in to the tower it was clear that the drips and dampness we'd had to contend with in the past had escalated to extensive leaks that didn't bode well for our system of electrical wiring and fancy plasma screen set up. More heavy showers are forecast for the next few days.

Fortunately, the water damage was mostly on the perimeter of the first floor, leaving the place where the screens will go relatively dry. We installed the TVs and covered them for the night with plastic shrouds. I know the electricity works so if they survive tonight, Dan and I will test them more fully tomorrow.

They keep you on your toes, these buildings. But returning to them, I feel very happy that they are part of my physical memory now. I've been rain-soaked, sunburned and wind-buffeted on them; I've rubbed my skin on their stone, slid on the tussocks of grass that have survived in their cracks. I know what the towers feel like and how they dance.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

What does freedom mean?

Xiao Ke and I have been exchanging emails asking each other questions like: "What did you feel about your body at 5, at 15, at 25?", In what ways are you typically Chinese/Irish, in what ways atypical?

Then Xiao Ke asked me what I mean by independent, particularly when I describe her and myself as an independent artists. She's asking in the context on violence in XinJiang province where, like the Tibetans, the Uighur population want more freedom, if not outright independence.

I haven't answered yet but I came across this article which describes how different cultures define freedom differently, some prioritising individual freedom and others prioritising the good of the group. Of course the main example of the latter which the article eludes to is China. So far so unremarkable. It gets more interesting when the article acknowledges that 'we all process information in terms of both independence and interdependence: The issue is that some cultures prioritize one over the other.'

The question remains to be answered how individuals can be independent in the Chinese culture and if when Xiao Ke calls herself independent she is talking about the same thing that I mean.

..does the notion of “freedom” really mean the same thing in Baghdad as it does in Boston? Newly published research suggests the answer is probably no. It’s a question of whether one is more oriented toward independence or interdependence — an attitude that is largely conditioned by one’s cultural background.

This distinction isn’t easy to grasp for Westerners, who grew up in an environment that stresses individualism and personal liberty, but it’s a very real and important distinction to understand in an increasingly interconnected world, according to a research paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

The research team, led by psychologist Eva Jonas of the University of Salzburg, Austria, built upon a series of past studies suggesting certain cultures are organized around the idea of personal choice, while others emphasize group harmony. The clearest example of this, according to a 2002 analysis, is Chinese society, which is less individualistic and more collectivist compared to American norms.

Jonas and her colleagues wanted to determine whether this difference could be measured in terms of “reactance,” which they define as “a motivational state directed toward the re-establishment of the threatened or eliminated freedoms.” This state is manifested in “an increased desire to engage in the relevant behavior.” (Alcohol is prohibited in this park? Well, that makes me more determined than ever to sneak in a bottle.)

They conducted a series of psychological tests, using participants from a variety of cultural backgrounds. In one, 105 college students — 54 from Britain and 51 from other nations, including 26 from China and eight from Malaysia — were presented with one of two scenarios, both of which involved the use of a company automobile. In the first scenario, representing individual threat, their personal access to the car was placed at risk. In the second, which involved a fleet of cars, the comfort and convenience of their fellow employees was also threatened.

Participants were asked a series of questions gauging their reaction to the scenario, including how much pressure and irritation they felt when considering its implications. The results were tabulated to create a composite reactance score.
“Following the individual threat, East Asian participants reported significantly less reactance than Western Europeans,” the study notes. “However, with the collective threat, the difference between Western Europeans versus East Asians disappeared.
“Further analysis reveals that East Asians tended to experience more reactance when their collective compared to their individual freedom was threatened, whereas Western Europeans experienced more reactance when their individual instead of their collective freedom was threatened.”

This pattern held in the follow-up studies, which found some interesting variations on this theme. One study was restricted to German students, half of which were asked to describe the ways in which they are similar to their family and friends, while the other half were asked to describe how they are different from their family and friends. Those primed to think in terms of independence reacted more strongly to threats to their individual freedom, while those primed to think in terms of interdependence reacted more strongly when their group’s freedom was endangered.

So we all process information in terms of both independence and interdependence: The issue is that some cultures prioritize one over the other. The aforementioned 2002 analysis by the University of Michigan’s Daphna Oyserman warned against overgeneralization, but it concluded that “European Americans were found to be more individualistic — valuing personal independence more — and less collectivistic — feeling duties to in-groups less — than others.”

As Jonas’ new paper sums it up: “Culture influences people’s attitude and values and therefore contributes to their understanding of self and identity — and this determines how and when they experience threats to their freedom.”
This framework may help Westerners better understand the conflict in Iran, a society that is, by all accounts, deeply split. Could it be that the basic divide between supporters of the hard-line government and an opposition that demands more personal liberty reflects a difference in views regarding what constitutes freedom?

Polls suggest virtually all Iranians want their nation to be free and independent, which is why they chafe at demands their nuclear program be dismantled. But for some, that collective freedom is all that matters, while for others, it needs to be balanced with personal liberty.

This divide can even be found within the U.S. Civil libertarians argue Americans have the right to be free from government spying such as warrantless wiretaps. But national security hard-liners counter that such intrusions protect us from outside enemies, thus helping to preserve the nation’s freedom.

Jonas and her colleagues refer to these two impulses as individualist and collectivist, and there is no question they are often at odds. But it is worth remembering – especially this weekend – that both are expressions of a desire for freedom.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Woolworth's in Leytonstone: A room of one's own

I've been discussing with Waltham Forest Council the possibility of using the empty Woolworths in Leytonstone for an evening of Waltham Forest choreography. I'd been calling the evening Pick'n'Mix but Leytonstone Arts Trail has used the Woolworths first and adopted my title too. They've put part of their annual visual art exhibition into the Woolworths and the opening party last Friday was packed with people of all ages. They've really generated a buzz and media interest, reminding people what artists can do with limited resources. The co-operation of the council has been a great help too and will be very important in ensuring the success of Pick'n'Mix: a dance selection later on in the year.

In the meantime, the organising committee of the Arts Trail has generously allowed me to use one of the spaces in the Woolworths that they can't open to the public because it is not equally accessible. It's really exciting to have access to a space relatively close to home that I can use for free to doodle physical ideas. It's not a sprung floor but it's wooden with tiles - not an ideal space but tall and big enough for me to move around in. I don't cover quite as much ground these days.

The floor was really dirty today but given that I've rolled around in bird droppings, it's not bad. I started the cleaning process, knowing it will take a few more attempts but because I want to get rid of the surface stickiness that makes sliding around uncomfortable and difficult.

The space used to be the locker room of the employees and has lots of notice reminding them that they are being watched even in this 'backstage' area.

I wonder what new dance will emerge for this left behind space.