Upstanding Others was an experiment that happened within the inaugural CounterPulse Festival, and it happened from March 12 through March 17, 2018. There were eight to ten people in a room (or series of rooms) every day for a chunk of hours, some chunks larger than others. Olga, Sasha, and Nina were “from Russia,” Saulaman and Megan were “from US swing states,” and Tara, Jose, and Zulficar were “local.” Nastya, who is a curator “from Russia,” was often in the room, as was I. These places that we are supposedly “from” provoked our being brought together, and it was implied that conversation or collision or bridging would happen because of these places. But people mostly didn’t care. Other things happened, and over the course of the week, I watched the other things.
On being one among others:
She was curious about the texture and look of the street. There were colors and edges that were so completely strange to her that she could not think about anything else. She tried to be really attentive in the group, but every time someone mentioned something about blue or sharp or looking, she got ignited and blurted out a question or very recent street memory. Her world was crisp and clear from the inside; it didn’t mix organically with the wash of fleshy and fast angst that was the outside, the others. These people were just too shifty. Her trust of objects always won out, so she preferred to share herself most intimately with the wall or the piece of wood lying on the table, and not move quickly at all. I zeroed in on her immediately. I too was slow and trusted the wall.
On the week:
I was with the group during four of the six days: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Monday had the light of possibility; ease was in the room. Everyone agreed early on that whatever was to happen on Saturday (the culminating presentation) in front of an audience was not going to be a performance about Russia and the US. It was startlingly clear and unanimous, in fact. Various proposals of research and task revealed the interests of the artist from which they came. People with their eyes closed danced in silence with objects as others watched and manipulated the terrain and personnel around the dancer. In response to this, She said, “When you watch a person deal with an object, you see who they are.” I agreed. Later, a choreographic exercise in impulse re-direction was offered and muscled through. One in the group, who was “not a dancer,” attempted the exercise in a just-so way, a revelation for the one who offered it. Everyone was really looking, and things felt ripe. The day ended with an iPhone in a cup, the group circled around it, recording the asking of 100 questions: questions about each other, the collective, our assumptions and frames, the week, the many worlds. By the time I re-entered the group on Wednesday, something else had settled in. A number of the artists had begun, whether consciously or not, to do the thing that artists are pushed to do again and again: concern themselves almost exclusively with product. The weather of the group changed, as attention and tension were placed on “the show,” Saturday’s public engagement, where the group was to somehow present what had happened.
On composing as a group:
A few times, the desire got tossed around the room to “find what our collective practice is.” The rub was that everyone navigates the step-down/step-up model with a different flair, and one person in particular had a strength of investment in her own ideas that made this tricky. I think that her intensity shook me mostly because I was able to recognize the look in her eye as a look that I have had in my eye: a low-level panic (not low). It was maybe about being understood, or felt; she was more than hungry to make something great happen, she was a mix of brilliant and desperate, and she was slowly coming apart about it all. She tried directing the flow of ideation while simultaneously trying to nurture some kind of unanimous equity of leadership. I’m not sure that she was breathing. I assumed she would break open and that all this clogged fluid and relief would just gush out all over the room (like how I do), but… she never did and it never did. In increasingly tedious ways, people resisted her focus on product. I felt like I could see her coming up against the limits of her usual abilities, and I loved her devotedly for it. By the end of a week of this, she had become quiet — subtly paralyzed maybe, at least caved-in, in a state of soft and disoriented shock. She might say that group composition never happened, but that wouldn’t be true. There was a group, and they were in space, over time, weaving and wobbling, in an absolute composition. It just wasn’t what she had imagined.
I wonder about dominant narratives of otherness, especially as they are applied to perceptions of American regionalism, and to perceptions of a cultural tension between the US and Russia. My guess is that there’s already too much plasticky misinformation out there for this provocation to successfully bait a room of weary artists, who have likely never been able to afford to invest much in these perceived “differences.” In so many cases, surviving a contemporary artist’s given economy/ecology requires some deep, almost total sloughing off of dominant narratives in order to keep chins up above in the bright clouds, in the futurisms, in our new ways. From inside of most of what we’re told is happening, I can’t seem to act much, so I look out and re-write. Maybe if we keep mechanizing each other so much, then one day (this day), we’ll end up standing in front of each other, looking at and trying to recognize each other, and instead just seeing a productivity thing, no organs.
***SoSorryAnotherQuickPersonalNoteOnOtherness… (And On “Framing”?): I think that most of what I’ve learned about otherness that has stuck I’ve learned from living alongside my partner, Ross, who I have an irrational desire to stay next to, despite often understanding him very little, and often feeling misunderstood by him. It’s fun and weird and awful: usually, I’m someone for whom being around people I don’t understand is very difficult. I need to have some kind of a clear handle on people and things. I need to get them in a frame of some sort, and conversely, I need to feel that I am at least fundamentally understood/framed by them. What I am in the process of learning is that this “framing” approach to others doesn’t really work. There are just too many kinds of frames, and it turns out that everyone creates understandings according to their own skin and histories, which are things that I can witness but certainly never understand. Is allowing for otherness, then, a phenomenon of releasing understanding? Of moving away from acts of framing one another at all?
About fifty or so audience members were in the room. The group had, in the eleventh hour, strung together a series of exercises and performative ideas, a loose version of things that had been offered by each of them over the course of the week. They cycled through the things, then cycled through them again with a kind of casual, deconstructive conversation laid over what was happening. The curator “from Russia” and I had been asked to hold microphones and occasionally whisper texts or notes that we had recorded during the week, which we did. Later in the presentation the executive and artistic director of CounterPulse read from the grant that had funded Upstanding Others. She read the gloriously inflated project description and goals, which only punctuated the impossible nature of the thing. The group finished by clumping together in a kind of relieved pile on the ground, no language, just holding, sensing, finally. Humility and exposure sat heavily in the room for those who had needed some kind of satisfying bridge to have been built. It seemed a strange betrayal of process to have put these humans in a room of fully live and new other humans for a week, to task them with exploring and caring for a collective otherness, and to then also task them with sharing some kind of productivity or summation of this experience with yet another ring of others. Yet here they were, in an exhausted pile of plurality in front of us, negotiating what — if anything — they had managed to hold onto or make happen within this wild proposal of simply being together.
On periphery and nucleus:
Yes, there were discrete exchanges about power, nation, and transcultural perception that permeated the rooms and times of Upstanding Others, to which we could point and dissect. But it would be false to allow any of this to eclipse the implicit moments that seemed to be the true happenings of the week. The time together was marked by urgent curiosity, anxiety, and endless kinds of personal and collective noise. There were introverted and extroverted fragilities around locality, gender, race, and personal practice. There were un-named ghosts. There were methods for making that were crashing into each other, and there was blunt excess and recess. People were juggling each other, emotionally: clenched muscles, wild-but-clear care, teaching each other things with force/agenda/tenderness, practicing how to be in the world, and giving up. If there were a pie chart of whose voices were heard for what percentage of the time spent together, it would be a mess of a chart. It was sweet and relentlessly polite chaos with booby traps in the fabric that didn’t exactly detonate, but instead just kind of sucked things into the ground. Maybe it was mostly just eight people surviving each other and themselves for six days, in a time and place that demands that all of us be bold and give space, take it easy and power through, be a certain thing and be nothing, get fussy about identity and move the fuck on already. Upstanding Others might have been a democracy that got shot in the lung, so of course it might just as well have been a family.
On the first day of the experiment, before I encountered anything that I was to encounter about this group, I wrote this in my notebook:
When we are together with others, what is our collective accountability to one another? What are the dimensions and details of that accountability? What and where does it get extended to, and how should we push? When and where do we stop?
On the last day of the experiment, after I encountered everything that I was to encounter about this group, I left them. I relaxed my eyes a little, walked around downtown, let things leak in and out, ate a good sausage, helped a trembling friend on a street corner, yawned, and gathered synergy for whatever or whoever might be next in all of this.