At the Salt Altar, the Eye Sees the Eye
A Prelude of “Free the Body” at the “Build Peace 2022” Conference
Build Up, Inc., “Build Peace 2023: Exploring the Unseen”
Our online and offline realities cannot be divorced from each other — we can look at them together to understand what unites us, what divides us, and how in between the cracks of those answers, there are existing formations that offer us tools to build both relationships and our capacity to respond to each other peacefully. To do this effectively, we need to understand what lies below the surface, together. What are the unseen or previously silenced perspectives, stories, people and places that need attention, and what are the environments impacting their histories of (in)visibility?
Sub-Theme: Turning Points - Examples of turning points towards peace and a new reality in different regions.
Sub-Theme: Connecting Spaces - Where do we come together as individuals to shape a peaceful society? The spaces where our relationships are built are often hidden. How can we create and enable such spaces intentionally to be in relationship with each other? This theme explores the spaces in which interaction across different perceived dividing lines is possible. It explores the unseen ways that allow people to feel heard and connected within micro-communities.
Recently, an online meeting was held with various contributors to the Build Peace 2022 conference, “Exploring the Unseen” (Chemnitz, Germany, November 4-6), including the Free the Body team, in attendance. Attendees were asked to consider various questions posed by conference organizers. Contributors were to consider how the questions related to their work, and how their work related to the questions. While ostensibly similar, this dichotomy represents two dynamically different framings.
How are we healing ourselves?
How do we facilitate spaces that are about exploring possibility rather than about knowing answers?
How can we use future narratives to make the invisible visible in conflict contexts?
What unseen pressures are my counterparts and collaborators under that I can’t see or
What are the Big Questions which move people into understanding they are the ones
who change the world?
How do we manifest perceptions of security; perceptions of dignity and vulnerability;
resilience against violence and extremism?
Notably, in our breakout group, attendees were charged with finishing the following two thoughts, as well:
I wonder if my session can make people think about or consider ____________.
I wonder if my session can look like ______________.
What arose from these conversations was nothing short of generous and auspicious given the overall context and approach of the Free the Body project, and our recent blog posts regarding body-liberation in an increasingly hyper-digitized world. Below is a sneak peek at the Free the Body exhibit, how the project has once again revealed (and continues to reveal) art making as truth-seeing, and the coherence, as a peace project, to the Build Up peace conference this November.
For the past two weeks, Bill Schinsky, Director of the Coachella Valley Art Center in Indio, CA, and his team were beyond gracious and generous in welcoming the Free the Body team, allowing me space and resources as an artist-in-residence, for two weeks so that I might inventory, plan, and prepare the sound reinforcement infrastructure, while also composing new material, for the Free the Body installation. In addition, the rest of the Free the Body team and I conducted workshops, artist meetings, and planning sessions while doing a deep dive into the composition of the installation space. It was, especially, this latter portion of my pre-production residency that instigated new, customized sound scores for two spaces in this wonderfully resonant and alive gallery. Further, it was this live “community” of sound that unveiled key components of the Free the Body project process, why the piece matters as a moveable work, and what is uncovered throughout each step of production.
The sound score of Free the Body, as noted in other blog entries, creates an immersive sonic environment. That is, it is designed to envelop the listener, so that the attendee won’t have a sense of the origin-location of the sound, though the sound score will introduce a new environment in which one may orient themselves. For example, when you listen to your Bluetooth speaker, you are aware of the speaker, itself, as occupying a separate and distinct location near you and in comparison to you, that is, different from where you are listening. Moreover, the sound emanating from that speaker is easily discerned as emitting from a distinct point of origin – a specific “starting place”.
This is not the case with immersive sound. In an immersive sound “field”, sound seems to emanate from everywhere, surrounding the listener, much like the “real” world - its own “environment”. Further, the different sound scores throughout the installation strategically “bleed” into or, better stated, “co-mingle” with one another, while utilizing the physical structure of the gallery, as well as the audio frequencies of their content, to “mask” the other sound scores. In this way, there is both an intentional separation, and integration, of audio throughout the installation environment, including the use and/or creation of “silent” or “negative sound” space within the installation.
This act of complimentary contradictions – where different colors and “worlds” of the installation rub up against, and even conflate, with one another – is actually a core tenet of Conflict Transformation work – a practice directly sourced for the Free the Body art practice. As Conflict Transformation pioneer John Paul Lederach puts it, “Conflict is a naturally occurring event, where two different forces ‘rub’ up against one another, that is a necessary, positive motor for change.” Each sound element contributes to, sets boundaries within, and incites resonant and reverberant movement across the Free the Body installation, moving forward in time.
As the prior blog entry (“The Handshake of Water”) noted, we live in a hyper-surveilled age. How much of this surveillance is unseen? How much is, in fact, us? The Free the Body installation, graced within the Coachella Valley Art Center’s perfect layout, positions its elements so that they may watch each other. This reflects, of course, yet another presentation of Foucault’s Panopticon and other in-the-round surveillance methods so endemic in our “increasingly digitized world”. To drive the point home further, audience members, themselves, are positioned throughout the performance space, similarly facing one another, similarly representing the “eye watching the eye.”
How might we reclaim our story, if we are constantly giving it away in a hyper-surveilled world? Free the Body utilizes digital technologies, and conversations, to produce “Bodily Liberation” testimonials that are then embedded within particular locations of the sound installation. Here, participants across a wide demographic spectrum recount experiences which answer “When do you feel most free in your body?” Almost without fail, as an inadvertent testimony, if you will, to their effort of claiming and sharing their witness as gift, participants thoughtfully reiterate to themselves, “Where do I feel most free in my body?” And then an answer – shared anonymously within the installation – ensues.
This storytelling-as-gift-giving stems directly from the wise traditions of indigenous cultures. Specifically, the indigenous community of Danza Azteca Citlaltonac, working in partnership with GROUND SERIES dance and social justice collective, continues to be instrumental in bridging invisibilized indigeneity, overcoming “invisibilizing and invisible violences levied against the somatic and by the somatic body, especially in relation to notions of sovereignty and citizenship.” While Danza Azteca Citlaltonac brings these themes into direct relationship with inter-generational trauma and atrocities heaved upon indigenous bodies, their partnership with Free the Body highlights the sovereignty of our bodily story. That is, a totalitarian effort upon our personal, cultural, social, political, environmental, and future body is exactly defined by the effort to remove our story from that body and replace it with their own, or nothing at all (which would still be their own and not ours).
During the Zoom meeting noted at the beginning of this entry, however, a facet of the project that became clear to its creators during the weekend of 9/24-25, was serendipitously called to the fore by a group member who works in community organizing and taken to new heights by, in point of fact, a data analyst: that is, how the element of “art as research” in Free the Body unveils the intra-psychic hopes of each artist, the inter-social collaborative psychology of the group of artists, and the essential component to a thriving life: the singular beauty of diverse, healthy community.
The layout of the installation begins with the outer entrance to the art center emitting engaging, lively, attractive, beckoning tones; and immediately introduces the elements of darkness and light/imprisonment and liberation in the inside front foyer through the use of what, in Italian is called “chiaroscuro” – darkness and light living together, well. While the front foyer is a summary representation/introduction/reminder to and of the work, this strange cohabitation of opposites continues throughout the installation. Sound dies down as the silence of a liminal, transitional hallway gives way to the multi-spatial main space mix of elements, and the guide lights of two “listening windows” where the testimonials are held within special sound scores. A far side vestibule-like area is filled with pink light, salt, and wood as indigeneity, awe, fear of the nature’s largesse, and a strange gravitation for timeless-home calls to the attendee. Further on in the space, a kind of nook holds space for solitude, reflection, refreshment, and thought as sound gives way to vacuous, muted tones within this space of rest and withdrawal. Crossing the live main room – complete with altar and various tapestries – one finds, by contrast, an open space of activation where transient tones compel one to move outside of pedestrian habits and launch any bindings free from our notions which divide us from the work. Directly – and closely – located across from this live space, a dark chamber strangely and seductively summons. This space, with its barely throbbing matrix of soft, immense weight, while reflective of imprisonment, also calls to bear notions of strange comfort, of humble resignation, and of an imminent transition back out into life anew.
As I mentioned to my conference colleague, when touring the pre-install of the work described above during my residency, shortly before the 9/24 workshop with Danza Azteca Citlaltonac, the true operationalization of community – of elements communing – crystallized beautifully. At an undetermined time during pre-production. Right in front of me. Actually, all around me. This is Art as Research. The art making, itself, revealed that the installation, at its heart, embodies community – how it is made and what it feels like. It is here that the heart-life of the installation and the work’s thematics – women’s rights, reproductive rights, human rights, bodily liberation, and abolition feminism – may shine brightest. Inter-relationality at its highest point. Clear individuation within clear combination creating something genuine and clear from something eternal.
Both the Build Up conference and abolition feminism call to question the propriety of “affective polarization“ as an ultimate tool for peace building. In Abolition. Feminism. Now., the writers put forth the clear inquiry and tenet that, “affective polarization intersecting with supremacy (is) examined within an abolitionist framework.” The Free the Body exhibit directly challenges affective polarization with the ancient ouroboros symbol and notion that the alpha is the omega. Dark and light each have a role. But that evil is a perversion of the healthy dark t which ancient wisdom across cultures point as natural and, ultimately, beneficent. Affective polarization vs. Complementary Opposites is what is restored and renewed within a piece centered on the liberation of the body.
How can our bodies not be liberated when our pieces are retuned to one another? When the perversions of our shame and the inversions of our fears are revealed and dispelled though invitation, community, and a loving space that incorporates the truest nature of the life-light spectrum? The question remains as not simply when do we feel most free in our bodies, but how do we feel most free? How do we access bodily freedom? Anywhere? What is this that we hold so dear, but may relegate – with a favorable understanding, to be sure – to only a few ostensible situations?
After noting this authentic miracle of “art as research”, I asked a data analyst from the U.K. to explain his subject position and work within the conference contexts. After giving context and some explanation of the mechanics of his work, he concluded, “It’s basically like the “Art as Research” that you described. You discover things and levels of things that you didn’t even know were there. That you didn’t even know existed. You realize what is actually going on.”
Written by Peter DiGennaro, Sound Artist/Human Rights Educator