Blog – Reflections on the Bodily Undoing Symposium

Dance artist Ailsa Richardson recently attended the Bodily Undoing symposium at Bath Spa University, with support from Theatre Bristol as a TB Agent. In her blog she reflects on the symposium and the ‘language of grasses’ workshop she facilitated there, which she will be running later this month in Bristol.

in the language of grasses
we become the hearts of nomadic birds
Reporting back from the symposium
Bodily Undoing – Somatic Activism and Performance Cultures as Practices of Critique
Held at Bath Spa University 15th 16th September 2017

I attended a variety of workshops, lectures and dialogues chosen from a very full programme (in most time slots there were 4 or 5 choices!). This is a response to my own journey through the programme and an interweaving of some specific aspects that resonated with my practice. It is not exhaustive any way – if you are interested in the programme it can be accessed in its entirety here.

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One of the key questions for the symposium was how somatics and affiliated transdisciplinary arts practices can challenge and disrupt the dominant ‘social imaginary’ (Castoriadis). And in turn, how can these approaches operate as practices of critique that might contribute to an alternative social imaginary or way of world-making? Glenna Batson suggested that this social and capitalist imaginary is dominated by a neo-liberal culture of uncertainty (Morie, 2011), promoting widespread anxiety and fear and a commodification of our attention on many fronts. One of the threads through the conference for me was this idea about how our attention is controlled and how this control might be undone, disrupted and changed by artistic practice.  

I had printed recently on some publicity cards the quote “culture is the formation of attention” (Simone Weil) and this idea is an ongoing area of fascination for me in my practice. This very same quote appeared in Nina Little’s keynote and more widely in the symposium, ‘attention’ was referred to as the attention to both the wider societal and political context and the attention to a more intimate realm of self-care and of how we de-traumatise ourselves and support, sustain and take care of each other and the environment we are part of. Noyal Colin and others took care to note how an emphasis on vulnerability and personal change is in part being currently played out as a cult of individuation and a ‘yogic state of capitalism’. This is just one example of the way attention is being commodified and packaged in a way that closes off other ways of attending to the wider socio-political context. 

In her session on re-embodying leadership Ali Young reminded us of Margaret Wheatley’s alternative models of leadership, and of the necessity to create “islands of sanity” (implying some of the dominant and less than sane worlds that we inhabit!). These islands of sanity might present places to deal with past and current conflict, to be vulnerable and acknowledge feelings of fear and disconnection as well as joyful celebration. This is something that Movement Medicine practice can offer (both Ali and I are teachers of this work) and the short practice session that Ali ran offered such a place to feel and be present with each other. Alex Komlosi also offered another kind of ‘island of sanity’ in a workshop where we were invited to ‘dialogue with our inner partner’ in a structure of solo improvisations and feedback. This presented some rich possibilities for developing what Alex referred to as performative and psycho-somatic fitness.

We also heard from Rita Marcalo in her keynote about her project ‘Dancing with Strangers’. Through a residency and a series of workshops Rita created dance duets with refugees at the camp. Recordings of how to re-create the dances and music to accompany them were made by the same refugees. These dances were then shared via headphones with members of the public at events and festivals where they are invited to re-embody one of the dances as a duet with Rita ( Her stories about working with refugees in The Jungle at Calais were a stark reminder how the goalposts can constantly shift when attempting to create ‘islands of sanity’ in the midst of insane chaos. She experienced constant interruptions to the work including a full-scale riot. Rising above the chaos came an image of a piece of graffiti from the jungle: We borrow the hearts of nomadic birds who don’t recognize borders. I observed extreme displacement and extreme joy held in Rita’s work and the ability of her practice to hold these extremes. 

No DescriptionThe Dancing with Strangers project seemed to be an illustration of the proposals made by Noyale Colin in her presentation about the persistence and resistance that somatic dance practices can pose to a contemporary neoliberal agenda. The Dances with Strangers create sites of resistance that exist as performances of self-organization; we experience dances that are at odds with the situation, or are created despite it as small acts of protest. In the re-embodiment of the dances they become  practices of connectivity which have the ability to shift and change and in the repetition of them, to persistently search for new ways of being together. Massumi calls such practices a search for ‘flows of disturbance’ – and resonating with this though not referring to Massumi directly, Nina Little talked in her keynote about presence as a disturbance. In a walk around the grounds with Richard White we became increasingly present of the disturbances of history evident in the landscape of the conference venue. The money to create the rarified and manicured estate of Newton Park (now owned by the Prince of Wales) was deeply embedded in slave trading in Bristol. Witht this knowledge this centre of white privilege becomes a continuing disturbance and Dancing with Strangers troubles the edges of our understanding, disturbing our expectations of the ‘other’ and of dance. There is also the possibility of coming into presence together in the sharing of the dance. Noyale also acknowledged the need for enjoyment and ease too and how these can spring from being together, even in these ‘flows of disturbance’. New cultures of being together can spring from this change in attention and move toward a continued resistance to the monopolization of bodies and behaviours. 

Nina Little asked in her keynote “Who gets to be Human?” (a question posed by Rosie Braidotti) and she is pointing here toward an awareness of the increasing erosion of aspects of our humanity and to who has access to power and human rights. Suggested also by the question is the denial of rights to non-human organisms on our diverse planet. In addition, another question arises : how do we define what is human anyway when our bodies are made up of so many materialities, bacteria, parasites etc.?  

The workshop I offered at the symposium is one response to the challenge of this question. The language of grasses workshop opens up the possibility to stretch toward the more-than-human environment for responses to a question, and enable a new kind of response-ability. I draw in part on BodyWeather practice for this. BodyWeather is an exploration of the ‘in-between’ of bodies: in-between body, mind and imagination; in-between the material of the body and the material of the surrounding environment. Inter-relationship is key and the meeting between outside and inside, often by actively engaging the imagination, is the central investigation. I received many rich responses from the participants in the workshop and many were deeply affected by the experience. I was very glad for that and at the same time I was struck by how many participants were quick to read stories and metaphors into their observations and experience. The practice of BodyWeather is more concerned with observing experiencing qualities, densities, rhythms and speeds – which leads to a more abstracted movement or textual ‘language’ that in turn infers multiple meanings.

The language of grasses is multiple – the site and nature of grass does not pass unmarked and is not a blank slate for a single story to be read into … it can be thriving, dying, juicy, smooth, dry, cut, light, floating, flowering, budding, dew laden, and the sight of hundreds of greens, browns, the sounds of wind and rain and the scents of time. And that is just the start of it … 

No DescriptionIn a longer workshop I would spend more time with the BodyWeather practice so that this different aesthetic and language can be drawn upon in more detail. Of course metaphor and story are relevant and powerful, and at the same time there is a possibility to interrupt this to open up attention further. Many of the key propositions in the symposium revolved around disrupting and undoing some of the assumptions and expectations that have become embedded in somatic practices, their languages and ways of moving and creating. We need to remain alert to our own neo-liberalism and the ease with which practices and places become controlled commodities in ways that we didn’t intend. As artists of all disciplines this is a call to keep disturbing the edges, de-blocking the poles and allowing the entangled disturbances of difference to be present and central to our practices. Attending to the so far invisible, to intra-action with our environment and interspecies collaborations can be one part of discovering the ‘flows of disturbance’. Artistic practice can indeed become in this way, as suggested in the title of the conference a ‘practice of critique’. 

We don’t know what attention can do and that is the start of an adventure with consequence … discovering what attention can do is the dance we are doing … be fearless in this action (Nina Little)

I will run another workshop for artists/dancers/performers on November 11th exploring imagination and perception and taking a troubling question for a walk. I am also looking to gather people to explore the next phase of in the language of grasses with me. The workshop will draw on BodyWeather practice – see my website or the Theatre Bristol listing for more information.

Please contact me about the workshop, performance or any aspect of my work on [email protected]

There is a fee for the workshop but artists registered with Theatre Bristol will be given priority and a special rate.

Ailsa Richardson

To find out more about how our TB Agents scheme, and how you can apply for a bursary to attend a professional event or conference, please visit our TB Agents page. Our next deadlines are 20th November 2017 and 19th February 2018.