The whole residency started with a mutual interest in grief and loss. It’s a morbid topic, but the tone of their early conversations were never grim. Instead, death became a mystical, almost humorous presence for the week. Cappy brought in Choo Choo the dog in her little doggie cremation box. Eun Jung brought in a wax head she found in Brazil, imbued with the power to purge a loved one of an ill feeling or disease. Adrienne shared a story of a recent loss in her life. Cappy taught us how to use the fleeces of her three sheep (who passed many years ago) in craft projects. The three women took turns sharing “sad” stories, but rather than leaving us somber, the telling of the stories made the room warmer, familiar, and comforting.
During the first few days of the residency we all sat on the floor, working with Brillo, Millie, and Suds’ wool.
Adrienne enjoyed carding the wool, aligning all of the fibers in one direction. Cappy continued to spin the wool on a Navajo spindle, a sabre-like wooden dowel, while Eun Jung felted a mitten. The three worked and shared stories about objects of personal significance. There was a special feeling to this time together. It was very pleasant; food was shared alongside laughter. We continued working with the wool and talking. In many ways, the repetitive movements of the fiber crafts made it easier to open up and listen: I found my own mind more attentive as I drove a small felting needles into a hunk of indigo wool.
Adrienne talked about traditional folk singing and vocal improvisation. We learned a few songs from her and sang together while working with the wool fibers. The rhythmic motions of carding, knitting, and felting became entwined in our singing. When did we stop learning or rehearsing the song? Did our repetition become a performance?
Eun Jung began to talk about repetitive motions, short choreographic phrases, which could be repeated until they were boring. What happens when you continue with a movement past the point of boredom? Eun Jung led us in a movement meditation that culminated in a long period of shaking. We were free to explore the space and the limits of our attention as we kept our bodies in a state of constant motion. Then, we came together in a few moments of stillness.
As the week progressed, Eun Jung, Cappy, and Adrienne worked towards building an “onion-like” experience for participants. They decided to create something in a workshop format that would seamlessly turn into a performance. The performance would be participatory and would emerge from individual physical, tactile, and aural experiences. It would focus on togetherness and inclusivity, but there would always be the possibility to choose. You could dance, or not. You could sing, or not. Being there would be enough, but a more interactive experience would be available to those who desired it.
The research we did in our meetings was very interesting, and the lines between rehearsal and performance, research and composition, blurred during our time together.
Out of a desire to capture the strange nature of their collaboration, I’d like to share what happened during their showing – a piece that is as much rehearsal as it is performance – from my perspective as an observer and participant.
Old wooden benches and chairs are scattered throughout the space, loosely enclosing us in a circle. We sit on the marley floor, on cushions, on blankets, on benches. Classrooms turned into massive, shuttered storage spaces look on to the vestry in which we sit. There’s apple cider and homemade cookies on the Navajo-style rug Cappy made. There’s carrots and clementines, and other treats.
We are invited to grab a craft – wool fibers transformed into tiny matted hearts, strands of handspun yarn, knit scarves. Adrienne cards wool between two large paddles covered in tiny spikes. Strands of hay and other detritus fall onto the floor in front of her. You can hear soft cooing in the rafters as we all sit, happily working alone, together.
Other than the tools of our work there are other objects placed throughout the room, strewn with soft clouds of freshly carded wool. Brown tufts frame a happy tableaux: a wedding topper from a past marriage sitting on a dented cardboard storage box. A wax head wears a toupee of felted wool. An elaborate elastic and silver belt hangs off the back of a chair.
“Has the piece started yet?”
“Yeah. Or not…”
Cappy stands up and explains why the cushions in the room are emblazoned with puffy-paint computers, names, and dates. Unable to throw away these remembrances of her ex-husband, they sit in storage, along with bags and bags of uncarded fleece. She shows us pictures of her deceased sheep, explaining that the wool we are using to create our hand crafts are Brillo, Millie, and Suds (well, mostly Suds).
We all go back to our crafts, the repetitive movements both relaxing and lulling. The quiet piercing sound of felting needles and wool and the faint knocking of wood spools on wood benches underscore our conversations. A young girl felts wool with her mother on the floor and two younger women spin wool while sitting on a bench.
Eun Jung asks us to leave our crafts aside and start to move, “or not…”
Some people keep working on their crafts while those of us standing start moving. We find heat between our hands and move it around our bodies, and soon, the room. Bodies swaying in increasing arcs, we being to move around the room, spreading this heat. After reaching out and away from our bodies, we allow ourselves to collapse inwards. We collapse to the floor then reconstruct our bodies, engaging upwards. We start to shake. We shake for ten minutes. We try to shake until we’re bored with the shaking. And then we keep shaking.
After ten minutes, the music stops. We are instructed to “wash ourselves,” running our hands over the vibrating muscles in our bodies. We bring ourselves to stillness, and I observe a new frequency of peace between my shoulder blades.
We return to the now familiar motions of our crafts. Adrienne teaches us a song, call-and-response style. Some of us know the song, and lead the charge. Singing in unison, we continue to work on our projects. The sound of our voices echoes in the highest corners of the vaulted ceiling.
In the diminishing winter light we stand again, this time in a circle. Adrienne teaches us another song, and we listen to each other, alternating between drones, and variations on the melody.
As I sing, I feel parts of myself drawn out by others’ voices. I feel joy hearing our voices fill the massive space of this church, despite the somber, plodding tone of the song. As the song dissipates into its last drones, Adrienne, Cappy, and Eun Jung regroup. We are asked to continue our handy-work, explore sound, or indulge in repetitive movement phrases. I start making simple repetitive movements, easily broken down into ever smaller increments. I get lost in the small articulations of my feet required by normal walking.
I recall one person dancing, a hank of vermillion wool passing between her hands as she lunges through space, collapsing, the red wool soft viscera spilling out in front of her. She repeats this action a few more times before she continues on with a new sequence. Another person explores the dark perimeter of our circle repeating large, sweeping movements with metered breath. Two young ladies continue to talk and knit, while a man sits on the bench opposite them in the circle, felting furiously, his gestures increasing in amplitude. The room had an intensified air to it. Things were of a slightly more theatrical hue as dance and song enhanced our craft-making.
The transition between this state of exhilaration and discovery to sitting down is fuzzy in my memory. It’s as though I come to minutes later, sitting on the floor, knitting in hand. We’re talking in a circle about the performance, what people felt, what it was like. One man offers up a John Cage quote as a response to the performance:
In Zen they say:
If something is boring after two
it for eight,
and so on.
Eventually one discovers that it’s not
boring at all
but very interesting.
Others remark that the workshop felt like going to church or that it was a sort of community-building exercise. People seemed to enjoy the ability to actually create things with their hands, just as they enjoyed the somewhat “soft” ending of the piece.
Eventually, people collected their belongings, drifting out of the church as the four of us moved the benches back into their storage space. We gathered the wool strewn throughout the room, packing the tufts into large storage bags. Personal objects were returned to their owners. The piece was finished… Or not…
In fact, the collaboration between Eun Jung, Cappy, and Adrienne has continued on past this sharing. Their research will continue to extend and grow over the course of another month as they continue to invite more collaborators into this experience.
This first attempt, accounted for above, created a communal vulnerability in which blind participants, and those with a little more training, were able to meet each other in a space that invited them to create and share. Their upcoming research hopes to build upon this formula, or perhaps abandon it. What seems certain is a desire to achieve a practice that observes itself as it is being observed by others, both intimate and public at the same time.
Arianna Gass is a recent graduate of Vassar College. In addition to documenting Cross Pollination, she is the Program Manager for Drexel University’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Her own art practice is located at the intersection of digital and embodied play, and her scholarship focuses on feminism, performance studies, and game studies. You can find more of her writing and work at www.ariannagass.com.