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UCIRA Artist Spotlight on Holley Moyes: Raising the Sky in 2012

7 Mar

What does it mean to discover the past? For an archaeologist like Holley Moyes, the experience includes dirt, ambiguous fragments, and the tedium of sorting and cataloging. But there is also the imaginative moment, the sudden seeing of a distant culture come alive in a particular space and time. For Moyes, associate professor of anthropology at UC Merced, both kinds of discovery are essential.

The two year interdisciplinary project, Raising the Sky in 2012, encourages students as well as residents of the University’s surrounding Central Valley community to encounter the ancient Maya, Moyes’s specialty, via multiple paths—literary, visual, scholarly and popular. Moyes draws on her own work excavating caves in Belize, on the array of artifacts uncovered in Mesoamerican jungles—pottery, sculpture, hieroglyphic inscriptions—on historical accounts from the Spanish conquest, and on the studies of modern ethnographers. She’s also, she says “been reminding students that the Maya aren’t dead. They’re still alive and well and there’s millions of them. There are actually a lot who live right in San Francisco.”

At the center of the project is the Popol Vuh, the most extensive example of pre-Columbian literature yet discovered. Like the bible and other ancient epics it blends history with myth, opening with an account of the world’s creation, “out of a calm sea and a great expanse of sky.” Once an acceptable version of man is created—the forefathers make several attempts using mud, wood, and corn—the narrative turns to tales of the Hero Twins (there are, in fact, two sets) and their battles with the lords of the underworld. The final section relates the history of a particular people, the Quiché of the Guatemala highlands—their migrations, rituals, and the genealogies of their rulers.

Besides teaching the work in her anthropology classes on the Maya, Moyes has used it in an interdisciplinary course, “Writing Narrative for Archaeology,” and lectured on it in both literature and studio art classes. In a nice piece of synergy, Popol Vuh was chosen this year as the basic text for the Core I class required of all freshmen. Moyes is also developing an original script in collaboration with Gerardo Aldana, a Maya scholar at  UC Santa Barbara, that’s based on one of the Popol Vuh characters—a woman.

Epics may be the original science fiction, envisioning in great detail what for readers in another culture amounts to an alternate reality. The problem for Moyes is all the unscientific, supposedly Mayan realities that are propounded by Hollywood film makers, New Age mystics and historical novelists who keep “bringing in aliens” rather than doing research. In her classes, she says. “I try to debunk some of their ideas. I talk to them a little bit about 2012 and what it really is, and how it’s not going to be the end of the world like the movie says.”

Rather than calling the Maya prophets, she suggests, why not see them as the great astronomers they demonstrably were: “They knew that Venus was the morning star and the evening star, which is something the Greeks didn’t figure out for a really long time. They had a more accurate calendar than the Spanish did when they came to conquer them.”

The survival of the Popol Vuh is also a dramatic story. When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Maya had been using a hieroglyphic script to keep written records in bark-paper books. Church fathers, intent on converting the population to Christianity, burned all the manuscripts they could find and persecuted those known to be scribes. In his introduction to Popol Vuh, Allen Christenson, the translator of the edition that Moyes chose for her classes, explains that a group of Quiché nobles transcribed the epic into Latin letters soon after their lands fell to the Spanish, then kept the text hidden for two centuries. In the 1700s a sympathetic priest, Francisco Ximénez, was allowed to make a copy—the only one now known to survive.

Christenson has been a frequent visitor to the Merced campus. Moyes’ students, tempted to think of the Quiché as vanished people like the Trojans, instead hear Christenson’s stories of living among them, What had largely vanished, he reports, was the idea that their language could be written. Working with elders who burned copal over a Xerox copy of the Popol Vuh to mark the seriousness of the undertaking, Christenson was able to use the Quiché text discovered by Ximénez as the basis of his new translation.

Written in the present tense, the epic seems almost cinematic, and students, Moyes says, respond to the work strongly. The Hero Twins are appealing action characters, relying on cleverness when they are overmatched. More contemporary still, they are ball players. Their game—versions are still played among the Maya and ancient ball courts have been excavated—features a solid rubber ball. Today Moyes says, it’s usually played something like volleyball. In the past, she says “based on what we can see in the iconography, they might have used an implement to hit the ball.”

At the beginning of March, a multidisciplinary symposium on the Popol Vuh kicked off with a public lecture at downtown Merced‘s Multicultural Arts Center  The lecturer was Michael Coe, professor of anthropology emeritus at Yale, whose best-selling works on pre-Columbian-history include the academic detective story, Breaking the Maya Code. Also  opening at the Center was of a show of student art work based on Mayan iconography.

Included along with two and three dimensional works from Tonya Lopez-Craig’s classes were videos from Popol Vuh in Flatlandia –a project of Cyber Heritage students. In one, two avatars, a female herbalist and a younger woman, converse in a torch-lit Mayan garden among seemingly indigenous plants. Topics covered in the student-written dialogue include marriage, mothers; men, and the political pressures on women.

Cyber Heritage classes, Moyes says “focus on the relationship between cultural heritage and technology, in particular social media and virtual worlds.”  Using Flatlandia, an independent Open Simulator platform, the students first created a virtual reconstruction –complete with archaeologically accurate temples, palaces and ball courts–of the ancient Maya capital of Tikal, Guatemala. The classes then read the first act of Moyes’ script based on the Popol Vuh, and created their own versions with dialogue.

“We’re hoping to create some writers who want to write historic fiction,” Moyes says “What I’ve tried to do with my classes is calibrate my students’ judgment about what’s good and what’s kind of cheesy.” She tells the “Writing Narrative for Archaeology,” students: “You don’t need aliens to make it interesting. These people are fascinating in their own right.” But they do need to be able to cite sources for their ideas.

Moyes made her own imaginative connection with ancient history after a decade in New York acting with a socially conscious theatre group. When the group shut down at the end of the 1980s, a circuitous path led her through dental hygiene school (her father was a dentist; and the degree meant she could get part time work that paid  “a lot better” than waitressing) and on to anthropology, where they were delighted to have her study teeth. A vacation job on a survey in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness sparked her interest in archaeology and having transferred to that department, her choice of a Belize cave excavation as the site of her required Field School semester completed a circle. Caves had been a passion since childhood, but they also, as she is still discovering, served the Maya as a kind of theatre.

“Caves among the Maya are always ritual spaces,“ Moyes explains. She has a book coming out in the fall, Sacred Darkness– about the ritual use of caves from a cross cultural perspective. “People live in rock shelters,” she finds, “they’ll live in the mouth of the cave, but people don’t live in the dark zones.”

In the cave she’s now working on in Belize, “the entrance is bigger than a cathedral, and its completely modified with architecture—platforms and stairs. It’s a giant performance space. So I’ve started to really think about Maya performance. And think how to reconstruct that from a scientific basis.”

Archaeology she thinks “moved away from understanding what people might have felt or any kind of phenomenology in the 70s and 80s.” Instead it took a more consciously scientific and materialist approach, and “talked a lot about what people were eating,” Things now are moving in the other direction, she says, to bring people back into archaeology.

“I think this is something that archaeologists really want to do,” Moyes says. “We can answer a lot of questions about the past. But they may not be what people really want to know. We have the material record, but ultimately, as humans, we want to know what it was like to be human in the past.”

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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UCIRA Artist Spotlight on Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly: Work and Play

27 Feb

UCLA artists and Moving Theater founders Brennan Gerard and Ryan Kelly describe Work and Play: How the Art World Performs as a hybrid—part scholarly convention, part performance art festival. Their three-day event, scheduled to take place this fall at the Hammer Museum, will summon a constellation of practitioners involved in contemporary performance: artists, writers, curators and students. (In the Moving Theatre, the duo function as a little bit of each.) This constellation’s purpose: to tackle from multiple perspectives what Gerard and Kelly call “the requisite issues” of doing, showing and writing about a genre which is itself a hybrid.

Findings from the sessions are destined for a special edition of PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, (MIT Press). Meanwhile, the festive part of the program will feature pubic performances of works by participants and screenings of influential films from the last five decades. Among them: Andy Warhol’s Paul Swan, in which the eighty year old actor/ dancer /painter Swan, once called the most beautiful man in the world, spends much of the time off camera, grumping and bumping as he hunts for the clothes he needs to perform in. After a three days spent scanning in one way or another, the distances between the so-called private and performing self, a number of boundaries, including those between work and play, may begin to blur.

While Gerard and Kelley are producing a hyphenate, their subtitle invites another more familiar kind of double-take. Reframed as a question—how does the art world perform? –the phrase points to a couple of different doors containing options only a little less opposed than marriageable ladies and razor-toothed tigers.

On one hand, the genre evoked by the term performance art—having evolved over the past half century on the cultural  fringes and in donated basements—has now accumulated a substantial enough history to attract the embrace of major museums. As an example, Gerard and Kelly cite the four decade retrospective of Marina Abramovic’s work The Artist is Present at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010.

The wider interest fostered by such shows is welcome. Pieces may get commissioned as well as remembered. One live performance that Work and Play expects to present is Andrea Fraser’s Men on the Line, created for Southern California’s 2011-12 Pacific Standard Time exhibition.

Basing the work on transcriptions of  a 1972 radio broadcast, Fraser, a professor of new genres in UCLA’s department of Art, takes on the voices of four men as they discuss the then-nascent Women’s movement and how they define themselves as supporters and feminists. Ideas of gender and role—social, historical, assigned or chosen—crisscross in Fraser’s delivery. So do easy assumptions about social issues like equality and difference—now as then, a central focus of performance theory and practice.

Another central tenet of performance, however, is that it’s live—essentially ephemeral and sometimes challenging—while museums are geared to housing material objects and enshrining certain modes of decorum.  In one response, to be presented at Work and Play, participant Boris Charmatz has created an objectless and impermanent museum, Musée de la Danse, in which aspects of living performers like exhalations and stance become the exhibition.

For some, though, the question is should the ephemeral be preserved? Another film to be presented is Babette Mangolte’s acclaimed Watermotor, a single four minute take of Trisha Brown’s high speed 1978 solo of the same name which she pairs with a second take shot in slow motion. Considering her film 25 years later, Margolte wrote,” I now think that for a dancer to commit to eternity the way you moved on a particular day is risky.”

Work and Play participant Trajal Harrell frames the question differently. His Antigone Jr swirls together classical Greek drama, the Harlem Vogue scene and the performance theories pursued in the early 1960s at Greenwich Village’s Judson Church. Ephemera, he suggests, is another word for the disappearing acts performed by cultural values.

For all the mainstream attention newly devoted to performance, Gerard and Kelly  note, UC’s slashed budgets have meant that the funding available for presenting such works in the university–once a major source of  the genre’s audience—has greatly diminished. Along with examining the field, Work and Play proposes–for three days anyway—to pick up the pieces.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artists Lisa Wymore and Amara Tabor-Smith: Sabar in the Studio

14 Feb

Ciré Beye. photo courtesy of CDG

In October, 2011, Berkeley and Oakland became part of greater Dakar. The occasion was the arrival of from Senegal of dancer Ciré Beye and master drummer Khadim Niang to conduct workshops in Sabar, the vigorous yet fluid dance form of the Wolof peoples of West Africa. For three weeks UC Berkeley’s Bancroft studio and Oakland’s Malonga Center for the Arts reverberated to the polyrhythmns of drums originally developed to communicate long distances in the dry regions at the edge of the Sahara, and to the cries of dance classes answering the drums.

For Lisa Wymore, assistant professor of dance at UC Berkeley, and for visiting faculty/resident artist Amara Tabor-Smith, the chance to expose their modern dance students to three weeks of “Sabar in the Studio” was not simply an exercise in learning new steps. Both teachers, Wymore says, felt “it would help students engage with dance as a world practice. Get them out of just imagining modern dance as a western phenomenon.”

Tabor-Smith, founder of Deep Waters Dance Theatre, had studied and danced with Beye in Senegal at L’École des Sables, an international center for traditional and contemporary African dance founded by choreographer Germaine Acogny. Beye, she knew, was not only a gifted teacher of traditional forms but an accomplished modern dancer, who performs internationally with Acogny’s Companie Jant-Bi. His “understanding of the body and his contemporary aesthetics,” Wymore said, made him a good fit for both their advanced and intermediate  classes.

Sabar—the word refers to the drumming and the dancing—is itself a citizen of two worlds. While a traditional accompaniment to weddings and funerals, it is also an urban phenomenon, flowering on the streets of Dakar in the wake of Senegal’s independence from France. Unlike traditional folk forms, Wymore says, Sabar “is always evolving and adapting. Like any dance—but particularly street forms of dance, it’s in flux—adopting and borrowing from other styles and developing new steps.”

It is also an exuberantly interactive effort with dancers and musicians trading rhythms and egging each other on to ever more insouciant displays of virtuosity. In the classes, the interactive or collaborative mode continued, Wymore says. “What was exciting—and Ciré kept saying this—he wanted to not be the teacher but the sharer of information, so the students could then take this form into their own practices”.

An important aspect of Sabar, Wymore says, is its involvement of the whole spine and pelvis in a kind of undulating movement—a stretch in more ways than one for those students who come out of a ballet background where the torso is held rigid—but important to developing the fluidity and versatility demanded by modern dance.

Another basic Sabar movement involves stepping from foot to foot. Wymore describes the resultant motion as “strong, earthy, and grounded.” The constant transferring of weight, she says, forces dancers to be aware of their own substance. Emotional engagement is required, too. “You have to bring your full self to it. It really requires that you not be embarrassed or holding back or shying away.” At the same time, she says, “Sabar is soft, older people do it. You don’t have to jump that high. It has this incredible gracefulness in the arms and this powerful pelvis. You can see how it was created by women.”

As a women’s dance from a patriarchal society, (the Muslim sub Sahara) Sabar also seems to carry a quietly confident assertiveness that blends well with political expression. It does so in the choreography of Acogny and Tabor-Smith. It did so again in early November. As part of the Occupy Cal/ Walkout at UCB over tuition increases, Sabar students and a class drummer left the studio to perform a kind of resistance dance as Wymore calls it on the Plaza. As their teachers had hoped, they were incorporating the form into their own practice. They were also showing—as Sabar vividly does—what mutual respect and dialog can look like.

 

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artists Michael Dessen, Mark Dresser, Victoria Petrovich, John Crawford: Telematic Performance

9 Jan

It sounds like the beginning of riddle: Three people and three instruments are on stage together but not all of them are there. This was in fact the scene at the Telemotions concert presented in April 2011 by Mark Dresser on contra bass, Michael Dessen on trombone, and Myra Melford on piano. Their improvisational jazz set happened in one continuous 75 minute present, but the players were 80 miles apart. As in all good riddles there is both a rational explanation and a lingering sense of magic.

To even say where the concert took place requires some calculation. Dresser and Melford were in San Diego at UCSD’s Calit2 Theatre, while Dessen was performing at UC Irvine. Audiences were present at both sites along with projected backdrops designed by Victoria Petrovich, and so were visual manifestations of the performers—thanks to John Crawford’s Active Space system. In development at UCI since 1994, Active Space uses multiple networked computers to process live video feeds of performers. In the April Telemotions concert, these combined to create both direct and fluidly improvisational renderings of all three people on both stages.

The performers are quick to say that making music this way takes a village. Essential components include the high performance computer network that links the universities and the people who maintain it. But technology is also creating a village.

In a non-networked world, scheduling rehearsals between players in three different cities would have been daunting; (Melford teaches at Berkeley, Dessen at Irvine, and Dresser at San Diego). But with the software platform Jack Trip (designed by former UCSD music student Chris Chafe), the players were able to test out ideas, workshop new pieces, and improvise together—all without leaving their offices.

In an interview for Alexander Mclean’s Under Your Skin, Dresser credited composer Pauline Oliveros with spurring his interest in telematics. She told him: It’s a community affair. It isn’t just artistic. There’s a technological level and an administrative level.

Just thinking of that kind of structure, Dresser explained, opened his mind to a new way of collaborating. If the organizing component—he mentions Google docs and Chat—brought a new, perhaps somewhat analytic dimension to brainstorming, the ability to just work on music together allowed the kind of intensive organic development that used to only happen on the road.

Integrating that which seems separate—a theme suggested by the technology—found expression in non-digital ways in the concert, too. Part of the set included large images of abstract paintings by California artist Don Reich. Some, like “Deep Forest” were used by the players as departure points for an improvised journey accompanied by chimes, insect-like fluttering, and a trombone swarm. (Melford, who has composed solo piano music based on Reich’s paintings, can be seen playing in the concert video with small reproductions placed on the piano.)

Another painting, “Curtain,” whose horizontal bands of color are divided vertically into fabric–like folds, was treated by the musicians, as a score that could literally be read: in this case, one full of sliding, droning and tinkling.

Perhaps the least expected effect of all the technology was the heightened attention it gave to flesh and blood. When Melford reached into the piano to grab strings, or when Dresser surrounded his bass, slapping and bowing simultaneously, the sheer physicality was both affirming and startling. Wherever there was, the force of inspiration was here and now.

Concert videos: http://www.mdessen.com/projects/telematics/telemotions.html

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Spotlight on UCIRA Artist Mira Kingsley: Discourse in Action

14 Dec

Dance is a wordless art—or so the assumption goes. Mira Kingsley and the members of Choreographers Working Group (CWG) would argue otherwise. For the past three years, Kingsley, assistant professor of Dance at UCSB, and fellow choreographers Arianne Hoffman, Sarah Leddy, Kristen Smiarowski, and Sara Wookey, have been devising ways to connect language and motion. Their investigations, initially titled Discourse in Action, combine individual and collective movement with individual and collective writing and group discussion. One goal: to open paths and categories often kept closed, and to dismantle the assumptions that block inspiration. Easier said than done.

Emails exchanged before the group’s first dance-meeting in 2008 and published on their website (www.cwgspace.org ) suggest one aspect of the problem. Choreography as pursued by the various members spans large group work and solo improvisation, dance as theatre, dance as installation, dance as site-specific, dance as the absence of narrative, and draws on a variety of contemporary practices including Laban Movement Analysis and The Viewpoints technique for improvisation. What happens when all these starting points intersect in the same collective?

That challenge—what the group describes yin-yang fashion as both “peer mentorship” and “intentionally rigorous provocation”—was what attracted members to the project in the first place. As the website puts it “We didn’t want to feel like we were taking a class from one another. We didn’t want to teach in the way we were used to teaching.” Instead of hierarchically imparted instruction, they began to imagine a play of information and response. Could a practice offering the unsettledness and exhilaration of working without a script be formulated? And could it be effectively shared with others, whether or not they were in the room?

How artificial the divide is between language and movement comes clear in comments written during early meetings. Physically and mentally the dancers are feeling their way. Wookey writes: “Space factors in everything—sensations of new space—having to adjust.” From Smiarowski: “I enter the space because I think I should. Not the best reason. But I do it anyway.” From Kingsley: “The choice between being “in” or “out.” I find I am often in the murky space between.” As a method for the sessions emerges and is refined, it takes on a new name: MAKESPACE.

The approach, detailed on CWG’s website, and taught by its founders in workshops for professional dancers and students, is constructed yet flexible. In the beginning there is the dance—people warm up, establish a relationship to the space, begin, eventually, to move in relation to others. A pad of paper and pen is always available at the periphery, and the movement of a participant to the edge to write down a group note or reflection becomes another piece of the improvisation.

The hour of mostly movement is followed by a silent period of individual writing –trying to put what was danced into words. A second shorter movement session follows, where participants try to retranslate their words into motion. Next comes a time for talk. The group notes from the pad at the periphery are read. People contribute thoughts or quotes from their individual writing. From the conversation, the group designates a concept—usually encompassed in a single familiar word like “event”—to  explore further.

Language is now are set in motion in another way. A graphic map is drawn on a large pad, with the chosen concept circled in the center. All responses then offered by the group—definitions, connotations, historical associations—are arranged ray-fashion around it. The map will point the way to more specific  improvisational destinations as participants choose—individually or collectively—a word or idea to explore in the following movement session.

The initial cycle —move in company, write individually, speak together —repeats, this time with a tighter focus. Fittingly the event concludes with group discussion, speech being the original pattern of language in motion. In the end, what has taken place is not only a dance. Kingsley and her collaborators have devised a means of invigorating inspiration—a necessary tool for all kinds of creative and collective action.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Joe Dumit: Expressing the CAVES

30 Nov

What’s one difference between artists and scientists? Artists don’t sit still. This is not the question Joe Dumit set out to answer when he proposed bringing a group of dancers, sculptors, writers, and others to explore the virtual reality environment of UC Davis’s Keck CAVES. But, Dumit—whose own research focuses on the anthropology of science, technology, medicine, and media—says the CAVES’ scientists “were continually struck by how much the artists physically moved within the CAVE environment, how much of their bodies were in motion, in contrast to how little they (the scientists) tend to move while doing their research.” The artists, it seems, were used to doing physical work in imagined spaces.

Expressing the Caves, co-designed by Dumit, sculptor Robin Hill and geologist Dawn Sumner, was originally planned as a daylong session for 18 artists and computer scientists to brainstorm new ideas, but thanks to the exigencies of scheduling, it morphed into an ongoing series of visits by individuals or small groups. Whatever was lost in general conversation, was made up for, Dumit says, by the chance to focus on specific projects. The artists, needless to say, loved having more time at the controls.

Data in motion, according to Dumit, was what the artists were most intrigued with, and it’s an experience the CAVES are uniquely positioned to deliver. Initially a collaboration between earth and computer scientists, the CAVE—3 walls and a floor equipped with stereoscopic displays and various tracking devices—has allowed researchers to seemingly fly around, through, and under a Laguna Beach landslide, and examine a 100 year history of California’s seismic activity from a vantage point close to the center of the earth. Informative yes, but also visually stunning. Immersive worlds, wildly intersecting planes, data points colored a pleasingly grassy green: Artists have already recognized the possibilities.

According to UCDavis professor of sculpture Robin Hill, the CAVES are  almost a genre unto themselves. “I could not help but think of it as a performance space of sorts, as the authentic image experience takes place there and no where else,” she says. “No forms of documentation do it justice, as one’s perception/understanding is completely dependent on the technology.”

What sort of art is now emerging from the CAVES? Semi-solid might be one description. Dancers doing contact improvisation maintain balance by sharing weight. What happens when the dancers are miles apart and represented by three-dimensional avatars moving at a slight time delay? Using Remote Collaboration techniques pioneered by Oliver Kreylos—one of the architects of the Keck CAVES’ visualization software—and based on hacked game technology (Microsoft Kinects), a group of visiting dancers and CAVE scientists have been exploring the idea of weightless weight and the sensory requirements of silent communication.

Perhaps because it allows data to be viewed from so many angles simultaneously, the CAVE seems to inspire a similar mashup of disciplines and approaches. Hill brought one of the images of snowflakes she’s been exploring with mathematician Janko Gravner to the CAVE where she viewed it as an object that one might fly through. Having seen the inside of the flake, she is now working on translating that image for a 3D printer to render in sculptural form.

For a virtual installation possibly titled Take Me To Your Dream, San Francisco writer/artist Meredith Tromble has compiled “ a vortex”  of dream elements from the biographies of computer scientists, geologists, and mathematicians which participants will choose and arrange in virtual environments, “subject,” says Dumit, “to a dream-appropriate degree of chance and surprise.” Once home from Antarctica, Tromble’s collaborator, UC geologist Dawn Sumner will be creating the vortex and programming it to replace text with images.

And what have the scientists come away with? The artists’ propensity for movement created programming challenges, Dumit admits, but also generated new gestures, commands, and playback features. Dumit’s own project—fitting for the organizer of all this collaborative inquiry—is a study of “research presence” among CAVE users. It was inspired, he says by the vocabulary used during the brainstorming sessions. It’s one thing to be comfortable moving in imaginary space; another to find words to describe the where there.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

Anastasia Hill: Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism

8 Nov

Arguably, a psychonaut is anyone who’s ever experienced REM sleep—or more particularly, anyone who’s tried to pinpoint the coordinates of a city they’ve only visited in dreams. The term psychonaut, or mind-sailor, seems to have been first used–-admiringly—in a 1970 essay by Ernst Jünger on drugs and inebriation. Efforts to categorize and codify routes to trance states, however, date to early Buddhist and Hindu texts and possibly to the walls of pre-historic caves. They encompass philosophical investigations of Greek drama and laboratory attempts to discover why—physiologically speaking—Jimi Hendrix might have seen a purple haze and not an olive green one.

The course readings for Anastasia Yumeko Hill’s Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism (UCSB, Winter 2011) for the most part span only the 19th  through 21st centuries —an exception is Euripides’ Bacchae. But they cover the exploration of deliberately altered consciousness from a number of compass points: art, philosophy, chemistry, psychoanalysis, cybernetics, anthropology, spirituality, and media studies. To name some. Among the syllabus authors: sociologist/critic Walter Benjamin, dolphin researcher John C Lilly, painter and media artist Teresa Wennberg, and Zen Buddhist abbot Joan Halifax.

The kind of paradox encountered when the mind tries to study itself was elegantly stated by Benjamin in his 1929 essay, Surrealism (one of the course readings) “The most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic), as the profane illumination of thinking about the hashish trance.”  Psychonautica: Mind, Media and Mysticism attempted both—pairing class discussion of “Trance and Form,” “Intoxication and Surrealism” and “Psychotechnology” with field trips to a variety of immersive experiences including a ritual sweat in a traditional sweat lodge and an acoustic sound bath in the Integraton, a geo-magnetically enhanced wooden dome built on the edge of the Mojave desert by aircraft mechanic turned ufologist George Van Tassel.

Hill’s survey of Psychonautic literature begins with psychedelic pioneers Timothy Leary and Ralph Metzger who faced a paradox similar to those Benjamin described when trying to program an LSD experience. A subject might have difficulty remembering an intention, or balk when reminded by the bodiless head of Ishtar. Altered realities demand altered language: Leary and his colleagues found it in Tibetan Book of the Dead whose specialized vocabulary reinforced the idea of trip as initiation. Hill pairs them with contemporary writers–Technosis author and Wired contributor Erik Davis (“Spiritual Cyborg”) and UCSD new media theorist, Lev Manovich—who look to digital paradigms to suggest broader questions of aesthetics, perception, and social reality.

Fittingly the course finale was an outdoor festival in Isla Vista—attended, Hill says, by about 200 people. The 19 students, whose backgrounds included film and media, art, philosophy, and environmental studies, presented group projects oriented around themes covered during the semester: Dionysia, 19th century Mesmerism, Surrealism, Psychedelia, and Techno-Spiritualism. The idea, Hill says, was to “give a sense of how we experience and construct meaning around culturally and historically specific variations” of altered consciousness.

Drawing on writing by Edgar Allen Poe and working  with a student outside the course who practices hypnotism, the Mesmer group “reproduced Mesmer’s salon wherein ‘patients’ could receive treatment from a hypnotist accompanied by two of the students dressed in 19th century garb. They also created an oversized see-saw with a large mirror erected in the center, blocking each see-sawer’s view of the other and creating a very disorienting spacial experience.”

The festival also had a guest star, artist Gary Hill.  In a workshop with students before the event he showed a piece of his concurrent NYC exhibition of surf, death, tropes & tableaux: The Psychedelic Gedankenexperiment—an installation of sculpture, painting and manipulated video, accompanied by mediated viewing devices. Gary Hill, a pioneer of new media art and “electronic linguistics” is also Anastasia’s father. As a girl she appeared in some of his works. In a time-honored generational reversal– though one that almost always involves some alteration of consciousness—he now appeared in hers. At the festival he performed sound and voice improvisations to student videos and invited visitors to experiment with handheld wands that transform the user’s gestures into a remotely synthesized music.

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Ariel Swartley

San Pedro, CA

aswartley@att.net

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