In May 2009, a number of arts/ecology/performance practitioners came together during the Earth Matters on Stage Festival in Eugene, Oregon, and engaged in practice-based research with one another. The organizers (Petra Kuppers and Molly Hacker) aimed to create an open space to investigate arts-based methodologies and analyses of process in relation to eco-arts. We invited (through an application process) artists and scholars who were interested in sharing inventive methods in the field of performance and eco arts. We had asked for applications from dancers, dramatists, poets, musicians, visual/performance artists, sculptors, community artists, theorists and multimedia artists to apply to our mini-think tank. The selected fellows were going to run mini-workshops for their peers. This would be a place to do, play and be, not (only) to tell. In this constructed essay, woven out of statements provided by the fellows and by observations and notes posted on a wiki following our symposium experiences, we share what happened. Some of these sharings describe the workshop, some describe the processes activated by them. There is no linear path here, no single set of guiding questions. Instead, we offer glimpses into an intentional, small and momentary community in creative practice with each other and the world.
Natalie Marlena Goodnow
In my practice as a playwright of solo, autobiographical work, I have sought to reforge, reinvent, re-member our relationships to the Earth through the practice of mindfulness. I once heard poet Naomi Shihab Nye profess that if we were all poets, there would be no war. "Poetry is the art of noticing," she said. A poet notices the glory and wonder and miraculousness of a snowflake, a blade of grass; and what if we learned to see one another with this sort of wonder? That wonder, noticing, is mindfulness. (And I must credit Thich Nhat Hanh, from whom I learned the term in his The Miracle of Mindfulness.) Two years ago, I began to wonder... perhaps if everyone in my city, Austin, Texas, viewed our natural world, and each other, with increased mindfulness, we could build new relationships with nature and with one another; and through those new relationships, perhaps we could learn to halt our own local versions of war, of destruction. In our case, the destruction that was heavy on my mind was the clearing of our urban forest, and the forced dislocation of people of color through gentrification.
And so, I began to take walks through my neighborhood park, and with a little help from my digital camera, made time stand still. Through close ups, unusual angles of the trees I that had seen many times before, but had failed to view in the spirit of mindfulness, I began to learn new lessons from those trees. In the shapes of roots, trunks, and branches, I constructed metaphors for my own experience, a mythology which helped me to make sense of my own relationships to the communities of color in Austin, in the context of my multiracial heritage. In my solo play Muntu: a word that means tree and person, I shared those lessons with Austin audiences, and hoped that my performance of the moments of mindfulness that I had experienced might inspire others. I am happy to report that audience responses indicate that for many, they did.
However, I am not only a playwright and a performer, I am also a teaching artist, and in the Arts, Culture, Nature Think Tank, I experimented with methods with which I might further bridge my artistic and my teaching practices. Could I not only teach audiences through my own writing and performance, but also teach others to write and perform as I had? Where could I start? How could I begin to share such a personal journey, and one that I did not yet fully understand, or even know how to articulate?
"Why not let others begin as I did," I thought. I asked think tank participants to head outside, take a camera, and take pictures. Next, they were to pick their favorite image, and communicate their experience of that image to another group member, through words and/or gestures. Simple. An application of Occam's razor? I hoped so.
I encouraged participants to play in the spirit of Audre Lorde's eroticism, allowing themselves to be seduced by sights, sounds, smells. I encouraged them to explore new and unusual perspectives, and to then take photos of whatever it was that fascinated them. I shared little of how exactly this process had fit into my own practice as a playwright, or of how exactly I hoped to adapt that practice in the classroom; I was curious to find out what others would experience without my framing the exercise in my own context.
And what did others experience? For some, it was frustration with an unfamiliar camera, confusion; for others, even boredom, a desire for a more nuanced task. One participant drew a flower, her "favorite creation of the conference," she said. Another reunited with an old friend, a tree which had been his refuge when he attended school on that same college campus, years ago.
And what does this mean for my practice? Invest in good cameras and in the time to teach students how to use them, or don't bother with them at all; tailor my instructions to the population with whom I am working - some will be happy to wander with a camera, others will need more structure, others, a more complex challenge; and keep working on this. I am on to something here, I know now. Something big, even if it does start simply, and small. This was the greatest gift I received from participating not only in our think tank but in the entire EMOS conference, the sense that my work was a part of something much larger and more important than I had previously realized. On the brink of environmental catastrophe, our world is hungry for ways to connect, to reconnect, with the Earth. We need new languages, new myths, new ways to make meaning out of our relationships with the non-human world, and thankfully, in a world scarred by the wounds of war of all kinds, those new systems of making meaning will requires changes in the way we understand and interact with one another as well. And what better way of building these new ways of making meaning (or not? "The irreparable?") than through performance, an embodied practice, in a culture that has punished, denied, ignored the body and the Earth it connects us to for too long. I will keep working, keep writing, and keep learning (so as) to teach; and all in mindfulness.