Returning to my performance practice after working in Film and Television, I began integrating media into my stage work in the form of multi-media performance. Examples of this work can be seen in the Seed Trilogy, a series of works created in collaboration with Neil Cadger under the auspices of our new company Inner Fish Performance Co. My work explores how the form of dissemination in live art determines the nature of the audience and the audience’s experience. Integral to this research is the creation of hybrid documentaries that depict live performance practice and product while existing as creative entities to be valued beyond their archival function.
In Canada there is a long history of visual and literary artists responding to their wild and natural surroundings. First Nations rituals and cultural practices such as dance and storytelling are also clear embodiments of the more-than-human community.
These practices are not the case with the “colonizer’s’” theatre in Canada. Theatre as a European-derived art form in Canada, both past and present, has been mostly an urban endeavor. Training programs for performers and professional theatre companies are located in urban centers. I grew up in northern British Columbia, just below the Alaskan panhandle, and yet my most formative education as an artist took place in the heart of Paris, France at the physical theatre school of Jacques Lecoq. All my professional experience in the performing arts has been urban. This resulting nature/culture divide between where I come from and where I learn and practice my art, is significant. Most performing arts centers are situated, like fortresses of culture, within urban cultural districts. Their seasons highlight contemporary performance artists and a cannon of old and new plays, but rarely reflect the realities of the neighborhoods and ecosystems within which they are housed. For those companies working in applied theatre, outside the traditional theatre framework, their practice usually involves addressing issues related mostly to the human community. Ironically, eco art practice in North America is also mostly urban. In a research report commissioned by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, Beth Carruthers lists several eco art projects in Western Canada, most of them in British Columbia, but only one is located outside the urban lower Mainland (Carruthers 9 -17). Eco art often involves re-establishing environmental values in post-industrial urban settings in which nature is often positioned as the “other”. Our work in performance and even within the realm of eco art is consequently often framed within the binary conceptual framework of nature as separate from culture. As Sacha Kagan suggests, this must change.
Among the cultural categories that need revision, is our modern, Western understanding of “nature”. Instead of a nature/culture dichotomy, global (environ)mental change induces us to think in terms of a dynamic NatureCulture complex. Some other dichotomies also need revision, such as markets/State and mind/body. (Kagan 10)
In 2007 I moved to the Okanagan valley in the interior of British Columbia— a fragile dryland region undergoing radical urban and agricultural development. More specifically I found myself practicing and teaching performance in a more rural place. It was in this more rural place that I began to wonder how I, and my students/audience, could re-indigenate ourselves to the place where we live. I began to wonder how I, and my students/audience, could engage with the more-than-human community through our physical and sensorial selves. The University of British Columbia Okanagan campus is very new and we continue to have very few performing arts facilities. Rather than seek out cultural spaces in which my students could commune with their community, I wondered about using the natural environment as a cultural space.
My training with Jacques Lecoq predisposed me to these inquiries. Lecoq believed that every aspect of the physical world could be embodied by the performer. Training included the embodiment of plants, animals, minerals, as well as manufactured objects and materials. My research and teaching is also anchored in processes of creative devising. Devising is a form of creation in which the script originates not from an independent writer, but from collaborative, usually improvisatory work by the artists themselves. Unlike many forms of theatre or digital media that draw from already existing material, this kind of practice is uniquely positioned to create work in direct response to one’s surroundings.
So I wonder about making art where and from where I currently live. I also wonder about my work with digital media. It is one of my chosen means of expression, and yet I can’t help but feel narcissistic in my re-presentation of the natural world. The vehicle for live performance is flesh and blood. The vehicle for digital media is binary code. How can my work bridge nature and culture through binary code? And yet I believe the bourgeoning of interventionist, site-specific, and community arts practices partially is partially due to the parallel practice of disseminating aspects of this work via social media. I continue to navigate this and recent live performance works (Chainsaw Ballet and Bee Line) have been recorded and disseminated as digital pieces too.
Both Inner Fish Performance Co., the company I co-direct with Neil Cadger, and the Eco Art Incubator project that I co-direct with Nancy Holmes are meant to be structures within which I can explore these questions. The Soundcan Tour in Europe was an exploration in interventionist work. Through sound we wanted to intervene in public spaces and interrupt habitual perceptions of site-specific sound. Green Space was an interactive performance in which the characters literally colonized the space with 150 two-by-fours and eventually boxed themselves in because of their need for the proverbial “greener grass.” Recent and ongoing projects like Social Potluck, Dig Your Neighbourhood and Okanagan Aesthetics are more community-based dialogical works meant to engage the public with particular neighbourhoods or local aesthetics. Much of my recent work occurs outside of culturally sanctioned spaces. I’d like to go even further with this in the future.
- Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
- Carruthers, Beth. Mapping the Terrain of Contemporary Ecoart Practice and Collaboration. A Report commissioned by Canadian Commission for UNESCO. Presented at “Art in Ecology: A Think Tank of Arts and Sustainability,” Vancouver, April 27, 2006.
- Kagan, Sacha. Toward Global (Environ)Mental Change: Transformative Art and Cultures of Sustainability. Berlin: Heinrich Boll Foundation, 2012.
- Nahban, Gary Paul. Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture and Story. Washington, Counterpoint, 1997.