these ties constitute what we are: iele paloumpis’ “in place of catastrophe, a clear night sky” by maura nguyễn donohue
December 15, 2022
maura nguyễn donohue is the Writer-in-Residence for Platform 2021: The Dream of the Audience and Platform 2022: The Dream of the Audience (Part II). Her reflections on the Platform 2022 performances and events are posted, accumulatively here, in Issue 14 of the Danspace Project Online Journal. Her reflections on Platform 2021 can be found in the Online Journal Issue 12 and in the Platform 2021-2022 catalogue.
In this essay, donohue brings the words of Judith Butler to the fore as she continues to ruminate on the power of being with dance and each other. She weaves together moments in her life care-taking for an ill and disabled parent with the accessibility practices and disability artistry of iele paloumpis’ Platform 2022 premiere, In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky.
This essay is offered in both audio and text. Read or listen below.
When we lose certain people, or when we are dispossessed from a place, or a community, we may simply feel that we are undergoing something temporary, that mourning will be over and some restoration of prior order will be achieved. But when we undergo what we do, something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.
It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here
and then simply loses a “you” over there,
especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am.
If I lose you, under these conditions, then I not only mourn the loss, but I become inscrutable to myself.
Who “am” I, without you?
When we lose some of these ties by which we are constituted, we do not know who we are or what to do. On one level, I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well. At another level, perhaps what I have lost ‘in’ you, that for which I have no vocabulary, is a relationality that is composed neither exclusively of myself nor you, but is to be conceived as *the tie* by which those terms are differentiated and related.
― Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence
As a dance writer I often wonder about what elements of a performance have soaked into me, during the shared time-space of a show. What was I marinated in well enough so that I still find weeks or years later in my conscious or subconscious or superconscious self a new “I” that “you” made of me…The flashback residue of an attended event is part of why I’ve returned to [Danspace Project] Platforms year after year as a site of trans/form/ation. I am altered by the dancing and I am altered by the conversation that happens around the dancing. I am often most interested in the way the works are in, of, and out of this world. Where does a performance, a series, an artist’s body of work or a collaborative community become part of the world if not in our changing neurological pathways, our gestating digestive tracts, our evolving cellular organization? The “I” and the “you” are part of a greater “we” found in our common union (go ahead and see my opening rumination for this Platform). And in that union, we are all changed.
Platform 2022: The Dream of the Audience, (Part II), offered many reminders of how much of the “you” that is the “us” was missing from the “I”. Compared to my quiet, usually solitary tucked-into-a-corner viewership of last year’s Platform 2021 (a virtual event), this year both re-affirmed “the tie” that physical proximity with-nessing offers and challenged the ableist assumption that this could be the only way to have a meaningful encounter with performance. Throughout iele paloumpis’ In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky (IPOCACNS) there is a clear invitation to be in an active with-nessing state. The audience seating design reflected attention to how a disparate group might be in unity with other inhabitants and activators in the space. But, some of iele’s writing in the Platform catalogue, in the program notes and in some spoken dialogue during the performance highlighted the marginalization of those for whom in-person attendance could not be possible.
In 2016, Korean American writer, artist and musician Johanna Hedva had asked “How do you throw a brick through the window of a bank when you can’t get out of bed?” in their influential Sick Woman Theory essay. In the essay, they challenge the dominance of Hannah Arendt’s theory of the political as any action performed in public. “If being present in public is what is required to be political, then whole swathes of the population can be deemed a-political – simply because they are not physically able to get their bodies into the street.” Similarly, iele has challenged the in-person, public performance dominance in the ‘return to normal’ conversations of arts organizations within a capitalist society, by centering the needs of blind, visually impaired, immunocompromised, and disabled cast and community through constant acknowledgments of interdependence, hybridity, and care.
One of the ways this work arrived in my consciousness was through recording my writing into audio form for last year’s Platform. This “loving labor” has brought me into a crip time consciousness that aligned with the slow time and cyclical time relationships I have had with over a decade of the Danspace Project Platforms. As each Platform serves as “an exhibition that unfolds over time,” so too is the change that ripples out of them. In the kindred way in which Ishamel Houston-Jones and Will Rawls wondered how to curate absence and loss for the 2016 Platform Lost and Found: Dance, New York, HIV/AIDS, Then and Now, iele has reminded us of those not physically present. This Platform’s catalogue will be the first to be available in audio format, a long overdue offering to blind, low vision, partially sighted and visually impaired members of our community for whom screen readers provide clunky alternatives to dense visual and textual materials. Core cast member Alejandra Ospina will be providing the voice for the catalogue and during the performance of In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky (IPOCACNS) joined us via video conference and provided audio description through a roving laptop on a wheeled table, often moved by fellow cast member M. Rodriguez, so as to capture parts of the action. We were told additional cast members Marielys Burgos-Meléndez, Seta Morton, Ogemdi Ude, and Marýa Wethers would be dancing around us and tucked bags under our chairs. As a work almost 5 years in the making, and postponed for almost 2 (due to COVID-19), the live event was one component piece of a larger project that is still in development. A film version that will allow the work to be accessible to the many disabled and immunocompromised audience members who could not attend in-person will premiere later this year.
By intentional design, our awareness of forms of presence filled out the live event. The chairs were placed at different angles and spread around the floor in small groupings with a variety of facings. I contemplated what the best seating situation might be for what was about to unfold, eventually tucking into a corner facing slightly away from the altar. The configuration activated an open and outright acknowledgment of our existence as a live collection of the curious. And, the opening audio description from Alejandra made our presence explicit through a spoken conversation with iele. In fact, Danspace Project through architecture and curational and artistic form at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery is not a space where one ever really disappears as an audience member. It’s usually clear that we are all in this together, although sometimes, as in our time that afternoon, that clarity crystalizes like raw honey, very fine and oh so sweet.
These are complex times to pass through the hypnagogic states of The Dream of the Audience (Part II). Despite the dominant societal push to return to industrial and capitalistic definitions of “normal,” not everyone could share the moment. Both Alejandra and Krishna Washburn, original and core In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky (IPOCACNS) cast members could not join the in-person performances. Not all of iele’s intended audience of blind, low vision, partially sighted, visually impaired and immunocompromised people could attend or experience the in-person shows due to the ongoing pandemic. And, while the promise of trans/forming and common union lured some of us out of our caves, I found that I have not been alone in my anxieties around a return to attending in-person events.
There’s an anxious realm of, not only potential viral exposure but the impending awkward social interactions. It turns out that the prospect of a 15-minute intermission had caused other dear friends some pause too. I admit, I dashed out, headed to the nearest bodega, but then ran into a friend and that softened me…by the end of the show I found myself lingering. So many friends and luminous spirits were in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s that afternoon and I couldn’t bear to leave, despite a looming 3-plus hour drive to return to duty of eldercare for my father. I observed myself dropping into “crip time”, despite the press of that drive. And, weeks later, as I swim back in memory and through my scribbled notes, I realize how vital it was to prime myself in that shared space. Last winter, I caught Omicron on my last day of school (and probably waiting an hour for my booster shot) and in the fortune of my particular immune response, was able to lay on the couch on Christmas day and shift between reading and listening to Elizabeth Tova Bailey’s The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Within the mystery of a substantial neurological illness, that left her unable to sit up, Bailey becomes a close audience to a snail that arrived in a flower pot. In that tale and in my understanding of crip time, I have dropped and dropped and am still dropping into the spectrum of an already ongoing resistance to Kronos.
I have also begun to more closely observe the time-related arrogance of ableist thinking that doesn’t recognize that the only way out a 100% likely pathway to disability is a quick death. The World Health Organization states that almost everyone will temporarily or permanently experience disability at some point in their life. With longer life spans, the likelihood increases. I currently companion, lift, boost, wipe, wash, rotate, navigate, wheel, drain and entertain someone who went from giant to man. Parkinson’s, dementia, and a broken hip proved a strong cocktail for my dad. And, in the end, at the end, or somewhere in the middle, the most important thing has been to just drop in, let whatever process is unfolding unfold and stay in it. There’s no talking someone out of a hallucination, illusion or delusion. There’s no rushing. One just needs to join. It’s not an accommodation despite the endlessness of that phrase. It’s just the IS. It’s shared time.
the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us.
– Judith Butler
There’s much to say about the enormity of the work that the dance world still needs to do in order to center deeply marginalized members of our community, especially beyond sensationalist expectations that disabled people ‘overcome’ parts of themselves, when it’s so clear that these ableist perspectives just really need to come over to the real world and let go of massive inequity hidden in supremacist forms. And, it is in there… in the come-over that some divides were dissolved on the bright afternoon of iele and company’s clear night sky. There is power in the collectivity of this work—the ways in and out, the songs, the braiding, weaving, and embroidering. And, as I examine the residue of that experience for me, I repeatedly find myself recalling the absolute delight of watching/listening to the duet pairings of performers that included real-time audio descriptions of their partners.
I became aware of the tonal quality of internet sound, live voice and pre-recorded, studio resonance when I found myself with eyes closed weeping during a song, vocals from collaborator Samita Sinha, coming through the speakers. I carry with me the way that energetic descriptions of one another made the audio description a form of accompaniment, as deeply resonant as a song and other soundings. A literal or “purely” visual audio description doesn’t give one as much sense of the alchemy of art and process in the way that hearing collaborator/performer, Seta Morton describe iele during their solo as a “mystic and healer” could. Or the way collaborator/performer, Ogemdi Ude’s attempted “balletic? Oh no, Marya doesn’t like that description” real-time translation effort made the inquiry the answer. The transmission isn’t in the verbal detail of a sequence of steps or simply assigning language to how something looks, although I appreciated the named recognition of Marya’s fire sneakers. That is not where the full magic lies. It is in the energetic accumulations. It’s relational. It’s compositional, in the way time and space and scent and sound and memory get organized.
In iele’s decentering of sight, their practice of poetic audio description was a profound model for witnessing one another. As collaborator/virtual performer, Krishna Washburn states in a transcribed conversation with fellow cast members from BBC Radio’s deliciously rich Short Cuts Program  that is excerpted in the Platform catalogue: “A good audio describer can help everyone in the audience truly understand the magic of what’s happening? So that way, everybody’s mirror neurons turn on.” This is a vital way into other layers. Somewhere in the ties among us lies the fired-up neuron, the kinesthetic empathy, the metakinesis.
But, as one deeply compelled (and repulsed) by scent, sound, spirit and touch, I appreciate how in place of catastrophe, a clear night sky provides the field with a vital reference, a primary source, a new ‘text’ outside the dominance of aesthetic-based (aka visual) modes of inquiry and analysis. The poetic description is the closer work to the actual aesthetic encounter that “flow state” psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi examines in his foundational text The Art of Seeing. Despite the supremacy that visual literacy holds within his correlation between a true aesthetic encounter and an optimal “flow state,” it is the disappearance into a work of art, the ties, the connections and the bonds that I believe matter, not what one laid their eyes upon. With poetic audio description, I find myself in kinship with the potential to provide the absent witness with an optimal experience of a work unseen.
I find that my work as a writer is like that of the distant relative describer in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s audience distant relative poem that informed Parts 1 & 2 of [The 2021 and 2022 Danspace Project Platform] The Dream of the Audience.
you are my audience
you are my distant audience
i address you
as i would a distant relative
as if a distant relative
seen only heard only
through someone else’s
I’m not writing as critic nor as academic, I’m sharing what lights up inside me and try to join with the work—to with-ness the work and to recognize the ties, the binds, the bonds and the ripples that sit with me as a result of the work, the ineffable experience, the ‘you are not alone’ aspect of a true aesthetic encounter. If I had only stated that M wheeled the cart carrying Alejandra, or that eucalyptus was handed out in a careful manner, that the dancers moved rhythmically through the space, engaged in soundings of long breathy tones, aspirations, moans, laughter and melodies like bird calls, or that the group gathering in a huddle around braided rugs they had been collectively making throughout the process or that the dancing included slicing, undulations, running and gliding—would the dream of the audience come to life in the form of the many different dreams of the many different audience members both in attendance and absent that day? Would the power of their clear, strong bonds with one another, of how they transcend a laptop, a projection, a physical absence with potency that can only be built when the “I” and the “you” has become a much stronger “we” come through to you? In place of the catastrophe of reduction and erasure, iele and company have revealed the poetics of description that can make the night sky as luminous as last night’s Sturgeon Moon.