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Alexa Mardon writes about SLIP(PAGE), a project unfolding in the Scotiabank Dance Centre lobby this month, which explores ideas around language, writing, choreography and space:
What is the potential of language to disrupt the encoded space it inhabits? Can writing hold the choreographies of a place: its social codes, structures, ghosts, and encounters, as they continuously become revealed and obscured?
Over the past four Friday afternoons, myself and my collaborators Ileanna Cheladyn, Francesca Frewer and Robert Azevedo have dug into these questions in the lobby of Scotiabank Dance Centre: a highly structured space rife with the protocol of arrival, brief encounters, and the performativity of a building designated for dance. Working on individual laptops in a shared Google document, the four of us continuously co-author, erase, and edit a record of our time in the space. Comings and goings, sounds, images, commentary on current events, internal dialogue, and memories are all legitimate starting points for our improvised writing, and the group-determined parameters of each improvisation switch twice within each afternoon’s rehearsal. Sometimes one performer is solely a writer, other times an editor, other times their task is to format, expanding and contracting the white space of the page. Our document and its darting, shifting dance is viewable to both visitors and passersby on a mounted screen usually reserved for a loop of local dance companies’ performance footage. During our time spent writing in the lobby, our encounters with the space take interest in the slippage – the potential failures and differences between action and archive, gesture and response.
This project takes its starting point from a co-writing activity developed by writer and curator Brynn McNab as a part of An Exact Vertigo 2016. In McNab’s exercise, writers gather at an art gallery, the co-authored document responding directly to an exhibition. In this case the task of the writers is recursive, as they direct their address to a specific event or object, revealing overlaps in interpretation, shifts in perspective, and collaborative riffs on description. At Wil Aballe art projects in April this year, I participated with McNab and artist Erik Zepka in response to Evann Siebens’ The Indexical, Alphabetized, Mediated, Archival Dance-a-Thon. The document unfolded over twenty minutes, a frenetic and multifaceted plane from which a distilled, poetic response to the artist’s work emerged.
In the lobby of the Dance Centre: in Vancouver, unceded Coast Salish territory, at the edge of the city’s entertainment district, the materials to respond to are both more conspicuous and more slippery. The building’s name delineates its purpose as a place where dance happens. This specificity of purpose is, at the building’s Davie Street window, made known through a number of visual cues. The front entrance announces itself through posters for upcoming performances, signage perched on an awning, and a quote from architect Arthur Erickson about the spiritual dimension of space, hemmed into a corner of the lobby’s sprawling windows. Viewing the building from Granville Street, however, a passerby encounters the still-intact heritage facade of the site’s previous tenant and major sponsor, Scotiabank. This architectural turn in perception, literally choreographed into one of the city’s busier corners invites a reading of the building as revitalized, renewed, or re-purposed, containing both a history of monetary exchange, and the present currency of dance within its walls.
Our actions in writing often begin by taking into account the passing choreographies around us – the swoosh of a passing car, the flashing signs of the restaurants across the street, the construction across the street and removal of a bike rack. As the rehearsal goes on, however, the document folds in on itself and spits us back out again. We pull threads from each others’ beginnings, interrupt ourselves to jump a page, and take breaks to edit and reformat, pulling new meaning from the detritus of the past five minutes. Visible through the Davie Street windows, the four of us type away, simultaneously swallowed up by and contributing to the choreographies that go into this greater architectural, civic, and social performance.
In her essay “Excitable Speech: Linguistic Vulnerability and Burning Acts,” Judith Butler troubles the divided nature of language both as an action itself and as performance preceding an action: “We do things with language, we produce effects with language, and we do things to language, but language is also the thing that we do. Language is a name for our doing: both “what” we do (the name for the action that we characteristically perform) and that which we effect, the act and its consequences”. Like this language that is simultaneously the “what” and the “do,” our written responses to the choreographies of place perform a choreography themselves.
Our scheduled Friday afternoon rehearsal happens to be a busy time in Scotiabank Dance Centre’s lobby. Ballet BC dancers take their afternoon break, and many of the day’s rehearsals are exchanging places with late afternoon renters. The mounted screen displaying our writing, which easily draws attention when it shows performance footage, seems to be less of a distraction than four dancers working at their laptops in the lobby. We are constantly interrupted by people who know us, asking what we’re working on. Often one of us will stop and talk about the project, inviting the asker to look at the screen behind them. Others will see the screen on their way in, stop, and rush past towards the elevator. Are they embarrassed at being seen seeing our work, their proximity to the makers obvious? I think about iterations of the project where our text inhabits either smaller, more discreet corners of the building; where readers can encounter the text without fear of being implicated in it. As a group, we talk about the possibility of us writing from less visible places in the building, and how our bodies are implicated in the performativity of our task.
At our first rehearsal, I had brought up an example of a publicly viewable writing installation - Mariano Pensotti’s Sometimes I Think, I Can See You. The work was installed both at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Vancouver Public Library as a part of PuSh Festival in 2013. Sometimes I Think, I Can See You plants writers in plain sight, their writing projected and viewable to the public. As people enter in and out of the writers’ view, they are written into invented narratives, “implicated in a series of beautifully spontaneous fictions” (Contemporary Art Gallery website, 2013). The writer-as-inventor role, also described on the CAG website as “literary surveillance cameras” didn’t sit well with me when I first encountered the piece at SF MOMA in 2012. I watched a gallery visitor’s body change as she realized with intense discomfort that she was the “woman in the blue sneakers” whose thoughts and desires were being invented and displayed. I don’t remember the particular spontaneous fiction this woman incited, but she didn’t stick around to find out, either. One of my collaborators had had an equally discomfiting experience at the VPL in 2013, as her disappointment and anxiety over the person she was supposed to meet there was coincidentally and correctly described for the rest of the atrium to read. This non-consensual encounter between a person, their experience, and a narrative made public for instant consumption was not an avenue I or my collaborators were interested in pursuing. We set a parameter on day one that projections and inventions based on the people we encountered in the lobby were not a part of our score.
How, then, to take into account the number of social adjustments, greetings, shifts in posture that occur upon entering the building? Is language an efficient container for holding these things, processing them, and potentially disrupting them? Is our presence in the lobby another encounter to negotiate in an already complex space? Our last rehearsal for this iteration of the project takes place on Friday, October 14th, 2016 from 2-3:30pm, and we’ll attempt to write through and around these questions, leaning into language and its limits.
Alexa Mardon is a dance artist and writer based in Vancouver.
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