Aftermath (research project)

Industry and Consumption: movement research about Canada’s tar sands 

Collaborators: Sydney Argue, Tatiana Cheladyn, Rayann Gordon, Angelina Krahn, Lindsey Ridgway

Research presented @ SFU Studio Showing, April 2010

Music: Interior Design, with text from various sources

This work was undertaken as a directed studies at SFU In the spring of 2010 under the direction of Marla Eist. The following is an explanation of the process, written in April 2010.

I’ve always been interested in artists who use their work to make powerful statements and inspire awareness about things that otherwise receive little notice.  I’ve observed that most well-made art, if it is created with intention, actually does do this.  However, the themes they explore vary vastly, and often have to do with the artist’s personal experience.

But what about if we can relate our personal experience to something bigger than ourselves?  When I saw Judith Marcuse’s EARTH=Home in 2006, a multi-disciplinary production exploring issues surrounding the state of our environment, I thought that art might really have the potential to generate positive change just as much as any other social endeavor. 

I  knew it would be profoundly interesting, challenging and useful to explore, as a directed study, this theme of social awareness in art.  I chose a theme relating to the environment, something I’ve always felt strongly about and knew I would be able to partially connect to my own experience.  The Tar Sands (a form of oil deposit) in Alberta are the site of the largest industrial project on the planet, and the single most devastating undertaking Canada has ever seen.  Some discussion, and much outrage has come out in the past few years. Yet, little has been done by the government or oil companies involved to mitigate their impact or to seriously consider the consequences.  I knew it would be a challenge to take on a studio project developing movement material based on this theme, but felt the need to do it.

Before I began working in the studio, I explored two avenues in preparation: I interviewed Judith Marcuse (a Vancouver choreographer renowned for her work in art and social change) about her process and her work, and I began researching more details about the Tar Sands.  Talking with Judith was immensely helpful, if in a more abstract rather than direct way.  I wasn’t expecting any easy answers about how to go about this project, and didn’t get any.  But, Judith mentioned a number of things that would be essential and that I’ll continue to think about as I work on this process.  We talked about the importance of relating whatever you’re doing back to your own experience.  Human stories, she said, are among the most powerful and resonant things.  So simple and obvious, yet something I would otherwise not have consciously thought about.  This would come up later on as I worked in the studio.  She talked about her own process of generating material, about how she creates a scrapbook of collected material and then looks for patterns.  This later translates into the movement motifs or themes.  She talked about creating massive amounts of material, and then feeling free to edit extensively later on.  She talked about questioning everything that one does, and of going to places that may be scary at first.  This was a lot of information to digest but I believe it was very helpful….my biggest concern about this project was living up to the task, as it is a large one.  How could I possibly fulfill all of these things?

The research process for me involved connecting with Greenpeace to obtain detailed factual figures as well as researching a number of websites (The Pembina Institute, among others), publications, and articles.  I watched the video Pay Dirt, a Canadian documentary about this issue, and attended a tar sands dialogue session run by SFU students and facilitated by scientists from Pembina.

Moving into the studio, I started off playing with two themes: the idea of “industry” and the repetitive, inorganic movement that goes along with it, and then the idea of greed and consumption in a more literal way, i.e. using the tactile approach of actually consuming or drowning in oil/tar.  When I first started working with the dancers we discussed the idea behind the project and I provided them with some of the research I had been doing.  Some of them already new about it and it’s safe to say that we were all on the same page in terms of our negative opinion of it.  This was great, though I wonder what it would have been like had we had totally different viewpoints on the issue, as is the case with the real world?

We worked on “manipulation” (something I thought would be fitting, seeing the vast amount of destructive manipulation of resources involved in the tar sands).  I wanted to see how we could use each other’s bodies based on verbs used to describe the process of extraction in the tar sands (based on my research).  We divided in to two groups, with one group using the words haul, scrape, and excavate, and another using the words churn, fragment, and spew.  This generated our first set of material.

We also worked with images, leading to us experimenting with holding something in our hands, scraping it from the floor.  I liked the idea of holding something precious and valuable, which would later become something to exploit and ultimately use up completely.  We also went further with the words/manipulation exercise, taking static shapes from the “industry” phrase (movement I had devised earlier) and then “breaking” each others’ shapes using the words inhale, drain, spew, deteriorate, slash, and choke. We tried these both with two bodies (one manipulating the other) and on our own, with the dancer imagining the impulse coming from an exterior place. 

I began to set the soundtrack for the piece, incorporating sound clips from media sources (documentaries, news spots, interviews, etc.).  Hopefully this allows the piece to be somewhat informative and I’d like to incorporate more text as the process develops.

As we continued along this process I began to realize I wasn’t fulfilling what I wanted to get across.  Where was the “human” story inside it, as Judith so aptly brought up- also, where was “I” in it?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to relate the concepts I’d been working on to my own desire for visceral movement and dynamics, and hunger for developing physical vocabulary.  In “destroying” some of the old movements, we began to develop a different version of it.  The new phrase was intended to be more physical, but still getting the idea of “using” the earth and playing with the tactileness of oil, tar, sand, and dirt in relation to our bodies.  We also developed the “hungry” phrase, taking this a step further into what might be a more ravenous version also involving a bit of self-destruction (is this what happens when we exploit something for our own benefit? it comes back to destroy us?).

A few things that have been immensely useful were realizing this notion of tactileness/ weight and therefore the dancers’ relationship to the ground.  Also, I began to realize how important it was for the performers to have a connection to the work, partly through their own feelings expressed through words (some of the words they mentioned when asked about the piece included desperation, incompleteness, lust, cold, calm, and tender).  When I found this out from them it was very useful.  The beginning of the piece has since morphed to include this idea of tactileness and use (literally!) of the ground.

As I continue to work on this piece I’d like to play more with the ideas of competition, which may incorporate physical contact/manipulation/destruction, more exhaustion, and eventually, some sort of hope and/or ideas about what we might do about it.  The soundtrack should develop too, to include more thoughts/information about the consequences of this massive project.  I’d like to play with the idea of fragility as well. 

I’m hoping to present the piece in as many places as possible, both to receive feedback from  varied audiences as well as to potentially prompt thought and discussion on this issue.  Ideally the piece would conclude with a discussion afterwards, to give people an opportunity to share their knowledge, learn from others’ knowledge and find out where they might get more information on this issue.  This is idealistic, I think, but not impossible.

note: while this work has not yet been presented publicly, I hope to continue it in the future and develop it more thoroughly.  The ambitious subject matter means it needs more time and sufficient resources to be realized fully.