For thousands of years, humans have used geography and topography to write and delineate the world. Overtime these practices have led to the demarcation of land, extraction of natural resources, as well as the domination and control of people and cultural movements. More specifically, since 1492, and the onslaught of colonial settlement, Eurocentric perspectives have shaped how we physically relate to and perceive of our surrounding environments. I begin by asking: to what extent are our perceptions of the natural and man-made worlds fixed, or taken for granted, and how does this effect the way we move through our everyday lives?
In Augusto Boal’s Theater Of The Oppressed, he writes that bodies “become alienated in accordance with their respective types of work” and “the combination of roles that a person must perform imposes on him a mask of behavior.”
“Compare the angelical placidity of a cardinal walking in heavenly bliss through the Vatican Gardens with, on the other hand, an aggressive general giving orders to his inferiors. The former walks softly, listening to celestial music, sensitive to colours of the purest impressionistic delicacy: if by chance a small bird crosses the cardinal’s path, one easily imagines him talking to the bird and addressing it with some amiable word of Christian inspiration. By contrast, it does not befit the general to talk with little birds, whether he cares to or not. No soldier would respect a general who talks to the birds. A general must talk as someone who gives orders, even if it is to tell his wife that he loves her. Likewise, a military man is expected to use spurs, whether he be a brigadier or an admiral. Thus all military officers resemble each other, just as do all cardinals; but vast differences separate generals from cardinals.”
“The same is true of any person whatever the work or social status,” meaning that how people relate to their surroundings is dependent on the perception they have of space in relation to their race, class, sex, gender, sexuality, nationality, age, native tongue, line of work, etc. Essentially, how one perceives and relates to others and the physical spaces of parks, bathrooms, beaches, malls, grocery stores, theaters, plazas, streets, is heavily influenced by what History has taught, instilled, and enforced as their correct way of moving in certain places. By way of Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick writes that “those who occupy the spaces of Otherness are always already encountering space and therefore articulate how genres or modes of humanness are intimately connected to where we/they are ontologically as well as geographically.” For Wynter and McKittrick, the making of geographical space is something “inter human and environmental,” and McKittrick suggests becoming more aware of this relationship as a way of exposing alternate geographical and ontological orders.
“This politics recognizes our present history as simultaneously “interhuman and environmental.” Specifically, Wynter asks that we recognize that the making of the Americas was/is an (often dangerously genocidal and ecocidal) interhuman and environmental project through which “new forms of life” can be conceptualized. Recognizing that new forms of life, occupying interhuman grounds (beneath all of our feet), can perhaps put forward a new worldview from the perspective of the species— that is, from outside the logic of biocentric models: not as a genre or mode of human but as human.”
To “put forward a new worldview” is an idea that will direct the rest of my efforts in this project, as well as the metaphor of returning to soil, as a first step in developing an alternate perception of space, and, thus, existence. As McKittrick writes, “geography is not… secure and unwavering; we produce space, we produce its meanings, and we work very hard to make that geography what it is.” Therefore, I’m trying to put those geographical perceptions to the test, and to question the hierarchies of knowledge, movement, and life that we assign to different topographies of soil: sand, rocks, water, fences, walls, concrete roads, sidewalks, etc. I will use the word soil interchangeably to refer to these different topographies.
“If our expressive demands can demonstrate a new world view, in what ways can ethical human geographies, or inter human geographies, be mapped?”
To start mapping these new geographies/topographies, we must first become attuned to our surroundings. We must return to the soil both in body and mind. Since our perceptions and movements in space are highly regulated, whether consciously or not, by systems and hierarchies of knowledge that History has written/writes for us, in order to counter this, I propose using the imagination to actively embody a new perception of space, and to alter the way we physically relate, move, and interact with different topographies. As Diana Taylor writes in ¡Presente!, “perceptual shifts occur when we alter our environment… doing that requires an act of imagination, a willingness to accept unaccustomed bodily states, to let go of some certainties, some skills, a reassuring sense of self and the self’s place in the world and yes, at times, creature comforts.” I also once heard her say, “Our spheres of knowledge get smaller and smaller, and anything outside of that is deemed incorrect. We’ve been taught to see things as separate. We have a hard time thinking about relationships.” It seems, then, that a logical way to move forward here is to think about sensitivity, and how sensitivity to soil will enable us to create new relationships between ourselves, space, and the topographies we inhabit.
Where to begin with sensitivity?
One approach to sensitivity could be through an Israeli dance improvisation technique called Gaga. Created by Ohad Naharin, Gaga uses imagery to explore new possibilities of movement in and around the body. Naharin first developed Gaga as a means to literally heal his body when no other doctor, chiropractor, or therapist could. In Gaga, one can imagine/create space in places of the body that they are not supposed to have any, like between vertebral discs; one can turn seemingly hard gestures into soft ones; one can release tension in one part of the body and relocate/recycle it to another area of the body to create a new dynamic in movement. Gaga can also be used to tap into the external surroundings. A principle of the technique is becoming aware, constantly aware, of the space beyond the extremities of the body, and the idea that one can touch and move and mold those spaces by emitting energy from their core and spine. Another principle is the displacement of body parts/senses, like listening with the ears behind the knee-pits, seeing with the eyes on the back of the head, or breathing with the hairs on the arms. Here are few notes I jotted down while listening to Naharin describe Gaga on YouTube:
Sensitivity, delicacy, small gestures, movement as something that can heal, going beyond familiar limits, power of the imagination, tension, sensing distance between your body parts and to your surroundings and colleagues, it’s about listening to something else, it’s about connecting to the soul, demons, fantasies, passions.
A similar approach to sensitivity is through the ultra-sensory, imagery-based work of choreographer Ilya Vidrin. His practice focuses on partnering and creating relationships between bodies, “examines basic elements of interaction like touch, gaze, gesture, relative position, proximity, and so on, as well as underlying concepts like discretionary power, consent, care, and trust. [He focuses] on how partners interact, how they negotiate conflict, what kind of goals they strive for, as well as what kind of methods of evaluation they employ from the inside (by partners themselves), as well as from the outside (by educators, therapists, coaches).”
What both of these approaches reveal is that through an active practice of imagining and becoming sensitive, one can actually cross, change, reimagine, recreate, even heal concrete and imaginary boundaries and relationships. For my project, using these conceptual tools with the metaphor of returning to soil is a way to listen, become aware, and even give some autonomy back to lands/topographies which are so classified and organized according to Man. I want to use our imagination to tap into a third perspective, much like Gloria Anzaldúa’s Nepantla: “Nepantla is the point of contact and el lugar between worlds—between imagination and physical existence, between ordinary and non ordinary (spirit) realities…Nepantlas are places of constant tension, where the missing or absent pieces can be summoned back, where transformation and healing may be possible, where wholeness is just out of reach but seems attainable.” Just as Nepantla is more about creating tension than a specific result, so is my proposal of sensitivity and returning to the soil aimed at the process by which we may en-counter and counter our pre-conceived perceptions and movements in space.
By employing such conceptual tools, it is possible to change, in our imaginations, the surfaces of the floor where we stand, step, lay, sit, and sweat; to imagine being inside of a house, club, jail cell, closet, restaurant, store, mall, or bathroom; to imagine climbing a mountain, swimming in water, digging a hole, or cutting our feet on sharp grounds. Although we can imagine an infinite amount of these relationships while sitting in a room, as I began to formulate this paper and dive deeper into the project, I started to think more about physically connecting to real topographies of soil, and what that process of that might look like, and how that might be the whole point of the exercise. So, to insert myself into a topography of soil, I ventured from the city to the beach at Fort Tilden, and I spent the day there exploring these concepts with my friend Grace. According to my iPhone notes, this is how it all went down:
-At the beach
-Want to interact with my surroundings, get to know the different surfaces
-Found a fishing line that hovers above the sand separating public beach from bird nesting land. Interesting the shadow of a border that creates.
-It’s taking me a minute to open up to my senses, to touch
-I’m feeling the fishing line, sand, wind, rocks
-Fitting into spaces that don’t seem like a fit, trusting the space around me, getting to know the topography in a different way. Use rocks as pillows. Create a relationship between me and the sand.
-Making a literal nest (by accident), experimenting with the soft vs. hard sand, sticks, and dirt—created a new topography. As I pivot on the same spot and drill my feet down, new colors/elements are brought out of the earth.
-What does it mean to cross the line when no one is watching, to be in a “forbidden” place
-Fences are Man’s, they delineate nothing except the meaning we give them, so I cross them and weave through them
-What side of the line am I on?
-A street cuts through the land, but growth on each side never stops. Lying down on the hard hot cement floor I reach to both sides, back to the soil.
-I’m being brought back into interaction with nature. I can’t remember the last time I looked this hard at the ground, a rock, a leaf.
-How not to be the focus as human, how to let nature speak for itself, to take over the topography.
-I moved inside of a tree’s branches, came into contact with the dead and alive parts of the plant, broke off the dead parts.
What this experience highlighted for me is something that Diana Taylor constantly reminds us—that decolonial practice is just as important as theory. By going to the beach, I took the metaphor of returning to the soil a step further than what I could have in the studio, and it opened up a new dimension in the practice and theory that I was working with. In an effort to literally return to the soil, I spent time questioning, doubting, affirming, requestioning, redoubting, reaffirming what exactly I was doing there. I was able to imagine, see, hear, feel, and move through alternate spaces, invisible forms, walls, energies, restrictions of movement, skin, the temperature of air, the effervescence of my surroundings. Being there with my friend allowed us to exchange thoughts on decolonial theory, our different takes on the topographies, the process, etc. It was probably that which Taylor and the Hemispheric Institute would call “creative inquiry and critical practice… being present in situ, with others and using embodied experience and practice as an entry point for learning and theorizing, and not just the other way around, as in applying our theories to practices that we see or experience.” What I first imagined as a studio practice transformed and expanded in the field. My friend and I got to play around, we created dialogue out of sifting through sand. At first what we were doing felt quite serious, but by the end we were feeling completely inspired (and also very tired). I began to wonder if this was the Enchantment that Simas and Rufino would have us seek out. Finally, through this process I was able to displace myself from the center of topographical focus–both in the camera and in my imagination–which allowed both me and my friend to experience those areas from a completely new vantage point.
“Removed from that culture’s center you glimpse the sea in which you’ve been immersed but to which you were oblivious, no longer seeing the world the way you were enculturated to see it.”
To perceive of soil as something different to what History and geography/topography have taught us, it ushers in an ability to imagine alternate perspectives, positions, histories, ways of thinking, and relating to the world. Although it’s hard to say that any concrete change will certainly come from this “testing perceptions – reimagining space and movement,” my hope is “that our presence and interactions” in these experiments “might allow us to sense at least our role in colonialist scenarios, the problems these scenarios pose not just for others but for ourselves, and challenge our accepted ways of seeing, acting, and theorizing.”
“Maybe the theater in itself is not revolutionary, but these theatrical forms are without a doubt a rehearsal of revolution.”
-Augusto Boal, Theatre Of The Oppressed
Youtube Accessed 3 May 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGPG1QL1vJc. Anzaldúa, Gloria. 2015. Light in the Dark/Luz En Lo Oscuro. Edited by AnnaLousie Keating. Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, Ilya Vidrin Accessed 3 May 2021. https://www.ilyavidrin.com/partnering. Taylor, Diana. 2020. ¡Presente!: The Politics of Presence (Dissident Acts). Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books, McKittrick, Katherine. 2006. Demonic Grounds: Black Women And The Cartographies Of Struggle. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Boal, Augusto. 1979. Theatre Of The Oppressed. Translated by Charles A, and Maria-OdiliaLeal McBride. Emily Fryer, London: Pluto Books,