One weekend in October 2017, we led a workshop at Movement Research, a New York City laboratory for the investigation of dance and movement forms. As the cofounders of the Asylum Project, a range of site-specific explorations of sanctuary, edge space, and communal well-being, infused by crip culture / disability culture values, we are interested in poetry and performance as ways of being in the world. The workshop offered a sample of our collaborative and community-based practices, including tuning our bodyminds to inner and outer geographies and energies, and engaging in score-building—improvisatory activities that allow for individual exploration within a structure. One of us, Stephanie, is a psychiatric-system survivor who is bipolar, and the other, Petra, is a wheelchair /scooter user who lives with chronic pain. We moved with the workshop participants through a cityscape touched by climate change, hurricane memories, and workers’ struggles, trying to stay attuned to the presence of halting steps and painful pasts.
We grounded our exploration in our work with the Olimpias, an artists’ collective founded by mental-health–system survivors in Wales in 1996, with Petra as artistic director. The collective creates collaborative, research-focused environments open to people with physical, emotional, sensory and cognitive differences and their allies, exploring pride and pain, attention, and the transformative power of touch. The Olimpias is disability led, and nondisabled allies are always welcome. Stephanie has been an associate of the collective since 2014, the year we met and fell in love. Since then, we have co-led the Asylum Project.
Each day during the workshop, we met for two sessions, at two different sites, divided by a lunch break. On the following Monday night, we gave a performance at Judson Church.
Petra: The Dérive
Our core method of engagement goes back to Situationist practice: every day, in some form, we played in the realm of the dérive, or drifting. The original European avant-garde movement of Situationist International (SI) began in 1957, when the Situationists engaged in what Claire Doherty describes in Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation as “artistic practices for which the ‘situation’ or ‘context’ is often the starting point.” Given what I’ve read of Guy Debord, cofounder of SI, I am not sure that I would have wanted to play on their playground, or that I would have been allowed onto it, as a first-gen-university-going, disabled, white woman of size, grounded in disability-culture values. Critics including Simone Hancox have accused the early movement of elitism and authoritarianism. Sensitivities to power differentials and their effect on space engagement are core to Olimpias actions, so we take note of anything that feels too easy in our work with historic forms.
In 1958, Debord wrote in his “Théorie de la Dérive,” translated by Ken Knabb, that the dérive “is a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances,” which involves the dropping of “usual motives for movement.” In our dérives during the New York workshop, we stumbled, arrested our ambles, and got stopped in multiple ways. Our arresting influences included the pattern arrangements of orange plastic safety-fences that kept spaces separate; danger zones of rubble; and the lines concrete markers make in space. For dancers, the “usual motives for movement” are already suspended. The line between dérive and improvisational impulse frayed easily as we fell into Debord’s second description of the dérive as it engages space: “Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.”
Framing our work by calling on asylum imagery repeatedly bound us back to the city’s histories, to personal memory, to feeling safe and unsafe in skin, world, city, nation. Where was sanctuary? Where was asylum? What was stricture? What was safety? What were the differences and nuances of these experiences?
The dérive in performance work often acts at these interstices of political space use and embodied sensation. The German performance troupe Rimini Protokoll used dérive scores and mobile phones in 2012, dialing numbers to hear documentary fragments of Stasi surveillance of citizen movement in their walking performance, Fifty Kilometres of Files. In these city walks, as Daniela Hahn writes in a 2014 essay in TDR: The Drama Review,
the performer-listeners take up multiple positionings in ways that make them sensitive both to the different temporal layerings of certain places within the city and to the regimes of control and surveillance that, even after the end of the Cold War, pervade everyday life, ranging from more obvious forms of surveillance such as closed-circuit TV to the more insidious dataveillance or digital information tracking.
In our drifting, we did not engage with this overlaid grid of surveillance, though we noted cameras hidden in overhangs, traffic-cams, and other mechanisms of vision. Our sensitivities to temporal layerings emerged from inhabiting and embodying metaphors and actions of climate, and the threats of past and future chaos. We explored broken supply chains in hurricane times, felt the drag of dancing in Hurricane Sandy territory, the energy of the rushing river right beside our (currently) dry promenade. We were aware of the political dimensions in the rupture of travel and of site construction, as well as in the breakdown of flow as usual that occurs in moments of catastrophic change. Flows and their redirection alter site habitation: settler movement, water invasion, and now, actions kicked off in complex ways by the Anthropocene era. With these awarenesses layering into our explorations of asylum, we embraced another maxim of drifting work: psychogeography, the eased or halted flow of energies. In “Théorie de la Dérive,” Debord writes:
Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
In the workshop, multiple notions of energetic torsion emerged. In particular, we explored climate change and the epoch’s challenges to find new patterns of human engagement with site, climate, and earth habitation; and we focused on interdependence, the lean into others, finding support and mutual care as our world changes.
Petra: Drift in Abrons Arts Center
On our first day, we visited a quilt exhibit at Abrons Arts Center. The quilts, designed by Maggie Thompson, were part of a multiyear collaborative project led by Emily Johnson and Catalyst Arts, “Then a Cunning Voice and a Night We Spend Gazing at Stars.” The flyer for the exhibit reminded us of who held us in the space:
Emily Johnson / Catalyst and Abrons Art Center pay respect to Lenape peoples and ancestors past, present, and future. We acknowledge that this work is situated on the Lenape island of Manhahtaan (Mannahatta) and more broadly in Lenapehoking, the Lenape homeland.
At the core of the project, according to the flyer, were questions of well-being. We read these aloud: “What do you want for your well-being? For the well-being of your chosen friends and family? For your neighborhood? For your town, city, reserve, tribal nation, world?”
Then we began to inhabit the space, to find our own answers in our bodily movements, in aligning ourselves with each other, buffered by the carefully folded, multicolored quilts. The space was a site of care, full of energy created in handiwork. The notes invited us to unfold the quilts and to envelop ourselves in them so as to make the floor warm and soft(er). So we did.
Our art practices are part of long heritages of creating dream space, self- and other-care space, the destabilization of the real into the liminality of hopefulness.
Some of us explored the movements of the quilts themselves. Some of us were matadors offering cloth to a different species. Others were caretakers swaddling a baby. Some made a canoe, a tent, a bed, or a swing. Some engaged their materiality differently, folding and refolding them, stroking palms over surfaces touched by loving others—a form of stimming, an autistic cultural expression for affirming and stimulating one’s bodymind boundaries through repetitive motions. Some participants read out loud the messages that had been written, as part of the quilting process, into the little squares: AFFORDABLE HEALTH INSURANCE, FIESTA!, BETTER COMMUNICATION IN MY RELATIONSHIP, COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP, HOT WATER, LIVE CONFIDENTLY WITHOUT FEAR, SLEEP. Many such messages had accumulated on these eighty-four blankets, which had a longer-serving purpose than the exhibit. They were designed to be part of a nighttime community gathering, to be the support structure for a long gaze up at the stars.
We also found the following in the flyer: “One student, a recent refugee seeking asylum in Australia, noted whilst stitching, ‘these quilts are like maps to possible futures.’ ” The phrase, resonant among us after our initial group exploration of personal meanings of asylum, added a forward-oriented acceleration. It encouraged a search for communal survival acts, a solarpunk impulse in acknowledged dystopia, and stimulated an energetic torsion in us toward change and care.
I imagine all the quilts under the night sky on a piece of land that is well cared for; they are their own liminal space—a cunning-voice space, a myth-telling space, a desire space. Our art practices are part of long heritages of creating dream space, self- and other-care space, the destabilization of the real into the liminality of hopefulness, dreaming, or critique.
As we prepared to depart, the quilts acted as a transition space for us, a buffer zone: from the dance studio into public space, from personal exploration to a more communal one.
Stephanie: Luther Gulick Park play
First day, afternoon session, after the quilts. We drift. We enter the park, and the park enters us. In the spirit of improvisation, instead of trying to make the materials fit our intentions, we respond to what is already here. In this case, a group of black men relaxing in the afternoon warmth, their radio blaring. A white woman with her pit bull mix. Autumn leaves. Cigarette butts. Beer bottles. Plastic bags. Concrete. Green wood benches. Dead tree branch. Traffic sound. Each other. Our score:
Allow your senses to receive and inform your investigation of the park. Pay attention to what draws you. Ten minutes to explore in open attention.
A couple slowly moves across the park bench, legs extended to sky, weight shifts, bodies aware of each wood grain. A few of us activate the dead tree branch, moving fingers over its bark and limbs; there is the castanet sound of dried leaves. The men with their stereo groove. Some of our group join in. Hips sway to quick rhythms. There is a relaxed tone to this sonic exchange. Parallel play. The folks already in the park before we arrived are certainly aware of our presences, as we are aware of theirs, but there is no formal acknowledgement, no head nods or eye contact. It is a kind of coexistence, where there is enough room for everyone to do their thing and get on with it. No big deal.
I’m overcome with the wealth of stimulation. I tune my senses to the location and activities of our group. I take in the wire fence surrounding three sides of the park, the nonspecific smells that scratch my olfactory memory, the nonstop city pulse—that sound of cement and wheels and humans with futures to get to, and my inner desire to curl up for an afternoon nap on a patch of nonexistent grass. Deluge. I need a dam, some kind of floodgate to make my open attention a bit less open. I touch one of the few trees nearby. Let the bark soothe my firing nerves. Lean my spine on its slender trunk. Close my eyes. This is another kind of interdependence. I imagine what this land was like before it was made into a park. What species lived here? What grew? I feel grateful for this fragile tree, its oxygen and support.
When I make a quick survey of the group, it appears everyone is engaged. Sometimes the scores we are building need tweaks, more constraint or more leeway, but the only thing this score needs is more time. We huddle close to share responses to the experience of listening and moving. One person comments that they could have gone on for an hour. Others chime in in agreement. The park does not bear the traces of our activities besides some crushed leaves, a dead tree branch moved a few feet from its original spot, and perhaps an indent in the conversation of the regular occupants. But the space has shifted us both individually and as a group. The park served to magnify and entrain our awareness of each other, of our own senses, and of our surroundings. We move into our next score, a dérive along Delancey Street to the East River Walk, with senses primed.
Petra: Delancey Street, NYC, USA
At 2:40, rhythm expands along my Southern edge. Luther Gulick Playground. Small boom box on a concrete bench.
At 3:05, majestic black woman in an electric wheelchair whizzes along my flank. On the back of her chair a bag, PUERTO RICO—electric letters glow under gray-light sky.
Stream toward the water.
At 3:10, white elder suns himself in the pearliness of heaven. He lies motionless in the overgrown park near my eastern edge. At 3:30, he rotates his nut-brown scrawny legs to mobilize his hips. An hour later, he walks near my rhythmic railing.
Sing when the trains pass above.
At 3:30, dancers lean into my far eastern limit, spear into the East River. Across, the Domino Sugar Factory leans back. Sphinx stories echo. Limbs swing out above backs.
The break. The hold.
From 3:32 to 3:55, one dancer hovers, compact, like a bird on a water fountain. One drums beer bottles on a metal picnic table. One hugs a railing, river water swift, swift.
At 4:10, white ship across the East River tips over. Containers topple in slow gravity, new magnetic powers upset the logistics machine.
At 4:13, wave jumps my Eastern bank, breathes into car lanes, new flow.
X. All the clocks. From East to West.
Flatness spreads. Oil shines. Rainbow unbroken.
Birds tousle my wire hair.
Petra: Drift on Delancey Street
During our drift down Delancey Street, we all saw her: a majestic elder, a black woman, in an electric wheelchair. She passed us by as we were slowly moving from the playground to the meeting place at the bridge’s ramp. In our postscore discussion later, we found out that she played a role in everybody’s dérive, marking our experience with her transit.
Some of us looked at the missing-persons leaflets attached to lampposts. I looked at grids in fences, the holes and wholes made by iron and plastic, the orange safety veil that is supposed to allow a small tree to flourish by the side of a steel fence. Others danced around a water hydrant, unfolding from one form into many, until a small ballet happened, limbs and canes extending into the street.
But she drove past us, secure in her speed and on her linear path. Upon passing, we saw the back of her chair. Attached to it was a large black bag, with colorful letters spelling out PUERTO RICO. None of us engaged with her, but she dissected our attention, and then we saw her leave, and thoughts of precarity, survival, climate change, nation-states, and hurricanes trailed in her wake. The gravity of the situation mixed with the levity of the drift.
We assembled at the entry of the footbridge across Franklin Delano Roosevelt drive, a zigzag out toward the East River Promenade. Stephanie and I asked whether everybody was still feeling mobile, happy to continue, warm enough, and engaged. We all did. So we drifted over, keeping our attention engaged with the exigencies of space, the patterns of the railing, political slogans, graffiti, the push and pull of the cars, all the cars, the vans, the trucks, the speed of things shuttling across our path, all the energy dense dense dense. Our bodies stood buffeted by the winds, by the rush of the cars beneath, by the hum of the asphalt. My scooter rolled up with its motor push, and gravity took it downward, down from the high point, my control loosening as I careened down the ramp toward the park. Others took much longer, let themselves be rippled and striated by the ley lines of city highways. Steel mesh stops you from killing yourself.
At the bottom of the far ramp, an unkempt park offered sanctuary, a thin defense against the traffic-noise assault. I turned into it, and then it opened up before me: the vista of the riverside, the gleam of low afternoon sun on the river. More roilings, more energy: Right where we were, giant turbulences move the water in sinuous forms. I took a deep breath, and felt elated, moved, outward, outward, flatness, horizon. One by one, we all trundled in, all lined up by the railing, drawn to the water’s ion edge. An escape route. No mesh. Contained movement. Sandy had ripped over the promenade here, and the gravity of the river’s power was clear and present. But for now, in this moment, in the gleam of the sun through clouds, open wind into our faces, we were happy, or at least most faces around me spoke of arrival, of opening, of ends.
In our debriefing from the two dérives, the ending at the river had multiple layerings: Straight out from us stood the Domino Sugar Factory, and we talked about the site’s gravity in the art worlds we inhabit. We talked about Kara Walker. The sugar sphinx. I offered material from a book that had fed my precity explorations: Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s 2013 work on logistics and embodiment, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. I shared lines about container ships and cargo, others talked about capitalist webs that stretch across the world, and we contemplated natureculture pushbacks, sand in the sugar machine, the weeds taking over the hard edges of the park into softness. Birds in the sound machine of FDR Drive. Wheelchair / Puerto Rico / the smoothness of the electric glide / the turbulence of the water.
Afterward, we began our next phase of movement, an improvisation of open engagement with the site. Mobility and pauses shifted around us. One of the dancers swung her crutches in circles, grabbing space in wide arcs. I saw a near-naked old white man with suntanned skin carefully gathering sunlight into himself, pressing each ion of autumn sun into his bio-battery. Dissolution / revolution.
Eventually I wheeled back to the benches by the river, our designated assembly point. I moved past a dancer who had wound her limbs into the railing by the river, holding close and looking far. I watched and photographed a dancer who arced backward over the river, like a wasp about to lay an egg: a leggy, elegant strangeness in her contorting limbs. Here, I made my nest, the city’s humidity and warmth layered around me as the river wind spoke of the ocean and of salt. We all came back from our stations, our playgrounds, our sugar salt liminal vehicles of transport and attention.
Stephanie: Estuary Cycles
I’m going home! plop down on bright yellow material with pink pansies that are not pansies slant slope to cement where I mix with unnamables more potent than previous detritus encounters through a grate into the dark East River cohorts welcome me into their flow & ripple broken by ferry churn shipping container wake seagull graze reflected faces lean over the promenade shored up bank side scrap metal plastic bag key chain with rusted key inside rainbow smelt lungs repellent gasoline slick sun blocked by Williamsburg bridge I vaporize cumulus suspended in past summer heat float homesick for river current & chorus carries on as I float on a westerly breeze red lights below yellow cabs streak traffic on the FDR geometric shapes hold jagged skyline movement swells in grid patterns bridges // bridges always over now under I wait not sure what I wait for gravity momentum break the circle fly
Petra: Drift at the Tenement Museum
For the second day of our exploration we chose a different home space: The area on Orchard Street surrounding the East Side’s Tenement Museum, a range of little streets that house the remnants of an old tenement, its nineteenth-century appearance miraculously kept intact through decades of landlords’ shenanigans. Each day, multiple tours traverse the streets, young docents taking groups of mainly tourists through the intricacies of how people used to live: many people to one room, taking in washing or sewing in one-room sweatshops. This is a museum of how people made space habitable, and it is also a space for glimpsing intimate details (toilets, washing lines, frayed old clothes) of histories that took place right here, in the same palimpsestic space. It might be a good place to search for ghosts, but it is busy, a thoroughfare, an undecided space where there is not one entrance, but multiple warrenlike paths leading in.
So on the street, at least, it did not feel spooky to us. The access issues of a fast city were clear to us: We managed to find a long red bench tucked into a little niche between shops and restaurants, and the little hovering space for our butts felt luxurious. There were not too many places to sit nearby. The nearest alternative was a bunch of funky yellow benches right on the meridian of a busy neighboring street: good looking, but hardly conducive to talking and engaging with each other.
There we were, on the red bench, in the shadow of the tenements, with little reminders of centuries of Lower East Side life all around us, tourists and locals swarming around the streets. We gave the group our final instruction for this last session of the weekend workshop:
Construct a score for this space. Draw on the heritages that we have honored in our explorations together: lineages from Joseph Beuys to Barbara Dilley and Judson Church, from the Situationists’s psychogeography to Black Lives Matter’s gestural choreopolitics, the interventions of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, and the network they have helped into being.
Stephanie: Red benches, Crosswalks, Grids
We shared our invented scores with each other in public. In one score, coiled movements slow motion shifted as one body poured into another, arms forming circles spilled across the sidewalk from an apartment landing. Some passersby paused to watch, others dodged around the scene. We were mindful about allowing space for people to get by. The group I was in asked folks at crosswalks if we could accompany them across the street. A woman offered me an arm. Another headphoned twenty-something looked quizzical and said no. The people who welcomed us, we thanked on the other side. Moments of lean, of interdependence, support in space traversal, if only an arm, a few words, human contact in everyday activity. The invitation shifted back and forth, from “May I accompany you?” to “Will you accompany me?” Different approaches to agency. Different approaches to need.
After all the groups shared their scores, we met back at our coveted red bench. There was a charge, a performance buzz after these actions in public space. A deepening of our connections as our awareness of self and group extended to include the Tenement Museum tour, bicycle-courier blur, the family with three young kids delighted to be accompanied across the street. We exchanged good-byes: Some of us would reunite at Judson Church tomorrow, and for others it was the end of their time together with us.
As we parted, I felt the grid I was first introduced to in dancer and choreographer Barbara Dilley’s class at Naropa University (then Institute) over twenty years ago. Dilley offered us an improvisational structure where you imagine yourself on a grid, a map of right angles and possibilities to lean into and push against. The grid can withstand hurricane winds, erratic temperatures, dwindling resources. It can connect seemingly disparate beings; we are all in this curve.
Latitude and longitude lines ran their course as we each navigated in relation to them and each other, our trajectories spanning the city as we wheeled, walked, and crutched it to our next destination, taking in our neighbors, human and beyond human, feeling the gravity and presence of it all.
Stephanie: Judson Church
Monday, after our weekend workshops. We meet in the early afternoon to explore the site of our final sharing.
I’m hesitant to enter the Judson Church of brick, mortar, and glass, having lived up until now with my imagined Judson Church. The fantastical home of postmodern dance, revered lineage holders, a heritage as close to religion as I get. An idea, a geography of lush woods in constant flux and reinvigoration.
I may have first heard of Judson Church as a teenager at North Carolina School of the Arts, or it may have been in my first-year dance history class at SUNY Purchase. To me, the place was a cathedral of possibility, a bastion of choreographic impulse and innovation, landscape of shift and breadth. In fact, when I shared with friends my excitement at being there and the majority had no idea what I was talking about, I seriously questioned my social circles.
My fear that the site’s reality would poke holes in my idealism was unwarranted. Gleam of wood floor, arches in sequence, pillars, saints illuminated in glass watching over all this luscious space. The group scattered to explore the space on their own, and then we gathered again in the center of the floor, most of us horizontal and touching the limbs of the person next to us, a sunburst or starfish.
We created a slow-moving hurricane: a circular pattern that incorporated more and more people, a swirl that happened without words, in ten short minutes.
For me, any individual impulses were hijacked by the space’s immensity. The great vertical expanse that my long limbs couldn’t begin to span. The architecture of the church designed to make people feel small. In this case, God was not the expanse but the sum of all the movements that had happened here. The walls breathing decades of history—energy lines, lines of flight, ghost dances, unseen forces creative and fierce; this church a channel, a repository, a body made up of bodies in motion and stillness, creating something where there was nothing. Here was proof of faith, and I was a believer.
But we had a workshop to run and a performance score to set. With grid lines pulsing, time slipstream and tick, still arrayed as a starfish, we each expressed gratitude for our movement lineages. Our words echoed and landed in the charged space. As if history allowed for us to enter easily into this stream, to dance in company, such good company.
The performance score used one of the street structures from the day before. Our plan was for a small group to place themselves in space and wield slow-motion arcs and circles, entwining themselves and each other. The rest of the group’s score:
Wait for the rhythm to be established. Join and feed in energies. Invite audience members to enter into the performance. Dance with them until the larger form weaves them into its warp and weft.
To capture the outdoor elements that had featured so prominently in our time together, we had all agreed to record ten minutes of sound during the break before the performance. This would be our ambient backdrop and timekeeper: October birdsong, traffic, cafe music, overheard conversation. At the start of our piece we would all come from the audience, place our phones at the back of the stage, hit play, and then the starting group would stay on stage while the rest of us returned to our seats.
My favorite part of the performance was inviting audience members to join us. An older woman gladly accepted my invitation and, as we made our way onto the floor, explained how she used to be a dancer. There was a sweetness and vulnerability to asking people to dance, no words, just an open hand and readiness to be joined or not. The performance group got bigger as the audience got smaller. Some audience members, probably dancers or performers themselves, needed no personal invitation to get up and join. Other folks declined my extended hand or looked the other way. The stage was alive with an amoebalike quality of ebb and flow, a unity of parts, people, and wheelchairs. I caught sight of my beloved’s gliding arc on her travelscoot, Scooty, as she twirled a partner through a large swath of open space. The end was a beautiful moment of interdependence and exhilaration as three of the performers gathered any leftover phones and leaned into each other and into one of the dancer’s crutches, tilting toward the last moment with vigor.
The aftermath of performance elation is a comedown, a slow meander back to my wheelchair-accessible Airbnb, a marginally ethically defensible option in a city where accessible hotels are far away and charge hundreds of dollars a night. Care structures have broken down all over the United States, and our assemblage in New York was marked by talk of insurance plans, accessible city routes in decline, the still-inaccessible subway, how few dance studios are accessible, and the deep difficulties most artists have in making a living in this voracious and fast-paced metropole. We were all just birds on the railing of the river, there for a while.
In Judson Church, we created a slow-moving hurricane: a circular pattern that incorporated more and more people, a swirl that happened without words, in ten short minutes, full of eddies, pools, resting points. Phones, metal, my scooter, the workers who patched the pavement, the elevator in the church: all these things supported us, and I thought of them as I looked at the marble pillars in this miraculous space. Like Stephanie, I experienced this place as site of dancerly history, ghost steps everywhere. And when I first entered it from the wheelchair-accessible elevator, so glad to have access, I felt something constricting a bit too: we few humans were tiny in that large space, so much more open than the passages we created on city streets. It was a feeling akin to working by the river: overwhelm, a hint of the sublime, a sense of danger, a desire to find a nook in the gleaming expanse of wood.
I left the city with sensations of impermanence and power twisting in me: my limping, crippy, psychogeographical explorations connected with infrastructural neglect in Puerto Rico and the power of the river, with rivers of dance history and embodied transmission as well as the energy of workers, tourists, and finance in the street. I touched in with stars, and remembered being wrapped in a blanket. Finding a corner in the street to sit. Leading someone across a busy intersection. A touch of a hand. Contact with danger, streets, winds, river; human connection zones, all shift, all movement.