Darkness: the sound of water dripping, rocks abruptly falling, the ringing of bells, moving lights, a figure disappearing into black, the smell of seaweed. Lost.
The Conflicta residency of two weeks offered a rare opportunity to experience and absorb a context more fully. While reading in advance about a location and its history is useful, it doesn’t really provide the flavor or feeling of a place, or of the specific community within which you are operating. In those two weeks, we saw the city of Punta Arenas, traveled to Porvenir on Tierra del Fuego, drove down the coast to see Puerto Hambre (Point of Famine) as well as the official center of Chile. We had meals in families’ homes, saw the winter carnival parades, visited museums, monuments, churches, cemeteries, markets; walked along beaches and coves and city streets; and climbed into the nearby hills to see trees and snow. Patagonia. While there is much more to see, especially the natural wonders that are promoted to tourists, we experienced a Patagonia where our friends live and work. While they might feel a kind of isolation from the rest of the world, they also are part of a community that is vibrant and close. We were warmly embraced by family and friends, welcomed into their homes, and generously assisted by them in our work.
We had two weeks before making performances, which felt like a luxury, since I have often made work within two days of arriving at a location. In those contexts I am responding to an immediate impression, building a work that reflects something that perhaps was very obvious. This time gave me a chance to make a more subtle work, to let the place seep into my consciousness, or perhaps more accurately, into my unconscious…
It is only after making the work, performing, that I can speak to what I understand of how I responded to the place. I will preface this by saying that I do recognize that what I pay attention to in a place, what I respond to, is always only ever shaped by my own state of mind and what I carry within me no matter where I go. In that respect, any performance that I make could be thought of as a conversation between myself and a place, and that I bring to that conversation all my own predilections and obsessions. Which is simply to say, you can never escape yourself; you will always view the world through the lenses of your own state of mind and concerns.
The work that I made was very quiet and rather bleak. The art center where we did the public performances had a room that could be made to be completely dark. That is unusual for me to encounter. It is not something that is possible in the USA, where it is always required to have lit exit signs over doorways. So the opportunity to work in complete darkness was wonderful. Because the room was so alive acoustically, I immediately chose to work primarily with sound. The overtones of a bell that I had purchased in a local shop rang forever. Rocks from the nearby shore reverberated and echoed when I dropped or rolled them on the stone floor. Even singing softly my voice effortlessly filled the room. A sink in the corner of the room allowed me to add the sound of water dripping, which I amplified by putting a metal cup beneath it. It was only in the last day or so that I thought to add smell. It was a simple addition. I filled a bowl with cochayuyo – dried seaweed, which I got in the open market. I poured boiling water over it and let it sit and soak and soften, and the smell of sea and salt permeated the room.
I didn’t know what I might sing, but the word “lost,” came to me as I began the performance. And so ‘lost,’ was the only word I sang at different moments in the action, as a bell rang, and rocks rolled across the stone floor, or fell loudly and abruptly. There was often silence. And for a few moments a blue light moved through the room, appearing and disappearing. And always the sound of dripping of water amidst the smell of the ocean.
Where did those images come from? This is not something that I try to analyze in advance of a performance. Instead I feel my way through its development, assembling elements that seem appropriate, constructing a series of actions that move onward with some unknown, unarticulated logic, to give it some kind of shape – a place of starting, some kind of transformation, a way of ending.
But, in retrospect, I can talk about some of the things that affected me in the two weeks prior to the performance. I would preface it again to say that I am a somber person, and so I was often struck by a kind of emptiness and loneliness in the landscape. Bitter, strong winds across a treeless land, cleared a century ago. Farms abandoned. Houses close to the ground with sculpted trees, to survive the wind. Overheated buildings, to combat the dry frigidness of the air. aMonuments for European settlements that didn’t survive, markers for those who died of starvation or disease before another ship arrived from Europe. Native people quickly and systematically exterminated in a clash of cultures, with native animals not far behind. Recurring images from handful of old photographs of the native Selk’nam people, reproduced over and over again on every possible type of souvenir. Random remnants from the past – tools, weapons, furniture, portraits, human remains – displayed in museums. Nothing comprehensive, the history often surmised, with much unknown. An emptied landscape, empty of history. An empty landscape, emptied of history.
Again, everyone sees the world through their own lenses, so what they experience is always colored by what they bring to it. Other people, even within our group, paid attention to other things. But I have always thought about history, memory, loss, disappearance, and so that is what I responded to, what I made art work about, in my visit to Patagonia.