Having white privilege is like standing on an invisible pedestal. Unless you learn to see the structure, you will spend your life believing you are two feet taller than the people on the ground. In eggshell sternum/pelvic nerve, a white woman navigates her destabilized inner landscape once the pedestal has been made visible. Through the lived experience of the performance, she wrestles with her own capacity for fragility, destruction, and guilt, seeking healing and the ability to stand in her power on the ground.
I'm teaching all over the Valley. Come out and dance!
FALL 2016 Class information
Mature Moving Me @ Mesa Arts Center
WHAT: A creative movement class for adults 55+ to exercise your mind, body, and creativity in a supportive and joyful community atmosphere. We’ll use a range of creative tools and practices to make and improvise dance that draws from our own stories and life experience. Each class begins with a physical practice that includes gentle moving, conditioning, and appropriate aerobic activity. The class will culminate in an informal final performance or creative project created collaboratively over the course of the session. No previous dance experience is necessary.
WHEN: Thursdays, 9:00-10:30 a.m., October 6- December 8.
REGISTER: This class is free, but spots are limited to 20 people, so email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your spot!
TEEN BALLET AND JAZZ @ Phoenix Center for the Arts
WHAT: Beginning and intermediate technique classes in jazz and ballet for teens ages 12-18 to build your technique, flexibility, strength, and confidence in foundational ballet and jazz dance. Each class includes a warm-up to stretch, strengthen, and prepare the body, then introduces and builds dance vocabulary that culminates in choreography, center work, and across the floor combos. The atmosphere is relaxed and supportive -- no leotards needed! - but proper technique and individual engagement is a must!
Jazz: Mondays, 5:00-6:00 (Beginning); 6:15-7:15 (Intermediate). Session 1 is 8/29-10/10, Session 2 is 10/24-12/5
Ballet: Wednesdays, 4:00-5:00 (Beginning); 5:15-6:15 (Intermediate). Session 1 is 8/31-10/12, Session 2 is 10/26-12/7.
REGISTER: Go to http://phoenixcenterforthearts.org/youth-dance/ to register. Cost: $103/session.
This weekend (on Saturday 2/20 & Sunday 2/21) I will perform a piece from Dress in Something Plain and Dark in the Senior Transitions Concert at ASU.
The piece is called "How Does it Feel to be Back Here Again?" It is a bulky and long working title that I don't like, but it describes the piece pretty aptly.
because this is a piece about attending church,
but is not about attending religiously. Instead it explores the cyclical rhythm of rejection, indifference, separation, and return; ways of leaving and ways of coming back; methods of avoiding and methods of committing.
It comes from:
1. the unexplained appearance of a black cloth on my bicycle days after the phrase "dress in something plain and dark" first into my consciousness and began to loop on repeat.
2. The audacity and exasperation of Di Brandt (and so many other women who quit the church) when she says "I've tried everything"
3. and my own whispered rebuttal: "but have I really?"
4. the physical sensation of being confined inside an unmoving body during the service that goes on... and on... and on... as words I don't believe swim around me, over me, of fading in and out of awareness and presence, of slowly suffocating under the weight of God the Father.
5. and the question: why do we keep going back?
I invite you to turn with me to number 20 in your blue hymnal, and, in the words of the hymn, "Come and see."
I recently wrote a piece for the Phoenix Dance Observer reflecting on my experience at the Breaking Ground 2016: Contemporary Dance and Film Festival. And apparently, the piece broke the Phoenix Dance Observer record for shares and views (all due to the strength of my writing of course--nothing at all to do with the size and scale of the festival compared to the other pieces the Phoenix Dance Observer usually covers). Facebook says it "reached" 2,566 people. I'm not sure what "reached" means, but 2,566 is more people than I know on Facebook or in real life. I feel like a celebrity, and will be moving to New York City soon to write for The Village Voice.
But actually, I do want to be writing more about dance. I think it is important for artists to be able to talk about other artists' work, not just our own, and to be able to articulate and describe what we do and why it matters to people who don't identify as artists. I like the way knowing I will be writing about a piece changes the way that I watch and take it in. I am interested in the challenge of finding words for an art form that constantly undercuts, defies, and cuts beyond verbal expression.
And I want to write in a way that will be constructive to our tender bud of a dance community here, supportive and respectful of the sacredness of other artists' artistic processes. And at the same time push for more rigor, and be true to (but also up front about) my own values, ethics, and aesthetics.
I don't know how to do all of this. In trying to figure out some ways, I have been digging in the itch journal zine, which describes itself as
an evolving art project qua artist forum cum journal/zine published two times a year. We publish poetry, political rants, scholarly work, one sentence email responses, cryptic fortune-cookie fortunes, photos, found images, etc., submitted from our highly elastic community of visual, performance, video, multi- and intermedia artists, dancers, choreographers, movers and the politically-inclined, all of whom have divergent interests and practices that constellate around an issue theme in a happenstance yet curiously fortuitous bricolage.
and of course I've been going to Claudia LaRocco, whose work makes me feel like like there's no reason to go see anything, since I can just read about it here, and the review itself is probably better poetry than the art it describes (and free).
I think criticism is one person’s flawed and subjective account of an experience. - Claudia LaRocco
I wrote about Breaking Ground in this spirit--trying to be up front about my subjectivity, sticking with the experiential. I steered clear of any actual "critique." Here is the link to the article I wrote; whether or not you decide to read it, I'd like to know:
Why do you (or don't you) read reviews?
What makes a review worth reading for you?
What is the value of subjectivity?
Lastly, if you are an artist, what do you get out of reading reviews of your own work? What kind of reviews are most useful to you?
One of the most exciting projects of this year for me has been developing an inclusive dance program in partnership with the St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. The vision for the class came from one of the staff members at the church, Christy, who had participated in an inclusive dance class several years ago and had a dream of recreating that experience for her community. I worked with her and her former dance partner, Brooke, to develop and promote the class. (Brooke is a writer and performing artist with cerebral palsy--be sure to check out her website & storytelling business on Brooke's Butterfly Touch.)
One thing we talked often about was how to effectively communicate the vision for this class in words. Christy had introduced the idea for the class with the phrase "inclusive dance." I have continued to use this phrase to indicate that the class is be open and adaptable to people with a wide and varying range of ages, mental and physical disabilities, and levels of dance training. However, the phrase "inclusive dance" is a really interesting one that raises some questions for me, which I've been working to unpack.
First, my own definition of dance is, I would argue, inherently and already "inclusive," so to place the word "inclusive" in from of the word "dance" seems almost redundant. For me, dance is any form of intentional movement OR stillness that falls outside of the utililtarian or "necessary" movement required by every-day life. Someone turning their palms upwards before they pray or meditate, for example, would be a dance to me. So might the ritual of tucking a child into bed, if performed with a sense of care and attention. However, few people share this perspective on dance, and I don't expect, or need them to. A more common definition of dance is one that requires steps, styles, techniques, and training making dance a skill that is only held, accessed, or possessed by those with training or "natural" talent.
The field of dance ethnography teaches that the ways we understand dance--what it is, what is it's role, and who can do it--is deeply connected to our cultural framework. The ways dance is constructed and understood in America will be different in a university dance program than in a nightclub than in a ballet studio than on a street corner in the Bronx. In all of these spaces and settings, the way dance is conceived of, and who has access to participate, varies. Often, these social constructions of dance are extremely exclusive. Such as:
- When dance is depicted as an "elite" or "skilled" art form (i.e. So You Think You Can Dance)
- When dance "training" through the form of studio classes is only available to those who can afford to pay.
- When the only bodies that we see performing or doing dance fit certain physical categories to the exclusion of others: i.e. fit/"able-bodied"; young or youthful-looking; all one particular racial category or ethnic group, leading to perceptions that "you have to be skinny to dance ballet" or "only black people can do hip-hop"
Here's what exclusion can look like.
Parents who enroll their children at a traditional studio offering classes for children and youth, may gain the impression that once they are passed a certain age it is no longer appropriate for them to study dance. Those who want to dance as older adults will likely have a much more difficult time finding classes geared to their age group, where they don't feel out of place in a sea of younger bodies. People with visible disabilities or physical limitations probably face the most barriers upon entering the dance world: attitudinal, logistical, lack of rigorous or professional training, and lack of information (See: Barriers to Dance Training for Young People with Disabilities).
So what does it mean to be actively inclusive in the way we teach dance, and construct dance spaces? How do we push against the ways in which dance spaces have become exclusive of those whose real or perceived age, socioeconomic status, physical or mental abilities, gender, race, ethnicity, or other social identifiers have placed them outside of the borders of access, privilege, and a sense of belonging in dance spaces?
I think what is required is a radical expansion of the boundaries of the dance world, or our perceptions of these boundaries. In a perfect world, the label "inclusive" would not even be needed because all dance teachers would already operate under that framework--one that assumes diversity of participants.
So what does this shift look like? What does it feel like in a dance class?
I think Brooke poses this question in her tagline for the class: "What happens when people of all stages, ages, and ability levels move together?" And I think she nails it with the phrase "Dance Mixability." To me, this captures the spontaneous, unpredictable, generative energy that I have been feeling in every week's class. It's the energy of discovery--people learning they can move and feel different in their bodies. It's the energy of connection--realizing how we can communicate in new ways, support each other. Finally, it's the energy of the unknown--depending on who shows up to the space, the nature of the class can shift and change greatly. So far, every week's class has felt like a new experiment to me. As the facilitator, I find myself constantly surprised, often challenged, and frequently in laughter about what unfolds.
At the same time, I am challenged by this passage in the article cited earlier:
While there are a large number of first access participatory opportunities, most of these are recreational or therapeutic in nature, emphasizing creativity and fun. Although such experiences can be invaluable, many young disabled dancers may wish to improve their technical competence but find few opportunities in which to do so; dancers with disabilities have reported that technical skill-building did not form a substantial part of their training (Verrent, 2003)
I would definitely categorize our Dance Mixability class as the first kind of class described. It is beautiful, and important, but in the movement for fully inclusive dance, it is just a first step--not the final goal. A fuller vision of radically inclusive dance is the Axis Dance Company model--a physically integrated company where dancers with disabilities have the access to training and opportunities to dance and choreograph as professional performers and artists. Axis is much more than a professional dance company--it is a center for resources and knowledge sharing, teacher training programs, professional development opportunities for dancers with disabilities, community engagement, artistic growth. The impact of this work is huge. Our class is actually part of the Axis ripple effect--Brooke trained with Axis at one of their summer workshops, and as a new teacher I have been mining the wealth of resources on the Axis website for ideas and information. My long-term goal is to get to an Axis teacher training program, or maybe even bring them to AZ.
It's exciting to take part in developing the infrastructure for a more inclusive dance community here in Arizona. With that goal in mind, I would love to hear your thoughts.
How do you experience dance spaces as "inclusive" or "exclusive?"
What makes a space "inclusive?" (or not?)
What are some barriers you have faced, or seen others face, within the dance world?
Is inclusion the ultimate goal? Is there a different word, or a different way to frame it, that is better?
What would a strong dance and disability network look like in our community?
A week ago I went to my first rave. And it was at 6:30 in the morning... you heard that right.
The rave, called Morning Gloryville Barcelona, involved no hallucinogenics and no alcohol. Instead, the goal was to get to the trance-like bliss of a night-time rave with nothing needed except the DJ, the energy of the crowd, your body, and a free cup of coffee.
I was willing to go for it. So at 5:30 a.m. I forced my protesting body out of bed and crept covertly out of the apartment, trying not to wake my host mom. It was still dark outside, and walking to the metro station I remembered the last time I had been awake at this time in Barcelona. Then, it had been the end of a long night. Now, it was the beginning of a long day. The street was almost deserted: just me and the street sweepers.
When I arrived at Mercat de les Flors, the location of the rave, the morning light kissing the rooftops took my breath away. It was all so sharp and clean.
The music was already spilling from inside the building, even though the rave hadn’t technically started. The repetition of the words, the drop of the bass, began to weave their spell. A woman’s voice, singing, inviting: start moving in your way.
We were gathering. Fairy wings and glittered skirts. High heels and Hawaian prints. A cacophony of nighttime color and sound, so curiously juxtaposed with the scent of coffee and the brightening of the sky.
At 6:30, those who had arrived for the beginning formed a circle, hands on each others backs. A woman began to speak into a microphone. Against the music, and in Spanish, I couldn’t catch it all. Just the general ideas: breathing, giving energy, being present.
She told us to divide into pairs, and I found myself face to face with another woman. “Look directly at each other.” We began the rave like that, sinking deep into the eyes of a stranger.
In case you don’t know, eye contact can be terrifying. For this first partner, it was a little too intense. She kept laughing and looking down or away. I tried to hold that, without casting judgment, although I was aware of the uncomfortable space it created between us. I tried to make my face a resting place for her restless, flitting gaze.
We changed partners.
My second partner was brave. Together, we held each other’s gaze without breaking it. “Don’t think about anything” said our instructor (instructor? teacher? guru? fellow human?) “Just see the person sitting across from you.” As the minutes passed, I felt tears coming into my eyes. Almost immediately after, I saw them reflected sympathetically in the eyes of my partner. Similarly, without any intentional effort my face and body arranged themselves to match hers. (Actually, there’s a scientific reason for this. Wikipedia “mirror neurons” when you finish reading)
After minutes of this, of just seeing, we were told to touch our partner, in whatever way we wanted to. Our hands found each other’s shoulders. Others were grasping hands, touching knees, or gently holding faces. I could feel the weight of her arms. I realized we were now smiling. Not embarrassed, deflecting smiles, but expressions of genuine joy in the acts of seeing, and being seen.
We are so rarely allowed the luxury of studying a face. If we took time to do this with every new person we met, the word “ugly” would not exist, at least not in reference to other humans. There is no such thing as “ugly” when you really look. Judgment fades and there is only light and shadow, structure and detail, color, symmetry and asymmetries, humanness.
“Start moving in your way.” The words were like a massage—repetitive, soothing. Telling me to begin by listening. The room was electric, pulsing with energy. I felt as if there were invisible threads connecting me to every person in the room. Each one present and accounted for.
At last we finished and stood up. My partner and I grasped each others arms and smiled and laughed in and said thank you in as many ways as we could. Then we let each other go, and started moving in our ways. The music changed. The dance began.
Since that morning I have not been able to forget the electricity of being touched and seen, so long and so unbreakingly, by another person. I find myself craving a return to that sensation. I imagine I crave it the the way friends who smoke crave nicotine.
Touch and sight. Even before the rave, I was thinking about these things frequently. They have been on my mind almost since arrival.
The fact is that people touch each other much more in Spain than in the U.S. When I first observed classes at Varium, I was taken aback by how much teachers would touch students. Male and female alike would absentminded stroke the hair of the child standing nearby, or place a calming hand on the back of a rowdy kid to quiet them, or engulf someone who had drifted away from the group in a sudden bear hug to scoop them up and carry them back to the group.
But although this surprised me initially I now I find myself doing the same. After for weeks of working with kids at Varium, to touch feels automatic, natural and right. Now, I don’t hesitate to touch. Working in Spanish and Catalá, I often struggle express myself verbally. Touch and eye contact are two most clear and immediate forms of communication that I have at my disposal.
Outside the dance community (which is, granted, more touch-prone than most), it is the same. Parents touch their children more. Couples can get away with PDA of the highest degree. Even strangers can touch each other, for example when trying to pass behind someone on the metro. For example, the waiter at the restaurant where we take the Varium kids for lunch touches me when I am blocking his way in the narrow aisle between the two tables, to let me know he needs to come through. Even the Spanish greeting, two kisses on either side of the face, is closer and more intimate than the American handshake.
Similarly, I have been struck again and again here by how readily people meet each other’s gazes. Not just meet, but welcome, with radiating warmth. I see this a lot at Varium, between students and students, students and teachers, parents and staff. And I see it especially in conversations when people are speaking to each other in Catalá.
In the United States, we train ourselves into isolation. We are taught that it is rude to stare. Our eyes flit from the screen of our smartphones to the floor to avoid being caught on the splinter of another person’s gaze. We teach our children that their personal bubble reaches as far as their fingertips so that we can all keep each other at arm’s length. When we take our change from the cashier at the supermarket, the sudden warmth of their fingers is startling, an unwanted intimacy. A teacher who places his hand on the back of a restless student risks a lawsuit.
So at first it was hard for me to reciprocate, let alone to initiate, these moments of warm human contact. I would feel bashful or nervous and cast my eyes down, or stiffen my muscles. But I have been practicing, these last two months, and I have improved a lot. My skin sings when it is touched. My hands happily assure other people that I see and acknowledge them by finding their shoulders or arms. My eyes seek other eyes like magnets. What I did at the rave was like a marathon, but really I had been training for it ever since my arrival in Spain.
Now, with five days left in Spain, I find myself thinking heavily of my return to American culture, where it seems we are in a perpetual drought of touch, and avoid eye contact when we can. I think it will feel cold, and lonely.
I recognize that there are reasons to take care with these things, perhaps especially with touch. I know that touch, when unwanted, can invade and harm, deeply. Sexual assault and child molestation are devastating. And I know that for children on the autism spectrum, touch is frequently more disturbing than comforting. And I know that everyone has different sensitivities and preferences. And I know to always get consent. And I agree that staring at strangers (and being stared at) is creepy.
But I mourn the degree to which fear of inappropriate touch/gaze has so distorted our perception in the United States that we cannot seem to distinguish the natural from the perverted. I am angry that because of perverts and child molesters should have the power to remove the sense of touch from our schools. Most of all, I think there is enormous capacity for healing in the acts of touching and seeing. I felt that last week. What if every white police officer had to look for five minutes into the eyes of the black man or woman he is facing before he could put his finger to the trigger or his hands to the throat? What if every congressman and woman began the day by sitting and holding the gaze, or the hands, of their political opponents? I think many of our wounds could begin to heal.
This is what I dream about, after a morning surrounded by music and color, movement, touch, and gaze. But the reality is that today, in my country, the language of touch is spoken by few (lovers, mothers, dancers). How I wish that we were more multilingual.
Apples. Laundry. High heels. Stones.
On Tuesday, July 7, I went to see Sol Picó’s W.W. (We Women), part of the GREC Arts Festival in Barcelona, at the Mercat de les Flors.
W.W. (We Women) investigates the status of women today worldwide. To make this piece, Sol Pico asked women artists and choreographers from many parts of the world to respond to the question:
“What does it mean to be woman?”
From this research, W.W. emerged.
I felt and wondered a lot of things going into this piece. Although I am a staunch feminist, I shy away from work that is overtly so because it so often seems too one-dimensional. I wondered whether I would feel preached at. Also, as a privileged, white, middle-class American woman from a progressive family, I am detached from the realities of violence and overt oppression many women in the world face. I wondered if I would see myself in the piece.
There are no curtains around the stage when I enter the theatre, allowing me to take stock of the scene before the performance begins. There are no wings and no curtains around the theatre. Sand covers the floor, and white military tents are set up onstage. I think of refugee camps, modern nomadic groups, and the book The Red Tent. Transient and ancient.
A stream of sand begins to waterfall from the ceiling. One by one, the women emerge from the central tent, dressed in bikinis and high heels, and walk a runway path to the stream of sand. They don’t walk like models, but like human beings. I take in each body as she walks.
Eight women enter: four musicians and four dancers.
Each body is strikingly unique. Of the dancers, Minako Seki is bird-boned and appears frighteningly breakable, with a curtain of hair that she can wield like a whip or retreat behind like a curtain. Julie Dossavi is muscled, dense, and earthy, with power coiled in her stance. Sol Picó has the compact and chiseled stature of a 1980s aerobics instructor. Shantala Shivalingappa’s svelt and graceful body holds surprising strength. I don’t remember the musician’s bodies so well, because I didn’t spend as much time looking at them.
The performers speak in many voices and languages. In addition to French, English, Spanish, Catalan, and Japanese, there are the precise languages of gesture and movement, and the voices of the violin and guitar. One woman sings.
It’s clear that although Sol Picó is credited as the choreographer of W.W., this is not “Sol Picó and Company.” Each woman is an artist in her own right, and a collaborator in the work.
The diversity of the performers reminds me that the world is bigger than me. Their individuality makes clear that within the broad strokes of culture, nationality, and religion each woman’s experience is different. The question “What does it mean to be a woman” is answered in different ways at different times. For example, Shivalingappa portrays a woman speaking with pride about a matriarchal culture she was raised in (but she speaks in English, so no one can understand her). Dossavi rants in French about the injustice of being given a bitter green apple as a prize for being the last one standing in a grueling dance-off. There are many subjective narratives, rather than a universal truth.
In time, as these experiences compile, themes and common threads emerge. Images and objects heavy with symbolism--apples, laundry, high heels, stones--anchor the stories and create a sense of continuity.
Take stones, for example.
There is violence in the piece. There are no men, and no external forces of oppression. All of the violence—explicit, symbolic, psychological—is inflicted by women, on women—on ourselves.
In one scene, the women silence each other. They put their hands over each other’s mouths, hold back the insistent motion of limbs, intercept the musicians hands that seek their instruments.
In another, which feels all too familiar, one woman, a cross between a drill-sergeant and a zumba instructor, goads the women to dance until they drop in a frenzied contest for the best bikini body.
One of the most disturbing sections of the piece is a duet between Julie Dossavi and Minako Seki. Dossavi embodies an abuser, her fury provoked by Seki’s insistent and childlike repetitions of a phrase. Seki’s bony frame is flung over and over again to the ground, and over and over again she persistently rises. The repetition is not defiant or triumphant; it is more like the repetitive bed-wettings of an anxious, fearful child. Out of her own control. At the end, Dossavi has tied Seki to a laundry line by her rope of hair. She hangs there, limbs flailing, a useless marionette.
I wonder about the gender of Dossavi’s character in this scene. Then I decide it doesn’t matter. Abuse is abuse. Sometimes women are the oppressor, sometimes the oppressed.
What else ties the piece together? Well, there is a lot of laundry.
Laundry lines span from the tents to the corners of the stage. When not dancing, the women are hanging, shaking, folding laundry. It is mostly quiet background music, except for one time when the crisp snap of a shirt takes center stage in a performance of domestic skill.
The women cling to their duties, never at rest. Always they are moving. Exhausted from the dance-a-thon contest, the women crumple to the ground one by one. When they can no longer dance they are given a broom to pick themselves off the ground and begin to sweep at the earth. They accept this task without question and sweep all the sand from the center to the edges with a resigned efficiency.
At the end of the piece, it seems the women will finally stop. They set a table for themselves: juicy apples and heaping plates of dirt—and call each other to it (“Por fin!”). With ceremony they fling a spoonful of dirt over their shoulders like a toast and take a bite of the apple. Just at that moment the roof springs a leak. Dust comes pouring down again from the ceiling. Someone springs to her feet to catch it with a bucket. The apples, half-eaten, remain on the stage.
Internalized violence. The demands of the mundane taking precedence over the beautiful or the extraordinary. The hands that never stop moving. Yes, that feels like woman.
I am surprised by how familiar it feels. Even if I may not have known the full depth of it, I can always recognize the taste: The inability to stop myself from doing the dishes, even when I come home exhausted and it’s not my mess. The strange self-punishing pride of standing so that others may sit when its your feet doing the hurting. The unexplainable rage I sometimes smother when I see other’s weakness, because it reminds me of my own. The petty stones I hurl at others and heap on myself. The sour apple I eat when what I really want is a slice of cake. And the wild nights of being pulled to dance by the full moon and the sadness I didn’t know I carried.
Is this it? Is that all? How sad.
I find myself thinking that there is something missing. I find myself thinking: Where are the mothers? Where is the comfort and safety in each other’s presences? Where is the joy? I have been blessed by friendships with incredible women. They are strong, giving, and compassionate. I hold these women close and dear to my heart, and I want to have this seen and celebrated.
There are moments that hint at it. They happen within the lit domestic haven of the tents; swapping stories and gossip in an easy companionship, quiet laughter, the undercurrent of hands on a drum. Or they happen in moments of rare solitude when women are pulled into dancing and their voices ring out suddenly and powerfully. But these moments are few and far between. More common is the sense of loneliness, competition, and isolation that keeps us from each other.
Maybe it’s impossible to tell it all. Maybe there just isn’t room. The performance is less than two hours. The stage is only so big. And pain is more interesting to watch than joy.
I leave the theatre feeling the weight of it all, not knowing what to do with it. I came with a group: five women and one man, and I am hungry to talk. I want to know if they saw themselves in the piece, too. But no one can seem to find the words. I can’t tell if my companions are afraid of diving in to the mess of emotions, or if they are genuinely baffled by the foreign language of post-modern performance and don’t know how to engage. (That happens).
I ride the metro home by myself, thinking of the women I would like to talk to at this moment. I wish they were here to listen, process, and share. Since they are not, the next best thing is to write it all down.
Since writing my first post about street art, I have become more and more fascinated by the dynamics of street art in Barcelona. The following is the first post in a three-part series investigating the relationship between street artists, the government, and the regulation of public space in Barcelona. In this post, I focus on the experience of the “Living Statues” of La Rambla.
No visit to Barcelona is complete without “meeting” one of Barcelona’s living statues, the frozen characters who line La Rambla enticing passersby to drop a coin and bring them to life. Some of these statues are fantastical: scaly, winged, horned, grotesque. Some are whimsical and bright. Some recall past ages and distant places, like a statue of Galileu with his telescope. All make their best effort to capture your imagination, your attention, and your coins.
The best artists convince the viewer that their statue is solid, immoveable, and permanent. They give the impression that the have always been there, and always will be. The goal of the artist is to disappear behind the statue; the better the artist, the more invisible he or she becomes.
Because of this, it is easy to perceive the living statues as an inevitable part of the La Rambla landscape, as stationary in time and place as a their stone and bronze counterparts. But to think this would be a mistake. The living statues of La Ramblas are only as permanent as the artists who bring them to life. And, between changes in governmental policies and the forces of commercialism on La Rambla, these artists find themselves on fragile footing.
Five years ago, La Rambla was open territory for street performers. Anyone could put together a costume and an act, stake out a corner of La Rambla, and try to gather a crowd. Likewise, it was open season for pickpockets, who preyed on the crowds of distracted tourists who would gather around But things are different now.
That’s because in 2011, the government of Barcelona implemented strict new policies to regulate the presence and activity of the human statues of La Rambla.
Under these regulations, there are 15 approved locations where the statues may set up their 1-meter wide displays. Each location has a morning shift and an afternoon shift, so there are slots for 30 statues total to work per year. The legal zone was condensed and relocated to the tail end of the Rambla, between the Metro station Drassanes and the Mirador de Colón.
Now, to work as a statue on La Rambla, you have to apply and be accepted for a license. This process involves proving your qualifications and creativity to the Barcelona government.
The steps of this process are explained in Spanish on the Ajuntament de Barcelona Website, here. Here is a summary in English.
First, you have to prove you are qualified:
1. You must have documentation of citizenship or legal residency
2. You must have both credentials and experience in the performing or visual arts (So with my B.F.A. in dance, I should be set, but your business degree won’t cut it. Ha!)
3. You must prove that you are not in debt to the City Council
Second, you have to submit three photographs of your character in full costume and makeup. That means you need to sink some serious time, creativity, and money into designing
Third, you have to write about your character. Rather like writing a personal statement for a college application, you have to justify who your character is, what makes them unique, and ultimately, why the government would want him/her/it on the streets.
Submissions are awarded points for their relationship to creativity, innovation, roots (I am not sure what that means), universality (or that either), and language.
If you make it through all of that, you have a chance at getting one of the 30 authorized slots. So you can now stand sweltering in the blazing heat for hours covered in body paint and a heavy costume so that tourists can point at you and take lots of photos. Oh, and as a thank you, you must pay the government an annual tax for the use of public space.
FOR THE GOVERNMENT
From the perspective of the government, regulating the statues is necessary in order to ensure a minimum of quality and avoid crowds of people that are targets for pickpocketing, according to the government representative cited in this news article from Europa Press.
But, to look at the bigger picture, I think this is part of the city’s larger effort to rebrand its image in order to attract tourism. This is a topic that has continually surfaced as I have been learning about government regulation of public art, and just having conversations with people who have lived here long enough to see the changes.
Apparently, tourism really started booming in 2005 or 2006, and that’s when the government decided it was time to clean up Barcelona. An enormous rebranding of the city began. Part of this effort was instituting something called the “Byelaw on Coexistence,” which as I understand it is largely a system of fines designed to strictly regulate behavior in public spaces. (Unfortunately, the Byelaw on Coexistence is hard for me to understand, because the full text is only available in Catalan).
So, the dramatic increase in regulation of the statues of Las Ramblas can be seen as an extension of the government’s attempt to burnish Barcelona's image for the sake of tourism.
FOR THE ARTISTS
When the new regulations were imposed, many artists protested against what felt like an arbitrary, unnecessary, and unrealistic imposition on their livelihoods.
As a result of the government's regulations, the number of performance artists who work La Rambla has dramatically decreased (though, one might argue, quality increased). Among the thirty who remain today, many are angry, concerned, or fearful of their futures. Since the laws were passed in 2011, some of the statues have broken their customary silence to speak out against the growing commercialization of La Rambla that threatens their livelihood.
UNA LUCHA DE INTERES
I witnessed one such clash of interests at an event in June called Taste of the Rambla. This four day event was a culinary festival that involved over fifty different restaurants and breweries. Organized by the organization Friends of La Rambla, and sponsored by corporations including Estrella Damm, Coca-Cola, and Hard Rock Café, this event took place on the Rambla de Santa Monica, the same location where the living statues have been relocated. Effectively, between the four days of the festival and the four days of set-up and tear-down, this festival put the street artists out of work for over a week.
Next to the Drassanes Metro Station, a group of artists who work as statues on La Ramblas had set up their own exhibition, including posters declaring La Rambla “For Sale” and news articles about previous injustices. I stopped and spoke with them for a while.
The woman I spoke with explained that this event epitomized the threat posed by commercial interests and the tourism industry to their livelihood, and to the “authentic” identity of the Rambla. Between the stricter government regulations and the power of corporate interests, the artists’ voices are barely heard.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
Will the statues on La Rambla disappear all together, crushed beneath an unstoppable commercialism and an oppressive governmental regime?
My guess is…no. The statues contribute a lot to the city’s eclectic, artsy vibe that makes it such a tourist magnet, and so the government will not want them to disappear altogether. But, it’s equally doubtful that La Rambla will return to being the eclectic free-for-all of the past, the “authentic” Rambla that the artists wish for. It doesn’t fit with the bright and shiny image of Barcelona that the government is moving towards.
What’s needed is a dialogue between the government, the street artists, and the commercial interests behind “Taste of La Rambla.” And this can only happen if the street artists can create a more united front.
This may actually be easier as a result of the stricter regulations. In the past, when there were hundreds of amateur performers roaming the streets, it would have been impossible to track everyone down and ensure that everyone’s voices were represented. But today, with an official roster of 30 registered artists, the boundaries of this group are defined and clear, and thus much simpler to organize.
Also, Barcelona’s recent elections may mean that the artist’s protests will fall on more sympathetic ears. One performer I spoke to at the Taste of La Rambla protest expressed hope that Ada Colau, Barcelona’s newly elected, activista left-wing mayor, will be more open to listen and negotiate than her predecessors.
Whatever happens, one thing is clear: if the artists of La Rambla want a future as solid as they appear, they will need to make themselves seen and heard. These artists can no longer afford to remain invisible.
The first of July caught me unawares, so today I decided to count the days.
It turns out five and a half weeks have passed, meaning 38 days, meaning only 24 days are left. Time is so slippery. At the beginning of the summer two months sounded like a pretty long time, and nine weeks sounded longer, but it turns out it's just 62 days and that's way too short of a time for a city like Barcelona. Now I am searching for ways to slow down time. Staying up later and later and sleeping less. Trying to be present on my walks to and from the dance studios. Reminding myself to leave the house as much as I can. Trying hard to avoid the internet, even though the news from home these past few weeks has been captivating.
Here are some of the ways I have been losing track of time, these last 38 days.
1. Learning Català
The Spain Study Abroad Program includes intensive language classes in Spanish or Catalan for two weeks. I decided to study Catalan, even though as a non-native Spanish speaker, I was advised against it (outside of Catalonia the language has little practical application and so most interns study Spanish). But I loved studying Catalan. It taught me more about the history and culture of Catalonia and helped me connect to Barcelona natives who feel strongly that “Catalonia is not Spain!” It’s also immensely helpful at Varium, where almost everyone speaks in Catalan when they have the choice. Even if I can’t participate in the conversations, at least now I can grasp what is going on. Also, I'm getting to know some Catalonian bands.
2. Basking in Barcelona. For FREE.
Barcelona is FULL of museums, and many of the museums have “free days”. Thanks to Barcelona, I am fully recovered from a bitter childhood aversion to museums. My favorite experience so far has been exploring a network of Roman ruins, literally buried under the city, at the MUHBA Museu Historia de Barcelona. It smells dim and dark and ancient, and my imagination was hard at work reconstructing buildings and listening to voices whispering from the 1st century, B.C.
From musicians on the metro to drum circles in parks to a free concert by the Barcelona Symphony orchestra on the beach at sunset.
Free green spaces
There are parks everywhere. Parc de la Ciutadella and a beautiful rose garden in my neighborhood are my favorites so far.
Is otherwise known as people-watching, and is my favorite way to pass the time.
Just going for a walk I am guaranteed to come across something gorgeous. Thanks, Modernisme.
I went to an exhibition of circus arts in a park one day. I walked on stilts, climbed aerial silks, watched graffiti artists at work, swung on a trapeze, and made friends with the inventor of the DapoStar, a whimsical fabric toy that looks like a star-shaped handkerchief and whirls like a flying saucer.
Here is a random collection of all these things and more.
4. Visiting Morocco
Last week, I went to Morocco. It’s so close to Spain but feels like a different world. I visited the coastal city of Tangier and then the blue oasis of Chefchaouen. I had my skin scrubbed off at a local hammam, a traditional Moroccan bathhouse. I fell victim to classic tourist blunders and paid too much for a shoddy “tour” of the Tangier medina upon arrival. I listened to the call to prayer, and the signal to break the Ramadan fast, resounding from the mosques of Chefchaouen while watching the sun go down.
I also learned a LOT more about Ramadan and marveled at the way entire cities can be on the same gruelingly disciplined regimine and still function. I tried two days of fasting, but couldn’t make it through to the end of either day without giving up and having some water. Needless to say, my compassion for the irate taxi driver on the last day was much higher than it would have been on a full stomach! I was most fascinated by the collective nature of religion in Morocco. I have never been in a place where religious practice—disciplined religious practice—was so definitively mainstream. I was in awe, even a little frightened, by the power of religion to shape the rhythms of the city, and the punishing self-discipline of the body. I wish I had more time in Morocco to meet real people and try to understand better. Being a tourist is a frustratingly superficial experience.
So, now what?
Now that I’m back from Morocco, I will be spending the last month here with heightened focus and intention. I want to dance more, and I want to see more dance. I want to talk to more people. And I want to spend more time on the beach.
My schedule is a little more fixed for this month, and the structure it brings is nice. I will help with the children’s camps at Varium every day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. In the evenings, from 8-10 p.m. I can take more dance classes at Varium: contemporary and hip hop with a variety of teachers. In between, I will cook food to save money, write, and brave the sticky heat to explore more corners of the city. On weekends, I think I will stay in Barcelona, continuing to absorb. I thought about making trips to other parts of Spain, but I can’t get enough of this particular city, and I don't want to leave!
Also, this month is the Grec Festival, a huge arts festival of theatre, dance, and music. I’m going to take in as much of it as I can afford, and then share some of it here with you.