2017 COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT RESIDENCY:
Lead Artist Julie Tolentino
In 2017, HMD’s Bridge Project created a new program, the Community Engagement Residency (CER), to provide sanctuary and opportunity for artists who identify as coming from the margins. The CER extends HMD’s deep commitment to supporting Bay Area artists. Core values of the residency are artist autonomy and flexibility, the intersection of art making and activism, and building community among artists. From its inception, The Bridge Project has had a focus on lineage. The CER cultivates a different kind of lineage—the lateral lines of influence that sustain creative community.
Julie Tolentino was the first CER recipient. Below are reflections in four parts on Tolentino’s residency through writing by Tolentino, contributions from participating artists and collaborators, images, and video. Part 1 looks at Tolentino’s studio practices with a small cohort of other artists; Part 2 looks at a.u.l.e., the installation that grew out of those studio practices and was a part of the 2017 Bridge Project, Radical Movement: Gender and Politics in Performance; Part 3 features reflections from the artists who were intimately involved with Tolentino in group process; and Part 4 considers .bury.me.fiercely., the residency’s culminating performance event.
“How does my practice intersect with my wish to be with others?”
Tolentino began her residency by working intensively with a small group of other artists, selected by Tolentino herself, to share art practices and create work. Tolentino’s decision to work with a cohort of artists came out of her practice and archival focus on “artist-to-artist relationships, including artist (as reader, writer, activist, advocate, maker, and thinker) concerns, needs i.e. fatigue from long-term work in the field, political entanglements, community concerns, and the drive to explore how aging plays into our experience of involvement.” (Tolentino)
Shortly before Tolentino’s residency began, she returned to her native Bay Area after a thirty-year absence. Her decision to work with other artists was inspired in part by her wish to connect to the city and local community after navigating an intense period of caregiving and loss. She imagined working one-to-one and in group settings with other artists “to promote a head and body space to explore dependency as creative opportunity, rather than as a form of degradation or lack.” (Tolentino)
Invited artists of the cohort included Larry Arrington, Maurya Kerr, Xandra Ibarra, and Amara Tabor Smith. Each artist had invited Tolentino into their studios prior to this invitation. Tolentino formalized these relationships with the support of the residency, acknowledging the artists' roles as cultural leaders and beloved Bay Area performers. The idea of the gathering, in Tolentino’s words, was to “focus on individuals who often give, lead, create for others,” as well as to “bring us together in a supported environment to think about language, bodies, movement.” Tolentino temporarily named this cohort “The Hard Corps.”
Tolentino held a monthly meeting with the full cohort as well as individual sessions with each artist, alongside time to parse her own practice. In working with the artists, Tolentino drew directly from her own archive and studio practices. The first five months were, in Tolentino’s words, “somatic and exploratory - focused on movement, experimentation, getting to know, while also introducing other ways of working en-studio, with materials, scent, scores, touch, textures, habits, good and not-necessarily good ideas.” Below, Julie writes more about the group work:
[My intention is] to focus on their/our shifting and exhausted bodies, minds, and oft neglected or unarticulated (= time needed to study one’s own) practices. I try languages and articulation through practical anatomical exploration and movement. I offer customized and generative exploration, improvisational, and meditation techniques as a critical link towards intimacy and intimate community. We express the difficulty of “getting to know” due to the incredible feat of all of the things they do, we do, some do: freelance teaching, art making, grant writing, work with clients, dancers, artists, administrators, curators, partners, friends, colleagues, as well as our community efforts in the streets, the sheets (ha, yes!), and personal responsibilities along with the realness (and theoretical renderings) of debt, expenditure, dependency, familial bearings, and need. Though utopian-sounding, The Hard Corps allows for a grounded “dependent immersion” into the <____> characterized by the offer of the invaluable: Time, Attention, Depth of Study, Exploration, Bodywork, Support, Ranting, and Listening – including finding oneself unsure or too sure or shoreless. Working amongst colleagues and fierce feminist art makers – we acknowledge how our work is, achingly generated and enacted through the body…I am trying to respond to something. Path-opening as leadership, a being WITH or being IN … as opposed to be about. I am thinking about how we openly cite each other as way into or as a new canon. I am trying to learn if somatics or allowing for plain temporality to de-colonize my practice. To bring me or us back to the outside, to where I don’t know what is going to happen – and how difficult that is going to feel.
In Tolentino’s words: “I am thinking through my decades-long practice in performance and as a defector of dance. I don’t want to accidentally make a dance. What I aim for is environmental – a kind of experience that makes space beyond a narrative – yet offers experience and risk. It’s movement-driven, but not traditionally choreographic. In many ways, I aim to de-center the individual body by focusing on the body as a container of history, relations and experience outside of the canon. ” Tolentino’s project with The Hard Corps was not geared toward the spectacle of performance, but towards the idea of "intra-dependency" in a lab environment. In talking about the work, Tolentino says she is playing with Karen Barad’s term “intra-dependent” as a way to devise entangled experiments to consider both nature as well as culture in transmissions.
Studio time offered the artists close readings of their engagement with a web of improvisational scores. Below is some language that I caught while observing one of The Hard Corps’ group monthly studio sessions. The “catching” practice that Tolentino refers to invited the artists to physically capture and embody not only the movement of other people in the room, but also their location, relationship, and energetic imprint: an intimate and immediate form of transmission. The “whispered she” score invited the artists to describe what they saw out loud in the third person “she.” In this practice, the artists agreed to be identified as “she.” In this score, in Tolentino's words, “'she' is used not as a narrative, but as sound and a somatic carving for the mouth, i.e. a shushing, a hiss, puckered lips, a kiss."
All language in italics is Tolentino’s.
even though you are actively looking, be super easy with your eyes
what it means to go with a body…to accept… to refuse/infuse …to question…and to re-connect back to the source, your source, as resource
experience this catching as a kind of citation
[re: the whispered “she”]
a score of the mouth
allow it to be nonsensical
allow yourself to be a gaggle of voices (aka allow yourself (singular) to be a gaggle of voices (multiple)
we’re using the “she” not for the naming pronoun but for its sound
consider listening less and talking more to create more generosity for the fieldwork, the ground – with, and for, others
a little bit more tempo
lots of entanglement
remember if you are touching,there is an intention to offer while also one to receive
notice what happens when you go in and out of focus
allow a very small movement to be a choice
it doesn’t have to be “morph-y”
leading & offering
speed, go for speed
who can make it go faster? can you be the person to make it go faster? moving faster speaking faster good good faster faster like really fast –(after several minutes)-- and freeze
let the thing settle off of you
let the thing absorb into you
now with your eyes closed retrace some of the movements…the decisions that other people gave you and that you received, you took on. how they are now a part of your Self.
like a freeze frame: I remember this. Stop.
[Tolentino places pieces of fabric in the space on the floor]
when you encounter the thing let’s go into describing the thing to itself, using its shape to help you move
keep yourself super focused, like in the real
still trying to smell
and catch keep catching
see if you can get someone to catch you
keep it simple
and more offering
as much catching as you possibly can
catch more people
see if you can catch the most of each person
what can you receive within this time? what can you give away?
The dense, interlocking scores that Tolentino facilitated, in combination with the intensity of her live coaching, functioned, from my view, as a stamina practice for the artists that required as much mental attention as physical. The scores also offered the artists the opportunity to shapeshift, to work with choice, to activate many senses at once, to work with speed, observation, clarity and intensity. The complexity of the scores was an effective tool for challenging the artists’ default settings as movers and performers. Through months of working in this way, Tolentino and the group built a shared vocabulary to reference in subsequent practice and performance.
Questions that Tolentino held throughout this group studio work included, in her words:
What is and who offers sanctuary?
What do I dare need?
How do we work within the wide abstract of words, worlds and of the ongoing stratification of race, sex, gender, and class?
Am I able to facilitate a space of the unknown – that includes the vulnerability of being part of the group?
How can I produce artist and audience agency through such methods as optimistic refusal, aesthetic geometry, awkward affect, and time-based discovery?
What matters to (each of) us?
What is my role with or for each artist? Do these interactions constitute community-building?
Practice in Performance: a.u.l.e.
Nine months into their year together, Tolentino, with artists Maurya Kerr, Amara Tabor Smith, Xandra Ibarra, and Larry Arrington, presented a.u.l.e. ,a practice in performance that also featured Tolentino's long-term colleagues Debra Levine and Scot Nakagawa as writers embedded in the installation. This event took place on November 12, 2017 at the Joe Goode Annex as part of HMD’s 2017 Bridge Project, Radical Movements: Gender and Politics in Performance.
Here is Tolentino’s description of the event:
-an un-named lived experience*
& being with another seems to go by very fast. so much information. so much to tend to think about and the how of time talking thru how we resist, breakaway then give away. sensing bringing forward slinking back. why and what? stutter gasp. wait. what i wanted to say (because some fumbly dimming) and what that is: to be interested in. drop narrative like how there can be a split in the because. so description does not have a together & becomes again. the title perspectives. thin lines might be imagining the experts - leaning, convening and reverie and skins and what’s missing and all those rising - break - to see the small axis as axes. rushing to get it right. hard corps proposition stained and streaming. herbal opaque judge and unrecognizable currents and cruelty with utopia’s little edges. the separate conversations radiate dark root bodies & instead an aural portal, a vibe. or two or three or four or five or seven of us with each other’s other/s. All together. All a part of this.
*from eve kosofsky-sedgwick
a.u.l.e. was a group durational event that took place in low light over a period of three hours. Elements of the installation included Kerr, Arrington, Ibarra and Tabor-Smith activating an interlocking set of movement scores developed both individually and in groups through the preceding months of studio work with Tolentino. The performers arranged and operated rolling lights on dimmers and experimented with improvising with each other using body, sound, text, movement, and materials that included, in the words of Debra Levine, dozens of inanimate objects “not directed toward capital consumption”: (p)leather, thread, dead plants, herbs, scents, a light box with hundreds of slides of the artists taken from their studio work and sound by Patrick March and Tolentino. The audience was free to move, stand or sit anywhere in the space. Tolentino facilitated the entire experience and intervened in the installation by reading text, layering sound. and composing the space. She was both inside and outside of the work, participating from the margins and listening to the work from its embodied insides.
Writers Scot Nakagawa and Debra Levine, embedded in the installation, wrote in response to the action and in conversation with each other. Their writings were projected on the walls of the space in real time. Their conversation situated the performance in San Francisco’s history, referenced their shared history in ACT UP and brought other voices into the room, including citations from Adrienne Rich, Amiri Baraka, Adam Smith, and their own parents.
Some excerpts from Debra Levine ("DL") and Scot Nakagawa’s ("SN") writings from inside the installation follow. These excerpts are from a much longer conversation that occurred over several hours; the below excerpts appear in a different sequence than in the original installation.
SN: This room is like a cave. The light casts shadows. I see and feel this space in that way. The text on the wall feels to me like pictures of what we’re thinking here in our corner, me and Deb. We two sitting here in the corner, trying to not make sense of what we’re seeing.
DL: Is this pace claustrophobic? Because the space feels pretty good. But the pace – how can we continue with this tension and repetition? I mean, we have been tightening our sphincters, mouths, thighs, knees feet toes to hold in these bloody messes forever. That pace is an endless meditation that never allows release. Is there an aesthetic form that tells us this and and and something else? Making a body of with an escape valve that also emits steam that vanquishes those little and large experiences of diminishment of debility of crackle and splinter?
SN: My work for the last few decades has involved being in constant contact with broken people, or at least people who acknowledge their brokenness, speak to it, sometimes even revel in it. They feel to me like shards of glass, pieces of a broken mirror, with edges so sharp that few would try to put the pieces back together. I find myself struggling to make them whole, and then, over and over, find that the whole is not greater than the sum of these parts. Maybe the pieces don’t need to be put back together, maybe they need to be rearranged.
DL: Can we regroup into a large movement? What are the relationships between these movements that transfix us and political or social movements? Can we extract a new form of social organization from these engagements with objects, with our partial, obstructed and distracted viewings? Or maybe we just decide to fuck it all, watch as one, stop reading.
SN: I swing from adrenaline inducing clashes with the world to hope to despair to…I sometimes think I live this way in order to avoid the unfriendly ghosts that haunt my life, that haunt every life, though I’m only familiar with my own.
DL: I think of Julie as mapping out an entire environment so that everyone is aware of their terms of engagement. But she also creates environments where you might risk something different happening to you.
SN: Where does the audience fit in performance? Doesn’t that seem to be a big, looming question here in this space of improvisation, with an audience that is part of the process, set pieces, dark and light surfaces.
DL: Julie arranges a space of performance to approach the ways in which radical empathy is an act. An act with consequences.
Tolentino was interested in “how performance and writing might be relieved of the need to 'narrate' the other and instead how text interplays with all bodies as they draft, collide, impose and deeply engage in each other's efforts.”
Below is video footage from a.u.l.e.:
a.u.l.e. was a provocative, shifting landscape of metaphors about engagement, exchange, leading, following, and being seen. Interdependence and communication among the artists emerged in layers across the space. Throughout the process of bringing the group’s studio practices into a performance context, Tolentino balanced her own aesthetic desires and the performer’s choices.
There was a lot going on in a.u.l.e. Tolentino says, "I am clearly interested in the excess." After the event, Tolentino reflected:
There IS incredible dance (i.e. somatic choices, writings with bodies, interactions, decisions, movement and feeling) even when it doesn’t “look” like dance. This project is not to demonstrate what we traditionally know/expect as excellence in performance. We propose our width and the potential generosity of our labor. Work including its own detritus, the hidden, the missed, the rambling or the things that may ultimately destruct, the things unsustainable. Like The Body. Like Each Other’s Presence. The writing’s rambling and the spaces between the video edits and the things that only the performers and the people who received those moments experienced at the moment – that is where the work actually lives. This is the “live” of live performance. This is the “lived experience” that we are pointing to through the title.
I am very pleased with how the artists worked within the space and time within the form we used, the mess, their bodies, our voices. We are all so porous. Evocative collisions happened in the room. I am truly interested in the spaces of these dependencies, losses, misses, offerings, surprises. I truly hope that was palpable in the live work.
Reflections from The Hard Corps
Amara Tabor Smith
Wood floor sunlightFake fur covers me/weLike dead cloakFallingPush pullMauryaBonesWe roll down slowlyMissing partsFormNo formFallingTogetherXandraCatchingLegsLipsShouldersAssesWhispers,“she..she..she…”LarryCatchingWe fallingBack ward wallSpittingSpittingSlow motionclub dance in shadowsForget the cardsDisco upside downcast a light on a bitchEvery slideIlluminates fleshTraced in black“and I ask myself, and I ask myself…”Hide meAnd we write our namesWith eyeballs
To the beat
In her response, Ibarra attempted to free herself from language by expressing only structure in various arrangements. In keeping with this intention, she diagrammed phrases, sentences, and lost words.
standing outside + above my body being dragged to the river to die, to be left, to leavea woman dragged to the rivera girl always a girlcan see leaves + sky + earthcan feel air + dirt, nakedness, hair collecting twigs and clods like a dragnetcould dragging ever be love —full bodied get me bodied lungful gulping cold air like it’s gold screaming glittery fuck me hopeful love?I used to judge my hopefulness by how much I would fight the (always white) man coming to abduct me:fight equaled hope, surrender — no hoperevealing the thing to itself (is love)+this flickering thing (hope) as my rhythmhow to be dragged:by limbby hairby socketby viscera (with hook)— I am hook, can be hooked ® liquid, unfurling, becoming beam particle ball, circling into, curling unto, crossing bonesbreak open or bloom:hook + hoof + heftheft is such a beautiful word — the heft of my heart becomes you, me becominglight seeping out of my cunt like stinky stars, out of my nose (bloodybattle), from my mouth (frothing,foaming at the teeth oh rabid dog), from my ears (boredwith holes, scabby deaf), between my skeleton ribs (beautifullybony)witness spark meet gasoline (sucha love story)going down with larry — insistence, argument, conversation, love, fuck, missing each otherI find her by her smell[my love, I could share that weighted intimacy with you for hours, days, years, lives]our hard corpsslips into support, space, time, touch, unknowingnessexists away from the white gaze to turn our black brown gazes in (to each other)interrogates self + communityis dependency, need, generosity (but community always disappoints)(I was number five)this is number three:territory is that which is mine. belonging to of within without. mark it, cut.*and the world goes on.Icarus flew + died andthe world went along with itsdoggy ways and horse sashays.love is a body. has a body. I am we are.because the curvature reveals the straight. the loud the soft. the hard the groove.[*the beauty is in the cut: what was one is now two: more edge, fray, surface, jag]one big slow beat ® constrained fasttwo big slow eyes close exaggerated xthree ® constrained fast looking forward¯(mouth letters [of me])(M is a palindrome: line curve curve line)three big slow eyes open adding fingers of an otherI shape-make when in doubt[remember, she is simply feeding me back my own desires, awakening in me the mischievous, contentious, under-accessed]I am the whore under a blanketREMEMBER TO CHANGE MIND AND INTERUPT SELFallow permission + NOknown ® unknownforgetting > reflectionmaple, yarrow, violet, mimosa — (don’t absorb) (nourish yourself) (remember this) (root down)I remember low darkness, unknowing, generous room, whispering to and needing her.[baby baby, whisper to me I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE WAY YOU TREAT ME]
End of Residency project: .bury.me.fiercely., 2018
Following a.u.l.e., Tolentino had a solo working period in which she returned to her own work. This period culminated in .bury.me.fiercely, presented at The Lab on February 18, 2018, in partnership with HMD's Bridge Project and SFMOMA’s Open Space / Limited Edition, with Tolentino and fellow performers Stosh Fila aka Pigpen, Cirilo Domine, and Marc Manning, live sound.
Through this final public event in her residency, Tolentino integrated months of group work with her longstanding solo performance practices. .bury.me.fiercely. implemented several of Tolentino’s “signature methods: durational performance, movement, exploration of abstraction and minimalism with aims to seduce the project into its barest presentational form.” (Tolentino). Materials from Tolentino’s archive were present: plants, boiling herbs, thread, micro-environments built from fabric, text projected on the walls, the obscured body, the activation of non-visual senses, and the interplay of action and rest. The work was also derived from the inner workings of The Hard Corps. .bury.me.fiercely. featured video using the names of the artists from The Hard Corps and light box images that lit not only the slides of the individual artists, but also some of the more ephemeral material from the group’s process, including artist writings and scents created from the group’s collaboration with herbalist Jennie Patterson. The work offered the body as “a landscape, a container of record, and a living archive through the lens of raced, illegible, and tethered lives.” (Tolentino)
In .bury.me.fiercely., Tolentino began moving alone in conversation with projected video of the names of The Hard Corps artists. Ghosts swirled through her body. A huge wig obscured her face. As I imagined her “catching” the remembered bodies of Kerr, Arrington, Tabor-Smith and Ibarra, I remembered Tolentino's words from rehearsal earlier in the year:
what it means to go through a body
and to re-connect back to the source
In the event’s next section, bathed in red light, Tolentino and Pigpen/Stosh pierced each other’s faces with needles around which they wound a web of thread. They gently pulled away from each other, still entangled. They began to bleed. Here, connection to another person was acute, intimate and painful. Again, Tolentino's words from rehearsal:
lots of entanglement
As they removed the needles and Tolentino took time to wipe the blood from her face, I remembered more of Tolentino's words from The Hard Corps studio practice earlier in the year:
let the thing settle off of you
let the thing absorb into you
Tolentino moved to a nest made from black plastic and covered her skin in coconut oil. The blood and the oil mixed together. She then walked to a different part of the room and entered into a black pleather sac. Only her edges were occasionally visible. She moved in that space for a long time, unseen, surfacing on the other side of something deeply felt.
Thank you to the many individuals who made Julie Tolentino’s Community Engagement Residency meaningful, including Larry Arrington, Xandra Ibarra, Maurya Kerr, Amara Tabor-Smith, Debra Levine, Scot Nakagawa, Stosh Fila aka Pigpen, Marcela Pardo Ariza Jennye Patterson, Bill Basquin, Cirilo Domine, Marc Manning, Dena Beard, Claudia La Rocco, Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa and Bhumi Patel. Thank you to The Lab, Joe Goode Annex, Open Space, Limited Edition, and ODC Theater for supporting the work. HMD’s 2017 Community Engagement Residency was made possible in part by a grant from the California Arts Council’s Artists Activating Communities grant.
Debra Levine, Queer Pleasures: A True Story About Two People, Hemispheric Institute
Andre Lepecki, Exhausting Dance: Performance and the Politics of Movements, Abingdon and New York: Routledge 2006
Tara Hart, How Do You Map the Sky?, New Museum, November 2013
Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, Entangled Vulnerabilities, SFMOMA's Open Space, March 2018
Julie Tolentino's .bury.me.fiercely., The Lab, February 18, 2018
Hentyle Yapp, To Punk, Yield and Flail: Julie Tolentino’s Etiolations and the Strong Performative Impulse, GLQ, A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, January 2018
Performance Art World, Interview with Alejandro Segade, June 2010
.bury.me.fiercely., The Lab, February 2018