One of the things I most cherish about having an interdisciplinary practice is the opportunity to think about how ideas from one context can enhance another. I spent the past week on a residency at Mount Tremper Arts for iLAND (Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature, and Dance), as part of a collaboration called Fieldwork: Seed Dispersal with Jan Mun and Emily Drury, which investigates relationships between the migration of seeds and of people. I also found myself wondering how the embodied learning experiences I had there can be transmitted to humanities contexts.
Our time at Mount Tremper was filled with activity, but for this post, I'll focus on an experience I had the opportunity to document, an exploration called Lawn Score that Emily led based on improvisations around everyday movement that we worked on in the studio. Because Jan and Emily were new to movement improvisation, I asked them to improvise movements based on actions they were already familiar with, and Emily focused on weeding as a significant part of her daily life as the gardener for the MacDowell Colony.
Lawn Score occured on this field:
with this group of people, and the Mount Tremper resident house behind them:
What started to me as an undifferentiated green space became utterly transformed through Emily's score. This is iLAND director Jennifer Monson tracking dandelion and white clover across the field, as other group members also tracked the weeds.
These investigations resulted in evocative configurations of people traversing the lawn in varying ways, as they crawled, stood, and stooped as part of their tracking:
Once tracked, the group was asked to move through patches of a single weed as quickly as possible, which resulted in more dynamic actions and configurations:
What can humanists who for the most part work with text learn from such embodied explorations? The experiences of the past week remind me that learning happens through many routes, and a lot can be gained from engaging a diverse set of learning modes. On the first day of my class this semester, I already took my students on a walk that highlighted quiet and inspiring places to read and write on Cornell's campus, and asked them to pair up and introduce themselves to each other while walking. I noticed that this exercise has created intimacies among the class that I still notice. In future, I want to engage my students in more activities that tie their reading to actions such as walking, tracking, and finding. I suspect that teaching Cecilia Vicuña's Instan, itself an interdisciplinary work, is amenable to such activities.
Another consistent thought I had in my time at Mount Tremper is that academics spend too much time sitting in uncomfortable chairs in airless rooms, and that it would aid us to find more opportunities to engage with our bodies as we learn. I for one would love to hear a talk given to a small group of people while on a walk or in the process of tracking or collecting. During my time at Mount Tremper, we took walks as we observed how water flowed onto different surfaces, walks at night without flashlights, and walks that tracked variations in temperature. These experiences not only led to new insights, but were so much more pleasurable and conducive to learning than sitting in one spot for a long time.
Another activity I was able to document was when Jan and Emily led us on a walk to collect plant material that can be incorporated into paper that Jan has been making, as our collaboration has been contemplating methods of seed dispersal. We ended up collecting some material that couldn't be easily incorporated into paper, but were fascinating just the same:
As a group, we then layered the plant and seed material with pulp made from abaca, a paper-making fiber derived from the bark of a banana plant indigenous to the Philippines. I was able to photograph the process before the paper dried on the screen:
The informal conversations and interactions occasionaed by this activity led to many discussions regarding topics that bumped against and into concerns in the humanities, such as the metaphors and rhetorics that seeds and humans have in common. There was much talk over the weekend about valuing indigeneity in plants, as well as the use of words such as "invasive" or "opportunistic" that take on other connotations in relation to humans. It became striking to us how concepts of colonization, assimilation, and integration are common to both botanical and human settings, which led to questions regarding transfers of metaphor that remain unexamined, and ways that such metaphors affect both human and plant perception.
I feel as though my understanding of these issues has been greatly enhanced by them being raised in contexts where bodies were situated in varied ways, and where methods of learning were multidimensional. I plan to incorporate some of these methods in my future teaching and learning.
Lawn Score Participants: Emily Drury, Jennifer Munson, Megan Kendzior, Julia Handschuh, Elliott Maltby, Paloma McGregor, Christine Hou, Lailye Weidman, and Lizzie Ingraham
Papermaking Participants: Jan Mun, Jennifer Munson, Lailye Weidman, Christine Hou, and Emily Drury