Art & Peace-Making Through the Lens of Embodiment

I recently attended a discussion lead by Roberto Gutiérrez Varea at the Red Poppy Art House in the Mission district of San Francisco. Varea’s “research and creative work focuses on the intersection of performance and peace-building in the context of social conflict and state.” (FB Red Poppy) He has co-authored & co-edited a two-volume anthology “Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict,” amongst myriad of other efforts, achievements and accolades. We listened and learned about the experiences of people in the places he visits and his often intensely intimate, difficult and inspirational work; Caleb Duarte, current artistic co-director of the art house, suggested that we consider how we might apply such principles and practices to our own work, as well as to the current climate of unrest & change here in the Mission. He offered what it would mean to think of the Red Poppy itself as “Artist.” Later, Todd T Brown, founder, asked how we could apply Roberto’s approach to art/peace-making specifically to what is being created at The Red Poppy. 

What follows is my ever shifting response~


“Weave into the story that which was interrupted by conflict.”  


“The artist is the context provider, not the content provider. This creates a space where others can bring their own meaning…such spaces become ‘sites of transfer.’ ” 

 “The tare in the social fabric was that trust had disintegrated. (People were immobilized).”

—Roberto Gutiérrez Varea
(from the authors’ memory during Varea’s presentation on “Acting for Peace.”  They may not be verbatim)


“An object will remain known or unknown according to the expectations and conditions of consciousness.”  

—Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 4:17


My own work is grounded in the body; it is about the living relationships between the body, environment (internal & external) and public space. It is about the spaces between what is seen, heard and felt, and that which is unseen, unheard, unfelt.


When I consider the Poppy, or any space that focuses, alters and redirects awareness, as ‘Artist’, I think first of an actual embodied artist–I think of the body. I imagine the Poppy as a group of systems, sequences, rhythms and forms, which is itself a contained, shifting environment (internal), and one that affects and is affected/created by it’s relationship to the neighborhood/world environment (external). Like a body made of cells with semi-permeable membranes, the Poppy is sometimes open, sometimes locked; it has a limited physical capacity, it is ‘specialized’ for the arts but flexible in it’s definition. It is a holder of space, a site of experience, which, like an artist embodied, is and is not constrained by it’s literal footprint.


Who engages with this body? How does it support itself? Who is and what activities are welcome here? Thrive here? Which are not? Who feels they belong? How would it’s boundaries be described? How does it maintain equilibrium, flexibility, health? Where might there be stagnation? How does it restore and vitalize itself? What external factors support or constrain it?


Embodiment is one way of knowing. It is through physical movement that we perceive and act.* It is first through movement and touch that we develop our own nervous systems. Allowing myself to oversimplify, the process of developing is one of sequenced movements (common to all infants from conception to walking) and creative responses, and can continue throughout our lifetime. The relationship and sequencing of such varied internal movements (of our muscles, fluids, nerves, viscera, etc), in response to both internal & external stimuli, constitute and/or frame a great deal of what we know about the world.


We know this intuitively. “I can feel it in my bones.” “It hit me in my gut.” “That shook her to her core.” “His heart aches.” These sentences are descriptive of real physiological states, i.e. internal movements. All emotions evoke—and likewise are evoked by—correlating physical movements, gross or subtle. Moise Feldenkrais once posed a challenge: lay down and relax as completely as possible, and then, without consciously moving a single muscle, become enraged and maintain an enraged state—no tiny movements are allowed around your eyes, throat, tongue, belly, middle ear, etc. It’s near impossible. We move. We act. Beyond knowing anger, can you imagine knowing anything without moving? Imagine communicating. Learning. Loving. Art making. Peace making.


As we become more and more skilled at feeling/being sensitive to all of those movements, we also become aware of the spaces between the sensed, the directly known. In doing so, we discover regions, possibilities and relationships previously overlooked. Knowing becomes discovery. This process of becoming acquainted with—both intellectually & experientially—our (actual/physical) responses to varied stimuli and to the sequencing and relationships of our various responses to one another, is one way of realizing our embodiment as a means of knowing.


If embodiment is a way of knowing ourselves it is also a resource for understanding and effecting things outside of ourselves. Roberto discussed this when he spoke about the importance of the artist’s presence as part of the work. In considering peacemaking, he stressed how different this presence is in effecting change when compared to an ‘art object’ that has been made and exhibited. This idea of presence was later interwoven with the concept of relationship ‘building’, using the example of golf(!). Essentially golf, whether played between business partners, politicians or friends, was discussed as a way to be present together: a generosity with time (and money) while physically moving through space together, playing within variable uncertainties, united in a joint discipline that is that is mutually acknowledged as valuable. In short, it’s a shared creative act. These cohort sessions are that. Likewise, all of Roberto’s examples of peacemaking projects involved this element of presence, chance and ‘journey-making’, along with either an existing or discovered acknowledgement of it’s ability to set the stage for and effect real change.


If embodiment is a way of knowing, learning and creating self, it is also a way of knowing and learning ‘other,’ and through shared embodied experience a way of co-creating each other. This connection through the body is one way to dispel often ‘uncertain knowledge’ (amongst myriad factors) that leads to violence. If embodiment is a way of knowing and we continue with the play of imagining the Poppy as an artist, as a body, as a sight of transfer, then is it interesting to ask: how could the neighborhood come to further know itself & ‘others’—it’s many varied experiences, processes, habits, actions, and all the spaces between—through the Poppy?


The work I am doing amplifies a live heartbeat to a diverse public. The heart is a common and unique denominator that transcends so many other differentiable signifiers—color, gender, age, nationality, language, experience, socio-economic status, intellectual acuteness, deaf, dumb, blind, any-ness. Amplifying a heartbeat gives people a direct experience of their own embodiment by first prompting them to listen outward to someone else’s beat. To perceive the heart—to feel it beat, to hear it beat, to have your rhythm literally sync with another by being with another’s— is to perceive what Paolo Virno deems a relation between “the highest possible degree of communality or generality and the highest possible degree of singularity.” Physiologically, listening to someone’s heartbeat has the same effects on the nervous system as looking someone in the eye. It dampens our stress response and elicits behavior conducive to social engagement (vagus nerve).


As I listened to the discussion about the Mission—which included the topics of eviction, youth and violence, the lack of anyone in the room being ‘from’ the Mission, the importance of conversation, the potential action of bringing together ‘we’ & ‘others,’ understanding ‘WE’ before we engage with other, the assumptions, projections & expectations that come when considering such subjects, as well as acknowledging that which was not/could not be said—I wondered if adding the common denominator of the embodiment to the mix could be one way to “weave into the story that which was interrupted by conflict” and to support the ever evolving Poppy.

* (It is also through corollary stillness that we do all the above, but that’s for another post!)