Holly Craig: I’m Holly. The piece that I have chosen to describe, it’s from my own practice. It’s part of a work that I am in development with another collaborator of mine at the moment called Mind’s Eye that explores dance performance as a participatory experience that people embody and listen to, through description, instead of visually watching something. So I’ve pulled a little excerpt from one of the scores in that work:
I twist again, anchored by the ceiling, and I find myself no longer touching ferny canopy, but hard, confining wall of rock and stone. I find myself in a cave. It is small. From reaching its limits overheads, I sink down and crouch. My left arm cradles me, my stomach part of me, while my right arm crates and hinges out in space. It waits there in stillness, and then scoops down towards the ground and in towards me. Repeated over and over, knuckles sometimes slightly scraping along the solid ground.
Hillary Goidell: I’m Hillary, and I use photography, so in order to track movement, I look through the lens. And the one anecdote that came to mind was work that Fayen orchestrated with Georgina, and Shelley Lasica and Bryan Phillips at SFMOMA. It was the Wayfinding Sequence and they were traveling around this double spiral made by Richard Serra. My role in that if I described it, from my point of view, was entering. Georgina entered on one end, Shelley enters on the other, and then I follow their trajectories one and then the other, and then their crossing paths. And every now and then I mirror the gestures. I skirt around Bryan who is doing the sound recording. And suddenly I find myself alone, and actually, just stopping and listening to the space, feeling the texture of the sculpture. And I stay there for quite a while not documenting anything, but my own embodied experience in the sculpture. And then suddenly, I realised that I’m panicking, like a lost child in a playground, because I have no idea where anyone else is in this double spiral sculpture. I start running, and I’m running around the sculpture, trying desperately to find someone. An amazing thing to get lost and found again, and quite an embodied experience with them.
Georgina Kleege: This is Georgina. What came to mind is a video clip from a movie made in the 1950s. It’s a movie made about Helen Keller, a documentary, and it features a visit where she visits the Martha Graham Dance Company. It’s significant to me for two reasons. Helen Keller looms large in my mind, because I wrote a book about her, and I seem unable to escape her. And Martha Graham looms large because I studied in her school when I was a teenager, and her technique was the primary technique that I learned… The video is sort of about what access looked like. So you have this disabled celebrity who shows up and the beneficent choreographer dancer, takes her in hand and shows her around and so there are images of her – of Keller – touching dancers, you know, running her hands up and down the bodies of dancers. There’s an image of Keller standing in the middle of the studio and a circle of dancers are circling around her. And she’s sort of waving her hands in the air as if feeling the passage. But the image that I really like is there were musicians there and Keller often would touch someone playing the piano or someone playing the violin or something as if she would feel the vibrations. And so there’s a timpanist playing a big drum. And Graham leads Keller to the drum, and takes her hand and moves it very close to the drum, but doesn’t touch the drum. From the way it’s been described to me, she kind of performs what’s a foundational movement in the Graham technique, which is a contraction, a pelvic tilt. So she moves her upper body forward, and at the same time, she’s sort of guiding Keller’s body forward, and they’re in perfect unison, you know. And so she’s guiding her hand forward, and then when it’s done, they walk backwards out of the frame. And it’s very choreographed, and both of them are kind of performing these heightened versions of themselves.
Fayen d’Evie: (Laughing) I’m just so taken by Georgina’s image there, it’s derailed me… Hi, I’m Fayen, and the image that I want to describe comes from a performance at City Gallery in Pōneke, Wellington, Aotearoa. And it’s actually a performance that’s informed by the residency that Holly and I had had a week or two weeks before, called Mobility Geometries, where we experimented with different scores that we could enact performing together in space with our mobility canes. For this performance in Wellington, I was working with Bryan Phillips, a sound artist that I worked with a lot on audio description. And he had taken a number of recordings around Pōneke, around the hills, of different birds, and also of the water and the waves. It’s kind of a place where the city is cradled by these mountains, and then the sea is on the other side. And we’d figured out a score that actually was informed by what Holly and I did, that when I heard certain bird sounds or calls, I needed to move to the next part of the score. And I was performing in the middle of a quadrophonic system, so there were speakers around. Most of the audience was outside the speakers. But there were lines of chairs within the quadrophonic system, where people were invited to sit, so long as they were willing to hum when I approached, because then I would know that they were there and not stumble over them. It created the most extraordinary experience as a performer to be within these lines of humming voices. But the moment that I actually want to describe is at the beginning, before that extraordinary time happened, because Brian led me, and I had my glasses off, which means that I have really no vision except within the first five centimeters of my eyes. And so I was kneeling down, and I was waiting for this moment where he was going to bring up this chorus of birds. And I was leaning with my cane stretched out in front of me. And it was called, How Does a Straight Line Feel? And so I had the cane out there, and I had it out there, and there was no chorus emerging. And I knew something had shifted, something had gone wrong. And I had this moment of going, do I stop? Do I ask what’s happening? And then I thought, No, I’ll just, I’ll just stay in this. So I stretched out on the floor, till I was face down on the floor with my cane as far out as it could go. And I knew that there was this enormous audience around that was just looking at me in silence. And I started with my cane to try and block out that feeling of being prostrate on the floor with everybody watching, and just scratch ever so subtly with my cane on the floor. And I managed to tune into the slightest sounds. And then the deeper that I got into that, the more it became interesting to me because I’d always been experimenting with these quite grand, sweeping arcs and taps, and not these tiny, tiny sounds. And there was an artist who had been invited to describe this, who was live describing. She wasn’t a professional describer. And she thought this was all intended, so she was very carefully whispering what was happening. But it struck me at that moment that it is very difficult to describe the experience of a performer, but particularly intimate moments and sounds within a choreography, that within a kind of a spectacular nature get lost. One of the things that I’d love to figure out is how you can bring some sense of description to those tiniest moments, rather than, you know, the grander movements within a dance or performance piece.
HG: So I can respond to the question of scale that you bring up because in the way that I photograph, it’s also a way of conveying knowledge about what’s happening in movement space, in order to hone in on very minute gestures, and then pull back to give a sense of the overall environment and the context. And somehow that just expands the sensory understanding of the entire scene that’s playing out, and the dance process itself – the creative process.
FdE: Holly, do you want to describe a little bit about the residency research you recently did around description and scores?
HC: Yeah, yeah, definitely. So, I guess the most recent residency that I’ve done, was less looking at audio description, and was more looking at using nonverbal sounds – sounds created by the body, whether that’s vocalisations, or like claps and stomps and that sort of thing, some of which we just created ourselves, some of which we drew from flamenco practice – one of my collaborators is a flamenco dance artist – and sort of collecting some sounds, coding them, attributing certain meanings to them, and then using them in a systemised way to try to figure out a way of non-sighted spatial navigation: navigating and orientating yourself in space while you’re dancing, and also being able to communicate with collaborators during improvisation. I guess these systems actually came up for me, me wanting to investigate this stuff, from actually finding where audio description was lacking in my practice, when I was using it purely as an Access Tool within workshop settings within creative settings, with me being supported with audio description to know what was happening in the room. Actually, I found, it doesn’t create equal access for me, particularly within improvisation settings. I’m not able to respond to the movement of the other people in the room immediately in the same way that other people are, and also stay within the process. Because the description takes me out of the process of my own improvising, and then also takes up time as well, of course, so then the artist that I might want to respond to has moved on. So yeah, that sort of drew me to wanting to create something more that I could use. And I really started delving into this way of coding particular sounds, and it was extremely effective, particularly within improvising, with me and I had two other collaborators there at a time. I had three collaborators total, three dancers. So, we just had a free improvisation. We set up the code beforehand, that certain things, three stomps meant pausing, three stomps, sorry, meant that we were finishing at the end. So there were some instructions that were for us individually, that we were just telling the others, hey, this is what I’m doing. And then there were other sounds that were like, this is what I’m doing; this is what we’re all doing together. So the stomping at the end that was saying, I’m finishing, we’re all finishing, but then throughout, there was like three claps that said, I’m pausing, or I’m starting again, but it wasn’t affecting the other people. And what else did we have? We had a sudden exhalation of breath, which meant change levels. And that was for everyone. There were others as well. So there was a whole selection of things that we played with, but very much at the beginning of that area of research, I guess.
GK: There’s so much to respond to, I’m thinking about, you know, just what Holly was just saying about audio description, as a tool, as an access tool for the dancer or for the audience, or both simultaneously. But also, as potentially, what I’m interested in, is audio description as an aesthetic aspect, a creative part of a performance. What Holly is saying interests me because she’s talking about, you know, not just words but sounds, sort of creating a language of sounds that, you know, signals to the dancers, but also potentially, is communicating something to the audience. Certain sounds that a body makes denote a kind of emotion sometimes. So, that’s a sudden exhale. As sounds, there’s drama, there’s emotion there. Deep breathing can mean something else and then, you know, stomping your foot sounds like something. And then I’m so fascinated Fayen by the idea of your enlisting the audience to hum when you get too near, and I can imagine that it kind of creates an amazing quality of engagement, that your audience must be on the edge of their seats. It’s like, when do we start? Okay, should we start humming? And I would love just to hear a recording of her performance to hear you know, is it one person humming? Is it dozens of people humming? And then also what you were saying and describing what it felt like to you to be in a performance where something is sort of going wrong? Because I think every performer has had that experience, you know, and it’s always a story. Oh, the lights didn’t come on, or this or that didn’t happen, and I was waiting for the other dancer to show up, you know. That feeling inside of, Okay, now, what am I going to do? You know, making a decision, making a choice to say, Okay, this isn’t gonna work the way I thought it was gonna work. But maybe I’ll do this other thing. You know, and the sort of commitment to that, it’s a kind of pure improvisation. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m stuck. But I’m not stuck, I’ll just do something else…’ And then I was thinking about Hillary’s story, because I was there. And I’m remembering, you know, with such pleasure, that whole experience with the Serra sculpture, and the choreography that it imposed on all of us, and also the emotional response that we had, spending all that time in there. But I’m also thinking about Hillary’s practice as a photographer, particularly of dance, because it seems to me to take a very particular kind of engagement to anticipate, you know, when you’re going to take the picture, when are you going to capture that split second of something? And to what degree can you plan that in advance? Or is it just a kind of instinct, or sort of Kismet of, you know, I feel like something’s coming, and I’m getting ready here, and the dancers over there, and now they’re going to be over there, and I need to wait until they’re just launching off the floor. Anyway, that’s a jumble of ideas that I’m picking up. But it all has to do inside of the engagement of inside and outside. You know, there’s the experience of being the dancer and feeling it from the inside, but also the awareness that a performer has of how is the audience receiving this? How are they perceiving what I’m doing, as opposed to what I feel I’m doing?
HG: Yeah, there’s a lot there, I think one of the words that comes to mind really is awareness. Because there’s a sense of not knowing what to expect. When we know what to expect, then you’re photographing movement in a studio setting, and you say 3,2,1, jump, and you capture the jump in midair. And it’s that split second. But what we’re talking about is improvisational on all levels, whether you’re the dancer in what Fayen was describing, the audience, and then it’s really about the connection and the relationship. From my point of view, when I’m photographing, it’s really about the connection that I have to what is happening in the space. So, there’s a level of my own improvisation, and my own ability to pause as well, which is something that I learned over time through experience, that sometimes it’s better not to shoot any images, but to just pause, because there’s a way of deepening what you can do and the relationship you can establish with the dancers.
FdE: It makes me think about notions of attention and ways of description because, to me, those moments within the Serra sculpture, where you are describing the close texture of the sculpture as you are on your own, are as interesting as the moments where you’re capturing a fleeting impression of a body within that space, and as much a part of that choreographic exploration of that space. But similarly, it made me realise that one of the things that happened in being kind of lost in that moment of lying on the floor, and what had actually happened was that Brian had inadvertently kicked the ‘off’ button on the quadrophonic system as he sat down to begin. And it took, I don’t know how many minutes, for the sound person and Brian to realise what had gone on, and the sound person rushed over and turned on the system. And I’d been on the floor exploring for quite a while at this point. And actually, it so happened that at the moment that I set up and thought I’m gonna have to do something else, the sound came on, and it came on with this massive chorus of birds. And so I could move back into what was more familiar. But because I’d had that moment of just really honing in on the slightest, scratchy movement of what the cane felt, I was so heightened in my attention, I think I experienced the lines of humming audience in a particular way, that that was perhaps more profound than I would have sensed otherwise, because they weren’t just part of the score. It was an awareness… and Georgina, they weren’t actually just one or two people. Fortunately for me, there were a number of musicians who were sitting within these lines, and I suspect they took it in a slightly competitive way, as to who could hum in a more performative and resonant way, because the chords were beautiful, and they were actually lines within space that I could hear. I began to flip in between this idea of a line as a as a visual or tactile sense to what it is to perform within these sonic lines, which kind of brings me back again to Holly’s use of sonic expression by performers as a way of articulating an improvised score, or moments, improvised moments for a score. And Holly, when you were talking about – I hadn’t heard about the exhalation of breath – immediately, I felt that like I felt myself go ‘Huh’. And the idea of that being a shift in levels made so much sense. I think that is a really rich space to explore. But Georgina, how about when you were doing your pre-COVID dance performances? Were there moments where what was going on in the choreography was being described or communicated in certain ways that might not have been obvious to the audience?
GK: Well, if you’re referring to the piece, Paramodernities, which was Netta Yerushalmy. Anyway, it’s such a complicated, multi-faceted piece that it’s hard to describe. I was on stage with two dancers. And I was speaking, and I was speaking about audio description. And in a way from my point of view, my participation in this project was kind of awareness raising. Because Netta is very much the New York downtown dance scene. That’s, that’s where she lives. And she’s quite prominent. And so I was wanting to alert the New York downtown dance scene, that audio description of dance is something that exists. And what was interesting… so I had this text that I essentially had memorised, and I’m moving around the stage. It’s all choreographed. But, you know, it looks like they’re dancing. And it looks like I’m just sort of walking around. And because it’s choreographed, nobody bumps into anybody. So, it felt very safe. Even though there was a lot of movement going on. I knew I trusted the dancers, and I knew where I was supposed to be at any given moment. The other thing about it was that there was no music in this piece. So my words were the score that they were dancing to. They knew they had to be doing certain things when I said certain words. So, it meant in rehearsal, that if I messed up, and I didn’t recite the words in the correct sequence, everything fell apart. But one of the things that I talked about, and in talking about audio description, I was talking about an experiment that I did, where I showed a video of the choreography that these two dancers were dancing at one point to a number of different people. Because one of the things that bothers me about sort of standard or traditional audio description is that it’s as if all you need to know to describe dance is to have eyesight, and I don’t think that’s the only qualification that matters. And so I asked people who had different relationships to dance, so I asked the dancers and they all watch this video and kind of did a description as they’re going along. I asked people who are related to the dancers, and I asked a whole bunch of other people who had some connection to this work. And then I drew out language from those descriptions – sort of lists of words that I recited as I was going along, which made it a hard text to recite semantically because it was a random list of words at certain points, but I had to get them in the right order because otherwise everything would fall apart because the dancers needed to be in a certain place at a certain time. So it’s very much about language, but the language was not describing what was going on at any given moment. In the performance, because I did this awareness raising exercise, they did contract with a professional audio describer, who came in and described, you know, in a traditional way where there are people who had headsets in the audience. It was a very hard thing for him to describe because there were people talking on stage the whole time. So he kind of inserted his description in between the spoken text that was going on. So, it was you know, a complicated, multifaceted thing. But one of the things I always remember about the performance is that at one point, I say something to the effect of, you know, I am walking downstage towards the audience, I say to the audience, does audio description sound like something you’d be interested in hearing? And every time we performed, there would be somebody, you know, there would be people in the audience up front, you know, like, ooh, yeah! So I always played for that line.
HC: Lots of thoughts coming up from that… Interesting, this territory. Georgina, you weren’t describing the actual movement in that piece. But I guess what it brought up for me was this thinking around audio description as creative aesthetic, which is another area of my practice that I’ve really been exploring and drilling into over the past year. And this kind of, I don’t know what the word is, not conflict, but this push and pull, I guess, of using it as a creative aesthetic, as a performer, and it being interesting, and perhaps not conveying, like, actual strict audio description of what the movement is, because it’s being used as a creative structure, and is more perhaps interpretive than objective. But then kind of the play against that, and as audience members, being able to access the performance. So I think that that’s a really interesting kind of little pocket to explore. And then also, I was thinking about what you were saying around how you got a bunch of people to watch this specific thing, and all describe it as they could, and contribute. And it kind of made me think about audio description as a collective process within creative, artistic settings. Because as we know, you know, traditional AD (audio description) is an outside person comes in often at the very end of the process, when the performance is all created and made. And then they deliver the audio description; they create the script and deliver the audio description. Whereas I feel like I’m really interested in audio description as part of a collaborative process that involves several people, because we all have our own perspectives, different people see different things, that can all add to it. And I feel like that’s perhaps a bit of an interest of yours too Fayen in the way that you approach audio description. I’m not sure if I’m correct in that. So that was the kind of stuff, the ideas and thoughts, that that was bringing up for me.
FdE: I mean, that’s definitely an interest of mine. For many years, I’ve been disinterested in the notion of a singular objective authority. And that predates my encounter with artwork and goes back to, I guess, the beginning of my academic thinking. But one of the things that I find with dance description is that…if I am listening to an audio description, I do tend to gloss over and not pay that much attention to the moments when people are describing either dance moves, or where people are going, because it’s really not of that much interest to me, like, if somebody is moving from here to there on the stage, you know, and I don’t know the names or the terms for many dance movements, except for sort of obvious movements like pirouettes, which I tend not to be interested in anyway. I’m more captivated by the relationships between movement and space and content, language and ideas. And so I find that a polyphonic approach to description is going to offer me more of that than somebody who is visually centred and really prioritising their visual reading of where bodies are moving, which is of limited interest to me.
HG: Well, in listening to the three of you, I’m just thinking a lot about choice and about decision-making in improvisation, but also about the fact that we’re talking about audio description, and we keep using the word description. But somewhere along the line, it doesn’t seem suitable, in the same way that I hate to think of photographic images that I make as describing something, I’d rather have them convey or reveal something of the moment, not necessarily describe a particular movement or a particular gesture, it feels very flat to me. And so something more dimensional in the way that you’re speaking of Fayen, with something multisensorial in the approach to movement, I wonder if it’s audio interpretation, and getting closer to something that gets at the subjective nature of the description. It’s always incomplete. There’s no real way of being perfectly, comprehensively descriptive about everything that’s happening for an audience. And in the same way, Holly, your scoring is amazing, and you make specific choices to prioritise one type of movement over another, one type of shift in the environment over another. So I’m just thinking in an open way about this idea of attunement and maybe considering the idea of an audio interpretation of the dance rather than it forward description.
GK: I like what Hillary is saying, I mean, I think everybody who has to deal with audio description would like to call it something else, you know, I’m feeling now it’s like, you know, verbal evocation, or sonic evocation or something, there’s something else going on. It’s interpretive, it’s evocative, it’s provocative, it’s something else. But one of the things I always think about is that anybody who’s ever been in a dance studio, or rehearsal studio, or whatever, description, evocation, whatever you want to call it, interpretation, verbalised, is going on all the time, constantly. Sometimes it’s instruction, you know, it’s like, do this, don’t do that, why are you doing this, stop doing that, you know, and sometimes it goes to metaphor, it’s like, oh, lift your arms, like, you know, they’re as light as feathers, or, you know, sometimes it’s sort of a storytelling thing, you know, that, that this movement provokes that movement and leads into this movement, and, and you’re angry, or you’re in love, or whatever it is. So I say that because I think a lot of times in the dance world, people kind of shrug their shoulders and say, this thing can’t be done. And already, it’s always happening. So it’s just a matter of being deliberate and making choices about how could you use that language that’s already in the air, use it both as an access tool, or an access modality, but also as an aesthetic feature that enhances, or engages what’s being done with the body.
HC: Sonic evocation? I really like that Sonic evocation, attunement, choices. aesthetic, these are the words I guess I’m picking up from our conversation. I think it’s really great, like it kind of feels like a storming of something, not a new way of looking at things, but I guess bring to the fore, a particular way of looking at dance and description, and the aesthetics of it. And of it being an interpretation and taking elements as Georgina is saying, that are already there, and sort of transmuting them into something that is individual and creative and innovative.
HG: I guess, in thinking about it as interpretation or evocation, something that pops up is that it takes it out of the realm of a linear creative process. So the same way that you were saying, Georgina, that audio description is often something that comes at the end, that’s often been the case for lighting or for a musical score. There’s an illustrative media that’s thrown into some initial creative momentum. So whatever the beginning one is, then you have other things that are describing it, so that can be the sound of a set. So here we’re just adding in another ingredient, another component. And so somewhere along the line, if we start thinking about it as a layer that can be part of the aesthetic and the creative process, then we also reconsider what authorship is. In our endeavours, it sounds like we’re all very much oriented around collaboration. And so, it’s a way of not just reconsidering how an audience will discover the work, but also from within, how we actually can create the work.
FdE: I think the phrase that will really stay with me is one that Georgina just shared about language already in the air. That struck me, Georgina, because it also relates to the title that I gave the exhibition that this conversation has been catalysed by. It’s the idea that the language is already in the air, it’s around us. There are these habits and protocols and structures that have blueprinted what audio description is, and it’s at this moment when these things are breaking down that I think the more interesting conversations and dialogues and artistic discoveries and provocations and forms can materialise, because we’re allowing ourselves to draw upon the language that is there, these layers of languages, the evocations, the possibility to move in between movement and sound, and image too, because I’m always thinking and attentive to Deaf collaborators and audiences too. So, I think I’ll take away from this all of that, which I think is captured by Georgina’s comment about language that is already in the air.