Portrait of the artist Anna Thompson as a Writhing Flame
Interview with Anna Thompson about VLX, an ongoing project being created by slowdanger. Compiled over email in March-April 2019. Like all the previous interviews, I ask the artist to tell me how they are feeling at that moment so I can create a portrait of them. Then I ask them to give me a list of ten things that relate to this project, VLX (empathy machine). They can then add anything else that relates. Here it is.
Today I feel like a Writhing Flame (March 21, 2019)
VLX was an exploration of the body within the mind of fear and neurosis.
I wanted to explore a frame of mind that I believe is inherited through my cultural history of whiteness. When I examined that closer I felt it manifested in anxiety and binge culture. I also felt that anxiety grew out of a reflexive fear of what my ancestors had claimed through colonization/ gentrification/ imperialism that needs to be reclaimed and addressed. This was also sparked through a curiosity in doomsday “preppers” and Y2K phenomena that crosses cultural boundaries into societal fear states and how humans grab at materiality to feel secure.
These are questions I have specifically within the artistic process. How do we level hierarchical power systems within collaborative creative processes and develop more horizontal communities? This is by no mean a question I have an answer for. It is something I try to think of deeply as slowdanger starts to build work that includes more beings, especially as this work evolves into empathy machine. Maybe there is no answer or method to it but something to always meditate on within collaborative communities.
The pursuit of group awareness and sensibilities within a cast. That we can allow ourselves to dissolve into one group body and also re-emerge fluidly as individuals/partnerships and in relationship with witnesses.
‘Emergence is a practice of living into liminality — a confluence of becoming. Some of our greatest guides for this are the queer youth who occupy the liminal and envision a future we cannot see. This emergence is a listening across borders and binaries.’ VLX was the resistance, the fear, the fail, the call, the pressure that builds up to the dissolution of binaries and the emergence and continuation of fluid identity. The future is intersectional, non binary, anti/multi-disciplinary and queer. I also want to acknowledge that queer futurism is deeply informed by afro-futurism, the touchstone for all futurist visioning. Reading the Ursula Le Guin’s ‘the Left Hand of Darkness’ as a young adolescent deeply impacted me and burned into my mind a genderless possibility before I even discovered anything about queer theory/futurism. I would like to continue this research through re-visiting that reading as well as the work of Octavia Butler. https://www.queernature.org/blog/2017/12/31/queer-futurism-denizens-of-liminality
Physically, we began approaching VLX by developing moving concepts that revolved around the question of embodiment with the continued enmeshment of technology and assistive devices. We imagined how we would sense our bodies with foreign organs or computational systems integrated into our being. We came up with moving concepts and states such as:
‘online’ being activated but not driven to task/a state of neutrality
‘unseen hand’ a state of being operated remotely and being present within a body that is being driven by an external force
‘orienting mechanisms’ how would we have to orient our kinesthetic and proprioceptive awareness differently with the replacement/simulation of organs and sensory systems. This resulted in subcategories of ‘roomba’ orienting by physically impacting your environment (like the vacuum) and ‘assembling’ a series of tasks we must perform to orient our senses in order to become ‘online’.
This is building on the last thought but another question we had was what was the physical/mental/emotional state when our organic matter/memory/presences disrupt embodied technological mechanisms. We developed a state called ‘glitching’ which was basically small sharp and glitchy movements that bubbled up when our cyborg copies encountered organic/embodied memories and emotion. We imagined there would be a conflict between these two selves and it would result in the embodied technology not being able to process something it was not built to understand/compute or create. When we build ourselves to be systematized and productive, our state of efficiency is disrupted by the unpredictable factors of memory, past, and emotional triggers/trauma that results in a glitched state.
All of these ‘imagined physicalities and sci-fi/future narratives could easily by interpreted as metaphors for the present we are living. I am constantly curious about how the future is both the past and present. That we actually manifest our future through lived experience. It is both in our hands and in the hands of what we cannot see/know simultaneously.
The countdown builds tension towards the inevitable ‘anti-climax’ that perhaps the end does not actually exist but is another beginning. I have had a lot of recent conversations with, frankly, folks older than myself about the fear climate change and what that means to our society. There have been many people who bring up the we only have __ years left. I sometimes wonder, perhaps are we already living ‘the end’? It is just so slow we cannot witness/contextualize it and that perhaps the end is not one climatic moment but a series of shifts into irreversible change. Which brings up the question, is there such a thing as a beginning or end? It is humanly constructed within our relationship to time. Landscapes, rocks, oceans, planets certainly don’t consciously perceive it or hold it in the way that we do, they simply adapt/shift.
If you have read this far, you’ve probably already perceived this.
VLX has deeply informed what is in the process of becoming empathy machine. Within empathy machine we are entering a practice of sensitizing ourselves to our own bodies, each other, the audience, and our environment to establish both resilience and resistance against oppressive systems. As movement artists, I believe in certain communities we must practice empathy in order to build work from consensual understanding. For some it is more inherent than others, based on a variety of factors. I have also been researching how one learns/teaches empathy through lesson plans on ‘empathy trainings’ within workplaces where this is a vital skill ie the medical profession. Most of these courses practice learning self empathy through awareness practices before diving into extending that sense further than yourself. It is also not a fixed state but a process of perceiving fluid shifts in state/emotion/sensing etc without fixation or judgement.
“An empathic way of being with another person has several facets. It means entering the private perceptual world of the other and becoming truly at home in it. It involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meaning which flow in this other person, to the fear or tenderness or rage or confusion or whatever the other person is experiencing. It means to temporarily living in the others perceptual world and moving in it delicately without making judgments; it means sensing meanings of which the other is scarcely aware, but not trying to uncover totally unconscious feelings because this can be to threatening. It includes communicating your sensing’s of the person’s world as you look with fresh and un frightened eyes at elements of which he or she is fearful. It means frequently checking with the other person as to the accuracy of your sensing’s, and being guided by the responses that you receive.” Carl Rogers (1982)