Isabel Lewis

An Occasion (“classic occasion” excerpts 2014-2018)
Faena Forum
Duration and dimensions variable, dance, conversation, smells, sounds, local plant life.

Isabel Lewis is a Berlin-based choreographer born in the Dominican Republic and raised on a man-made island off the coast of southwest Florida.

From 2003-2009 Lewis lived in New York City during which time she danced for many choreographers such as Ann Liv Young, Miguel Gutierrez, David Neumann, Levi Gonzales, and Christal Brown as well as showed her own choreographic works at The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, New Museum, Dancespace Project at St. Marks Church, Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance (BAAD!), and PS122.

She has also worked as a programmer for the Body Blend series at Dixon Place, as curator for Movement Research Festival Improvisation is Hard (2004) and Reverence (Irreverence) (2007) and as an editor and contributor for the Movement Research Performance Journal. With a background in dance and cultural criticism Lewis works in multiple and hybrid formats such as lecture performances, workshops, activations of public spaces, and what she has named "hosted occasions."

Her works have been presented by Creative Time and Art Basel, Berliner Festspiele-Gropius Bau Berlin, Tate Modern London, Dia Art Foundation, Tanz Im August Berlin, and Impulstanz International Dance Festival among others.



Isabel Lewis hosted an occasion, a celebratory gathering of things, people, plants, dances and scent, that took place in the Faena Forum amphitheater.

Lewis unfolded a specific dramaturgy attuned to her guests and their energies shaping a live experience using choreography, music, spoken address, and storytelling in ways that allow for conversation, contemplation, dancing, listening, or just simply being.

She created an aesthetic situation that moves beyond the merely visual where the entire human sensorium is addressed. Lewis posed the question of how to live a good and flourishing life in tempestuous times and proposes the figures of the lover, the dancer, and the gardener as guides on this quest. Lewis was joined in the performance by local dancers.


5.jpg

The gardener is the mediator between human and other-than-human worlds. The gardener has the humility to understand that though they make work with and facilitate the garden and its processes they are only one agent in the miracle of growth. The gardener’s primary activity is to tend to the garden, a form of listening to what it may need, an activated form of living alongside something and being attentive to it without over doing. Perhaps the figure of the dancing gardener can be a guide for more integrated embodied relations with each other and all things as we shape our present and future.

The garden is such a place of integration between various modalities of knowledge and knowing --it is not America right now... at least not the American that refers to the USA. That America, the USA, is a graveyard, is a death pit, a nihilistic and ultimately futile and impotent rejection of life. That America is blood-drenched, iron-rich soil perfect in fact for for starting vegetable gardens and fruit groves. The acidic soil would perfectly suit Rhododendrons, Camellias, and Gardenias. May they flourish, may we flourish. That America is the a heap of decaying organic matter, a stinking worm-ridden pile-up of death processes crawling all over with many-legged creatures that will become the mature compost that is birthing us, the new children, like Haraway's children, "children of the compost," making a new America.

Isabel Lewis



American Gardener
By Isabel Lewis

If rationality had a smell what would it be?

Cold, sterile, metallic, slight hint of something citric but artificially so, sharp, chemical.

How do we live a good life, a flourishing life, a “eudameamonic” life in the 21st century, in the midst of the earth’s sixth great extinction event and in times of political and social crisis? The ways of thinking and doing that shaped the 20th century that once seemed progressive now seem deadly and threaten the possibility of any life on earth let alone a flourishing one. They fail to offer legitimate solutions to the problematic consequences of Modernity.

To meet the demands of continuous economic growth, we have cluttered our world with things we absolutely don’t need and created a culture seemingly trapped in the vicious cycle of constant consumption and decadent waste. The fierce belief in individualism has us alienated from our own bodies, from our communities, from ethical relations with “Nature”, from the present. Progress at any cost and the pressure to compete strains our social bonds requiring us to do more, travel more, be more flexible and the logic of the market seeps into even our most intimate spaces (am I giving more than I am getting?)

Through the processes of the Enlightenment the European imagination has made a unilateral shift from qualitative understandings of the world prevalent in the Middle Ages to to the quantitative modes of understanding that dominate our present. We’ve done a great many things with quantitative data, we transformed our world with it, we ushered in modern medicine and science, we democratised access to knowledge… we created the idea of objectivity, of rationality, of critical distance. These powerful technologies of thought have given us the ability to hover above the bodily, the animal, the earthly; to justify with reason distorted notions of domination over natures and cultures, to enact the most cruel atrocities of colonisation that continue today all over the world in a myriad of clever (and not so clever) disguises.

If bodily culture had a smell what would it be?

Sweaty, pheromonal, the combination of all human fluids, iron, heavy, musky, smoky, a little bit sweet, like a nightclub--like Berghain.

Its imperative to find new modes of knowledge acquisition. Its imperative to think differently and feel differently in order to cultivate the capacity to respond to our circumstances. If rationality transformed our view of the world into a list of diametrically opposed binaries, what kind of world could we shape from a more embodied perspective? The body can hold complexity that the mind cannot. The body can understand that the nuance, range, and connection between points of difference. What might bring us into more embodied presence and out of cynical impotence?

Perhaps practices of bodily attunement could guide this inquiry. If modernity divided the sensorial capacities into fields of specialisation with vision at the top of the list, perhaps it is worthwhile to try to reunite the human sensorium and move away from the hierarchical ordering of the senses and bringing the power we attribute to vision into check. Pursuing ways of becoming more radically empathetic can begin with the rehabilitation of the senses.

How could we extend this radical empathy not only to other humans but also to other species and even things, to not only life but to non-life?

Perhaps the practice of love can inform this quest. One scheme for love from the history of the West is the famous ascending ladder of love, sometime referred to as Diotima’s ladder, told by Socrates in Plato’s treatise on love, the Symposium. The story follows a very rational development of love from lust to the transformation of sublimation of physical desire for others into the love of pure knowledge itself. American Classicist Martha Nussbaum in her book The Fragility of Goodness, proposes that what has been cast historically as “profane” love, desirous bodily love, can as well be a powerful form of knowledge.She refers to the speech of Alcibiades in the Symposium in which Alcibiades professes his burning love for Socrates and arrives at the notion of the “lover’s understanding”. The lover’s understanding is for Nussbaum a form of receptivity to our beloveds, a form of knowledge that goes beyond knowing things about them into knowing how to respond, to please, to behave for the pleasure and well-being of our beloveds.

In what kind of place do are the bodily in intellectual fully integrated and what would it smell like?

Like a garden. Earthy, damp, simultaneously green and rotten like the forest floor.

Could we extend the notion of the lover’s understanding to all things living and non-living? Can we learn to acknowledge the agentic capacities of all things? Jane Bennett in her book Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things, makes a case for creating a form of politics that would include the agency of all things. This does not mean that grants an equivalence to all forms of agency. Bennett does not propose that all things have the same kind or degree of agency but rather that all things in existence have effects on the world and these effects are entangled with one another to create highly complex relational bonds that destabilise overly simplistic notions of one to one cause and effect that our current forms of politics rely upon. When we acknowledge the interdependent webs of relation between all things we begin to be able to feel into their vibratory agentic capacities. Even the human body itself is not a singular entity but rather an assemblage of minerals, chemical reactions, and microorganisms.

Which forms of bodily practice might bring us closer to these sensations? Dancing and gardening put our bodies into relation with things in space in alternative ways. Dancing is a way of training the “bodymind" to become receptive and responsive. When we dance we connect with histories, with embodied systems of value embedded in culture and we can be playful and creative with them. Gardening is a long-term commitment to non-human relations.

The gardener is the mediator between human and other-than-human worlds. The gardener has the humility to understand that though they make work with and facilitate the garden and its processes they are only one agent in the miracle of growth. The gardener’s primary activity is to tend to the garden, a form of listening to what it may need, an activated form of living alongside something and being attentive to it without over doing. Perhaps the figure of the dancing gardener can be a guide for more integrated embodied relations with each other and all things as we shape our present and future.

The garden is such a place of integration between various modalities of knowledge and knowing --it is not America right now... at least not the American that refers to the USA. That America, the USA, is a graveyard, is a death pit, a nihilistic and ultimately futile and impotent rejection of life. That America is blood-drenched, iron-rich soil perfect in fact for for starting vegetable gardens and fruit groves. The acidic soil would perfectly suit Rhododendrons, Camellias, and Gardenias. May they flourish, may we flourish. That America is the a heap of decaying organic matter, a stinking worm-ridden pile-up of death processes crawling all over with many-legged creatures that will become the mature compost that is birthing us, the new children, like Haraway's children, "children of the compost," making a new America.