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Art Wed Apr 09 2008

A Monumental Work

If you're the kind of person who walks by municipal garbage cans piled high with empty Starbucks cups and winces at all the waste, then Monument, a new dance theater work by local multidisciplinary arts collective The Seldoms, is for you. The 50-minute work, which combines dance, music and video, addresses our culture's apparent addiction to consumption and waste, in which the landfill has become an "accidental social sculpture." Recently Monument choreographer Carrie Hanson took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about the performance, which runs April 10-12 at 8pm at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn. (For more info, call 312-328-0303.)

How did the idea for Monument develop?

The Monument project has been developing for over a year. The idea began broadly: The initial choreographic, sonic and imagistic impulses emerged from a consideration of the acts of preservation, creation and destruction. We started from several points of inquiry: in balancing concerns for short-term prosperity/survival with long-term prosperity/survival, what do we preserve? What are the economic forces and cultural ethos that influence our behavior and decisions as consumers? What tensions exist between our dual identities as consumer and citizen, and between private goods and the public good? And finally, what are the personal, social, and environmental effects of our collective and individual acts of production, consumption, and disposal?

As we began our research before going into the dance studio, we easily found a lot of information relating to consumption and waste. The facts, offering mind-blowing figures about the quantity of plastic bottles and tons of refuse, were impressive and daunting, but weren’t readily imaginable. It wasn’t until Doug Stapleton, The Seldoms’ artistic associate, found an article about the immense Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island that our understanding moved from statistics to a physical reality. The article stated that the landfill is visible from space, which helped us to grasp the scale, impact and monumentality of our collective practices of consumption and waste. The work’s title – Monument – makes reference to the landfill as accidental monument.

Can you describe for us in brief the scenery, video and music?

The Seldoms always works in collaboration with artists from other disciplines. Architect Joel Huffman of Vertu has constructed an installation that succinctly and strikingly delivers the metaphor of landfill/monument. Moving in stages from a horizontal position to a vertical one, the structure becomes the surface for video projection. Artists Jackie Kazarian and Doug Stapleton created a video that combines painterly gestures and collage in an abstract animation where the events of collision, marking and scarring, piling and compaction refer to the landfill. The sound design, by Richard Woodbury, traverses a broad range of sonic materials – trombone with a man yelling, dense, rumbling industrial sounds, a '60s rock ode to garbage and dialog tapes on shopping.

How do you express consumption using movement? Can you discuss some of the process, what you tested out, what didn't work, and how you decided which movements worked?

At the outset of this process, I had some anxiety about tackling this topic through the medium of dance. But I believe that through its physical and spatial vocabulary, dance can provide a unique lens through which we can view the ecological and social costs of our modern lives. Moving, gesturing bodies can demonstrate voracious acts of consumption and habits of waste, and can illustrate the inadvertent construction of “monument” – the landfill.

In the studio, I gave the dancers choreographic tasks: [for example,] "recall the last five things you’ve discarded, and develop a gesture/action for each of those things." Those movements were then combined, deconstructed and manipulated to become a dense, explosive field of action where unlike things rub up against one another or repel one another – like a landfill. In another section, the dancers take a gesture of wiping the ‘muck’ off their feet onto their pants, and morph it into a rhythmic, repeated action of the hands; [the muck] eventually lands in their pockets. This introduces a whole segment in which pockets represent identity as consumer, power to participate in the marketplace, inclusion and exclusion, and the nature of social exchanges that are characterized more by transaction than interaction.

Where did you draw inspiration from in developing this piece?

Early on I read Consumed: How Markets Infantilize Adults, Corrupt Children and Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin Barber. It’s a fantastic book, but not as much of its content was folded into the work as I initially thought (maybe that’s the next dance). I also found a lot of information in Waste News, a garbage industry magazine, and I had several interviews with a former landfill owner.

Your press materials discuss the "frenzied" course of our consumption. Frenzied is a lively word to use. A bit more on that, if you will?

Throughout the process, we talked a lot about disposability and convenience. Disposability effectively erases material and objects from our view, and we don’t think much about where and how the product came to be, or where it goes after our interaction with it. Perhaps this routine forgetting allows us to consume more, and consume faster. The life cycle of a product, and those invisible stages of production and post-consumer transfer to the landfill, seemed important to address, and prompted the next question and cue for movement development: Does our practice of easy use-and-toss transfer to our engagement with the people around us?

How did you join up with Barbara Hashimoto, and what is her relationship to the performance?

I found a postcard of Barbara’s Junk Mail Project. The image on the card is very evocative – a grand piano is piled six feet high with shredded paper. Barbara was invited to speak on our Monumental Talk program, a series of post-performance informal discussions with artists, designers, and local environmental policy makers who address patterns of consumption and waste in their work. Additionally, Barbara constructed a version of her Junk Mail Project installation in the theater lobby. I’m very pleased to have a broad array of speakers joining us for Monument – this weekend we’re joined by landscape architect and environmentalist Marcus de la Fleur; Sadhu Johnston, the Chief Environmental Officer of the City of Chicago; and UrbanLab, an architecture and design firm.

What is on your agenda for this piece, and any others you might be working on?
We’ll be performing an excerpt of Monument at the Spring to Dance Festival in St. Louis in May, and then going forward. We hope to find more opportunities to present the work at environment-related events. Our 2008-09 season includes two new works by critically acclaimed choreographers Darrell Jones and Liz Burritt, to be included on the season at the Dance Center of Columbia College.

My next choreographic project is undetermined – a little rest period. I am looking forward to continuing to work with this group of dancers and the collaborating artists; it’s an outstanding assembly of creative people.

 
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