Embodied Poetic Methods to Learn Placemaking
by: Tara Page , May 16, 2019
by: Tara Page , May 16, 2019
In the ideal situation we would be sitting together, maybe one on one or in a small group, discussing, examining, exploring—unpicking and learning from and with each other. But we are not in this ideal situation, so I am attempting through this written and visual presentation-performance to share some ideas and practices, with which I have been working. This work is by no means complete or comprehensive; it is more generative in that I am in the midst of it. I am playing or evolving a position, and trying to understand the potential and possibilities of placemaking, where through the method of embodied poetic practices and performances, an in-depth mapping of the very intra-actions of matter and meaning can be made visible-known-learned.
You can read the poem first and then watch the video or vice versa. There is no sound.
From Home, Poetic Mapping (2019) prod. Tara Page.
The potential and possibilities of the between.
Cracks in the pavement
And breathe and forward, ok
And still and push
And breathe and forward, ok
Mint, no Peppermint
And again and again consistent, continuously
Eggs, stir, yep, move, scrape, turn?
Yep, no, no
Yes…definitely… yes, yes.
And breathe and forward, ok
So blue and blue
I can smell it
Clear, but warm, not tickling
Yep, no, but what about
Voices… too much?
Why cant they just move
Or at least stop
And breathe and forward, ok
Today, ok, what next?
A breath, air in, fill, rise, and fall, shoulders, chest and see and feel and it is clearly ok… now what
I can do…
And breathe and… ok
Warmth… smell it?
Focusing… and breathe
No, no, no no
Bike, Bike, truck, car
Yes, there it is
Coffee, yes… so good.
So real, its happening
Together, maybe more about with
It will be now,
But where, here?
And breathe… and forward
And breathe… ok, here. (Page 2017)
This is an embodied poetic mapping of my everyday, fairly ordinary ‘journey to work’ where I am attempting to be more conscious and attentive of the between—between home and work, between body and place, between bodies and matter. I use this method in my artistic practice and also in my practice research, where I individually and collaboratively with others, explore and learn not only how do we make and learn place but also how it makes us (Page in preparation).
‘Where are you from?’ This question often refers to someone’s birthplace, childhood home or a place that holds significance. But, the place that is offered in response to this question is more than a means of orientation, it is a lived place that has complex knowledges and meanings that identify and situate the person answering the question. Place is more than a point or site in space, to which we bring ourselves. Following Wilson Gilmore (1999), Barad suggests to replace a politics of location with a politics of possibilities involves the need to:
dislocate the container model of space, the spatialization of time, and the reification of matter by reconceptualizing the notions of space, time, and matter using an alternative framework that shakes loose the foundational character of notions such as location and opens up a space of agency in which the dynamic intra-play of indeterminacy and determinacy reconfigures the possibilities and impossibilities of the world’s becoming such that indeterminacies, contingencies and ambiguities coexist with causality (2007: 225).
Yet, the significance of ‘place’ and also of ‘belonging’ to our lives can often be overlooked. Place is often something that is hidden, nuanced and ever-changing, yet it is key to understanding who we are both individually and collectively. Our intra-actions with places make us who we are and how we are and so place is more than a container or background for action, matter, and thought; it is at one with the matter-action-thought of the body—a process of embodiment (Page in preparation). I maintain that there can be no place without the body, and place is continually made and remade through the everyday repeated social and material practices of the body. But how can we capture, learn and share these hidden, and subtle ways of knowing and learning place?
Whitehead suggests that the body is an active subjective participant in the perception and sensation of place:
You are in a certain place perceiving things. Your perception takes place where you are, and it is entirely dependent on how your body is functioning. But this functioning of the body in one place exhibits for your cognisance an aspect of the distant environment, fading away into the general knowledge and there are things beyond. If this cognisance conveys knowledge of a transcendent world, it must be because the event which is the body unifies in itself aspects of the universe (1938: 92).
This premise of active participation focuses on the body as a ‘total event’ (Whitehead 1938: 73)—a sensory process that takes us into place and keeps us there. As Manning explains, sensing and feeling are acts that matter:
A body … does not exist—a body is not, it does. To sense is not simply to receive input–it is to invent … Sense perceptions are not simply ‘out there’ to be analysed by a static body. They are body-events [where] bodies, senses, and worlds recombine to create (invent) new events (2009: 212).
Thinking through events as the way that matter comes to matter, or matter impacts on bodies and futures, Whitehead (1938) theorises bodies as the catalyst of events. For Whitehead, bodies are not passive, objective perceivers; they are processes of senses and feelings that inform us about current but also past place-worlds. This is something he terms ‘prehensions’ that is a basic, extrasensory awareness that all experiences or events have of all earlier experiences-events. These bodily prehensions involve the ‘repetition’ of the world, and it is through these bodily prehensions ‘that the treasures of the past environment are poured into living occasions (events)’ (Whitehead 1938: 339). Manning’s research on touch further expands on Whitehead’s prehensions as embodied through explaining that:
We sense on top of senses, one sense experience always embedded in another one: cross-modal repetition with a difference. We conceive the world, not through a linear recomposition of the geometric vectors of our experience, but by the overlapping of the folds of sense-presentation emerging alongside pastness (2009: 215).
Manning means here that not only are we always with/in bodies, we are always with matter.
Similarly, Barad asserts that ‘[b]odies are material-discursive phenomena that materialise in intra-action with, and are inseparable from, particular apparatuses of bodily production, that is, practices through which they become intelligible’ (2007: 106). So, as we make matter, meaning and place, it also makes us. We are entangled, co-implicated in the generation and formation of knowing, being and the making of place or placemaking.
In my early career as a teacher, I lived and worked in a place in rural and remote Queensland, Australia, the bush, a very different but also very familiar place that I was eager to share…
Imagine taking a two and a half hour drive just to go to McDonalds.
Imagine driving two and half hours at 6 am on a Saturday to do your food shopping. Then at 12 pm when everything closes driving the two and a half hours back.
Imagine only passing two maybe three cars on that journey.
Imagine you can see those cars in the distance on the horizon and then what feels like forever they slowly ever so slowly get closer, the anticipation, the build up and then they have gone past you.
Imagine walking down the high/main street and everyone and I mean everyone knows who you are, by name and by profession.
Imagine the sunset red, vibrant, jarring and enveloping, so clichéd.
Imagine watching that sunset again and again and again and again.
Imagine waking in the morning and feeling that the dust and heat are coating you.
Imagine being able to smell that rain is coming.
Imagine a river that has water in it only two weeks of the year.
Imagine when it rains you feel as saturated as the earth.
Imagine teaching children who get excited, can’t sit still excited, by rain.
Imagine abandoning your lesson to play in the rain with your students.
Imagine falling asleep to the soothing rhythm of rain on a tin roof.
Imagine a stillness, an absence that becomes part of you, something you need.
Imagine… (Page, 1999: 1)
then close your eyes….and imagine.
Through an embodied poetic practice, albeit in a different way, a sense of place can be evoked, conveyed and shared. This is achieved through a sensory perception of matter—‘rain’ and ‘tin rooves’, ‘red sunsets’, ‘dust’—with a sensory memory of past experiences connecting this matter to moving bodies —‘teaching excited children’, ‘playing in the rain’, ‘driving two and half hours’. As Manning maintains ‘overlapping folds of sense-presentation emerging alongside pastness’ (2009: 215). But also, through this embodied poetic practice, a sharing of knowledges and understandings of place is enabled that can then support a knowing and understanding of how we make and learn place. This is because this method, this practice, enables an attentiveness, paying attention to things and the processes of matter, and the intra-actions between human and non-human things and worlds. We can then recognise and learn about the entangling of all phenomena; human, non-human, social, physical, material.
This method also enables a sharing of collective placemaking practices not only in a variety of places but also with a variety of people. Lee and Ingold state that ‘sharing or creating a walking rhythm with other people can lead to a very particular closeness and bond between people involved’ (2006: 69). This is because, when we are ‘walking with’ we are learning and being taught, explicitly and implicitly, sharing the ways bodies with matter know, learn and understand. Lund describes:
walking as a bodily movement that not only connects the body to the ground but also includes different postures, speeds, rhythms … that … shape the tactile interactions between the moving body and the ground, and play a fundamental part in how the surroundings are sensually experienced (2005: 28).
But, this walking with, this sharing, is not ‘natural’ as it has been developed and learned in a particularly socio-material place world, with specific rules, values and positions that enable us to know, understand, experience and ultimately make place. This method supports a sharing of embodied and material pedagogies, but also a learning of the intra-actions of bodies with matter. As de Certeau (1984) maintains, through these habitual processes and practices of movement, we come to familiarise ourselves with place and also find meaning in that place. So, this method enables an embodied sharing where we are learning the placemaking of those with whom we are researching but we can also learn and understand our own placemaking practices as practitioners and researchers.
This entangling or ‘withness’, after Whitehead (1938), is where, as Bolt states, ‘the material and the discursive mingle and mangle’ (2013: 3), where phenomena are entangled. Barad terms this ‘the ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies’ (2007: 338). Whitehead, in turn, explains this as the way we experience matter through and of the body, as in ‘we see the contemporary chair, but we see it with our eyes; and we touch the contemporary chair, but we feel it with our hands’ (1938: 62).
In other words, in using an embodied poetic practice, our focus can shift from the subject and/or the object to their entanglement. What we pay attention to is the event, the action between. What matters is the relational, not the subject or the object of this place, but the relationalities, the between.
This intra-action of body and place is also evident in probably one of the best-known poems in Australia, ‘My Country’ by Dorothea Mackellar (1885-1968) that was originally published in 1908. In the first stanza the place is that of Mackellar’s ancestral home, and in the remaining nine stanzas, her adopted home, Australia. In the interests of space and time, I will only share an extract:
The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!
Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die-
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.
Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold-
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze. (MacKellar 1981)
Mackellar uses the poetic device of personification to convey ‘knowledge of place which is reducible to a sort of co-existence with that place’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 105). To actuate further this bound relationship of body and place, Mackellar employs repetition; repeating the line ‘Core of my heart, my country’, clearly sharing that who she is—the core of her heart—is her country, that of her adopted Australia. Here she is attempting to convey the event—the between of body and place—but also that her ‘being is synonymous with being situated’ (Casey 1998: 233). However, as Manning claims:
We do not simply respond to sense perceptions, we activate them even as they activate us. No two experiences can be exactly the same because they are always made up of different prehensions leading to new actual occasions (2009: 315).
Therefore, not only do we make matter, meaning and place, it also makes us; we are entangled, co-implicated in the generation and formation of knowing, being and placemaking. But place is something particular that has porous boundaries, dynamic orientations and is felt, experienced, known, made and learned with the body. So, placemaking, our sense of place, is not fixed or stable. It is poetic; flexible, dynamic and open, continually becoming and not a thing, object or outcome.
These embodied poetic practices can then enable a mapping of our own or someone else’s ways of knowing, making, and learning—a deep mapping of the between of the relations of our embodied engagement with the world. The way we experience place, our knowledge of place, and how we learn to make place, emerge from and through our everyday bodily repeated practices, the reiteration and repetition of the seemingly mundane. Using an individual and/or collaborative embodied poetic practice can support this mapping of the reiterations and repetitions of the seemingly mundane but it also enables a sharing of the ways of making and learning place to develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of place and its power, individually and collectively.
As I open my eyes, then close then open,
I can see the icy layer on the window,
It gently moves from the perimeter to the middle,
The density of the ice crystals thinning,
Like layers of lace slowly separating from each other.
As it gets lighter,
I can see the grass; the trees dusted white with frost,
It is still, no sound, no movement.
The air smells of nothing and it tickles my nose
I see my breath, inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
I am of this place, I am home.
Keep breathing. (Page 2002).
Barad, Karen (2007), Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Bolt, Barbara (2013), ‘Introduction: Toward a New Materialism through the Arts’, in Barbara Bolt & Esther Barrett (eds), Carnal Knowledge: Towards a New Materialism through the Arts, New York & London: IB Tauris, pp. 1-13.
Casey, Edward S. (1998), The Fate of Place. A Philosophical History, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.
de Certeau, Michel (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Lee, Jo & Tim Ingold (2006), ‘Fieldwork on Foot: Perceiving, Routing, Socializing’, in Simon Coleman & Peter Collins (eds), Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology, Oxford: Berg, pp.67-86.
Lund, Katrin (2005), ‘Seeing in Motion and the Touching Eye: Walking over Scotland’s Mountains’, The Senses (a guest-edited issue of Etnofoor: Anthropological Journal), Vol. 18, No. 1, pp. 27-42.
Manning, Erin (2009), ‘Taking the Next Step, Touch as Technique’, Sense and Society, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 211-226.
Mackellar, Dorothea, (1981 ) My Country, Poem.
Page, Tara (in preparation), Placemaking: Art, Practice, Pedagogy, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Page, Tara (2017), The Potentials and Possibilities of the Between. Poem. Unpublished.
Page, Tara (2002), Morning, Poem, Unpublished.
Page, Tara (1999), Imagine, Poem, Unpublished.
Springett, Selina (2015), ‘Going Deeper or Flatter: Connecting Deep Mapping, Flat Ontologies and the Democratizing of Knowledge’, Humanities, Vol. 4, No. 4, pp. 623–636.
Whitehead, Alfred North (1938), Modes of Thought, New York: Macmillan.
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