Salon NOTEBOOK: Grisha Coleman
by Zachary Whittenburg
Information pours forth from Grisha Coleman in discussion of her work at approximately the same rate it enters and is chewed up by her data-driven, multidisciplinary performance pieces. I struggled to keep pace with pen on paper as Coleman burned vocal rubber through a breakdown of parallel reality streams, diversions into aboriginal Australian practices, and explication of the lasting impact of being an Urban Bush Woman. Coleman is currently Professor of Movement, Computation and Digital Media in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering at Arizona State University, but it was quickly clear that points of entry to her research can be found all over the globe, at present in its deserts.
Action Station #2 of her five-part echo::system project is focused on and defined by parched landscapes. Coleman enlisted four collaborators upon launching the venture: An ecologist, architect, writer and sound designer give the process arborescent connections to fields outside her own, an approach that seems to be the only one capable of satisfying echo::system's voracious appetite. Of her time in Alberta at the Banff Centre's New Media Institute-she was invited there by Sara Diamond, who started the BNMI in 1995 and ran it for a decade-Coleman mentioned how productive she found she could be in an environment that provided not only up-to-date technological equipment, but "old-fashioned" hardware like pianos as well. When she says, "It's hard to get access to all the things you might be interested in," one gets the impression that "all the things" she's talking about is a very large set of items, indeed.
echo::system is a play on "ecosystem," and the fact that Coleman's work and process is a mirror of sorts, a set of simulacra she uses to immerse the viewer in a poetic visualization of ecological forecasting and environmental analysis. "I became disillusioned with the experience of sitting in a theater," she says. "I mean, how can you do anything truly different within the static context of a proscenium stage?" We were shown a six-minute video excerpt from echo::system Action Station #2: The Desert, a tease of puzzling images that begged for closer inspection.
Six dancers, including Coleman, systematically roam an open-sided space designed by London architect John Oduroe with a cork floor scored into squares, creased like disassembled origami, and patterned with a hard-edged arabesque of dotted lines. Light pours up through the cracks between tiles like hot orange magma peeking through hardened lava; one panel, slid over like a manhole cover, leaves a hole through which an upside-down dancer's legs shoot skyward, slowly walking in place on the dark air. The Desert is also populated by treadmills, their software hacked by robotics students, in reference to what Coleman sees as current perspectives on nature abutted to traditions like the Aborigines's walkabouts. ("It's called ‘singing the land,'" Coleman explains. "They return to the same path they walked 50 or 70 years later, and observe the places they passed in their youth. I'm applying this to a future system in which a person's only reference to walking is on a treadmill, so when it comes time for their walkabout, they drag their treadmill into the desert and walk in place.") In a dispassionate voiceover, we hear the words, One drone had a revelation: All deserts are the same. Watching The Desert, or at least the excerpts of it we were shown, is like being inside a blown-up, digitized reimagining of Alberto Giacometti's On Ne Joue Plus, or a dance theater adaptation of Wild Palms in which Harry Wyckoff is an ecologist instead of a patent attorney.
Questions from this Salon's attendees sent Coleman shooting off in all directions and ricocheting between description and reflection. An observation of her adeptness at finding collaborators birthed the explanation that execution of her work has increasingly come to rest on "finding populations that are turned on by the tasks" her ideas request. She offered overviews of previous work like echo::system Action Station #1: The Abyss, executed in 2003 at California Institute of the Arts's Integrated Media Program, and previews of upcoming projects like a Toronto-based study involving a reprogramming of the popular arcade game Dance Dance Revolution.
Coleman's work is immersive to think about. The journey research for it has taken her on is even more so. Of echo::system, she observes, "I had the idea, and the idea changed my lifestyle." The Wesleyan graduate has been a research fellow/artist-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University, a Course Director at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, and holds an MFA in Composition and Integrated Media from CalArts, aside from her four years with Urban Bush Women and being the creator of Hot Mouth productions like You Say What I Mean but What You Mean Is Not What I Said in the late 1990s. As we were walked through her adventures, time stretched one way, and then the other: The Abyss was "a small-scale simluation of what happens over a thousand years in the abyssal layer of the ocean," while The Desert is a telescopic expansion of the first minute after noon, "when the heat and intensity of the desert climate are at their peak."
Each statement revealed Coleman's thirst for detail. Her work is fueled by "behemoth" data sets, she explains, "by massive complexity in multiple dimensions. It's aestheticized and abstracted, but it's because that's the way I approach and instigate engagement with the question of something like climate change." Still, her frames of reference aren't all buried in piles of metadata and mile-long histograms. "When I look at the mastery of improvising artists, whether movers, musicians or whoever, I'm constantly stunned by their ability to engage in that dance of manifesting the complexity of space, of taking in the enormity of everything around them and instantly formulating a comprehensive response."
As much as echo::system seems to aspire to finality, "sometimes I think that all this is just an excuse to start a conversation," Coleman says. When asked if her studies' scope ever becomes suffocating, her answer comes immediately and without hesitation. "No, I don't mind being in this massive machine. I like it."
Save the Date: The next CDF/Silverspace Salon will be on Monday, March 22 with Mark Jeffrey and Judd Morrissey discussing the build process for The Precession , which will premiere at the Hyde Park Art Center in December, 2010.