I’ve just started on a 10-week residency at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, developing my work with street trees. The first few days have been a process of landing, beginning to explore the context, but already noticing some striking features. Grenoble is a well-treed city, with a lot of small and larger parks, and trees in many streets, including along the tramways in the centre of larger boulevards and avenues. There are a lot of young trees and there has been some controversy over how many trees have been cut down in the last few years (I hope to find out more about this). On my first day, air pollution levels were high so public transport was free. The city aims to plant 15,000 new trees by 2030. These are the kinds of little pieces of information I’m gathering to start building a picture of tree-being here. In the next few posts I’ll talk about the practical research I’m starting, and plans for how it might develop. With the recent, painful process of a practice-based PhD behind me, I’m also thinking a lot about how this fits into an academic research context.
After a surreal and beautiful journey home (empty trains through an empty landscape right through France on a gorgeous spring day), I came back to confined London. Like most other people, I have a lot of unknowns to deal with, trying to work out how to survive, how to make sense of my days, how to live alone in isolation.
I come back with all this work done and not done. So I am thinking a lot about how and where I could take it. The university in Grenoble may or may not be in a position to invite me back, but if they do it will only be for a couple of performances, not the depth of research I had planned. I am in touch with the dancers, and we exchange news from our isolation bubbles, and ideas for new tasks and exercises with trees where we are. I’m working on small maps close to home, along the lines of the big one I made in Grenoble (which I had to leave there, I have no idea what will become of it as it’s on 8 big A1-A0 sheets, just stored in the workshop). I’m thinking of performances and interventions I might propose, but I’m not a digital artist and I’m not thinking of putting this work online at the moment (not sure how I would do that anyway). I plan to carry on with the idea to design the business cards, they might be a start for a shared activity that can be done alone. But it’s important to me as well that this is a collective thing. As we all are, I wait and see.
And then, coronavirus hit. We’d been hearing the news from Italy, the few cases in a ski resort not far from Grenoble, and then it was clearly becoming established throughout France. Educational establishments were shut down in early March – I had to collect what I could from the university in the hope of continuing my research from my Airbnb.
In the week beginning 16 March I was supposed to start two weeks of public workshops with two of the Maisons des Habitants in the city, working with migrant groups. I was also supposed to be doing a 3-day workshop with students from the art school ESAD. By 13 March it was clear that those would not be going ahead – more and more public institutions were closing, and then on 17 March confinement was imposed. We were not to go out except for essential purposes; if we went out we had to carry with us a form saying where we lived and what our purpose was. If we didn’t have it, or weren’t obeying the rules, we could be fined. (One day, out for a run, I was stopped and told that 3 km was too far to be from my residence.) Obviously, it was pretty hard to carry on with anything from that point. I worked a little on writing, and reflected with the materials I had on where I might go from here. Eventually, it became clear that I would have to come back to London. I lost three weeks of the residency, and most crucially, the public activities I was planning, that were a really important part of the research.
A long hiatus since my last post. Obviously, a lot has happened since then…
In this post I want to talk about how I was working in the couple of weeks before confinement kicked in (on 17 March in France, but things were already shutting down before). I stopped writing partly because I had an extreme inflammation of my eyes and it was really difficult to look at screens for a while. That carried on for a couple of weeks but though I was very tired I was still able to do other work.
I had two fantastic weeks of work with the group of dancers I’d selected, researching in the studio and outdoors. We usually started each day with individual movement exploration in the studio, engaging with different body structures or systems (I based this work on my studies of Body-Mind Centering®), and then sometimes some partnerwork. We thought about some ways these might relate to tree-being (e.g., the structure of our skin compared to the structure of tree bark, the flow of arterial and venous blood compared to the flow of sap and water+nutrients) – but it was important not to imagine ourselves ‘as trees’ or think that we necessarily have direct communication with them. Then we worked outside, with simple improvisation scores (e.g. lying under a tree, coming to verticality over a period of 20 minutes). Or choosing a tree to be with for a time, and then gradually moving away until we felt we lost the connection. The weather was variable and we were sometimes getting wet, but everybody was OK with that (in waterproofs!). It was great to be able to work in the university arboretum, which is quiet and has some very beautiful trees in it, most of them allowed to grow without cutting or containmment. We also did some work in a long curving line of harshly pollarded plane trees on the campus.
In the second week we started working in the streets. It was very different, much harder to hold the quietness and attention we’d been working with on the campus, in the traffic noise and fumes. It was interesting to see how people reacted – some accepting, some oblivious, some concerned if we were all right, a few quite aggressive, disturbed by us simply standing for a long time, each by a tree. I was thinking a lot about how to make this sustainable for us as performers, but also how to make it inviting to engage with, if only for a few moments. We came to the conclusion that stillness might be best, rather than slow movement, because the point was to allow attention to be drawn to the trees, not us as a ‘performance’ (and especially not to virtuosity, which very slow movement can suggest, a super-human feat of endurance). I was still thinking about this as we ended our weeks of research.
I am so grateful to the dancers, each of whom had such delicate, sensitive qualities of attention in their movement and the way they chose to be with the trees. This whole time of work with them felt very rich, full of potential both for performances (which we planned) and for other kinds of intervention or invitation. I started to think about several different interventions for the end – the performances (one in a busy street with a long line of lime trees in very bad shape, one in a park with a lot of mature trees, but in a neighbourhood generally seen as disadvantaged), but also making the maps with alternative walking routes, and creating business cards with suggestions for ways of engaging with trees that people could take away.
This week’s been a little better though not without its frustrations.
A big step forward was that (thanks to a contact through my Airbnb hosts) I was able to meet with the guy who manages all the city’s gardeners. It was a great meeting, felt like we were on completely the same page about the need to respect the trees and give them what they need rather than grudgingly squeezing them into spaces and then hacking them back. (He also pointed me to a couple of really interesting books.) This means that the work I want to do in a couple of the parks and the streets can be facilitated (authorisations are needed, of course…). I left the meeting with a big smile on my face.
Also this week I held an audition for the dancers/movers I plan to work with for a couple of weeks, exploring resonances between human body and tree-being, and working out how to make a dance that really feels shared between the two (not just a dance ‘for’ the trees). The dancers were all great and it was really difficult to make a selection, but I now have a team of four, plus Claudia (the intern on the project), to start work with in a few days.
Yesterday I did another walk through the city, taking bark rubbings from the trees I met. Once again it was a dry day but with a very cold wind. Claudia was with me documenting, and we were both chilled by the end. Around 260 trees this time, and much more monocultural – whole stretches of roads with one kind of tree, again not always in the best conditions. It gave me ideas for working with movement around the trees.
The map is growing very slowly (so far I’ve only managed to squeeze in a few minutes each day on it, and it’s another frustration that I can’t get into the studio at weekends or stay late at night). I would love to have time to do many more long
walks but probably won’t. Using the database, I do plan to map a few suggested itineraries (e.g. ‘The Beech Tour of Grenoble’, tour of the oldest and youngest trees, etc.), to offer as walks for anyone who fancies taking them.
(This was originally a much longer post venting a huge load of frustration…) Last week was a very up and down week, with some major frustrations and some more exciting openings, as well as (some of the time) being able to get into something that feels like I’m actually doing something.
It’s been really frustrating with having meetings slotted into my days, often in places that take time to get to, which mean I’m breaking off in what I’m trying to do with the research. Some of these are about meeting people (there are a lot of people to meet as there are several organisations involved in holding this project), but quite a few are just admin and bureaucracy that feel like unnecessary time-wasting – like having to get a quote, then an order confirmation, before I can buy any materials out of my budget – it can take me a week to get a sketch pad and a stick of charcoal.
With some materials finally in hand, I have been making some trials of them. I especially want to find a sustainable way of placing markers or signs on trees, to say they have been twinned. The aim is still to take a bark impression from one tree, that I can then tie to its twin tree, and vice versa. My previous version was laminated paper, but I
don’t want to use the plastic any more. So I’ve been trying clay – both paper clay (fired) and self-firing clay. I wanted to get an impression of the hand pressing the clay into the bark so there’s also a trace of the tree-human exchange. The bark texture comes through well on most of them, but it’s much harder to get the skin texture on the other side. Still, I like the kind of hybrid creature these suggest – the bark-hand. I’ve also tried eco-friendly ink prints on fabric, but so far the cotton and linen I’ve been using are too coarse to make the bark texture visible. I’m now thinking about how to waterproof the paper bark rubbings in a sustainable way.
Last Friday I spent the whole day out, walking from one side of the city to the other (and from the shiny hi-tech quarter to the much poorer social housing at the other end), and taking bark rubbings from each tree I met. This was not nearly all the trees there were along the route – I only took rubbings from trees on the side of the road I was walking on, but it was still over 300 trees, on a walk that took around six and a half hours. I’m planning to make an experiential map of the walk using those small (about 1×1.5 cm) graphite marks, and also to do at least one more long walk like this.