Reflections on Improvisation

Chryssa Varna, "Renders in a Row," from "Industrial Improvisation"

Ramiro Gomez, "Claudia y Patricia"

Text by Julie Carlson, with commentary by group participants.  Image credit: Chryssa Varna, from “Industrial Improvisation”, and Ramiro Gomez, “Claudia y Patricia”

Literature and the Mind has embarked on a two-year study of improvisation. Long associated with the impromptu, the ad hoc, the spontaneous, and the ensemble, improvisation currently is a popular topic in an array of disciplines because of the alternatives it poses to conventional and canonical standards of thought. A key feature of the phenomenology of improvisation is a series of dialectical paradoxes (i.e., tradition/innovation; structure/caprice; trust/risk; solo/group) that enlist modes of thinking that are embodied, post-formal, co-creative, and psycho-eco-analytic and thus that advance our group’s prior investigations of talking cures and theories and practices of care. Another key element is that improvisation is a life practice of virtually every type of creature, study of which demystifies “human” and “being” and intensifies cross-species collaborations, including display behaviors. This past year we read authors and invited speakers who discuss improvisation within disciplines such as performance studies, cognitive neuroscience, psychoanalysis, and biosemiotics. But in considering these various extensions of the history of thought, our particular interest was to stay focused on perspectives that emerge from improvisation’s two chief domains: performance arts and aggrieved communities.   Both domains, we believe, not only create things that enliven thought more de/constructively than most other perspectives but also, by approaching “thought” from two of its alleged underbellies, place into conversation and tension the different forms of sociality and society-making that the improvisatory tactics of the arts and the aggrieved envisage. If one powerful definition of jazz is “the sound of surprise,” improvisation, then, challenges us to reformulate trust in contexts where its being broken is a foregone conclusion. At the same time, improvisation in the arts and by the aggrieved demonstrates how crucially thriving remains tied to surviving and vice versa.

Because of this orientation, our group is especially drawn to centers like the International Institute for the Study of Critical Improvisation at the University of Guelph in London, Ontario who consider improvisation as a social as well as aesthetic practice. (Thanks to George Lipsitz, the UC Santa Barbara Center for Black Studies Research is pursuing a partnership with them.) Their projects endorse Muhal Richard Abrams’ assertion that “improvisation is a human right” and emphasize how theories and practices of improvised music offer models for human rights discourse and struggles that do not proceed from enlightenment concepts of autonomy, order, and individualism but instead from cooperation, negotiations of difference, risk-taking, and trust.   We thus started the year by reading chapters from one of their several book publications, The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights and the Ethics of Cocreation, co-authored by Daniel Fischlin, Ajay Heble, and George Lipsitz, and discussed with George Lipsitz (UCSB Department of Black Studies and Sociology) various arts-based community-revisions that are pursuing rights along more poetic lines of justice (e.g., Project Row-Houses in Houston, Free Southern Theater Institute, Students at the Center in New Orleans). But we also wanted our discussions to complicate what this “living-together” through improvisation entails by considering it from the perspectives of the undercommons, a collectivity for whom the concept of rights is bankrupt and whose joy in existence requires not playing with institutions, and of a psychoanalysis that counts living together as a singular creature one of the most problematic features of living. So we invited as our first two speakers Fred Moten (Professor of English, UC Riverside) and Philip Ringstrom (psychoanalyst and faculty at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis), who are the most creative improvisational thinkers we know in the fields of jazz and black radical thought and of psychoanalysis. Our second set of speakers, Grisha Coleman (Professor of Movement, Computation, and Digital Media, Arizona State University) and Ann Randolph (playwright, sketch comedian, improv instructor), pursue these impulses specifically through bodies of non/thought, each of them expert at using arts of the body to expand spaces for remaking a feel of togetherness.

 

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GUESTS/ SPEAKERS

24 November, 2014: FRED MOTEN

Co-sponsored with “Anti-Racism Inc.” of the American Cultures in Global Contexts Center

Image by Mike Tofanelli

Image credit: Mike Tofanelli

“When Literature and the Mind chose as its focus of study improvisation as a life practice that crosses species, foregrounds the arts, and crafts dis/order, we were channeling Fred Moten—and not just because his work is all about the topic and his writing is the most creative and innovatory that we know. It’s also that the things that he studies—jazz, the avant garde, the black radical tradition, the undercommons, fugitivity—are improvisations so that attending to them in the way that he does already puts us in this space, if we can hear what he is saying. There’s the rub. This is a challenge because mostly we encounter Fred through reading, not hearing, his writing, which is difficult and which means to be difficult in part because writing is not the preferred medium of the things he studies, all of whom and which have been defined as “thing” and as “nothing” by western can(n)ons of thought. So Fred writes from beyond the subject/object division, in the break or gap out of which differential somethings are generated, and without spending time—or wasting precious time—objecting to subjects and institutions invested in a symbolic order that perpetuates its relay race, even rat races also known as white flight. Fred’s words make readers go elsewhere, hear other voices and voicings, the noise and shimmer of movement, so that readers have a sensuous experience of absence, a sense of the surround of this sound, this place, this train of feeling. This requires returning words to their matter, the materiality by which loss moves—yo mama—and to the fantasy of the hold, the holding pattern, something that blackness and black study is in, not on its way toward or seeking to escape from, which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t require ongoing planning.

If reading typeface can conjure all this, Fred’s writings suggest, imagine—pick up on—what hearing jazz, walking downtown, dancing do. Here is the undercommons, where study happens apart from the sobriety, professionalizing, and criticizing that to his and Stefano Harney’s joint ears ruin universities and rob thought of the capacity to improvise. To me what is so powerful about Fred’s work is how its theorizing and embodying of improvisation connect improvisation and blackness as a life practice, a fugitive planning that we are in to the extent that we are in the dark and are comfortable being there: nothing new and always avant garde, not a choice but also not subjection or subjectifying, a sense surround. ‘Can this interplay of the refusal of what has been refused, this undercommon appositionality, be a place from which emerges neither self-consciousness nor knowledge of the other but an improvisation that proceeds from somewhere on the other side of an unasked question?’ ‘Let’s share so we can differ, in undercommon misunderstanding. Our undercommonness is that we have no standing. That’s all it is, that’s where it’s at, in the open we keep making.’”

 

2 February, 2015: PHILIP RINGSTROM

Photo by Mark Gerald

Photo credit: Mark Gerald, from “In the Shadow of Freud’s Couch”

“Involved in the school of thinking called ‘Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy’ that foregrounds the relationality of personhood in intrapsychic and interpersonal domains, Phil Ringstrom likes to speak of the ‘committee of the mind’ in describing psychic processes. He thus brings into clinical settings awareness of the startling number of persons and self-states present when allegedly two or three are gathered. In a recent interview celebrating the publication of his new book, A Relational Psychoanalytic Approach to Couple’s Psychotherapy (Routledge, 2014), Phil states that ‘couples psychotherapy may be the best modality for introducing new patients to psychodynamic psychotherapy,’ better initially than the more usual individual therapy, especially for those individuals who enter therapy with little familiarity with psychoanalysis. He gives as example the often-impoverished or astonished reaction of a patient to the invitation to describe how the analyst’s late arrival affected and is interpreted by him or her as opposed to the richly-elaborated response that a husband is ready to offer in responding to his wife’s late arrival to the session. More generally, his approach there, and in the work that we have read for today, is to supplement the analyst’s empathic introspective approach to the patient’s discourse with an enactive approach that attends to implicit as well as explicit modes of communication and draws on close observation of present moment encounters between analyst and analysand.

When we were first drawing up lists of potential invitees for our focus on improvisation, at least 3 people immediately said ‘you have to invite Phil Ringstrom.’ His mode of relational psychoanalysis draws on literary dimensions of the mind both in its attention to improvisation and to structuring features that analytic process shares with drama and theater.   Phil’s attention to the committee of the mind, and his attempts to ensure that these various constituents are heard, benefit from drama’s externalization of self-states into distinguishable but interacting dramatis personae. What he calls a relational ethic around which he organizes a therapeutic session helps to keep the role of analyst closer to that of a co-actor or player than director, observer, or critic. His writing fosters our ongoing interests in improvisation and its cross-disciplinary artistry, especially what we have been reading about the musical edges of therapeutic dialogue (Steven H. Knoblauch) and improvisational jazz as embodying the sound of surprise. His stance is theory-play, where a session becomes ‘a dramatic piece that neither of us would imagine on our own.’”

 

4 March 2015: GRISHA COLEMAN

Co-sponsored with Hemispheric South/s

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“Ever since declaring improvisation our focus, we in Literature and the Mind have been eager to have Grisha Coleman here for the ways that her life, career, and practice coordinate several of the modes and theories of improvisation that we’ve been studying: music, theater, psychological and physical movement, forms of philosophy that privilege the senses, and forms of activism that stem from the undercommons. Currently Professor of Movement, Computation, and Digital Media at the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the School of Dance at Arizona State University, Grisha is also a dancer, composer, and choreographer of live performance and experiential media systems. She danced in the early 1990s with the Urban Bush Women and founded the music performance group Hotmouth, which toured extensively in the late 90s. Several of us already encountered one of her modes of thinking in the noon-hour movement workshop she conducted, ‘Embodying the Improvisatory,’ where we experienced ourselves as bodies in space that individuate and flock, rest and move, in a sense-surround where the body is no longer perceived or treated simply as the way to carry around one’s brain.

I first learned of Grisha’s work through Stephanie Batiste, who knew her at Carnegie Mellon and who collaborated with Grisha on a four-person panel called ‘Fat Black Monkeys: Systems Thinking and Critical Culture in the Choreography of the Other.’ The panel engineered a conversation on primates, big data, obesity, performance, and black speculative fictions in order to explore the function of choreography within and beyond the context of dance and of humans. Their focus on data bodies, technological bodies, racialized bodies, animal bodies aimed to highlight kinds of tactical bodies and choreographic thinking that cross species and times. Her amazing installation project, echo::systems, on which Grisha will be speaking today, highlights her other interests and expertise in computation and in environmental studies and activism. One project, ‘36 Walk: a case study of reciprocity in movement and computation,’ joins the kinesthetic and choreographic system that comprises a dance event with the procedural, algorithmic systems that compose the ‘bones’ of computational tools. ‘Echo::systems’ trains this coordination of movement and computation onto concern with the environment, in an effort to regain forms of connection with the land and to move persons to care more for and about it. This is kinesthetic (and kin-aesthetic) ecocriticism that promises to transform how we act in spaces.”
1 April 2015: ANN RANDOLPH: Improv Practicum

Co-sponsored with the College of Creative Studies

Lit & Mind Graduate Student-sponsored event: Organized and introduced by Rebecca Chenoweth

Ann Randolph, "Loveland" (photo by Teresa Wood)

Ann led us in our group’s first graduate student-sponsored event. When we thought about what direction we wanted to take our study of improvisation, many of us hoped we could use our event to put the ideas we’ve encountered so far into physical and verbal practice, by participating in improvisation as it’s understood in theater and even in everyday life. And when we looked for someone who could lead us in this workshop while adding more to our understanding of improvisation, it was clear to us that Ann’s background, focus on narrative form, and enthusiasm would make her the perfect fit.

Ann is an award-winning playwright, storyteller, sketch comedian, and improv instructor. Her latest solo show “Loveland” was awarded “best Solo Show” by SF Weekly and LA Weekly, and “Best Original Script by the SF Bay Critics. Her previous solo show, “Squeeze Box,” was produced by Mel Brooks and the late Anne Bancroft, and it was also awarded “Best Solo Show.” She is also a popular spoken word artist, winning the LA Moth storytelling competition and featuring on NPR, PBS, and the BBC.

As a sketch artist, she has performed her original material with renowned performance groups like The Groundlings and The Midnight Show (connected to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater), and has worked with the likes of Will Ferrell, Cheri Oteri, and the creators of “Reno 911.”

Ann drew on this extensive performance and writing background to lead others in workshops on topics ranging from “writing your life,” to “finding the funny in our darkest hour,” and “the healing power of story.” Ann helped us to engage the performative aspects of improvisation (as we did in Grisha Coleman’s movement workshop), and to consider how improvisation can be put into practice in everyday life.

 

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TALK/BACK

Each of our speakers was invited to talk about how improvisation figures in their lives, work, and ways of being. One of our underlying questions in focusing on improvisation is how to keep (or to make) life on the ground(less), especially our lives in the university, a source of creativity, of fun, a space that is receptive to un/thinking.   Here are some reflections on and reactions to their remarks.

 

FRED MOTEN

Fred describes what he was doing in In the Break as highlighting improvisation as a method of deconstruction. That book features resources in the black radical tradition that give a clue as to how to move through the nervous position that Adorno characterizes as an oscillation between two impossible modes of being in order to propose improvisation as a counter-neurotic, a pseudo-philosophical intervention. Then four or five years ago, he says, he became increasingly interested in the word “nothing,” by way of trying to remove the traces of agency in uplift-related phrases like “making something out of nothing” or “make a way out of no way.” His interest is in considering nothing as a different form of sociality and has begun thinking about global mysticism in relation to nothingness. This relates to his opposition to subjectivity and his rethinking of consent, expressed in “consent not to be one,” where consent is not tied to a subject or a subjective but instead is a framework in which we live. If sociality is structured not by self/other but by consent not to be one, then shame and a whole lot else isn’t necessary.

 

PHIL RINGSTROM

Phil’s writing and therapeutic practice challenge the longstanding proposition that an analytic stance of abstinence, neutrality, and anonymity is best suited to eliciting the patient’s unconscious. His mode is improvisational in line with his concept of psychoanalysis as a theory of play, in which the session becomes a dramatic piece that neither analyst or analysand would be able to imagine on their own. Describing several of his cases, he shows how privileging a participant-participant model of interaction allows for the analytic “third” to gain voice and enter the scene more readily. Binaries of dominance/submission or emergence/anxiety interfere with the improvisational, so part of his practice is to come down from the “perch” of neutrality and risk the presence of the present and all that is present in it.

Phil Ringstrom visited Santa Barbara as I was working my way through the “foundations and interfaces” section of the Lit and Mind qualifying exam reading list—although I don’t think it was timing alone that made his visit foundational to me. As I floundered in many different definitions of psychoanalysis and beliefs about how to practice it, Phil Ringstrom helped me to feel, for the first time in my studies, what psychoanalysis could be. Phil Ringstrom peppered his conversational discussion with anecdotes from his sessions that he jumped up and delivered in entertaining solo-performance style. The scenes he shared with us not only demonstrated how delightful it must be to be in analysis with him, but also how much he cares for the people he sees. Committing to play with someone in an imaginative improvised scene not only facilitates psychoanalytic work but also is affirming in itself.

 

GRISHA COLEMAN

Grisha’s multi-media art and performance installation “echo::systems” works to strengthen people’s capacity to listen as the land talks back. Acknowledging the profound disconnect between what science says and how people perceive what science says about the emerging global environmental crisis, “echo::systems” brings together environmental science, technology, and performance art in an effort to help individuals recover a relationship with the land. Part of this involves denaturing how we act in spaces by providing digitally mediated images of a particular ecosystem at an action station, where an individual’s movement on a treadmill activates real and imagined data drawn from cultural, historical, and ecological information of the given habitat (the entire project includes Abyss, Desert, Forest, Prairie, Volcano). The claim is that this denaturing helps invigorate how we act in those spaces because it provides a kinesthetic and immersive rather than observational and detached experience of space. Moreover, the treadmill makes individuals walk but not move, providing an embodied reflection on differential expenditures of energy. As with other Sense Labs that our group has been studying, Grisha’s “echo::systems” dis/orients minds and bodies in space in the hopes of granting those spaces more time.

Grisha’s interactive art installation of the “Desert” should draw attention to the disconnect between the climate controlled experience of Coleman’s participant-audience living in Phoenix and the life-threatening journey of those attempting to immigrate to the U.S. through the deserts surrounding that asphalt metropolis. Coleman invited Phoenix residents to walk on treadmills while viewing footage she had filmed of the nearby deserts. She incorporated their experiences into her performance that focused on the connection between desert spaces and spiritual journeys.

 

While Grisha visited us, she also led members of Literature and the Mind and Hemispheric South/s in a Movement Workshop, the first of two encounters that we had with theatrical, dance, and generally embodied forms of improvisation. We followed these wordlessly, focusing on our own movement and that of our neighbors. Rather than directing us to move in a particular pace or direction, Grisha invited us to decide what felt “fast” or “slow” to us, and to maneuver in relation to those around us without being entirely guided by them. This workshop helped us to consider movement in relation to our environment, which is a crucial aspect of the “echo::systems” installation; and more broadly, it challenged us to consider the extent to which our minds are embodied.

 

ANN RANDOLPH

Ann first recounted aspects of her life-story as an unintended journey toward improv artistry through a series of improvisatory (aka last-ditch) responses to persistent roadblocks to achieving her goals. In effect, these thwartings suggested to her that the real problem was the idea of life as moving toward a defined goal rather than as ongoing movement in accordance with consideration of where a prior move takes or simply lands one. She then led us through a series of improv exercises. One had us moving through imagined apertures with different parts of the body taking the lead in order to experience what mental/emotional stances emerge when the arm or pelvis or chest leads the body. Pairing off, we then did a series of exercises in relaying speech, responding to the other’s statement “Please don’t go” with “I have to go” back and forth over and over. A final free-write began with the prompt “I knew it was over when” or “how I got my name,” which each of us then read aloud—a striking experience of how intimately one can know another whom one doesn’t know in the conventional sense and of how rarely such encounters happen.

Ann Randolph’s initial solo-performance lured me to into a false state of comfort by inviting me to play my accustomed role of audience member. She then raised the stakes by inviting us to do curious things with our voices and bodies. Some requests seemed natural to me—I guess I do walk around leading with my hips or head. The further her directions pushed me from my own-self-performance, the more challenging they were to follow——I can’t remember the last time I shouted at someone, and it did not feel good during her workshop. These wild and silly activities, however, did loosen something in my mind because when she asked us to write the words came tumbling down like flight attendants fear luggage will from overhead compartments on turbulent flights. While it was frightening to share my personal writing, the willingness of others to share—as they participated in all the other activities—made it possible for me to share mine. I am grateful for the commitment of the group to play and share.

 

 

To add to these thoughts, please email Rebecca Chenoweth or Julie Carlson.

Undergraduate Course: History of the Mind

M0001845 John Haygarth. Line engraving by W. Cooke, 1827, after J. H.

Instructor: Aranye Fradenburg

Course: English 170, Spring 2015

By “a history of mind,” I mean a history of thinking about the mind. Is it embodied, inspired, dispersed? How do minds understand each other? How do they shape their environments, including their cultural environments, and how are they shaped by them in turn? To find out how good minds from the past explored these questions, we will read Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul) and Poetics; Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex; St. Augustine’s Confessions, Book X; Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding; Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy; Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia,” and selections from The Interpretation of Dreams; all interspersed with various poems and commentaries from different eras. This course will give you a foundation for thinking about more particular histories of mind on topics like creativity, love, play, and madness.

Image: Aristotle, detail from “De Anima”

CONFERENCE: “On the Beach:” BABEL Working Group Biennial Meeting

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From October 16-18, UC Santa Barbara’s campus hosts the third biennial meeting of the BABEL Working Group. This year, artists, scholars, and other thinkers meet to address the theme “On the Beach: Precariousness, Risk, Forms of Life, Affinity, and Play at the Edge of the World.”  This unconventional meeting invites participants to “comb the beach — not to straighten out, nor even to mine, but to entangle while also pondering.”   The conference is co-sponsored by many departments and initiatives across and beyond UCSB’s campus, including Literature and the Mind.

View the complete program here.

Follow the latest goings-on at the Babel Working Group on their blog here.

Image above via Joni Sternbach, SurfLand

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Beach ball featured in “Chaucer on the Beach” panel


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UNDERGRADUATE COURSE: Feeling, Place, Expression

Fish Blood Detail Instructor: Aranye Fradenburg

Course: English 197, Fall 2014

Until the post-World War II period, the interdependence of human psychology with our environments was, for the most part, unthought.  But the advent of nuclear power forced scientists and humanists alike to think more deliberately about this interdependence.  The publication of groundbreaking work on ecology and psychology in the 1970’s, during the First Wave of the contemporary environmental movement, led to what is now a rich interdisciplinary body of work on the subject.  This course will introduce you to that body of work, drawing on the work of philosophers (“ecosophy”), scientific psychologists, and psychoanalysts (“eco-psychoanalysis”) that now asks us, not just to understand better our “place” in the environment, but also to understand better the “place” of the environment within our selves.

Literature, of course, fictional or otherwise, has always understood the evocative power of these emplacements, from Homer’s fascination with the structure of the city of Troy to the lyrics of Siouxsie and the Banshee’s “Let’s Go to Pluto.” So we will be reading selections from Isenberg’s collection State of the Arts:  California Writers Talk About Their Work; Young’s collection The Literature of California:  Native American Beginnings to 1945; Cortez, On the Imperial Highway:  New and Selected Poems; Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles; and John McPhee, Assembling California. 

Critical/analytical inspirations will include selections from Geoffrey Bateman’s Steps To An Ecology of Mind; Dodd’s Psychoanalysis and Ecology at the Edge of Chaos; and Rust, Vital Signs: Psychological Responses to Ecological Crisis. 

Image: Gustav Klimt, “Fish Blood”