Impact Afghanistan War blog archive

July 14, 2010

im-pact: 1. forceful contact; 2. to have an impact or effect on; influence; alter.

There is an odd relief in committing myself to a process of experiencing impact—inviting it. It makes me aware of how much of life is dedicated to avoiding or mitigating impact. In the early post-9/11 days when so many “Americans” were so deeply affected by the attack on the twin-towers I remember how immediately the state entered to manage the emotional response, channeling it into nationalistic and patriotic fervor. And then, within weeks, how the message was sent loudly and clearly to go back to business as usual.

 

July 23, 2010, Peace Conference, Albany New York

We (Cassie and I) are attending the “National Peace Conference” in Albany, New York. I’m looking forward to dialoging with peace activists about “Impact Afghanistan War.” Also nervous. This is the first time I’ll be “falling” outside of Toronto and the first time I’ll be inviting dialog and response by having postcards and a Canadian flag with the following statement written on it.

 

Toronto, Canada

Dear Witness,

On July 1 (Canada Day) 2010 I began “Impact Afghanistan War,” a one-year project where I fall 100 times every day in a public space. Each fall represents a death in Afghanistan.

Since the onset of the post-9/11 US-led invasion of Afghanistan, 150 Canadian military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan. I dedicate my first 150 falls to these dead. Each of these deaths has been memorialized through public repatriation ceremonies, the naming of “Highway of Heroes“, and more recently, the “Route of Heroes.”

Unlike the Canadian military dead, there are no exact numbers for Afghans who have been killed or died as a result of war-related causes during this time. The lack of an accurate accounting of Afghan dead is the result of the US/NATO no-body count policy.

“Impact Afghanistan War” is my attempt to reach beyond the numbness produced by abstract numbers, political debates and media spectacularization.

Sincerely,

Helene

[Note: On July 22, 2010 24-year-old Sapper Brian Collier became Canada’s 151st military casualty in Afghanistan. I dedicate one of my falls on this day to him and the remainder continue to be dedicated to the many Afghan dead whose names and numbers go largely unreported.]

 

July 26, 2010, Falling in the heart of the “Empire State”

The National Peace Conference in Albany, New York–a gathering of almost 600 peace activist (mostly from the US) and over 30 peace organizations–has come to a close. I was moved by people’s passion, commitment and willingness to grapple with harsh truths and the complex undertaking of peace-making and alliance building. (I was also grateful to Food Not Bombs, and the hotel’s hot tub, for their steady provision of opportunities to nourish and replenish.)

Everyday throughout the conference I “fell” in front of the New York State Capital Building. It was a rather dramatic departure from the more bucolic setting of Cedarvale Park in Toronto, where I’ve done most of my falls to-date. As I fell I was surrounded by the New York State Capital Building, Albany City Hall (which provided cacophonous accompaniment to today’s falls through a carillon concert performed by Jon Lehrer) an ongoing stream of cars, city busses and a steady trickle of tourists.

Attending the conference and listening to the words of Fahima Vorgetts of Women for Afghan Women, Kathy Kelly of Voices for Creative Non-violence, Iraqi vets speaking out against the war and the many other activists struggling to resist violence, militarism and war also impacted my inner landscape. Each fall was accompanied by their words and images, especially the stories of the suffering of the Afghani people.

 

August 1, 2010, “I’m not even going to ask.”

Yesterday, Cassie and I went with our friend Taunya to Wasaga Beach. Since it’s a holiday weekend the beach was quite crowded so when it was time for me to fall we found a place, a little out-of-the-fray, in the dunes between the beach and the beachfront cottages. As I’ve become used to in Cedarvale, no one approached us to inquire about what I/we were doing (though two beach patrol personnel on dune buggies hovered suspiciously nearby for a while). Though I’m reluctant to speculate as to the reasons for this (apparent) lack of response, its resonance with the larger narrative that Impact is attempting to investigate has been profound. As I fall over-and-over again and watch people pass by as though nothing is happening, I can’t help but imagine how it must be for those who are “falling” in Afghanistan, or for those who are watching their family, friends or loved ones dying. How must it be to witness the massive death and destruction of people you know and love while simultaneously watching the world go on with business as usual? And as I watch people walk by, I see myself. I see the ways I walk by and the myriad of reasons I have for doing so.

Today, Cassie and I went to watch my friend Zita perform with Clay and Paper Theatre in Dufferin Grove Park. The show–The Circus of Dark and Light–was delightful (though for those of us sitting in the back it was somewhat upstaged by the outlandishly joyful and kinetic performance of a toddler in the audience). After the performance, we looked for a relatively out-of-the-way spot in the park for me to do my falls in. Like Wasaga Beach, Dufferin Grove Park was far more densely populated than Cedarvale which meant that there was no such thing as an “out-of-the-way” spot. Since the remarkably well utilized park regularly hosts an amazing variety of activities my fellow park users were entirely unfazed by the “unusualness” of my activity and often ventured within feet of where I was falling. A few even asked Cassie what I was doing and took postcards. It was a young pick-up soccer-player, however, who may well have provided the most fitting caption for all the passersby who have walked by Impact over the course of the past month when he remarked (head shaking) to his Compadres, “I’m not even going to ask.” In our increasingly spectacularized landscape, how can we know when, where or how to bear witness?

 

August 10, 2010, Fear of Falling: Reflections on falling while on the road

“Once there were experts in the art of speaking, cursing and singing grief. Now there are experts in the art of dulling grief.”   (Gail Holst-Warhaft, 2000)

Just returned from vacation. For most of the trip I’ve been afraid. Afraid to talk about Impact. Afraid to be seen falling (which is troublesome since falling in the public arena is a central component of the project). I’ve felt afraid of alienating others, of disturbing the status quo. In the midst of all this fear, I feel a profound, almost overwhelming sense of alienation and isolation. It’s this alienation from my grief over the Afghan dead, over the seemingly endless lineage of death and destruction war leaves in its wake.

Nadia C. Seremetakis argues that historically women’s lament and funerary practices in Greece’s Southern Peloponesse operated as an “empowering poetics of the periphery” a space through which the “event of death” provided women with an opportunity to comment on and influence their social world. Likewise, Angela Bourke writes that the “Irish lamenter had license to behave and speak disruptively, but her craziness was not the isolating kind that makes people unable to communicate. If lament poets were crazy, it was surely only in the way a quilt may be crazy—in an articulate and structured way and as a creative response to containment.”

Deep down I think Impact is my attempt to awaken or activate this kind of courage within me. It’s my wish for myself (and for all of us) to connect not only to my grief but to my courage. Courage to find a way to defy or get around or through or do Aikido with this alienation that keeps us from our grief. I don’t feel very courageous in the face of being a Canadian and North American citizen in this world. I don’t feel courageous as an individual and I don’t feel connected to a courageous collective committed to resisting militarism and war.

Some Reflections on Falling While on the Road.

August 3 Presqu’ile Provincial Park, Ontario

It was a struggle to find a place to fall. I felt nervous of falling so far from an urban center, so close to Trenton (where there is a military base), so conscious of all the flags we passed by as we drove here. Until now, I’ve mostly been aware of how people haven’t stopped to witness, and how that fits into the larger story of the lack of Canadian media and public attention to Afghani deaths. Now it is my impulse to perform my falling in hidden locations that I’m most aware of. To not have it seen.

After a month of falling I’m feeling quite physically impacted. (Cassie has likened it to the process of tenderizing meat.) It’s not like I had an “injury” but the cumulative effect came up suddenly. It’s forced me to fall quite differently. I’ve had to slow it down and lay my body down more carefully. Somehow this became more heartbreaking for me than the hard impact of dropping or hurling myself down.

In the absence of human witnesses (except for Cassie) I became more aware of the non-human world—the insects and birds, the wind blowing the trees—it really felt like they were bearing witness. Obviously, this is my fantasy or anthropomorphic projection but I really felt it. It reminds me of something Laurie said when she witnessed me falling about wondering if after all these generations of war in Afghanistan if that non-human realm still existed—if there were still birds and trees, or if the decades of war had destroyed that as well.

August 4 North Hatley, Quebec (C’s cousin’s front yard)

Wasp encounter. This is only the second time I “stepped” out of the ritualized falling score (the first was in Dufferin Grove Park when I asked Cassie if she thought it was appropriate for me to continue). A wasp was so aggressively going after me that I stopped falling to try to get away. It was less of a “decision” to “break” the score and more of an instinctual response. I was immediately struck with the awareness that the ability to flee assault is not a privilege shared by all. When the wasp returned I decided to continue falling. It stung me on my arm and then the on the inside of my right nostril.

Everything about the fall felt hard. The environment seemed so thoroughly inhospitable to my falling. The cultural location—which as I write this I realize could be considered a kind of “WASP-ville” (which, though warm and welcoming was permeated with unspoken rules of propriety)–the hard, steeply sloped ground, the lack of space, and the ants who (like the wasp) were fighting back.

August 6  In the woods on the bank of the Massawippi River just outside of North Hatley

Hit my head on a tree while falling

August 7  Bank of Massawippi River

Around my 50th fall I realized that I hadn’t thought at all about the dead. I’m falling, I’m thinking about whether I’m going to hit anything, I’m thinking about whether or not people are going to see me, I’m thinking about how lovely everything is here but how out of place I feel. Sadly aware of how the “task” can become rote in the absence of intention. Had to consciously make an intention to think about the deaths I’m trying to register through the act of falling.

August 8 Bank of Massawippi River

Started working more consciously (and ritualistically) with intention. A while back I began ending my falls by closing my eyes and silently dedicating the merit of the falling to the benefit of those living in Afghanistan who are most affected by the war and to those who are witnessing the loss of loved ones. Today I began with eyes closed as well and with the intention to remember that each fall was in honor of an Afghan dead. I also took more time to breath as I lay on the ground after each fall—it helped to take me out of my thinking mind and into the experience. It reminded me that it’s not just the embodied task that’s important but being present in the body while doing the task.

With each fall, I’m aware of how intact I am. Though my body hits the ground it is in a relatively controlled way. As I fell today I was so aware of all the stories of bodies being blown apart, of parts of bodies being strewn about—of lives literally being blown apart.

 

August 12, 2010, Autonomous Invisibility in Queen’s Park

“Pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world. It is not only natural, it is a necessary component of our collective healing.”   ( Joanna Macy, 1999)

As part of my effort to bring Impact more into a public arena I “fell” in Queen’s Park yesterday. The shift from experiencing such an intense fear of visibility while traveling through rural Ontario and the Eastern Townships of Quebec to experiencing such autonomous invisibility in Queen’s Park has left me jarringly disoriented.

Queen’s Park was teeming with people and sound—construction, traffic, talking and laughter, insects, birds. The constancy of the falling was echoed by the constancy of people walking by, walking by, walking by. Thinking that one reason people (thus far) haven’t stopped to inquire about Impact could be that they are shy to approach, that maybe they see the falling as a private act (though obviously in a public place), Cassie and I set postcards on the sidewalk where passersby could easily pick one up without either interfering or having to engage.

No one stopped. No one picked up a card. People barely glanced.

I feel really shaken by it, perhaps more so because of the United Nations report released two days ago that chronicled a 31% rise in Afghan civilian deaths and injuries in the first half of 2010. The gist of the report, and of the mainstream media’s coverage of it, is that insurgents are to blame for the increase and that there has been an overall decline in civilian casualties attributable to US/NATO forces. Non-western and non-mainstream media sources as well as Afghan civilian advocacy groups like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) offer a more complex analysis and note that the overall increase in civilian (which includes a disproportionately large increase in children war casualties) corresponds with an increased US/NATO military presence.

The coverage feels so depersonalized—like as long as the deaths are not blamed on “us” that’s all that matters. I makes me really sad. As I fell today I wondered what it would take to get people’s attention. I don’t want that to be my goal—but I can’t help being “impacted” by it. In fact, it is this relationship–to being seen/not being seen, to people bearing witness/not bearing witness, to my own limited ability to bear witness–that continues to be what most deeply impacts me while falling. More than the bruises, the wasp stings, the aches, the hardness of the ground, the fear of injury, the heat or rain. More even than the horrific fact of the deaths and injuries–I am shaken by the difficulty of bearing witness and by how must be for those most deeply affected by war and violence to watch the world walk by.

 

August 15, 2010, Unintended Cloak of Invisibility

Increasingly when I “fall” I feel as though I enter a place between the worlds, a kind of invisible or alternative space that is beyond the realm of recognition of those in the surrounding environment. Cassie, who as documenter and witness also occupies this space, uses the analogy of a Star Trek-like “cloaking device” that renders all within its field invisible. Except, in the case of Impact, invisibility is not the intention (except when I was falling “on the road” where I very much felt in-hiding).

In a post “fall” discussion (August 13, McMaster University, Hamilton) my friend Brad shared a the concept of the “theatrical cleft” (Feral, 2002) where through the theatrical act, we create a cleft in the quotidian or day-to-day space. While falling, I certainly feel this sense of the cleft–though I think of it as a kind of ritual/performance space–but rather than enter the cleft of  Impact those occupying or passing through the public spaces within which I fall, seem fixedly devoted to their day-to-day. The lack of response or interaction was especially notable today because, as Brad pointed out, I was “falling” in close proximity to the University’s Student Centre and their Museum of Art. Since Impact operates at the intersection of “art” and “social protest” I would have thought that this spacial proximity would have generated more engagement or dialog than other sites where I’ve fallen. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact of the larger context of the University Campus, a space where knowledge is to be grappled with and given (as Brad says) “use-value.” When I first started Impact I was concerned about exposing myself to hostility or criticism. Indeed, when I told my friend “M” about the project, she immediately commented that I should be prepared to receive hate-mail. What I hadn’t anticipated was the invisibility, the active and consistent lack of engagement.

 

August 18, 2010, Heartbreak in Queen’s Park

Many times when I fall I experience the impact somewhere in the space between my body, my intellect and my heart. It reverberates from my cells to my imagination. Often, while lying on the ground I imagine what the last thing someone saw was: Were there any trees? Was the sky blue? Was the ground hard?  Were they alone? Did they see wounded or killed family and friends nearby? Often when I fall I do this kind of imagining.

But today, the experience when right to my heart.  I felt a kind of physical and emotional heartbreak–and with it a tension between how this heartbreak met with the task of the falling; how the tears met with the task getting up and falling again and again.

I also feel the tension between this personal/embodied experience of sorrow with the public setting in which I’m falling. Sometimes it makes me think I should fall on my own, in private or secluded spaces—that maybe Impact would more “appropriate” as a private or personal ritual. But I keep coming back to the sense that the sorrow or grief I experience is not personal or private–as with the loss of a loved one–it’s social.

 

August 19, 2010, Why Afghanistan?

Christie Pits (August 18)

“For [life] to be regarded as valuable, it has to first be regarded as grievable. . . We can see that entire populations are regarded as negligible life by warring powers, and so when they are destroyed, there is no great sense that a heinous act and egregious loss have taken place.” Judith Butler

Mom fell and is in the hospital with a cracked pelvis. It’s her second fall in a month. My thoughts and heart were with her throughout my falling. I also thought about how treacherous falling is for the elderly and I remembered a fall my aunt had several years ago where she lay on the floor of her home for 24 hours before a friend discovered her and (thankfully) got her to the hospital.

This is often the way it is with Impact. Though the project has an overt focus on Afghanistan, the experience of falling triggers much broader and more universal responses in me–like how over these past days, my thoughts have been as much about the loss of life and suffering in Pakistan than about the victims of the war in Afghanistan.

So “Why Afghanistan?”

The question of Impact‘s attachment to a particular narrative about Afghanistan was also raised recently by an arts curator acquaintance who expressed his concern that it conceptually limited the piece. “R” argued that Impact would be more powerful and more universally accessible if there was no singular narrative attached to it. As an artist, I find myself agreeing with R. On the other side of the often precarious arts-activism divide an anti-war activist recently chastised me for Impact’s “pro-Canada” and “pro-soldier” stance and its lack of a clear and overtly critique of Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan.

Though I have no doubt that my internal art verses activism tug-o-war will continue, for today, here’s my answer to the  “Why Afghanistan?” riddle: First, there’s Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan and with it, our direct immediate relationship to the deaths in Afghanistan. Second, on a deeper, more fundamental level I’m interested in how and who we publicly mourn (and don’t mourn), and how our public mourning practices have been, and are are being, used to facilitate militarism and war.

Yes, I could do Impact for the rest of my life for all of us, as a meditation on impermanence, and a practice in activating empathy. But I include the narrative of Afghanistan, and the Canadian flag with the narrative about our lack of accounting or mourning of the Afghan dead, because of the great disturbance I feel over the way some lives are rendered ungrievable while others eulogized–all for the promotion of militarism and war.

 

August 23, 2010, From Public Mourning to “Death Pornography”

Yesterday as I looked at photos on RAWA’s website I was struck not only by the images of violence and death in Afghanistan but also by the accompanying warning and apology to viewers who might find the images disturbing. It made me wonder about the consequences of not disturbing or not wanting our lives to be disrupted by information about violence, suffering and death.

It seems that in large measure, images or reminders of death (within much of the dominant west) are confined to a media genres ranging from newspapers and news programs to an every increasing genre of “entertainment” media that British anthropologist Geoffry Gorer so aptly dubbed a “death pornography.” According to Gorer (1965) by the mid-twentieth century death had become paradoxically both increasingly absent and present in the day-to-day lives of most westerners. Gorer linked the near disappearance of public mourning rituals to a mid-twentieth century rise in a “pornography of death” (as evidenced through a proliferation of violent horror movies, comics and magazines as well as books on the horrors of war and concentration camps).

If anything, Gorer’s “death pornography” analogy is more valid today than when he first published his study. A quick perusal of television programming reveals a prevalence of forensic crime shows as just one of a myriad of popular culture’s newer genres of “death pornography.” Though few of us are required rub shoulders with death and mourning prior to its intimate intrusion into our personal lives—and the women from RAWA feel it necessary to attach warnings and apologies to images of wounded and killed Afghanis—death’s gory and cellular details permeate our public arena and our collective imaginations through our entertainment media.

 

August 23, 2010, A Neighborly Non-encounter

“There’s a privilege in being an anonymous citizen that I feel like I give up somewhat by being involved in an outside-of-the-prescribed-norm-of-day-to day-life activity. Sometimes I realize that I don’t want to give up that privilege. I’d rather just be like Jo-sie anonymous out their than part of that weird duo.”                                                                                Cassie (reflecting on role as documenter/witness)

Our landlord jogged by as I was falling today. Though he didn’t acknowledge us (Cassie was with me documenting the falls) I can’t imagine he didn’t see us since we were pretty obvious. I felt the uncomfortable tension between my desire to have Impact (and the content it seeks to address) visible and my simultaneous desire to maintain my comfortable anonymity. While falling I often feel as though I occupy both the position the disturber and the one that doesn’t want to be disturbed.  The part that wants to disrupt the status quo and to have the narratives of these deaths made visible and the part that doesn’t want to rock the boat.

 

August 24, 2010, Paradigm Shift: From Invisible to Hyper-visible

My friend Heather generously loaned us her space (Toronto Free Gallery) to do a video shoot for a performance proposal I’m working on for the Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times. (If the proposal is accepted) “im-pact” will be a movement and image-based piece that incorporates video and audio recordings and reflections on Impact falls-to-date. It will be a kind of retrospective that invites audience members to witness the process of an ongoing inquiry into the space between “us” and “other”, between individual and social grief, between personal ritual and public protest and between art and politics.

 

Mourning Dove

The central character in the video we–Brad, Cassie, Tara and I–were working is a between-the-worlds character I call the Mourning Dove. Mourning Dove witnesses the suffering of the world and mourns the fallen. As we walked and shot footage on and around busy Bloor Street and in Dufferin Grove Park people smiled, talked to us and took pictures (a-la-cell-phone-paparazzi).

Since I am also quite enamored with the Mourning Dove I wasn’t entirely surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to her but nevertheless I found the sudden shift from invisibility to Diva-dom somewhat disorienting. Cassie (who documents most of my falls) and Brad (who witnessed my falls at McMaster University) were also stunned by the acuteness of the paradigm shift. What’s fascinating is that the Mourning Dove and the falling are part of the same narrative. But while the Mourning Dove–despite her mournful cries–is aesthetically appealing and clearly “performative” the falling is a raw and and unmasked gesture, devoid of ornamentation and other performance signifiers. It’s interesting how this tension between theatrical performance and “performance art” parallels similar tensions between art and activism.

 

September 3, 2010, Catching up

A lot’s been going on these last few weeks: I’ve been worried about my mom who is in a hospital recovering from a fall. She’s far away and after discussions with family members we decided it would make more sense to visit after she comes home from the hospital. (I’m so grateful to my dad and siblings who are taking such good care of mom.)

I’ve also moved–packing, cleaning, hauling and now unpacking–and submitted a performance project proposal to the Rhubarb Festival.

Falling in the midst of life with it’s myriad of experiences and demands is a constant reminder that those who live in war zones are dealing not only with the ever-present fear of injury and death–but also with life, full of its day-to-day tasks and struggles. There are no days off from war.

 

September 2, 2010, Christie Pits Park

I sassed a jogger on the way to the park to do my falling today. I was on my bike and had to stop short to keep from running into her as I exited an alley.

ME:  “I’m sorry” (for nearly running her down).

HER (testily): “Yeah, you should be.”

ME: “I am, that’s why I said it.”

I felt immediate regret. First, because I would really like to be less reactive (even to other people’s reactivity). Second, because since starting Impact it’s dawned on me that I’m no longer anonymous–that my actions outside of falling, might bear on the way in which Impact is perceived, and that I’d hate to have the project linked to “the idiot who almost ran me down and then had the nerve to sass me”. Perhaps the loss of anonymity is a good thing exactly for this reason. With anonymity comes certain freedoms one of which might be the freedom from having to consider the consequences of your actions beyond the moment.

Falling in Christie Pit’s Park is a huge cultural shift from Cedarvale Park. Christie Pits is more densely and diversely populated and hosts a more eclectic range of activities than Cedarvale. my first impression was that human activity–foot and bike traffic, the cars on Bloor, hulla-hoopers, day-campers and boot-campers, basketball players and on and on–is more foregrounded at Christie, while “nature” (which problematically implies that humans aren’t a part of nature) is more foregrounded at Cedarvale. But the “natural” environment immediately challenged this assessment in the form of a wasp sting on my first day at Christie and a downpour on my second.

 

August 28, 2010, Cedarvale Park

Exhausted and weary before I start. Weary all the way through. Thought a lot about how much people who are living in war must want the war to stop even for just a moment to have a breather. I’m feeling right now the impact of the ongoing-ness of Impact.

The ground was really, really hard which meant I had to be very mindful and careful about the act of falling. Had to negotiate the space between impact and injury. That’s where I’m at with the project right now—like the ground—it feels hard. It’s strange because the process of conceptualizing a performance that will be an extension of Impact (for the Rhubarb Festival) has been so different than the falling even though both projects are intended to address the same issues. But thinking about the performance is exciting. It arouses my imagistic imagination whereas in comparison the falling has come to feel more like the drone work of the project, the drudgery.August 26  Trinity Bellwoods Park (Art Spin): On Active and Artful Witnessing

Fell today as part of Art Spin. It wasn’t at all what I expected (which is beginning to become a theme of Impact). First, there were way more people than I had anticipated. Second, at Rui’s (Art Spin’s phenomenal curator-host) request, I fell next to the park’s gates which placed me spatially and psychically very much in the center of the action. It was falling like a ghost at Carnival.

I felt surreally invisible. When I talked to Rui the next day he said a number of people asked him about Impact which disrupts my internally produced narrative of utter and absolute invisibility and was a reminder of how important it is to keep in mind that there’s no way of knowing what is going on in people’s imagination.

One experience of being witnessed at Art Spin registered very profoundly for me however. At the apex of my struggle with the extent to which people chose to ignore my presence and my activity–and the corresponding inner narrative about this set off about our collective ability to ignore the suffering caused by a war we, as a nation, are actively engaged in–the sound of Michael Johnson’s (Art Spin’s MC) trumpet serenaded me in a powerful act of active and artful witnessing.

Feeling the profoundness of having such a large number of inactive witnessers within such immediate proximity really brought home to me the power of active witnessing. I was reminded of what my long-time mentor, postmodern dance pioneer Anna Halprin says about a key difference between performance and ritual: In ritual, there is a responsibility on the part of the witness to be active.

Johnson’s trumpet playing also made me think about the art of witnessing. In her writing about the political power of public mourning (which is an act of public witnessing)  Gail Holst-Warhaft talks about the lost art of lament. Johnson’s musical accompaniment became an act of active and artful witnessing. It makes me think that it might not be that people don’t want to witness (or aren’t witnessing), but that collectively we’ve lost the art of social lament as an act of active witnessing.

 

September 4, 2010, Inspirational response

Yesterday a man took a postcard and read it as he continued on is way through the park. After a few moments he stopped, turned and walked towards me. He stood beside Cassie and watched for a while before saying thank-you and good-bye.

I was so deeply touched and inspired by his action that I had to resist the impulse to stop falling and go and talk to him. I’m not exactly sure why I had this impulse nor why his action so completely moved me. I think it was partly because of the rarity of being acknowledged and actively witnessed after over two months of falling. But it was more than that. It was moved by the congruence of his action. By the purity of his willingness to see and to approach, and in the process to join. I was moved and inspired by his lack of hesitation or embarrassment.

This absolute lack of hesitation or embarrassment reminded me of an experience I had when I was 10 or 11 while riding the bus with my mom. A girl about my age sitting near us got car sick and threw up. My mom, without a moment’s hesitation, went to help her. My response, was far less noble. It was fueled by embarrassment and child-like ego self consciousness. My impulse was to distance myself not only from the sick girl, but from my mother. Over the years I have aspired to be more like my mom. To have more of her kind of courage and conviction and less of a sense of self-conscious embarrassment.

This man’s action, like my mother’s lifetime of small and large acts of turning toward make me wonder what would happen if we all had a little more of this kind of courage and conviction. What would happen if we all responded with unhesitating compassion towards those dying and suffering in Afghanistan, or to the many wars and injustices. If we let it stop us in our tracks, let it have our full attention, even for just a moment.

 

September 5, 2010 . . . more on inspirational response

I continue to be impacted by the man who stopped to witness my falling yesterday. It was like a meeting with my better self–a part of me that would act unhesitatingly in the face of someone falling. The empathetic part of me. I realize that this (at least in part) why I’m doing Impact–to challenge or invite this part of me (and all of us) to be more active. To wake it up, to shake it up.

 

September 8, 2010, Who would you fall for?

Yesterday, a man who had been sitting on a bench nearby, approached Cassie about  3/4’s of the way through my falls. He wanted to know why I was falling. When she explained the intent behind Impact his response was, “But why Afghanistan, there are wars everywhere.” Cassie explained (as I have in previous blogs) that I fall for the dead in Afghanistan because the Canadian military is a part of the US/NATO war in Afghanistan.

The man was neither belligerent nor dismissive and his question is well taken. When I fall, I often think of the many other’s who I could/should be falling for. (For starters, the indigenous peoples of the land on which I fall.) Actually, I love his question. I’m thinking of changing my card in such a way that invites people to consider which constituency they would fall for, which constituency of ungrieved “other” they wish the world would take notice of.

 

September 9, 2010, Embracing Absurdity

When I started Impact I conceived of it as a performance ritual and an embodied attempt to register the impact of our (Canada’s) engagement in Afghanistan. But as I enter my third month of falling I am feeling called on to remember that  despite what the dictionary tells us, the sacred and the profane are not necessarily opposites.

Some favorite comments:

“I admire your athleticism.”–Elderly woman walking by as I fell at Yonge and Lawton.

“That’s something you don’t see everyday.” –Said to me as I was walking on Bloor St. in my Mourning Dove costume (by a man riding a bike with an iguana on his back).

“My response was to fall into laughter which was hard to control.”–Comment from my dear friend Donna when she saw a video of my falls.

And there was the absurd dance of visibility and invisibility that started when I thought I had been observed by my landlord while falling in Cedarvale Park. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. I saw his doppelganger in the park a couple of days later pushing a stroller after having dropped one of my information postcards, with a handwritten note on it in my landlord’s mailbox. The dance continued when in a phone conversation the following day neither of us mentioned the encounter (at the time I still thought it was him), or the mistaken identity on my part, or the postcard, or the project. . .

And there was the delightful absurdity of the Mourning Dove video shoot with the cell phone wielding paparazzi taking pictures from all directions—and the gentleman who followed me around repeating over and over, “a movie star” (an activity he didn’t stop until he convinced a neighborhood shop-owner—who was taking his own video footage on his cell phone—to take a photo of him with me. Or some of Tara’s “out-take” falls.

But perhaps the most absurd of all is the simply absurd act of falling everyday as people walk on by.

So, like so many of my favorite performance mentors and colleagues–Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Roberto Sifuentes of La Pocha Nostra;  Eeo StubblefieldG. Hoffman Soto and Anna Halprin to name a few–it think it might be time to embrace the absurd as an alchemical mix of the sacred and the profane (something my activist self resists, and my artist self delights in).

 

September 11, 2010, “Gizelle says ‘hi’ to everyone”

“The Irish lamenter had license to behave and speak disruptively, but her craziness was not the isolating kind that makes people unable to communicate.” (Angela Bourke 1993, 175)

After yesterday’s blog about embracing Impact‘s absurdity I became overwhelmingly concerned that people would consider my irreverence offensive given the project’s focus on those killed in the Afghan war. So in struggling with how to embrace this idea of the interrelationship between the sacred and the profane I take comfort in the work of feminist historian and Irish folklorist Angela Bourke, who notes that Irish women’s traditional mourning rituals and ritual laments were marked by violations of normative behaviors (such as the rending of clothes and hair, keening and wailing and, in some instances, the baring and beating of breasts). Just as a death disrupts the emotional, physical and economic lives of those closest to the deceased, Bourke argues, in many cultures its accompanying rituals of mourning are understood as a kind of liminal space in which accepted social norms are turned upside down.

A positive outcome of my effort to engage not only the “sacred” (which in activist discourse might be rephrased as the “politically correct”) but also the more profane elements of Impact is that in the process I’ve become more open to the world around me while I’m doing my falls.

Yesterday, for example, I was approached by “Gizelle” an irrepressible, small, grey dog whose distressed owner attempted (to no avail) to dissuade from interacting with me, and apologetically explained, “Gizelle says ‘hi’ to everyone.”

Perviously, my own limiting notion of what kind of reverence was appropriate for Impact would likely have kept me from interacting with the dog, or the woman. But yesterday, I smiled, petted Gizelle and said, “oh this strange thing that we’re doing.” In a post-fall conversation, Cassie said that she was shocked, that it was the first time she saw me “break role” (actually, the first time I broke role was when I was being hunted down by an aggressive wasp in North Hatley before I realized the futility of my flight, gave up and surrendered myself to its stings).

For her part, Gizelle continued on her way, offering the trash can the same degree of reverential attention she had so generously showed me.

 

September 13, 2010, My first 9/11 since 2001 outside the US

I realized yesterday that this was the first 9/11 since the 2001 that I haven’t lived in the US. That it took several days for this to sink in speaks to an important way that 9/11 is experienced differently within and outside of the US. While events surrounding this year’s 9/11 memorial ceremony were covered in the Canadian media, they didn’t dominate the news, there remained a sense that the rest of the world continues to exist.

Falling these last few days I remembered how, immediately after 9/11, I experienced a kind of irrational hope (perhaps hope always irrational) that the palpable sense of suffering, loss and fear that permeated the US after the attacks might manifest into a kind of collective empathy for the suffering of “others” around the globe. I also (again, irrationally) hoped for a collective reflection (or soul searching) on the role of US foreign military and economic policies (as well as that of other “first world” countries like Canada) in the production of that suffering.

Clearly this didn’t happen.

Instead, as the US launched its (ongoing) wars on Afghanistan and Iraq despite massive and vocal global opposition my hope turned to despair. And as I watched the inescapable and hypnotic media images of the towers falling (over and over and over and over and over and over) I developed a curiosity about how social numbness is constructed and maintained and a compassion for the particular alienation born from inside the belly of the Imperial beast where sandstorms of mis-information and distraction collude to reduce the role of citizenship to one of spectator and consumer.

Reflecting on 9/11 these past few days I can’t help but feel an eerie parallel between my repeated act of falling and the media images of the towers. But whereas the towers hypnotized those who watched I’m not sure what effect my falls have on those who pass by.

 

September 14, 2010, Tech breakthrough!!!

Having a blog wasn’t my idea. When I told my friend Mira about my interest in doing public space performance rituals as a response to militarism and war she suggested a blog as a virtual extension of the physical public arenas I would be working in. A month later she recommended that I also create a facebook a page and a Youtube channel. Tall orders for technologically impaired and phobic me!

So after several months on the steep learning curve I’m celebrating with this Youtube link to the Mourning Dove video I blogged about on August 24 (see “Paradigm Shift: From Invisible to Hyper-visible“).

Big thanks are also in order. In a multitude of ways Impact, and more specifically, this video, are the products of collective creativity and commitment. In addition to diligently documenting (and actively witnessing) my daily falls Cassie also, with guidance from our friend Saul Garcia Lopez (and several one-to-one Apple computer sessions), edited the video. At short notice Bradley High performed in and directed the last minute video shoot, Tara Ostiguy performed  and helped with costuming, and Heather Haynes graciously let us use her space (Toronto Free Gallery) as our base.

 

September 16, 2010, On fear and self-policing

After over two months of falling I’m beginning to see a pattern: Every time I fall in a new location I get scared, first of a negative response from passersby, and second, of authority intervention. As time goes by my fear concerning passersby has shifted to a curiosity about the very limited perceivable response. However, as I prepared to fall for the first time at York yesterday I became fixated on a rumored “security” policy  that restricts political demonstrations/actions to specific locations (though in my search of York’s website I can’t find mention of it). Because of this (real or mythical) policy I elected to fall without the flag that I usually fly nearby with my statement written on it.

But, consistent with my experience of the past couple of months, there was no response from York security to my falling (maybe next time I’ll fly the flag and see if it lures them out).

My whole psychic dance with fear in relation to falling has made me wonder about the extent to which I/we internalize rules and become self-policing (See Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison for an analysis of how societies institutions discipline are designed to condition us to become self-policing). Somehow I’ve internalized a rule that says that my falling is a non-normative behavior that will be perceived as deviant, and that I will therefore be punished for it–or at the very least stopped from doing it, which would be a form of punishment.

But if I were to think of the falling as an investigation into the question of authoritative response, based on the evidence thus far, the conclusion I would draw is that a person (at least a white middle-aged woman kind of person) can fall repeatedly, in just about any public (outdoor) space, and no one will call the authorities to intervene. It makes me wonder how many things I, or we, refrain from doing as a result of this conditioning towards self-policing–something to ponder the next time you’re waiting at a stop light at AM with nary a car in sight.

 

September 17, 2010, Weather report

I’ve been thinking a lot about the weather lately. With the coming of fall and with winter fast on its heels I’ve been pondering how I’ll manage through the coming months. What will I wear? Where will I fall? How much laundry will it generate? How will I carry my “falling gear”? Sometimes I feel as though the logistics of falling are consuming my life and (over and over again) I’m struck by the unexpected ways that Impact causes me to reflect on the lives of people living in Afghanistan (or other war-zones). How does the weather, the changing of seasons, the sun, the rain, the snow, impact their already traumatically impacted lives?

When I fall I spend a lot of time looking up at the sky. A couple of days ago the sky was a really stunning autumn blue and I equated its beauty with a kind of benevolence. Then I thought, in war, there is no such thing as a benevolent sky—bombs are as deadly and (I assume) as likely to fall on a bright sunny day than on a cold, dark, rainy day.

It’s strange the multiple meanings we attach to the color of the sky (or to a plane, or a helicopter, or a person falling in the park). I’m aware, how little experience, native-born North Americans have had with the notion of the sky being a site from which violence or war may descend at any moment (except communities or populations who are subjected to police surveillance by helicopter—like poor communities of color and, on occasion, activist communities). In some cases we get a glimpse into the horror of war falling from the sky from our families—like I did from my parent’s stories about their experience as children in WWII. When I think of 9/11—I think of it as moment when our naive (or privileged) notion of a benevolent sky was ruptured. In some ways, it was a moment full of all kinds of possibilities. Like the possibility that we could see the world differently—that we could empathize with the rest of the world in a different way.

But back to the weather. Yesterday it was dark and rainy. A cold, autumn rain, not the refreshing, warm rain of steamy summer days. I managed to find a relatively rain-free window to fall in, but the ground was soggy and cold, and today, I’m a feeling, well–a little under the weather.

 

September 18, 2010, On getting up over and over again

Today while falling, as I continued to struggle with feeling physically under-the-weather, I experienced an incredible urge to just stay down, to not get up again, to rest or sleep. It makes me aware that rest, healing, or even “giving up,” are all such privileges. And that falling is something that the more privileged are largely protected from. When things don’t work out, there is usually the option of regrouping—and the resources to ensure that things work out more often than they don’t.

A while back I watched a video on the Rethink Afghanistan website. In it, an old woman living in a displaced persons camps talked about how her children had all been killed and how she was left to care for all her grandchildren and how there was no food to feed them and no warm clothes for them and how all she wanted was lay down and die–but she couldn’t, because she had to look after her grandchildren.

I’m also reminded of something my mom said during the 80’s US/USSR cold-war nuclear buildup (she was a vocal anti-nuclear activist). She said, “If I ever have to live through another war, I hope I’m one of the first to die.”

 

September 19, 2010, Feeling lucky

After a couple of days of feeling sorry for myself (because I haven’t been feeling well), in the middle of today’s falls I was struck by an overwhelming sense of how lucky I am. The sky was blue, the sun was warm, the day was peaceful.

I thought, “I/we are so lucky to live in peace.” Then I wondered, “What does luck have to do with peace or with war?” Is the absence of a war being fought here in Canada (or in a broader sense–in North America) a question of luck? How is it even possible that we be can simultaneously be “at war” and living in peace? In the context of Canada, it seems this juxtaposition is made plausible by  the notion that our military “engagement in Afghanistan” is a “peacekeeping” or “humanitarian” mission. (In the US, on the other hand, the rational for military engagement is framed in terms of “defending democracy” or ” the war on terror.”)

I’m all for feeling grateful and acknowledging the blessings (and privileges) I enjoy. I worry, however, that the flip-side of framing my/our good-fortune as “luck” is that it depoliticizes the suffering of those in Afghanistan (or other victims of geo-political violence) by reducing them to “unlucky” populations and that, therefore, the notion of “luck” contributes to a denial of responsibility and of historical legacies.

 

September 25, 2010, Taking risks and falling solo

“I could rattle off the names of dozens of other sneaks, thieves, smugglers, hijackers, blackmailers, and killers.  They  are individuals, families, networks and even whole villages, who used their occupational skills and natural cunning to do whatever was necessary to save Jewish lives during World War II.”                                              Eva Fogelman  (1994)

Cassie’s away, so for the past two days I’ve been self-documenting and falling solo. As I’ve come to recognize as a familiar pattern, whenever I do something “new” with Impact (fall in a new location, add the flag, fall as part of an event, etc.) my first response is fear.

This morning as I was falling I thought about the relationship between the capacity to confront fear and the capacity to act out of a place of empathy or compassion. In a previous blog, I mentioned my mom’s ability to unhesitatingly turn towards the suffering of the world. As a kid, I assumed that her courage was something innate to her personality. I never realized (and I don’t think anyone thought to tell me) that courage is something one develops through practice. So, just as I thought of courage as innate to my mom, I believed that fear was innate to me.

It’s also interesting to consider the range of practices that can help one develop courage. Several years ago I read  Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman. In her inquiry into what it was that enabled some people to act on their conscience during the Holocaust, Fogelman identified a willingness to break rules and take risks as a common quality that rescuers shared. She suggests that this explains why there were a disproportionate number of “sneaks, thieves, smugglers, hijackers, blackmailers, and killers” among the rescuers. It also explains why so many “moral” citizens did nothing. It seems, it’s not enough to feel a sense of conscience, we need to act on it and in order to act on our conscience we need to engage in practices that help us develop our courage in the face of risk.

While I’m not suggesting that we all turn to a life of crime, I can’t help but notice how Impact has put me into a daily practice of challenging my fear of “breaking the rules” or of “disturbing the peace” or of people’s anger and how through this practice I am growing my capacity for courage.

Before I sign off I just want to be clear–my mom’s capacity for courage (as far as I know) did not develop out of a life of crime. In fact, I believe her sense of courage was sustained by her embrace of liberation theology. Rather than taking the teachings of the Christian Church as a directive towards obedience to authority (as much of Christian Europe did during WWII) my mom was a firm believer in liberation theology, in using the teachings of the church to create a more just world.

And for me, art, especially embodied and improvisational practices have been my greatest teacher in developing a capacity to act in the face of fear.

 

October 2, 2010, Feeling tender in Winnipeg

I’ve been feeling a kind of bittersweet heartbreak lately. Though at times I feel on the verge of tears, it’s nothing like depression. It lacks depression’s relentless nihilism and self-criticism. I’m not exactly sure how it relates to Impact, but feel like the more I fall, the more tender I become.

The tenderness is also connected to visiting my family. It’s my dad’s eightieth birthday tomorrow, mom came home from the hospital where she’s been recouping from a fall, my sister and her partner arrived from the west coast tonight and tomorrow the whole family will gather for a celebration. Last night, Cassie and I joined two of my nieces and my sister-in-law on Winnipeg’s “take back the night” march (my first Take Back march was here in Winnipeg about 25 years ago–it was sweet to walk with my nieces. I’ve also been extremely touched by my brother’s help with documenting my falls. I’m not sure what this all has to do with Impact except to say that the more I fall, the more in touch I become with the fragility and vulnerability of life–with how precious it is.

 

October 8, 2010

October 7, 2010: 9th Anniversary of U.S./NATO Invasion of Afghanistan

Yesterday marked the 9th anniversary of the U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan. Though Canadian did not actively participate in the opening days of the invasion, (then) Prime Minister Jean Chrétien immediately announced Canada’s commitment to joining the U.S./NATO alliance and Canadian forces arrived in Afghanistan in January and February of 2002.

Though the Canadian military justifies its participation in the war in Afghanistan on the grounds of human rights–often emphasizing the need to protect the rights of Afghan women–many Afghan women are highly critical of the U.S./NATO mission. For example, former Afghan MP, Malalai Joya, argues that Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan not only isn’t helping Afghan women, it is going along with what she calls “American war crimes.” The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), Afghanistan’s longest standing independent women’s organization fighting for human and social rights has also consistently  spoken out against U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan.

On this anniversary of the U.S./NATO invasion of Afghanistan I was joined by four friends (and members of the Life and Limb performance collective) Beyhan Farhadi, Bradley High, Marlene Mendonça and Tara Ostiguy.

 

October 11, 2010, Thanksgiving

Impact has been a challenge lately–everything from its mundane day-to-day navigations, to its deeply psycho-physical-emotional impact.  I’ve grappled with scheduling, rain, winter on the horizon with its impending cold and shortened days, health issues, my paradoxical sense of the urgency of the project and its meaninglessness. I’ve questioned my ability to continue while at the same time appreciating the structure that holds me and to which I’ve committed.

The cumulative impact of falling has left me simultaneously reeling and without a vocabulary. So I’m immensely grateful to my friends for falling with me on the 7th (the 9th anniversary of the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan) and especially to Beyhan and Brad for their words:

“Every fall was a discovery about impact: the impact of my body upon the witness and the witness upon my body; the impact of presence as each moment slips in utterance; the impact of already fallen ghosts haunting my conscious; and the literal impact of the ground toward which I was falling.” (Beyhan Farhadi)

“My body became a tuning fork, repeatedly struck in an effort to break glass. Over and over again i hit the ground looking for the right resonance, that tone that would shatter the work, the world; ambitious and deluded perhaps especially given the scientific near impossibility of a tuning fork actually shattering glass, but there is it and here i sit two days post-participation, my body still a buzz, reverberating the impact as i move and speak and write and shit. i am struck. i am stricken. we. are. stricken. and. must. sound.” (Bradley High)

 

October 11, 2010, Curiosity or pheromones?

One thing about doing a year-long project is that there are plenty of opportunities to be surprised.

Today, Cassie and I decided to visit our old neighborhood, have a picnic in Cedarvale Park and to do my falls while we were there. Cedarvale is where I began Impact and where I did most of my first two months of falls so I thought I knew what to expect. We even returned to a favorite spot, on a hill above the main path, overlooking the dog-run. But the experience was unlike any Impact experience I’ve had so far. It was like curiosity was in the air. I think more people stopped to read the flag and postcards and to witness me fall than in the entire three-plus months I’ve been falling. We pondered several possible explanations–post Thanksgiving-dinner-reverence, the beautiful weather and dog pee.

Early in my falls, a dog wandered over to the small stand with postcards, lifted “his” leg and pissed which kind of set a tone for the remainder of the falls. As dog, after dog carefully investigated “the cards” (a few leaving their own mark) their people checked out the flag and visited with other dog people. The anointed postcards are currently outside in the recycling bin–but I’m seriously considering pulling them out tomorrow to see what kind of crowd they might draw.

 

October 13, 2010, Jennifer’s curiosity

Since we were in the neighborhood, we decided to return to the location we shot the Mourning Dove video and fall in Dufferin Grove Park. It was a beautiful autumn day and falling in the leaves felt incongruently exhilarating given the intention of Impact as a project. The unpredictability of both the internal experience of falling and the public response to falling have become one of Impact‘s recurring themes. Today that unpredictability took an entirely new turn.

It seems the exhilaration of falling in the leaves had an even more inspiring impact on spectator curiosity than did the doggy pheromones of a few days ago. As I was falling, I could see a group of youth at a bus stop who appeared to be watching and (I assume) trying to figure out what was going on. Eventually, a young woman boldly bridged the expanse of park between us:

Jennifer returned to her cohort and I to my falling. From afar I could see her animatedly talking to her friends and it wasn’t long (about 15 falls) before a group of four young men approached:

It’s not clear to me if my co-fallers shared my intention when they fell (If any of you read this please feel free to share your thoughts!). Perhaps they simply wanted an excuse to fall in the leaves or to participate in a “performance art” or “activist” project. But what has impressed and moved me about the experience, is the power that Jennifer’s willingness to follow her curiosity had to bridging two worlds, and create a connection–if only for a moment.

 

October 15, 2010, On wonders and horrors

A major struggle I have with Impact (and this blog) is that it’s so much easier to talk and write about funny or uplifting moments than about the more painful or difficult aspects of the project. Just like it’s easier to fall on a warm sunny day, or in under a bright blue sky, or in crisp autumn leaves than it is on an overcast, cold, wet or rainy day. Moments of humor, or connection, the warmth of the of the sun, the exquisite blue of the sky, the crunch of the leaves all have such a soothing and seductive quality, and surely are to be embraced.  At times, though, I feel guilty for engaging them. This, I find is a central contradiction in life (one that Impact keeps bringing me back to): How can I/we engage with equal integrity and openness life’s wonders and horrors?

Last weekend I went with friends to see Blasted by the late Sarah Kane.  It was a jarring, moving and entirely engrossing experience. In a way, it’s strange how disturbing it is to see such a dramatic portrayal of violence in our era of both real and media hyper-violence. This, I think was the play’s brilliance–it portrayed violence as disturbing, not as what British anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer called “death pornography”. Drawing a parallel between the near disappearance of public mourning rituals (as evidenced through the proliferation of violent horror movies, comics and magazines) Gorer argued that the west’s “disavowal of mourning” has resulted in “maladaptive and neurotic behavior” ranging from a trivial “preoccupation with busy-ness” and the “mummification of mourning” to a kind of social callousness and numbing to the real effects of violence.

I’m not suggesting that Blasted if for everyone. In fact, I’m glad I read a little about the play and the program notes before seeing it, as it kind of prepared me. What has most haunted me since seeing the play is Sarah Kane’s story. After writing five plays Kane killed herself at the age of 28. I’m struck both by Kane’s commitment to turning towards the suffering of the world, in particular, her commitment to challenging what she saw at “the desensitization and apathy” of western culture. In a way, I feel that people like Kane are like canaries in the mine(field) of our collective social conscience. That they take on (disproportionally) the burden of engaging the suffering of the world. Seeing Blasted and reading about Kane has left me with two seemingly disparate challenges: First, to spend more time “turning towards” the people Impact is purported to be about–the Afghan dead whose deaths go largely unmourned (Malalai Joya‘s and  RAWA‘s websites offer a feminist perspective of the war in Afghanistan) by those of us in countries, like Canada, whose military forces are part of the violence, and, second, to continue to appreciate, as fully as possible, the simple pleasures of sun, sky, autumn leaves, humor, connection. .

 

October 21, 2010, Blasted! Not more sensationalized and decontextualized media coverage of violence against women

“The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia and the logical conclusion to the way society expects men to behave is war.” (Sarah Kane, on her play “Blasted”)

Yesterday (for the first time) I sat down and read (in the Toronto Star) some of the detailed reports of the rape-murders of Marie-France Comeau and Jessica Lloyd. Like many, I’m deeply disturbed not only (and obviously) by Williams’ violent murderous actions but also by the media’s treatment of them and the women they were perpetrated upon. First, there is the way Williams’ acts–and by association all acts of brutal rape and violence against women–are treated as the anomalous actions of a “disgusting”  and “depraved” individual. Front page images of Williams dressed in women’s underwear serve as a code for his depravity (as though cross-dressing is a precursor to rape and murder). On the other hand, there’s little attention paid to Williams’ (until now) highly respected status within the Canadian military, his conditioning in a kind of  hyper-masculinity, or the well-documented historical relationship between war and rape.

Along with the treatment of Williams’ acts as the isolated actions of a depraved man (whose new cross-dressing status conveniently overshadows his “masculinity” and his lengthly and successful military status) the treatment of Comeau’s and Lloyd’s violent rape-murders as isolated is also disturbing. What of the over 500 Aboriginal women in Canada who have gone missing or who have been found brutally murdered? What of the multitude of cases of rape, domestic abuse and murder across Canada? And, especially given William’s status as a Canadian Military Colonel, what of the hundreds and thousands of rapes of women in war zones? While there has been a call to open up “cold cases” of women who have gone missing or been found murdered in Canadian locations where Williams was stationed, are similar investigations being launched in “foreign” zones where Williams has served?

I’m also deeply disturbed by the juxtaposition of the Toronto Star’s sensationalized reporting of the rape-murders of Comeau and Lloyd with its scathing review (by Richard Ouzounian) of Sarah Kane’s Blasted which played recently at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Ouzounian’s main beef with Blasted is that it’s “too much.” That it goes too far in its portrayal of violence.  He critiques Kane for her “maniacal excess.”

I also have to disagree with Ouzounian’s assessment that Blasted has nothing to do with “queer theatre” and that it doesn’t offer “a special view of male sexuality [but rather] it’s simply Sarah Kane’s uniquely twisted view of the world.” I applaud Buddies for their decision to include Blasted in its season and only wish they would go further and host a community discussion of the larger question of what is/isn’t considered suitable as “queer theatre.” As a lesbian feminist, I found it refreshing to see a play that raises important questions about the relationship between the “logical conclusions” of society’s production of particular kinds of (hyper) masculinity.

On another note, here’s some footage of falling yesterday at York University with my friend and colleague, Bradley High. I’m grateful to Brad, not only for falling with me, but also for his reflections and thoughtful and ongoing engagement in discussions about gender, war, queerness, and the role of performance . . .

 

October 30, 2010, Remembering the named and the unnamed

One thing I loved about living in San Francisco was the festivities that took place this season in honor of the dead: Samhain, Dia de los Muertos, All Hallows, and good old Halloween–done with San Francisco flair. It was a time of year when the living and the dead met, not quietly, in private and internal spaces, but out in the open, in the streets, in the elaborate public altars to the dead that were set up in cafes throughout the Mission District abundantly decked with food and drink, sugar skulls, photos, personal mementos–and thousands of marigolds. It was a time of year when the dead and living were honored together in a profoundly public social way.

I fell today in Dufferin Grove Park, next to a hillside of tiny altars, as people were gathering for Clay and Puppet’s Night of Dread festivities.

I imagined my flag and cards were like an altar to the dead of Afghanistan and I recalled a ritual the San Francisco Reclaiming community does each year as part of its annual Spiral Dance where people shout out the names of all the loved ones who have died that year (this is followed by a shouting out of the names of all those who have been born).

I don’t know the names of the Afghani’s who have been killed this year, or over the nine years since the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan (or in the decades of wars that preceded this one). While the names and details of the Canadian, US and other NATO casualties are well documented by, not only those who were closest to them, but also by the Governments that sent them to fight and the media in their home countries. In my efforts to find the names of Afghani casualties I’ve come across The Afghan Victim Memorial Project. In the spirit of remembering the dead, and recognizing our profound connection to these particular dead as citizens of a nation at war with Afghanstan I offer these few names.

Safia, a girl aged 3. Killed, alongside a woman, a boy and three adult men during a  midnight “precision” U.S air strike on Tangar village, Watapur district of Kunar Province on 12 / 13 April 2009

Zia-ul-Haq, 35, son of Haji Abdul Wahid. Killed with his wife and driver by a helicopter attack in northern Helmand on 17 April 2009

Malem Mohammad Nader, 55. Killed and wounded in a combined air & ground attack in Helmand province on 27 April 2009.

Mohammad Musa Khan, 60. Killed and wounded in a combined air & ground attack in Helmand province on 27 April 2009.

Behnooshahr, a girl, aged 12. Killed by ground fire from Italian forces in Heart province on 3 May 2009

 

November 1, 2010, Interventions, incursions and encounters

October has been Impact‘s most interactive month. Far more people have stopped to witness, read the flag, or take a postcard than in the first three months put together.

Here’s a brief recap of some of this month’s interventions, incursions and encounters:

The spontaneous group fall was reminiscent of October 13 encounter with Jennifer and her friends.

There was also the planned group fall on October 9th commemorating the 9th anniversary of the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan. (Note: I’m in the process of organizing a large group “Mourning in the Commons: Remembrance Day Performance Action” at Queen’s Park on November 11 at 11:00. I’m hoping to have 50 t0 100 people falling in recognition of the Afghan dead. So if you know of anyone who would be interested in participating, please spread the word.)

And, in what is becoming a regular happening, my friend, colleague and creative collaborator, Bradley High has been accompanying me when I fall at York University.

This month I also had my first frightening incursion. On October 25, in Christie Pits Park, I was approached by a guy who was both inebriated and agitated, who ordered me as the “King of Demons” to stop dying and “come back to him.”

And finally, the month had some encounters that touched me very deeply.

When I was collecting my flag and cards after falling one day I had a conversation with a former Canadian Army reservist. He spoke of how, as a reservist, he felt indoctrinated to sign up to serve in Afghanistan and how disturbed he was by the way friends of his who served in Afghanistan spoke of Afghani’s in such dehumanizing ways.

Another moving encounter was between Cassie and a woman who approached while I was falling and inquired, “Why are you doing that?” Cassie showed her the flag and cards, explained the project and ended up having a long conversation with her. She was a child in Italy during WWII where she lost two male family members who were forced to fight in Mussolini’s army. She immigrated to Canada shortly after the war and hasn’t spoken of these losses to anyone here in all these years since she immigrated. As she explained to Cassie, “They were on the other side, the enemy.”

 

November 9, 2010, Poppies, from Flanders to Afghanistan

In these past few weeks a growing number of red poppies have bloomed on the lapels of passers-by. Occasionally, a poppy bearer stops to witness, read or take a postcard. Yesterday, after reading the card, a poppy-wearing woman blew me a kiss and mouthed “thank-you” before continuing on her way. On other occasions, however, I’ve noticed a prolonged staccato-like process of poppy wearers engagement with the card–stopping, reading, walking, stopping, turning to look at me, reading, walking . . .

The poppy is a powerful symbol. The Remembrance Day poppy was adopted (in the early 1920s) as a symbol of remembrance for WWI veterans because of its association with the poppies of Flanders Field where many Canadian soldiers died. Since then, the poppy’s meaning as a symbol of remembrance and respect is often extended to include all veterans. According to cultural theorist Stuart Hall, over time, “encoded” meanings become entrenched and unquestioned, taking on a “common-sense” quality. My concern with the poppy as a symbol is, to what extent has the encoded meaning of remembrance for a specific group of veterans become translated into an unquestioning patriotism and support of all of Canada’s military actions?

Hall goes on to argue that in addition to the “encoded” (dominant) meaning of a sign or symbol, new meanings may be  arrived at through a process of “decoding” the sign. What, I wonder, is the meaning of the poppy for the woman who blew me a kiss? What meaning(s) does the poppy hold for the staccato reading, stopping, watching, walking passers-by? How are these meanings different or similar to the poppy’s encoded or dominant meaning?

Tonight, I’m going to see a screening of “Raw Opium”, a documentary that looks at the history of the opium poppy and the destabilizing role it played (and plays) not only in the lives of individuals but also in a geopolitical context. As our Canadian military continues to fight in Afghanistan (and is considering extending its stay there until 2014) perhaps it is time to revisit the meaning of not only the poppy but Canadian military engagements in contemporary geopolitical terms.

 

November 11, 2010, The poetics of memorial

I fell in Queen’s Park today as a steady stream of people passed on route to the Remembrance Day Ceremony. Many were in uniform: How many have fallen, have been violently struck down? How many have witnessed the death or injury of their comrades? How many have caused a death or injury of an “enemy” or a civilian casualty? What losses, what injuries of body, mind, and heart do these soldiers bear? What is it they are asking us to bear witness to on this day dedicated to remembrance?

A soldier stood facing me. He was too far away to see his face but from my vantage he looked young and fragile–too young.

As I fell, I was also haunted by an image from the documentary, Raw Opium. The image was of an Afghan peasant being fired on by border guards as he attempted to smuggle opium across the Tajikistan border. The film draws connections between the “war” on drugs here in Canada/US and the use of drug money to fund wars abroad.

How many Afghan peasants die trying to smuggle opium, in order to feed themselves and their families?

After falling, we went to witness the 21-gun salute. I was struck the military poetics of Remembrance Day: The firing of the cannons, the soldiers at attention, the order to fire, issued through a line of command. Witnessing these militarized gestures of remembrance helped me to (better) understand what I’m trying to do with Impact. Where the choreographed gestures of the Remembrance Day Memorial invoke memory as pride, honor and militaristic stoicism–Impact seeks to evoke the memory of the shared (though certainly not equally distributed) vulnerability of our human condition.

 

November 21, 2010, Tech support

Check out the video calendar Cassie constructed for me. As I continue to fall, the experience becomes simultaneously cumulative and dispersed. It is as though an echo from each day’s falls is present in each new day’s falls.

 

November 29, 2010, Weather report #2

When I moved back to Canada a year and a half ago (after living in California for over 20 years) I felt a mixture of trepidation and delight at having returned to the land of weather. Having grown up in Winnipeg I hold winter in a kind of awe. I find its simultaneously stunning and ruthless display humbling. And, as cliched as it sounds, one of the things I remember most about winter in Winnipeg is the way its visceral vulnerability made people more dependent on, and responsive to, one another.

Perhaps this is vulnerability’s silver lining–its potential to bring out the best in us. But what makes this potential realizable? How is it that in some situations vulnerability is met with empathy, whereas in others, it is met with indifference, disdain or even violence? In the case of Winnipeg winters, I think the trick is that it’s a shared vulnerability. Anyone who has ever experienced a Winnipeg blizzard or even just a bitterly cold day, anyone who has lost control of their vehicle or been unable to turn their engine over, anyone who has been stuck in a ditch or misjudged the windchill recognizes winter’s vulnerability as a shared condition–one that is best navigated through a mutual and pragmatic generosity.

As the weather grows colder here in Toronto (and I anticipate my upcoming two week visit to Winnipeg–burrrrr!) I’ve become increasingly aware of my vulnerability, not as an abstract concept but as a very real project of negotiation between the weather and my health. I’ve also noticed that as the weather grows colder more people seem to respond to my falling. People stop to see what I’m doing or to ask me if I’m okay. People have blown me kisses, thanked me, and yesterday, after asking if I was okay and reading the postcard, a young man gave me a hug.

So as I contemplate the coming of winter’s  harshest months, scour Thrift Stores for clothes to keep me warm and dry, bulk up on my vitamin supplements and take comfort in the warmth of my small apartment, my thoughts go to the over 300,000 “Internally Displaced Persons” in Afghanistan. War’s harm is frequently measured by the dramatic and traumatic losses of lives and territories but as Afghanis enter another of their harsh winters I’m struck by the number of people that will be forced to endure a season of great suffering and of course to those who, lacking adequate housing, clothing and food, won’t survive winter’s harshness. I grapple with the question of how I/we might possibly move beyond western notions of “rescue” to recognize that though vulnerability is (profoundly) unequally distributed across the globe (and this I would argue is not accidental but rather the result of historical and contemporary geopolitical and economic interests) it is nevertheless our shared condition and one that is best met with pragmatic generosity.

 

December 3, 2010, Shared vulnerabilities

“We should begin with the premise that all human bodies are fundamentally dependent and vulnerable” (Judith Butler, Precarious Lives 2004).

This new video montage (big thanks to Cassie and “D’nA”) was inspired by my experience of witnessing the 21-cannon salute after falling in Queen’s Park on Remembrance Day. At the time I was struck by the contrast between the poetics of the official ceremony which seemed to be grounded in gestures of  militaristic stoicism and that of Impact which embraces a poetics of vulnerability.

The sad irony of the juxtaposition of these very different poetics or remembrance is that all the military personnel who performed the Remembrance Day ritual–those who stood so stoically at attention, those who issued the repeated orders to fire the cannons, and those who responded to the orders–all have a far more intimate relationships with the very real and embodied vulnerability associated with war than I do.

Lynn Segal (2008), a British feminist scholar and activist, argues that the silence regarding the psychic and bodily trauma that men suffer as a result of war is a major shortcoming of feminist discourses on war. Segal advocates for a gender analysis that extends beyond a discussions of the (well-documented) relationship between militarized hyper-masculinity and increases in violence against women, to one that includes an examination of the equally important relationship of masculine vulnerability to violence within the context of militarism and war.

 

December 10, 2010 . . . more on shared (and sharing) vulnerabilities

This semester, to accommodate my class and TA schedules, I’ve done my falling on campus every Tuesday and Wednesday. Most Tuesdays, I’ve been fortunate to be joined by my friend and colleague, Bradley High. It’s been a comforting companionship, falling with someone–a sharing of the vulnerability of both the falls and the visibility. The last couple of weeks, however, Brad hasn’t been able to join me and this past week in particular, I missed him.

Tuesday was cold and snowy. I dallied after class which meant it was nearing sunset by the time I fell. The newly frozen ground was impenetrable which made it impossible to anchor the legs of the music stand I use to display the flag and informational postcards. I ended up kind of attaching the stand to the small (rolling) suitcase I’ve begun taking to campus with me to transport my ever-expanding supply of “falling gear.” Not only did my precarious suitcase/music stand set up look absurd, it was no match for the wind and went down twice during my falls. The entire effort also seemed ridiculously moot since passers by, intent on getting to where they were going as quickly as possible, demonstrated absolutely no interest in my reading materials or my outdoor performance.

The scenario propelled me into a spiral of doubt (about the project and my ability to sustain it through the winter) and concern over how it/I was being “read.” Then, after my 86th fall, a young man, postcard in hand approached me. I confess, my first thought (reflective of my overall state of mind) was, Shit, now someone wants to mess with me.

The young man asked if he could do ten falls with me. After a few falls together we were joined by a friend of his and the three of us continued to the 100th fall. Afterwards, we shook hands, introduced ourselves (they were Milad and Anthony), I thanked them, they went on their way, and I packed up.

I am profoundly grateful to Milad and Anthony for reminding me of the value of gestures of solidarity and of the power of acts of shared vulnerability.

 

December 18, 2010, Snow angels and earthly angels

It’s difficult to fall in the snow without evoking the childhood memory of making snow angels: The way the snow catches you, breaking your fall, the struggle to climb up out of its embrace (without destroying the snow angel’s perfection). Falling in the snow these past days I become surrounded by snow angels–not the perfectly serene angels of my childhood–these are messy angels, all askew and aflutter. These are angels with things on their minds–busy with concern. Maybe this concern it what makes them angels?

Along with its new weather conditions each season also brings a shift in mood. All summer, Impact seemed to blend into the cacophony of Toronto’s park scene with its eclectic mix of activities–dog-walking, cycling, tight-rope and stilt walking, jogging, tai chi and qigong, soccer, frisby, gardening, fitness boot-camps galore, cricket, baseball, tennis, hula-hooping.

Fall’s leaves brought out a more exuberant curiosity in passers-by.

Winter’s cold has brought a kind of insulating isolation. Few stop to look or to read the flag or cards. Everyone is bundled from the cold and passing through space with a singular objective like heat seeking missiles. So when people do stop, their willingness to do so, to stand in the cold and witness, takes on a new meaning. My sister calls them angels. I think she’s right–earthly angels abound: There’s Milad and Anthony who fell with me on a cold, snowy day at York University. There’s Lila who stood (from her arrival at around my thirtieth fall until I completed) like a beautiful guardian angel on busy Bloor Street as people rushed by on their way to warmth. And there’s my family.

I had been nervous about falling in Winnipeg. I was scared both of the cold and of “coming out” to family members who don’t know about Impact. Some family members have known about and been project angels from the outset. My sister Laurie has been a great support, both moral and technical (she designed my card and the header for my blog and basically got my blog going for me). John and Sid (brother and sister-in-law) have provided both moral and practical support. They met me yesterday at the airport equipped with a box full of warm falling gear. During my last trip home John figured out how to mount the flip cam on a threaded rod which has made filming much easier. Nieces Erin and Nicole have been facebook fans.

But for some reason, I was afraid to tell my dad.  I wasn’t sure how he would respond to Impact. Somehow I thought he’d be overly worried for me, or embarrassed, or worse, upset with me. Well, I underestimated him. Yesterday, as I was falling in Beauchemin Park in back of my parent’s apartment complex, dad came trudging through the snow to witness me. Later that evening, at the Legion’s weekly dinner and “meat draw” (mom won a pork roast and bacon and eggs) dad began showing his friends my postcard.

 

December 23, 2010, the named and the nameless

Since I began Impact on July 1 the number of Canadian soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan has risen from 150 to 154. Corporal Steve Miller, Canada’s most recent Afghan war casualty, was killed on December 18. As with the other Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan, I learned of Corporal Miller’s death through media reports that accompanied the news of his death with a photo and details about his life.

Corporal Miller was two days short of his 25th birthday when he was killed.

My oldest niece is 25. She’s studying medicine and has a rich and promising life ahead of her. Like her, my other nieces and nephews are at a stage of their lives when they are stepping out into the world. Though not without its risks, for the most part it is a time ripe with possibility.

On the morning after I learned of Corporal Miller’s death I dedicated my first fall to him. But one fall did not dismiss his image or thoughts of what a difficult time this must be for his family from my mind. As I fall I find myself haunted by his young face. I also find myself wondering about all the nameless and faceless dead in Afghanistan.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross war casualties in Afghanistan are on the rise. While many of the deaths are from war related injuries, even more are the result of less direct factors: “Every day, there are mothers who bring their sick children to hospital too late because they are afraid to travel or are held up by roadblocks, and relatives who take patients home before their treatment is completed.”

 

December 29, 2010, Falling in Melbourne

No, I haven’t transported myself to Melbourne (where it happens to be summer!). Viv Neale, a fellow Tamalpa Institute graduate contacted me a few months ago about doing Impact in Australia. This morning I received an email from Viv that she has graciously invited me to share.

Here’s our exchange:

Hi Helene,

This afternoon, after falling for Afghanistan this morning I feel deeply relieved that I’ve finally begun. A friend, Tiana was interested in joining me and today we actually met and did it. I won’t step into doing it daily as you are but I’ll do it again a number of times. Next time on Australia Day Jan 26th. That seems a good time.

I held off for a while because I felt nervous about doing something “odd” in public. Today I wanted to just see how it felt to begin the personal ritual outside but somewhere almost private. But I noticed when I started falling and standing for the 100 times I felt like this falling belongs outside with people passing either knowing or not knowing what we  were doing. Today there were a few people around not taking much notice – where we were I imagine they thought we were doing some obscure form of tai chi.

After we’d finished falling a guy saw the flag hanging in the tree and draped himself in it for a tourist photo. My country.

Like I said today I’m relieved that I’ve acted on my intention, grateful that you gave me this way, and glad that the experience matched my hope for it. When I began, I was thinking a lot about what it meant to me but when I got into the 80’s I thought I could keep doing this and the longer I went the less mental it was. Next time I’d like to be a bit slower. The 100 is a bit tiring but not arduous although every day is another thing.

Thanks,

Viv

Dear Viv,

Thanks so much for sharing your experience. As I read your email I could feel the visceral resonance of your thoughts, your words and your falls.

After almost six months of falling, I continue to confront my nervousness about falling in public. Since I’ve been in Winnipeg I’ve been falling in a small park behind my parents apartment complex. Everyday I’ve chosen to fall a little away from their block, but yesterday my mom said, “Why don’t you fall down there?” (pointing to the part of the park nearest to her building) “Then I could see you better.”

My response was that I didn’t want to get her into trouble with her neighbors. Impact has made me so curious about the possibilities that are preempted by my/our internalized fear of disturbing the status quo and, on the flip side, what might become possible through our willingness to engage or dance with this fear.

Another very strong resonance was the sense of how the falls change–how the process can shift from a very mental engagement to a physical meditation on war. So often when I begin it seems impossible (or ridiculous) to fall 100 times but by the time I reach the 80s the thought of stopping becomes heartbreaking.

Thank you for falling.

In peace and solidarity,

Helene

PS When I return to Toronto I will ask around about how you can send your video because I would love to see you falling and to share your falls here!

 

January 1, 2011, Paradigms shift

Paradigms shift. No doubt about it.

Yesterday, I fell under bright blue Winnipeg skies in minus 22 degrees celsius/minus 8 fahrenheit (not factoring in the windchill!). Today, I fell under Toronto’s rainy grey skies in 12 degrees celsius/54 fahrenheit. The shift in weather and location was disorienting and required a change in gear, in pre and post fall rituals, and in mindset.

Over the course of six months of falling I continue to discover that each shift in weather, location or other factors brings not only new challenges but new discoveries as well. Perhaps the most profound of these is that paradigm shifts are sometimes easier to navigate than they are to imagine and that they can bring unexpected gifts. On a personal note one of the most surprising and profoundly heartwarming of these gifts has been the way my mom and dad have embraced Impact. (When I called mom today to let her know I’d arrived safely home she informed me that dad had added our last name to my informational postcard and was leaving them around their building.)

With each day of Impact I witness the status quo of my mental preconceptions crumble and fall, crumble and fall, crumble and fall. Sometimes they rise stubbornly intact refusing change, clinging tenaciously to the familiar grove of my mental constructions. But sometimes (and over time) when I rise, however briefly, the old thoughts have fallen away and I find myself surprisingly open to new possibilities.

My brother Don asked me the other night whether I had a goal or political agenda for Impact. Some days I do. But more and more I’m interested in the experience of opening to new possibilities, of allowing paradigms to shift. Sometimes, when people talk to me about Impact, about Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan, or about the possibility of peace in Afghanistan (or anywhere in the world) the conversation struggles against familiar refrains: That war (or some wars) are inevitable or even necessary. That wars have always been and always will be. That peace is a utopian notion. That there is no way to turn the tide of global militarism.

Peace is hard to imagine. An end to the global military industrial complex is hard to imagine. But we’ve all experienced paradigm shifts. My “radical” little performance art activist mind continues to reel with the realization that my dad is less embarrassed by Impact than I am. Maybe one of the lessons is that there are many ways to challenge the status quo of our imaginations and our personal and political practices. How might I/we act peace? How might I/we practice peace? How might I/we nurture seeds of peace? How might we develop our faith in possibilities beyond our knowing?

When I returned to my little basement apartment just minutes into the new year I checked my fb page (and to anyone who knows what I proud Luddite I’ve been–and still am in some ways–this is yet another example of a shifting paradigm). I found a request from ReThink Afghanistan to set a New Year’s Resolution to “Stand with Afghans to resist the war“.

Maybe it’s less important that we have a clear vision for how we might end the war in Afghanistan (or anywhere) than that we be willing to let go of our status quo thinking about the inevitability of war or the impossibility of peace. I wish with all my heart for an end to the war in Afghanistan (and an end to all wars). My way of “standing” with the Afghans to resist the war is by dedicating each fall to this wish.

 

January 6, 2011, Emergency!

“Open grieving is bound up with outrage, and outrage in the face of injustice or indeed of unbearable loss has enormous political potential.” (Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable)

Yesterday, while falling at York campus an ambulance appeared on the horizon. Since it was traveling on a footpath its approach was slow and there was little doubt as to its destination.

As I continued to fall–ninety-two, ninety-three, ninety-four–several questions went through my mind: Will I finish before they reach me? Would they/could they stop me? Who called them? If someone was concerned about my well-being, why didn’t they stop and ask if I was okay?

By ninety-six the ambulance had pulled up in front of me and alongside my music stand with its information postcards and flag. The paramedic on the passenger side rolled down his window–ninety-seven–looked at the cards and the flag–ninety-eight–looked at me, rolled up his window and the ambulance continued on by.

In the ambulance’s wake I was struck by a sudden and raw surge of emotion. I wanted to cry out, to throw myself to the ground weeping, to scream with outrage: Emergency! Emergency! Emergency!

 

January 21, 2011, con·front: to stand or meet facing

Embedded within the definition of “confront” is the simple act of standing and facing.

Despite Impact‘s public visibility, I have for months somehow managed to hide, to avoid facing the very people I intended to engage. I’ve faced Cassie, of course, whose presence as documenter and intentional witness has been comforting and has helped me confront/face my initial fear of falling in public. Then, when began falling solo, I tended to arrange myself nearby, but rarely facing, roads, sidewalks or other pathways. I told myself that this was because I didn’t want my act of falling to be perceived as a confrontation. I had (mistakenly) equated facing with the more aggressive act of “getting in one’s face.”

After six months of falling, my decision to finally stand and face witnesses was born of a pragmatic logic. With the weather growing colder (and me falling solo) I became concerned that passersby might think that I had slipped or injured myself or be suffering from some other kind of weather-induced health crises. So I decided it would be best if I (1)  established a clear relationship between myself and my informational display (of flag and postcards on a music stand) and (2) positioned myself facing passersby so that, if necessary, I could assure them that I was “Okay”.

Standing face-to-face I realized how by not facing I had not only been colluding with, but also performing, indifference. The simple act of facing passersby has revealed to me confrontation’s vulnerable underbelly. After months of public exposure I have finally made myself available to the shared vulnerability of standing face-to-face. In so doing, I have also invited witnesses to join me in an effort to face the almost unimaginable vulnerability of the people of Afghanistan, and all people attempting to live within a war zone.

 

January 26, 2011, Still falling in Melbourne

On December 29 I posted a message from Viv Neale about her experience of performing Impact in Melbourne. Since then Viv has continued to fall, sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Today, Viv was joined by three friends as they fell in a park amidst Australia Day celebrations.

Here is our exchange:

Hi Helene,

Since my last email to you I’ve gone back to the same gardens twice to continue falling. On Friday, 21 January I went by myself. I’d been thinking of it for a couple of days, as time to do it again. I think it was partly because I was particularly noticing reports of worse conditions in Afghanistan. At the same time, I really felt resistance to going alone. It feels harder by myself, not so much while I’m there, but getting there took a push.

I found another place in the park. The park seemed particularly beautiful…the trees, sky, birds really vivid. I experienced moments of feeling my connection there and a feeling of expansiveness in to the park and, as during my other falls, the smallness of falling and helplessness of it.

At about 270 falls I thought about how I wasn’t thinking about “the issue”. That maybe I should be, to deepen the honouring, and couldn’t make myself feel the connection. I thought that it would  have to be enough this time for the action of falling with intention, to speak what I feel and believe without my mind reinforcing it. The ritual felt sufficient in itself.

There were many women with children in the park just walking past and around.

Today, Wednesday, 26 January. Australia Day. I went to the same park again with Tiana and Sam, a woman who’s in the middle of the Tamalpa Training, and her friend Roma, who’s a dancer. I’m noticing that the most interested responses to your project are from people who dance–the idea of talking through movement must be more familiar.

The park was an interesting place to do this today because in one large area there was a citizenship ceremony and the rest of the park was full of people celebrating Australia Day with picnics and Australian flags.

We went to the same place [we had fallen in before]. The ground was wet. I re-started my counting at 1 with this group but feel I glad I was really counting to 400 this time. Sam said she wanted to include Britain in her falls because she’s from there and they’re involved in Afghanistan as well. Again I noticed that my mind was fairly blank and that I just fell and felt the ground and saw what was around. Noticing my falling reflected by the other three was moving.

For a long time a woman and little boy stood and watched. They went away and then the boy came back and watched by himself. I thought about telling them what we were doing but they didn’t ask and didn’t see the flyers and I let it go.

Roma said afterwards that at one point he noticed Sam falling and imagined someone in Afghanistan seeing someone they loved falling to die. It made him think of death and also of having children fall together.

Sam said it felt good in her body to fall a hundred times.

Roma and Sam were excited by the possibility of gathering the dance community to fall together by posting the next time we’re falling on facebook. I feel excited about how strong it could be to fall with many people–I imagine 100 people falling 100 times, honouring. and at the same time it seems too big.

I reread your last email before sending this and I’m struck by the “poetics of shared vulnerability”. I’m not good at giving words to why this project touches me so strongly but there it is.

As before, if there’s anything you want to post on your blog, please do.

Warmly from Melbourne,

Viv

 

Dear Viv,

I’m so touched by your ongoing commitment to falling and your reflections on your experience, on the challenges of feeling connection to a population that we are paradoxically distant (geographically) and distanced (ideologically and politically) from. Also, of the challenge of connect to those who are in our immediate environment.

I love the image of the young boy coming to watch. Sometimes out of 100 falls, only one person stops and really watches (sometimes more–yesterday two women came to me and gave me the most heartwarming hugs) and I realize that in this moment, all the falls are worth it.

Like you, as I struggle to focus my intention and attention, increasingly I’ve come to trust in the ritual of falling. Each day, when I reach my 100th fall I take a moment and dedicate any merit to the people of Afghanistan.

Roma’s experience of seeing Sam fall also resonated with me. My friend Brad frequently falls with me and when I see him falling, or on the ground,  I often have a moment of imagining what it might be like to watch someone I love stuck down while I was also struck down and rendered unable to help them.

I could go on, but have to go “do my falls” before going to school. I regret that I haven’t figured out yet how to access the video you sent. It is still my intention to try to figure it out.

Thank you and Tiana, Sam and Roma so much for falling. Let’s stay in touch about organizing a group fall–perhaps we can do a bi-national fall of 100 fallers?

Warmly from Toronto,

Helene

 

February 6, 2011, Life and Limb

Life and Limb has been rehearsing at Toronto Free Gallery for our upcoming performance of “K[no]w Places” which we’ll be performing at the  Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times.

We’ve integrated Impact into our rehearsals.

Today, while falling together collective members started to speak numbers. Sometimes they echoed my daily fall count. Other times, they spoke random numbers, both “small” and incomprehensibly large.

Another thing happened: Members began helping one another up.

Over the past seven month, as I’ve done Impact, though falling has been at times challenging it’s always been the standing, the rising that’s most difficult. After each fall there’s a peaceful and seductive moment of embodied perceptual awareness. On the ground I become paradoxically present and absent. Here and not here. In this between-space I experience both the vastness of my distance from, and a closeness to, all those who have fallen, who are falling, in Afghanistan. Distance, because I am acutely aware of the inadequacy of my gesture. Aware that I fall of my own accord, as an act of agency, defiance even.I am not injured. I can rise. Will rise. Do rise. I am not in a war zone. I have not been struck down. My body remains intact, whole. Ironically, this awareness connects me. Each fall, as a symbolic and ritualized gesture of vulnerability induces an embodied meditation on the unequal distribution of vulnerability in our geopolitical context. With each fall I recognize—it “could” be me, it isn’t me, and, the reasons it’s not.

As I was propelled up over and over again by loving and at times frantic hands I was touched by the compassion and haunted by the many who will never rise.

 

February 16, 2011, To fall–together and alone

Over the past couple of days I’ve experienced an acute resistance to venturing out to fall. There’s no real reason: It’s not colder than usual. I’m not falling in new places. My anxious vulnerability seems less about the physical act of falling–the impact of body with the cold strange topography of the February ground–than about loneliness. Cassie’s away, and the insulation of winter-wear can have an oddly isolating effect.

So, it is not only with great pleasure, but also with a sense of relief (rescue even), that I introduce five young women–Christina Demuda, EmilyAnne Fullerton, Rebecca Hooton, Melissa Lepp and Samantha Niaraki–who will be participating in Impact for the next six weeks. We will meet weekly, fall (together and alone), and share our reflections with one another and here with you.

From Christina Demuda:

I have had one meeting for Impact Afghanistan War to date. I feel both honoured and anxious to be embarking on this journey with Helene and my group.

By definition, to fall is;

  1. to drop or descend under the force of gravity, as to a lower place through loss or lack of support.2. to come or drop down suddenly to a lower position, especially to leave a standing or erect position suddenly, whether voluntarily or not: to fall on one’s knees.3. to become less or lower; become of a lower level, degree, amount, quality, value, number, etc.; decline.

For me, I don’t really know what it means yet, to not only fall, but to fall for a reason. The fallen Afghani people deserve so much respect and commemoration for their stolen lives. How can I raise awareness? How can I make a difference in the way people view the war, when I have been so ignorant myself? This is the first time in my life I am going to be a part of something much bigger than myself, and I don’t really know what to expect.

I am going to take a walk around campus later today to find a place to fall tomorrow. I have a few places in mind already, but I want to opportunity to really explore. I’m excited to see what locations resonate with me. I wonder what constitutes as a good “falling site.”

Christina

 

February 18, 2011

Expanding horizons of care

As I prepared to bring the small collective who have committed to working with Impact for the next six weeks on our first public group fall the temperature shot up to a record-breaking +9C. What is a relief for many, in falling terms, is a challenge. The ground, still cold, is now wet as well. What snow remains becomes quickly reduced to a slushy pool, an ice water bath.

Falling alone, I am responsible only for myself.

I tried to prepare everyone for the weather conditions. Explained that they should bring waterproof clothes for falling in and a set of dry clothes to change into afterwards (preparations that always serve as a sobering reminder my/our position of relative safety and comfort). I encouraged them to take care of themselves, to only fall as many times as they feel comfortable with.

There is tension–rather like a riddle–between Impact‘s intention to–through its embodied poetics of shared vulnerability–“impact”, and the way this intimate engagement with vulnerability also instills a desire to protect others from suffering.

As we fell together I was moved by the incredible focus and commitment of Rebecca, Christina, Melissa, Samantha and EmilyAnne and, as often happens when others join me in falling, I couldn’t help but imagine what it must like to witness loved ones, acquaintances, or even complete strangers, being stuck down as you lay injured and unable to help.

Below is some video footage of our fall (thanks to Rebecca for her “filming while falling” footage) and some brief post-fall reflections from each participant.

 

Samantha Niaraki

Feet down, knees down, hips down, back down, arms down, head down, heart down.

I look up as you look down.  Laying in the cold, what happens next?  After all the lives are lost, do we wave a white flag?  Do we keep going?  Who are we waiting for before we decide to make a change.

Melissa Lepp

I found myself wanting to make eye contact. For reassurance. Tell me, are you okay? Am I okay?

Christina Demuda

I wasn’t sure how many falls I was at, probably 50 or so,
 when Helene called out 72, and a prickling cold piece of ice slid into my coat
and down my back. I thought, “Okay, that’s enough for today. I’ve already 
exceeded my expectations after all.” But it was at this moment I thought of the
 Afghan people, the ones who never had the choice to get back up.

EmilyAnne Fullerton

Embracing the elements. Letting myself be. Regardless of coldness or wetness,
 empty of negativity or judgement. Just letting myself fall with the world
 around me.

Rebecca Hooton

The snow was almost warm, welcoming soft. I felt comfortable falling into it as I knew it would catch me.

 

February 20, 2011, Beyond recognition

I drew a picture after falling today. It was of 100 fallen stick figure bodies. In a way it is easier to fall 100 times than to draw 100 fallen stick figures. When falling, each fall is intact unto itself. Each fall comes before or after another. There is a false order to it. Like language. Like words on the page, each new word following its predecessor—meaning ordered through this linear progression. But as the number of fallen stick figures grew on the page, they began to fall onto one another until the distinction between bodies was obliterated. By the time I reached 100 they were not only no longer recognizable as single bodies, their very recognizability as bodies had become obliterated—they had become an unknowable mass.

 

March 5, 2011, Cold rain watering seeds of hope

Rainy early spring day. My least favorite “falling weather.”

Pre-fall preparation: Gather rain gear, rubber gloves for underneath mitts, plastic bag for back-pack, umbrella to protect camera.

On a day like today, there is no “good” place to fall, only less bad places. Things to consider: Distance–I’m on foot, will be wet and muddy and want to get home quickly after I’ve finished. High ground—with the still-frozen ground and the recent thaw the rain quickly gathers into icy pools. Place for music/info stand and camera where the wind won’t blow over the stand or carry the umbrella away (fortunately, there’s less wind than I feared).

Fall: The rain pants that Brad so kindly got me work remarkably well, except for those moments on the ground when the water seeps in through the zippered side-seams and over the waistband. Unlike the last time I fell in the rain (and had an emotional melt down), I feel calm and focused. I don’t rush. I feel held by this simple act of falling and rising, feeling the rain and the contrast between the places the cold water touches my skin and those that remain dry and protected.

Post-fall clean-up: Leave wet muddy outer-clothing on the narrow steep steps leading to our basement apartment while I go into inside and change out of my (less so–but still) wet and muddy inner-clothing. Once dry, deal with soggy mess. Unpack bag. Set music stand up to dry (so it won’t rust) hang flag, spread out wet postcards. Unpack camera, make sure it’s dry, download footage. Hang clothes on rack. Wash muddy mitts and place on rack with rubber gloves. Bring rain pants to bathtub (careful not to leave muddy water trail), rinse off, ring out, place on drying rack. Bring rain jacket to bathtub wash, hang. Clean muddy water off bathroom walls, tub, sink and floor.

Shower. Heat leftovers. Eat lunch.

Post-lunch, post-shower, post-fall-clean-up, post-fall, post-pre-fall-preparation: I’m clean, warm, have a full belly and I am profoundly aware of the privilege of these simple facts. The weather forecast for Kabul, Afghanistan is similar to ours here in Toronto. Showers, turning into snow flurries as the temperature dips back down below freezing.

Often, I find the awareness of privilege difficult to hold. As though its acknowledgement necessitates some kind of psychic or emotional self-flagellation. Today, though, as I sit and enjoy the warmth of my apartment, the fullness of my belly, the fact that I don’t have to navigate a war zone every day, I feel neither guilt nor denial. I feel a small inkling of connection–and within this a seedling of hope.

 

March 7, 2011, The “Life Art Process”

For the past several weeks it’s been my pleasure and privilege to work with a group of young women from York–Christina Demuda, Emily Anne Fullerton, Rebecca Hooton, Melissa Lepp and Samantha Niaraki–who are participating in a six week Impact experience. We meet weekly, fall (together and alone), and share our reflections with one another and here with you.

A primary resource we’ve been using to facilitate our reflection process is the Life Art Process (LAP) developed by dance and expressive arts therapy pioneers and co-founders of the Tamalpa Institute,  Anna Halprin and Daria Halprin. The three things I love most about Anna and Daria’s work and the LAP are:

First, that it is based in the belief that the purpose of art is not simply to entertain, but rather, that it is a process through which individuals and communities communicate, make meaning, struggle, play and connect. As such, it insists that art is a kind of birth-rite and should not be reserved for those with access to stage and museum.

Second, that our lives, individual and collective, are the richest and most meaningful of resources for art-making. They are our palette and the process of making art offers us a tool to find meaning in, and navigate through, even our greatest of struggles.

And lastly, that by shifting between modes of expression–movement, drawing, and writing–the LAP offers a multi-modal method for translating and communicating experience. The following poem is the product of such a translation.

From Melissa Lepp:

The Rudiments of Falling

Twist, starting at the knees.

Spiral, spin, woooosh and I’m down.

Careful to roll.

Don’t make the impact of The Impact too forceful.

The rudiments of falling.

 

I see a world upside down,

People conversing with a flag.

(Right side) Up again.

 

Spiral, spin, woooosh and I’m down.

Careful to roll.

Impact this time. My head hits the ground. Hard.

 

Blood pools around me in the grass, the very grass that held me all those falls before. In fact, we are all just bodies in the grass. Green and red. Grass and blood.

A mass grave.

 

But wait, reality sets back in. I push myself up. (Right side) up again.

Red fades away into green and we’re all standing again.

Then, spiral, spin, woooosh, and I’m down.

Careful to roll.

The rudiments of falling.

 

March 11, 2011, A Bitter Sweet

Yesterday, in response to unwieldy weather conditions our Performance Lab group diversified in terms of both geography and tasks: I fell in one of my regular outdoor spots; Melissa, Christina and Emily Anne fell on the other side of a large window inside York’s Centre for Film and Theatre building; and Samantha and Rebecca circulated, speaking with, interviewing and observing passersby and witnesses.

From Samantha Niaraki:

The Bitter Sweet

This time I took on a different role.  I was a witness to a witness. Watching those who were watching those who were falling.

To my surprise most of the people would ignore and walk right by us. Only a handful came up to me, asked what the project was about and shared their thoughts. It was invigorating to have people feel so strongly about our work, even if it was only a handful.

The most discouraging and difficult thing to come to terms with were those who not only ignored us but felt the need to laugh and mock our work and us.  It is one thing to ignore but it is something completely different to go out of your way and put others down for their work and effort. Especially without having read what the project was about, I found a great deal of ignorance and arrogance towards something that is supposed to create a sense of awareness, respect, honour and peace.

My hope is that people, will at the very least take a moment to read and learn what our motivation for the project is before judging it.

Every fallen body in Canada and in Afghanistan is a tragedy–the world stops for the families, but the rest of the world keeps going, oblivious, without a word.

Let us all take the time to realize, honour, and pay respect to the fallen for their bravery. It made me hopeful to see those few who engaged and said they would one day fall with us, my hope still is to have more people share in the work of raising awareness and acknowledge the fight for change. After all, we are the ones who can make a change, and it has to start with you.

–Samantha Niaraki

In my obsessive concern over the physical conditions of falling I had forgotten about other elements of vulnerability. Like the ways people’s words and actions can cause hurt. Unlike Samantha (since I had fallen in another location) I was unaware of the laughter and mocking directed at Melissa, Christina and Emily Anne as they fell. (Hearing about it after the fact, only increased my sense of wonder at their courage and commitment.) When I arrived inside, Melissa had just counted her 90th fall. I was struck by their dignity as they fell and by the space they gave to themselves (and witnesses) for the act of each fall to register.

I was also struck by the presence of a woman who sat nearby watching attentively. Whereas negative comments and mocking actions may, at times, be the loudest and have the most stinging affect, having had the opportunity to witness both the falling and “to watch someone who watched those who were falling” I was left with a sense of the power of witness and of the quiet courage of commitment.

 

March 14, 2011, Turning towards the trembling heart of the world

“Pain is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world. It is not only natural, it is a necessary component of our collective healing.” (Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World)

Japan, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Congo: The list could go on. Seismic upheavals, shifting weather patterns, media and communications networks, global capitalism and militarism–all make any notion of our separateness or segregation an illusion. So, how do we learn to act in ways that recognize and more equitably address our human condition of shared vulnerability? How can we learn to turn towards the trembling heart of the world with compassion?

From Christina Demuda:

Falling inside the Centre for Film and Theatre was a very interesting and
 humbling place to reach my first 100 falls. I wasn’t even planning to reach
 100, it just sort of happened. After the first few falls, a friend from high
school addressed me. “Christina” he said sounding quite concerned, as I touched
 the ground. This had never happened before, so I was a little taken aback. I
 smiled softly to let him know I was fine and continued counting. Next time this 
happens, I will gladly stop for a moment and explain the project. I could see 
another group of friends in the distance, but they couldn’t see me.

With the 
amount of student activity going on around me, it was very difficult to get to
 my usual meditative state. It was extremely jarring at times and challenged my 
focus, which was especially important now that I was falling onto a cement floor. I
 made a mildly disturbing discovery; I found that the more onlookers ignored or
 taunted me, the more desperate I became for my friends to notice me. By fall
39, my eyes were welling up with tears.

“Why is no one trying to protect me?”

I 
fought the tears off. I thought about it afterward, and I think the reason I
 became so sensitive was not so much personal, but due to the lack of respect 
shown for the project and overall cause. Why were some students so cruel? Is it 
really just ignorance? What in society has conditioned our minds to be so closed to one another? One of my favourite new artists Janelle Monáe hit the nail on
 the head in a recent article published in Now Magazine: “That’s what’s wrong 
with your kind of thinking–it just works to segregate us.”

 

March 18, 2011, Falling together, in Melbourne and at York

Hi Helene,

At the end of the first day of Soto’s workshop I invited participants to join me the next morning in a park across the road. I had flyers explaining the project and explained briefly. I find it difficult to read people’s quiet responses and wasn’t sure if anyone would come.

Got there in the morning with Soto. About 8 people arrived and we all fell together. One woman, Marta, who’s worked in Kabul recently wanted to be there to witness but didn’t want the intensity of falling. Another young man, Simon, didn’t fall – just danced nearby. I didn’t know what he was thinking, if he felt connected, but he seemed like a dancing witness.

There were two families with children watching. One family was sitting around the two large canons in the park. The other was a mother with two children. At some point she walked over, asked the woman witnessing if she was allowed to talk, asked what we were doing, said it was very interesting and took a flyer. After, her children climbed on the canons and asked if the cannon shot someone would they die.

Falling with these others, even that they wanted to do it, really touched me. I was less focused while I fell…I noticed I didn’t notice the environment as much, just the grass when I landed. I was distracted by seeing the others movement and I also felt the weightiness of all of us falling on to the ground together. One woman, Rosie, lay on the ground and cried, said falling like this connected her to other losses. At the end we paused, didn’t talk and went off to the workshop.

Marta has a friend in Afghanistan, an Afghani doctor, and asked if it’s ok to email him to tell him about the falling project–she thinks it will have meaning for him. I asked her to tell him about your project – trusted it would be ok. That link seems good to me.thanks,

viv

 

 

Dear Viv,

So sorry that it’s taken so long for me to respond! How wonderful that you you have continued to fall and to invite others to join you. It’s also very meaningful to me that Soto was a part of the fall. (He’s been such an important part of my movement and performance worlds and, as a such a ally in efforts to connect performance to larger life/world.)

Lately, I’ve been falling more with groups which has both expanded and deepened my experience of Impact. Similar to your experience, I find my focus shifts (and with it the associations I have) when I fall with others. Falling together is such a visceral reminder of our connectedness and our shared vulnerability. My weekly falls with a group of students at York continue to touch me deeply. Falling while also witnessing others falling has connected me to Impact’s tenderness in a new way.

Thank you for your commitment and for inviting others to join you.

Peace,

Helene

PS Unfortunately, I still can’t open the movie file. I think it’s too large. Here are a few photos from our group fall yesterday at York. If you have any photos (or can send me a small clip, I’d love to post it).

 

March 19, 2011, Stop & Spot

Inspired by Melissa’s, Christina’s and Emily Anne’s indoor fall last week at York this week the entire  Performance Lab group fell inside York’s Centre for Film and Theatre building. The falls were  documented by Rebecca and witnessed by many, some who passed through and others who sat and  watched. After falling, we returned to the studio to reflect on the experience using drawing, moment  exploration and writing.

From  Samantha Niaraki:

Spot & Stop

Spot the unknown, look at me.  Pay attention.  Do you see what’s wrong.  Do you see the trouble?

Why am I ignored?  Look around you, be aware, don’t shut me out keep me near and clear.

Is there time to look and spot?  It needs to stop.  We need to be doing not watching.  Watch once; be inspired for a lifetime.

Inspire for change.  For a better tomorrow and to save a life.  Stop the war, stop the death.

Seeing it once, death of a loved one – a mother, a father, a sister, a friend – at any capacity is enough to want to make a difference.

Or it should be.

Spot and Learn

Learn and Do

Do and Show

Show and Inspire

Inspire a change.

      ––Samantha Niaraki

 

March 21, 2011, Falling for someone

From Melissa Lepp:

Irony: I can fall 100 times on purpose and be fine, yet one accidental fall can hurt my knee for a week. Because of this, for our falls this past Thursday, I did maybe 50 falls. For the rest of the time, I talked to witnesses and was a witness myself.

Usually, when I fall, my imagination goes to the perspective of the fallen. I imagine being in a war, being killed, falling. Instead, this week I was taken to the place of those left behind. Of those who can do nothing to help those who have fallen. Impact has taken on a new meaning for me. I have started seeing it as the impact that a stone has when it hits the water. The ripples reach out just like the impact of losing a loved one reaches out to family and friends.

During our falls, I talked to three witnesses who were particularly interested in Impact. Two of them told me of family and friends who are fighting in the Canadian Army. Their stories struck me more than I can properly articulate. They are who I dedicated my falls to this week. I talked to another young man who witnessed our falls for almost the entire time. He told me of a friend of his who recently lost both parents. He said that he knows that his parents will be there when he gets home, but watching something like Impact reminded him that this is not the case for everyone. I have not been personally impacted by this, or any, war, but I know what it’s like to lose a parent and I know what it’s like to feel the impact and the grasps of grief.

This project is more than simply falling. I can fall down the stairs, or trip on a branch, but falling with purpose, falling for something, falling for someone is an entirely different thing. It has touched me this week in ways that I didn’t expect. I have been impacted.

    –Melissa Lepp

 

March 26, 2011, “Standing tall”

For the past several weeks it’s been my pleasure and privilege to work with a group of young women from York. We’ve met weekly, fallen together and shared our reflections with one another and here with you. Thursday was our final on-campus meeting of the group and next Tuesday (March 29) at 5:30 at Queen’s Park is our last (planned) group fall.

I have been so incredibly touched by the courage and integrity Christina, Emily Anne, Rebecca, Melissa and Samantha have brought to their engagement with Impact. They have fallen and they have stood tall. Their bodies have encountered cold slushy ground and hard stone tiles. Their hearts have bravely remained open and vulnerable in the face of not only the suffering of those we fell in honor of, but also of those who witnessed them, sometimes open heartedly, sometimes with indifference and sometimes with harsh words. And they have creatively channeled their experience into drawings, dances, poems and musical scores.

From Emily Anne Fullerton:

Falling. Falling. Green grass. newbeginnings. Underneath.  My heavy soul,falling. Being cushioned by theearth.Grassairsnowfalling.I feel uneasy.Why?

Standing. Taking in the world. Almost more
vulnerable than lying on the ground.
Standing tall. Holding my ground.
Allowing myself to be here – to be seen.


Standing. Am I proud? I think I am.
Just being. I’m here.

Dancing. Freedom. lightness. brightness.
Safety. Fetal. Awareness. Blankness.
Sometimes Emptiness. Simple pictures.
Am I really letting myself flow out?
Birth. Death. Darkness. Hope.
I would like to fall, then have the wind
carry me away. So light. I’m free.
I can be happy. My heart is heavy.


Letting myself trance out when I wish.
Letting myself be present when I wish.
Falling. ground. feeling. breathing.
Having the will to carry on. Escapism.

––Emily Anne Fullerton

 

March 27, 2011, Embracing grief

Falling today, I felt wrapped in a thick cloak of sadness. As I write, I feel the impulse to explain or reassure, as though sadness is inherently bad, or wrong. But there was a rightness to my sadness. There was an emotional congruence between my falls and my ongoing reflection on all those who have fallen in Afghanistan–a congruence I too rarely allow myself to feel.

I believe my capacity to embrace and be embraced by sadness today comes as a gift from having fallen with others. Grief (at least in much of the West) has been largely removed from the public and social arena. It has become personalized, privatized and internalized–its expression reserved for those intimately connected to the deceased. But what of the losses that aren’t personal or intimate? What of their impact? Having had the opportunity to explore these questions in a community has deepened my experience of Impact, and for this I am very grateful.

Here are written reflections and a short improvised duet by Christina and Samantha about their experience with Impact:

From Samantha Niaraki:

My reflection was very up and down. I felt guilty for being alive.  And that with my life, I wasn’t doing enough.  I was wasting my time.

 What makes me better to be alive? What am I going to do for anybody that is worth while? Why shouldn’t others be alive, they might make a significant change in the world.

 I want to do more. Better communication, compassion, forgiveness. Be a better person, and help other in any way I can.  It is essentially–to me–all about making the world a better place for today and tomorrow. Of course, we should remember the past and its significance, but our main focus is our future and how we can better it. We cannot change the past no matter how much we want to or memorialize it. The real struggle is the change of tomorrow, and I think I am just slowly, truly, starting to realize this, and how much of an impact it is having on me is so surreal. The ironic thing is, it is probably the most real conclusion I’ve come to in months.

Where to start?

–Samantha Niaraki

 

From Christina Demunda:

The Impact Afghanistan War Project has been a very humbling experience for me, and I will be sad to have to say goodbye to it.

I best express myself during movement, so it felt natural to feed off the energy of Samantha’s hauntingly beautiful and original song. My movement explores the difference between standing and falling, and this realization of being okay to
do it again and again, for the sole purpose of the less fortunate who fall victim to war violence everyday.

–Christina Demunda

April 4, 2011, Beyond borders

A strange thing has begun to happen. It seems as though every day more people stop to witness Impact. One or two at a time, occasionally in small clusters, people gather around the music stand that doubles as a miniature-ground-level-flag-pole. Sometimes they quickly move on after reading the flag or postcard. But lately, more often than not, they linger and converse with one another.

Yesterday, a woman stopped, witnessed and then acted as an intermediary explaining the project to two people in a car who gently honked as they drove on. And today, a young man sang to me as I a fell. Sadly, since his voice since was overpowered by his amplified electric guitar I can’t attest to the content of the song’s lyrics but he flashed a peace sign as he left.

I’m not sure what’s behind the shift. I’ve fallen more than usual with others–which always draws greater public response. On Tuesday, the small group I’ve been falling with weekly at York for the past couple of months performed our final (planned) group fall in Queen’s Park. We were joined by Brad and witnessed by both passersby and colleagues from York’s Theatre Studies program.

But people’s increased responsiveness to Impact hasn’t been restricted to group falls.

Perhaps Canada’s engagement in a new war in Libya, the nuclear crises in Japan, and the recent death of Corporal Yannick Scherrer, the 155th Canadian soldier to die in Afghanistan since the Canada joined the US/NATO-led mission–all remind us that we are connected through webs of vulnerability and that, like radiation and war, suffering is not easily contained within national boundaries.

 

April 7, 2011, 800 Falls in Melbourne

Last November, after having read about Impact, Viv Neale contacted me to see if she could “join me” from afar and fall on occasion in her home city of Melbourne. I was touched and delighted to have her participate in Impact in whatever capacity she wished. Since her first fall in December, Viv has fallen both alone and with others. I am grateful to Viv for extending Impact and for so generously sharing her reflections.

Here is our latest exchange:

Hi Helene,Two more falls I want to let you know about since falling with some of Soto’s group. I feel self conscious telling you my few experiences but I think the telling’s part of the body of the ritual so here I am again. Both times I fell by mysef. In fact, after falling in the group I felt a strong pull to do it alone again, to be more simple and focused.

On 20th March I went to a very small park at the end of my block. I felt nervous being so close to home and the possibility of neighbours who know me walking past, but I wanted to bring the falling closer to home. The grass was wet, the sun hot , butterflies, a palm tree, all beautiful. I’m more aware of the earth I’m falling on when I’m by myself.

I’ve been thinking about the distance between my gentle falls to the soft ground and getting up again and falling to death in Afghanistan. I imagined the earth stretching between us, that there’s a connection through the earth. I had Libya in my mind. Falling and dying, family sorrow were strongly in my mind

I think about telling my Afghani friend about falling to honour the people who’ve died in her home and I’m holding back. Her husband’s there and her brothers and she tells me about the hardships and danger and her homesickness and I want to tread carefully.

Then on 3rd April at the larger park. Everything is lush in Melbourne now. When I walked around finding a spot to fall I couldn’t face groups of people and found a place away from people and close to a huge Morton Bay fig tree and a pine.

Two cockatooes were doing a dramatic dance with wings spread and combs up and down and screeching. The grass was long and rich green and there was a strong grass pine smell when I fell in to the grass. Again, I thought about the contrast of my experience and theirs. Falling like that in softness and beauty was luxurious and I felt I had to stretch my mind for the connections–through the ritual, my intentions, my body, the land I fell on…It’s better if I just simply fall and count without too much thought except to honour.

Images of you falling and with your recent group while I was in the park falling by mself were really moving to me. Feeling part of a (literal) movement gave my falls more weight. My honouring, more depth.

That’s it for the moment. 800 falls in Melbourne.

From autumn to your spring, in soldarity – good to say that,

Viv

Dear Viv,

Thanks for your words. Yes, I do think the telling is a part of the ritual. It is a part I struggle deeply with. How to find the words to adequately describe what often feels like a very complex and layered experience. So your words help me. They resonate with my experience–sometimes in harmony and sometimes in counterpoint, but always resonant.

I’m actually in Greensboro, North Carolina right now. I’m here to present a paper about Impact at the Art of Public Memory conference. I’ll also be falling at the conference. As always, when I bring Impact to a new environment I’m confronted with fear. Over time, I’ve grown less interested in the specifics of each new fear. What continues to fascinate me, though, is the fear itself. I’m amazed at how accessible fear is compared to grief. Fear is always ready with a narrative, it’s pathways are well-worn. Grief, on the other hand, especially grief for an unknown “other” is inarticulate and since the feelings associated with it resemble sadness (Oh no!) it can seem like a melancholic pit (See how insidious fear is? It even has a way of taking over grief’s narrative.).

There’s a quote by Gail Holst-Warhaft that I love: “Once there were experts in the art of speaking, cursing and singing grief. Now there are experts in the art of dulling grief.” I think of Impact as one small effort at relearning the art of grief, or perhaps, more humbly, at trying to unlearn the art of dulling grief.

Another thing you spoke of is the paradoxical nature of falling, how is makes visible (and visceral) the contrast between your experience and that of those you seek to honour.

Here’s a little section from the paper that I’ll be presenting tomorrow (Yikes!) that is uncannily resonant:

Journal: Impact Afghanistan War, February 5, 2011

Stand. Fall. Stand. Fall. Stand. Fall. The impact of body with ground. The surprising accommodation of surfaces. The season’s first snow was soft and embracing, but now, as winter wears on the ground has taken on the topography of a moonscape. Falling is the easy part—the curious architecture of body and limbs. It’s standing, rising, that’s difficult. Stand. Fall. Breathe. Traffic, birdsong, distant or passing voices, circling hawk, tree limbs, plane slicing sky, snow. Falling. The ground becomes a between-space where I experience both the vastness of my distance from, and a closeness to, all those who have fallen, who are falling, in Afghanistan. Distance, because I am acutely aware of the inadequacy of my gesture. I fall of my own accord. I have not been struck down. I am not injured. I can rise. Do rise. But it is precisely this awareness of distance that connects me. Each fall becomes an embodied meditation on the unequal distribution of vulnerability in our geopolitical landscape. With each fall I recognize—it “could” be me, it isn’t me, and, the reasons it’s not.

From my spring to your autumn, in solidarity (and yes, it does feel good to say that),

Helene

 

April 11, 2011, History lessons

There are times and places where the tension between the histories we are implored to “never forget”–those cast in bronze, granite and stone; articulated text books and anthems; preserved and displayed in museums and archives–and those that are left unarticulated and unmonumentalized, is made transparent and visible. These shifts in perspective often require a nudge off the trodden path, a glimpse from a new angle and invitation to examine what is presented to us with a critical lens, one that looks outside the frame and towards the events, lives and perspectives that have been edited from history’s archives.

I have just returned from Greensboro, North Carolina where it was my pleasure to participate in the Art of Public Memory a conference dedicated to examining both how our public memories are shaped through the arts and ways to challenge, contest and expand the official narratives that are etched into stone, texts and our collective consciousness. Here are a few highlights of my experience:

Falling at the opening reception in the Greensboro Historical Museum. In a way, falling is a daily practice of altering perspective. Not only because the intention is to remember those who have been rendered unmemorable but also because through the physical act of dropping to the ground the world is momentarily sent spinning. Then, once on the ground perspective is radically changed. Falling inside the museum, my inscribed-upon Canadian flag next to the US flag, I wondered what stories the forgotten dead of history might write upon the flags of nations around the world.

Randy Martin‘s opening key note address. A brilliant, inspiring and engaging talk about how dance and our physical ways of moving in the world are shaped by, and more importantly, have the potential to generate alternatives to, our social, political and economic world.

Spending time with Shira (a colleague from York). Shira and I share an interest in ritual as a meaning-making (spiritual, social, political) practice. So, while in Greensboro we found ourselves collectively navigating our different ritual practices–mine, a performance memorial; and Shira’s, spiritual and religious–in a new and unfamiliar environment. Having someone to share the navigation was not only pragmatically a relief, but also provided many rich insights. I look forward to our ongoing conversations.

Serenade/The Proposition a performance by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s. What can I say–It was STUNNING!  See for yourself:

I want Susan-Lori Parks to be my spiritual guru!!!! I have never been in the presence of such an exuberant expression of radical generosity. Here’s a short interview (which doesn’t nearly capture the experience of being in her remarkable presence–in short, if you ever, ever, ever, ever have an opportunity to hear her speak–I would suggest that you don’t pass it up.)

And while there were many, many additional inspiring moments the one I would like to close with is falling with Emily who quietly came and joined me while I was falling on my third day at the conference.

 

April 22, 2011, A snapshot from within the kaleidoscope

I continue to be amazed by how much the experience of falling changes from day-to-day, from fall-to-fall. External conditions and circumstances–global events, location, weather, responses from passersby–collide with shifts in the terrain of my physical and psychic landscape–health, emotional and mental processes–to produce a kind of experiential kaleidoscope.

This daily encounter with the ever-changing and multiple nature of perception has been one of Impact‘s most surprising and libratory  aspects. Repeatedly, I am reminded of the limitations of my, or any singular, point of view: As I fall, the world spins and with each arrival on the ground, my worldview is altered. When I rise and retake my stance the echo of the disruption to my point of view continues to resonate in my cells and my consciousness. This repeated experience of dropping, altering and regaining my standpoint or perspective has a profound effect on how I see others, how I imagine other’s see me, and ultimately, of how I think of social change and political action.

Last Monday, the onset of an April snow flurry midway through my falls provided a relatively harmless but nevertheless dramatic illustration of how change “happens.” (These weather “happenings” are always an encounter with both my vulnerability and my awareness of my good fortune.) I’m not sure whether it was the drama of the weather, the sight of someone falling repeatedly, or the combination that caused Nick Kozak to stop his car. Camera in hand, Nick, a photo-journalist, introduced himself and asked if he could take some photos. A few days later, he sent me an email saying that he and his colleague Belinda Alzner would like to do a story about Impact for  OpenFile. And so it was that I came to spend a couple of hours with Belinda and Nick yesterday.

During the interview I found myself challenged by the task of selecting what to share. Impact has generated so many thousands of experiential snapshots, each with its own meaning in relationship to the War in Afghanistan, to questions of citizenship and privilege, and to the nature of public space, social empathy and political mobilization. Multiply each of these snapshots (with their accompanying meanings) by the perspective of each of the thousands of passersby who have witnessed Impact in passing, from afar, or as intentional up-close witnesses. Then, add to this the growing numbers of friends and acquaintances who have taken part in Impact and you end up with an array of viewpoints as dizzying as that of the act of falling itself.

So from within the dizziness of these ever expanding perspectives here’s a single snapshot from yesterday’s fall:  A group of highschool students are hanging out nearby on their lunch break. They begin to laugh–not an unusual response–but, perhaps because of the paparazzi effect of Nick shooting photos of me falling, their laughter becomes prolonged. As I fall, I realize that not only am I not disturbed by their laughter (as I surely would have in my early days of falling) I also don’t attribute a negative, or singular narrative to it. There are many things that could fuel their laughter–the two most obvious being peer pressure and the fact that a person falling over and over while being photographed is pretty absurd.

Another snapshot (I have to admit, it’s kind of funny):

 

May 2, 2011, Falling on ANZAC Day in Melbourne

I’m delighted to share this latest communique from Viv Neale in Melbourne, Australia. Viv has been falling–sometimes alone, sometimes with friends–and sharing her reflections here since December.

Dear Helene,

I’m back from the trip to Darwin. I didn’t fall there after all. I had my  flag and materials but once I was there it was such a different world in my own country I didn’t want to “impose” myself on it, just wanted to take it in. It was a combination of the beautiful land, the ancient history I don’t see in my city, hearing Aboriginal people speaking their own languages dayto- day. The crocodiles…it was so quiet, it all seemed enough in itself.

I did fall on Monday this week. It was ANZAC day here, a public holiday, which commemorates Australian and New Zealand soldiers and deaths in WWI and over time it’s included all the wars we’ve participated in. Especially the 2 World Wars–not including Afghanistan today.

There’s a dawn ceremony at “the shrine” and a march of old soldiers…this is a large part of our identity…the diggers, mateship and the rest–all mixed up in our recent nationalism.

I felt deeply sad falling on that day. I went to a new park near the beach. The ground was very wet so every time I fell my clothes and hair got wetter and heavier and rising felt harder.

Because of the day, while I was falling, I was sad and angry about the wars we’ve been in before and I was remembering my father in WWII . . . my grandfathers, the damage it did. a shaky bridge to Afghanistan now.

People walking past as usual and this time looking a bit amused and I wanted them to know why I was falling, to think of people dying in Afghanistan now.

Helene, I think I’ve said this before, but, when I read what you write about your experience, how you articulate your project, I’m glad. I’d like to gather 100 people in July. Are you still thinking of doing it there somewhere? It’s getting close to the time when I’ll need to advertise it. Do you mind if I use quotes from your blog? Congratulations on  increasing acknowledgement of your project.

In solidarity,

Viv

Dear Viv,

It’s so good to hear from you. Your experience of falling on ANZAC Day reminds me of falling on Remembrance Day. It is so sad how war with all its destruction, suffering and loss of lives becomes monumentalized and transformed into something sacred. More frightening, though, is when it is treated like a sporting event–I just heard on the news that Osama Bin Laden has been killed and there are people on the streets of New York chanting USA, USA, USA!

What this will mean for the people of Afghanistan? Will US/NATO troops leave? I can’t help but wonder how different life would be right now in Afghanistan if all the financial and human resources spent on the war (and has profited the military industry) had been given instead to Afghani humanitarian groups to help return order to their world (on their own terms)? What if all the resources spent on all wars were instead invested in life affirming efforts? As Lennon said, “Imagine.”

I just moved, everything is in boxes, I have no internet and life is feeling a little out of control. My own distress over this (temporary and chosen) displacement, and my urge to put everything back in “order” makes me wonder at how incredibly difficult it must be people in Afghanistan who have been trying to live their lives in a state of violent disruption for decades now.

On another front–Yes, yes, yes to organizing a bi-national 100 person fall on July 1. I’ve talked to some people here and will work on setting up a face book “events” page (it’s so ironic to me that this project that is so much about embodiment has pushed me to use technologies that seem entirely alien to me). Feel free to use any material from the blog.

In solidarity,

Helene

 

May 11, 2011, Story about Impact on OpenFile

A while back photojournalist, Nick Kozak and writer, Belinda Alzner spent some time with me as I fell in Christie Pits. Here’s the story they just posted on OpenFile. Thanks Belinda and Nick!

 

May 15, 2011, Minding the Gap

This past week I had the pleasure of participating in a public space performance project by artist and performer Laura NanniMind the Gap involved twenty participants on Toronto subway platforms at the height of the morning commute performing typical, though slightly altered, commuter activities–ensemble yawning; reading newspapers spray-painted a blue-hue; drinking from coffee cups with orange bottoms–as well as more surreal actions like holding up thought balloons and posing like superheroes in flight. It was a whimsical reminder of the (sometimes) gap between our imagination’s potential and the way routines can limit our awareness of life’s myriad of pleasures and possibilities.

 

Mind the Gap

As we performed over the course of four days, several TTC passengers and train operators shared their reflections but, for the most part, people witnessed without comment. My conversations with fellow performers (as well as my own internal ruminations) highlighted my/our tendency to attempt to read into the silence of witnesses. But a lesson Impact teaches me over and over again is about the limitations of my imagination (and mind-reading skills).

Last week as I was falling in Riverdale Park West  I noticed two men sitting on a bench watching. They sat watching for fifty or sixty falls, then came over, read the postcard, stood by the flag and continued to watch. Another twenty falls later a woman passing by asked what I was doing. I stopped falling long enough to tell her it was a memorial project and to direct her attention to the cards. One of the men (who had been watching with furrowed brow and arms crossed over his chest) took the opportunity to talk with me.

Occasions when I have a conversation with Impact‘s witnesses always give me cause to mind the gap between my assumptions (projections) about what people are thinking and what their actual experience is. Here is an excerpt from a lovely and inspiring conversation with Tsering and Lobsang:

 

May 19, 2011, More from Melbourne

Here’s an update from Viv Neale who has been falling on occasion in Australia since last November:

Dear Helene,

I’ve just been listening to your conversation with the two men and smiling, feeling tearful… I enjoyed the image too, of your legs and dogs coming and going.

The last couple of days I’ve been sending out the invitation to as many people and networks as I can think of. Even rejoined Facebook to see if that helps spread the word.

The place I’ve chosen is close to my home and near the beach. I feel good about having this in my community and what surprises me is that I’m usually so afraid to lead an event but that in this I feel so sure and calm. Of course only a few people might show up. I’ll see. And I’ll try to video it in a way you can see.

You’ll see I’ve decided to do it at 2pm on July 2nd. We’re 14 hours ahead in Melbourne which makes it midnight July 1st in Toronto but people won’t come on saturday morning here. It’s close.

I was in Western Australia a week ago and found a park near the Indian Ocean in a port town close to where I was staying to fall. As usual, families in a playground and people walking past.

I fell with anger for the first 50 falls and didn’t like the turmoil of that being part of falling, but my mind was turning over Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and every day news about more deaths. I wrestled with wanting my falling to be outside my anger but thought had to let it be there, because my anger about the injustices is strong and then could breathe and soften into the honouring I wanted falling to be.

The Afghani woman Sayeda who I met through my work, who I’ve tried for 2 years to help bring her husband here from Afghanistan, had just had their application rejected. from her I hear how it is to live in Afghanistan now and she and her children and husband were also in my mind when I fell with sorrow and gratitude.

I haven’t told her about your project or my response to it yet but I will tell her about 100 people falling.

A cold Melbourne evening,

Thanks,

Viv

 

Dear Viv,

Thanks for your email.  It’s funny to be so far and yet to feel so connected through this shared act of falling. Your reflections always resonate so deeply with my experience. I’m thinking of you falling as the weather in Melbourne gets colder (while here it grows warmer).

I’ve heard some of the  news reports about the horrific deaths of the asylum seekers and am glad for your willingness to fall with anger at the injustice. My heart goes out to Sayeda and her family.

Today I fell in front of the legislative building in Toronto. There were many tour busses and tourists with cameras. As I have on other occasions, I felt like a ghost at a kind of surreal carnival. Sometimes when I fall I feel more connected to what I’ve come to think of as “the forgotten dead of history” than to the people in my immediate surroundings. When I first began Impact I was concerned that the experience might leave me bitter and jaded but I’ve been surprised by how much Impact continues to open my heart (and mind) not only to the people of Afghanistan, and others who suffer unimaginably as the result of wars, but also for all those who have witnessed Impact fleetingly, with intention, with sorrow, with anger, with apparent indifference.

Viv, I’m so moved and impressed by your efforts to organize a group fall in Melbourne on July 1st (2nd). I only hope I am successful in organizing something here as well. I’m feeling a somewhat overwhelmed with the upcoming trip to Europe and wondering how it will be to fall there. I’ve posted an event invite for the July 1st fall in Queen’s Park on Facebook but have to do more outreach, (hopefully before I leave on Monday).

Feeling gratitude on this warm evening in Toronto,

Helene

 

May 25, 2011, Shifts happen and meanings change–What to do?

Utrecht, the Netherlands

When I submitted my  “shift” proposal to Camillo 2.o Performance Studies international conference #17 my motives were layered: Having attended PSi 16 in Toronto last summer, I was excited at the thought of presenting Impact at PSi 17. I was also lured by the opportunity to visit my Dutch family–many of whom I haven’t seen in over 30 years. I was thrilled when my proposal was accepted and, to add another layer to the mix, Cassie (who prepared a “100 falls” video montage for the installation at CBKU gallery) and we decided that she should accompany me and we’d make it our 25 year anniversary holiday.

So it was that yesterday morning, after a sleep deprived night for me (Cassie has a rather phenomenal talent for sleeping on planes) that we found ourselves wandering the streets of Amsterdam taking in the wonder of the place while also searching for a “good” spot to fall. The nervousness I always feel about falling in a new place was amplified by the context. I was concerned (and continue to be) that the project may not only be misinterpreted (though, this year has opened my mind and heart to the possibility of there being a myriad of interpretations) but that it also may be perceived as an unwelcome incursion by a “foreign tourist.”

Falling in Vondel Park, many of the walkers, picnickers and (of course) cyclists looked, but no one stopped to read the flag or cards (that a cousin translated into Dutch). The more I fell, the more concerned I became that the combination of the flag and the falling had taken on an entirely new meaning here in the Netherlands. While I don’t have an issue with the idea of my falling being associated with WWII Canadian military deaths, I do feel that, like the Canadian casualties in Afghanistan–who I’ve dedicated 155 of my falls to–these deaths have already received much attention. I am concerned  that this possible association with WWII  invisibalizes the many in Afghanistan who are suffering in a much ignored war.

Here in Utrecht, I’m less worried about how Impact might be perceived since it’s context of PSi, the CBKU gallery exhibit and the Festival and de werf will likely invite people to investigate further and read the flag or cards.  But I find myself wondering if, after the conference is over and we I continue on our travels through the Netherlands (and then England), I should stop using the flag and only use the stand and postcards? Without the flag–and the way it makes the “memorial” or “performance” aspect of Impact obvious) to I risk alarming passersby (in a way I don’t intend or wish)?

What to do? Stay tuned . . . and, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

June 3, 2011, Conversations from (and between) Nederland and Australia

It’s been over a week since we arrived in Nederland where I encountered a dizzying  fear of falling–a kind psychological vertigo.  My concern over whether Impact’s meaning made sense here combined with an amplified sense of shyness that comes with falling in a new place and a  fear that I might embarrass my Dutch family. So, after eleven months of performing Impact every day I found myself wondering if I should continue.

Three things brought me back from the brink of quitting: My committment to do the project for one year acted as a container that helped me continue despite my insecurities. I received much (unanticipated) support from family, friends and strangers. And finally, the horrific reports of the Afghani civilians killed by US forces this week help shift my focus from the “small me” of my self-consciousness to Impact‘s larger purpose.

And, as always, I have been humbled (and dumbfounded) by the gifts that performing Impact brings me. One of the greatest of these is the conversations and connections it has facilitated. There are the conversations that happen outside of my range of hearing as people read the card and flag and discuss with one another the meaning. There are the conversations and encounters I’ve had with family and friends here in Nederland, not only about the war in Afghanistan, but about the WWII, the war many of our parents lived (and suffered) through, about all those who lie buried here, about the complexity of war, the murkiness of simple notions of good and evil.

One of the most touching experiences for me personally was having my Tante Door (together with my cousin Philomeen and her husband Peter) witness as I fell in Gouda. Here is a link to a YouTube video that Peter made of the fall in Gouda (which, if it’s in any way “mine” to dedicate, I offer to my Dad, Tante Door and all my other aunts and uncles, in Nederland and Canada, who know first hand what it is like to live through a war):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0Rxn3UMmX8

Another communication that continues to touch me deeply are those from Viv Neale in Melbourne, Australia. Viv has been falling, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends since December, 2010. Here’s the latest update from Viv:

Hi Helene,

Another falling and two more Australian soldiers killed. I’ve had to change my info sheet 3 times since I began in December for the 6 Australian soldiers killed since then.

Every day there’s something. Was it 15 Afghani civilians killed by US forces this week? Many children.

I listened on the radio to a moving, informed talk by Fatima Bhutto last week, from the Sydney writers festival. You probably know of her. talking about Pakistan. And the US. About numbers of killed Afghani people being counted as 6, 10, 15 or so. She was talking about the meaning of these people represented in that casual “or so”.

I did falling recently in a park near where I grew up. I found this place where there was a large area of grass and then up some stairs more grass and a memorial to WWI. While I was tying my flag to the stair rails two women in maybe their 70s walking their dogs walked up to me and asked what I was planning to do and we talked about it for a while. They seemed completely at ease with the idea of what I was doing and why. Suggested I fall gently and talked a bit about how terrible it is that so many people are killed and we don’t pay attention. One woman said “and in Iraq as well”. They didn’t watch and while I was falling other people walked past with their dogs and I think, tried not to look at me. I fell on the lower grass area and I felt like throwing myself around in the empty space. It felt like a relief , to fall and get up and drop thinking about what I hear about the war and what I think about that, and I think I’ve said this before, the relief that falling has its own meaning. For a hundred falls not thinking, listening, not being aware by thinking.

Different people are slowly responding to my invitation to the 100 people falling. Liking it, saying they’ll pass it on but few saying they’ll be there. I don’t understand why more people don’t want to see what it’s like to fall to honour others. It looks as if I might be out of step.

Travel well,

Viv

 

Dear Viv,

Thanks so much for your email. As always, your words resonate deeply with my experience. Your anger at the newest reports of civilian deaths (and the “or so” of the body count), your lovely encounter with the women who could so clearly see the connection between WWII, Afghanistan and Iraq (and all wars).

Travel has been a bit of a whirlwind–the conference, finding places to fall, reconnecting with family, making new friends and falling on this ground that has such a recent and intimate experience of war.

Like you, I’m not sure how many people I’ll be able to gather for July 1 (and 2) but I feel open to whatever happens on that day and very happy that we will be falling together on this final day.

Peace,

Helene

 

June 5, 2011, Falling in Reusel

We arrived in Reusel yesterday where we were warmly welcomed (as we have been throughout The Netherlands) by my extended family on my Dad’s side. Dad was born and grew up in Reusel, and Mom, in neighboring Bladel. When I began Impact I had only a fleeting sense of how the project would resonate for and with my parents. I had even less of a sense that I would spend some of Impact’s final month falling in The Netherlands, where they both my parents experienced what it is like to live through a war fought on your own soil.

As I’ve fallen throughout the Netherlands I have been haunted by a question people have frequently asked me: Why Afghanistan? 

On the one hand the answer is simple. I fall in recognition of Afghan dead for two reasons. First because Canada is at war in Afghanistan, and second, because there is little to no public recognition and honoring of Afghan casualties within Canada. On the other hand, the answer reflects the problem of singling out some populations as worthy of mourning, and in the process, excluding or ignoring others.

Falling this morning in Reusel I thought of all the blood shed on this soil–not just that of Canadian (and ally) military dead, but the blood of the many civilians, and yes, even the blood of the “enemy” German soldiers. Each death left behind grieving mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, spouses, children and friends.

 

June 8, 2011, Impact in Eindhoven and on Brabant TV/radio

Thanks to some email queries from our friend Marie-Jose Thijssen Impact made its way onto Brabant TV and radio today.

 

June 23, 2011, Home?

Traveling throughout the Netherlands (my ancestral homeland) has given me cause to ponder on the meaning of home.

Is home a geographic construct? Is it the land of one’s birth? Is it where one resides? Or is it where one’s family originated from–the “source” of one’s gene pool?

Certainly, whereas in Canada I frequently feel like a bull in a china shop, in Holland having my stature everywhere reflected I experienced a rather giddy sense of belonging. (Likewise, in England I saw Cassie’s face–the line of her nose and lips, the set of her chin–mirrored in the faces of her aunt and cousins.)

Is home a question language?  In the Netherlands, dialects vary from province to province, sometimes even from town to town. Many from my generation and younger are multi-lingual. Has this fluidity with language become part of the “Dutch” identity? Or does it threaten it? While visiting my older relatives, my father’s brother and sister, I felt a deep regret that I never learned to speak Dutch despite the fact that my parents immigrated as young adults and that I grew up with my mom’s family speaking Dutch to one another.

Mostly though, as I fell daily, accompanied by my inscribed-upon Canadian flag, I wondered, To what extent is “home” defined by national boundaries? By borders and flags? And what is the role military memorial in the construction and maintenance of these boundaries?

Everywhere we went in Holland we stumbled upon war memorials: Small shrines dedicated to a town’s fallen soldiers and resistance fighters. Larger memorials in honor of allied forces, or in memory of specific battles. We also visited Camp Vught, a German concentration camp in that imprisoned 31000 men, women and children for varying periods of time between the years of January 1943 and September 1944. At least 750 prisoners died either by execution or as a result of the brutal conditions. Many more were sent to their deaths:  1269 Jewish children were deported to extermination camps in Germany in June of 1943 and an additional 1149 Jews were sent to Auschwitz in November of 1943.

As a Canadian (and a North American) I was struck by how near war is to the surface of the Dutch consciousness. It was as though every town had a myriad of memories inscribed, not only into official memorials, but into the town’s architecture, its land and the memories of its people. It was humbling to perform Impact in a place with so much more of an immediate and complex relationship to war than exists in North America.

For many here in Canada (as well as in the United States where I lived for 20 years) war seems to be largely experienced as a distant thing. Wars are fought “over there” in far away places. Technological military “advances” continue to increase our ability to distance ourselves from the war’s effects. Canada’s military casualties in Afghanistan–155 in ten years of combat–have been few when compared with the enormous losses in WWI and WWII. (Though for the family and friends of each fallen soldier, and each soldier who returns physically and psychologically damaged, this dramatically reduced death toll is undoubtedly of small comfort.)

And what of those who have died in Afghanistan (and those who will be forced to live with the consequences this war for decades to come)? As I looked upon Holland’s WWI and WWII memorials I wondered about all the names that didn’t find a home on any memorial. I wondered too, about the stories that didn’t fit neatly into narratives of good and evil–like the allied bombing of German civilians.

The last week of our visit in Europe we stayed at Saint Mary’s Abbey in West Malling where Cassie’s Aunt has been a Benedictine Sister for over 50 years. During our stay I fell within the Abbey’s walls. It was a welcome reprieve from Impact‘s public exposure and an opportunity for quiet reflection. One afternoon we were visited by 11 of the Abbey’s 15 sisters. The Sister’s were quite curious about Impact. At one point Sister Mary Owen asked, “So, are you a pacifist?”

It is a question I have been asked many times over this past year and it is a question that’s usually accompanied by an argument for the necessity of some wars. After visiting Camp Vught, and hearing so many stories about the devastation wrought by Hitler’s armies in WWII, it is difficult to dispute with this logic. I don’t know if war is inevitable. I can’t help but wonder, however, what the world might look like if we invested the same energy (material, intellectual, political and creative resources) into preventing wars (and the conditions that produce them), than we do into preparing for them.

Put another way, though I don’t believe that profit should ever be a society’s guiding principle, since it seems to be–at least for the time being–What if we were to make peace more profitable than war?

 

June 27, 2011, On endings: A dialog from Melbourne to Toronto

Another very welcome communication from Viv in Melbourne:

Dear Helene,

Getting close to the end of your project. I’m glad to be joining you across the planet almost in time with you next week.

This Sunday – today – and last week I went to the place I’ve invited people to fall with me next Saturday. I wanted to fall there by myself first, for the continuity of the ritual in that place.

There’s a large expanse of grass, a footpath running along it and then sand and sea. Lots of people walking past, running, roller blading, on bikes, with children. Most are going for coffee in all the cafes along the beach.

I felt out of place with my Australian flag and falling down while everyone was so pleasantly involved in their morning. At the same time, both times, more than other times I wanted people to see and wonder about what I was doing. I wanted to create a shift in their attention for a moment…I think this was impelled partly having awareness in the back of my mind that next week your project’s ending…

Both times it was cold, sunny and windy so I spent a lot of time working out how to anchor the flag and my fliers – enjoyed setting up slowly in the wind near the water.

Only two men stopped last week to read about what I was doing. One explained loudly to the other that each fall represented a person killed in Afghanistan and he caught my eye and nodded. Other people walked past, turned back and looked.

Other falls I reminded myself to just fall and let that hold my sorrow and respect.

I’ll think of you falling in lovely summer weather this week.

My friend Phil…I think you might know Phil Mitchell from a training years ago, sent me this message,

“I will be at the Australian shaking retreat on 2 July, but 2pm is between sessions, so I intend to put the word out to the group and get people to fall with me up at Tyalgum Ridge”.

Not likely 100 people will come next Saturday but I’m looking forward to falling with other people.

In solidarity,

Viv

 

Dear Viv,

Your email has come at a good time. Since my return from Europe I’ve experienced a huge resistance to going out to fall. Once I’m falling, intention and commitment take over, but before, I’m overcome with a kind of dread and a desire to stay safely tucked away inside.

As the project nears its completion, I find myself questioning its meaning, its purpose. With my retreating and doubting mind, it’s been a challenge to find the energy to promote the year-end Canada Day fall. Fortunately, the enthusiasm of friends and allies (like you!) carries me along.

Last Saturday, while I was mired in my ambivalence about falling I heard an announcement on the radio about Canada’s 157th Canadian casualty in Afghanistan. The cause of Master Cpl. Francis Roy’s death is still under investigation but criminal activity and enemy fire have been ruled out. I wonder if Roy, like Bombardier Karl Manning (Canada’s 156th military casualty), took his own life.

I imagine that since President Obama has announced that the US would begin pulling large numbers of its troops out of Afghanistan Canada, Australia and other NATO allies will follow suit. What devastation will be left in the wake of this war. What–if any–commitments there will be to reparation (and what strings will be attached). I also wonder about the devastation that will linger in the bodies and minds of the soldiers who will be returning and how that devastation will effect not only them, but their families, friends and the larger community as well.

Endings aren’t simple. There are consequences, echoes and reverberations. Actions have meaning, often beyond what we intend or can imagine.

Maybe my reluctance to fall is an attempt to avoid the project’s end, to exit the known of the day-to-day act of falling and open to the unknown of the next thing. I am very grateful that I will have people with me on Impact‘s final day–here in Toronto and across the planet in Melbourne.

With gratitude and in solidarity,

Helene

 

July 2, 2011, Canada Day

Queen’s Park had the eerie atmosphere of a military occupation as Kim and I approached it for the gathering of Impact‘s year-end fall. There were road blocks through which only military vehicles were allowed passage. Brad was waiting for us inside the park and the three of us watched as uniformed personnel secured the area surrounding a line of cannons.

As it became increasingly clear that a 21-gun salute was going to take place we discussed whether we should fall in conjunction with the firing of the cannons but decided instead to continue as planned and wait for the rest of those who had signed on to fall to arrive.

The cannons were ear-splittingly loud. Laura arrived carrying her young son Jackson. He was frightened and she was trying to explain to him that everything was okay. She pointed to us telling him that we were friends and we all began to reassure him that he was safe. It felt so tragically absurd that we should be put in the position of talking Jackson out of his visceral impulse to be frightened. It’s sad enough that children (or anyone) are subjected to the actual terror warfare–must they also be subjected to its enactment for the sake of a nationalistic celebration? Or is this a necessary mechanism for our socialization into a culture of militarism? I couldn’t help but wonder how it was for others who, like us, were caught off-guard by the cannon’s roar, but who were also survivors of wars.

While I hadn’t anticipated that Canada Day in Queen’s Park would be celebrated with such militaristic zeal, it somehow seemed disturbingly fitting to fall with the cannon’s reverberation still echoing through our cells; with the backdrop of military personnel and vehicles; and at the foot of one of the multitude of monuments (this one to King Edward VII) to imperialism that occupy our public landscapes.

With each rise and fall I imagined us as a living and ephemeral monument to the Afghan dead and to all those whose lives remain unmemorialized and unmonumentalized. A monument to the forgotten dead of history.

I extend my deep gratitude to all those who fell with me today in recognition of the Afghan war dead (and of those who continue to rise each day to face another day of war): Kim Harmon, Bradley High, Melissa Lepp, Adriana Disman, Rebecca Bruton, Adela Ludin, Doug Tielli, Tara Ostiguy, Anna Silverstein, Maggie Flynn, Laura Levin and Jackson here in Queen’s Park; Cassie Scott and Sara Webb, in California; Terri Hawkes (& Co.) in Italy; and Viv Neale (and friends) in Melbourne.

Deep thanks as well to all those who sent their wishes.

I dedicate this year’s falls to the people of Afghanistan and to all the forgotten dead of history.

 

July 4, 2011, Falling in Italy

Terri Hawkes sent these photos of her Canada fall in Italy.

I found these images of Terri dropping to the ground and lying with her kids were particularly moving.

Thanks for falling Terri & Co!

 

Terri falling with her kids

 

 

 

 

 

July 5, 2011, Year-end fall in Melbourne

Last November, after having read about Impact, Viv Neale contacted me to see if she could “join me” from afar and fall on occasion in her home city of Melbourne, Australia. I was touched and delighted to have her participate in Impact in whatever capacity she wished. Since her first fall in December, Viv has fallen both alone and with others. Here are Viv’s reflections on the year-end fall that she organized in Melbourne:

Dear Helene,

I was going to wait for photos to send you but I’m emailing first because falling’s on my mind and I’ve just read what you wrote about your last falling. I’ll send photos though, when they’re sent to me in the next few days.

Jane, Rosie, Brian and Ro fell with me on Saturday. Kevin took photos and his mother stayed with Zuri who’s 8 who wanted to paddle in the cold water on the beach. Maggie sat and witnessed us falling. Another very windy day so the flag flew strongly.

I got two emails from Tony who I’ll include as being with us as well as Phil at his “shaking” retreat.

“I won’t be with you in person tomorrow–but I will fall on my beach in the morning as a warm-up to your main event. I am sure you won’t be alone–whether it be fellow fallers or witnesses–and trust that good spirit will support you as you support others in this wide world.”  Cheers, Tony

“I did fall on my beach this morning. A long slow meditative fall.  Made me aware of many little bodily niggles and how inconsequential they are compared with the trauma in Afghanistan (and elsewhere). Sobering!”   Cheers, Tony

Before we began falling I read out the flyer (which is much like yours) and we named our intention to honour, remember the dead in Afghanistan. Jane and Rosie also talked about their respect and gratitude for your score.

We fell together. I thought of you falling somewhere with other people.

I thought it might matter that there wasn’t 100 people (far from it obviously) but it didn’t. People walked past. I was touched to be falling with other people. I’ve also been thinking about solidarity and how it holds a lot of difference between people while it unites.

Yesterday, with my monthly movement group we started talking about falling and Jane said that this time she wanted to keep going past 100 and she felt inspired by your score to create her/our own score to respond to the war and Rosie said she now understood public political performance rituals – the power of personal ritual in a public place. 

Yvonne talked about how she just wasn’t able to do it, couldn’t do it, didn’t know why. Later when we were moving together I fell once and she said that seeing me fall made her realise it was her feeling of powerless in the face of the war in Afghanistan and other suffering that stopped her falling with us. She talked about women knitting socks for the soldiers during WWI and wanting a task like this.

I’ve been thinking how your project rippled to Melbourne and through some people like this…small shifts. When I was inviting people to gather to fall, I was surprised that a couple of young women said it sounded interesting, they might come, but they didn’t really know what was going on in Afghanistan. Maybe just the invitation was a ripple, caused a small shift in awareness.

Helene, your score and the way you talk about it all with so much heart and intelligence has shifted me and reminded me what creativity can be. I’ve loved joining you in my own way, here in Melbourne.

Thank you thank you,

In solidarity, and with much warmth,

Viv

Dear Viv,

Thank you so much for your wonderful email and your solidarity throughout this year of falling. Your email reminded me that there is so much I didn’t say about the Canada Day fall in Queen’s Park. While the military presence was (somewhat poetically) disturbing, the act of falling with others was profoundly moving. So too was our post fall reflection circle/picnic.

Like you, I worried that it would matter that there weren’t 100 fallers. But as I fell with Kim, Brad, Melissa, Adriana, Rebecca, Adela, Doug, Tara, Anna, Maggie, Laura and Jackson the numbers didn’t matter, all there was the embodiment of falling and the rising. The falling and the witnessing of one another as we fell. It was as though we straddled the world of the living and the dead, that our “dance” was as much for the ghosts of the Afghanistan war (and all wars), for the forgotten dead, than for the living.

A friend emailed me the day after the Canada Day fall. She had been reading about Afghanistan in the news and thought about Impact. The words she used to describe the project were–“mysterious invisible power.” I loved that. So often, we think of power in such material terms, especially in regards to war, where power’s manifestation has such devastatingly material consequences. But though I’ve never seen you fall, I feel the mysterious invisible power of your solidarity.

Perhaps through our bodies, and through the ritualized act of falling, we create a liminal space, a space where another kind of power can be accessed. It is a different kind of power.

When I was in a moment (one of many) of doubt about Impact‘s value and meaning my cousin Ton wrote me a lovely email:

“Just read your latest updates on the Impact website and it seemed to me that you had become a victim of what I consider one of the main qualities of the fallings: raising questions, even when there are no exact answers. This can make you feel vulnerable and insecure. No one can grasp the impact of war but that does not mean you should not try.”

I think he’s right. Impact has made me less interested in with whether or not people “agree” with me and much more interested in the value of questioning together. The value of facing the suffering of war and grappling with its impact. I feel this so clearly and confidently when I read your reflections and when I listen to the reflections of other fellow fallers and witnesses. It is in those moments that I feel the mysterious invisible power of those small shifts in awareness.

Thank you so much for your solidarity. Your falling, though many miles away has become increasingly palpable to me over this year.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. With love and appreciation,

Helene

PS  Please do send the pics.

 

July 20, 2011, Echoes of Falling, Near and Far

It’s been three weeks since Impact‘s July 1, culminating fall. At first the absence of falling took on a strange presence. As I walked through Riverdale Park I had the sense of encountering a ghostly echo. By the second week, I was startled to find that a day or more would pass before I reflected even briefly on war–at how quickly I could fall back into a routine of non-attention.

Last week, as Cassie and I drove from California to Toronto with the final truckload of our belongings, we read two books (C drove, I read)–Jackie Orr’s Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder and Christian Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. Like Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of Warwhich we both read on our travels through Europe–these books are incredible contemplations on the myriad of ways (direct and indirect) that war is woven into the fabric of our lives.

Upon returning to Toronto I found the following two email messages: The first from Viv, who has been falling throughout this year in Australia, and the second  from Marie-José (who graciously hosted C & me for a night in the Netherlands). I am deeply grateful to them both and to all the people near and far, friends, acquaintances and strangers, who have participated in and supported Impact or who helped deepen and further my contemplation.

As I continue to reflect on Impact I welcome thoughts and comments from you.

Here are some words from Viv  and Marie-José–big thanks to you both for your solidarity!

From Viv: 

Dear Helene,

I wonder how you feel without your daily falling. 

I just received some photos of our small falling in Melbourne so having said I’d send them I’ve attached a few for you to see–even though it might seem a bit after the event.

Another Australian soldier’s been killed and the war goes on. More civilians in Afghanistan killed. Marking the deaths by falling has helped me. It’s a small thing in the scheme of things of course but good for me to find a way of connecting that made sense.

I suppose your blog is also complete but I’ll have a look at it occasionally just in case.

Warmly, 

Viv

. . . and from Marie-José :

Hi Helene,


Somewhere in May 2011 I received an e-mail from my American Rosen Bodywork colleague Cassie Scott. I know her from a Rosen training. She said she is coming to The Netherlands with her wife Helene. They are visiting The Netherlands because of an art project Helene is doing and presenting at a conference in Utrecht. The question is if it’s possible to meet, drink coffee… or do something else.

We (my partner Henk) and I invite them over, they are to arrive on Ascension Day and leave next day on Friday. So far… not an exciting story. But then on Thursday morning our phone rings and Cassie is telling a quick story about Helene who is falling every day a 100 times. And in my mind it goes: ‘ding dong yeah right… what the heck is going on? Is she suffering from Menhière’s disease or some kind of epileptics?’. Then Cassie tells me it’s because of her art project. Okay.. We get a link to Helene’s blog and we watch one of the films. I’m immediately in tears and Henk on the other hand, starts laughing. Same film… different reactions, different emotions. I’m impressed by how Helene is falling OMG this looks damn real. And Henk’s eyeis caught by the photographer in the same video. Yes, that is what art does.

We go to Boxmeer to watch Helene fall. It’s very impressive. And I find myself talking to the people that came with Helene to avoid going in to my emotions. The next day we go to Mill for the 100 falls, I accompany again and I decide to fall some falls together with her, and Cassie joins too. To little… to short… But quite an experience. People ask me afterwards: if I considered that local people could have been recognizing me. NO I didn’t… And if they saw me… They can come and ask… I wastrying to feel what it does to my body… soon I started to laugh. Don’t know why. Today no visitors at all. 

During Cassie’s and Helene’s visit we discussed a lot about war in general and WWII here in The Netherlands. There are even memorials near to our house and in our village. I find Helene open to everything that is crossing her path and looking at what it does to people and to her. And sure she is curious about the impact of her art and how people are moved by it. 

Every time I visit Helene’s blog I start to cry. It still is this way. There is this deep longing in me to end the suffering worldwide. Especially the suffering humans bring on to themselves. And to me, that is what war is. I know there always will be pain. We will continue to have pain and loose people in our lives. Living has dying in it, it’s not a question about wanting this or not. Everything changes and that is the only thing I know that is true! So we will and I will have to deal with pain, emotions, mybody, decay etc. etc. in my life. And one day I will face death too. But maybe… some of the worlds suffering can be brought to an end.  So I think my tears come from that longing and the resonance I think there is in the expression of Helene in her art project. 

I am deeply touched. This quick, short visit came as an internal earthquake for me. With deep impact.

Thank you Cassie for heaving this bright idea to come to us. Thank you Helene for your project. Thank you both dear ladies for touching the bottom of my heart!!!

Love,

Marie-José