Art & Activism

CURRENT PROJECTS-

LIBERATION LABS- Re-embodiment workshops focused on political education through the arts. The aim is to reconnect our minds, bodies and spirits that have been disconnected due to oppression through collective creative action.      
      
PUBLIC INTERVENTIONS- Multi-media performance acts that seek to dismantle the myth of the barrier between private and public spheres. Interventions inspired by the idea that "the personal is political."


RADIO-
From Brooklyn to Bethlehem: Separate Histories, Common Struggles, Featuring Sheena Johnson 

FEB 2008 NATIONAL RADIO PROJECT



WRITINGS-

Excerpt from Towards Re-Embodiment: Movement, Space and Healing by Sheena Johnson (April 2010):

Abstract

By connecting to the intelligence of the moving feeling body, through movement-based practices, individuals and communities can find opportunity for re-embodiment, which, in turn, can lead to personal and collective healing, transformation and liberation. It is argued that holding physical and safe spaces for people impacted by oppression to be re-embodied is critical to nurturing collective creative capacity and self-determination. Both creative capacity and self-determination are necessary pillars in sustaining the belief that one’s oppressive condition can be changed. As a community-based arts space that utilizes dance and performance as the terrain upon which social change occurs, CounterPULSE serves as a demonstrative case study to look at the intersection of movement, space and re-embodiment.

I. Introduction

            Dance artists, body workers, and somatic practitioners have begun to use practices from other cultures, and their own self-created body-based modalities and processes, to repair the culturally imposed separation between our minds, bodies and spirits.  The aim of these body-based practices is to reconnect and integrate our divided minds, bodies and spirits through the process of embodiment. What is the cause of this separation? The answer to this key question is centuries of Cartesian dualism. A new social desire and need to nurture and reconnect to our bodies in the West is arising in direct response to centuries of being told, “I think therefore, I am” rather than “I embody therefore, I am.”  This new trend, in part, represents a realization that by connecting to the intelligence of the moving and feeling body, individuals and communities can find opportunity for re-embodiment, which, in turn, can lead to personal and collective healing, transformation and liberation.

The efficacy of movement-based therapies and dance as a tool to empower and give voice to people is well documented, from youth empowerment programs to new works by celebrated choreographers. We all know someone who practices yoga religiously or who has to go to the gym three days a week, or else. But how have we become disembodied? I argue that our collective disembodiment is directly connected to the empire-building project that is at the cornerstone of Western society. Due to imperialism and colonialism we have all been disembodied as a way to maintain systems of oppression. Resistance to oppression often situates itself through the lens of the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. We have internalized our inferiority and/or superiority, depending on which side of the coin we fall. We have been disembodied through oppression and trauma on both an individual and communal level (Fanon, Woodson). The potential that movement-based modalities such as dance have as a tool towards re-embodiment becomes much more apparent when we understand that our bodies and spirits, not just minds, have been affected by oppression. By reclaiming our connection to our bodies and spirits, we open up more choices for our futures.  Movement-based modalities, such as dance, offer us the opportunity to find moments for re-embodiment.

For example, when I watch a dancer fully embodied I am affected on a kinesthetic level.  My mind, body and spirit are engaged as I witness the performance in front of me.  The line between audience member and performer blurs. I can hardly stay in my seat. My conscious mind understands the social norms of proscenium stage performance (sit quietly and clap only at the end), but my body is certainly not adhering. The intelligence of my body and spirit are demanding that I respond to what I am witnessing. Before I know it my leg is moving and I am yelling to the performer on stage, “Get it!.”  I feel as if I might fly out of my seat at any moment.  It is clear that the performer is fueled by the communal energy he/she/they are receiving from the audience. I argue that this kind of dance, along with dance makers who choreograph work rooted in a communal experience and process, is what I deem liberatory communal dance. 
The dance world is fortunate to have so many artists creating liberatory communal dance, such as Liz Lerman, Bill T. Jones, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Anna Halprin to name a few.  These inspiring dance artists’ works have been well documented, and as I explored their works as a graduate student in dance I realized that they are representatives of a growing movement in the field and reflect an urgent societal need towards re-embodiment.  What is less explored is the intersection of community-based arts organizations, liberation, and dance.  I believe that a precondition for liberatory communal dance is that there must be spaces, physical and community-based, that support this kind of dance. Holding space for people targeted by oppression to claim and have their embodied histories witnessed and validated is key to the liberatory process. I will examine an alternative San Francisco institution named CounterPULSE, a community-based dance and performing arts organization, to investigate the role that movement-based modalities can and do play in social transformation. Educational theorist Paulo Freire explains to us that liberation can only be realized if those impacted by oppression believe that their condition can be transformed (Freire 31). I argue that holding physical and safe spaces for people to be re-embodied is critical to nurturing a collective creative capacity and self-determination. Both are necessary pillars in sustaining the belief that one’s condition can be changed. Cultural worker Arlene Goldbard writes:
One artist’s dream can’t end a war, but when enough people dream together- when enough people have a taste of wide-awake dreaming to create critical mass- who knows what might happen? (Goldbard 14)

As a community-based space that utilizes dance and performance as the terrain upon which social change occurs, CounterPULSE serves as a demonstrative case study to look at the intersection of movement, space and re-embodiment.

II. Re-embodiment as a Tool for Liberation?

Resistive political theorists such as Franz Fanon and Carter G. Woodson have focused on the fact that internalized oppression is a war over the mind. In discussing the colonization of the mind of the African-American by patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, Woodson writes in the Mis-Education of the Negro:  

When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder.  He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. (Woodson v.)

Woodson sees the mind as the primary terrain upon which internalized oppression is sown, but I argue that it is not only the mind that is controlled, it is also the body that is subjugated in the colonizing process. The mind is enacted through the body and therefore we experience through an embodied process. In describing the ‘liberatory condition’ Paulo Freire states:

...the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanization of all people…In order for the oppressed [and oppressor] to be able to wage the struggle for their liberation, they must perceive the reality of oppression not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform….this perception…must become the motivating force for their liberating action. (Freire 31)

Freire explains that the primary condition for freedom is that people (generally we are all both the oppressed and oppressors depending on context) must believe that change can happen, that oppression can be transformed.  As discussed previously, by re-integrating our minds, bodies and spirits we gain more access to the choice and empowerment. If we are to envision a way forward beyond the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy we must first recognize that personal transformation and communal liberation will require strategies, methods and therapies where re-embodiment is central. 

In Brazilian theorist Augusto Boal’s 1972 book Theater of the Oppressed he offers insight into how theater, a form of embodied performance like dance, offers potential for re-embodiment. In particular his Forum Theater and Image Theater have most been used in community-based arts organizations and programs.  In both Forum Theater and Image theater the “Invisible” 4th wall between audience and actor is dismantled. Forum Theater has most popularly been implemented in community organizing as a tool to help community members practice dialoguing with corporate representatives or local politicians as part of social justice campaigns.  Boal believed that the body was the first and primary mode of translating ideas, and that social norms often resulted in speech that was somewhat censored. 
In Image Theater participants are asked to create a “mold” and “sculpt” their bodies and others’ bodies in response to concepts, thoughts, conversation and ideas. In both of these theater practices performance became a dialogue rather than a monologue.  Boal’s emphasis on breaking the 4th wall is an act of resistance to a dualistic way of seeing the audiences’ relationship to the performer. In Theater of the Oppressed, he writes,
The ruling classes took possession of the theater and built their dividing walls. First, they divided the people, separating actors from spectators: people who act and people who watch- the party is over! Secondly, among the actors, they separated the protagonists from the mass. The coercive indoctrination began!..Now the oppressed people have liberated themselves and, once more, are making the theater their own. (Boal 119)
For Boal, theater was life and the wall between fiction and reality was a created illusion. Everyone is both actor and spectator;  There is not separation. In Boal’s theater practices, pedagogical emphasis is on the dialectic of discussion and the engagement of imaginations, rather than on a more didactic approach to solving problems. The ultimate result is that collective people power is created and the potential of collective action towards liberation is made more possible.
In the field of community-based arts, also known as community creative development, the theories of Freire and Boal have been offered a practical home. In her welcomed book New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development, Arlene Goldbard, explains that community-based arts organizations have embraced these Brazilian theorists because,
…they make powerful links between individual and social transformation. Most of us know what it feels like to internalize a too-small identity, disempowering ourselves in some way. It’s not a huge leap to connect processes like Freire’s and Boal’s, which have helped us understand and root out internalized obstacles to our sense of possibility…. (Goldbard 120)
Integral and implicit to the process and philosophies of Freire and Boal is the idea of challenging mind/body dualism. The relationship between audience/ performer, individual/community, powerless/powerful and oppression/liberation are reconfigured to show people that these labels do not dictate their condition.  Liberation is possible if we are given the time, space and processes that facilitate imagination and belief in our own power so that we can change our oppressive reality.  Understanding the body as the site of change we begin to see that movement-based modalities such as dance and theater hold unique potential towards individual and collective healing and transformation.  As our Western culture has slowly begun to challenge mind/body dualism, we begin to understand how we have become disembodied and what we have lost in the process.