I can hear low conversation as people gather around a glowing light and write letters to the future. Later, in the deepest part of the night, someone plays the violin. The sound stays with me as I doze off and helps me remember where I am when I open my eyes. The sky is brightening and the sun, a glowing orangey-red ball like I’ve never seen it before, is rising directly in front of me, across the East River. I’m lying on the ground, wrapped in a quilt handmade by dozens of strangers. I’ve just spent a night gazing at the stars with the performers of Emily Johnson/Catalyst.
Originally from Alaska, Johnson is of Yup’ik descent and centers community building, indigenous knowl- edge, and futurity in her work. It’s hard, though, to really describe what that work is. Reflecting only on physical movements wouldn't even begin to capture what Johnson perceives “dance” to be. “Art is making and sharing, with a deep intention to process,” she said when we spoke at Pause Cafe in June. For Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, Johnson conceived of a shared feast, thousands of square feet of handmade quilts and an all-night performance of movement, storytelling, and music. The effort that went into organizing the event cannot be overstated. But, Johnson is quick to point out, “what builds and what can possibly build are in the same vein. It’s about research, attention, process, and ceremony. I push people to think about it as dance. That’s my politic and my play. It’s all dance to me.”
Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars
August 19, 2017
And what dance. Then A Cunning Voice is Johnson’s latest project, after her multi-year trilogy of The Thank- you Bar (for which she won a Bessie Award), Niicugni and SHORE, which premiered in 2009, 2012 and 2014, respectively. Echoes of each work are visible in Then a Cunning Voice, especially SHORE which takes place over the course of a week and includes performance, volunteerism, and feasting. “We’re still looking at the resonances from SHORE, and staying in touch with audience members and participants,” Johnson said. “Then a Cunning Voice... felt like a natural progression. I learned, from SHORE, that people wanted extended time together.” So Johnson gave her audience just that: a whole night to rest, eat, and dream in community. Her dance company is aptly named—Johnson is an instigator, an orchestrator, and a catalyst for change and possibility. The evening began with a welcome-to-country, a protocol that honors and acknowledges Mannahatta as part of Lenapehoking (Lenape homeland). The concept of being a good guest in someone else’s home carried over from conversations during Umyuangvigkaq, a durational sewing bee and long-table discussion. Part of PS122’s COIL Festival in early January 2017, the sewing bee was a more formal version of the sewing events that contributed to each and every quilt in use during Then a Cunning Voice.
The format of Umyuangvigkaq delivered literal seats at a communal table, meant to unequivocally center indigenous voices. Upon entering, participants were greeted with a sign asking that we listen more than we speak, and to honor and acknowledge Lenapehoking. As a person with little connection to her ancestral cultures, it amazed me to witness the way practices and protocols fold the ancient and modern together, demonstrating a kind of time travel. Many pieces of quilt fabric were inscribed with participants’ hopes and visions for their community and chosen family—the deeply personal research that underpinned all aspects of Then a Cunning Voice.
“Quilting pieces of fabric together is a way of estab- lishing place,” said Johnson, who came to sewing by learning a traditional practice of sewing fish skins. “Each point of making is connected to the eventual gathering,” Johnson continued in an email. “For Then a Cunning Voice we have made (quilts, workshops, movement, stories, tech riders, budgets etc.) in cities, towns, and reservations; at farmer’s markets, schools, museums, libraries, art centers, drop in centers, living rooms and studios across the U.S., in Taiwan, and Australia, at Standing Rock and at Women’s Marches in Minnesota after the 2016 US election.”
After Then a Cunning Voice participants walked with Johnson around Randall's Island, we arrived at the northwest corner, past ball fields and what was once dynamic marshland, to rest on a grassy strip mere feet from the East River. It was wonderful to see the completed quilts, designed by textile artist Maggie Thompson (Fond Du Lac Ojibwe), spread out in their completion, our home for the duration of the performance.
Even with the slightly incongruous (though neces- sary and much appreciated) tech support from PS122 staff, and the looming presence of Riker’s Island in the distance, the scene could easily have been one of a fledgling community trying to establish itself on the edge of the world. Tents were set up for communal food preparation, led by multi-form contemporary artist and food futurist Jen Rae (Canadian Métis/ Australian). There was a ceremony and more quiet sewing, while Johnson and fellow performer Tania Isaac began to tell a story. Lights came on as the sun set and the reality of nighttime sank in. Johnson and Isaac performed a series of poses, in unison, that were strong, calm, and anticipatory. They seemed to be comforting onlookers, consecrating the space and drawing power from the ground and each other. In the morning, when I opened my eyes, the two women were again moving in silent unison. The sustained repetition, despite the passing of time, made it surreal, as if something that had walked among us the whole night was only just becoming visible.
In the depths of the night, 12-year-old perform- er Georgia Lucas asked participants to respond to difficult questions about community and conflict, and reflected upon their answers. By questioning with such grace and courage, she modeled the kind of unlearning and “known unknown” that Johnson is interested in exploring. That push to really think, to take responsibility for one’s identity and values, is part of what makes Johnson's projects so special and potentially life-changing. When the first moments of a dance performance in so-called New York City include a welcome-to-country by Lenape people and a reminder that we’re standing on Lenapehoking, it's a glaring reminder of the monstrous erasure of indigenous knowledge and practice. I have never before attended a performance, reading, concert, or cultural event of any kind (which wasn't part of a larger “educational” event) that acknowledged ancestral and/ or contemporary indigenous protocols or sovereignty. “I’m welcoming people into the process,” Johnson said. “How can it be deeply shared, but not taken? People in dominant society don’t go through the process of asking questions. It can take a long time to go through protocols that shift your relationship to answers and getting things done.”
The quilts provided a beautiful extended metaphor to support many of the more difficult moments during Then a Cunning Voice “Some people who sewed won’t come to the performance,” Johnson said, “and I hope it’s felt that people prepared the space and time.” Though Then a Cunning Voice premiered in Mannahatta, the quilt I wrapped around myself to ward off a chilly breeze at three o’clock in the morning may have been sewn in Minneapolis or Australia. Indeed, a participant and asylum-seeker in Australia described the quilts to Johnson as maps to possible futures, and it’s a source of resilience to imagine sleeping on a lovingly crafted possible future. The thread of Johnson’s traditional sewing practice in Alaska is now partially anchored in the bulldozed remains of Lenapehoking, half a world away. As the quilts were unrolled or put away, place and time folded into each other. Suddenly the idea of indigenizing the present, or of envisioning our way into a different world, didn’t seem so abstract. If fish skins can metamorphose into a place for strangers to rest together peacefully, if a dance performance can be as big in scope and scale as our efforts to survive and nurture one another, maybe anything is possible. “How far,” Johnson mused, “can we extend our love and care?”