One of the central components of feminist art practice is the challenge it offers viewers to reconsider cultural, political, and social gender hierarchies. From the start, a subfield of feminist art practice was also committed to creating art about and in natural environments that called attention to environmental injustice through media including sculpture, performance art, and earth art, as well as film and video. From Bonnie Ora Sherk’s seven-year performance Crossroads (The Farm) (1974–80) to Amy Franceschini and Jonathan Meuser’s plant-fueled DIY Algae/Hydrogen Bioreactor (2004), feminists have used many methods, including intervention, visualization, metaphor, activation, celebration, perturbation, dramatization, satire, and investigation, to engage with the environment (Weintraub 2012). I analyze a feminist genealogy of art and media practice that reconstitutes the relationship between bodies and environments through what Shannon Jackson calls “social works”—artworks that are socially engaged at the nexus of aesthetics and politics. Social practice, another term for social work, includes “practices that performatively extend inherited art forms in space, duration, embodiment, and collectivity . . . [and] induce all varieties of responses and readings” (Jackson 2011, 18).
Attending to feminist social works that focus on the environment reveals what I call the choreographic body. The choreographic body enacts the labor of performance as environmental social work, altering embodied experience in the process. By nature, the choreographic body is a media body—reconstructing relationships between performing bodies, spectating bodies, and environments. While all bodies are media of gestural expression and “bodily techniques” of the everyday, choreographic bodies are media bodies foremost because they alter the experience of embodiment in relation to space and time via a set of directions (choreography as movement-writing) or as an artistic vision (choreography as directed action that isn’t necessarily written as instructions). Just as all film genres are what Linda Williams refers to as “body genres” at some level, what Williams designates as “body genres” emphasizes genres that amplify or alter the sensations of the spectating body (Williams 1991). The same premise is true of choreographic bodies as always already media bodies, which are semiotic and historically specific. They move in space and time for particular purposes (here, for environmental social work), address and involve certain spectators, and yield many ways of interpreting their expressions. André Lepecki describes the body in relation to choreography in consonant terms, noting that “rethinking the subject in terms of the body is precisely the task of choreography, a task that may not be always subservient to the imperative of the kinetic, a task that is always already in dialogue with critical theory and philosophy” (Lepecki 2006, 6).
Thinking through the lens of the choreographic body in feminist environmental social works gives rise to understanding how the performing body exposes environmental infrastructures for publics whose identity markers typically render these infrastructures invisible or occluded. Central to the constitution of the environmental social works I discuss is the idea that the choreographic body is not static—it is a way of understanding the world that alters the lived experience of performer and spectator (Lin 2016, 6-8). The malleability of performance results in social work as one of the transformative possibilities of the choreographic body and allows it to mediate differently bodies and environments in each performative moment. In the social works I analyze, the choreographic body occupies a reflexive site of mediation, bringing feminist art practices and media histories to bear on the environment.
In relation to the environment, the choreographic body first emerges through the lens of dance history and theory. Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren’s choreocinema and pioneering choreographer Anna Halprin’s dances illustrate how the choreographic bodies in Deren’s films and Halprin’s postmodern dances mediate environment, labor, and social work through their approach to dance and film as praxis. I analyze their crucial interventions as foundations of the choreographic body in social work as it transitions from artists performing for an audience to the incorporation of spectators and publics into the work itself. This sets the stage to define the more canonical environmental performance art of Mierle Laderman Ukeles through the choreographic body as a feminist strategy. Deren’s and Halprin’s choreographic bodies reposition Ukeles’s body and those she choreographs as dancing bodies in Touch Sanitation (1978–80) and Marrying the Barges: A Barge Ballet/Touch Sanitation Show (1984). Deren’s and Halprin’s work moved dancing bodies from the theater to the outside world, mobilizing dancing (and, therefore, performing) bodies in natural environments. Their shared impulse to recontextualize the choreographic body fosters new links between geographies and performance. In so doing, they inscribe new ways of knowing that reside in spaces between bodies and environments.
These body-environment mediations form a crucial and overlooked site in the media history of social works for environmental justice and in the role of feminist practice as bound to choreographic strategies of mediation. This embedded media history recasts a familiar feminist genealogy of bodies and environments that often positions Ukeles’s earth maintenance art as the center of conversations about feminist social works engaged in environmental justice. Beginning with Deren and Halprin, this genealogy casts Ukeles’s art through the choreographic body as an important strategy of feminist mediation that constellates around bodies and environments.
I then read Ukeles’s performance art activism on behalf of New York City sanitation workers in Touch Sanitation and Marrying the Barges in light of this recast genealogy. Her work is an example of the choreographic body’s developing relationship to social work as feminist praxis. Her earliest earth maintenance project, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, resulted in Ukeles’s working as an unsalaried New York City Department of Sanitation artist-in-residence. The position enabled her to advocate for the rights of the sanitation workers. There, she developed Touch Sanitation, a multipart performance that placed the sanitation workers’ labor on display. In one segment, Ukeles performed the movements of sanitation workers beside them as they cleaned the streets, mirroring their movements and placing their steps in the realm of the choreographic. Barge Ballet developed Ukeles’s choreographic impulse, choreographing spectators’ architectural experience of a New York City waste transfer center and the performance of a ballet in which sanitation barges traveled down the Hudson River. Ukeles’s art demonstrates that feminist art and media continue to link maintenance art with activism through the body as medium, using art as earth maintenance. In doing so, her choreographic bodies address environmental justice.
Finally, this brings me to Invisible-5, a California community-based work by artists Kim Stringfellow, Amy Balkin, and Tim Halbur, in collaboration with the environmental nonprofit groups Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Pond: Art, Activism, and Ideas. The work takes participants on an environmental tour of sites surrounding Interstate 5 as they drive north- or southbound on the highway. Invisible-5 sets choreographic bodies in motion and reimagines highway journeys as geographic choreographies of performance and witnessing, thereby calling on the specters of Deren, Halprin, and Ukeles to activate the media history of early cinematic travelogues. Here, the choreographic body has a more contingent role in environmental mediation. Whereas an artist or an artistic group choreographed performances for a space or a task, or performed in front of an audience, Invisible-5 has a looser tack on how bodies travel along the interstate. Invisible-5 sits between Deren, Halprin, and Ukeles as it renders media histories to carry out social work. It emerges as part of this genealogy of feminist art practice when it positions the body in the environment via mediation, carrying out environmental justice. Invisible-5 straddles the interstitial space between radio and cinema, bringing the motion of the car’s directional movement to bear on the site-specific audio tour. Bringing feminist politics to a space of travel and audiovisual experience remediates the I-5 for the driver and passengers. Invisible-5 links participants with the embodied experience of travel, illuminating the stories of California communities for whom environmental infrastructures are not at all invisible.
Geographies of the Choreographic Body: The Beach, the Dance Deck, and the Street
At first gleaning, Maya Deren and Anna Halprin might not seem to share a common lineage. While they both pioneered movements in art—postmodern dance and avant-garde film, respectively, in the United States—and both theorized and practiced in fields largely dominated by male artists, they are rarely in sustained conversation. Yet Deren and Halprin explored and experimented with choreographic bodies as they sought to understand their own and others’ interactions with natural environments and reveal the social work inherent in rediscovering those environments through live and mediated performance. This section brings together Deren and Halprin through their choreographic and geographic thinking about art—Deren’s choreocinema and Halprin’s outdoor dances. The artworks I describe are snapshots that map intersections among bodies, environments, and mediations that are integral to feminist media histories of environmental justice. I focus on how both artists reoriented bodies through environmental encounters to create works that reframe the lineage of environmental social works, rendering their bodies as choreographic.
While Deren’s and Halprin’s art practices are not explicitly concerned with environmental justice, they are concerned with upending long-standing relationships among bodies and natural environments through performance. Their reinscription of bodies’ encounters with natural environments is the foundation of environmental social work. Much as a primary aim of performance art is to unsettle staid boundaries, so, too, are their geographic encounters a primary way that Halprin and Deren unsettle performers and audiences who witness and partake in their work. One of the tenets of site-specific dance and dance film is “an interest in recontextualizing the dancing body; in very basic terms, this involved a turning away from the stage space and an embracing of alternative venues for dance” (Kloetzel 2016, 22). Melanie Kloetzel emphasizes that this shift in perspective is “in a large part, due to where dance films and site-specific dance take place . . . [Then] a viewer’s awareness of what a body can do shifts: vulnerabilities of the body may be revealed, impossible feats may seem commonplace, and/or unusual dialogues between bodies and place can change our assumptions about what bodies could or should do” (Kloetzel 2016, 23). Both Deren and Halprin led the way in these recontextualizations. At the beach, I find Deren’s experiments with the fusion of dance and film, garnering new contexts for the body relative to the natural environment. Furthermore, I find Halprin’s dance deck among the redwood trees and her community workshops in California as a site where she fostered dancers’ encounters with the outdoors.
At the Beach
Deren’s films meet the outdoors on an East Coast beach where she filmed scenes from At Land, her second film, in which she stars. Deren emerges from the ocean, crawls across the beach, and climbs atop a piece of driftwood (figure 1). Deren’s bodily movements are conveyed with intent, for they are an enactment, “a twice-behaved behavior” that renders them as performative and choreographic: her loose back and outstretched hands give way to movement informed by dance (Schechner 2006). Deren slows the motion of her ascent up the piece of driftwood at the film’s start, and this, too, is another way of expressing dance (Keller 2013, 54). Sarah Keller argues that “as Deren suggests in her writings, the slow motion of this moment [in Deren’s Ritual in Transfigured Time (US, 1946), which also applies to other slow motion moments in Deren’s films] affords the spectator the ability to analyze the subtlest intricacies inaccessible to the unassisted eye. . . . We see the fast, graceful, ‘dancerly’ movements of the actor (as filmed) intersected by the slow motion of the camera, making a new rhythm of the two in partnership” (Keller 2013, 54). Although At Land is not one of her choreocinematic films (of which there are five), it harbors the framework for Deren’s choreographic and environmental impulses, which extend to her overall approach to filmmaking. When Deren reaches the top of the driftwood, there is a sudden change in scenery via a cut, and spectators watch Deren continue her crawl across a boardroom table surrounded by elderly men. This geographic turn and shot construction have close ties to similar sequences that feature the filmic subject through cuts between natural and constructed environments in Meshes of the Afternoon (dir. Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, US, 1943) and A Study in Choreography for Camera (dir. Maya Deren, US, 1945). Sequences in which Deren links natural and constructed environments tie her work to the silent-era feminist filmmaker Germaine Dulac, whose Thème et variations (France, 1928) (figure 2) “combines the movements of a dancer with parallel movements in nature and machinery” (Keller 2013, 53).
Despite a wealth of literature on Deren’s avant-garde films and theories, few scholars have written about Deren’s interventions in modern dance through her choreocinema. While Deren was not formally trained as a dancer, she started working for acclaimed dancer, teacher, researcher, and choreographer Katherine Dunham in 1939 before Deren made her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (Brannigan 2002). Dunham’s foundational work as an African American choreographer brought Caribbean dance to the United States following anthropological studies, and this prompted Deren to visit Haiti for her own film projects. Deren’s later collaborations with Talley Beatty and Rita Christiani—both Dunham dancers—featured the dancers as a focal point of A Study in Choreography for Camera (US, 1945) and Ritual in Transfigured Time (figure 3) (US, 1946) (Brannigan 2002). Deren’s experiences with the Dunham Company, her involvement in dance and film lectures, and her published articles on dance resulted in Deren’s development of choreocinema (Keller 2013, 53), which “introduced the concept of filmmaking as dance, as a creative union of bodily performance, choreographic patterning, and technical manipulation predicated upon the foregrounding of female artistic agency” (Cleghorn 2019). For Deren, choreocinema was about the relationship between space, time, place, and the dancing body on film, which, until then, had been confined by the proscenium arch of the theater or the studio (Deren 2005, 221).
Even in much-needed scholarship that connects Deren to dance history, there is room to explore how she refigures the environment in relation to the body in the process of its cinematic mediation. Deren’s choreocinema is a prime example of how she developed a relationship to space through the dancing body. It is also the beginning of her experiments with geographic movement, visible in Meshes of the Afternoon, when Deren (performing in her own film) quickly cuts between shots of her character at home followed by shots of her feet traversing multiple terrains in a matter of seconds, including sand and ocean waves on the beach, a grassy patch, and concrete (figure 4). Deren explained her thinking as it developed from Meshes to A Study in Choreography this way: “This principle—that the dynamic of movement in film is stronger than anything else—than changes of matter . . . that movement, or energy is more important, or powerful, than space or matter—that, in fact, it creates matter—seemed to me to be marvelous, like an illumination, that I wanted to just stop and celebrate that wonder, just by itself, which I did in Study in Choreography for Camera. The movement of the dancer creates a geography, in the film, that never was” (Deren 2005, 192).
While Deren downplays “space” and “matter” in favor of “movement, or energy,” she arrives at a crucial idea: that the confluence of her thinking about these components results in a geography propelled by the dancer’s motion possible only through her production of it as moving image. In such a geography, spectators and characters travel from inside a house to outside on the beach or from the beach to a boardroom and back again in the span of a second. When Deren refers to a “geography,” she does so with layered intent—pointing to swiftly changing environmental geographies that punctuate onscreen moments in which landscapes dramatically shift, and equally, to geography as what enables her to map terrain for a developing choreocinema. Reading geographic moments in Deren’s films this way produces what Soviet filmmaker and theorist Sergei Eisenstein calls intellectual montage, a series of shots defined by “the conflicting combination of accompanying intellectual effects with one another” (Taylor 1998, 17). The idea of a new geography that enables unrestricted, liberated bodily movement through space and time arises from the collision of swiftly changing landscapes that cinematic mediation allows—something the interior environment of a theater cannot accomplish. Deren’s thinking about the medium specificity of dance and cinema and their artistic affordances to each other positioned her as a pioneering film theorist and filmmaker. It also frames her work as concurrent with modern dance’s affinity for natural movement and antecedent to choreographers like Anna Halprin, whose outdoor dances merged bodies, landscapes, and social practices (Keller 2013, 54).
On the Dance Deck and the Street
Anna Halprin, acclaimed postmodern dancer, artist, and choreographer, notably moved dance from inside the studio to the world outside. She invited dancers and artists to the now-famous dance deck that her husband, prominent landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, built in 1953–54 at their home on Mount Tamalpais; hosted a series of workshops with her husband from 1966 to 1971 that traversed the dance deck, the streets of San Francisco, and the beach known as Sea Ranch; and today, invites dancers and members of the public onto her dance deck for programs. While Deren’s choreocinema demonstrates how performance, cinema, and the environment create new ways of attending to the body in space as it moves between and among geographies, Halprin brought social work to her environmental encounters. She constructed the choreographic body as a mediator of bodies, environments, and identities. In this respect, her work set precedent for and aligns with other socially engaged performance art of the time.
In the realm of dance, Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti are two especially significant artists, dancers, and choreographers whose work converses with Halprin’s. As Bruce Robertson and Ninotchka Bennahum describe, their contributions “invested psychically and aesthetically in the radical body and shifted the place of performance from the concert stage to the street, gallery, community center, tabernacle, mountaintop, and seashore. They made possible any kind of expression as worthy of belonging in social space, in public space. Henceforth, a new range of movement possibilities and community-based interpretation evolved around performance as activism, as resistance, and as art” (Bennahum and Robertson 2017, 18–19). At the heart of Halprin’s work was the idea that dance and choreography could lead to an ethics of the body. Bennahum connects Halprin’s development of this idea to her investment in Jewish Talmudic tradition as she learned from Rabbi Max Kadushin and courses with Margaret H’Doubler, a notable dance educator invested in “scientific theories of movement governed by anatomical, biological, and kinesthetic study” (Bennahum 2017, 60–62, 61–67). Her Jewish ethics, those of tikkun olam (repairing the world), guided her to explore her “cultural attachment to Judaism for ethical principles that governed her creativity” (Bennahum 2017, 65). As her theory of dance evolved, it led her to invite dancers outdoors because “the body . . . is the environment, the experience of nature, an ecological unit fundamental to communitarian survival” (Bennahum 2017, 63).
Another foundational part of Halprin’s orientation to dance, body, and the environment arose from her collaboration with her husband, Lawrence. As Judith Wasserman describes, “By offering unique solutions to each other’s creative questions, Lawrence and Anna Halprin’s work continually evolved, responding to each generational epoch and its particular social and ecological concerns” (Wasserman 2012, 34). For example, when Lawrence built the dance deck, he did not simply construct a rectangular deck that happened to be a new dance space for Anna and her dancers. Rather, they allowed the surrounding environment of their home to direct the design of the deck (Wasserman 2012, 35). This design, which is multilevel and nonsymmetrical, features the redwood trees and other flora nearby. Anna describes the result of this design:
Since there is ever changing form and texture and light around you, a certain drive develops toward constant experimentation and change in dance itself. In a sense one becomes less introverted, less dependent on sheer invention, and more out going [sic] and receptive to environmental change . . .
The second major fact is the spatial structure of the deck itself. This is a powerful influence. The non-rectangular form of the deck forces a complete re-orientation of the dancer. The customary points of reference are gone. . . . Movement within a moving space, I have found, is different than movement within a static cube. (Wasserman 2012, 37)
This fundamental reorientation of dancing, which the Halprins brought to the dance and performance communities in more widespread fashion than it had existed previously, asked dancers to consider the body in relation to the flora and fauna and to dissolve the gap between performer and audience. This shift in the location where dance and performance take place, and in the subjects, materials, and forms of spectatorship and witnessing that Halprin opened, is a key development for choreographic bodies as mediators of social experience that play out in the following sections. Once Halprin opened dance to the outdoors—to the dance deck, to the streets, and to other community spaces—she realized how powerful it is for social work. When the body enacts social work as dance or performance, it emerges as a choreographic body that enacts social change through the labor of performance.
Anna Halprin is noted for her task-based dances that feature performers involved in repetitive routine activities including dressing, undressing, and other improvisational movements. Parades and Changes (1965) “consisted of nine ‘episodic experiences,’ or sections, scored by Halprin and [Morton] Subotnick and written onto cards organized to fit each performance. Each dancer was handed a card on which simple directions were printed. In the third section, for example, the dancers talked to the audience; in the fifth section, they undressed and dressed three times; in the last section, they tore huge rolls of paper at different speeds” (Bennahum 2017, 79). At the time Parades premiered, dancers removing their clothing onstage was a radical act. While dancers freely rehearsed nude on Halprin’s dance deck, they encountered pushback from US audiences in performances of the work: “We danced in the midst of nature, surrounded by trees, with the sun and the wind on our skin. What was more natural than to be naked and be part of nature? . . . When I returned from [the premiere in] Sweden, the headlines in this country were ‘The No Pants Dancers Return,’ which is anything but reverent. When we performed in New York . . . I was a bit shocked when I heard whispering in the audience: Oh no, they’re not going to take their clothes off, are they? And the next thing I knew I was arrested for indecency—or at least summoned—but I was leaving New York that day so nothing came of it” (Isaacson n.d.). Parades was also the first performance for which Halprin developed an illustrated method of dance notation that replaced more traditional choreography (figure 5). This system allowed dancers to have more improvisational freedom, and after Halprin witnessed strong audience reactions to Parades, she “realized that each performance should be a transformative experience for both dancers and viewers and began experimenting with incorporating audience participation into her pieces. This in turn led to her interest in using dance to help people face real life issues” (“Biography” n.d.). Halprin, in this respect, moved bodies, environments, and identity to the fore. Her social works involved the local San Francisco community and challenges they faced, from local to global scales. This is one way that Halprin, years after Deren’s interventions in dance and film, introduced social work into the fabric of dance, environment, and activism.
While Halprin’s San Francisco seaside workshops required participants to take up to a month off from work to participate—a largely untenable hiatus for most except the predominantly white artists who could afford it—in 1969, Halprin joined the Los Angeles Studio Watts, a community of Black dancers, for a yearlong workshop and following performance that addressed racial inequalities with the San Francisco dance community. She then joined the Los Angeles and San Francisco dancers for a ten-day joint workshop where they lived and danced together before a public performance (“Biography” n.d.).
Ceremony of Us (1969) (figure 6, top) marked a trajectory of social work through the dancing body that found a home on the streets of San Francisco and on the dance deck. In many of her performances, Halprin invited audience members to participate regardless of previous dance or art experience. This is a feature of many performances and workshops, including Blank Placard Dance (1970), which took place on the streets of San Francisco and invited onlookers to make statements of protest for the placards; City Dance (1976–77), a series of public, participatory dances at nine San Francisco sites advertised in the newspaper that invited the community together to pay attention to their surrounding environment; Planetary Dance (1981–), which arose following the murders of six women on Mount Tamalpais trails between 1979 and 1981, and evolved into an annual dance for peace; and Circle the Earth: Dancing with Life on the Line (1989, 1991) (figure 6, bottom), which invited people with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers for a workshop and performance.
Taken together, Halprin’s work emerges as a place where the choreographic body acts as a medium of social work for dancers and community members. When the community joins the performances and workshops, a key feminist strategy continues to shift and engages with several types of performance. This change is also apparent in Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s maintenance art, which features a more focused approach to environmental injustice and social work. As I move from Halprin to Ukeles, Halprin emerges as an artist who enables Ukeles’s art to be read through the lens of a dance history that takes seriously performances in nontraditional locales, involves spectators for the purpose of social work, and uses the moving body as an impetus for revealing the work’s impact.
Choreographing Earth Maintenance: Dancing with the New York City Sanitation Department
Mierle Laderman Ukeles redefined what was traditionally considered women’s work as skilled labor, and she mobilized her performances to focus on the labor citizens carry out as they care for and maintain the environment. Ukeles wrote Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969! (1969) after she had her first child. The experience of ritual maintenance associated with child-rearing led her to realize that “the people who were taking care and keeping the wheels of society turning were mute, and I didn’t like it!” (Weintraub 2012, 117). The manifesto provided both for naming maintenance as a form of contemporary art and for Ukeles’s and others’ performance of maintenance tasks outside and inside of museum spaces, with sections on personal, general, and earth maintenance that would largely take place on the East Coast. The manifesto aligned her commitment to women’s rights with her burgeoning sense that labor is tied to larger city infrastructures that also require daily maintenance—and that this maintenance was undervalued and invisible for the audience she reached and interacted with most, which was composed largely of middle-class, white, museum-going publics.
In the section of the manifesto on earth maintenance, Ukeles writes:
C. Part Three: Earth Maintenance
Everyday [sic], containers of the following kinds of refuse will be delivered to the Museum:
- the contents of one sanitation truck;
- a container of polluted air;
- a container of polluted Hudson River;
- a container of ravaged land
Once at the exhibition, each container will be serviced:
Purified, de-polluted, rehabilitated, recycled, and conserved by various technical (and/or pseudo-technical) procedures either by myself or scientists.
These servicing procedures are repeated throughout the duration of the exhibition (Laderman Ukeles n.d.).
The manifesto aligned her commitment to women’s rights with her sense that labor is tied to larger city infrastructures that also require daily maintenance—and that this maintenance was undervalued and largely invisible.
On the face of it, Ukeles’s development of maintenance art as a practice rooted in her experience with child-rearing might seem to play into an essentialist notion of women, domestic labor, and the environment. Yet to place Ukeles into a category of essentialist ecofeminism (what is sometimes referred to as radical ecofeminism) is to misinterpret her intervention, for Ukeles is not arguing that her role as a mother makes her closer to nature, nor is she arguing that women are closer to nature and are therefore better at caring for the environment. Rather, Ukeles values the maintenance that women have traditionally been expected to undertake and brings it into conversation with labor rights and environmental justice. Ukeles wants to repair the world by maintaining infrastructures essential to environmental upkeep. Repair, for Ukeles, is part of a feminist praxis and part of her relationship to Judaism, valuing tikkun olam just as Halprin does. For environmental justice scholars, waste and repair are also pressing concerns. Lisa Parks, for example, describes the environmental and human hazards of e-waste, or electronic waste, which often ends up exported from the United States to landfills in other countries that have less stringent environmental protections rather than being salvaged or repurposed (Parks 2007, 39). Similarly, Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller focus on media technology’s role in “climate change, pollution growth, biodiversity decline, and habitat decimation—the constituents of our global ecological crisis,” and Jennifer Gabrys analyzes “how to investigate electronic waste as a specifically electronic form of waste” (Maxwell and Miller 2012, 2; also see Gabrys 2011, 3). Parks, Maxwell and Miller, and Gabrys take on e-waste, environmental harm caused by waste, and the importance of salvaging, reuse, and repair. These issues are likewise important to Ukeles.
Ukeles brought feminism to a larger audience—relating it to both a network of undervalued workers in a financially struggling New York City Sanitation Department and to the underexplored urban infrastructure that the department oversaw. She also fused avant-garde art traditions in dance and performance in a cross-arts fashion with feminism. For Ukeles, the connections between the art forms she utilized in her social works came together with the body as the primary artistic actor—first utilizing her own choreographic body as a mirror that danced beside sanitation workers, and later, as the choreographer who mobilized the bodies of participants in social action.
While Ukeles’s early maintenance performances were choreographic in that she used her body to enact tasks associated with her social works, and sometimes did so with an illustrated sheet of instructions that outlined tasks, much as Halprin did, Touch Sanitation was the first of Ukeles’s performances in which she focused on large environmental infrastructures and incorporated the language of dance. As Jackson describes, through the process of working with the sanitation system, she started to think about the infrastructures through choreographic movement.
As Ukeles became increasingly knowledgeable about the specialized processes of the sanitation apparatus—its classed processes of environmental zoning as well as its labor processes for managing pickup, delivery, compression, transfer, leeching, and landfill creation—more projects dramatized a large systemic apparatus. Interestingly, she began to use an explicit language of theatre and choreography. She set up the timing and sightlines for the viewing of a massive process of garbage transfer from dumps, across rivers, and onto landfills (e.g., Transfer Station). She conceived a variety of “ballets” in which sanitation apparatuses such as sweepers and barges “danced” (e.g., Ballet Mechanique for Six Mechanical Sweepers). Such gestures set up a stage for viewing the existent but otherwise under-noticed spectacles of sanitation. (Jackson 2011, 100)
In Follow in Your Footsteps, Ukeles mirrored the motions of the sanitation workers as they cleaned the streets of New York. As she did so, she created an improvisational pas de deux, calling on spectators who wandered by to reconsider sanitation as dance choreography. As shown in the photo below (figure 7), even while Ukeles mirrors the worker’s movements, the lack of a trash can lid in Ukeles’s right hand signals to onlookers that she is not simply miming—she is choreographing the worker’s tasks as a dance. Thanks to Halprin’s reconceptualization of dance in her outdoor task dances, Ukeles’s movements alongside the worker are legible as choreographic. This alignment among sanitation, environmental infrastructures, and choreography called attention to the art of sanitation wherein the laboring bodies of workers reveal the necessity of environmental infrastructures like sanitation when they are emphasized by art practice. That Ukeles carried out a different form of labor from the sanitation workers as she mirrored their movements foregrounds the distinction between Ukeles and the workers as one mediated by the artist’s body. The separation also highlights the choreographic form of the sanitation work, bringing onlookers’ initial conceptions about what dance is or can be to bear on what they can immediately observe from the street. In short, Ukeles created outdoor task-dances based on showcasing sanitation work as a form of art and labor that rids the city of waste.
While Touch Sanitation: Follow in Your Footsteps positions Ukeles as an artist creating task-based social works that rely on the body and use the language of choreography, Marrying the Barges/Touch Sanitation Show engages viewers in a way that emphasizes internal maintenance infrastructures by shifting the choreographic body from that of the artist to those of participant-visitors, much as Halprin had done in her community dances. Marrying the Barges was a site of witnessing wherein the public, for the first time in US history, could view New York City’s garbage flows, thereby directing visitors to experience the path that garbage takes through the infrastructures of the sanitation department and through ecological flows down the Hudson River to the landfill (Laderman Ukeles 2015, 51–54). Ukeles staged a barge dance at the site that merges the laboring mechanical body (the sanitation barge) with the laboring human body (the barge captain) against the backdrop of the architecturally reconfigured waste transfer center that she designed. Ukeles’s reconstruction of the waste transfer center is therefore a spatial mediation in which she maps how visitors will experience an urban waste management site before they witness a barge ballet. She shapes visitor-participants’ perception of the transfer center and the labor of the barge and barge captain when she positions them as choreographic bodies.
The confluence of architecture and mediation in relation to spectatorship has a relatively long history in film theory. As feminist film and media studies scholar Giuliana Bruno describes, Eisenstein equates journeys with cinematic montage to emphasize a theory of mobile spectatorship in “Montage and Architecture,” an essay that dates from the late 1930s. Bruno argues that "Eisenstein reveals the perceptual interplay that exists between immobility and mobility . . . . Film inherits the possibility of such a spectatorial voyage from the architectural field, for the person who wanders through a building or a site also absorbs and connects visual spaces (Bruno 2002, 55–56). What this means for Marrying the Barges is that Ukeles’s architectural design is a kind of mediation that involves mobile spectators always in the midst of creating a visual montage from the space. They are spectators whose choreographic body, if we read alongside Eisenstein, is also a media body that “move[s] between [a series of] carefully disposed phenomena that he observed sequentially with his visual sense” (Bruno 2002, 55). In this way, too, Ukeles’s choreographic bodies are media bodies enabled by architectural experiences, “wander[ing] through a building or a site . . . like a film spectator absorbing and connecting visual spaces. The changing position of a body in space creates architectural and cinematic grounds. The consumer of architectural (viewing) space is the prototype of the film spectator” (Bruno 1997, 15).
Marrying the Barges is articulated by Ukeles in a way that joins the architectural and infrastructural elements of the sanitation department located at West Fifty-Ninth Street in New York City. She writes:
Marrying the Barges: A Barge Ballet was the only one of my seven work ballets that was not a stand-alone performance. I created it to initiate a huge multimedia multilayered project called “Touch Sanitation Show,” . . .
“[Part One:] Transfer Station Transformation” included (among other elements), an array of different kinds of sanitation trucks along the tipping floor positioned over the barge slip, many with their hoppers welded all the way open. I created a two-part sound work, called Trax for Trux and Barges, with the sound artist Stephen Erickson, emanating from many concert-grade speakers installed in the barge slip below and also on the ceiling structure overhead. . . . A steel-mesh trough was suspended in a tipped position halfway between the tipping floor and the barge slip, filled with thousands of dirty, used-up work gloves given to me by individual sanitation workers . . . . A 350-foot-long light work called Pulse made of forty-four flasher units, harvested from defunct garbage trucks, created an energy light . . . . Over the barge slip, I painted a series of Hand-Energy Flashers. . . . Across the end wall of the building, six giant steel-mesh containers of separated recyclables that rose up from the basement and a hole in the ceiling was cut so that one punctured through the roof. I also cut through one end wall of the station a large saying “No more landfill space / What will we do with all our garbage? Where? How? When? Re —” (Laderman Ukeles 2015, 51–53)
The scale of Marrying the Barges in relation to other pieces Ukeles had undertaken is staggering even though she had already completed large performance projects. The multimedia environment Ukeles created on the sanitation room floor altered the relationship between environmental infrastructures and the public, introducing the body as a site of mediation when the public encountered the inside of the waste transfer center as art.
The in-person witnessing that Marrying the Barges/Transfer Sanitation Show offered conceived of the visitor’s body as a site of reflexive mediation. Once visitors experienced Part 1: Transfer Sanitation Show, they could then see Ukeles’s live barge ballet in which one tugboat, driven by a captain who worked for McAllister Bros., pulled three other tugboats (this is called “marrying” a barge) behind it, creating a very large circle on the waterfront (Laderman Ukeles 2015, 53). While some performance studies scholars would conceive of the live barge ballet as the more desirable live act of witnessing a performance in the flesh, I instead assert that Transfer Sanitation Show and its sound installation was not simply a substitute for the live experience of observing parts of the waste transfer process citizens could not access (like riding the barge to the landfill or riding in trucks with sanitation workers). Rather, Ukeles’s combination of public invitation for site-specific witnessing and immersion created an experience more audiovisually live than performance, dance, installation, or architecture alone because it animated choreographic bodies.
While performance studies scholar Peggy Phelan argues that mediation disturbs liveness to the point of no return since liveness is by definition the absence of mediation on which performance hinges, for other performance studies scholars, mediation and liveness are not mutually exclusive (Phelan 1993, 146). For Philip Auslander, mediation and liveness go hand in hand. Auslander describes their relationship this way: “The progressive diminution of previous distinctions between the live and the mediatized, in which live events are becoming ever more like mediatized ones, raises for me the question of whether there really are clear-cut ontological distinctions between live forms and mediatized ones” (Auslander 1999, 7). In emphasizing Ukeles’s role in activating choreographic bodies as media bodies, I push Auslander’s assertion that the distinctions between the live and the mediatized are not clear-cut to assert that the presence of mediation can heighten embodied experiences, especially those that already use live-witnessing as part of its repertoire.
Ukeles’s maintenance art is a frame for thinking about how feminist art makes visible otherwise occluded environmental infrastructures and cements the relationship between liveness and mediation in contemporary feminist art. It positions the choreographic body as a media body that aligns with histories of dance and film spectatorship. Invisible-5, which I turn to now, extends Ukeles’s insistence on the importance of attending to environmental infrastructures as feminist praxis. It links the choreographic body as participant, mediation, and the machine by way of automotive travel along Interstate 5 in California.
Choreographing the Interstate: Of Travelogues and Car Radios in Invisible-5
Invisible-5 is meant to be experienced while cruising north- or southbound along a section of Interstate 5 that stretches from Southern California to Northern California (figure 9). The artwork is a site-specific tour that haptically renders environmental histories and their geographic locations near the highway through sight and sound. Each tour segment is marked with a location cue, and participants can download a map with directions from the project website. Oral histories, local musical sound bites, found sound, and environmental noise play on the car radio as the landscape emerges anew. Invisible-5 occupies an interstitial space between travelogue cinema and radio guide for the present, combining a choreographic, traveling body with histories of mobile media spectatorship so that the artwork makes use of embodied sensation to remap the sensible environment.
Where Ukeles’s combination of liveness and mediation in Marrying the Barges is bound to viewers’ architectural experiences of space and place as rendered by the artist, and therefore allows viewers to experience the liveness of Barge Ballet as a distinct part of the work, Invisible-5 imagines a more quickly mobile viewer whose experience of liveness and mediation are inseparable. In this artwork, the spectator emerges as a mostly self-directed choreographic body, moving along the highway and engaging in remediation of the landscape and environmental history. Traveling with Invisible-5 mirrors the spectatorial travelers of early travelogue cinema, not only because travelogues (and cinema more broadly) grew out of modern experiences of travel, but also because travelogue cinema heightened the experience of travel (Bruno 2002, 17; Gunning 2006, 38). This indicates that the relationship between live experiences of travel and their mediated counterparts does not progress unidirectionally from travel to travelogue, but instead traverses planes of sensation as the combination of live and mediated experience propels the spectator/viewer through California environmental history. The bidirectionality of cinema and travel recalls Eisenstein’s theorization of cinematic spectatorship in relation to travel, as Marrying the Barges emphasizes. The artists and communities involved with Invisible-5 hope this engagement leads to environmental justice activism, as links on the Invisible-5 website direct visitors to resources about environmental justice initiatives in California.
The narratives Invisible-5 reveals to its public are tied to environmental awareness of local toxic waste sites, water access, air pollution, soil contamination, groundwater pollution, and environmental racism. The narratives are, on the surface, about environmental and community destruction. However, listening to the oral histories reveals stories of community persistence, activism, and environmental justice. In this, Invisible-5 is a collection of feminist accounts of local endeavors to advance environmental justice through collectivity. One significant example is Juana and Ricardo Gutiérrez’s narrative from Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. For more than forty years, Juana Gutiérrez has been active in organizing the Mothers of East Los Angeles (MELA-SI) who “fight against projects like toxic facilities intended for East LA, including plans to site a ‘waste-to-energy’ municipal garbage incinerator—the Los Angeles City Energy Recovery project (LANCER)” (Balkin et al. n.d.). Further along the route, the audience encounters Alpaugh, an agricultural community that “has been perceived as a convenient place to site polluting industries since the 1970s, when the Western Farms West Isle Production Plant was built there” (Balkin et al. n.d.). As Invisible-5 explains, in 1990, the Alpaugh community was slated as a new site for a waste incineration plant and successfully resisted. In 2002, when Alpaugh underwent a water crisis due to well contamination with arsenic, “the community came together to address the failure of the old water infrastructure, high water rates, contaminated drinking water, and a lack of community representation on the local water board. [Sandra] Meraz and the community-based Committee for a Better Alpaugh went to the media and helped rally local advocacy organizations to apply pressure on the local and state government for fair water access” (Balkin et al. n.d.). Once again, their community activism led to success—Alpaugh received “a new well and new infrastructure . . . in 2004” (Balkin et al. n.d.).
How might these narratives and sounds of environmental histories that are live and mediated work for the Invisible-5 audience? Giuliana Bruno accounts for the experience of travel through a mode of spectatorship she calls site-seeing. “When we speak of site-seeing we imply that, because of a film’s spatio-corporeal mobilization, the spectator is rather a voyageur, a passenger who traverses a haptic, emotive terrain. Through this shift, my aim is to reclaim emotion and to argue from the position of a film voyâgeuse, for the haptic as a feminist strategy of reading space” (Bruno 2002, 16). For Bruno, the mobile spectator arises from modernity: “On the eve of the invention of cinema, a network of architectural forms produced a new spatio-visuality. Arcades, railways, department stores, and exhibition halls, among others, incarnated the new geography of modernity. They were all sites of transit. Mobility—a form of cinematics—was the essence of these new architectures. By changing the relation between spatial perception and bodily motion, the architectures of transit prepared the ground for the invention of the moving image—an outcome of the age of travel culture and the very epitome of modernity” (Bruno 1997, 11). The voyâgeuse is the site-seer of Invisible-5, a spectator who travels along the interstate, listening to their programmed radio, refashioning geographies and reconstituting landscape histories.
While traveling and listening to Invisible-5, the phantasm of the cinematic travelogue emerges, moving from cinematic sensation to travel lecture and back. Bruno explains the travelogue’s multiple identities as a “technology of amusement—a mixed language of spectacularly wide range—cinema inherits from the travel lecture the socio-cultural function of providing spectators with a psychic voyage in and through space. Architecture acts as the motor force of this imaginative flight. Not only were travel lectures illustrated by images of sites, first as lantern slides and then as movies; the sites themselves were often architecturally reconstructed to be experienced in spatial form by the audience” (Bruno 2002, 117). Such a mixture of cinematic, educational, architectural, and mobile formations also links to Ukeles’s Barge Ballet because it features an architectural journey that also propels viewers to other sites.
However, the more swiftly mobile spectator of Invisible-5 is also gripped by a different experience of time and landscape due to mediation’s interaction with the speed of automotive travel. Tom Gunning describes the process through which cinema spectators experienced landscapes anew, in heightened fashion, through silent travelogue cinema—another form of mediated travel reliant on the new speed of modern life: “The viewer of travel films is not simply a surrogate of the tourist, seeking the ersatz of the traveler’s original experience. . . . For instance, the mediation of the cinematic apparatus allows viewpoints not available to the tourist. A 1903 Edison description for Phantom Ride on the Canadian Pacific points out that the view taken from the front of the train running at high speed is one that ‘even tourists riding over the line are not privileged to enjoy’” (Gunning 2006, 38). While most spectators are traveling as they take in Invisible-5 in a way that travelogue spectators are not, mediation does more than double the experience of travel—it works alongside liveness to amplify the sensorial perception of embodied travel to locations that would ordinarily zip by on the highway.
Sound also plays a significant role in Invisible-5—especially as it interacts with histories and theories about listening to the car radio. Here, Thomas Porcello’s new portmanteau from Steven Feld’s acoustemology, which describes ways of knowing through sound, with the addition of techno-, introduces techoustemology. Techoustemology accounts for mediation in a way that acoustemology alone does not. Lucas Bessire and Daniel Fisher put it this way: “Both Feld and Porcello argue that forms of knowing about sound are culture and place specific and that the phenomenology of hearing is shaped by culturally specific acoustic epistemologies. Further, for Porcello, technological mediation impacts these acoustic epistemologies. Porcello proposes that it is not possible to disentangle people’s knowledge, interpretation, and experiences of technologically produced sound from their knowledge, interpretation, and experiences of the technology that produces it” (Vidali-Spitulnik 2020, 253). As such, the sensory entanglements of listening and moving through space and time that Invisible-5 evokes are inseparable from how they are mediated through the car radio, which, as Karen Bijsterveld argues, produces an “acoustic cocoon” that functions as “a domain in which people experience privacy and relaxation because the interior acoustics of cars are pleasant and controllable” (Bijsterveld et al. 2014, 6). The car, then, is akin to an enclosed mobile theater in which the travelogue meets the radio, calling upon entangled ways of knowing that techoustemology grants as the audience is immersed in oral histories, environmental sounds, landscapes, and motion. The acoustic cocoon, calibrated for driver relaxation, allows the audience to bear witness to the oral histories Invisible-5 narrates, remapping environmental landscapes and infrastructures.
From choreocinema to the dance deck and the streets of San Francisco to New York City, feminist art and media practices have conceived of new ways to facilitate public engagement with environmental action on behalf of climate justice, revealing environmental infrastructures and histories that were invisible to its publics. Embedded in this genealogy is a history of how artists and media creators developed practices in relation to specific publics and how feminist artists explored bodily mediation in different environments. Feminist art strategies aimed not only to pique visual aesthetic interest but also, centrally, to involve the body as media. Here, art practices from dance to film provide a more robust sense of affective experience through the choreographic body.
Thanks to the ACLS/Mellon Sawyer Seminar faculty and coeditors of this special issue, Janet Walker, Mona Damluji, Stephan Miescher, Javiera Barandierán, and David Pellow, the Re-centering Energy Justice Collaborative, and the “Radical Bodies” seminar, conference, and museum exhibition trifecta for their wisdom, generosity, and inspiration. Special thanks to Sage Gerson, Nicky Rehnberg, and Jaime Leigh Gray for reading and commenting on drafts. Finally, thanks to Alexandra Keller for introducing me to many of these artists’ works, to Sarah Jane Pinkerton for introducing me to Invisible-5, and to Suk-Young Kim for encouraging me to pursue research in performance studies.
This methodological taxonomy is part of the organizing principles of Linda Weintraub’s To Life! Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet (2012).
See Bernhard Siegert’s (2015) work on bodily techniques for an elaboration of how the body is a cultural medium involved in quotidian gestures and rituals.
The term choreography expanded and developed in dance history, shifting from a narrower definition “to name the act of notating dances on paper using abstract symbols . . . [and] establish[ed] an innovative relationship among the body, space, and printed symbol” to one wider in scope that “can stipulate both the kinds of actions performed and their sequence or progression. Not exclusively authored by a single individual, choreography varies considerably in terms of how specific and detailed its plan of activity is” (Foster 2019).
Williams (1991) designates horror, melodrama, and pornography as “body genres.”
Since the histories of art and media practices are entwined, especially in the realm of the avant-garde, it is useful to note that there is disciplinary overlap between art history, performance studies, and dance studies. Beyond scholarly overlap, some of the practitioners I discuss themselves collaborated and traversed art practices that were often not their main area of artistic output. As Jackson puts it, “[It] is often the case that these experimental artists find themselves treading on the expert territory of other art fields. Performers find themselves becoming fabricators; body artists are learning the language of new media; introverted studio inhabitants have become extroverted site performers. In these contexts, the language of cross-arts collaboration means different things as projects integrate some art forms, revise other art forms, and often break from the traditions of their own art practice by resuscitating the art traditions of others” (Jackson 2011, 13–14).
While Ukeles’s performances are commonly discussed in terms of feminism, she is rarely positioned in relation to dance. In the context of her work ballets, there is one book that treats them in great detail. Dance history and theory are not at the fore in that context; however, the book is an invaluable resource and an excellent scholarly contribution (see Conte 2015, 9–16).
Sarah Keller also points to Deren’s use of slow motion in this segment of At Land.
Eisenstein is an apt theorist to consider alongside Deren, for they share a somewhat similar background as Russian-born (Soviet in Eisenstein’s case and Ukrainian in Deren’s), Jewish filmmakers and theorists interested in medium specificity, rhythm, sound, movement, and montage. The sound and image cutting in the stair sequences of Meshes of the Afternoon, for which Deren added Teiji Ito’s soundtrack, was inspired by Eisenstein’s concept of rhythmic montage, whereby “editing and movement are accentuated by the rhythm of the soundtrack” (Haslem 2002, n.p.).
Labor is a central topic of performance studies scholarship. For example, see Jackson 2011, 2012; Klein and Kunst 2012; Lubin-Levy and Shvarts 2017.
Parades and Changes premiered during the same year that the notable Fluxus performance Cut Piece (1964) premiered in New York, featuring Yoko Ono. Ono invited audience members to cut away pieces of her clothing with scissors. Cut Piece premiered in Japan in 1964 and New York in 1965.
For a selected list and full description of Halprin’s performances, see “Performances” n.d.
Notably, artists on the West Coast were also interested in issues concerning feminism and the environment. Prominent artist and activist Jo Hanson began San Francisco street sweeping public art at approximately the same time as Ukeles, and in the 1980s, she joined the NORCAL Sanitary Waste recycling and disposal company as their artist in residence—much as Ukeles came to work for the New York City Department of Sanitation in the late 1970s. I focus on Ukeles since her work is involved with choreographic bodies and their links to dance more so than Hanson’s was (Leibovitz Steinman n.d.).
Thanks to Emily Roehl for insight on Ukeles’s main museum-going public.
Ukeles’s public artwork with the New York City Sanitation Department continues today with a billboard exhibition at the Queens Museum, New York. In For Forever (2020), the Queens Museum exterior wall that faces Grand Central Parkway displays the following letter in Ukeles’s handwriting: “Dear Service Worker, ‘Thank you for keeping NYC alive!’ for forever . . . .” The text also appears on digital screens on the MTA subway system and on a digital billboard at 20 Times Square. Ukeles created the work as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. See “Mierle Laderman Ukeles, For Forever” n.d..
The notion of “healing the world” is a well-documented part of Ukeles’s art practice. For a recent example that makes this explicit, see Lagnado 2016.
The financial struggles of New York City at the time of Ukeles’s intervention are well known, and they are a primary reason that Ukeles ended up working as an unsalaried artist at the Department of Sanitation headquarters at all. “Ukeles notes that a review of the show [ART↔WORLD] by David Bourdon ended by joking that ‘perhaps the Sanitation Department could think of its work as performance art, and replace some of the budget, which had been cut, with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.’ . . . Ukeles sent this review to the Sanitation Commissioner and got a call asking, ‘How would you like to make art with 10,000 people?’” (Feldman 2008, 49).
Lawrence Halprin also developed architectural choreographies he referred to as “car choreography” and thought of his role as that of a “design choreographer,” drawing inspiration from Anna (Wasserman 2012, 40–41; see also Esperdy 2019, 219–29).
For the Invisible-5 map and directions in the north- or southbound directions, see the project website (Balkin et al. n.d.).
While automotive travel with sound from the car radio is the primary way the work was conceptualized for participants, that is not the only way to experience it. Petroleum is a major contributor to global warming, and in the spirit of the project’s commitment to energy justice, participants can opt to download the recordings on a computer or cell phone in lieu of taking a road trip.
Invisible-5 also aligns with histories of travel through cartography and the experience of place as presented to travelers through many types of maps that also brought geographic narratives into focus. For more information about maps and the history of travel, see Bruno 2002.
Many people may use their Android phone or iPhone to connect to the audio tour without cabling it into their car radio. I think the premise of the car radio still holds in that context when using a smartphone while driving, but there is often the addition of a GPS like Google Maps, which also orients the user geographically.