Interview by Sally Annett
April 30, 2020 in the forest of Panovec, Nova Gorica, Slovenia, an unrobed body lies face down, on the fallen trunk of an ancient tree. Arms stretched out in front, hair falling across wood and flesh. Jatun Risba (ki/kin) is performing the first act of Be-coming Tree. Instantly reminiscent of the work by Ana Mendieta’s ‘Corazón de Roca con Sangre’ (Rock Heart with Blood) from the 1975 Silhouette series, it is a piece which also involves a ritual, shamanistic, animist style of art practice which embeds and enmeshes the human body with natural landscape in a beautiful, contemplative yet slightly distanced or abstracted way.
This was a solitary live-streaming: a meditative, immersive hour where viewers were transported to this remote natural setting, with Risba. I interviewed Risba and the co-facilitators of the expanding Be-coming Tree events, Danielle Imara and O. Pen Be, exactly one year later, just after the fourth collective ‘Be-coming Tree’, now a quarterly annual event. This most recent Be-coming Tree took place on 24/04/2021 and simultaneously broadcast 36 ecoart performances across 6 continents and 22 countries and was a glorious celebratory ritual of humanity’s potential to co-create and connect with itself and Nature. Be-coming Tree makes this connection through a series of live, digitally transmitted, collective performances which occur seasonally. It is a real-time, simultaneously performed, cinematic/ moving image work; each cycle of the performances matching the seasons of the year; spring, summer, autumn and winter. It unites artists globally to experience a close entanglement with trees and be witnessed by a globally disseminated audience. It was led and created in 2020 by Risba, Imara and O. Pen Be, co-created with in excess of 71 artists in 32 countries over 6 continents at the point of writing.
As Elizabeth McTernan writes in her recent review of ‘Future Assembly’ for the Venice Biennale Architecture, “ future imaginaries must include the more-than-human – that which both includes and exceeds humanity. The more-than-human is the many entanglements of human existence with living and nonliving entities, all of which have a stake in the planet’s future”. Risba’s work ‘Be-coming Cow,’ a dialogical moving image piece, expresses this intention loudly, along with the sense of be-ing and be-coming a single, unifying fragment of an elemental background field.
Risba (age 34) describes kin practice as being that of a “ transmedia artist, sower of kinship and parrhesiast exploring beyond human paradigms … Risba re-pairs Nature and Culture.” There is a freedom in kin work which expresses this ethos very boldly. Imara (age 58) and O. Pen Be (age 73) both have backgrounds in combined arts practice with a focus on body work, dance and performing arts which pulls in strands of social, therapeutic, transgressive and devotional praxis. This body-centric practice has profound philosophical roots, which have evolved through study, personal crisis and extraordinary life experience. Imara, like Risba, has what Ghislaine Boddingtoncalls a “Long-term focus on the blending of our virtual and physical bodies”. Both are engaged in fluid temporalities and future digital and socio-psychological issues, including telematic and neuro-technical interfaces, and through which all our somatic forms and languages function, as part of an ‘entanglement’ full future. Connecting ourselves into a network, (Boddington again) a “ ‘multi-self,’ an ‘Internet of Bodies’ enabled by hyper-enhancement of the senses and tele-intuition.” Be-coming Tree expands this idea to include relation with all ‘kin’, human, animal, vegetable, mineral and spiritual, operating on a multitude of levels of ‘be-ing’ or supposed consciousness, but crucially interconnected. O. Pen Be works with the idea of the moving body as connector and witness and that these actions contain the possibilities for both sacred/ receptive and active/performative and roles and the sense of self, and that belief and identity can be scrutinized and developed for restorative purposes. All three facilitators are highly disciplined, exploratory and reflective in their approaches, using their corporeal structures as the most effective, vital and liberating medium in public and private space. Previous works like Risba’s trance dance interventions in urban spaces ‘Interesse’ (2015), Imara’s ‘Nina Silvert’s Tube’ (2011) and O. Pen Be’s startling response to COVID, ‘Touch Outlaws’ (2021) as part of IJAD’s Open OnlineTheatre hybrid performance festival (2021) all challenge nominan behavior in broad urban and domestic environs. Be-coming Tree invites participants and audience alike to work directly with the natural world, selecting a specific object/subject; in this case ‘Tree’ as co-performer.
These three ‘kin’; Risba, Imara and O. Pen Be, together have produced what they describe as a “Grass roots community, sharing and documenting close entanglement with trees and barefoot technology through collective, global, live-streamed events,” which, describes exactly the practical and logistical aspects of Be-coming Tree. What it does not capture is the intimacy and magic of the piece, the melding of differing forms of corporeality and technology to create a hybrid chimeric being, a ‘hive’ or collective, single act. It is a digital ritual, evolving hypnotically before your eyes and ears, yet just beyond your touch. Discussing the evolution of Be-coming Tree, in the current cultural zeitgeist(s), which is in some sense being driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the desire to be in communion with others and with the natural world is clear, and also that the public manifestation of this desire is being met, currently, through the Internet. It seems that enclaves and generations across the globe who have been steady but slow in their engagement with the digital world, perhaps only through a Skybox or Facebook, have realized that their domestic technologies can far exceed their utilitarian functions; that they are not passive screens, but connective, interactive portals to the whole of reality; physical, psychological, spiritual and divine.
Within the various silos of the art world this slow burn catch up is levelling out while people explore the new materials at hand and then focus back on another contemporary, arguably the most pressing, the environment. Particularly in the world of body-centred performance art and dance there has been a 180 degree rotation away from solely live, somatically present performance to generating sustainable, interactive, on-line ‘theatres’. Whilst there is still a sadness at the loss of close bodily proximity to an audience, the potential and reach of the web is vitalizing and developing existing genres of work for those of us privileged enough to have regular and high quality access to the internet. Never have human communications been so vast and encompassing.
There is an association with generational difference in the embracing of this new media, with the young’s usage of new digital knowledge (for those able globally to afford it) seemingly effortless, along with the realization that this new knowledge is process led and ever changing. For those that struggle with the TV remote control this can seem a hopeless wilderness, for which there is no time to learn the new. COVID-19 has changed this, there has been both the time and the necessity to upskill, and the Be-coming Tree facilitators, live artists and audiences are a model of intergenerational practice spanning 3 generational intervals. Our previous ease of geographical movement and physical contact has been removed and replaced by digital freedom and mainframe intercourse. Those who had not engaged in the hundreds of thousands of on-line communities out there in the webs, have begun to do so with a great deal of excitement and energy. Artists and collectives have been working ‘on-line’ for five decades, the first (arguably) telematic work ‘The Satellite Arts Project’ was developed , delivered and documented in 1977 by artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz although the phrase Telematics was initially used by Simon Nora and Alain Minc in The Computerization of Society. (1)
In 2020 Annie Abrahams and Susan Fucks produced, as a digital meme, an archive, which documents the history of online performance and the hard and software which supported it from the early 1980’s. It includes their work and that of artists like Boddington and Anne Bean, with scientifically, magically, socially and environmentally fused lived works, such as Bean’s ‘Come Hell or High Water,’ 2020, which also looks at a ‘calendar’ of collective events which comprise an annual whole and who have been pushing the boundaries of human techno and eco interactive performance since the 1908’s. The canon of female performance artists that includes Laurie Anderson, Adrian Piper and Marina Abramovic challenge stereotype and oppression through the use of archetypal form and (the) word. In the 1980’s and 90’s Starr Goode archived and recorded a series called, ‘The Goddess in Art’, which chronicled work by environmental, philosophical, theosophical and performance artists/activists such as StarHawk, Vicki Noble, Cheri Gaulke, Mayumi Oda and Barbara T.Smith (1960’s/70’s) as part of the early 1990’s revival of academic interest in their works.
These artists ride on the wave of permission to take up public space negotiated by women like Marjory Cameron and Ursula Le Guin in the post WW2 years, who hark back to female figures in history who feature only largely in literature and comparative religion from the perspective of empire and enlightenment. This is not to dismiss the work of the Land Art Movements; the symbiotic pieces and dialogical works of artists like Nancy Holt, Andy Goldsworthy or Richard Long, or politically affiliated organisations such as Greenpeace and X-tinction Rebellion, nor to continue to focus on gender and sex-based divides in contemporary practice. The work of Be-coming a Tree is part of a continuum which includes ecofeminists/ecoartists such as Marta Soriano and radical social artists like SpiderAlex, and which is ever broadening, ever ‘entangling’. However, a certain public/media unease or suspicion is evident when a female artist like Abramovic is pilloried in social media (2020) as a witch and/or Satanist (whatever that may be) for deeply spiritual, ecological, science and technology based work; the fear of the antinomian feminine remains clear.
These ‘silos’ of body and nature-related art works have historically been entirely bound up with the usage, barriers and luxuries of public and private space. COVID-19’s limitation of access to shared space and intimacy with others has been a fascinating experiment in social engineering where – by necessity – gathering in public places has been largely forbidden, movement of peoples constrained, loved ones lost and buried in separation. The intrusion into our private spaces is also unprecedented, and our ways of being, our personal and collective protocols and thinking radically altered. We have been largely compliant but only, possibly, because we have been supported by an ethernet of connectivity.
In Be-coming Tree we are witnessing a quiet new collaboration which is a commixture of land-art, performance art, dance and digital art which acknowledges the posthuman and transhuman and addresses our critical environmental tragedy head on, with each small step it takes towards creating a ritual for unity; it is eco-magical, socio-scientific and deeply sincere.
Risba, locked down in rural Slovenia, unable to return to London, was aware of those millions of people in flats, tower blocks and cities around the world who were in effect imprisoned and who had had their vital, if minimal connections with Nature severed. That the physical and psychological impacts on health and spirit are enormous, especially for young children is clear, and all three artists work with a schema of healing and therapeutic benefit through performance, movement and the physical senses. The Be-coming Tree team acknowledge having worked through health and spiritual crises and hold a depth of knowledge of meditative and philosophical traditions. This regenerative practice is developed further by the project to embrace the natural world; all ticket sales from the Be-coming Tree events go to the Tree Sisters organisation, each ticket equating to a tree planted in the Amazon Tropical forests. This internet collaboration is a form of environmental and health activism. It again shares the zeitgeist with the growing number of companies and collectives, like ‘Effective Altruism’, ’80,000 Hours’ and ‘Othernetworks.org’, who are working in very different manners but with the shared ambition to enhance global connectivity and community, and improve the efficacy of collaboration through the internet.
I was connected to the project by artist curator Rob La Frenais, (who also introduced Imara and Risba) as a performer in the second collective Be-coming Tree, and (with La Frenais) acted as the live blog respondent to the most recent, fourth ‘hive’ performance. The experience of viewer, performer and respondent is each completely different and immersive; as a performer you are almost introspective, engrossed in your own activity. As an audience member you can drift through and sit with pinned or multi-screens selecting what you view, knowing you will miss certain elements and allowing yourself to be led by individuals through the maze of panels, or hypnotized by the faceted screen. As respondent, engaging; trying to comprehend and describe the event and each actor within the whole was overwhelming.
The work is so rich in content, meaning and hope, additionally it would be almost impossible to watch the over 120 hours of performance footage in an analogue sitting. It is a fantastical myriad of international players, each interacting with and ‘Be-coming Tree’ bringing a particular body, a vital energy and weaving a particularly soulful imagining towards the futurtopia we must build.
To see the performances and discover more about Be-coming Tree go to : https://becomingtree.live/
The entire live response to Be-coming Tree 4 part 1 can be read here :
1) Simon Nora and Alain Minc, The Computerization of Society (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1980): 4-5.
Ascott, Roy. (2003). Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness. (Ed.) Edward A. Shanken. Berkeley, CA:University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-21803-1
Carl Eugene Loeffler and Roy Ascott, Chronology and Working Survey of Select Communications Activity in Leonardo (Journal of Leonardo/ISAST, the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology), vol. 24, N° 2, 1991, p. 236.
Parrhesiast : a person who speaks freely and boldly.
Association ATELIER MELUSINE 4 Rue de Trupet France 86290
Open Call for Artists
(Top image: Risba as part of Be-Coming Tree 2020. Slovenia.)
ecoartapace was conceived in 1997 by Patricia Watts in Los Angeles. In 1999, Watts partnered with east coast curator Amy Lipton, operating as a nonprofit under the umbrella of SEE, the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs in California. 2019 marked twenty years that Watts and Lipton have curated art and ecology programs, participating on panels and giving lectures internationally. Combined, they have curated over sixty art and ecology exhibitions, many outdoors in collaboration with artists creating site-specific works. They have worked with over one thousand artists from across the United States, and some internationally. Starting 2020, ecoartspace became an LLC membership organization based out of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
A project of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs since 1999
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