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Disappearing Act: 

Technology, Creativity and Climate Empathy

in the work of Jody Sperling and Time Lapse Dance

by Keira Mayo


          A dancer, with arms that extend beyond her finger tips, uses a slight bend at the waist for momentum and sweeps her arms below the hip and then overhead. In profile, it’s as if the arms move to form an expansive ‘S.’ The ‘S’ marks a path for the billowing silk fabric of the costume to follow behind, as if a ripple in a disturbed puddle. I describe this movement and its accompanying movement vocabulary employed during Time Lapse Dance’s (TLD) “Melting Ice/Changing Wind” as a technology of appearances. Technology, Jody Sperling reminds us, can be “anything” depending on how you look at it. Etymologically, technology carries a meaning of divine communication regarding or the study of (logia) art or craftsmanship (tekchne). Sperling expresses that her choreography and TLD’s movements are a “kind of technology” that has been created or “invented” throughout her historical, geological, and aesthetic research endeavours. If one were to study this craft through the lens of appearance, they might remark on the appearance of the silk -whether as costume or doubling as costume and projection screen- as unavoidably present. Further, the dancers appear and disappear as they move through angled lighting, their own silks, and the silks of other dancers. An appearance is also illusive: the intermingling of dancers with black and white costumes creates an illusion of negative space that alters depth and shape perception. Considering this movement-technology as a kind of study in appearances allows for, I forward, a reconfiguration of dominant understandings of “environment” and increases the opportunity for developing empathetic relationships with the environment (an expressed goal of Sperling’s body of work).

          An empathetic relationship asks us to share the feelings of others; often this sort of understanding can be achieved by extending ourselves into the situation of another. Through the extension, we can substitute ourselves as the actor, agent, or object of an event. This is not to say empathy operates in this way exclusively, but it points to some reasons why empathetic relationships are difficult and selective. In conversation with Sperling, we asked specifically about the role of non-human collaborators and, in this work (as seen in a variety of ecofeminist philosophies), empathy is a key component of an ethics of care. For Sperling, this care is extended to the ice with and on which she danced, “I was really trying to listen. What is the environment saying? What are the forces at play here? [...]If I can echo those and somebody sees me, does that give somebody a little more of a connection to this place?” Perhaps through this connection a sense of extension or substitution can be cultivated. 

          Extension and substitution, however, must be understood beyond a clean cut-and-paste operation. Firstly, there will always be an alteration during substitution (and Homi Bhaha’s The Location of Culture told us this in the 1980’s), it is always imperfect, far from seamless, and never 1-to-1. Through the process of extending ourselves, we are transformed. Through the process of extending the dancers body, she is transformed. The size and expanse of the costumes and apparatuses used by Sperling and TLD produce shapes that an unextended human body could not make. However, this shape-making is not an individual project; rather, the dancer collaborates with both costume and environment (though perhaps the costume is part of the environment), and “because it [the costume] is moving through air, it assumes the same patterns of turbulence that you see. It moves in a way that’s evocative of things outside of itself.” The costume disrupts the air but is also bound to its forces. As the fabric winds through air, its wave-like motions make visible the otherwise invisible air flow patterns. The fabric extends beyond itself as fabric and can be perceived as air flows.

          This extension of perception from fabric to air is but one direction of representational or perceptible substitutional flow. There is, I forward, at least a second direction of movement toward the dancer. Through the apparatus and costume, the normatively understood dancing body is altered: its dimensions change, its weight increases, its ability to move is influenced by different forces…even if only slightly. With these changes there follows a new series of tendencies for interacting with the world through movement. For example, it becomes more difficult to roll on the ground or more tempting to sweep the arms wider. Moreover, this specific S-shaped movement known as the Houdini creates a disappearing act. The dancer vanishes within the ripples of fabric as it collides with the air; suddenly, she is gone. Consumed by the effects of her movement for a moment, as quickly as she left she returns only to disappear again. With each coming and going is a sonic smack as the silks release two belaboured exhales when displacing the surrounding air. Smack, and the dancer vanishes; smack, and the dancer reappears. Engulfed by the silk, the dancer -if only momentarily- becomes the silk (or perhaps, if you prefer not to go that far, is “upstaged” by it). Thus, a second flow of substitution: if the silk displaces the air, and the dancer is consumed by the silk, then as dancer merges with silk she so too substitutes the air itself. 

            Though I come to this question retroactively, I am moved to ask after further actions that will engulf, consume, or destroy the figure of the human body. This question then ripples beyond the figure: what actions will be and are responsible for engulfing the actual human? The draught and its fires, the heat and its volatile air flow, the flood and its rising sea level both over and underwhelm the news cycle. The “whelming” is perhaps neither new nor shocking for some -and while I would underline that our division and ordering of time is constructed with human production and labour in mind, the moment at which one comes to reconfigure their relationship to the environment is simultaneously and paradoxically beside the point and its epicenter. What do I mean by this? On the one hand, the current state of the environment required active alterations to the human lifestyle in 1980, particularly as it relates to resource extraction, refinement, and transport. On the other hand, the “natural world” is not an individual issue, nor is it exclusively a human issue. In this respect, it is “too late” and this does not mean there is nothing to be done and no action to be taken. 

          In the last two decades, within scholarship there has come an increased interest in utopia and futurity. What will happen next? Though I remain a sharp critic of much of the writing on utopia (a topic for a longer rumination), I am routinely swung in and out of my critical pessimism by those who have used and continue to use a hopeful future-oriented praxis, particularly in their art-making and performance work. Perhaps from a place of critical pessimism, perhaps from a place of anxiety, we asked Sperling if she thinks that climate change is going to cause the end of human life. Though the performance work of Sperling and TLD creates a somber affect, Sperling exudes vibrant energy and urgency punctuated by laughter and articulated from a position of “realistic” positivity. “What seems more likely is that it [climate change] is going to cause the end of a lot of human life,” where Sperling aptly reminds us of the propensity toward “life-boat ethics” when allocating resources, empathy, and care. Bleak as this may be, Sperling suggests that the key is “keeping morale up” because the myriad challenges to environment justice “can be heavy,” frustrating, and exhausting. Echoing an earlier conversation with Joey De Jesus (“What else is there to live for?”) Sperling asks “what are you living for? I don’t view the arts as a luxury,” rather a point of common connection: “I think that people feel really passionately about the dance that they do or see and are moved. Art is something that we all ‘do.’”

          Perhaps this shared doing of art, regardless of the form it may take, could become that which engulfs and consumes. In this light, the disappearing act of the dancer or mover (or “human” more generally) might be read more hopefully: creativity, Sperling suggests, “is fundamental for every aspect of human existence.” Further, creativity is critical, “It’s critical for science. It’s critical for law and policy. And for its own sake; for artistic expression, appreciation, and entertainment.” If creativity could be understood as a shared critical methodology, doing, or action that fostered an affect of appreciation, enjoyment, and fulfilment, then maybe it could be seen as a pleasure to be consumed by it. So, while we could read the disappearing act of the dancer behind their apparatus and costume as a comment on the perseverance of matter (Earth’s vast geobiosphere could, and likely will, outlast human consciousness), we could instead reread these movements as a willingness to be consumed by creativity. Importantly, a willingness to be consumed by creativity is not a call to produce art in a vacuum, nor would such a consumption be immune to the very “evils” or ideologies that have brought about climate change (and other interconnected global crises) to begin with. 

Images, in order:

photo copyright 2013, Jody Sperling

Toulouse-Lautrec, The Wheel, Loïe Fuller, 1893

Reviewing footage. photo copyright 2014, Pierre Coupel

Photo copyright 2014, Pierre Coupel

photo copyright 2014, Pierre Coupel

Time Lapse Dance dancers. From left to right: Alex Bittner (in shadows), Carly Cerasuolo (hidden), Nyemah Stuart (center), Morgan Bontz, Jenny Campbell. Photo by Annie Drew.

Healy Process 1.jpg
Jody Dancing.jpg
Loie Fuller image 2.jpg
Healy Process 2.jpg
Relating to Ice 1.jpg
Ice Costume.jpg
Wind Rose.jpg

A+HRRA award summer 2023

The Summer 2023 Arts + Human Rights Research Award will be open to submissions this summer (approx. 14:51 UTC June 21 2023 - 06:50 UTC September 23rd 2023). The topic of the Summer 2023 A+HRRA is AI, Computer Logic, and Human Rights. 


th_Eroses, an arts publication, is awarding $100 for a work of artistic / literary research that addresses or concerns human rights in conjunction with this season's topic, AI, Computer Logic, and Human Rights. The term 'research' here is intended to indicate the process of creation, exploration, and discovery, rather than the compiling of archival facts and/or materials, although the compiling of archival facts and/or materials may be a part of the process of exploration and discovery, or a part of the process of shaping the path or direction of discovery. This is intended to be an open-ended premise, to support the range of work that may occur in artists' and writers' unique processes. 


From the UN: 


"What Are Human Rights? Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination."


Successful submissions may, but are not required to, focus on investigative, process-based exploration and material discovery. Successful submissions may couple rigorous (or subjective) analysis with documentation of investigative, process-based exploration and discovery. Submissions do not need to be factual; forms of literary fiction, subjective expression, abstraction, choreography, and/or non-narrative presentations will be considered as well. Submissions in all languages and media are welcomed. 


The goal of this award is to amplify artistic voices that inquisitively and critically approach the pressing issues of our time, to create a habitat where a unique form of creative journalism can thrive, and to provide th_Eroses readers with artistic / literary insights into key issues.


Please note: If your work is submitted and selected for the award, you consent to the publication of your submitted work by th_Eroses now and in the future. Not all submissions will win the award; there may be one submission chosen, or multiple submissions, or none of the submissions. Selected submissions will receive an email of acceptance and next steps. 


Please submit work to with "Entry: Arts + Human Rights Research Award" in the subject line.

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