Lead Editor’s note: We will be publishing excerpts from Q18: dis/sustain/ability, guest edited by Bronwyn Preece, in order to make the content accessible to blind readers with audio screen readers. We’ll also be including audio descriptions of the Quarterly’s original layout designed by Stephanie Plenner, audio described. Please stay tuned for future posts and share widely. In this chapter, Stephanie Heit and Petra Kuppers embody a discussion of creative practice as self-care.
Tendings: Creative Practice as Self-Care
by Stephanie Heit and Petra Kuppers
In this essay, we share our ongoing joint practices of tending, collaborating, and being in place. We initially developed these practices out of the curriculum of Body and Earth by Andrea Olsen, which combines experiential anatomy, eco-specific investigations, somatic exercises, and writing. We began these tending practices in May 2015 while at Playa Artist Residency in Oregon and have continued them in our homebase of Ann Arbor, Michigan and during 2016 in multiple residencies, from Vandaler Forening in Oslo, Norway to The Thicket Artist Residency on a Georgia barrier island. The work connects us to the environments we are in; tunes us into our own bodyminds and their shifting states; tends our individual selves, our relationship and our surroundings; and nurtures our personal creative projects and Olimpias work  within a laboratory of open attention. The practices’ sustainability relies on our own flexibility and creativity to meet the day’s needs: shifting a movement exercise from standing to lying down to accommodate pain, narrating prompts to support concentration and reading difficulties, and adapting an exercise that calls for swimming in a lake to a bathtub or pool when it is freezing outside. These ‘tendings’ cultivate ongoing creative self-care and create a framework that extends to stewardship of self, interdependence, community, and the environment.
Stephanie: Our tendings reside within shifting locations as travel, performance engagements, and artist residencies change our locations. I live with bipolar disorder and my stability relies upon routine. Intensive travel and change, though exciting, can often be a challenge and disruptive to my equilibrium. Each new place I work to establish a nest and connect to the ground. I unpack my things (if we are in a place for a stretch) and familiarize myself with the layout of the space. Find where I feel comfortable, where I want to write. The tending practices help me transition from here to there, which may mean a new time zone, slant of light, ecosystem, temperature, as well as exhaustion from long travel days that deplete me and demand recovery time.
Lying on the ground and feeling grass blades on my ankles and neck as Petra traces my outline with her feet and cane, I tune into the specific breathing of the wind, allow my rhythms to tune into the rhythms of my surroundings. These tendings we create and adapt to hold each other in changeable states and to witness and hold the land in which we are visitors. The invitation to feel the cellular exchange – inside to outside, outside to inside – is permission to be however we are. I can be tired while Petra is charged after a productive morning, and the muskrat swims in sleek V’s across the pond. I’m able to lean into the care offered through connecting with Petra, perhaps in palpating each other’s feet bones giving way to a juicy foot massage, and heightening my awareness through engaging with the oak tree, shoreline, wood mossy floor. This multiple focus that includes and extends beyond, often gives way to shifts – tiredness may lessen after falling into a deep snooze while listening to red-winged blackbirds. There is tending in this creative gesture of interaction and witnessing, in paying attention to both strength and fragility.
Petra: In many ways, the availability of travel is still a miracle to me: as a disabled woman and wheelchair user, one of my fears (grounded in the reality of living in a non-accessible world) is being stuck, not being able to move, for pain, for wheelchair-inaccessible environments with stairs and thresholds. In ridiculous overcompensation, my life-path has been one of mobility, one that leaves me without a mortgage or permanent home, and one that means that I have a decade-long practice of taking occasional leave from my university to go gallivanting. But travel is not good news for stressed environments, and I know the ecological impacts of flights, and try to be mindful in my choices.
Disability access still sucks, everywhere. My embedment in the privilege of white and child-free academia allows me funds to overcome barriers. And love, of course. The love of my partner, my friends, my Olimpias artist collective collaborators, all the many people with whom we play and who open up their homes, their trucks, their knowledge of secret lakes to us. I am glad to travel these days mainly with my collaborator and romantic partner – Stephanie is the smallest connective web outside my own bodymindspirit, and we’re weaving our world together, two fragile women, queercrip travellers who help each other through challenges. A few years ago, I said no to the life of the gigging scholar/artist and the multitude of plastic hotel rooms I sat in after the last rehearsal or performance or dinner, lonely and disconnected. I am taking seriously the charge to build my performance career as a sustainable thing, through and with travel, and I can do so by leaning always toward and into connection.
After all the travel, the point of the exercise is to live a rich life everywhere, including at home. So after weeks of adjusting to the particulars of beds, paths, and dietary options, we get to play out our new sensoria in familiar surroundings, at home. Suddenly, it’s February, and we stretch and touch ice crystals on Michigan trees. We trace paths in the sand of a beach on Lake Michigan, careful not to slip on the snow. I remember how easy and free that movement felt when I had just climbed out of a hot tub in the Sierra Nevadas, my bodymind warm and my blood bathing my achy joints. The memory helps my swing in the cold crispness of our riverside park in Ann Arbor. And in turn, the delicacy of ice sculptures makes me see the abandon of the Floridian sea with new appreciation, makes me think about the fish out there, and their journeys, the pathways of so many creatures who circle around the earth.
Mover and Witness
Stephanie: We water dance in the Florida pool with its plunging deep end and Atlantic waves in ear distance pounding the shore. Sunday ‘snowbirds’ lounge in afternoon siesta. Petra and I enter the pool, one couple in the shallow end share the space. We employ a practice from Authentic Movement that has become a staple in our investigations; we witness each other for timed movement sessions, the mover with eyes closed. Petra submerges, her body fluid and grace as she buoys the depths, limbs waft and carve the surrounding water. There is ease and delight as she changes pace and twists her knees in alternating tightropes to the bottom, surfacing with arms reaching to sky, water droplets streaming. I witness aware of my own impulses, certain moves she makes that my body wants to try on, aware of the difference between watching underwater and above water. As witness, my job is also to keep Petra safe, to make sure she isn’t in danger of running into the cement side or into another swimmer (in this case a moot concern as we now have the pool to ourselves). After five minutes we change roles, and I explore water’s range, lean into the sensation of held breath, bubbles out my nose as I go down, and the sweetness of inhale only to go under again. I enjoy the slight disorientation with my eyes closed, the lessened gravity and ability to freely go upside down and flip in ways uncomfortable to me on land. We do a couple more rounds and both comment on how much fun this is and wonder why we didn’t start sooner.
Our water dances are not ‘performed’ with an audience in mind. In this case, we did have some onlookers from the pool: found audience members. But usually it is simply Petra and myself in nature with many non-human participants such as birds, gecko, unfurling fern. At times, we are witnessed by the occasional human, such as the odd straggler who walks by while we are in our local botanical garden dancing with a young sapling on a trail. We are not in rehearsal for a presentation. The focus is on awareness in the moment, not on product.
Nourishment and Manifestation
Petra: Our tendings provide nourishment for ourselves, for our relationship, for our engagement with our environment. And they also lead us toward manifestation. New audiencing procedures emerge from our tending practice. I am learning more and more about and through somatic writing, writing that accompanies bodily sensation. So after our daily five-minute dances in water, we trek home to the apartment, and take out notebook or computer. Freewrite time. Stephanie writes somatic vignettes which she later mines into poems. I am currently engaged in a fiction apprenticeship: I track my somatic states by pushing them into narrative scenarios. She writes about the raccoons swimming across the tidal channel in a straight line, making us laugh with their little white ears sticking up. In the same freewriting timeslot, I write about a group of women engaged in an aquafitness session in the long tidal zone of the beach — shallow waters with low breakers –marching together and finding each their own challenge and blessing in the sea. Both productions are nourished by the freedom of sensing, listening, smelling, tasting, touching in open form engagement with the elements of site.
There are other manifestations of our practices. In December 2016, we sent out an invite for an Olimpias action on the beach at Jupiter, Florida. This was our call, put out on social media:
We’re going to have an Olimpias sound improvisation score on the beach, honoring the passing of experimental sound artist and queer elder Pauline Oliveros. Since Katy Peterson, Stephanie Heit and Petra Kuppers set this in motion, the tragedy in Oakland happened , so we’re also holding space to mourn the electronic musicians, dancers and lovers who died in the Ghost Ship. If you want to join us, with instruments, moving bodies, voices, or just your presence, just message. Action followed by an early dinner together. Free, dinner will be subsidized if you need it, let us know if you need particular access provisions as that will shape where we’ll meet exactly.
This was tending in a larger frame. We listened together, and then performed an open score improvisation in the rhythm of the waves crashing into the sand and rocks of Coral Cove State Park. In our ear was the chatter of a group of young students who visited the site with a warden, the susurration of wind on sand, the roiling of water lapping over itself in the hollows of the sandstone rocks, the (to us) non-audible sounds of conspicuous chiton mollusks who clung to rock niches, moving in non-human time. Out of these moments of deep listening, we created a song we sent outward, to help and honor the path of familiar creative spirits far away, into the hollows, toward the horizon.
Moment Awareness and Sustainability
These are some examples of public manifestations of our private, ongoing, everyday practices of tendings: writings, participatory actions, little calls to attention, shifts in bodyminds, through the sound practices of poetry, through the somatic engagement of performance workshops, through the narrative drives of fiction.
Our first impetus is the moment itself. Our tendings are moment awareness work that nourishes attention and tends our senses. We hold space for the Open. We also pay attention to our avenues toward manifestation outside our private sphere. Our collaborative practice is sustainable as a partnership through differentiation as much as through collaboration. Each of us creates our own responses to the communally held actions, and, individually and communally, we find our audiences. Being in these flows, open creation and focused manifestation, nourishment and production, are the vital energies of our personal thriving.
We live well when we swim, roll, dive and float. And we feel better when we find points of connection between our private play in the land and water and the wider world around us, a sociopolitical world that needs to see joy, embedment, disabled people finding their grace, and reaching out toward others to sit on the beach together, listening.
Stephanie Heit is a poet, dancer, and teacher of somatic writing, Contemplative Dance Practice, and Kundalini Yoga. She lives with bipolar disorder and is a member of the Olimpias, an international disability performance collective. The Color She Gave Gravity (The Operating System 2017) is her debut poetry collection, and her work most recently appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Typo, Streetnotes, Nerve Lantern, Queer Disability Anthology, Spoon Knife Anthology, Theatre Topics, and Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance. She has been awarded residencies at Vandaler Forening in Oslo, Norway; The Thicket in Darien, Georgia; Tasmania College of the Arts and Parramatta Artists Studio in Australia. www.stephanieheitpoetry.wordpress.com
Petra Kuppers is a disability culture activist, a community performance artist, and a Professor at the University of Michigan. She also teaches on the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts at Goddard College. She leads The Olimpias, a performance research collective (www.olimpias.org). Her Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape (2011) explores arts-based research methods. Her Studying Disability Arts and Culture: An Introduction (2014) is full of practical exercises for classrooms and studios. Her most recent poetry book is PearlStitch (2016). She has recently been awarded residencies at Vandaler Forening in Oslo, Norway; The Thicket in Darien, Georgia; Surel’s Place in Boise, Idaho; Tasmania College of the Arts and Parramatta Artists Studio in Australia.
Queer Crip Speculative Fiction (Apprentice) site:
- The Olimpias has a long history of community art practice with disabled people in water, on land, in site-specific explorations. For more information about the Olimpias, see Kuppers, 2014, and, more recently, about the Salamander Project of underwater explorations, see Kuppers (2015 and forthcoming) and Karp and Block (forthcoming). See also Kafer about Olimpias minor outdoor actions in nature (2013: 143/44)
- A house fire on Dec. 2, 2016 at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland killed 36 people during an underground electronic music show. The resulting discussions highlighted the struggles of many people, including artists, in finding affordable and safe housing in gentrifying cities.
Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Karp, P. & Block P. (in press) We Float Together: Immersing OT Students in the Salamander Project. In Occupation Based Social Inclusion. (Eds. Brueggen, H., Kantartzis, S., and Pollard, N. Whiting and Birch, London, UK.
Kuppers, Petra. “‘Swimming with the Salamander: A community eco-performance project’ Performing Ethos, 5, no. 1/2 (2015): 119-135.
Kuppers, Petra. “Writing with the Salamander: An Ecopoetic Community Performance Project.” Field Works: Essays on Ecopoetics. University of Iowa Press, forthcoming.
Kuppers, Petra. Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape. Harmondsworth: Palgrave, 2014.
Olsen, Andrea; Bill McKibben, fwd., Caryn McHose: Body and Earth: An Experiential Guide. Middlebury, 2002.