You invited the children to make nametags with your childhood art teacher. You gathered seven thousand and assembled them to read, love thy neighbor.
You responded to requests that had been conditioned out of us when we were younger than these children. Such as, let me wear more sequins, doilies––dolls, too! Such as, why can’t my Tuesday skin be a pelt of dyed furs? Such as, I want to put that gramophone on my head! And tomorrow, may I wear only living birds.
Let the wild things out, you implored, let’s have a rumpus! Then, you dressed your dancers with the care and intention of the samurai preparing for battle.
When you called us together, I thought I loved my neighbor well enough, but my gestures were anemic. I only knew this when you dressed me in a costume of inflatable lawn ornaments, and my neighbor in a rainbow of Fraggle Rock fur, and invited us to dance.
You amplified the drums and brought others in, and we threw our arms wider in our spinning, to compensate for the weight and momentum of our fabulous suits.
Love louder, you sing, louder now––all in!
Inspired by the purpose-driven work of Chicago-based artist Nick Cave, who is best known for his soundsuits.
In the streets, as the bells tolled, the pilgrims took to dancing. They claimed they could not stop. When asked why, they said it was St. John. Some suspected the culprit was a spider.
Imagination, after all, has diverse needs. Among these is enaction of beliefs, known and unknown, inherited and adopted. Perhaps there was some collective recognition of the allure of what was forbidden. Maybe it was a rejection of the certainty professed by the self-proclaimed experts of the unseen. How could there be such neat categories for the unknown, and what was a body to make, really, of the smug certainty of those pious pillars of chastity claiming to know all?
Every ritual is a cosmology enacted and here comes a sudden ambivalence between order and disorder. Birth, after all, was very messy, and yet commonly described in deceptively banal terms: who was born, who gave birth, in the time of whose birth. These easy phrases tend to obscure the body’s radical passage from imminence to transcendence, and the terror of the vast labyrinth of possibilities that open when this is considered.
No, no. This was deemed too much. It was easier, many believed, to call for an exorcism, to blame a series of botched baptisms given by priests improperly purified of the weaknesses of the flesh. And of course, the spider, who as a weaver of intricate patterns in the air, had long been cause for suspicion among the high-minded guardians of propriety.
On this day in 1374, observers in the Rhine basin observed processions of pilgrims wandering from town to town in a display of what some described as “hysterical” dancing. This 2016 article describes this notable outbreak of “Dance Mania.” I am interested as much in the phenomenon itself as I am in the factors that led such behavior to be displayed, diagnosed, and chronicled.
Many faithful bodies keep holy days throughout the year, in which the day-to-day routine is replaced by a ritual or series of rituals, enacted in a manner designed to return the faithful to the spirit, via some transcendence. Outside of churches, mosques, and synagogues, you can find such abundant enthusiasms at football games, Sunday brunches, ritual meetings of friends, and ritual retreats in studio apartments. I know no other way to think of a creative practice but as an act of faith.
In this spirit comes the inaugural Sunday edition of these notes, in which we will rest and look for someone else to lead. Call it communion, a shared feast, or a chance to wear body paint and cheer for another artist, whose work breathes the transcendence that is as essential as any other basic need, and often more so. This is also the area where environmental hazards, left unchecked, tend to result in extreme malnourishment.
We may not know we are malnourished, slogging along in blind obedience to the dogma of individual production, forgetting all about the day of rest. But sometimes the sabbath comes knocking, and if we’re awake enough to get to the door, we can’t help but meet what will make us cheer, cry, laugh with relief, shouting hallelujahs of “Take Me to Church!” –– if only we look, listen, taste, smell; running our fingers against its jagged grain. Or, as I did when I watched this performance/talk/sermon by artist Bill T. Jones, be awed through a melting face. Does it add to the wonder to know he is the tenth of twelve children, whose parents were migrant workers? Or is it enough to simply know that he is managing to do what he does in this moment, in this environment, with this force and generosity? You decide.
I am doubly grateful because today, a beloved earthling artist shared this video with me in response to yesterday’s post in which one of us, left all alone, was moved by a sudden impulse to dance.
I cannot translate what he is doing here, and if I could, I would have to use only words once deemed too sacred to utter aloud. I was lifted and moved in ways as powerful as any of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had in any congregation. I will share only this line, which I think for any artist, might be counted as a sacred verse:
“Artists are always fighting the scriptures of their goddamned era! Am I allowed to say that?”
[answers his own question in dance]
The rest, I hope you will see for yourself. Thank you, Bill T. Jones, and the timing of your life, thank your parents; thank you, reader, and I love you for sharing what you see.