CEE | Center for Experimental Ethnography
A blog of the Center for Experimental Ethnography
privileging racial activation as a practice of anti-colonial embodiment and radical care
This month's featured research comes to us from Dahlia Li, a dancer, a scholar, and a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania. They work between performance, cinema and media studies, literature, critical race studies, feminist and queer theories, and continental philosophy. Their dissertation explores the emergence of stranded affect as an enabling psychic idiom of late 20th and early 21st century aesthetic productions that work through non normative corporealities and desires. They have presented and/or performed in pieces at Judson Dance Theatre (New York), Festival Danse Directe (Réveillon), The Venice Biennale (Venice), and OpenFLR (Florence), and maintain ongoing projects with collaborators in the U.S. and Europe. Additionally they are a certified Yoga Teacher and a death doula-in-training focusing on transnational and queer of color grief work.
by Dahlia Li
Throughout the spring and summer of 2022, I spent time doing ethnographic work with experimental Canadian Asian dance artist Be Heintzman Hope whose “Nurse Tree” project seeks to establish an alternative genealogy of care grounded in histories of radical BIPOC activism and alternatives to western medicine. Hope’s project overlaps with my own research into bodily ontologies for and histories of dance that dislodge movement from its inscription within the space of entertainment, nation making, and consumption to privilege racial activation as a practice of anti-colonial embodiment and radical care.
The now oft-circulated word “care” descends from loss rather than recovery. High German chara means lament, charon to grieve, and old norse kyr is the sickbed. Linguistic ancestry reveals care as the threshold upon which an affective experience of departure commences as the temporality of mortality overlaps that of liveness. “Self-care” begins appearing with higher frequency in the Anglo-speaking world in the 90’s, as medical professionals interested in preventative rather than interventionist models of health advocate for re-organizing daily life to ward off illness. Fitness and food pyramids promise insulation from a world whose geopolitics and scientific advancement cast the world as full of contagion, invasion, and takeover. By the 2000’s self-care taps into late 20th-century new-age mysticism where an enchantment with the forces of the unseen (and suspisciously “non-western” and “other” world of the supernatural, the Oriental, and the primitive sciences) map possibilities for developing the human body and self beyond the regimentations of time, space, and re-productivity wrought by advanced capitalist society. By the 2010’s self-care turns into its own lifestyle industry: skin-care, energy healers, cosmetics, and fitness produce the self as a commodity, a privileged space of retreat and a luxury item for those with enough resource to goop it up. Within this genealogy of both “self” and “care” what emerges are techniques the produce and reinforce an assailed subject whose practices of care allow one to transcend (or perhaps more simply, retreat) from the reality of human vulnerability, dependency, and mortality.
Canadian Asian experimental dance artist Be Heintzman Hope arrived at self-care through very different route. Massive hair loss and fatigue following their mother’s repeat encounters with cancer; exhaustion from training in contemporary dance school during the day and pole dancing at night to pay tuition; bouts with medical misogyny, transphobia, and racism; and the need to engaged with inherited bodily trauma as a fifth-generation of Chinese coolie rail workers led Hope to begin investigating ways contemporary dance technique could be more aligned with martial arts philosophies where bodily training functions as a way to re-balance the body’s energies in response to the stresses of daily life.
Hope and I first encountered each other in 2018 while looking for new ways contemporary dance might respond to longer histories of colonialism embedded in bodies and different scenes of spectatorship and the possible relations between on-stage/off-stage and scene/unseen that performance could create. As an extension of our ongoing collaboration, Hope invited me to help dramaturgically develop their 2023 “Nurse Tree” performance, which included a significant research process around de-colonizing the practice of body work. Our initial intention for the residency was to work with a group of trans and genderqueer bodyworkers in Montreal to practice share and develop a handbook of best practices and industry rates for bodywork. However, our discussions of how to price forms of health and wellness care not covered by insurance and commodified in superficial ways by a late 20th and 21st century self-care industry opened a much deeper and ongoing conversation around the queer body—and particularly the queer body of color—as a site of extraction, experiment, and abandonment in capitalist economies.
Through a series of guided meditations and movement workshops I led—based the psychoanalytic writings of Frantz Fanon and Didier Anzieu--we uncovered a social expanse that conversations around wage barely glimpsed. All of us had turned to our “wellness” practices (ranging from massage, tai chi, divination, acupuncture, yoga, qi gong, mother tongue re-acquisition, traditional Chinese medicine study, traditional indigenous practices) after certified medical doctors had been unable to treat a major illness. These illnesses were linked to intergenerational traumas or ailments and social duress, almost always emerging around family deaths or moments where normative gender comportments proved inadequate and violent. Repeatedly we found classificatory or categorizing words failed and were often marked by a kind of colonial disciplining: doctors had called us hysterical, named ailments merely “psychosomatic,” often the term for the particular plaint that was used within one’s family or community defied translation into English. The origin stories that surrounded our practices disturbingly reflected male and cis- fantasies of invention and genius that found contemporary continuity with gatekeeping practices we had all encountered in our study.
Our time together was cut short as Hope contracted COVID-19 and last-minute clients called other body workers away. I myself had to return to the states to prepare for the gauntlet of the academic job market and finishing a dissertation. A kind of work can happen when queer bodies of color—deeply invested in the techniques and practices of embodiment—convene and that work’s temporality grates, perhaps fleetingly rebels, against waged time and the racial capital that buttresses and distributes its laboring.
During the pandemic Hope and their partner, circus performer and media artist Baco, began creating a video series that queers the genre of the home workout video. “Poetics to Activate the Technology of the Body” opens with an image of a cyborg-like belly button and moves through a psychedelic images that, through intellectual montage, exist a post-industrial landscape. A soothing, ethereal and metallic soundtrack intercut with sounds of natural landscapes (ocean, birds, wind) accompanies the images eventually leading to a distorted voice that guides listeners through a breathing exercise. In Film Studies a “body genre” describes moving image productions that have an effect on an audience’s body “catching the body in the grip of a sensation or emotion, making the body display a physical reaction.” What body genres in image, performance, and words can activate the necessary languages for feeling and durations necessary to stop us from, in Hope’s words “[resenting] the air that you breathe?”
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