running, walking, standing: A Conversation with Mia Habib
Laurel McLaughlin with Mia Habib
Photo: Yaniv Cohen
Sitting with Mia Habib at Tiny’s Coffee near PICA, she tells me about ALL – a physical poem of protest. As she speaks, her curved gesticulations at one point embody the circle that she tells me is the operative choreographic shape of the work, and her voice automatically tunes to the background music—incrementally louder when the shop was rocking out, and settling quietly when languorous vibrations took over—micro-adjusting based on environment and people. These seemingly everyday gestures of sociality actually compose the real-time negotiations at the crux of Habib’s choreography. And in our conversation, I liked to think that perhaps these performative movements opened an iota of the bodily “micro-politics” of running, walking, and standing amongst the community performers in ALL – a physical poem of protest.
LM: At TBA19, you’re presenting ALL – a physical poem of protest at TBA:19 in collaboration with Shantelle Courvoisier Jackson, Tommy Noonan, and the Portland-based artist collective Physical Education. How did this this work come about, and how has it manifested in other spaces?
MH: The work originates from another work that premiered in 2015 named A song to…, where we worked with 16 professional dancers and 30 to 50 extras. So, we were about 60 people on stage. That piece for me, began when I was living in Tel Aviv when I was doing an MA in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. And this was at the same time when the Arab Spring started and the Occupy Movement began in the United States, and in southern Europe there were protests there as well. So, the summer of 2011, the protests started in Tel Aviv for social justice. It was a special moment because it was the first time that Israeli society openly said that they were positively influenced by the Arab world, and inspired to protest. So, people were out in the street and it was interesting to see how the protest turned into spectacle. And there was this belief that by being together and doing together, we can actually change something. There was this energy going on and I got interested in that energy created by the mass and bodies coming together in a physical space. This energy, then, is possible in a mass and is not possible with just a few bodies alone. I was fascinated in questioning what can a theater be, and then a performance, what space can that have when what’s going on outside is so powerful.
So, I started to work on a solo work at that moment, of trying to see how I could use what was going on with this energy that was going on outside and move it into a small theater. Then I was wondering how I can I find some ways of working with this that would create energy when the protests were over. That turned into something I called a mass solo, where basically it’s a solo that begins with one body in a two-space theater—there’s a stage and there’s an audience—and then it ends up being a one-space built-down theatre where the solo performer’s body is gone and the audience has taken over the performance. It’s called HEAD(s). With the terror attack on the 22nd of July in Norway, I saw these thousands of people coming together in public space and grieving, so I shifted my focus into the power of the mass, coming together in public space not only for protest, but the urgency to grieve together when the collective grief is, in a way, personal and collective, and they start to merge.
So, while working with the solo, I realized that for the next piece, I wanted to start with a mass on stage. That was the beginning, which led into A song to…, where I felt that a mass could be 16 dancers on stage. Then while we did some auditions, and at one point we had about 50 people running on stage, I was like, “Oh wow, we need at least 50 people to get this feeling that there could be hundreds or thousands more together.” These were the emerging points—the energy, the protesting body, and this ping-ponging between the singular and the mass—and this led us into thinking about the mass as being monumental.
It’s so big that somehow the human is erased, and it’s not about the nudity. The mass becomes abstract when you zoom out, it has a shape, then when you zoom in you see the different individuals. In the zooming out, it has this unifying, mass of lines and movement. The most unique we have is our bodies. The body is then like a projection screen where, through this repetition and ongoing insistence on this one score, for the audience there are many associations with which to travel when there are naked bodies, such as schools of fish, abstract lines, images of naked bodies—some of which aren’t pleasant historical images. But it’s this flow of association. In France when we did it, we had Kurdish female activists. And nudity there would’ve been an exclusionary choice. In some cases it makes more sense to be clothed, to be more inviting to more people. So, in looking at the monumentality of the mass, I also started to work on monumental body ideologies, and how these ideologies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, such as the New Soviet man, the New Jew in Zionism, the Übermensch in Nazism—they are these bodies that cannot be defeated. These ideologies that are coming back into focus. I think there is a way to touch these body images and crack them up somehow. There is a park in Oslo called the Vigeland Sculpture Park, and it opened in Norway during German Nazi occupation. It opened in the ‘40s and it portrays the monumental moments in life, like birth, death, aging, through these sculptures that portray the body ideology of the time. I worked with this question of: what would this park look like if it were made now? In a way, even though it’s stone, it’s white bodies portraying an older version of Nordic identity; so what would it look like if we worked with that information and really wondering what is the vulnerable body? What does the multiplicity of bodies mean? What about different bodies that are in the world, and what happens if those bodies build these monoliths that are so different from those from the ‘40s. Because this park is really seen as the jewel of our national heritage. That’s a lot of information, but those are the strands that came together for it.
And the end of that piece, there is a score that could go on forever—we call it the “radar”—and it’s a spiral that could keep on going for a long time. Doing the end of that piece, it has the potential to generate energy, and people both doing and watching it have very emotional reactions to it that can only happen when there are a certain amount of bodies. So, I chose to isolate that score and make this into the piece we have here now, which is ALL – a physical poem of protest. And the title, in some places works and in some places is maybe provocative like, “who is all? What does that mean?” In some ways, I have a problem with the title and I’d like to keep it that way. It doesn’t add up in a way. What for me is very exciting with this work is the fact that the work changes depending on every place in which it comes in contact with. For me, it’s research. It can be 10 minutes long, or for longer. Here, we’ll try it for 3 hours at PICA. So, first, it’s the duration. The second, is the placing of the audience—we’ve done different things, looking frontally at the work, around the work, or participating inside it. And third is the place—it can be in a gallery, as part of a protest, and then in other public spaces. We never know the work before it happens; so, in that sense it’s a premiere each time. It touches an urgency that occurs in public manifestations. You know, you don’t rehearse public manifestations—you can facilitate. You’ll see, it’s quite formal, with a clear shape. That also relates to calling it a physical poem—creating this distance to think about what a public manifestation can be. But within that formality and pre-set score, there is real-time negotiation with those that are participating. And I will say, that it is really a negotiation of difference, because we are gathering people who we don’t know in advance and many of them don’t know one another. Even though we follow the same directions of walking, running, standing, we walk differently, we have different perspectives of speed, and we take information differently. So, there’s really a real-time negotiation between strangers of doing this together and accepting that we do it differently, but allowing ourselves to build this energy together and engaging in something bigger than ourselves. And then we leave each other, and we’re still strangers to one another. We still don’t know each other. That’s very interesting in looking at public manifestations. There’s this huge emotion and belief that the world can be changed in a second, and then we leave each other and that was it somehow. Of course, change can happen, but in that moment, it’s something else. This is what I’m hoping the piece can tap into.
And then, by going into different contexts, it’s the idea that we connect to local artists and there’s a trace of each place that way. Here, it’s Physical Education with keyon gaskin, so there is a sense of bringing community into it, and of course, also PICA. When we did it in New York, you could see the Movement Research community, also with Shantelle Jackson’s community. In Europe, in Bordeaux, we’ve been a part of a feminist protest outside the opera. There it was serving under a cause. Then the American choreographer in Berlin, Jeremy Wade, and another artist, Jo Koppe borrowed the score and protested against the treatment of LGTB people in Chechnya. So. they did it in front of the Soviet Memorial in Treptower Park, and also in front of the Russian embassy. There, the score was the protest. The extreme opposite was when we did it at the Théâtre de la Ville, where we did it for 10 minutes. It was a performance where people were sitting, where you come in and then go out. From that I realized that that’s not the frame I’m interested in for this work. It’s clear to me that it needs another kind of meeting in the community, so I’d say more and more that it’s a kind of community project. This took me time to realize because it came from A song to… and that was a performance on a big stage. So, we’re discovering what this piece is and what it cannot be, in a way. One of the exciting things about being in Portland and working with PICA, who has this amazing festival project, my work might fit very well.
Photo: Sarah Marguier
LM: I think they’re complementary situations. And you’ve delved into the work so beautifully here, so thank you. I’m curious about the language that you use in the title that you mentioned. Could we return to what “ALL” means and embodies for you? I use both terms in the dual sense that Susan Leigh Foster does when referring to social choreographies—in that we cannot parse thinking from the body, or physicality from thought.1
MH: If you think of the physical aspect of it, when we did A song to… my initial idea was just, “we need 50 more bodies on stage,” and I thought, “Oh, they should look different,” as if the body and who the person is are different. Then when people arrived I thought, “Oh, it’s people, with histories, who talk differently, take space differently, move differently, have different communities, have different conceptions of society.” And slowly, that took over for me, who people are, rather than what it looks like. Through doing A song to… in different places, we had some amazing experiences that, in the beginning, was just a default. In Germany, for example, we had a homeless man and then a former policeman running and walking together and we didn’t realize until after. We had, for instance, also at some point, several performers, and then those that are isolated from people. Somehow there was a large variety of backgrounds of people and how they function in society. That became important. Then also how people negotiated the space. And then also bringing in people who perceive the world and information differently, like someone who is 55 but lives at home—but not to point this out as different, but finding a way of facilitating the group—to find a language for everyone, rather than doing something special. So, in that work of negotiating difference and creating space that wouldn’t signal out people, that became the methodology. Bringing in the word “all” became about who can that person be. In the world of dance, when you have different bodies on stage, I hear my colleagues saying, “wow, it’s so diverse.” And I say, “What do you mean, ‘diverse,’ when everyone on the stage is between 25 and 35, and just because they look a little bit different—what is diversity? It doesn’t take much before we say, “Oh, they’re all on stage.” But I think no, which bodies aren’t on stage? So, I thought bringing this word “ALL,” makes you think of those that aren’t on stage, because there is always someone who is not on stage. You will never get everyone on stage. How wide is that idea of who that can be? Also then, when it comes to nudity, since we’re naked on stage—there is this thing in dance that even within dancers there are certain bodies that are more easily undressed on stage than others’ bodies. In a way, we should be past it but we’re not. There are still questions about what dancer’s body should look like. You can be trained as a professional dancer all your life, but still not look like some idea that people might have. With the idea of a dancer or body in general, there are so many bodies that are hidden, or choose to hide themselves because of this pressure from society. That’s important in this work—not pushing that, but allowing it. Then to take the problematic side of it—an example of the failure of it in a way—was when we did it in Paris. We had to find the volunteers in Paris ourselves, but the outreach part of it wasn’t strong enough. So, we ended up with mainly only white bodies on stage. And in the European context, Paris especially, has had many protests concerning how non-white bodies are treated. You cannot, not anywhere, and especially not in Paris, come and show a piece called ALL – a physical poem of protest, and only come with white people. That’s not acceptable. However, in a way it becomes a mirror of a society, and who the network of these venues are. but on the other hand, in that sense the title was problematic. I wanted to cancel the piece, but it wasn’t possible. In retrospect, I really thought about how you manouever that. I don’t have an answer, but it’s to give an example of when the title is a bit dangerous.
Photo: Sarah Marguier
LM: This notion of collectivity begins in the workshop phase, so could you share your working methods and strategies with volunteers and collaborators?
MH: Before we start working, we lay out some rules, which worked out great since Physical Education read them out loud, so it almost became kind of a performative act, which I thought was really nice. In a way, it might feel a bit strict to start by mentioning rules, but it’s a way of setting up a safe space and protecting people from each other, so that they can really feel safe. It’s simple rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not in the space. Then, what we do is that we work in a circle from the beginning and do something that might look like a folk dance step, and we talk while we do this. I talk about the piece a bit. This holding hands, creation of a circle, and talking, is about how we can only do this together—it’s not possible to do alone, or with two, or even, I would argue with three. Then part of it is also that when we do this, we will always step on someone’s feet. It implements a space of “it’s okay,” we’re not here to do it perfectly or synchronize it, but we’re opening spaces, and taking down certain nerves in the space. Slowly we work through the different elements in the piece. Sometimes we try to give as little information as possible so that it’s more through doing, and slowly, for the group to grow with it. The main tool we work with is listening. So, if you can listen to the group, you’re good, and you can just do it.
LM: And, what does a “physical poem” mean to you?
MH: I think that for me, there is something about the piece being only bodies—there is no sound—only our breath and feet, and repetition. This relates to something I didn’t mention yet, but the locomotive of protest is walking, standing, running, and that’s the basis of the piece.2 Through the physicality of all of these bodies, the audience can transcend into different places. They can associate and see and get into different states. But it’s all through insisting in physical action. Then also, because of its formality and basic physical actions, it turns into a poetic space. Through time, it opens onto many other spaces. It’s not pointing directly at something you should look at. This word of poem can speak to how there’s not a direct link between protest and cause. It’s not one cause.
LM: Could you discuss how you’re envisioning that this physical poem will unfold within the space of PICA, and perhaps more largely within the city of Portland?
MH: First, I think why I think it’s interesting to come to the U.S. with it in general with it, is this history that the U.S. has with protests, coming together, and community dances. The history here very interesting to see how the people join in contrast to Europe. And then the political moment that the U.S. is in now—it’s not a coincidence that many people from the U.S. have an interest in this work. It’s the work I wanted to come here with. I’m not so interested in coming with a random piece and touring it, but somehow, from what I understand from a lot of curators here, is that they want to use their spaces as an act of protest. They want to give visibility to those that the current leadership works against. So, I think that maybe this piece, rather than being about Mia Habib coming, that actually the piece can offer a frame for people who are already here, so that they can take space. For Portland specifically, my interest was not about the city specifically, but about knowing keyon gaskin. He worked on A song to… and since I started working with dance, I like to tour to places where I get invited. I like to go where I’m invited and where I know someone—to go with this idea that things can come of connections and friendships that are not purely professional. I’ve been curious about Portland and the TBA festival because of keyon’s work. Then I also got curious about PICA, and understanding that they have a certain generosity in how they operate. That interests me, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, these spaces that are interested in more than just showing the work, but links to the local community and this generous inclusive approach. And now I’m understanding as well, more about the protests in Portland too, and the history here with its hippie roots.
LM: Yes, the history here is multilayered and merits embodied investigation in terms of its protest histories, especially in light of recent protests by Antifa and the alt-right group Proud Boys. So, turning to protest, I read that some of your operative words for the workshop are notions of plasticity, mobility, site-sensitivity, and soft borders. Thinking of these ideas and hearing you speak about the work, it seems that ALL – a physical poem of protest carries much relational weight that then affects the political and social realms and I’m hoping you can elaborate upon this directionality of protest.
MH: I think this comes back to the practice that I’ve developed over many years in other works, through insisting on an action or physicality, this develops a micropolitics. Through this pointing at something political through a very clear or simple action or intervention, which for me, always comes through a body, but maybe from the outside it’s not always apparent that it’s from the body which is there. It might trigger or reveal some power structures that are already happening outside. A very obvious example would be my work from 2007 with two other artists that’s informed a lot of what I do—it was with Swedish Indian dance artist Rani Nair and French Palestinian artist Jassem Hindi—on a project called WE INSIST. I still work with Jassem Hindi on a project called Stranger Within, but one of the things we did was make a mirror installation on the border of Mexico and the U.S. in 2009. It was in Mexicali, and we thought that we were going to do something with our bodies, but when we were there we wanted to stage another kind of intervention. So, we put these 3-meter high, 6-meter wide mirrors on the border wall, it look as if there was a whole in the wall, with the image being distorted because there were different mirrors. That was the installation, but it was more the act of making it and what happened around us in making it that was important. Even though we had a permit, I remember this moment when I was hanging over the fence to drill from the American side, the American border police came in a helicopter and hung over me. They wanted to show that this was not okay, even though we had a permit. From this action, we got in close contact with the neighbors and we also saw these professional jumpers crossing so that others could do that too. It started conversations for the people living there. Our presence created a kind of third party—like a mediation or stretch—where people could talk about something in a slightly different way. This is something we’re exploring in different ways—Jassem and I just did research in the north of Norway where we traveled in a camping car and we performed in people’s houses during dinner. So, we perform and they cook for us and then we eat dinner. We come into the house and the performance is always on the verge of the unknown, or an uncomfortable place for the people who invited us. It’s kind of unsettling. Then during the dinner, because it’s unsettling, it opens space for completely other conversations. In one house we started talking about witch burning after 5 minutes into the dinner. So, it’s this working with opening spaces where other conversations can appear. So to answer your question, it begins with a micro interaction that can open something which touches macropolitical or social questions. Then, sometimes other works begin with the big questions, but they’re all concerned with the physical somehow.
LM: How do you imagine the audience’s relationship to the work in this iteration—that perhaps views, stands alongside, or is in solidarity with the work?
MH: We’re talking a lot about it. What I’m understanding here is that the audience can be quite participatory and active, so for now with the inside version, we’re imagining the audience not sitting frontally, but surrounding the performance a bit. Then, how or if we’ll work with participation—we’ll work out over the next few days. There’s so many ways to open that up and we don’t know yet. This, for me, is what’s both scary and great, that we have to make it again. But I would like to get to a place of participation.
Photo: Kaare Johannesen
1See Susan Leigh Foster, “Choreographies of Protest,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 55, No. 3 (October 2003): 395–412.
2For more on the everyday movements in the work, see Gia Kourlas, “A Protest Dance of Everyday Moves and Volunteer Nudes,” The New York Times, 1 May, 2019: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/01/arts/mia-habib-la-mama-moves-dance-festival.html.