new york live arts

Context Notes: Biba Bell for Emily Johnson
by Biba Bell

Halfway through the video by Emily Johnson that documents her process and concerns while making the multi-media performance piece The Thank-you Bar, the pace of its narration rapidly shifts. It transitions from a discussion of displacement to her interests in storytelling, specifically oral traditions as they enable a sense of belonging. This shift is abruptly demonstrated through an edit in the video, a sharp pause between images. After a moment her contemplative voice enters and says, "What is becoming more clear to me is what I'm missing."

Something about this utterance struck me, be it the rhythm of its delivery, the disembodied quality of the voiceover, or the quiet observing of an empty space within one's creative process. How many moments are passed, paused or pregnant with the sense of what is missed—something, someone, someplace? What do they sound like, smell like, and how do they feel? Then, from within this pause, there is the impulse to locate, and the creative engine begins its acceleration.

Johnson, an Alaskan native of Yup'ik descent, makes work that engages the geographic with a personal topography that weaves together cultural, affective and historical impulses. Architecture and landscape enacts sites of remembrance, where sensorial engagement can bring the traces of practices ingrained in these sites into an embodied and communal context. Performance provides a space to enact investigations in real time, bringing the audience into a fluid space of action, empathy and participation.

Johnson struggles with displacement as a primary force driving her work: Alaska to Minneapolis, rural to urban, past to present. Could displacement be thought a primary condition of our contemporary world? Be it actual or virtual, issues of home(less)ness articulate a politics of the proper as it relates to the body, place, identity, community. In this sense, the ontological question of being-there is deferred… or multiplied into a situation of here, there and every/elsewhere. Displacement entails a perceptual split—bifocal, mutlivocal—juxtaposing spaces, times, stories or perspectives by asking them to relate and mingle despite threats of impasse. It implies a site of loss, while activating movements toward remembrance, retrieval, recognition.

Johnson's process articulates a movement towards negotiating what is missing, the homesickness that afflicts us when the spaces of our past, familial, ancestral, cultural and mythical have been razed, renovated, gentrified or (re)developed. But she also proposes an intervention into these challenging spaces of alterity so that they can be transformed into sites of familiarity, intimacy and home. Johnson's process implies a loosening of these spaces. Allowing for embodied memory to emerge; it's an act of communion. Walking through the homes of past lives, past selves, like Michel de Certeau's pedestrian speech-act, stories are performed as a simple act of translation.

At one point in this same video, Johnson interviews a professor of biological science during her residency at Florida State University. Describing the process of adaptation that animals in the wild undergo with respect environmental changes, urbanization or the human population he notes that within the novelty of transitioned space these animals will continue to do what they know how to do. A hawk for instance: "Instead of nesting in cliffs or in trees, they'll make their nest in skyscrapers and in gargoyles on rooftops." Forces of adaptation set these spaces in motion. What appears counter, incompatible or even impossible collides. The hawk swoops, glides, perches and sees its landscape through. This dwelling narrates continuity by enunciating a certain past-ness so that the present can be had. Such storytelling intervenes within these breaks, it does not reconcile but creates bridges. It attends to the cut of dislocation.