Contemplative Performance Art as a Practice to Expand the Window of Tolerance in Confronting Systemic Racism and Implicit Bias
By Way Of An Introduction
As a second-generation Holocaust survivor and interdisciplinary artist, I’ve developed a 30-year praxis exploring the ways that contemplative performance art serves to interrupt the intergenerational traumas associated with genocide, colonialism, climate change, and environmental injustice. This research-creation process has changed me in profound and unexpected ways. Contemplative performance art, by which I mean any performance art practice that cultivates awareness and multisensory perception, can be a pathway to healing, however much this pathway is not easy or straightforward.
Toni Cade Bambara’s Minnie Ransom character opens the 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters, with the question: Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” Prior to publishing The Salt Eaters, Bambara wrote about the Black liberation movement. Bambara’s reasoning was that change and liberation “begins with the self, in the self. The individual, the basic revolutionary unit, must be purged of poison and lies that assault the ego and threaten the heart, that hazard the next larger unit – the couple or pair, that jeopardize the still larger unit – the family or cell that put the entire movement in peril.” In the book, healer Minnie Ransom, continues to caution Velma Henry following Henry’s suicide attempt: “I like to caution folks, that’s all. […] No sense us wasting each other’s time, sweetheart. […] A lot of weight when you’re well.” The truth of this still resonates with me in every fiber of my being. It is not a simple or easy thing to embrace wellness, or, perhaps more specifically, the responsibility of wellness. Over time, I have found that my capacity to carry this weight of wellness with grace and strength has increased. I attribute a good part of growing that capacity to my contemplative performance art and my critical-somatic reflections on the work of other contemplative performance artists.
Erika Fischer-Lichte proposes four qualifications of performance art that help unpack how contemplative performance art practice can be a tool for healing. My aim here is to articulate how these qualifications provided me with a new internal schema that allowed me to respond “yes” to Bambara / Minnie Ransom’s question, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”, as if it was addressed to me.
Fischer-Lichte first suggests that performance comes into being by the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators (or in the case of dialogic performance, the co-presence of all participants), by their encounter and interaction. Her second qualification is that while performance is transitory and ephemeral, whatever arises comes into being in the here and now and is experienced as present, sometimes quite intensely. One could say that this qualification refers to the simultaneity of the moment and its lingering aftereffects, however subtle. Thirdly, meaning is co-emergent with the performance and doesn’t transmit pre-given meanings. Fischer-Lichte’s fourth and final qualification is that performances are characterized by their eventness. Here I would evoke the experience of goosebumps, the quality of experiencing that something noteworthy is happening around you. I’ve found that embracing wellness was increasingly available to me as the “performer” through the co-presence, embrace of ephemeral occurrence and impermanence, emergent sense-making, and heightened awareness of eventness, which all arise in contemplative performance art. I’ve also heard from observers & participants that these qualifications align with their experience as well. Thus, such a live art practice can nurture the precise set of resiliency skills necessary to expand the window of tolerance, thus allowing more individuals to confront systemic racism and implicit biases.
Unpacking Cultural Intolerance And Social Injustice Through Contemplative Performance Art
Though I have taken many a (pre-COVID) flight between the Ben Gurion International Airport and Montreal, perhaps none was more memorable than the one I took in the fall of 1984. I happened to be seated next to a Jewish man wearing a crocheted kippa on my right, and on my left sat a Palestinian man from East Jerusalem. My 1984 departure from Israel was precipitated by a series of events that led me to feeling a profound sense of deception as a Jew. I had been raised to believe the idealism of Zionism, never having been taught to recognize its inherent racist and colonialist oppressions and violence.
The history I was taught growing up drew a clear and untroubled line between the Holocaust and the necessity to establish a Jewish state in the Biblical homeland of the ancient Hebrews. Even today, this link is underscored in the rhetoric of recent US foreign policy.The narrative I was taught left out any mention of the majority non-Jewish inhabitants of this land; the villages that were destroyed in order to make room for Jewish immigration; and the systemic inequalities in every sector of social, cultural, economic, and political life between Jews and Palestinians.
Back in the 1980s, after more than two years of living and working in Jerusalem, trying to make sense of what I had begun to find out in my conversations with Arabs of Christian and Muslim heritage about their experiences of living under Israeli occupation, I gave up. The gap between what I had learned and what I experienced on the ground was simply too great. I quit my job and relinquished the lease on my apartment: I was returning to Quebec (itself a place marked by a history of two solitudes) with a suitcase and a heart full of sorrow and questions.
Taking advantage of the situation on the plane to see if I could glean any understanding that had hitherto escaped me, I addressed the men seated next to me and asked them both the following question: “Could you please tell me what you learned while you were growing up at home and in school about the way in which Israel as a State was formed and why it came to be?” To be clear: I was asking for what they knew to be factual information, not their opinions or interpretations of what happened or why.
For the remainder of the flight, as we passed from land over ocean to land again, I listened as my fellow passengers recounted the histories they were taught. To say that the three of us were confounded by the differences in what were purported to be factual details would be a gross understatement. As we went over historical events, it became increasingly obvious how differently these “truths” had been constructed.
As each man recounted their versions of what they had been taught, the inevitability of the clash between the two peoples became increasingly apparent, as did the likelihood of things getting a whole lot worse before they would get better. However, much I appreciated the courage of these two men, I could feel a mounting dread as I envisioned the future impact of these vastly different narratives. It was evident to me even then that the demonization of the other would necessarily increase, and the systemic inequalities would proliferate.
Fast forward 25 years.
Continuing to interrogate the remaining sequelae of internalized Zionist inculcations, I initiated the two contemplative performance art collaborations with artist-educator Tali Goodfriend: And How Shall Our Hands Meet?(August 2006) and Uprooted(June 2007) in downtown Montreal, and another two, in collaboration with Eléonore Merza and Eitan Bronstein Aparicio, titled Imwas (Canada Park, 2014), and Mansura Revisited(2015) in the Occupied Golan.
And How Shall Our Hands Meet?
Like me, Tali had been creatively exploring the process of mourning and the affirmation of wellness in the face of cultural oppressions and related traumas. Feeling compelled to respond to the invasion of Lebanon by Israeli forces during the summer of 2006, Tali and I, wearing white and continuously bathing each other’s hand in olive oil, stood bare-foot across the street from an anti-war demonstration and activist protest marking Colin Powell’s visit to Montreal in support of the Jewish National Fund’s Gala. The subject of Powell’s speech, announced in advance, was the need to build a stronger Israel. The shared healing gesture during the three-hour protest was organized by Tadamon! and other Palestinian solidarity grass-roots collectives connected our involvements with Palestinian decolonial efforts.
One year later, Tali and I once again took to the streets, this time in association with a coalition of protestors denouncing Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land and its practice of apartheid. For several hours, walking in front of a crowd of about 1000 people all marching for peace, Tali Goodfriend and I carried an uprooted olive tree symbolizing the ongoing cycles of displacement and related destruction of nature. Dislocated individuals, the communities they leave behind, and those into which they subsequently integrate, are part of an increasingly fragile ecological balance.
As we walked through downtown Montreal the tree’s roots were drying out and the intensity of the flower-scent grew almost overwhelming. It was heart-wrenching to us both to be part of what could have been the tree’s demise, and equally heart-wrenching to know that the acts of other Jews were participating as decidedly, if not more so, in the deracination of the Palestinian people. After the march, Tali and I (along with help from passersby) planted the tree in a downtown park; and, after an initial period of shock, the tree took well to its new home until it was uprooted by the City of Montreal to re-landscape the park.
I felt compelled to examine Canada’s role in the Zionist project when (in December 2013), I found out about Ayalon Park. This is a declared ‘Israeli National Park’ stretching over 7,000 dunams in the West Bank, most commonly referred to as Canada Park. It was built upon the grounds of four Palestinian villages: Dayr Ayyub, destroyed in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, as well as Imwas, Yalu, and Beit Nuba, whose (more than 10,000) residents were forcibly expelled during the 1967 war. The Jewish National Fund of Canada spearheaded the funding drive to establish this park and continues to maintain it.
The park is a common recreational destination, especially on the weekends. On the first sunny weekend, after weeks of December rains, Eitan Bronstein and Eléonore Merza accompanied me to the park. Using only my bare hands and a small stone, I dug away at the dirt that had been deliberately packed down by the bulldozers in order to cover the remnants of the destroyed village of Imwas. Despite the throngs of part visitors, and an available picnic table nearby to the spot where I was digging, not one person approached during the three-hour contemplative performance. I suspect this is because they knew exactly what I was doing and wanted to keep their distance both physically and emotionally.