This article was written by Vittoria Benzine.
Though 2018 has ushered in an era of unforeseen understanding by those battling addictions, I believe society still lacks a profound understanding of the love/hate relationship a girl like me holds with the forces that imprison her. I know that sobriety felt like an endless wash of relief, even on my worst days, and life for the five years I’d abused alcohol before was a bleak pit of despair by comparison. Still, seven and a half months in, it’s comforting embrace left me dead in the water. It seemed that growth in every meaningful area of my life had ceased. I longed for chaos, a spark of life whose danger I respected, yet craved.
When I chose to drink again, I possessed no false sense of being “cured”. I harbored a tentative fear for what the decision would usher back into my existence. But the ecstasy of being alive and of having an intangible force to rail against awoke me, inspired me to get back to work.
These conflicting emotions dominated the front of my mind going into Paracas: Comrades of the Wind, a multimedia performance directed by Cecilia Collantes in honor of her first mural at Ideal Glass Studio on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Entranced by the cosmic, mystical mural Collantes completed, with the help of Outersouce, I felt a sense of calm begin to set in as I gazed upon its black-lit facade. The flying shamans it depicted were enrapturing in a manner I couldn’t quite name. It wasn’t until I fully immersed myself in the experiential performance. Presented by dancer and healer Natalie Deryn Johnson and musicians Joel Ronson and Adam Robinson that I intuitively found my own visceral resonance with the all-encompassing ideals the work stood for.
An Enchanting Performance
The performance began on the street in front of the gallery, in full view of Collantes’s mural. There, Robinson accompanied Deryn with a solemn flute backing as she moved with undulated, enveloping grace while tethered to a rope. Soon, Deryn handed the rope to each member of the audience, eventually using it to guide them through the doors to the studio. There, we each set down of segment of the rope, and Natalie established her relationship with an even sturdier chord. Her movements continued at their pace before slowly gaining momentum as Ronson’s electronic composition added to the symphony.
After seating herself at the piano for a few notes, Natalie suddenly approached the video projections on the wall. Collantes’s compositions showed dust flowing in the wind. Upon relating to this portion of the multimedia performance, Natalie launched into wild, frenetic movements. Up until this point, my raging thoughts had still dominated my consciousness. However, as I watched her embody the entire space with energy and precision I’d never seen anyone execute before, the thoughts melted away. It was me, this was life. We thrash and rave in the emotion of it all, whatever those emotions may be. We take what is available to us and strive to ensure it’s not necessarily beautiful, but certainly powerful. Most importantly though, I would fight, writhe against the forces that seem hell-bent on trapping me in darkness.
Finally after exceeding crescendo upon crescendo, she reoriented herself towards the tightrope, seemingly honoring it by holding it high up in the air as the light and music reached a calmer tone. Alas, she laid on the ground, in a state of protection and rest.
In the week following the show, I had the opportunity to speak further with both Cecilia and Natalie to learn more about their intentions and processes in creating this experience. Not only was I interested in exploring their relationships to this performance that had touched me so deeply, but I was also curious to learn if I had been correct in identifying with the elements of this experience that brought me such peace and empowerment.
Cecilia came to be interested in the Paracas through her study into her own ancient Peruvian heritage. As an artist and individual, she deeply believes in honoring the past by seeking to understand it. On one visit back to her home country, she began wondering “what is the symbology about what these flying shamans really mean?” What was their purpose, their reality? Every archaeologist has their own interpretation as to what the Paracas truly stand for, and Collantes notes that one must pick and choose from each in order to draw their own conclusion. “My intuition, my first interpretation without any research,” Collantes explains, “was that the creatures with their grinning mouths and massive eyes were likely high on wachuma, an antiquated version of peyote.”
This mural marks her first time approaching the Paracas, though she explains that they have been present in her previous abstract work. Since beginning the New York phase of her career five years ago, Collantes has been searching for direction, and found that it began to solidify during her residency at Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. “To get to the studios, you have to pass through an Indian market,” she explained to me. “I didn’t really know what I was going to work on during the three month residency, I was trying to find inspiration on the street, on my way to the studio.”
In her efforts, she stopped in the market and left with Holi powder, which she soon began experimenting with. Using fixative liquid and her hands, she applied the powder to a canvas. “It was like a fire, and to me it was like a symbol, my own personal ceremony,” that she equates to an official sign that she was working. Collantes found herself hypnotized by the medium’s impermanence and inherent imperfection. “I am interested in the ritualistic nature of any action,” Collantes continues, connecting this introductory incident back to her fascination with ancient cultures. “I don’t want to make art just because. For me, it has to be something linked to spirituality.”
The appearance of the Paracas in Collantes work is also attributed in part to her interest in sand and dust, as evidenced through her experience working with Holi powder. She began experimenting with images of the Paracas using the Holi powder and fixative five years ago, playing with the ways dust could bridge the gap between the abstract and the figurative. Her mural for Ideal Glass was ultimately an answer to one of her proceeding questions, “How do I bring abstraction to the street?”
Though this mural saw Collantes depicting the Paracas in an essentially figurative form, their symbolism remains abstract. “this is a personal interpretation, they’re flying, they have big evil eyes, but they’re smiling. The smile is kind of perverted … These beings know something you don’t know … that’s the message too— don’t take life so serious. Welcome the unexpected nature and the playfulness of your own humanity.” Collantes elaborated further that we try to be very controlled and move forward in the various realms of our lives, partially because we are limited by our own human condition from seeing there is a larger question that has no answer. “These beings are connected with something outside of ourselves.”
I thought of my inner-demons, the perverted smiles they must sport themselves as they attempt to lead me from my own narrow-minded control. I wonder if there is perhaps another brand of playfulness that might sate them.
The performance itself appeared so beautifully choreographed that I was surprised to learn of its improvisational nature. This is a fond area of experience for Collantes, who admires the methods of Merce Cunningham and Nick Cage, two artists who incorporated elements of chance into their performances. Collantes perceives this technique as a method of “letting the universe completely interact with whatever you are doing,” and “letting some room for that interaction with chance.”
Natalie Deryn Johnson also thrives in this improvisational performance environment. Both she and Collantes described their collaborative approach as one of “structured improv” in which the general skeleton of the narrative was laid out ahead of time, with generous artistic license given to the artists involved in fleshing out the gaps. Rather than hitting all the marks of a strictly defined routine, Deryn Johnson focuses on “transcendence of consciousness, or becoming the next version of yourself in a performance.”
She explains, “I believe performance is a form of ceremony, like a healing of some sort that I want to embody, not because the audience necessarily needs healing, but because I do these things and because I believe that by performing from a certain place, the entire consciousness in the room can be moved. As a performer, I’m in charge of the temperature. I should be able to change the temperature and change the perception of time. By having presence in the room, that affects the entire room, creating a sense of unity. I tend to be esoteric in my work, and I want it to be accessible. I use my metaphysics to go into performance.
As Natalie and I sit on on the Bed-Stuy rooftop where we are intermittently discussing and enjoying fruit bowls amongst the lavender tinged skyline, I can vividly recall the overpowering sense of healing that I gained from watching her perform.
The portion of Paracas: Comrades of the Wind that most resonated with me in my struggles came down to one word, mentioned by both Collantes and Deryn Johnson: Ecstasy. In my quest to ascertain whether I had intuitively picked up on what I’d deemed the “frenetic” aura of the performance, I asked Collantes if there was a particular emotion she had set out to evoke in directing it. “The intention was to invoke the ecstatic nature of the human condition,” she immediately responded, only pausing for half a beat in contemplation. “All of these shamans are ecstatic. They’re playful.”
Ecstasy is not necessarily an emotion born of pure happiness. Rather, it consists of intensity. In addressing ecstasy and emotion in her working process, Deryn Johnson explains that the performance somewhat touched upon “the choice to be happy, to allow pleasure and make choices from higher vibrational pladces. Not to discount melancholy, you can be frenetic from a dark place or a light place.” It touched me deeply, as it clarified my understanding that the same wild energy brings me to bottoms and challenges me to successfully escape them.
To the end of ecstasy, the improvisational nature of the performance also forced Deryn Johnson to push the boundaries of what amount of emotion she could muster up. After beginning the initial ecstatic dance that drew my presence to the moment of her performance, she clued me in that she heard the cue for that portion of the dance, meaning that while she’d given all she thought she could give, she was inevitably forced to give more. “How much stamina can I have for ecstasy?” she explained to me laughingly, and from my own experience I considered assuring her it was probably more than she thought.
Beyond the beautiful ecstasy of the human condition, Collantes also continually espoused her desire for artists and society at large to increasingly turn their attention to respecting the past. Collantes paused a moment before reading to me the first few stanzas of Jim Morrison’s, “An American Prayer”
Do you know the warm progress under the stars?
Do you know we exist?
Have you forgotten the keys to the kingdom?
Have you been born yet, and are you alive?
Let’s reinvent the gods, all the myths of the ages
Celebrate symbols from deep elder forests
Have you forgotten the lessons of the ancient war?
Lessons of the Past
“What are the lessons to be learned from the past? What are the deep symbols they created that we’re not paying attention to?” Collantes emphatically wonders. “Aren’t we evolving from that? Aren’t we supposed to have some consciousness of what was so important to previous lives?” Collantes persuades me that we should be more aware of our interconnectedness with the generations that came before. “In the 1960s, Americans were much deeper connected to these deeper forces. I don’t see that when I go to Chelsea. The artists are very talented, but the work seems kind of cold. What happened to the soul of the arts in this huge nation?”
“We were working on using the dance to build the image of pulling the string from the past and committing to it,” Collantes says of her approach to addressing this connection to the past in Paracas: Comrades of the wind. Deryn Johnson carries the baton further in our conversation, describing the rope as “a tethering of time, the past into the future. Grappling with the past,” though it somewhat evoked the image of the fates.
All Under the Stars
After considering my relationship to this powerful work through my narrow perspective, it’s hard not to feel a little selfish. After all, the performance aligned with World Indigenous Peoples day, and Collantes discussed American art’s lack of connection to the colonized land on which we live. “How are you paying tribute to your grandparents, and to those who owned the land previously?” she wondered aloud. “It’s really strange that that’s not in conversations more.” Her perspective was not particularly political, as she notes, “I think its universal, we’re all here under the stars.” In the end, we share the same history as the recipients of our ancestor’s legacy of this Earth. Compassion, love, knowledge, these things limit themselves to no specific lineage or nationality.
In relaying her relationship to the audience through performance, Deryn Johnson explains “a lot of this is so intuitive … your experience is so valid and so insightful … I’m offering my body to this moment and I know that people in the audience will be experiencing something. There are so many perspectives to be had, which is why it’s so cool for me to be able to bring people energetically to the same kind of state or place. It’s so lovely when everyone has a similar pulse.” It’s ritualistic almost, in the way I believe Collantes finds herself enamored of. That wave length that a performer like Deryn Johnson brings us to incites unique feelings and memories for everyone. “Whatever they get is right,” she tells me, “I’m not in control of them. I’m only in control of what I offer.”
Ecstasy and the past, two themes focused upon by Paracas: Comrades of the Wind, means something different to everyone. They are our birthright as citizens of this planet, and perhaps our ultimate journey is to understand our relationship with them. Beyond this though, the performances satisfied itself with simply celebrating the mural, a beautiful collaboration between two talented artists paying homage to the ancient heritage of the Paracas. My own struggle with addiction, an issue I believe stems from my wildfire-like relationship to my internally ravaging emotions, seems to be dwarfed by these larger questions, though it feels grander than a mural completed on the world’s largest facade. Maybe it’s initial flame is the product of the past, energy passed from the ancestors of mine who also lived under these stars.
Written by Vittoria Benzine
Photos Provided by T.K. Mills and Cecilia Collantes
For more by the author, check out her website VittoriaBenzine.com
To learn more about Cecilia and her work, check out her website.
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