Lie down, close your eyes, imagine the shape of your toes; imagine that sand fills your toes; that sand travels up your legs, takes over your spine, shoulders, arms and hands; that sand moves higher still, in your throat, your eyes, your chin, the back of your neck… These are some of the directions (reproduced from memory) given by a Sisters Hope facilitator in a workshop designed to help participants be in touch with their poetic self. Etymologically linked to monastic orders or a sense of kinship, precious in an increasingly divided world, Sisters Hope are a Copenhagen-based performance group and movement that occupies the intersection of performance art, pedagogy, research, and activism, engaging the everyday in determinate attempts to manifest the space beyond it.
The Sisters Hope manifesto revolves around the ideas of sensuous society and sensuous learning, formulated in response to the 2008 economic crash. With a solid theoretical framework based on the works of John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Antonio Strati, the concept proposes an alternative way of being in the world, where the aesthetic, rather than the economic, is a governing force, and the sensory dimension trumps the rational one. A chain of rather disruptive research questions ensues: How do we teach in a sensuous society? How do we (self)educate sensuous beings? How do shift the value markers around the rational and the tactile? How far back must we go, in order to successfully assess and rethink the world, and ensure this alternative future?
The proposal is radical and daring, all the more necessary today, as we’ve drifted from the essence of things, the meaning of words, and the role we play in our own lives. It’s worth wondering whether a future recuperation of meaning, essence, and authenticity is possible through exercises on our selves alone. Wouldn’t we need to aggressively shake the world clean, to restore it to its sensuous beginnings? Wouldn’t we need a new language to speak of ourselves? What use could we have of words such as “success,” “failure,” “bankruptcy,” “loss,” “value” in a world of fully manifested poetic potential?
The task seems gargantuan, perhaps disheartening, when thoroughly considering the myriad elements that constitute our contemporary experience. We can argue that our being and our experience are intertwined; we are today conditioned by myths and rituals we no longer recognise as such; instead, we claim as ourselves elements that are in fact originally not of us, not of our bodies. This embracing of alien (self)knowledge, fake sense of choice, and mass-produced affect leads to layers and layers of experience and knowledge that bring us closer to the world but take us farther from our sensuous, tactile selves. There is no safe haven in a world almost completely organised by the logic of capital. The art world itself is a cog in the machine. The machine can’t stop, but we can, according to Sisters Hope.
In their large-scale project, Sisters Academy, the artists design an alternative school, launching their exploration of what educational spaces might look like in a sensuous society. The method is immersive, interactive, and interventionist; it self-generates, to the extent that the method is fluid, adapting to the participants. It
Essentially, the group takes over an art space and transforms it, creating a sense of otherworldliness – a self-exile of sorts; the “students” are pulled from the everyday, their hands are washed as they walk in; they are cleansed as they enter the quiet of the academy, from the noise of the street; the darkness of the interior, from the blinding light of the outside. Their rhythm slows down, as they prepare to have their senses stimulated. The paradox here is itself poetic: our senses have evolved and perfected at the meeting point with the tangible world; humanity has been striving towards permanent light, higher speed, a constant flux of information. How have we reached this moment, when we need to exit the world, in order to come back to ourselves? To exist what we call ‘natural’ by default, to come closer to our very nature?
There is space for darkness in the poetic, claim the Sisters. Sensuous learning reconnects learning with the body, the senses and feelings, and it can be illuminated through poetic-self exercises. The poetic self rests between the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly; it’s found beyond the very need for these binaries; it is not a fiction, but a layer of the self, the “inner poetic potential” we all possess, but which is often dormant. The exercise is a meditative journey, facing participants with heavy-hitting questions: how does your poetic self move through time? Do you make space for your poetic self? How does your poetic self relate to others? The Sisters facilitate intense, inquisitive, soul-searching sessions, aimed at silencing the noise around our identities and clearing a path through the inner landscape of our beings.
I didn’t dare take the path myself. Granted – the exercise was a sample, much shorter and not as immersive as the Academy would host it. Nevertheless, the heaviness of my sand-filled body kept me grounded, stuck, unable to come close to my poetic self. I don’t know its shape; it doesn’t have a name; I can’t trace its movements. I can’t shake my world clean and I still operate an inauthentic self. There is perhaps some value in admitting defeat, for now. It’s probably a good start to acknowledge the faults and fake meaning that have been attached to my self and to my body; it could be the first step in the search for my poetic self – a search animated by quiet, blind, sand-spotted faith.
Words: Elena Stanciu