Artistic Research – New Pathways to New Knowledge? A conversation with Amanda Piña

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It’s no secret that artistic research takes place at the Academy of Theatre and Dance, but what does it actually involve? In this fifth episode in a series of interviews, we take a peek behind the scenes, in conversation with  Amanda Piña, a member of the THIRD research group at DAS Graduate School and curator of the ATD Day titled Unlearning the Human  on 19 February 2022.

Part 5: Dance can be a teacher

Amanda Piña is Mexican, Chilean and Austrian – Viennese to be precise. She is working at THIRD on Danzas Climáticas, the fifth part of Endangered Human Movements, a long-term research project into the worldwide loss of cultural and biological diversity. The research for Danzas Climáticas focuses on ecology and climate change. It explores still-thriving first nation rituals and dances that engage with the nonhuman world – mountains, water and the weather – and their political significance. A performance piece Amanda Piña made last year centres on a mountain in the Central Chilean Andes that was part of her youth. It lies at the foot of Apu Wamani, or Cerro el Plomo, which is currently being excavated by the mining industry.

When I speak to Amanda Piña she is in Mexico, in a house on the slopes of Popocatépetl volcano. We meet in her veranda, on Zoom – her background is the intense green of trees and undergrowth, and the sound of birds.

Amanda Piña: I’m here to find out about the place of water in the indigenous tradition. I’m looking for stories and customs associated with water and the climate.

How do you go about it?

Amanda Piña: Yesterday I went into the mountains to talk with the spokesperson from the indigenous council of Hueyapan village about a tradition of the so-called Teotlazquiz or tiemperos. People who had been struck by lightning can be regarded as initiated, and can develop the ability to influence the weather – they get the gift of being able to converse with the ‘sustainers’ or mantenedores, of rain, wind and hail. I met and interviewed one of these people. He was seven years old when he was struck by lightning, and it took him 15 years to accept his gift. In his dreams he sees the entities that support life as water here in the mountains, in this volcanic region. It was really interesting to hear the way they talked about it. They reminded me of the descriptions in The Falling Sky, the book by the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa. People here acknowledge these entities and express their gratitude to them by going up the mountain to place ritual offerings. I’d very much like to visit these sites because I’m intrigued by the act of placing offerings to non-humans as an ancient form of relation with the environment and with other living beings.  This tradition is still alive here. It is through offerings that they give homage to the mountain beings and acknowledge their interdependence with them. The conversation I had with this man was wonderful, and I believe that how he sees mountains as the creators and bestowers of water is very relevant not only in the Andes but worldwide.

Today in the context of climate change – which is a consequence of the current, modern and colonial model of civilisation – artistic research can be a practice of bringing different worlds together in conversation to complement each other and help us to unlearn, to visualize alternative forms of thinking and relating with the world. The crisis is so big that it urges action I think.

The idea that mountain and water beings have names and that people who are struck by lightning undergo an initiation that allows them to speak to the spirits in their dreams sounds completely plausible to me [laughs]. In a context where systems such as mountains or volcanos are understood to be alive and to have agency, why not engage directly with them? We are talking here about ‘technologies of relation’. They have existed in these areas for millennia. Of course, this can’t be easily understood from a modern, colonial, Western perspective. In the West we believe in science, in the laboratory, where it’s all about ‘truth’ and everything needs to be provable. Mountains and water are seen as objects, not as beings. A lab is a place where we isolate that which is being known from its relations with others.  While this does generate a certain form of knowledge, I think that performance – and by that I don’t mean in the sense of theatre, but in the sense of doing an action, embodying something, entering into a relationship with an other, no matter whether it’s a human, an animal or, why not, the weather – is also a way of gaining understanding. It’s a different understanding. It’s a very different approach that also creates a very different world of meaning.

If you conduct research at a university you need to have an outcome, a conclusion. How does that work in your case? Does it take the form of your performances, videos and lectures?

Yeah, that’s a tricky one. For Volume 3, The School of the Jaguar I conducted research on pre- Spanish and pre-Portuguese Amerindian iconography of the continent, especially into figures that represent humans, plants and animals at the same time. What I learned – partly through books, but mainly through physical practice – is that in the Amerindian context, identity is plural and you can shift your perception to that of an animal or plant. This notion of transformation doesn’t belong to the past here: today it’s still practised in the Amazon and in many other places. Experiencing it myself made it abundantly clear to me that the modern colonial and Western concept of identity is not universal. In fact it doesn’t really appear to be sustainable anymore, as the queer movement is demonstrating. It’s too narrow. Too limited.

What’s interesting about artistic research in performance is that, through exchanges with indigenous practitioners, it can be a meeting place. Both of us are engaging in dance and movement, and regard it as important in the sense that dance is not just about representation – it can really generate something; dance can be a teacher.

What do you mean?

I work with ready-mades: movements that have been passed on from generation to generation. You could say that re-embodying these ‘fossilised experiences’ conveys a specific form of knowledge. The anthropocentric gaze we have inherited and learned – especially in the arts, with ideas surrounding authorship and the ‘genius artist’ who places something in the world – is so different from the indigenous vision on dance and movement. For example, in the indigenous tradition they say ‘we lift the dance together … we carry the dance together … and the dance transforms us.’ The entire concept of subject and object goes out the window, and the dance itself is a participant.

Interview by Hester van Hasselt