Bay Nature magazineSpring 2020

Art and Design

In ‘These Lines Are Living,’ Artists Engage With the Changing Shoreline

Can site-specific dance and other forms of art help us more deeply grasp the reality of our changing shorelines?

March 24, 2020
Fog Beast
Fog Beast performs at Rodeo Beach. (Photo by Jessica Swanson)

Performances by the Bay Area dance company Fog Beast, which was founded in 2010 and produces works mixing ecology and the arts, are almost always multisensory, multimedia experiences that transcend the traditional boundaries of their medium. Take Change, the company’s 2015 performance about climate change. That piece blended rock music, PowerPoint presentations, scientific lectures, skits, light shows, and, of course, dance into a single event. The result was a mix of the playful and the sobering, engaging with climate science and politics in a way that rendered the material accessible without jeopardizing its gravity.

In their new and evolving performance piece, These Lines Are Living, Fog Beast returns to these subjects, this time also asking profound questions about how the body itself can provide a way of understanding our interconnectedness with our environment. How, for example, can a site-specific dance create an opportunity for audiences to engage with the concepts of sea-level rise and shoreline change? To explore this question, the company and its co-artistic directors Melecio Estrella and Andrew Ward joined Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory science adviser Andrew Jones for a three-month residency this winter at the Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin. That residency will culminate in two days of interactive performances of These Lines Are Living in spring or summer.

The piece, which the company plans to reimagine and perform on many of the Bay Area’s diverse shorelines, seeks to help audiences cultivate what Ward calls a “more embodied experience” with their watery surroundings. He believes people’s relationships with the landscape are not just intellectual but also shaped by activation of the senses. (As philosopher and former dancer/choreographer Maxine Sheets-Johnstone puts it, “We literally discover ourselves in movement.”) The feel of our toes in the sand, the sound of wind rustling through a cypress tree, and the smell of the sea all convey information and define our relationships with and place within a landscape. These aren’t simply bodily experiences, then, but also ways of knowing and relating that complement knowledge from books, maps, or stories.

In this spirit of multisensory engagement, the coming iteration of These Lines Are Living will include installations of videos, drawings, and other materials throughout the Headlands Center for the Arts building; dances within the building; a walk down to Rodeo Beach for the major shoreline performance; and then a communal meal back inside. While Estrella acknowledges that this oscillation between intellectual questions and artistic exploration is unconventional, he thinks it gives audiences who might feel alienated by either “pure dance” or by a technical science lecture better access to the work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Estrella and Ward describe a research process that mixes the academic, meditative, and physical. Ward spent a lot of his time at the Headlands walking, listening, and closely observing his environment, then generating movement or song from those immediate experiences. He and Estrella also invited scientists to speak on subjects like the movement of sand, which in turn has influenced the final choreography. Conversations about wave dynamics also find their way into These Lines Are
with one dancer initiating a movement that echoes, Jones says, “through a chain of people, like a wave.”

Jones makes a distinction between “art for science,” “science for art,” and what Fog Beast is doing. Scientists are often interested in using art and design to communicate more effectively, he says, and artists often respond to scientific findings. But with Fog Beast, “we’re using both science and art to look at this landscape and look at our relationship to it.” This theme of “relationship” runs through all conversations about These Lines Are Living, and Estrella sees interconnectedness as the piece’s central theme. To that end, he says, “I’m looking to generate a possibility for awe.”

While These Lines Are Living may not bill itself as an activist artwork, it does make a sort of argument: Without people deeply feeling interconnectedness or experiencing awe, an environmental movement’s potential and power are severely limited. Exploring our relationship with systems larger than ourselves allows us to see them in new ways and imagine new futures.

About the Author

Matthew Harrison Tedford is an arts writer focused on ecology, history, and politics. Based in San Francisco, his work has appeared on KQED, Hyperallergic, SF Weekly, Art Practical, and elsewhere.