First, a stomp. Yup’ik dancer and choreographer Emily Johnson, crouched with knees wide, jumps, both feet landing hard on the concrete congregating space outside the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. It’s a tepid evening; soft light dips behind dusky clouds. A crowd watches Johnson with the faint anxious energy that tends to accompany cracks in the social norm. She invites us to join in, and we all, trepidatious, begin to stomp; still, it feels as though she’s the only one for whom the ground reaches up to meet her feet. She greets the ground. We merely tap it.
Thus began Invitation To Being A Future Being, held at PICA’s Time-Based Arts Festival in mid-September. The performance investigates five themes—land, celestial, inside, outward, underneath—through a continually shifting process of sound, movement, spoken word, and visuals. Invitation is just one iteration of the ongoing project Being Future Being, by Emily Johnson, Raven Chacon, Drew Michael, and Holly Mititquq Nordlum. The collaborators explore the body’s capacity as a site of culture, history, and memory, each centering aspects of Indigenous practice and perspective.
Currently in development through a series of residencies, the full version of Being Future Being will occur next spring at The Broad in Los Angeles. While it’s only one variant of a dynamic, continually shifting performance, Invitation To Being A Future Being is an expert activation of PICA’s indoor/outdoor space and its surrounding neighborhood.
After our stomping practice, Johnson directs the crowd around the block toward a tree on the corner of Northeast Hancock Street and North Williams Avenue. We walk in near-silence; scant whispers stand out against the subtle breeze of the darkening evening. Everyone congregates in the parking lot of RH Brown, a supplier of hand trucks and pallet jacks, and gazes at the humble tree. Its roots are beginning to lift and crack the surrounding sidewalk.
Johnson explains that she’s recently begun a walking practice. She walks around the circumference of a tree’s widest branches; therefore, she is also walking the circumference of its roots. The tree’s most visible story is supported by a hidden story underneath. Johnson demonstrates the practice of traversing the sidewalk, street, and parking lot to walk a wide circle around this tree. She describes getting “stuck” in certain stories while tree-walking, causing a pause in the journey. Indeed, there are moments when Johnson pauses in the performance, seeming deep in thought. Meanwhile, life on Hancock Street continues. A dachshund and her owner intercept Johnson’s circle; bikes and cars pass by; a flashlight within a tent across the street flickers.
Then, again, our location shifts. Johnson directs us down the sidewalk and inside of PICA’s building. She looks each attendee in the eye as they enter; sometimes she whispers something to them or touches them on the arm.
Indoors for the first time during this performance, I notice work by the other Invitation collaborators. Holly Mititquq Nordlum, an Inuit traditional tattooer and muralist, has created a mosaic-like birth canal motif on PICA’s door; each of us passes through it, and then between two walls of imagery inspired by traditional Inuit birthing tattoos.
In the center of the dimmed concrete room is a massive mound of soil that reminds me of umqan burial mound creation practices by the Aleut. A thin wire construction, the inverse of the mound’s shape, floats above it, hanging from the ceiling. Across from the mound, a mural of images related to the project includes a Yup’ik mask; Drew Michael, a Yup’ik and Inupiaq maskmaker, is in the process of creating a wooden mask with Johnson that will be used in a future version of this project.
The remainder of the performance is a collaboration between Johnson and Raven Chacon, a Diné composer and performer. While Johnson performs a fluid, intuitive dance revolving around the mound, Chacon develops a soundscore. An entrancing visual and aural landscape forms in the cavernous space. Chacon records Johnson speaking, which then turns into looping ambient sound, a rhythmic material with a life of its own. While dancing, Johnson holds a parametric speaker that casts out sonic artifacts like a laser beam toward the audience. The words power and future echo in my mind.
In the end, there is silence. Johnson leaves the space, and Chacon’s soundscore fades. I close my eyes and feel the points of my body that are touching the floor, the ground meeting me there. I think back to the stomping exercise that opened the performance. Drawing the ground upward with you, Johnson had explained, was the closest thing to flying.
Outside, the night has coated everything in indigo shadows. I circle two trees and get locked in their stories twice. As I finish, a mouse scurries by. I watch its soft brown form trailing down the street.
Performances of Invitation To Being A Future Being were held September 16-18, 2021.
The visual installation component of Invitation To Being A Future Being is on view at PICA until October 3, 2021.