26 May 2006

MakerThinker Profile: Elizabeth Streb

Artist as philosopher... I buy it. Art is more than craft. But there is more than one way to think. This is the first in a series of meditations about MakerThinkers.

MakerThinkers are not mere art workers, fabricating someone else's thoughts, and are more than art thinkers, whose skill is verbalizing their ideas for others to make visual. MakerThinkers stand outside the richkid/poorkid caste system. MakerThinkers actively create new propositions by thinking nonverbally: with their bodies, hands, relationships to materials.

You can't start talking about MakerThinkers without invoking Elizabeth Streb. Streb is playing with the limitations of the human body, Newtonian physics, and the relationship between the body and physical law. There is a sweet, thin packet of space between flying and falling. There is a moment of time when a body can push past an unegotiable boundary, like gravity. A body can navigate amazing obstacles using grade-school science concepts. A pendulum has a period. A brick has weight. Flesh is soft and flesh is hard.

Streb's company actively mines these relationships and searches for new information about what a body can do, what a prop can yield, what the negotiable points are in physics. I was lucky enough to talk to Elizabeth Streb after a show once. I asked her how her company started to rehearse Gauntlet, in which dancers dodge swinging cinderblock pendulums. Obviously using a foam brick wouldn't work--it would be a different weight and the pendulum would have a different period. "Did you give everyone a helmet?" I asked.

She said no. She said that they watched, and counted, and when they understood the pendulum's period, they started working with it. Un-outsourceable... that's MakerThinking!


Anonymous joel said...

thank you for pointing out that thinking is a simple act: nutonian physics; moving your body; moving, reducing, assembling material.
i'm currently working with an artist as a consultant. she needs some assistnace designing a large mechanical installation. my job, as someone who knows a good deal about solving mechanical problems, is to give her enough rope to hang herself with and the tools to make the rope into a machine, instead of a noose. maker-thinkers consistently produce better work, no matter what the market says

30 May, 2006 20:27  
Blogger serena said...

Thank you also for pointing out that kinesthetic thinking is, in fact, thinking, not some sort of automatic, lower-animal function.

Not to put down Elizabeth Streb in any way--I love her company's work--but you DO know that Elizabeth herself does not actually perform any of the fabulous tricks done by her company? She sits around and envisions things, tells her company what she sees, and lets them figure out how to accomplish it.

Coming from a classical ballet background, this scares the hell out of me, at the same time as I find it thrilling. The potential for injuries, trying to do the impossible, is just as high as the potential for brilliant breakthroughs.

01 June, 2006 16:50  
Anonymous BradleyB said...

i guess that you are trying to break down the division between thinking and doing rather than building it up, but i wonder if the emphasis on thinking with the body as a different kind of thinking undoes that intention.

another way might be to understand all thinking as embodied. there never was any separation between thinking and doing except in the artificial imposition of analytic categories.

i also don't believe it is helpful to mystify the body by assigning it to some black hole of meaning. meaning is always slippery; and that is true of meaning that relies on non-verbal sensation (visual, tactile, proprioceptive, etc.) and equally of meaning that relies on linguistic or semiotic structures. there is no transparency anywhere. there is no zone of pure rationality. there is no domain in which understaning becomes automatic or complete.

thinking is always a struggle and neccesarily an unfinished business.

it seems to me a strange turn to take from the discussion of what is really a division of labor that has its source in something like class and has a whole history within industrialization where mental labor and physical labor are separated, differentially valued, assigned to separate classes and renumerated accordingly. but isn't this exactly what warhol points to by calling his studio the factory? (isn't that in that article?).

i wouldn't shy away from making connections between art and philosphy, but to mobilize a notion of the philospher artist in defense of the taylorization of art practice smacks of ideological pretense.

29 September, 2006 17:10  

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