By Carrie Stern
It was a brilliant day for a walk in Prospect Park — bright blue sky, temperature a perfect low-70s, not a cloud in the sky. Sixteen explorers gathered under the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Grand Army Plaza preparing for … well, we weren’t sure quite what.
Choreographer Miguel Gutierrez, a sweet-faced man dressed in a pink tank-top, long cut-offs, sneakers and a cap, was to lead us on an adventure. Not a trip into deep, rarely seen regions of the park; rather this was an adventure into the body using the park as a sensory exploratorium — “Sensewalk #1: Everything Is New.”
Crossing the street, we entered a concrete gazebo on the edge of the park just outside the Cadman Plaza Farmers Market. Two little boys played a brothers’ game, turning balloon keep-away into a fierce competition. Outside a jazz band played. Gutierrez asked us to close our eyes. As we stood “still,” the chattering and shouting of the market became pronounced, rising and falling on the air. I am rarely truly still. With my eyes closed I became aware of tiny twitches in my knees, of little currents running up and down my legs, of my neck turning my head, very slightly, side to side, towards and away from the music.
The first of four walks in different New York City environments, each “Sensewalk” is focused on a different theme — the senses; balance; space and time; and finally, play, composition and performance. The walks, sponsored by Elastic City, are intended for an audience that's ready to participate. Based in Brooklyn and directed by Todd Shalom, Elastic City commissions artists to create walks focused on heightening our awareness, exploring our senses and opening up new perspectives on public spaces. To date, over 50 artists have led walks in New York, Detroit, San Francisco, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, Paris, Reykjavik and São Paulo. Gutierrez’s walks are designed to lead participants through a “poetic exchange” with the places we live in and visit.
After a few minutes of listening, Gutierrez began to explain a few basics of how we perceive sound; the placement of our ears on the sides of our head helps us hear in stereo, the shape of our ears helps focus sound towards our ear canal and a long tube acts as a resonating chamber for a column of air. The physiology of the senses is fascinating but it isn't Gutierrez’s only focus.
“Our ears are always active,” he told me later in an interview. “As soon as we shut down one sense, we’re hyper-aware” with another, so with our eyes closed “we’re conscious of how much poetry there is in every sound.”
From the gazebo I led a partner, his eyes closed, down a sidewalk into the park, on to a small grass island and then into a tunnel. If Gutierrez had scripted it he could not have improved on the guitarist playing '60s and '70s folk songs under the beautiful, echoing, wood-and-brick-lined Prospect Park tunnel.
I have led and been led before. This day leading was a surprise. I carefully offered my partner my lower arm, his hand resting on top of mine. Threading our way through the crowd and into the park I placed my arm around his waist each time a bike or scooter whizzed by. I expected this to be enough, that he would follow. But leading is also a type of following. I found that I had to engage with his comfort zone and that I could not hurry him; I had to slow myself down.
Continuing a pattern that alternated description of the workings of the senses with time for individual exploration, we continued through the senses and through the park. In the tunnel, Gutierrez introduced touch. The tunnel provided a variety of sensations — coolness, rough bricks, smooth wood, fuzzy wood chips on the floor. We retreated to the market for taste, gathering small bits of herbs and “try-me” strawberries and peas, the taste of spring. We wandered off the path and into the brush to explore smell. To picture us on our return from the hedges, imagine a group of adults smelling each other’s hair and necks like a pack of dogs. Funny. Perhaps embarrassing. Yet we rarely focus on human smell outside of lovers, dancing partners or the truly rank. The range of pleasant or neutral smells, none truly unpleasant, was remarkable.
“Sensewalk #1” was the first time Gutierrez had used what he calls “sense work” outside a dance-studio setting. The exploration was also shorter than he is used to. He had a hard time deciding how much information to give, how much to talk and how much time to leave for exploration. Personally, I couldn’t process the verbal information while I was trying to discover what was inside the “sense work,” and occasionally I wanted to explore without someone talking. But mostly he got the balance right.
Russian dance artist Sasha Konnikova first exposed Gutierrez to “sense work” during an artist exchange through Dance Theater Workshop’s Suitcase Fund. She had learned it from Dutch artist Frans Poelstra.
“Something about it cracked something open for me,” he told me. Something “about the internalness of different materials and media, particularly something about sound-making, and about expressing the environment in a different way. It was a mode I was unfamiliar with. Something was awakened and I have really gone in my own direction with it.”
Gutierrez now uses “sense work” as one mode of training for himself and and his dancers.
When I asked him to revisit the comments on hearing he made during the walk, he said, “My general understanding is that when we perceive sound we name it; at least that’s the conventional understanding. But if you put space into your awareness, what happens is you start to experience an emotional sense of your relationship to qualitative aspects of sound, an amplified, internal experience that we imbue with meaning. The senses are often discussed in terms of how we perceive external enjoyment, the senses from the outside, but this is not the whole picture. The senses are also tied to our interior life. We move between our experience, our reaction,” and how we inscribe meaning.
“The purpose of the walks,” he said finally, “is to get into the poetics of the senses — how do I feel about my location in the world? How do the senses aid us in interactions with people? With our eyes closed we become conscious of how much poetry there is in every sound. As soon as we shut down one sense, [sight for example], we become hyper-aware of the symphony around us. It’s a new way of relating to the existing environment.”
At the top of a small hill, in the midst of the park’s great lawn, “sensewalkers” spoke of their personal revelations. Perhaps we didn't all have “poetic exchanges,” but many of us had a new, altered knowledge of a familiar environment.
For more information, visit elastic-city.org