21 min + 10 min versions
Commissioned by Lower Left Dance Collective for their Satellite Project

Dry Wash investigates the body’s relationship to the sonic, physical, and social landscapes of Joshua Tree, taking an improvisational approach to pursue both the creation of a dance and a domestic language born of desert living. Played out between the earth and the sky the language of the film is social, gestural, and deeply physical; somewhere between a rough cowboy arrogance and a fluid multiplicity that is charged with animal curiosity and reflexivity.

The work was funded by California State University San Marcos, City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture, and Gayle McInnis in memory of her mother, Marguerite Ceville Meador. It was shot during eleven days in Joshua Tree National park in the Southern California desert and premiered at the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA.


Dry Wash 10 minute version.

“The evening’s most experimental piece  came from Minneapolis-based Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad of the BodyCartography Project. In a series of slowly accumulating images, it presented a vision of individual and communal struggle set against a gorgeous, unforgiving and quintessentially Western landscape. Intimate solo and duet segments offered a haunting counterpoint to the more cerebral, abstract and sometimes funny group scenes.” – Jennifer de Poyen, San Diego Tribune

“The desert is full of paradox: a place full of monotony and variation, resting and activating. It reminds us constantly how being a few inches away from death can be so enlivening.” – participant comment

Dry Wash performers: Alicia Marvan, Christian Motos, Dan Bear Davis, David France, Jane Blount, Jennifer Selgrath, Jessica Radclovich, Karen Schaffman, Kristine Diekman, Margaret Paek, Olive Bieringa, Otto Ramstad, Raz Mesinai, Rebecca Bryant, Richard Hunt, Rivera Cook, Tony Allard, Carrie Gistantas, Christian Motos, Kristine Diekman, Olive Bieringa, Otto Ramstad, Tony Allard


Lower Left event, Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla

Bryant Lake Bowl, Minneapolis
Headlands Center for the Arts

About the project

The sun rises on ascending pile of rocks illuminating them bright orange. A body appears as if cleaved from rock leaving a small hole of sky in the place her body had been. Bodies are scattered over a distance of fifty yards behind creosote bushes, under a tree or out in the harsh early morning light. The camera moves through the landscape slowly rediscovering bodies over and over or in fast motion speeding roughly through the vegetation across the sand as the bodies compose themselves in order to walk out of frame. A vast landscape pan. Five dancers jumping and flying through a blue sky. A duel takes place between a man and a women on ridge with dueling banjos. A group walking intently walking toward the sunrise or sunset. A woman in a 1950s blue dress cleans up her home in the womb of a rock in preparation for the ensuing self conscious tea party. A large group walking, scattering and disappearing like jack rabbits. Ongoing panning shot that follows performers through a village or circus like environment. A group walk backwards and without gravity in a lunar landscape. The second duel takes place between two women at high noon on the open plain between cacti and yucca. A woman’s solo close to the camera eventually reveals a large group scene happening behind her. A final duel on a high flat rock surface that results in no loser. A sunset and moon rise mediation with fifteen performers standing on atop rocks bodies time and earths time in entrainment.

The location in which this film took place was Joshua Tree National Park. The park encompasses two deserts and therefore two ecosystems divided by altitude. The higher filled with Joshua trees and the lower with creosote bushes, ocotillo, and cholla cactus. People have inhabited the area for about 5000 years, although not specifically where we shot Dry Wash. Stirrup Tank held natural water reserves at certain times of year on the edge of the Hexie mountains. People would stay for three of four days before moving on. In the rocks there a smooth granite surfaces and mortars where people prepared food and crushed herbs.

The film features movement, sound and video artists from San Diego, Santa Cruz, Minneapolis, New Zealand, NYC and New Mexico and is directed by BodyCartography Project’s Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad. The film is slated to “investigate the bodies’ relationship to the sonic, physical and social landscapes of Joshua Tree. Taking an improvisational approach to pursue both the creation of a dance and a domestic language born of desert living.”

How we make our work is in direct response to the environments we work in. The selection of cast, costumes color, camera style and shooting duration are identified before we arrive. Possible images and material is discussed but nothing is choreographed until we immerse ourselves in the landscape. From here, this place, the space in between our bodies and the environment, the interstitial place, the material evolves. We invite performers’ animal-like appetites and childlike curiosities for physical investigation through engagement of their sensorial body. Motivated by ecological issues we place our bodies in direct relationship to the world highlighting our interdependence on its fragile ecosystems.

There is little separation between the content and the process of our work. Both are of value and both reflect each other directly. We have a responsibility to the work but also to each other and the environment. This is less art for arts sake and more about materials, things, process, people, and places operating in relationship to one another. One piece of the final outcome is the film and this film lives only as an experience held in the mind’s eye of the watcher. This is at once pragmatic as it is philosophical.

The most important place where my work exists is not in the museum gallery or in the screening room, on the television and not even on the video screen itself, but in the mind of the viewer who has seen it.

The space between sky and earth plays the starring role in Dry Wash. It is in this interstitual space where the sourcing of material happens. The place where the dancers experience the breath, spirit, wind, atmosphere of this place. Power emanates from this place as they open their senses to it. The air brings the dancer detailed information about their surroundings. And they inhale microscopic pieces of the environment into their lungs triggering deep emotions and distant memories. Here dancers have a direct “ … possibility of exiting the horizontal realm of social relations for a vertical alignment with earth and sky, matter and spirit.” The costuming heightens this dilemma for the performer as they move between earth and sky, animal and human. Here many things are out of context. The very reality of a group of white people living in the desert is not a good idea. Some examples of this decontextualisation lead to the question of what is of human, of animal, of alien, of creature in this material and in this place where all is strange and unfamiliar. We have none of our usual references to use as signposts and the mind begins to play tricks. This is a quality that could be amplified more in the film. The music supports this quality particularly in the dry wash and moonwalk sections of the film.

The dance language of the film is a domestic, social, gestural language that is charged with an animal curiosity and reflexiveness that manifests as timing in the prosodic body of the performer.

Codirector Olive Bieringa

Dry Wash 21 minute version.

“Rocks scratching my skin –
Caught on a prickly bush.

My party dress – blue with holes – 50s shapely – Western settler.
Stranger landing on another terrain.”

– performer Karen Schaffman

Performer & Project Co-Coordinator Karen Schaffman’s response:

BodyCartography’s new work Dry Wash shifts away from the urban banks of Minneapolis and the cool moist mountains of New Zealand to the arid landscapes of the Southern California desert. From sunrise to sunset, the video is an interesting and odd romp of humans who seemingly land into another world. The haunting and driving sound score, along with the camera’s driving perspective, propel viewers into an unexpected journey. Those who can put aside popular (“normative”) Western expectations of perception can drop into a pleasurable travelogue of unusual proportions. The human to nature scale plays a relentless game for one’s senses; audio amplifies the ambient bees buzzing and sticks cracking, while the visual field plays foreground and background in disproportionate ways. The physicality of Dry Wash celebrates the improvisation of everyday life. Within the desert landscape, the use of improvisation within the extremely harsh environment caused the dancers to focus in ways unfounded in a dance studio setting. The directors of the project impressed this point over and over to the dancers. Rising slowly in their best blue party clothes, the dancers appear as if walking on another planet.

Performer Rivera Cook’s Response:

Nine days in, lips drying, cracking, skin burnt and weathered, roughed. Heat pounding on tired shoulders, sweat on neck. I’m exhausted. The early morning sunrise risings and sunset shots are my favorites, when the coolness quickens my blood. Now, in the heat of the day, I’m sluggish and grumpy, wanting to doze like the tiny lizards all around. Otto and Olive have set up a miniature frame- a super, close-up foreground with a tiny stick figure chorus far in the back ground. There are about 15 of us, the core group of seven augmented by some new arrivals coming in for the community shoot day. The newcomer’s energy makes me realize the gradual wear of the desert on my body. Everyday is a tradeoff. Sure footing on the steep rocks in exchange for long gashes on my shins. A gradual reduction in thirst and dehydration for the alligator skin patterns scaling on my skin. My energy learning to parallel itself to the desert animals- stillness, with quick darts, but letting go of its ability to sustain on-going duration. I’m breathing in the tempo of the desert now. Olive calls me to solo in the foreground. Feeling torn, glad not to deal with the social dynamics of the large group, but not sure if I have the energy to solo, I’m hoping Olive’s going to ask me to lie down and wiggle my fingers in a plant or something. Nope. It’s a full-body shot. While I’m mustering energy, trying to cultivate Qi from the heat, Otto makes a suggestion. “Do you know the dance of description?” One by one wake up the senses. Touch, taste, hearing, sight, smell, the kinesthetic. Tune to the environment; accept the truths both inside and outside the shell of the body. Translate the incoming sensorial information in to kinesthetic output.

Dance. The smell of the creosote bush, sound of hard rock scrabbling underfoot, soft caresses from the wind, burning of the sun’s glare, taste of the cracks in the rocks: everything becomes impetus for movement. Energy comes from engagement.
Suddenly, I’m fully here in the knockdown stunning presence of the desert. Every bee buzzing is no longer separate from me, an exhibit to tourist by. I’m here, fully part of the landscape, a strange human being, on par with ants, rodents, lizards. The look of the hunting bird yesterday that hovered over my head, considering me for dinner, makes sense now. I could very well be her dinner.
Below, the chorus of dancers rip and pound their booted feet through a small meadow that we once tiptoed through for fear of destroying mouse trails.

Fellow dancer, Dan Bear said, “we exist, therefore we change things”.
We do. We do. And every action is amplified in this extreme climate. Our impact is felt strongly in this delicate landscape of hardiness.

And so, here, dancing the dance of description on this rock, during our ninth day of shooting, all my senses ripped raw and open, an equally exchanging transfusion shocks through me. For the thirty-minute solo, I’m stunned, in balance. In spirit, body, heart and mind, I’m in ecstasy. There is no separation. No distinctions. Only union.

Performer Dan Bear Davis’s Response:

Born into blueness.
Sky dropped
into body.
Cropped from the cyanotype distance
into this landscape of self.

Surrender fallen sky, you are made of gravity.
Skeleton holds you earthbound
thinking thoughts of flight.
You can not escape root matter.
Strange creature drinking of liquid and image,
you will find all the cracks,
melt the rocks slowly
count the sand beneath.
Paper covers stone
water melts rock
mind tries to climb higher
unsatisfied by bounds of bone and form.

It is seven in the morning, and I am lying in a ball in a playboy leisure suit in a dry wash in the desert. Trying to find my shape. Searching for my geometry. My coordinates among giants.
I’ve been here before. Distilling from a blue place where I was not yet born. Thrust willy-nilly into form and structure, culture and expectation.
We are all aliens at this cocktail party.
We are all trying to fit into clothes that do not fit.
We are all being coerced into armor that is not ours. That we may have no use for.
Here, we are simply fallen sky.
Defined against a context out of context.
We are foreigners here, no matter how high we scale.
We are foreigners here, waiting for the fade into blue.

So, I am in the desert, twitching and convulsing between dream and stone. Trying to locate my borderlands. Discerning the necessary strength and fortification of my boundaries. It would be so easy to dissolve into this expanse. This expanse that will swallow you if you sit still long enough.
Wind grinding sand against skin, forcing the soft under parts to the surface, exposing bone, so you resemble the skeletal landscape.
This vast expanse of space between that points its crooked finger, laughing:

“Funny beast, funny beast! Stands upright and counts on fingers. Dresses self in symbol and composure and refuses to howl at the moon. Funny beast, funny beast. You cannot count as high as the stars. You cannot count as big as the sands. You can dig all you want. Water is in the sky.”

Funny beasts we are. Slamming unflinching against the solid structures of our lives. Trying to fit into odd shaped nooks and crannies, rubbing soft flesh against sandpaper grindstone, dancing between knife sharp edges.

A documentary about the making of Dry Wash