26th Feb 2023
Resisting Extinction, is part of the Performance Arcade on Wellington’s waterfront.
Underlying the work of BODYCARTOGRAPHY PROJECT is a decades long inquiry into embodied practices leading to ecological conversations.
Olive Bieringa and Otto Ramstad head a company of corporeal adventurers who invite the audience into a two hour long deep dive into the ecosystem of inner city Central Park. A previous iteration was forged in Norway and will emerge in Estonia later in the year.
Gurgling through the gully is a stream, that was once a place where people dumped their garbage. Since the middle of last century the park has been restored by the city council and hundreds of volunteers. In recent years Volunteer Wellington in collaboration with the Friends’ of Central Park, have hosted corporate groups from high flying, carbon guilty companies such as Z Energy and ANZ bank. They have been tasked with attacking invasive species and planting natives such as totara, rimu and manuka.
The mega flora is a combination of mature pines and gums where, these days, kaka hang out and swoop from like high flying raucous boguns.
Rachel Ruckstuhl-Mann elegantly welcomes us with a mihi, shared breath and karakia.
Each member of the intimate audience is paired with a ‘dancer’ from the company and taken on a individually unique ‘weather walk’ through the park.
My guide is Maria Lothe, a Norwegian who has been involved in this project from the beginning, she has deep blue eyes like a crystal clear mountain lake.
Surrendering to the experience and discarding any judgement or previous knowledge yields: a slide over the carbon guilt of a long haul flight from Norway; discussion of current threats and ‘who takes the blame?’ questions as we paint our faces with mud; mimicking a cow fart; monsters and the troll under our bridges; the covertness of ‘cruising’ culture – discarded condoms abound; the unfurling of a punga; the smell of decomposing fronds as I am buried beneath them; the feel of rimu needles in my hair; the taste of gorse flowers; the pull of gravity on a slope whilst emulating the soaring of a karearea; a Norwegian moose song; the stomp of a hoof; picking up rubbish and the story of a bird with a broken neck. She transforms into the wounded creature embodying such beauty and horror in her death throes that grief wells up in my throat as I re-join the group.
After a brief description of how this place came into being and the changes in fauna over time. We, freshly minted eco-investigators, are invited to amble for twenty minutes and delve deeper into the environment. Again each member of the posse has a unique experience.
Slumped, stoic, perched, muddy and hidden ‘dancers’ can be found amidst the foliage, writhing, squawking, groaning. Interaction is a matter of choice. Some of these creatures seem to be in death throes but this is open to interpretation. Above them a fan tail flits and one baths in the stream as I wipe mud from my face and disrobe from the punga fronds draped over my shoulders.
Olive Bieringa takes charge of the group and leads us into the final part of the experience. Following a discussion of ‘dying choices’: drowning, hypothermia or dehydration, the group decides on drowning. With a tinge of trepidation we make our way up the hill to an open meadow with fur rugs laid out. It’s a gorgeous vista under moody skies and a burgeoning rain shower. We are invited to make ourselves comfortable and embark on a ‘practice’ to investigate our death of choice and subsequent decomposition. The rain falls.
A flight of kakas, orange armpits flashing, herald Bieringa’s strong articulate voice as she delivers an intricate informed text about the process of drowning. It is an horrifically beautiful thought experiment – it is astounding how these states can nestle so closely with each other. She pragmatically explains how water floods the lungs, how immediately the 100 trillion microbes in our gut turn on us to begin the process of decomposition once we’re dead. Rigor mortis sets in, dropping into the depths of the ocean face down, head and arms drooping from the spine, then rising again bloated, buffeted by waves, pecked by feeders, then dropping again as our skin slides off into the seaweed forest with red algae and psychedelic slugs where a vivid colony starts to scavenge our carcass. Bones remain after eighteen months but even they are broken down as worms bore into them in search of fat.
As we are invited to return to our present environment, the generous, hard-working dance artists move gently through the meadow to congregate. They are: Oliver Connew, Maria Lothe, Kosta Bogoievski, Rachel Ruckstuhl-Mann, Olivia McGregor, Amit Noy, Josie Archer and Otto Ramstad. Uma Ramstad sings, for her generation, Adrianne Lenker’s haunting anthem Change in a sweet voice with the company joining on the chorus.
Would you live forever, never die
While everything around passes?
Would you smile forever, never cry
While everything you know passes?
Wind stirs the trees, the rain clears, people are soothed by the sounds. Tea is served, hands are washed.
On the way out I ask some audience members how they found Resisting Extinction. They have never experienced anything like this before, they are still processing it. One woman, navigating awkward stairs, says she was a bit afraid beforehand, not knowing what to expect, but she found the experience enriching, provocative.
Bieringa and Ramstad are deeply committed to their practice, to conversations, to inviting participants to connect more fully with their bodies to face dis-ease and the pains of our time. Its gruelling, honourable work as they grapple with the question of how this ‘practice’ can lead to action. It’s a good question.
As we leave, the gorgeous kakas continue to chortle. They are the result of the Zealandia halo, legions of predator trappers, armies of native tree planters in gullies all across the city and a council team committed to working with their community. Here in Whanganui-a-Tara we are bucking the trend of bio-diversity loss.
There is hope.
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