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Activist Body Symposium moves U. community

September Activist Body Symposium tackles body social politics, power structures

The Atlantic Ocean was draped in sparkling teal scales and bright blue slippers.

“Introducing, the Atlantic!” was the only forewarning the audience received before the clown performer entered the room, squeaking and gasping to symbolize the ocean’s impending death.

This was one of many performances featured at the Activist Body Symposium Sept. 29. During the event, students, faculty and members of the Providence community gathered to discuss the political power of bodies and the spaces they occupy. Dance scholars, graduate students and visiting researchers were invited to speak and perform about the impact of human bodies on social spaces.

“We were asking, what would happen if we looked at … the body as a non-negotiable power source,” said Sarah Wilbur, the organizer of the event and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies. She was interested in “how people change the world through how they participate, … through the way they move,” she added.

The symposium lasted all day and featured roundtables on research perspectives, workshops and performances.

Leon Hilton, assistant professor of theatre arts and performance studies, discussed bodies within the context of disability activism. Hilton studies photojournalism from protests led by disability activist groups. In his talk, he showed a picture of two police officers carrying away an unnamed activist.

“I’m thinking about these images as photographs that have been co-produced by the activists and by the repressive forces that are depicted in them,” he added.

Police “appear to be roughly handling, detaining and, in many cases, arresting bodies that have been deemed vulnerable enough to elicit state and federal protections,” Hilton said.  “It seems to me … that these protests have perhaps been staged precisely in order to produce these photographs, to elicit the gaze of the mass public,” he added.

“These activists submit to and embrace the process of spectacularizing the vulnerability of their own bodies,” Hilton said. These strategies have made their way into front pages and headlines, “such as one that recently appeared in The Nation, which said disability rights activists are the real heroes of the health care fight, and I find it hard to disagree with this statement,” he added.

Stefanie Miller GS, a PhD candidate in the TAPS department, considered how activists’ bodies and the spaces they occupy relate to “stolen indigenous land.”

“I do research on performances of protest within the context of southern colonial Canada,” Miller said. She studies movements like flash mob round dances and hopes to drive conversations on the notion of “performing on stolen indigenous land … and also to think a little about the possible solidarities between social movements in Canada,” she said.

Orlando Hernández finished off the event with a tap dance performance that interrogated ideas surrounding de-colonization. His performance took place at the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts where it moved up the stairs from the entrance of Martinos Auditorium into the Cohen Gallery. Hernández, dressed in a white cloth outfit, explored themes of colonialism and power by tap dancing to a 16th-century text that Spaniards would read to native people upon conquering their land.

“There’s two parts of it. There’s moving through the architecture. … Then there’s being among these other bodies who are sort of in the same situation as you. There’s definitely this kind of amorphous unity of trying to figure out where he’s going,” said Francesca Gallo ’19, an attendee of the event. “It was incredible.”

The event aimed to transcend academic study of the body and space. “This isn’t just a scholarly issue,” Wilbur said.

“I’m just interested in the idea of what functions bodies can perform outside of just moving to express something, or within the confines of dance and choreography,” Gallo said.


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