Embodied Presence: Isabel Lewis Interviewed by Brooke Holmes

Honing sensory experience and collective mindfulness.

By Laura Fioro

Isabel Lewis with LABOUR, Expanded Viewing I + II (Garden of Earthly Delights) at Gropius Bau, Berlin, 2019. Photo by Laura Fiorio. Courtesy of Gropius Bau.

I met with Isabel Lewis at the Philadelphia Art Alliance at University of the Arts just as spring was turning to summer last May. In town for a few days from Berlin, where she has been based for the past decade, Lewis was preparing her new commission Existing Otherwise for the weeklong project titled School for Temporary Liveness, curated by Lauren Bakst and occupying the Philadelphia Art Alliance from September 25 to October 2.

Born in Santo Domingo; raised on an island off the coast of southwest Florida; and trained in literary criticism, dance, and philosophy, Lewis works across the boundaries of contemporary art, cultural criticism, choreography, and a capacious archive of aesthetic theory. She is a master of what I think of as aesthetic technologies—strategies (moving, smelling, listening, spectatorship, conversation, storytelling, theorizing) for honing sensory experience and collective mindfulness as the conditions of being together and thinking together differently. 

Brooke Holmes

Brooke Holmes For many years now, your work has been cultivating aesthetic conditions for embodied presence, especially a being-present with others, human and non-human. One thing that’s always fascinated me is how your work erases the difference between landscape, or backdrop, and protagonist: everything, everyone is co-present. From our conversations about Existing Otherwise, I know that the Wetherill Mansion, home of the Philadelphia Art Alliance at University of the Arts where the School for Temporary Liveness is taking place, has a collaborative role in the piece. Could you talk about your first encounter with the house?  

Isabel Lewis When I first visited the Philadelphia Art Alliance, I had a clear impression of its earlier use as a domestic space with a certain grandeur—it was done in an Italian Renaissance Revival style. As I spent time there, the materials of the interior began to reveal an American pragmatism, and perhaps a frugality. I noticed several woodcuts in the paneling with focal points done in rarer, more expensive wood and peripheral areas made with boards that were readily available and less expensive. I became cognizant of the building’s state of decay, its temporary solutions that seemed to have become permanent solutions—like a wall built around a disused piano that is now an electrical closet with the piano still there, lying on its side. The image of this grand piano on its side behind a fake wall resonated in me as a kind of poetic truth-telling about the times we live in, about the persistence of the past and its denigration. This relic of the past spoke to the dissonance of the lofty ideals of a cultural center alongside the brutality and tedium of decline: the decline of empire, the decline of American industrial strength, and the tradition of philanthropy that accompanied it.

Neven Allgeier Occasion In Kunsthalle Schirn

Isabel Lewis, Occasions for PEACE WEEKEND at Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2017. © Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt. Photo by Neven Allgeier.

BH The decline of empire brings up the visual logic of the ruin, which is such a staple of Western European and American classicism. But you’re speaking to the “brutality and tedium of decline”—haphazard adaptation, decay, the scale of the domestic. How do you see the relationship between ruin and decay? 

ILI feel there’s a romanticism about the ruin that makes itself available to the subjectivity that generates the fantasy of empire. It’s a question of altitude: the ruin requires the fall, and the fall requires distance from the ground, height. It persists as the specter of its former glory, a surface to project nostalgia onto. Decay is a feature of ruin, but it strikes me as a more organic and humble process. The brutality and the beauty is in the relentlessness of the breakdown and in its commonality. The figure of decay is more interesting for me to think with because it draws our thinking downward and moves multi-directionally. The agents of decay are fungi and bacteria that collaborate in a process of state transformation. The cyclical nature of growth and decay and the gradients of difference it requires is more attuned to my way of sensing the world I live in.

BH Yes, decay is something that isn’t always obvious. It makes me think back to that amazing image of the entombed piano. The house’s decline requires attention.

IL Yes, and to look into the 1907 blueprints of the Wetherill Mansion is to see a particular political aesthetics, too. There are clear designations for “Dining Room” and “Servants Dining Room,” “Bed Room” and “Servants B-R’m.” The house has a stage and backstage, an architecture of display for Philadelphia’s high-society members and a concealed architecture for the domestic helpers who maintained the show. The servants’ quarters were storage places for a while, but they are now in an advanced stage of decay. To spend time there is to become sensitized to the presence of all that is hidden. It’s to bear witness to the loudness of absence and what remains unseen but felt. In twenty-first-century America we’ve shifted toward more egalitarian ideals while witnessing greater wealth disparity that persists along lines of gender and especially race. Are we better off with a discursive aesthetics of egalitarianism regulating our social intercourse, clearly marking us as belonging to one side of a political/ideological divide? I think so … but I worry about the real lives and real bodies that speak to injustice, that fight and are fought for and against.

BH How does this deep history of stage and backstage in the Wetherill Mansion, with its entrenched asymmetries of class and wealth, its racial logic, its embodied costs, inform the choreography of Existing Otherwise?

IL I wanted to awaken the space, to amplify its qualities architecturally and energetically. The performers are engaged in choreographies and movement scores which require a high degree of concentration that brings a meditative quality to their presence. In their movements and placements, they engage with the actual architectural materials, entering into alternative relations with a site that has at times been a place of leisure for some and a place of labor for others, a site that has changed its form and function many times in a century. The performers do not represent the past forms of engagement with the space. Rather, they’re moving inside other modes of presence, doing and being differently. The work, which begins in the adjacent public space of Rittenhouse Square, takes the form of a walk that activates the visitors to move in and around a process unfolding in real time. Their movements are at times directed, and other times they determine their own pathways. The overlapping co-creative processes of the performers and the visitors dissolve the separation between stage and backstage.

By Pedro Jardim

Isabel Lewis with LABOUR, Expanded Viewing I + II (Garden of Earthly Delights) at Gropius Bau, Berlin, 2019. Photo by Pedro Jardim. Courtesy of the artist.

BH The School for Temporary Liveness approaches performance as a challenge and alternative to conventional forms of pedagogy. What did you find useful to think with in the pedagogical frame?

IL The curatorial framework as an experimental kind of school very much resonates with me. My choreographic practice often combines discursive, social, and presentational modalities. Through the lens of pedagogy, Existing Otherwise can be seen as the exercising of our receptive capacities. I invite visitors to stretch their senses to the limits of the sensible and approach the extrasensory in order to become receptive to the multiple forms of presence we live and die alongside. It proposes alternative modes of engagement with site and architecture as ways of moving toward strategies of healing and evacuating violent modalities of reproduction or representation in our address to the past. Existing Otherwise, considered as a form of praxis, becomes a passage for the attunement of the senses.

BH In the past you’ve experimented brilliantly with sound and scent in creating the world inhabited by visitors and performers. How do you use sensory technologies in this piece?

IL The music composed by my collaborators LABOUR emerges from different parts of the house in what I would call a choreography of sound. The sound design, and the care they take with speaker placement, means that sound becomes a major protagonist in the work. It’s not only heard but felt moving throughout the space. There are moments of the composition made to be experienced as distant sound, while other moments are proximal and draw you toward sounds in other areas of the house. Smell also takes an important role in this choreography. Most of my work tends to generate a gathered presence. We all taste and smell differently, but sensing together makes for a kind of intimacy that goes beyond being in the same place at the same time. I have had the great privilege of collaborating with the scientists Pamela Dalton and Christopher Maute of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, whom I invited to capture and analyze the building’s existing smells as a way of archiving its present state before it undergoes another round of extensive renovation. We also engaged in an imaginative process guided by archival research. Smells in the space evoke the building’s past and its immediate surroundings with what we’re referring to as “smell ghosts.” 

Photo Torvioll Poolside Pastoral For Elevation

Isabel Lewis, Poolside Pastoral performed for Elevation 1049 at Vieux Chalet, Gstaad, 2019. Photo by Torvioll. Courtesy of the artist.

BH This figure of the ghost, or ghosting, feels fundamental to the piece. What happens to the way you think about presence when you imagine the past to be living here with us?

IL Presence is, as you’ve noted, a central line of inquiry inside my work. While presence can be thought of as happening in the present, I think the experience of presence is more like a collapse of the temporal logic of past, present, and future. The collapse of these divisions gives way for a discourse of the unseen but felt to emerge. That which isn’t seen but is somehow felt has been stigmatized by modernity, marginalized into categories like the “esoteric” and the “occult.” Our inheritance of the Enlightenment’s puritanical fears of interiority and the invisible means that, in this part of the world, we are culturally predisposed to doubt anything that cannot be seen or quantified. The notion of transparency certainly has its positive and effective uses for questions of accountability. But it also affirms the unmitigated verity of both the visible and logical, which of course doesn’t account for all that spills over the logical and comprises the richness and excess of embodied experience. 

Isabel Lewis and LABOUR present Existing Otherwise at the School for Temporary Liveness at the Philadelphia Art Alliance in Philadelphia from September 25 to October 2.

Brooke Holmes teaches at Princeton University, where she also directs the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities. She works on the history and the philosophy of the body, concepts of nature, and forms of knowing with a focus on Greco-Roman antiquity and its reception. She is currently at work on The Tissue of the World: Sympathy, Life, and Nature in Greco-Roman Antiquity.

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