Unlearning Weekenders: 12 Hour Procession & Artists’ Talk
Artists culminate their research with a procession through Vancouver's East Side, across two bridges, to Third Beach, to teach - or unlearn - more than expected
Words by Mariane Bourcheix-Laporte
Photos by Ash Tanasiychuk
The proposition was, from the start, intriguing: an open invitation to participate in the planning and realization of a 12-hour performance procession through Vancouver. This procession was organized as the closing event of a year-long research project undertaken by artists Zoë Kreye and Catherine Grau. Carried out over a period of several months in Canada, the US and India, the artists’ experiential, performative and cultural research is documented via the Unlearning Weekenders blog.
I came across this blog by chance, and reading the premise of the project’s final chapter (the 12-hour procession in Vancouver), was immediately hooked:
“Unlearning Weekenders are a series of workshops that invite the public to co-develop a public procession. We are looking for new ways to activate our perceptions and find creative forms of criticality. With the use of props, costume and our individual + collective bodies we wish to challenge invisible social structures, disrupt hierarchies and celebrate new narratives. The procession looks to reclaim internal personal space and external public space.”
Being interested in challenging accepted norms of behaviour in public space in my own artistic practice, I was excited by the idea of taking part in – and therefore both witnessing and experiencing – Kreye and Grau’s unlearning process. The real excitement, though, resided in the prospect of participating in a 12-hour procession through the city. This epic performative journey promised to be, while not a paradigm-shifting experience, an opportunity to perceive familiar spaces anew, to interact with the city differently, and to let go momentarily of learned self-monitoring habits and social inhibitions.
What is meant by “unlearning?” To begin understanding what “unlearning” might mean, we must acquaint ourselves with the process of questioning accepted norms, of challenging the status quo, and of reconsidering one’s place in the knowledge ecology. To answer this question, we must let go of accepted paradigms and frames of thought, we must be open to the idea that the concept of knowing is itself to be reconsidered, and that any sentiment of certitude should be thought suspect. We must unlearn a utilitarian frame of thought, and consider that experiences must not always result in the use-value driven expansion of our knowledge base. We must learn to see the value of experiences as experiences, and attune our senses to appreciating them to their full potential.
I arrived late on the day of the performance. As usual my sense of direction failed me and I showed up at the wrong starting point. I caught up with the processioning group after rushing through a large segment of the rebranded East Village neighbourhood (still largely referred to as Hastings Sunrise). Joining the group, I was adorned with a hand-made branch-pendant necklace and treated to a full-body massage on the grassy area separating the two sides of Pender Street. A few minutes of bliss, feeling the heat of the sun, the tickling of the grass, and the gentle touch of 3 pairs of hands manipulating my limp body.
A group of kids with whom Kreye and Grau conducted workshops in preparation of the procession, meet us as we finish reinvigorating our bodies. Wearing twigs, leaves, branches and sticks as costumes, the kids lead us through an industrial part of East Van, the heat-attracting zone of asphalt, concrete and warehouses that sits between the colourful houses of the Commercial Drive and Strathcona neighbourhoods.
Children’s energy is contagious, and we were all quickly infected. Adorned with bright coloured-fabric and twigs, balancing bundles on our shoulders and chanting, dancing, laughing as we went, our group was at odds with the surrounding environment. Rethinking about that part of the journey, I picture the spaces we travelled through partly obstructed by the trellis of leaves cast on my eyes by the improvised headdress I was wearing.
Brightly coloured triangles of fabric are laid down on the ground for a potluck gathering at MacLean Park. My already tired legs welcome the moment of rest, my hungry body welcomes the food, and my sun-stroked skin welcomes the shade. Before we press on to the next part of the journey, we are led by traditional Lil’wat singer Russell Wallace in the collective singing of a traditional Coast Salish song. The harmony that has weaved itself amongst the members of the group this morning manifests into a harmony of voices.
We are welcomed by excited comments made by musicians playing at Oppenheimer Park’s open mic/stage. It is interesting to notice how what is out of the ordinary is ignored by some and welcomed by others. Throughout the day, the reactions that our processioning group elicited were as varied as the city neighbourhoods we travelled through. As the day went on, it became apparent that the character of a space inherently influences its inhabitants’ behaviour. The more the design of a space lends itself to be appropriated by its users, the more behaviour and social interactions in that space have the potential to be malleable. In spaces designed with inherent flexibility and appropriated by their users, such as the parks, beaches and residential neighbourhoods that we passed through, encountered passersby greeted us with smiles and were, in general, more open to the bizarre quality of our group.
On the contrary, the more programmed and controlled the character of a space, the more inhospitable it becomes to impromptu social interactions. In the downtown area for example, we elicited mitigated reactions or were ignored by people we encountered. Nevertheless, we sprinkled some unlearning in our path by distributing cards inviting people to reflect on the colour of air, the rhythm of objects, and the textures of sounds… a reminder that possibilities for unlearning are everywhere.
At Crab Park, we stop to feel the sand on our toes as we listen to a reading. Even the common toad can teach us to unlearn. And from this we keep going, only this time backwards.
The downtown core promised to be a fertile area to unlearn in: The more rules regulate a space, the more programmed and controlled behaviour is bound to be. There is much to unlearn in a regulated environment. And so we engage in a collective exercise consisting in the metaphorical unpeeling of our skin. Halting at Granville and Georgia, we symbolically remove our external shell; a layer of protection that we wrap ourselves into, consciously or not, to face the world.
Crossing the Granville Bridge, the wind is blowing and my view obstructed at times by waves of fabric flapping around my head. Ahead of me, a deambulating collective body, joined together by a thin layer of lycra, moving to the rhythm of this undulating sea of fabric. The device is simple: a connective tissue ties together individual bodies into a singular entity. A relational apparatus heightening one’s sensation of other users’ movements. And so collectively, we tune into the symphony of movement of the surrounding environment.
I am suddenly exhausted when we arrive at Granville Loop Park. It is nearly 6pm. I lay on the grass, and closing my eyes to dose off for a moment, I catch a glimpse of the improvised dance lesson that members of our processioning group are treated to by a multi-generational East Asian ladies’ social club (Chai at Chaupal group from Richmond Multicultural Community Services). The music gradually fades. I wake up ready to keep on.
As we begin the final part of the journey, our group’s collective energy has diminished and our focus is directed at our imminent arrival to Third Beach, the procession’s final destination. Our slow but steady walk along the shores of Vancouver’s West End is mirrored by the graceful movement of a balloon-adorned canoe. Music and cheers from the canoe encourage us to carry on, but our off-land processioning peers soon disappear into the distance. Benefitting from the short cuts that water travel sometimes affords, they are bound to finish the journey before us. So we carry on, pressed to join them to celebrate the end of the adventure.
Nearing the end of the journey, unlearning is, for the core group of procession participants, no longer an abstract concept. Throughout the day, we have learned that there is no right answer, no proper way of going about the city and of interacting with others. If what Unlearning Weekenders suggests is that that we should beware of prescribed behaviour, and that we shouldn’t contend with the comfort of repeated actions, then we have fully engaged this process. Throughout the day, we have opened ourselves to other ways of doing, of going about the city, and interacting with the world. Our processioning group refused to gain knowledge through disembodied rationality and, instead, embraced the absorption and processing of information experientially. For one day, we have attempted to de-program ourselves from defaulting to a utilitarian frame of thought, which assimilates behaviour and social interactions into a use-value equation. In short, we have opened ourselves to possibilities for new and unscripted experiences.
We arrive at Third Beach two hours later than planned, at exactly 9pm, clocking in a full 12-hour day. We walk onto the beach in a triumphant formation: a collective body bearing a makeshift flag. We are greeted by the smiles and cheers of an anticipating group of unlearning supporters and by bemused beach goers.
We gather in a circle for the closing ceremony and share whisky, listen to the particular resonance of sticks as connecting devices between a dozen pairs of ears, and bond around a campfire. The day ends and the temporary community that had formed for the event slowly disperses. Leaving the beach, I am drained of energy, but filled with the magic of unlearning, and my body charged with the experiences of the day.
Following the procession, and to close out their year-long research project, Zoe and Catherine held an artists’ talk at the CAG Field House in Vancouver. Watch the full talk and Q & A here
The Goethe Satellite Vancouver is a two-year initiative of the Goethe-Institut with local Vancouver partner Revised Projects. The goal of the Goethe Satellite is to facilitate unique projects where artists, organizations and collectives have the opportunity to collaborate, perform, and show work that expands current artistic practices and speaks to relevant discourses in Germany and Canada and beyond.
For more information, tons more photos, animated GIFs, and videos, don’t miss out:
check out the official Unlearning Weekenders tumblr unlearning-weekenders.tumblr.com
Founder of VANDOCUMENT. Photographer, illustrator, lover and supporter of arts & culture.