Jun 3, 2009

Experiments in Environment

I've recently learned about an extraordinary set of events initiated by post-modern dancer Anna Halprin and her husband, Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect, called Experiments in Environment.* In 1966 and again in 1968, the couple hosted four-week workshops at their Mountain Home Studio in Marin, CA, testing ideas about how space and movement influence one another through a month of experiential experiments in communication, participation, and collaboration.

The experiments took place outdoors on the coast at Sea Ranch (a community that Lawrence was commissioned to design in 1963), in the Marin woodlands near their home, and in the urban environs of San Francisco. These activities, directed by faculty recruited from the Halprins' artistic community and included architects, cinematographers, lighting specialists, and others, aimed to trigger environmental and self awareness among participants (who were primarily dancers and architects). The activities ranged from exercises in kinesthetic movement and "light happenings" to blind-folded walks during which participants would lead each other first by arm, then using only back-to-back contact, then by leg, then by cheek. One of the later activities asked participants to redesign San Francisco's Union Square on the beach using driftwood. There was also unscripted time when the creative process was explored abstractly or personally. Following each of the activities, participants debriefed their experiences. All together, the workshops brought attention to the process of making while rethinking the nature and value of what is produced.

The founding philosophy for the workshops was what the Halprin's dubbed as the RSVP Cycles. The acronym stands for Resources, Score, Valuaction (feedback, essentially), and Performance. For the Halprins, the Experiments in Environment workshops were a vital testing ground for this system which remains central to their understanding of and continued work with creative process.

Numerous accounts are recorded by artists and designers who participated in the workshops. Chip Lord of the Ant Farm collective attended the 1968 workshop and recalls, "The workshop was a catalyst, was an education, was a trip into my future, was an art form, was a lifestyle, was a freestyle race, was groove."** For many, it seems a pivotal experience in working creatively with people, space, and movement.

* Eva J. Friedberg gave a compelling lecture on this topic at the CAA conference in LA during February 2009. She presented this work during a session called The Countercultural Object that focused on art practices of the 1960s. Eva is a PhD student in Visual Studies at UC Irvine. I wish I could publish some of the images she presented here. Alas.

** San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design, Anna Halprin archives, Box 11 Folder 66.

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