Episode 1, Part 1
Transcript edited by Tal Eshel
Please note M.Rodriguez used a different name at the time of recording this podcast episode, but now exclusively goes by M.
[Slow, ambient piano and cello music fades in and plays for about 30 seconds, then fades.]
In place of catastrophe: we begin again.
What vitality allowed our ancestors to survive generations of trauma, and what wisdoms have been passed down to us? What embodied magics are all our own? We’ll traverse these questions through voice and movement, exploring transgenerational resilience within a disability justice framework.
[Atmospheric sound of birds chirping fades in.]
Welcome listeners. I’m iele paloumpis, and I am so grateful you’ve joined us today for our very first episode. I want to offer a little background on how this podcast has come to be. I’m a visually impaired dance artist and choreographer, and before Covid-19 hit New York City in March of 2020, I was on the brink of premiering a new evening-length dance performance entitled “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky.”
The multi-sensorial performance piece was intentionally created to de-center sight as a primary mode of experiencing dance, and instead challenge both what is perceptible within dance performance, and what can be known within our own histories. With a diverse cast of collaborators, we worked closely to alchemize inherited wounds into collective care.
[The sound of wind and wind chimes fades in, along with the birds chirping. This atmospheric sound plays quietly in the background.]
And in particular I was interested in inviting my fellow blind, partially sighted, low vision, and visually impaired audience members into the poetics of movement while expanding all of our notions of what it means to be witnessed.
This past year has been one of unimaginable loss. As we continue to wait for a time when it’s safe to gather again, the cast of “In place of catastrophe” wanted to find a way to reach our communities, share our research, and feel connected in this time of ongoing isolation and multiple systemic catastrophes. So how do we begin again?
As a part of an ongoing commitment to be in right relationship with the earth and all indigenous peoples, I would like to offer a land acknowledgement. Today, the cast and I are calling in from Lenapehoking, particularly the traditional lands of the Canarsie and Munsee tribes, colonially known as Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens, New York.
For full transparency, I’ve been learning a lot about the complexities of land acknowledgements through my dear friend devynn emory, who is of Lenape and Blackfoot ancestries. As a fellow dance artist, devynn is interested in ways we might offer land acknowledgements not as something that is a rote thing to check off of our list per se, but as an evolving, embodied practice. You can learn more about devynn’s work at devynnemory.com.
So in my own personal efforts to be with the history of place in an embodied way, I just want to encourage each of us to take a moment to reflect on our individual relationship to the land where we are right now. How did you and your ancestors come to be there? When you sit with what you know, or don’t know about that history, how does it feel in your body?
In the coming weeks, we’ll be participating in a living land acknowledgements workshop with The Lenape Center, and I’m very excited to share how this process influences us as this project continues to unfold. You can learn more about living land acknowledgements by visiting the thelenapecenter.com.
To start off today’s episode the cast will introduce ourselves by offering brief, physical descriptions and our roles within the piece. We decided to begin this particular way because it offers the most concrete example of how many spaces are attempting to use physical descriptions as an access tool for blind and partially sighted participants.
Please note that the words used to self-described are unique to each of us. So if you hear a term or concept you’re unfamiliar with, we encourage you to expand your own reference points by putting in the research and talking to folks within your community who might be able to shed more light.
Throughout the series, we will continually experiment with how we begin together, how we describe ourselves and each other, and seek new ways to deepen connection with our listeners. And we honestly have a lot of questions about how effective this practice is, so we hope that you enjoy listening to our dialogue as we unpack our ways of beginning, describing, and being together.
To assist with vocal recognition, you’ll hear the voice of our podcast’s co-producer, Monica Rodriguez, offering questions to our listeners in between each of our self-descriptions. We hope these prompts expand the ways you might approach introductions, descriptions, and beginnings of all kinds.
And so, we begin again.
[Atmospheric sounds end. Calming, melodic piano and cello music begins.]
When you enter into a space, how do you introduce yourself?
Hi, this is Marýa Wethers. I am a brown skinned Black woman with chin length, wavy black hair and dark brown eyes. I use she/her pronouns.
I’m Adrien Weibgen. I am thirty-seven. I’m mixed race Asian American and white I have really short, straight brown hair and glasses. I look very visibly queer. And I have a little diamond earring that I wear in my right ear all the time.
How do you describe yourself?
My name is Marielys. I am a short, curvy and stout Puerto Rican of African and Arawak descent. I have wavy hair the color of the night sky, styled with short bangs, and heavily tattooed arms. And I’m a smiley, expressive speaker.
What allows you to feel welcome in a space, or not?
Hi, I’m Krishna Washburn. My pronouns are she/her. I am a dancer in “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky.” I have pale, lavender skin and my hair is knee-length, black with silver streaks.
My name is Alejandra Ospina. I use she/her and they/them pronouns. I am a light skinned Latina of early middle age, I suppose. I wear glasses all the time. I have short, dark hair that is sometimes dyed bright colors. I’m physically disabled and I’ve always used a wheelchair because I can’t walk.
What have you noticed about the phenomenon of trying to introduce yourself? How does it make you feel? How does it resonate for you or not?
I’m Seta Morton. I’m a twenty-seven year old cis, queer, light skinned Black woman. I have, currently, long two strand twists in my hair, and I often wear a gold necklace with my name, Seta, written in Armenian lettering.
My name is Ogemdi Ude. My pronouns are she/her/hers, I’m a dark skinned, cis, Black woman with short black hair with little dashes of blond on top. My eyes are big and round. My eyebrows are dark brown and messy right now. I have plump lips, a wide nose, a ring nose piercing on my right nostril, and a smattering of small acne scars on my cheeks.
As a practice of inclusivity, or a practice of sharing, or a practice of getting to know people, is it working?
This is iele paloumpis. I’m fairly short, I come in at exactly five feet tall, but I have a pretty muscular build. I have dark brown hair and eyes, and right now my hair is very curly, kind of like a lion’s mane, wild in all directions. I am visually impaired and sometimes I wear glasses, sometimes I wear an eye patch over my left eye and I’m a more recent white cane user.
What about an introduction feels perfunctory or performative? If I talk about what I look like, do you feel like you’ve learned something about me?
Hi everyone. My name is Monica Rodriguez. My pronouns are they/them. I’m queer. I’m a non-binary person. I’m a white Lantinx person. I’m a large bodied individual, and this group, this cohort of people that have been involved in this work, just by being themselves, have done so much to make me feel accepted and cared for, very supported, and I’m very grateful for that.
[Atmospheric sounds of wind, birds chirping, a wind chime fade in, play softly in the background.]
Okay, so now that we have gotten through the formal introductions part of this, let’s get to the juicy conversation part. To further assist with vocal recognition, you’ll hear each cast member state their name prior to sharing their thoughts.
Hi everybody, I’m Krishna, my pronouns are she/her, and I’m a dancer in the cast. First of all, I need to make a confession, which is that I’m a very extra person (laughs), and I’m okay with that. I’m okay with being an extra person, and I actually think that that has been a very powerful tool for me when I have had to make introductions with people, in person, especially when I show up with a white cane. I think that there are a lot of stereotypes about blind people, stereotypes that we are not fully engaged in the world, and that, you know, we’re kind of like existing isolated into a system of ourselves. So, when I have had opportunities to introduce myself to someone it’s always very big. It’s (speaks animatedly) “Hi! I’m Krishna. It’s so nice to meet you!” and I do the fake eye contact and everything and you know, just make it just someone that cannot be put in that diminished box of the stereotype of what a blind person is.
I’m Adrien Weibgen. I am a vocalist in the piece. And also just a general stagehand. My experience of going into spaces in general and, and being introduced to people and often even like talking to people for a while in a new setting is just feeling like very invisible, even inside a conversation with them, that like I can ask people so many questions and learn so much about them and so frequently that like, isn’t returned. And then just that has often felt to me like when I was in a difficult time in life or like, you know, had some old trauma thing, or like particularly now with my mental health diagnosis that like so much of what informs my daily experience is like “not relevant” to many spaces and so it just exists there.
My name is Alejandra Ospina. I use she/her and they/them pronouns. I’m an audio describer and a vocalist for this project, though I also get to move and dance a bit. I do think a lot now in this last year about being welcome in physical spaces versus virtual spaces, and it has been nice, I admit, to worry a lot less about whether I can be where I’m supposed to be. You know, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life wondering if I can travel to somewhere if when I get there I can get in because I happen to be a wheelchair user with a very large power chair, and it’s also really important for me to show up in these virtual spaces and make sure people know that I’m a wheelchair user. It’s not relevant ninety-nine percent of the time, but there’s something about it because if I were meeting these people in a room, they would have to know, I couldn’t hide it, and also, honestly, a lot of them would be made uncomfortable by that even, even now, even in 2020 and 2021. So I just like to give that to them head on so that they can deal with that and move forward and, and to know that that we exist, that we existed before, we exist now, and just because you didn’t see us or think about us in your previous meet-space life we’re still here.
Hi, my name is iele paloumpis. I am the director of “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky,” and I’m also a dancer within the project. In this two-dimensional space, which I personally do find to be pretty inaccessible, like, it’s like, the screen time for my particular vision impairment is very difficult and hard on my eyes, and you know having sort of like a lot more exposure almost to these sort of like introductions that I do believe people that are making an effort to make spaces more accessible. I do believe that there is like a genuineness in the effort to try to include things like physical descriptions, but mostly what I experience is people fumbling, you know, like and people not really understanding maybe how to do them, why to do them, like or feeling really uncomfortable with the act of describing themselves, and often it does come off as these sort of very generic things, and it’s also pretty quick. Like it’s sort of like (snaps three times) “bam, bam, bam,” right? Like that doesn’t actually aid in me being able to sort of like track “who are the people on this call?” and like, “how do I, how do I get to know you? How do I start to remember you? How do you know like, how do I, you know, how do I start to associate the timbre and the tone of your voice like with whatever your personhood is, in the things that you’re contributing?” To be honest, usually it’s like in the course of the conversation that it’s like the actual content on the quality of what people contribute to a conversation that actually gets me to get to start to recognize and to know them. It usually doesn’t actually have to do with those physical descriptions at the beginning. I’m not saying that that means we shouldn’t do those. I just mean that there’s something missing, there’s something missing in the attempt to make it accessible and sort of like I think a pretty primary misunderstanding about what it is that we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
My name is Marielys and my pronouns are she/her, and I am a dancer and performer. So, for example, sometimes I struggle in terms of like “do I describe how I’m wearing my hair specifically that day?” Do I describe like, the color of my skin, like for example, something like that, that in Puerto Rico colorism, is very, very heavy. It’s like, so how do I define my skin? When I grew up people would say, “your skin is the color of cinnamon,” and then some other things in Puerto Rico, you use words like “trigueña” and then it’s like yeah, but how do I define “what is the color of my skin?” And is that important like, is it implicit or not when I say I’m of African and Indigenous descent and those are the heritages that I decide to uplift? Do you have in your mind a shade of color that I should have, and therefore an expectation of who I should be, like does that, that for me brings like, I mean it comes with struggle, it comes with a lot of critical thinking, it comes with this thing of like, so until what extent is it important or not to name these specific things, and I think it’s a personal choice at the end. I’m into the struggle and I go with it (starts laughing while talking) and I fight the good fight, but it’s a matter of, yeah, but what feels good for me now? And what feels good and adequate, and adequate not in terms of like any norm or given norm, it’s like what will make the space more accessible for everybody who is there and celebratory?
Hi, this is Marýa Wethers. I use she/her pronouns and I’m a dancer in the piece. People give a biography usually as an introduction in the past, right, like “I worked here for this many years,
these are my accomplishments,” you know that kind of thing. Whereas now, in this way, that I think people are becoming more empowered to self-describe, we bring what we think is important for people to know about us, you know, including how we identify racially, and ethnically, because that’s another way that we get read or misread, you know, or projected upon, and so to say in our own words, “this is how I describe myself,” is also though this is how I stand in the world.
I’m Seta Morton and I’m an audio describer and a vocalist for “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky.” I think this time of us being in virtual space together, it’s interesting because it’s been almost like a year of me constantly being in Zoom rooms and virtual spaces and it’s very slowly, things have come up, and you know, realizing like all the things we do in physical space. Something recently that I’ve been thinking about is like, you know, how do we talk about safety in virtual spaces? How do we set up guidelines? How do we communicate? How do we open up those channels? And then of course, there are all of these huge things happening around us. There’s this multiplicity of pandemics happening. How do we check in with each other in these spaces? How do we, how do we go beyond like a virtual, a virtue signaling and have these conversations and, you know, make the statements that we need to make in our beginnings.
Hi everyone. My name is Monica Rodriguez. In the work, “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky,” I am a vocalist and audio describer. In this new podcast format, I am also a producer. I travel in all kinds of spaces and not all of them are very welcoming or open to the idea that you know, that I should, that anyone should have to introduce themselves with like pronouns, let’s say, or that anyone should have to acknowledge the land that they’re on, or that it doesn’t matter, you know, I don’t see color, doesn’t matter to me where your family comes from or something like that. So these spaces are very real to me. And so I think that’s one of the reasons why I appreciate, so much, you know, when there is a space where we acknowledge the histories, the shared histories, it’s almost like a shorthand for I guess all of the different ways that we come together and what we bring with us when we come together.
Hi, my name is Ogemdi Ude, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I am an audio describer in “In place of catastrophe, a clear night sky.” Have we even gotten to the juice yet? Like when people are when we’re like, is the introduction even, has an introduction even arrived in that moment of “let me say my pronouns, let me state my name?” There’s so much in the introduction of when you first speak into a space, when you listen to someone else, when you’re trying to get yourself situated, like I think about myself right now, like I’m still trying to arrive into this conversation while my back hurts, which means I’m like squiggling in my chair trying to figure out how to do stretches in my chair, and trying to arrive and introduce my body to this experience. And so the extension of that introduction I think is something that we continue to explore but I think that, yeah, it’s so limitless.
[Sound of birds chirping and wind chimes fades in for seven seconds, and out.]
How do you welcome someone into a space whether it be physical space or, you know, these days so often Zoom space? And I had this experience recently where I took a class and it was the first time that I was taking a class with this organization, and it was possible because it was online, you know, like it was in a different city, it was not a place that I probably would be going. And it was a teacher that I had wanted to study with for a long time, but she lived in another state, you know. And this particular organization was advertising their classes as “fees waived for BIPOC artists.” So I did that, and so to me, that was an invitation, that was this organization saying, “we are trying to make space for, invite people into, and I would presume, welcome, into the space.” But when they opened the Zoom room the instructor started saying hi to people that she knew, and just calling out their names and, “oh, hello Betsy. Hello, Karen. Hello so-and-so, right?” and it was a pretty small group, you know, I would say, maybe around 10 people. And then proceeded to start doing an exercise. It was a very short class, so I think there was also a bit of a time constraint, but it was a noticeable exclusion to me that I didn’t know anyone. I felt that I had been, you know, impersonally invited into the space, and then only certain folks were acknowledged, and then the instructor didn’t even introduce herself. I mean we signed up for the class, so we presumably know who she is, but there was no actual welcome unless she happened to know you and know your name, and then the class ended the same way with like, you know, it was very insider-ey and like chit chat and I was just like, okay, I guess I’ll just, you know, leave the meeting. But it really brought home to me and my point today in sharing that story is about this idea of welcoming, and like that is a way into the space and, not to underestimate that, and that access is one way to do that and an important way to do that.
It’s a way people use sharing pronouns in an introductory space and like regularly, regularly people will go around and share their pronouns and I’m the only like non-cis person in the space, which number one I just don’t like because I feel like it puts people in, who are like gender non-normative in this weird dynamic that they didn’t necessarily want to be in, and I think reasonable people disagree about that. But regularly I do that and then still am misgendered for the entire rest of the time. So it’s just like, why did you have this performance of trying to make it inclusive but then clearly not doing that?
My alma mater’s alumni newspaper, one of the front page article titles was, “Tough Conversations,” and then (starts laughing while speaking) under it, it said “professors now need to open classes discussing what the history of Princeton’s land is and asking students about their preferred pronouns.” And it said tough conversations. There literally was no conversation element to that, not a single element of a conversation. I’m like, this is no back and forth, this is no questioning, your use of preferred is incorrect, like just there’s no– what is the conversation here and (starts laughing harder) what the hell is so tough about someone announcing themselves in the truth of the space? But you know, like, there’s so much about power and whiteness and supremacy and all the things that never wants to reveal itself, and that it’s even considered a tough conversation to just state out loud what something is. And I found that titling to be so, I just laughed and laughed, because it, it also was like, there was something really funny about putting something out there in such a way that was almost trying to temper the reader or who could potentially be the reader in that situation.
There are some spaces where I don’t want to like, I don’t want someone to ask me what my pronouns are because I’m gonna feel weird if I’m lying to you, but like, you know, I know that if I tell you the truth that it’s going to make it weird (laughs), you know, so that also is something complicated that I carry with me at times because you know, as like a like a non-binary person who’s like not totally out in all circles like it does become this sort of like defensive or like hidden kind of thing where it’s like, you know being afraid to be seen in certain circles because, being afraid of like all of the associated baggage that comes from being seen in certain circles.
Something I was thinking about earlier, iele, before we began recording, you brought up this conversation about our cast and how we usually come into a space and do check-ins, and that’s usually how we sort of introduce ourselves to the space and introduce ourselves to each other like day-to-day, because that changes and how we give ourselves the opportunity, every time we’re going to be coming into, every time we’re gathering together we’re going to give ourselves the opportunity to say where we’re at and what we need or, maybe just give each other the information and I think that in thinking about that, I’m like, oh, yeah, we were kind of like day-to-day making whatever edits we needed to in that moment to what our safety contract was, or how are we going to be together? How are we going to come together today? And I think that what we found in that process is that it takes a lot of time.
[Ambient sound of goat bells chiming, a soft breeze, and birds chirping fades in for several seconds, and then fades out.]
So I do remember we had a conversation in which describing, it was important to describe ourselves and describe the cast because we were culturally, racially, we were coming from different places and have different bodies, and we wanted to really highlight that, right? And I feel like at the same time we started questioning this thing of like flat description as it is like only what you’re able to see, wait, but how do you describe yourself? So then it became this thing of like, empowering one another, and engaging in this other conversation in terms of like, yeah, well, I really prefer to say, well I’m like, I’m like five foot one, I’m really short, black hair, like big eyes, I talk with my body and I move a lot and I’m very bubbly. And I have a high pitched voice that you’re gonna notice (laughing) and I laugh a lot, so that for me feels like a more genuine description that is minimal in terms of necessarily like physicality and it’s more like, “how do I relate?”
iele paloumpis 33:50
I feel like as a person who is a dancer and desires to experience performance as an audience-member, it’s sort of like I’m always looking for that kind of sweet spot of multi-sensory experience that allows me to kind of get into the kind of dream-world sort of abstract experience that can be dance, right, while also, you know, getting the concrete information that I need that I might not have better access to, because I don’t have the same type of sight as other people. So that’s sort of like I think that with this, with this piece we were always in this constant negotiation between thinking about verbal description and multi-sensory experience.
When a lot of sighted people come to understand that audio description is a thing, it’s very difficult for them to imagine what it is because it’s not something that they have first-hand experience with, and (pauses) a lot of people think that it is, must be an incredibly difficult task, and maybe even halfway impossible. Or they go the other way like, “oh, I could do that. I don’t need to practice. I don’t need to learn anything. I don’t need to have a conversation with people who have been working in this field as professionals for an extended period of time.” So what you end up with is a lot of audio description that is of really poor quality. And, by necessity, then, makes the performance for the sighted and blind and visually impaired audiences two different performances. That’s definitely something that I am very passionate about in terms of changing that, specifically for dance, specifically for dance because that’s my field, and I think that some of the worst audio description I’ve ever heard has been in a dance context, just really missing the point of why it’s there because they’ve never had a conversation with an actual blind audience member or a blind artist. I think that that is all part of the systemic problem
[Ambient sounds of distant goat’s bells tinkling in a far-off field, with footsteps on a gravel path, fades in and out.]
I think my dreams, my imagined futures for introductions, would be that we have opportunities to, to share in ways that are, that are open, that are accepting, that are loving, to have a lovingness and a compassion for somebody that you don’t know who is a stranger, and offer a space where someone can share what feels important to them at that time, and maybe not holding them kind of to anything other than, you know, what they feel like sharing in that moment.
I want people to sort of show up willing to be vulnerable, you know, like with each other in the unknowing of how to do this perfectly, (laughing while speaking) you know what I mean, like together, and have that shared commitment to figuring it out together, you know, so that’s definitely one piece of it, I would say.
The way that I may dream of us continuing introducing ourselves as part of a cast, as part of a group, is that I would use the word daring, it’s like a gentle daring (laughs). I feel like I will be interested in holding conversations where, knowing whoever is present, what do they need from this space?
I guess what I’m asking for is access information. You know in a physical space or in a virtual space, what access can you provide? What access can’t you provide? And so that way I know if this is not something I should bother signing up for and attending. I’m still confronted so often with the fact that people have never even thought of access as an issue in so many spaces, so my bar is lower than I would like it to be. Yeah, just the idea that people may want or need different things, and even if you’re not sure what those things are, the idea that you’re open to, to being asked about it. I mean, ideally, I want more than that. Ideally, I want that there be budgets and line items for access for any particular meeting and if we’re thinking of physical or virtual meetings that it’s a given that, that real captioning will exist, that audio description will exist, that time and thought has been given to laying out the structure of a meeting, that the materials, if there are materials, be made in advance, available in advance, to anyone who might need them for whatever reason. I mean, I have a laundry list. But, the complications of that laundry list of course are things like money and support and- So I guess it all boils down to, I want people to think about other people. And what’s possible after that, depending on the place, the space, the budget. It’s just the whole “thinking about other people” piece that is missing in the first place.
I think that for me if we’re talking about a physical space, I think having the confidence to know that I’m not gonna have to beg or feel guilty if I need description. I think that knowing that there is an audio describer like Alejandra there for me (chuckles), I’m good. And I think that, also, in that vein, if a space that I’m going into is not wheelchair accessible, I also don’t feel welcome there, even though I’m not a wheelchair user. Because disabled people need each other. And we need to be able to be together. I think that also a general rule that nobody touches me without my permission.
The only spaces that I’ve seen that are successfully, meaningfully inclusive of whoever it is across like language justice or like people of color who like it’s always because those spaces are run by the people who are most impacted. And so it’s just a value that’s held in the space as a whole, in the organization as a whole for that reason, and I think it’s really hard when you’re trying, when you’re somebody, when you have an organization that doesn’t have anybody with those access needs who’s getting paid to be there, and whose job it is to focus on that and not only to focus on that like in a niche way, but, you know, throughout the organization, who can like look at it holistically, like a look at the space holistically, and they’re part of the community that has those access needs. Like that’s so different than a well-meaning ally trying to hold it. And it’s better than nobody holding it. (laughs) But it’s much worse than if the spaces are like, you know, run by people who have the needs that we’re talking about.
A belief that I definitely feel is vital is the sort of “nothing about us, without us,” you know, all these various marginalized identities being the people who are central and leading, you know, leading the way in these different areas and overlapping intersectional experiences.
[Atmospheric sound of wind chimes plays for seven seconds and fades out. Melodic, calming piano and cello music begins.]
Thank you so, so much for listening and beginning again with us today. We hope you feel welcomed as a part of our extended community. Next up, part two of this dialogue will be in the episode entitled “In place of catastrophe: we bear witness,” where the cast will share our practice of offering what we call “energetic descriptions” of one another, and we’re so excited to give a glimpse into this powerful, intimate process of deeply witnessing and describing.
The gorgeous intro and outro music on today’s episode was excerpted from Khatchadour Khatchadourian’s album, “Oror Ou Nani: Armenian Lullabies.” You can follow him by visiting khatchmusic.com
Special gratitude to Monica Rodriguez, our fellow cast member and sound designer and co-producer of this podcast series. This project has been made possible by so many incredible people and organizations. For more information, please see our show notes and visit inplaceofcatastrophe.com.
[Music fades out.]