Thresholds of São Paulo, Brazil: Minimal Performance as Inquiry

| September 24, 2012

I’ll be heading to Brazil in the Spring to play with the intersection between learning, performing, and the city, as part of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ annual Encuentro. I thought I’d share the write up for our project here, as a way of crossing some of the usual thresholds between education and art. Here it is:

A “Performance Group”

This is an extended workshop, over five days. The workshop is designed to support participants interested in engaging in performance art in relationship to the specificity of a place. Using the streets of São Paulo as our working material we will explore “micro-performance” as a form of research into how we inhabit a city.

It is particularly suited to performers looking for new ways to work, as well as “non-performers” looking for non-threatening ways to explore the possibilities of performance. We are particularly interested in working across language and culture “thresholds” as we work together to take on the different ways in which we move through and encounter São Paulo.


The guiding theme for this performance workshop is “Thresholds of Perception and Action.” We will be looking at the ways in which we cross, slip-under, and negotiate transitional spaces in the everyday actions that mark the intersection between bodies and their urban environment. In particular we will explore the practice of dropping below the usual thresholds of perception, to understand something differently about how we inhabit and move through the shifting experiences of a place. As we attend to subtler and more elusive sensations in our own embodied sense, can we also find ways to slip under the skin of the city itself? This process of moving through and feeling the subtle thresholds of a place is already a form of ephemeral performative practice. As we slowly cross another threshold—from moving through and observing the everyday actions of the city to taking them on as our own actions, taking video, and sharing them—we generate a kind of minimalist performance map: a city of constant and shifting thresholds.


What thresholds were crossed bringing us here, either recently or over time? As we walk the neighborhoods, what is our experience of encountering and crossing threshold states? These threshold experiences not only bring us to a place, but also determine that place itself: it’s meanings, its functions, its histories, its political and cultural forces. The act of attending to and slipping under these thresholds engages us with these multiple registers, asking us to perceive and engage in our relationships to the city differently. We are motivated, in this, by several concerns.

  1. We feel that it is critical to engage the specificity of this location, rather than treating it as a backdrop.  Performances, or interventions, are not only of necessity in and of a place, but can become a way of knowing that place as well. (Francis Alys’ work is exemplary of this, observing and working with the subtle particularity and tangibleness of living in Mexico City.)
  2. The question of thresholds is not a minor one, but is a way of situating ourselves, at an experiential level, around any number of critical functions. The most obvious, and overtly political, of thresholds is “the border,” with all of the apparatus of observations, blockages, traversals, and movements that cleave to it. But likewise the Situationists brought our attention to any number of psychogeographies of a city, the subtle or not so subtle forces that delineate one area from another, that find us walking always down the same path. Thresholds, rather than simply being over-determined lines on a map, are experiences to be engaged with at a felt level. Thus…
  3. It is critical that these engagements are accompanied by an awareness of the somatic nature of our experience. Our relationship to the cities we find ourselves in is a physical and sensory relationship. And so we feel it is important to learn to work at a fine level with these dimensions. Just as we can pass over the everyday actions and details of a city without noticing, we can fail to take the time to notice the constant negotiations of our own physical and felt experience as bodies. Finding ways to slip under our habitual ways of being, finding beneath our usual perceptions whole other realms of subtle sensations to be felt, is paradoxically a powerful action.
  4. Which leads us, finally, to the importance of exploring performance as something that can be taken on, but also undertaken by letting go. By working below our usual thresholds, finding the minimalist actions and sensations that are continually at work below the surface, we propose that it is possible to tap into the deep coherences, intelligibilities, and functions, that often feel intractable at more explicit levels.

What is it that we have to learn by exploring the mundane ways in which we perform the city? What is a performance of being, sitting, walking, standing, crossing, feeling, breathing, gathering, imagining, living?