What It Means to Breathe Together: Joint Accounts Retreat at Paul Artspace
In a field there are tall trees and they move with the breeze and they are everywhere. I am running–maybe flying–boundless through this open, sun-kissed space. Kids gather with adults and spontaneously, we play games. The roads have been taken over by a single infinite hopscotch course with literally no beginning nor end. Everything is growing, is thriving. The hum hums and quietly vibrates each atom in every moment.
On a remote-feeling stretch of land in the belly of Florissant, Missouri, the trees tangle around a one-story ranch home with a sprawling backyard. The weekend of February 19th you might have seen the ongoing construction of temporary shelters, fermenting produce, a gaggle of yogis, or bodies falling into each other. Joint Accounts, a weekend retreat at Paul Artspace facilitated by artist/organizer Tori Abernathy and yogi Katie Rodgers, tasked participants to envision “a present and future based on cooperation, non-work, festivity, and health” – a world in which we decouple work from our jobs. The retreat integrated skill-sharing, coeducation, and collective visualization.
This three-day program became a short-term micro-community. If you were to step onto these grounds, you would feel an as if you were stepping into something very much apart from your present life, space and time where the load is shared. A cooperative come together to intimately question and dream.
“After prep I’m gonna go vacuum the other room”
“This looks great!”
“Which bread are we using?”
“How can I help?”
“My mother would never let me cook in her kitchen…Let me tell you about my mother”
–a guitar playing in the periphery
“Focusing on the Self has brought us to the crisis of imagination we are currently in,” Abernathy says with resolve in her performance lecture. Joint Accounts arose quite literally from the imagination of Rodgers who recounted to Abernathy a dream in which the duo camped on the Paul Artspace property. This imagined retreat became realized as Abernathy’s capstone to her residency at the house.
The organizers set a tone of solidarity from the outset when they explained that all tasks throughout the weekend would be rotated and shared: cleaning, photographing, AV, keeping time, taking notes. Through communal meals, workshops on the solidarity economy, anti-oppression, yoga, art therapy and contact improvisation, the organizers crafted an environment of trust, intimacy, and vulnerability in which participants were encouraged to be honest and tender. This softened the borders between participants enough to allow them to push further into the collective and work together to consider how we might move beyond this current “crisis of imagination.”
Training workshops like temporary shelter construction, foraging and natural medicine, fermentation, and critical spatial history offered an exploration into the depths of autonomy in a way that allowed for an expanded concept of self-sufficiency beyond anthropocentrism.
And then dreaming, which was induced by star-gazing, dancing, meditation, visualization, drawing, downtime. This dreaming, this out-of-body work was the dessert course that you didn’t know could be so sweet, that final part of the meal that you had been missing. One participant reflects that he felt his own body/mind duality broken. “Honestly I go to so much stuff on the left that is just people talking and thinking and that is great but no one moves and breathes and it doesn’t feel like the future at all”.
Though most participants this weekend arrived already devoted to many of the concepts presented at the retreat, the weekend achieved something significantly new for even the most seasoned. Though we may spend a lot of time talking about our ideas for the future, or for revolution, we don’t often play with what that looks, feels, smells, sounds and tastes like. Rodgers even asks these precise questions when leading the group through a guided visualization.
What does the future look like?
What does it feel like, smell like, sound like, taste like?
Joint Accounts attempted to take these dreams and possibilities out of the individual’s head and into a shared space, to attempt an experimental embodiment of these ideas, rescuing them out of abstraction and instead into the body and the lived present.
One participant reflects that “one of the most amazing cycles of that weekend came when two people were presenting different points of view, and a drop-in participant caught the ball and said that both were right – that the two truths existed simultaneously.” The multiplicity of truth and this ebb & flow of cycles was a critical foundation of this weekend, but felt like just a starting point.
Just like the participants, the weekend opened itself up to being perfectly imperfect. Sometimes we went over time. Sometimes we didn’t know where the salt was. Sometimes we cried. Sometimes we shared secrets. Sometimes we caught our own judgments.
If not everyone had other obligations and jobs to run off to, then we might all have been able to stay the full weekend and let the complete effects of the retreat sink in, to wholeheartedly retreat. But very few did and very few can. I think participants left with a hopefulness, but a very honest feeling of tension between what they have and what could be, who they are and who they want to be, what kind of collective change is possible and the limitations of that evolution.
Abernathy recounts a conversation she had with her grandmother years past.
“I really need to find a better way to make a living”, her grandmother said.
“What if finding a better way to live came first?” Tori responded.
“Well isn’t that a great idea.”
Images courtesy of Joint Accounts and were taken collaboratively by the group over the course of the weekend.