Attunement: Covid Memorial at Tennessee Valley Museum of Art, 2020
Direction, as a concept, has a couple of implications. In one sense, a directional trajectory is often framed in some sort of action verb coupled with destination, heading north, falling backward, climbing up. In another sense, it could be seen as that great, singular orchestrator of vision; the artistic director, program director, executive director. I think of these two ways we use the concept of direction as they relate to each other often and have come to the conclusion that direction, like the study of quantum physics dealing with matter and energy, requires both relational presence and the creation of some action.
Two and a half years ago, I stepped into the role of executive director at a regional art institution. Our association’s multidisciplinary approach to community arts supports a museum of art and historic theater in two small towns in the Southeastern U.S. As a community arts advocate and socially engaged artist; I was itching to get started. Both museums and community theaters were brimming with new potential. Then, two months after my arrival at the organization, the COVID-19 pandemic slowly bled its way into every aspect of community life. I found myself in a defensive posture, trying to keep the organization alive within the scope of our mission and keep the staff on board. The staff and I pivoted at every corner, creating impromptu digital programming and alternative solutions. We were on our toes while battling our own illnesses and grief for a long time. We were in survival mode.
I realized that there was no single moment where we suddenly we’re ready to charge forward again. We were always trying not to sink in (what felt like) quicksand. I stopped thinking about momentum and started thinking about stability. Everyone knows if you struggle feverishly in quicksand, you sink deeper. We must evaluate what we are made of, what we are capable of, and what the situation is surrounding us.
In “Education for Critical Consciousness,” philosopher educator Paulo Friere refers to the corpo consciente, an awareness of how one moves about in the world. As we develop an understanding of our bit of spacetime that we inhabit inside our bodies and institutions, we develop these relational anchors that help define us and make us who we are relative to the rest of the world. We have identities and processes we choose to guide our positionality and influence. So with deliberate self-examination and awareness of the characteristic effects of our own presence, we can better understand the lay of the land in which we are standing. So as for our quicksand analogy, it is the physical stuff we are made of, and the abilities we have that may help free us from this desperate situation:
- The air in our lungs.
- The weight of our mass.
- The ability to shift that distribution of weight to create buoyancy.
While observing our community theater SummerStock program last year, I appreciated how our artistic director allowed each actor to explore their conscious awareness of their character to make choices about their physical space, choices, and attributes. We were in a unique position where three young performers played the exact same role. Each performer was given the autonomy to interpret the role for their specific body, voice, and relational circumstance. That autonomy was valuable to their character’s development and the relational dynamics that crafted the trajectory and momentum of the plot.
Birds don’t make a plan to migrate, raising resources to fund their way, packing for scarce times, mapping out their pit stops. They feel a call in their bodies that they must go, and they follow it, responding to each other, each bringing their adaptations.
There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move toward each other. (Responding to destiny together.) Destiny is a calling that creates a beautiful journey.
Emergence is beyond what the sum of its parts could even imagine. A group of caterpillars or nymphs might not see flight in their future, but it is inevitable. It’s destiny.Oak trees don’t set an intention to listen to each other better, or agree to hold tight to each other when the next storm comes. Under the earth, always, they reach for each other, they grow such that their roots are intertwined and create a system of strength that is as resilient on a sunny day as it is in a hurricane.
- adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy
Black feminist, author, and activist Adrienne maree brown describes the phenomenon of emergence with such beauty. When I read this passage, I felt grief for the silos of strict independence humans could create for themselves. We sloganize concepts like “It takes a village” when it is truly a systemic struggle that creates unsustainable imbalances. Yet, when it comes to charting a plan of action, acting in concert with our relational counterparts is vital. As we cultivate our relationships, listening becomes easier, problems are more easily identified, solutions arise from diverse perspectives, and emergence happens that shapes a course of creative (potentially transformative) action. Brown contends we can, indeed, strategize for emergence.
When most people think of museums, they may imagine crisp white walls and objects displayed with interpretive panels written by some authority, monologuing their importance to the human story. What if objects come to life with a community behind them? Where do the people who created or used these artifacts or artworks write the story, show you how these materials are used, and bring you into the realm of knowing and expanding your own selfhood? What if this cultivation of relationships nurtured and affirmed our existence? It takes a concerted effort to be open. Simply showing up with an attentive spirit is an act of creation.
Attunement and Dissonance
Most of my work is centered around peace-making underpinning, which is often misunderstood to be passive. On the contrary, peace is predicated on understanding, acknowledgment, and action. It takes acknowledgment of deeply rooted pain and traumas to heal historical wounds. Sometimes direction is both moving forward while looking back or simply standing still for a moment.
The Kuramoto model is a mathematical model that demonstrates synchronization. An example is pendulum clocks and metronomes furiously out of sync, miraculously synchronizing their rhythms and pacing when placed on a free-moving coupling device like a hanging beam or a platform on wheels. Their dissonance resumes when these devices are placed on an immovable, inflexible surface. The act of coupling for attunement takes a lot of navigation for a complex negotiation of movement. This is why I love the arts. Heart rates between strangers will synchronize in concerts and theatrical performances. Brainwaves will synchronize while in a setting of shared experiential learning. As much as I love this aspect of the arts, I know that synchronization is a temporary experience. So much work is done in that space of attunement, but work is also done when we are back on solid ground, pushing against forces that rub against us. Much of the work of creative expression is created in that space of dissonance, and much of the work of understanding that expression is created in attuned spaces.
For me, purposeful direction isn’t just a trajectory; it is constant evaluation, processing, and navigation. It has varying degrees of momentum. It isn’t building an empire but a community of networks. It is being open enough to listen to emerging calls to action and creation. It is anticipating when attunement is needed to process dissonant expressions and calls to be heard. In a very stripped-down summary, it is a constant cycle of relational presence and creation in its many forms that can “create a system of strength that is as resilient on a sunny day as it is in a hurricane.”
Christi Britten is executive director of Tennessee Valley Art Association, a regional arts organization in the Shoals, AL that runs the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art, Tuscumbia and the Historic Ritz Theatre, Sheffield. She holds an Individualized Master of Arts specializing in museums and community arts from Goddard College and a Bachelor in Communications from the University of North Alabama. She is a community-engaged artist and photographer. Originally from West Birmingham, she, her husband, and their four children now live in Sheffield, AL.