Pedir permiso / Asking for permission.
The School of Mountains and Water is part of Amanda Piña / nadaproductions’ on-going project ‘Endangered Human Movements’, which focusses on dance as a timeless repository of human and nonhuman knowledge. The School, which unfolds in a walkabout open-air performance, a talk and an installation, weaves together stories and practices of resistance that, from various places across the globe, have been battling against ecological destruction and extractive capitalism. The School does so by centring indigenous knowledge in the ways we relate to nature not as something separate from us, but as somebody that binds our spiritual and material existence.
I ask the mountain, the water, the humans and the critters who have partaken in the School of Mountains and Water for permission to write about what I have seen, sensed and experienced these days. I raise my hands towards the East, the place where the sun rises; to the North, the place of the wild mountain, where the buffalo lives; to the West, the place of the water and of the coloured snake; to the South, the place of the warrior and of the hummingbird; to the sky, with its constellations; and to the earth – Pachamama – who keeps on sustaining us with her fruits.
I shift in the four directions with the performance participants, following the instructions of Mara‘akame Katira, an elder healer and shaman of the Wixárika community of San Andrés Cohamiata in Mexico. He has been working closely with Amanda Piña in this and other projects. After asking for permission, we collect our offerings and entrust them to the waters of the river Schwarza, running unrestrained in front of us. A few days earlier, I jumped, naked, in these crystalline waters, attracted by their tropical-like emerald reflections – its glacial energy electrifying my entire body. We are at Kaiserbrunn, in the Rax-Schneeberg mountain range, where Vienna’s drinking water comes from. In deep time, this place was an ocean.
During our bus drive to this site, we are told the story of Vienna’s first high spring pipeline: in 1873, Franz Joseph I inaugurated this engineering work to resolve the issue of epidemics caused by the polluted ground waters. It was Italian migrants – working in deplorable conditions – who built the pipeline in just three years. Being an Italian migrant worker myself, I reflect on the contrasting circumstances that have brought me here, and the privileged position I occupy – lying back on a comfortable bus seat with noise-cancelling headphones. ‘Observe with full attention – you will realise that everything that exists comes from inside a mountain: people, crops, water, technology, airplanes, light, electricity…’ even this bus, with us inside. As we approach the source of water, we are invited to undo our colonial relation to the mountain: our own bodies are made of – and are depending on – earth. (How to care for something we cannot see, hidden under layers of soil and limestone?).
The School intends to ground our thinking – literally, and metaphorically. ‘Against the colonial abstraction of art’ said Amanda Piña introducing the talk. We are land-ing. We are ground-ing. We, a predominantly white public. Walking towards the first station, I wonder if the crowd I am part of will be able to open up to other ways of knowing and being with the more-than-human, or if Western analytical paradigms and exoticising gaze will hold tighter… Cultural collisions, or choques, as Gloria Anzaldúa – referenced by environmental journalist Camila Nobrega – calls them, are inevitable when encountering usually incompatible reference frameworks. But choques are necessary for the encounters of the many coexisting worlds we are part of – against the making of a singular story, of a singular world. We live in the pluriverse, weaving different threads in the same fabric.
A steep slope saturates our eyes like a green cornucopia. Four figures stand on the right-hand side, looking upwards on a row, towards something we cannot yet see. They hold drums, cymbals and a flute. Fumes of copal propagate from a chalice-shaped incense burner: the ritual has already started. Call and response of flutes. Enchanted, a creature is invoked from behind the woods. They descend slowly, towards us. Horns of deer, rounded green trunk, and red paws. Animal. Plant. Or Earth-being. I recall Katira’s words, saying that it is in the high places where spirits live – mountains are temples. When the deer disappears behind the rock, three drummers move centre-stage, beating energetically their instruments in a rhythmic formation. And silence. The music has awakened the shaman, who comes out of the rock as a transfigured deer. He plays a small violin, singing in his language the story of Wirikuta: every year the Wixárika go on pilgrimage to this sacred site to honour the land, their origin story and the plant of híkuri (also known as ‘peyote’). Híkuri is ‘the book of knowledge’, which they ceremonially consume and harvest, and Wirikuta is its library, which is currently under threat because of a Canadian mining company’s concessions.
Mara‘akame takes us back to a fountain, at the entrance of the woods. ‘Agua para mí – Agua para ti – agua para el mundo – agua para todos…’ We are energised by his song to fill up our bottles with fresh spring water and to pick up seeds of corn, chocolate, coffee and sugar to share as a common offering to nature: the participants spread their gifts around four plates built with wood shavings and flowers. Walking with our offerings, we stop at a meadow where four performers – dressed in black, with coloured wings disguised as shiny ribbons – reiterate an Aztec dance of permission to the four directions. The urgency to move at the rhythm of maracas and drumbeats is irresistible. The dance repeats again in a white stone bay that we reach after a short descent – the gentle curving of the river creates a lake-like cove. We leave our offerings. As I smell the crashed chocolate on my fingertips, I feel the pleasure of giving without expecting anything in return. I feel I am making love to the river, who softly swallows my present.
From the top of a bridge, an aquarium-like spectacle comes into our view: dark sea creatures, similar to urchins, crawl up the beach, forming a star-shaped organism. The river bows and dances with them. Contracting and pulsating in symmetrical, synchronous movements, they spirall in never-ending cycles, and vanish from our view. Perfection is communion. It is togetherness. Being-with. From the height of the forest path following the riverbed, the sound of a xylophone captures our ears: the most precious water drop resonates. Yemanjá, Chalchiuhtlicue or Mami Wata – the blue avatar of the divine water – reveals herself, slithering down the river. Observing her slow, hypnotic movements is a meditation for the soul. Her serpent head bowing downwards, she stops at times to breathe and pause – to then continue her fluid pace, undisturbed. The sound of rattles calls our attention: the deer is summoning us to follow them to the last station. Powerful goddess, we let you go. Axé.
We follow the meandering path pulsating under our feet with its surfacing roots – like veins on the back of ancient hands. We arrive to a cave – drops trickle from the upper sediments. White noise. Noise of minerals, moving imperceptibly underground. Magnetically attracting each other, they hug their hearts made of gold and silver. (How do rocks dance?). Without words, they are speaking to us: ‘We are not for sale. We are not for profit. We are you, your mothers, your daughters, your sisters. We are not Other’. The mountain is calling us – can’t you hear? Tune in with its ancestral knowledge. Leave the teachings of modernity behind – the technology of dance can guide you. Befriend us. Be with us. Be-with.
 “Whiteness” in this context does not refer to skin colour, but, within decolonial thought, it refers to an unnamed and unmarked position that assumes itself (i.e. Western ontologies and epistemologies) as universal.
Giulia Casalini is an independent curator-artist-researcher based in London, working transnationally. She is a Technē-funded PhD candidate at the University of Roehampton. Her research analyses queer-feminist live art from across the globe, in an attempt to decentre Euro-Anglo-American aesthetic canons and discourses.