TQW Magazin
Sarah Sander on Urban Flourishing, 2018–present by Isabel Lewis

Celebrating coexistence

Celebrating coexistence

A familiar smell permeates the room in an instant. Forest soil or compost heap? Isabel Lewis has handed out little black pieces of paper that carry the smell. The smell is difficult to determine in the abstraction of the black square. Rotting leaves, wet earth and an autumn ramble pop into my mind’s eye. An olfactory association space that oscillates between my individual experiences and the culturally shared knowledge retained in the black square. In search of lost time: smell as a medium of involuntary memory, as a channel for sudden recollections, like in Proust’s work. Malevich turned upside down; this is how Isabel Lewis’ understanding of art, as evidenced in Urban Flourishing, could perhaps be described. An orientation of art away from abstraction towards sensory exposure, a shared experience, coexisting.

According to the announcement of the collaboration between Tanzquartier Wien and Belvedere 21, Urban Flourishing is a ‘guided experience’ of smells, stories, thoughts and sounds. For most of the time the artist, who studied dance, literary criticism and philosophy, sits gazing at her computer screen amid a minimalist room architecture made up of loosely grouped stage elements that serve as seats and loungers for the audience. Her deep, calm voice directs our attention to the urban environment visible outside the floor-to-ceiling strip of windows of Belvedere 21: a few birds fly across the blue patches of sky that rise above the sunlit autumn foliage of Quartier Belvedere. A picture-postcard scene that reminds me of the Indian Summer in the Catskill Mountains, which I once saw through a car window as I was passing by. Isabel Lewis’ voice fills the room equipped with loudspeakers in each corner. Doubled and amplified by an audio program it reaches me physically, resonates in my chest. The chest – a resonance chamber. And I reflect on her words, which draw our attention to life forms such as lichens outside the window: ‘multi-organismic life forms’ that cover trees and stones alike without parasitically imposing on their carrier structures. Lichens are neither plants nor fungi, she says. Rather, they are an organism in its own right, arising from the symbiosis of mycobionts und photobionts. Lichens only develop the characteristic growth forms and colours through synthesis, which makes them an association of fungi and plants that form a closely integrated community.

In Urban Flourishing Isabel Lewis asks herself how we can ‘tune ourselves differently’ so as to be able to feel connected to such life forms. With the life forms with which we share our daily life but which we often hardly notice, non-human pioneers that they are. How we can perceive the ‘beat’, the fundamental frequency of the things that surround us, without subscribing to a kitschy notion of nature or naturalness. Isabel Lewis finds an initial answer to her questions in Rosalyn Bologh’s concept of ‘erotic sociability’, another in Carolyn Dinshaw’s ‘queerness of time’. In an attempt to bring both of these notions together, which are present in our life in the form of myths, stories and traditions, Isabel Lewis tells the love story behind what is perhaps the most famous ballet piece in our hemisphere: in the process, she not only draws our attention to the everyday presence of the fantastic in our late modern world but also to the love between humans and non-human beings, as portrayed in Swan Lake. Isabel Lewis has been tracking down such ‘in-between’ forms of life and love many times over in her performances to demonstrate the points of contact of our current life with the natural and the supernatural. She makes her audience sensitive to the flexible limits of our modern self-conception in order to celebrate an enhanced coexistence.

The sensory-discursive programme is interspersed with several dance interludes that explore the connection between sound, body and space. The movement may start from the body’s core, with stamping feet or bobbing shoulders: “I’m my beat, I’m my beat, I’m my beat”; “Wanting to follow my desire”. The ‘hosted occasion’, as Isabel Lewis calls her performance practice, is an experimental arrangement to explore the affective power of sounds, stories and smells, to investigate imagination and perception. The temporality of the ‘experience’, which is an auditory-sensory event, is an undramatically extended amount of time that allows us to immerse ourselves, pull out, come back. The discursive performance does not follow the classical performative dramaturgy but instead allows us to engage without forcing us to do so. By including space – the outside space of urban nature outside the large windows of the exhibition space, in which all of us are by ourselves together with the loudspeakers – and by including our bodies as resonance chambers for the sounds, stories and thoughts, Urban Flourishing becomes an experience that potentially connects us with the stories, stones and people that are part of our life and our environment. Isabel Lewis’ performance practice, which doesn’t stage anything as such but creates an experience space, thus offers a collaborative examination of questions regarding the possibilities of cooperating with other people, non-human beings and ways of being. The multisensory experience reverberates and leaves a lingering autumn smell in the room.

At the end, a hushed thunderstorm swirls around the auditorium. It has been created by carefully sliding the microphone over the wooden panels on which Isabel Lewis is sitting. Looped and amplified by the audio program and layered with her captivating singing, the thundering noise vibrates in my chest, reverberates. The beat, slow and measured, finds its resonance chamber without reaching the belly. The body is touched by it, but not remote-controlled. The audience is calm, absorbed, de-centred. And the wind tugs at the closed parasol outside the window that offers a view of the city in the evening light.


Sarah Sander is a media culture scholar (Berlin/Vienna) and currently works at University of Vienna’s Institute of Theatre, Film and Media Studies. Her teaching and research interests include spatial dispositions, media practices and subject techniques, postcolonial and queer theories as well as maritime mobilities and archaeologies of globalisation. In addition to her academic work, Sander has been involved in festival and exhibition contexts as a freelance curator and cultural worker, e. g. at Crossing Europe, the Berlinale FORUM, KW Institute for Contemporary Art and Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin.