Making peace with gravity - Paolo Maccagno

18th Aug · Dawn Hawkins

Making peace with gravity stems from our 'Becoming Earthly' session led by Paolo Maccagno. Paolo works on the edge of different academic traditions, developing experimental projects between art, anthropology and education. He is currently an honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen and practices as an anthropologist (PHD) and Feldenkrais teacher (a somatic educational method based on movement).

Finding the limit is finding the Earth. Fall and land on an immense solid support and find yourself under your own weight, in your body, thrown into the present. The Earth returns to yourself the coordinates of space and time. For Isadore Duncan and other modern dancers, the soil and the earth are not something to escape from but something that restores one's human density, gravity, body weight. The Earth triggers a metamorphosis on a physical level, transforms humans into their own body, into the body of the world.

Paolo Maccagno, Dancingtheworld – fragments of awareness (2008)

Running Earth 00

Running Earth – Paolo Maccagno (image author ©)


Becoming earthly is surrendering to gravity. This needs to be learned. We have to dismantle habits which make us fight against it. This path of learning is therefore one of unlearning. Moshè Feldenkrais (inventor of the Feldenkrais somatic educational method based on movement http://www.feldenkrais.com/) in answering to the insistent questioning of an interviewer who tried to frame his method as wellbeing, reacted in that moment of anger where intuition can emerge, with the following disorienting answer: “my method is about making peace with gravity!” From “fighting against” to “making peace with” there is a fundamental shift. I like to think that this shift is a deep change in posture that I feel resonating with the one advocated by the deep ecology movement which claims for a profound change in consciousness for dealing with contemporary environmental issues.

Conventionally, posture is considered to be a position in which one holds the body upright against gravity while standing, sitting or lying down. To improve it, one has to work hard with physical exercises. It is all up to the individual to be able to change. Emphasis is placed on willpower and hard work, on the inner intention to change. A totally different perspective is offered by Feldenkrais, who considers posture to be not a position, but a movement. Indeed for him, movement is not just a question of inner intention to impose outside but one of coordination within the environment. Posture demands an uninterrupted conversation between the self, the others, and the Earth. Improving it is a question of listening to gravity, not of doing something against it.

Realising that we need to change posture and start making peace with gravity is not a solution though but the opening of a philosophical question: which is the path to peace? According to zen master Thich Nhat Han the answer is paradoxical: peace is the path. This paradox highlights the limit of our paradigm of thought and invites us to address it from an existential and embodied practice.

The idea of the learning space at the Barn offers an ideal context for this practice which cannot be the task of an individual but the relational experience of a community. I personally saw in this space the continuation of the experience of the philosophical practices that I started at Philo in Milan (http://www.scuolaphilo.it/phil...) and feel that it could be the seed for an emergent idea of school. Within the specific identity of the Barn as an arts organisation the learning space could foster a path for becoming ecological in every aspect of its life by rethinking what we mean by the ‘work’ of art where mentors and artists participate within the same process of learning. These ideas were already present in these germinal questions by Anne Douglas and Mark Hope.

What might it look like if we treated the Barn as an artwork in terms of its programme, its site, its organisation and management and even its audiences? What might result from imagining the Barn as a kind of laboratory in which we might suspend disbelief about what we think we know?

“Making maps and exploring territories” by Anne Douglas and Mark Hope. In The Last Islands, John Newling, page 56

Opening up a space for learning means in this sense moving into the unknown. For being a marathon runner I am fascinated by the notion of the “wall of the marathoner” (a limit occurring around the 35th kilometre where a runner can collapse from physical and mental exhaustion) which is an experience of the unknown taking the individual into a ‘no man’s land’ to cross a desert and face emptiness, and possibly opening to a new sense of life. That wall is a limit that rather than being a border or a separating line, is a space with high educational potential, which allows one to become exposed and to ʻcut through the worldʼ. I see the learning space at the Barn with a similar potential in providing a context where learning is not just taking-in information but it is the practice of the unknown and of the uncertain. This calls for opening up a different path to our human becoming centred on care, trust and deep listening which hopefully will make us more earthly.

Paolo Maccagno New

Paolo Maccagno works on the edge of different academic traditions, developing experimental projects between art, anthropology and education. He is currently an honorary Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen and practices as an anthropologist (PHD) and Feldenkrais teacher (a somatic educational method based on movement).