The Scrap Exchange, Durham
Caitlyn Swett is taking stock of the so-called junk in the belly of the Scrap Exchange, where the arms of multicolored shirts dangle from a cardboard box like phantom limbs and yards of rolled fabric resemble exposed pipes. It’s an imaginative landscape of mess where creativity and lived history comingle.
“The mounds of scrap, the way that everything falls into place, it already feels like art to me,” Swett says. For three nights this weekend, the movement-and-sound trio Paideia—whose core members are Swett, who lives in Durham; Blakeney Bullock, who lives in Winston-Salem; and Widow, who lives in New York City—will work with several interdisciplinary collaborators to explore the space and its varied contents, with one central question in mind: Who gets to belong?
“I think of all the bits and baubles and scraps of things,” Swett says. “They’ve all had a life and are coming to a meeting place. It’s like what we’re doing. Everyone has their interest in this inquiry, and we’re coming together in a singular space to converse.”
This new piece represents both a challenge to and an amplification of Paideia’s prior work, which Bullock describes as an “improvisational interaction between soundscape, sound collage, noise, and the body.” The trio’s name is a reference to a Socratic education model in which discussion is often conducted in a circle and emphasizes open-ended questioning and critical listening. This is how Paideia considers its relationship to its audience—not as divided, but as concentric parts of the same circle.
“Each tier has different sorts of participation: a tier for movement, sound, and witnesses,” Bullock says.
Swett, Bullock, and Widow have worked together in different ways and configurations over the years but solidified their presence as Paideia with two performances in Durham: Within the Sequence, at Monkey Bottom Collaborative in 2016, and Split Bill (with Cara Hagan), at Threehouse Studios last year. They’re also the only group in the Durham Independent Dance Artists season that also fits in at the International Noise Conference, the big, annual noise music festival in Miami, where they performed this year.
In Split Bill, amplifiers, electronics, and contact microphones were spread across the room, and each part of the trio shifted fluidly between adding experimental sound and exploratory movement, smearing the edges of hierarchies and roles. They ended with an image that embodied this concept: Back to back, playing chimes, they stood or crouched at three different heights but all revolved in the same circle.
Widow says Split Bill was a turning point in Paideia’s collaboration, further collapsing the boundaries between movers and musicians. In our conversation about the new work, the word “collapse” keeps coming up, regarding both the boundaries between roles and the way the trio uses improvised movement and sound emotionally and kinesthetically, as a way of being together in the fullness of compassion and confrontation.
“We err on the side of intensity—on the side of deeply felt emotion, opinion, and action,” Bullock says.
Perhaps this intimate orbit is what enables the trio to open and expand. Each of them brings their own interpretation to that question, “Who gets to belong?” For artists and audience alike, it’s an inquiry meant to resonate at the personal-political intersection. Each member of the trio also invited two artists to prepare a response that will manifest in two ways: physically, on each night of the performance, and as a written reflection incorporated in a post-performance zine. Some artists might produce monologues, while others might project images. It’s up to them. But it all arises from the structure Paideia is creating for the piece, a sort of algorithm that sets the timing and spatial cues while remaining concealed. It’s a way to introduce microcosmic mechanisms of power and control and make dynamics of belonging play out: membership, exclusion, attachment, and ownership.
In keeping with Paideia’s interest in equilateral action, Swett says it’s important for the trio, over the course of the piece, to destabilize its self-created structure, too. In replicating and mutating these dynamics, a new, more collective world gleams into view.
“What if we invited artists who make dynamic decisions and got to be with them in the space while they negotiate accountability among other people?” Widow says. “We thought that could be really exciting—like, what if we could build that ideal world?”
The Scrap Exchange, with all its materiality, is another collaborator, another world-builder with political meaning. The assortment of objects is like a “physical representation of where capitalism has gotten us,” Bullock says. Placing a performance in this aftermath, in a space where consumer detritus meets creative potential, is a way of making labor and capital personal.
Aesthetically, this interplay of bodies and objects might seem cacophonous; in a given moment, it might alienate or entice. There’s room to move close to the performers or to drift away down the aisles. Either way, a relationship takes shape between people and material forms. This “symphony of rubbish,” as Widow calls it, is about to whom and what we’re beholden, and how we decide. Belonging is, after all, intimately connected to power: who holds it, who wields it, and who upends it.