In August of 2014 a group of artists, writers, curators and activists traveled to a split-log cabin in Black, MO – an unincorporated town in the rural, rolling, southeast corner of the state – to FLOAT for six days in (Collective) Isolation. We came from Kansas City and St. Louis, from Miami, New York, Washington DC and L.A. Under the wings of the Italian collective Radical Intention we navigated the terrain of slow, unplanned and generous relationship. We had come to talk about group productivity, leadership and consensus - but to do this we had to remember how to let go of assertion and listen with our skins. Over the course of the week, this is what I heard: Agents of change are authors who model new ideas and practices, but our optimistic gestures will only shift from speculation to reality if all the characters feel part of a complex, common story. This is easy/hard.

Sarrita Hunn from The Luminary in St. Louis, created the residency as an invitation to leave behind the insistent urgency of daily life. Peaceful Valley Hideaway would offer socially engaged artists and cultural workers a chance to slip out of habitual reactive modes, to shelter from an unrelenting hail of information, and to step back from intense focus to regain a wider, deeper sense of perspective. Sarrita had attended a Radical Intention Decompression workshop in Tuscany last year and connected with the power of their functional premise: if you first build an empathic group identity based on trust, respect and affectionate play, then a capacity for action and exchange emerges that will both value and surpass antagonistic differences among its members.

When we arrived at the residency after bumping for miles along a dusty gravel road we were greeted by a sign inviting us to “Retreat ~ Relax ~ Rejuvenate”. The first two recommendations came with the territory, so to speak. We floated on and in the limpid river, hiked through ancient geologies, meditated by the pond, read on the porch, moved slowly, watched meteors cruising down the Milky Way, and conversed for intoxicated hours by fire and candlelight. There was no wifi and spotty cell phone coverage. Slowly the new-normal poverty of time melted into its former abundance.

The third directive followed as surely as another breath. A deliciously childish spirit fell over us all like fairy dust. We slept in a dormitory under the eaves, and then shared our dreams the next morning. We laughed until our faces ached, played with bugs, and collected sticks and stones. We read a Pirandello play together, twice, taking on roles with an increasing delight in absurdity. Valerio, Aria and Maria led us in improvisational games, and before we left we stitched together a rambling story about Yaelle’s grandmother and a two-headed calf from the patterns of our collected dreams.

In taking the time to become fluid and intimate, and to first build a collective subconscious bond (as children do with ease), we began to find our way into mature discourse: deep listening, passionate advocacy, pointed disagreement and active, civic community. The commonality we had crafted in our aimless yet attentive wanderings had opened up an expansive space for welcoming a multitude of selves. Conversations about the compounding Israeli/Palestinian conflict, whether or not to withdraw support from strategies and actions that seem counter-productive, whether the site for artistic agency and resistance should be inside or outside the system, how to defuse paralyzing cynicism – all topics that most often provoke polarization and complaint but seldom collective visionary energy – returned over and again to some version of radical optimism.

How does existential will arise from crisis and confusion? How do factions discover the patience and forgiveness to embrace slippage or transgressive values, and craft a common vision? To say that any collective act requires an optimistic assertion of possibility, and that such optimism emerges from feeling connected to a meta-narrative, or that discovering common stories requires vulnerability, and that such openness only flourishes in spaces of trust and mutual respect, suggests that resilient relational foundations are a necessary first step – whether shaping the healing of trauma, political agency or critical response. It’s true that it’s increasingly difficult to set aside quiet time for either self-reflection or the slow, affective discovery of commonality within a tangled community. But what other options do people have if respite and deeper connection have become essential conditions for further progress, if deep listening is the way to uncover authentic consensus?

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Photos and captions courtesy of the author.
This essay was first published in 8 1/2 x 11, a print publication by PLUG Projects in Kansas City.