By Caterina De Re
“It is not that there is a particular line or tradition of art that comprises ‘dharma art’,” says Dugu Choegyal Rinpoche. “It can be abstract painting, Western painting, Eastern painting, it can be music, dance, football, skiing or anything; so long as the motivation is not polluted by negative emotions, it is dharma art.”
A surprisingly large number of interdisciplinary artists engage Buddhism. Many are dharma practitioners while others are not. I believe it very important to acknowledge artists who are not spiritually inclined and yet create stunning works reflecting altruism, generosity, mindfulness, compassion and wisdom. Over the last 25 years I have been training in meditation and the process to bring art and spiritual practice together is ongoing work. Mentorship with Pauline Oliveros paved a path for me to get into the skin of being an artist and validated the importance of meditation in the creative process.
Neuroplasticity and Art Performance
Sparshe was one body of work focused on the meditating body and mind. Initially it was presented as an installation performance piece with multiple video projections including one on my meditating body. Red satin fabric and meditation cushions covered the floor for viewers. I composed a soundscape from processed field recordings of pilgrimage and my own voice.
I was a subject for brain studies and meditation at Rutgers University and so was able to incorporate into my work fMRI scans of my brain. Performing meditation while bathed in imagery that included the landscape of my meditating mind was an exciting context given my interest in neuroplasticity.
The Art of Improvisation and Spontaneity
Trungpa Rinpoche said to Allen Ginsberg, “Why don’t you do like the great poets do, like Milarepa? … Why don’t you make poems up on the stage? … Don’t you trust your own mind?”
Vocal improvisation is my forte. For a time I was focused on transforming compelling industrial spaces into eclectic collaborative events that honored place, American history, spiritual power places and my own personal Buddhist pilgrimage. One memorable multi-media performance I created was The Gasholder Stupa. It was a structured improvisation with pre-worked pieces (like videos) but a lot of the performative action was created “on the spot”.
Upstate New York has no lack of impressive Victorian buildings but the Troy Gasholder Building stands unique for its huge resonant acoustic space. There was never a full rehearsal and the entire crew came together for the first time about an hour before the show opened. The Gasholder Stupa’s success I attribute to the heartfelt support of my extremely proficient and gifted collaborators. It was a most attentive in-the-moment practice. I still marvel at the all the connections that occurred at the right time with the right folk. The Gasholder Stupa was a crazy confluence of diverse elements like music, dance, video projections, and just as diverse themes like Victorian history, Tiffany glass, spoofing, a Tibetan horn and jazz cornet duel – even a space station mission.
Another example of trusting spontaneity was a video piece, Seven Minutes. It features Linda Montano whose art practice utilizes endurance, focus and spirituality. In Montano’s work, art and life boundaries evaporate. Her seven-year performance where each year focused on a chakra is iconic in performing art history. We had engaged in many discussions about meditation, leading me to create this video. The parameter was seven minutes and filmed in a single take. Montano’s art/life patterning the chakras I find masterfully eloquent and my editing process incorporated the colors.
Working as an artist is for me a practice that constantly challenges one’s habitual states. Improvisation stretches boundaries and by its nature a process that refines awareness and openness in the spacial environment. It is refreshingly “healing” and like most avant-garde shakes up your preconceived ideas, assists opening the mind and heart, and embraces all possibilities.
Caterina De Re is an interdisciplinary artist using experimental vocals, improvisation, performance, video and collaboration. Performing internationally as a vocalist, she has collaborated with renown improvisers & sound-makers including Pauline Oliveros, Peter Kowald, Dennis Rea, Michael Pestel and Strafe FR. She is the first Australian to gain certification in Deep Listening – the practice of Oliveros.
Given her extraordinary vocal range, she has a particular affinity with birdsong and performed at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh and at Central Park Tropical Aviary in Manhattan. With Butoh master, Taketeru Kudo, she participated in a performance series devised by Michael Pestel called “Stray Birds”.
Caterina’s interest in Tibetan Buddhist epistemology is evident in her work with performance, electronic art and scholarship. While in Tibet, India and Nepal, she sonically and visually mapped spaces of spiritual activity that was later used in performances and compositions. She is particularly interested in the synthesis of Tibetan buddhist practice with contemporary art, especially with new media technologies in performance. For two graduate degrees this has been her field of specialization.