“Feltness” is a word that came to me in my conversation with dancer and educator Linda K. Johnson as we talked about her interactive movement-based piece Finding the Forest (October 5 and 6, 1991). Coined by artist and curator Stephanie Springgay, feltness deals in affective force. It uses feeling, touch, and interconnected bodies. It is necessarily intimate. It is maybe a method or a practice for education.
Linda K.’s performances are provocations. Born from a dance practice, her performances are ultimately asking us to be more deliberate about creating the kinds of worlds in which we want to live. The artworks are made in response to the artist’s eagerness for more engagement with the urban landscapes.
Linda K. has been making these artworks for over three decades. She has taught dance at Portland State University since 2008. She was born and raised in Portland, and most of her work has taken place in the Pacific Northwest, often at crucial moments in rapidly gentrifying locations in Portland like the South Waterfront, Alberta Street, the South Park Blocks Urban Renewal area, the downtown entrance to I-405, and more. These are places where she wants to draw the observer’s attention. She considers the feeling that she wants her audience and collaborators to walk away with, and composes/choreographs collaboratively and instinctively from that essential place. She often writes scores as invitations to participate in her work.
Linda K. conceived and directed Finding the Forest as a four-hour walking loop through Portland’s Forest Park. Over the course of an October weekend, nine multidisciplinary artists, a 40-member movement choir, and 1,000 members of the public walked a set path through the forest. Feltness is how the people who participated in the walk radically re-saw the forest. It’s the recognition of entangled and touching relations between bodies, things, and the environment. The material of Linda’s movement installations permeates the human and the more-than-human. The work impacts the form of the environment, connecting, disrupting, and inverting the life there. Participants become attuned to the surroundings.
When we chatted about Finding the Forest, we talked first in terms of the forest. What pathways are there? Where are the ravines? What are the colors of the trunk and leaves? On a certain level, the artwork doesn’t need a public to function. Linda K. makes assumptions about what might catch a person’s eye, but the process is speculative, raw, and in-flux. In receiving this work, we learn about how we perceive the environment.
In March 2023 I walked at Forest Park where the artwork took place. While I walked, I noticed snowflakes as big as half my forehead, a rainbow, reishi mushrooms, and an owl cooing in an upper branch of a tall tree reaching down to my ears at ground level. The sound came as a surprise. I wasn’t sure how the forest could participate in an artwork, but in that moment I could feel us all in the experience.
Gilian Rappaport: Why did you train as a dancer? Why do you make work like this?
Linda K. Johnson: I’m from Portland, and I was born and raised in the West Hills. My father was a realtor and used to drive me around the city, speaking out loud about what was changing, growing, or being demolished. So, my body relates to this body— the city as a body. My gaze on this place is intimate and durational.
After dancing here for five years, I had a formative experience for my practice. I was hiking in the Columbia Gorge after a big storm. There, I watched a family having to negotiate up, over, and around a fallen log. As I was coming down the hill, I got to just witness it. It was an unintended performance, all in one moment: responding to the reality of what is in front of them, meeting the natural environment on its own terms. I found it incredibly beautiful and provocative.
My politics run to the social and environmental. It’s always been my opinion that one can only beat people over the head conceptually so many times. Ultimately, people need to value a thing on their own terms to actually change behavior around it. My work exists in that window of opportunity to create experiences that might shift an opinion or engrained thought.
David Eckert once said to me: “While the work is conceptual and about serious issues that concern our city and the larger world, it is always optimistic and non-threatening. People open to it with curiosity rather than close to it with partisanship.”
Gilian: How do you describe your art practice?
Linda K.: I make apertures for people to enter and reconsider the spaces around them: how they use it, exist in it, and the politics around it. I make movement installations. The experience of the body is always centered. I’m interested in how we coexist with all/interspecies, the more-than-human and the human. The pervading hierarchy of humans feels oppressive.
Gilian: Tell me about your project Finding the Forest.
Linda K.: Forest Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States – a complete gem in the middle of Portland. Yet, it felt exclusive and private, meant only for people who lived around it in the West Hills. Many people in other parts of the city had never been there and didn’t even know what it was. I was interested in inviting the whole city to meet the forest – our forest, on its own terms.
I also had an intimate relationship with the park. I walked it every single day. It has a loop that’s accessible to walk, and one can get there by public transportation. I wanted people to have the experience of finding their way there: to adventure up into the West Hills, on a bus, or their bike, or in a car, walk through that neighborhood and feel that moment: entering the natural world. That robust transition from controlled to unpredictable.
In 1991, I received a RACC grant (Regional Arts & Culture Commission, then known as MAC – Metropolitan Arts Commission) for Finding the Forest. The project took place at Forest Park over a fall weekend. Very important to me, it was free and open to the public. It was also collaborative across multiple disciplines. I asked nine artists in the community to collaboratively treat and respond to the park, asking “How can we give permission to rest and witness the environment?” We explored the edges of the constructed and the not constructed, and nature and the artist’s hand.
In the 1990s, very few artists in my circles were talking about Relational Aesthetics. I had no idea that I was working inside a container that had a name. It was a purely instinctual desire.
About 1,000 people ended up coming across over the weekend. The large turnout was partially thanks to a newspaper article in The Oregonian about the project, which granted free public transportation there and back via Trimet bus if one showed the article on the #15 when getting on.
Gilian: Who were your collaborators?
Linda K.: Mary Oslund, a dance artist and choreographer, was my ongoing collaborator in this project and many others. We did several duets throughout the 4.5 mile park loop.
Musicians and composers Courtney Von Drehle (3 Leg Torso), Brian Lavern Davis (Pink Martini), Mike Van Liew were all on headset about a mile apart from each other in the park. Mike would call out a note, and with different instruments, including trumpet and accordion, they would lay the sound into the ravines in the park. The sound came out of nowhere. The sound just found people. There was no idea how to place it. Sounds enveloped, dissipated, and went away. The musicians started in a triangle on the park perimeter, and walked towards each other. Over the four hours, they ended up in the same space.
In addition to my duets with Mary, I performed several solos. For one of them, I installed myself inside a tree for about 45 minutes, wearing red so that people would notice how I was tucked in like a symbiotic member of the ecosystem.
Bill Boese, a lighting designer for PICA and many many others, created an installation at the entrance of the project with 100 street signs that he borrowed from the City of Portland. Natural environments give us agency to follow our instincts, while urban environments constantly direct us on what to do, how to be, which way to go, how fast to move, and where to look. He wanted to highlight that move from the urban to the semi-wild.
Mary and I did another performance, dropping into a ravine. At the bottom was musician, composer, and raga singer Michael Stirling. In the project, he was playing a glass singing bowl while moving from ravine to ravine. The sound enveloped and drew attention into the depth of the landscape and to the vegetation.
Visual artist Linda Wysong, a frequent collaborator of mine, installed a series of chairs at 10 locations along a loop that invited the viewer/participant to sit either by oneself or in community. Some of the installations were in a circle, and some were made from ingredients from the park. They were all invitations to rest and to notice the surroundings in more detail. One of them at the top of a hill had a recording underneath it of someone breathing really hard. If someone came up the hill and sat down, suddenly your breath would actually meet with another’s even though no one else was present.
The sculptor and ceramicist Tim Warner used existing materials from the forest to create a haunting series of hanging frames. He pulled ivy off trees as a public service and wove the vines into giant circular frames and suspended them from one of the ravines. Coming around the corner into the ravine, sometimes individuals walking would be perfectly framed in one of the frames. Truly beautiful.
The visual and conceptual artist Jerry Mayer, a member of Nine Gallery within BlueSky, hung bells. He was interested in the wind and the possibility that if it was not a windy day, then his installation might not ever be experienced. He was a phenomenologist, it was subtle.
Each audience member had a completely unique experience, depending on their timing with all of the various performances and treatments that were happening. Some people saw and heard everything; others received the beautiful forest.
Gilian: How hands-on were you with guiding the participants? Were there timed walks or was it more freeform?
Linda K.: My brother greeted every single person that came through the entrance in groups. There was a small map to guide, but participants had agency to craft their experience, either going up the hill to begin or around the long way and coming down the hill to end. I am interested in how we give people as much agency as possible.
With this piece, I also formed one of the core elements in my work: a movement choir. Working with 40 members of the community, ages 8-72, I staged these people along the trail, supporting visitors in exploring their experience. Within an artwork, I wanted the audience to feel the permission to make choices about how they each wanted to interact with the environment.
Every place we go has rules or implied rules, so how do we connect ourselves and widen the gap of permission that people have?
Gilian: Are there other core elements or themes in your work?
Linda K.: Precarity— I can only rehearse some elements; I am co-creating the rest in real time with the other performers, collaborators, and audience members.
Blurring the line between participant and viewer.
Collaboration with architects, filmmakers, or other people fairly deeply to manifest things that I don’t make.
Free and open to the public.
Performance scores, with a few options so participants can feel as confident as possible. Some collections of people are capable of getting over nervousness and showing up, and other times, they’re more fragile.
Gilian: What clothing did you wear in Finding the Forest?
Linda K.: Mary and I both decided that we wanted to dress as much like each other as possible. We started out in black and layered as we went. We were both wearing Shibori dyed garments created by another dance artist, Keith V. Goodman, who’s now deceased, and was also a couture designer. He gave us some embellishments. We both changed several times, and put on more pieces from Keith’s collection. At one point, Mary had a huge headdress.
Gilian: How do you prefer to work in collaborations? Are you guiding versus receiving? Do you want them to do whatever they want, or are you directing them specifically?
Linda K.: Most importantly, I try to get very clear about what I would like the audience to experience. It is impossible to direct any audience toward feeling.
I also try to communicate how I would like to begin and then something about my feeling for how it comes to an end.
This allows the collaborators’ sense of time and physical empathy to surface, and I just let them run with it.
Specifically in Finding the Forest, we took a long trail walk together in the park and then we had dinner afterwards. We talked for a long time about what came up for each person, where each were resonating and interested. It was very humbling because when I did this project, these collaborators were not my peers. I was 29 and they were all in their 40’s and 50’s. They were really practiced artists and I was just starting out. I was completely honored that they agreed to work with me, and I didn’t have any doubt that they would make something true to themselves conceptually, and also beautiful to experience. I’ve been lucky with all the projects to have that.
Gilian: Do you see a message behind your practice?
Linda K.: Free people, wake up! What’s happening around you? Have you noticed how beautiful this is? Or have you noticed it’s changing?
I am interested in spaces that seem to be flying under the radar in terms of their political or social value: something’s happening and we could be paying more attention or participating more delicately. Ultimately, the work is about a kind of civic consciousness, being present in one’s body in the place where one lives. Caring and appreciating by showing up to influence its direction.
Gilian: What is the criticism that you receive for your work?
Linda K.: Well, it can be brutish and feel unfinished. It is raw but also elegant. My co-creators are really composing it as it is being witnessed, often through detailed improvisational scores.
Gilian: Will you share about the dance class you offer at PSU?
Linda K.: Judy Patton hired me in 2008, and I taught the Dance Appreciation class for two years. From 2013 to 2016, I taught Advanced Modern Dance Lab, Somatics, and Pedagogy. The dance program was on pause from 2016-18 but I was hired back in 2018, and have been teaching since then.
My class is a laboratory. Students watch weekly videos to expand their knowledge of what a dance can be and what dance makers think about. They are exposed to modern dance techniques in class, and also some anatomy. I also introduce improvisational and compositional forms. We construct together, and we’re constantly talking about what we’re looking at. They’re learning dance-based language and exchanging experiences. I try to give them the experience of what it’s like to be a dance artist: to make work, to be in work, to witness work, and to talk about it in a non-judgmental way.
It is my experience that students crave to be in their bodies. They are almost desperate to find ways to express themselves in meaningful ways. They yearn for safe ways to be in community with their bodies and other bodies while being invited to show up fully in terms of their gender, disability, neurodivergence, or sexual orientations.
Gilian: What do you know about the history of dance at PSU?
Linda K.: The epicenter of everything that exists in contemporary dance now in Portland started at PSU 60 years ago. PSU had the most beautiful, robust program led by a group of really phenomenal artists practicing many dance expressions – Afro-Cuban, contemporary, ballet, and lyrical jazz. Dancers that graduated from this dance department include Minh Tran and Tere Mathern.
Very importantly for our city, throughout the 1980s–1990s there was the Portland State University Contemporary Dance Season. The dance department presented six professional dance companies a year, mostly from the United States and sometimes from France and Japan. When one came to one of those performances, virtually every artist in the city was there – sculptors, filmmakers, writers and dancers. It was a mecca for anyone creating in a contemporary fashion. It was also a place where people just hung out. So, PSU holds a completely significant and primary place in what dance has become in the city.
The Portland Dance Archive exists in the Special Collections & University Archive in the PSU Library. There, one can find Eric Nordstrom’s documentary film Moving History: Portland Contemporary Dance Past and Present (2016). The film preserves the history of Portland dance and those who built Portland’s contemporary dance scene, with at least a quarter focused on PSU and the amazing people that were there. The archive also includes performance videos and artist interviews. The Company We Keep was PSU’s resident dance company for years, and they were amazing. Portland Dance Theater was a professional dance company also working at that time, originally formed 1971–1979 by and with former Portland State University students and professional dancers: Jann McCauley, Cathy Evleshin, Bonnie Jo Merrill, Pat Wong, Judy Patton, Penelope Boals, Adrian Kahtany, and Gregg Bielemeier.
Gilian: Is there anything else that you would like to share before we close?
Linda K.: Working the way I work is a complete study in hope. I am trying to bring together many things at the same time with virtually no performer rehearsal. Each performer has to be incredibly focused and connected to their fellow performers to make the work happen. It is very risky business, which makes it profoundly exciting but also hard on the body. In the end, one must follow their instincts about the worlds that they want to construct for others to enter.
Gilian Rappaport (they/them) is an artist, writer, and naturalist. They are co-organizer of Ralph’s Neon Oasis Beach Party (Riis Beach, Queens, NY), and co-author of Field Guide To The Northeast (Catskills, NY). They founded their graphic design and research studio The Workspace of Gilian Rappaport in 2016. Their interdisciplinary practice touches on considerations around recognition, play, and intimacy – a practice of bringing species, binaries, and generations together on their own terms. Through invested collaborations with other artists, designers, botanists, and elders, they have realized projects in all kinds of places: beaches, forests, RV parks, bars, cemeteries, playgrounds, libraries, classrooms, backyards, billboards, human skin (tattoos), theaters, newspapers, books, homes, museums, and design studios. They exist and make socially engaged work in the school of contemporary artists today who are queering images of a romanticized nature. The question they keep returning to is: Where is the potential for miracles in the everyday? Sign up for their newsletter, and follow them @gilnotjill.
Linda K. Johnson (she/her) is an Oregon native. For over three decades, she has been deeply influential in the maturation of dance in the NW region, contributing as a maker, performer, academic, somatic educator, Contemporary Alexander Technique teacher, mentor, curator, and arts administrator. Her choreographic work has been presented by PICA/TBA, On the Boards, and ORLO, among many others. Nationally, she is honored to be one of five custodians of Yvonne Rainer’s seminal postmodern work, Trio A. Johnson has participated in residencies at Yaddo, Caldera and Rauschenberg/Captiva, and is one of 12 featured artists in the recently released book by Kristin Timkin – The New Explorers, which includes a forward by Lucy R. Lippard. In 2014, she opened her private practice teaching Contemporary Alexander Technique, having studied for four years with master teacher Robyn Avalon and the Alexander Alliance.
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