What Do We Do Now?

Jill Sigman's Weed Heart

by Mars Dietz on September 26th, 2016

Jill Sigman

Jill Sigman. Weed Heart. Photo by Scott Shaw, 2016.

Jill Sigman has spent the summer and fall seasons cultivating a human and non-human community in and around the Gibney Dance Center, gathering people and plants in a moving installation that sprawls from the first to second floors of the Center's space at 280 Broadway. From the first moment I enter the hallway at the entrance across from City Hall, I am already within Sigman's installation. Photographs of plants growing from handmade cloth pouches line the hall to my right. While I wait for the evening's performance to begin, I am welcomed into the second floor of the Gibney Center, which has been transformed through clear placemaking strategies – cushions, plants, sculptures, and books fill the space. A sign instructs me to "make myself at home", in Sigman's wide-ranging project, Weed Heart.

Jill Sigman and Katrina De Wees

Jill Sigman and Katrina De Wees. Photo by Scott Shaw, 2016.

Weed Heart is a longer-term project that crosses both botanical and anthropic temporalities, ranging from seed harvesting, saving and planting, to social practice tea-serving, discussion-hosting, and at last, performance-making. I'm here for the performance. Sigman focuses on weeds, the plants that have survived even the pouring of concrete, that grow through the cracks, that constantly fight agriculturalist extermination efforts against all odds. Sigman has learned that many of the wild plants in New York City are edible or have medicinal qualities, leading her to forage, make and serve a variety of wild teas during her public events using the plants. With weeds as her central point of orientation and departure, the artist addresses colonialism, slavery and the loss of the commons as these histories are remembered by the land itself. She configures dance, installation and social practice within the larger question of how to go forward with these bloodied histories in mind, how to care for the wounds of the past as we figure how to go on into a weedy future.

Jill Sigman

Jill Sigman. Photo by Scott Shaw, 2016.

The sculptures in the installation are clearly made of found objects, junk, even, stacked and gathered together in forms that suggest altar, shrine or ritual object, but are crowded together in the space in such a way that it becomes difficult to imagine their ritual use. They appear parked here, with their specific utilities on pause, serving as a stage setting rather than as tools. Perhaps their purpose lies outside the installation. Unlike Sigman's The Hut Project, which uses similar techniques of assemblage and junk to build huts for viewers to enter, these sculptures are modular and can be taken through various spaces, perhaps the artists' weed walks through the city or perhaps with us in ceremonies of our own making.

A closer look reveals that each object is held together by precious knots of ribbon, cloth, string or rope. These touches provide evidence of the artist's hand, and bring together an aesthetic that separates Sigman's practice from the cold analytics of many artists trafficking in the anthropocene trend. Sigman cultivates a space of community, sharing and healing, not a platform for distanced inspection. Sigman's public programming invites community into spaces for dialogue that synthesizes dance space with social and environmental issues concerning the land we live on. Her aesthetic styles reminds me of street artist Swoon's 2008 post-natural project Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea that brought handmade boats of recycled objects down the Hudson river, or the many community gardens founded and maintained by the Latinx residents of the Lower East Side since the 1970's, still resisting gentrification today.

Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea

Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea. Photo by Tod Seelie, 2008.

Sigman's installation sprouts through the Gibney Dance Center just a stone's throw from the African Burial Ground National Monument, the New York City Supreme Court, the New World Trade Center and the National Museum of the American Indian, all at the Southern tip of Manhattan, one of the earliest sites to be colonized in the production of New York City. We stood there, waiting for this performance, on historically significant ground. Its significance comes not by exception, for after all, the whole United States is built on stolen land, and much of it built or financed by enslaved labor – no, this site is weighted because it is surrounded by symbolic architecture, memorials, and monuments to the thick layers of our long historical moment.

Is Weed Heart a memorial, too? What do we do together in memorial spaces? How do these symbolic installation objects foster a nurturing space for remembering and moving forward? When we were ready for the performance to begin, I walked downstairs to the studio entrance to find Jill Sigman and her co-performer Katrina De Wees serving tea made of Sigman's own foraged edibles. Hot tea in hand, I entered Studio A with the rest of the audience and observed a room outfitted much like the installation upstairs.

Jill Sigman

Jill Sigman. Photo by Scott Shaw, 2016.

I begin to notice that each plant has a paper plant marker, but instead of telling us scientific names, we are given quotations culled from Sigman's bibliograpy. One of the first quotations I read was from Porter Shimer's Healing Secrets of the Native Americans. "...botanists, historians, and pharmacologists who have studied Native American healing point to clear evidence that the early Native Americans knew exactly what they were doing..."

Jill Sigman's plant

Photo by Mars Dietz, 2016.

I'm confused a bit by the excerpt. I assume Shimer means non-Native scholars when he places them in contrast to the healers they study. But why would Indigenous knowledge systems need to be verified by these scientists? Don't they stand on their own? I'm confused again. By writing his book about Native American healing practices entirely in the past tense, without much differentiation between different tribal groups or lands, Shimer seems to have written as if Native Americans altogether no longer exist — a subtle genocidal grammar. I gather that Shimer is non-Native. He is probably a settler like me. So too, I take it, is Jill Sigman.

At the opening of her choreographic score, Sigman and De Wees frame the space by standing to face one another from diagonally opposed corners of the room. With a stillness in their presences and an upright posture, they hold old computer monitors like ceremonial objects. I wonder about the difference between weeds and wires in our postnatural world. A video comes onto the screens, which form a kind of feedback loop in the space by facing one another. Sigman is pictured on-screen in a youtube selfie-like video, where she begins to speak a personal narrative. Her father was ill, and she turned to plants for answers about healing.

Jill Sigman and Katrina De Wees

Jill Sigman and Katrina De Wees. Photo by Scott Shaw, 2016.

In the recording, she describes a specific encounter with an anthropomorphized plant called Lovage, which speaks back to her in English after she asks it for help, for its knowledge. "You don't know us," it says. You don't know "who we are." In response to the plant's challenge, Sigman describes her departure on a journey to get to know the plants around her, leading to Weed Heart, where we as viewers are now gathered.

In the movement score that follows the opening video, Sigman adorns herself with a plant mask and covers her head with a hood, interrupting the face that visually registers her humanity, transforming through vegetal obfuscation into something like a plant. With her body Sigman quotes her training in modern dance and uses techniques of the stage performance such as score marks on the floor, juxtaposed with the ritual elements of the installation. The composer Kristin Norderval guides us through a mixed live and recorded sound score drawing heavily on prayer and chanting vocal styles of unclear origin. Norderval uses found objects as instruments, bringing softly scattered noises into the space, as if the sculptures of the whole installation were voicing themselves, too. The installation's plant-sculptures are lit with stage lights, causing the plants to represent themselves.

Jill Sigman

Jill Sigman. Photo by Scott Shaw, 2016.

The choreography and sound score eventually stir and culminate together with the use of chanting, stomping and chest-beating styles that seem explicitly referential to Native American ceremonies, but without citation or apparent specificity. Norderval cuts sharply through the space with an opera-trained voice, pushing the small room to an intensity that puts me on edge. It appears harmful to play Native while seemingly embodying a plant, cutting close to an age-old colonial habit of portraying Indigenous peoples as parts of the landscape, not protagonists, at the expense of acknowledging their many complex civilizational histories.

Jill Sigman and Katrina De Wees

Jill Sigman and Katrina De Wees. Photo by Scott Shaw, 2016.

After the crescendo, another stage of the ritual-like choreography begins, involving something like a death and rebirth, wherein the two co-performers enter the stage to lift Sigman back into her human form through gently performed symbolic actions. Rising out of her plant-dance form, Sigman joins De Wees in another presentation of the screens. I notice that the live voice is used for non-speech or non-English soundings, in contrast to the recorded voice's narrative explication. I wonder about this division between live and digital utterance. After Sigman in-the-flesh inhabits the Weed Heart dance and moving through the symbolic stages of plant life, Sigman on-video speaks to us of what the land remembers.

We're on Native land, she tells us, the land of the Lenni Lenape people. She tells us about the African Burial Grounds in the area, reminding us of the legacy of racial slavery built into the architecture and the real human lives laid to rest underfoot. "I know," she says, "its a lot," presupposing an audience for whom this information is unfamiliar, or an audience that does not typically experience the effects of our contemporary colonial conditions — a non-Native audience.

Its clear that Sigman is carefully nurturing a space for honest reflection on the dire need for healing that this land requires, a reflective space necessary to moving forward in a more just world. But when the performance instructs us to take time to look around the space, reflect and integrate some details of a five-century long genocide as if they were news, I wonder for whom I am being asked to perform my feeling. Rituals are highly specific practices developed with and for localized communities. Sigman has worked hard over the past months to gather communities in discourse through her social practices in residence at Gibney, culminating in this ritual. Is this ritual for me, or for the choreographer? Is this ritual for the dead, or for the living? Is this ritual for the plants? I am left unsure.

Sigman's anthropology of plant life and memory calls to mind Michael V. Wilcox's question from Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest, as quoted in historian Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz's book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States: "What if archaeologists were asked to explain the continued presence of descendent communities five hundred years after Columbus instead of their disappearance or marginality?" Oritz describes that Wilcox "calls for the active dismantling of what he calls 'terminal narratives,' ... 'accounts of Indian histories which explain the absence, cultural death, or disappearance of Indigenous peoples'".1 Sigman's choreographic work bears witness to the survivance of plants that grow through concrete in a lower Manhattan parking lot. As we imagine this weedy future, can we honor the survivance of people, too?

1. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston, MA, United States: Beacon Press, 2014), 42.

Jill Sigman's Weed Heart is part of a larger practice involving plant research and community discussions, as part of Gibney Dance Center's Fall 2016 Making Space programming. This review is of the September 10th, 2016 performance. Cover photos by Scott Shaw.


Mars Dietz is a fourth generation Brooklynite who writes, lectures, performs, and creates sound works.