Firebird: mattress under the overpass is a short experimental film directed, written, performed, and produced by Kythe Heller, edited by Grace Jackson, music by Andrew Stauffer and Nicholas Denton Protsack, cinematagraphy and co-production by Lise King, and audio engineering by George Trksak. The film enacts a ritual burning from the Firebird poems. [7:01 min] [Please listen with headphones on full screen]

Conversation between Kythe Heller and Grace Jackson.
GJ: What is your vision for Vision Lab?

KH: Vision Lab grew out of questions that emerged for me after the 2016 election, especially concerning the kinds of new spiritual, political, technological, and environmental worlds that art making, literary practice, and scholarship might reveal and create. We’re in a new time where ideas that you and I grew up with, that we took as the furniture of our existence, ideas about democracy and social justice, education, the value of science, all of these are being called into question or discredited publicly by the current president. So, I  wanted to think beyond what had already been established and think in a new way about what might be possible now. What kinds of new knowledges and actions can we develop collectively in art making and writing and scholarship and social practices? How are the revealed knowledges of art making distinctly able to address and transform these hidden and not so hidden crises that are constantly suffusing our social life worlds? And how can this be connected to social and political remaking, to individual and collective care for each other?

I was thinking about how, in popular culture the ideas of vision and the visionary have been co-opted by people like Elon Musk, the technological visionaries and capitalists who are held up as ideals in contemporary society. I wanted to undermine that focus on techno-capitalism with a different idea of the visionary, one that emerges from my study in religion, of mystics and actual visionaries, who embody for me something profoundly compelling about the possibilities of the human being to spiritually evolve and to approach life in an organic and revelatory way. And we know that this is possible because there have been individuals in the past, as well as in the present, who embody this way of thinking and being. So, in a way, we can live the future that we most want to be possible now. That’s the message of the visionaries I've studied, mystics and saints, as well as political and social visionaries, like Martin Luther King Jr, or Malcolm X, or medieval visionaries like Marguerite Porete or Meister Eckhart, or Islamic visionaries like Ibn al-ʿArabī or the contemporary Sufi teacher Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, the teacher I've studied with personally. These various beings have so much to offer in terms of how we can learn to treat each other and the world around us.

GJ: I love your idea of reclaiming the visionary from the capitalist entrepreneurs. My second question is about your experience of convening the group this summer. Was it directly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic or did you always imagine that you'd do something this summer with Vision Lab?

KH: To give you a little backstory, Vision Lab started in the fall of 2017 with those questions I mentioned earlier. The first year we were in residence at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. During that year, we presented a whole series of public workshops and conferences, residencies and presentations and experiential retreats. There were six of them and they were all on different topics. One was on environmentalism, one was on race, one was on dream science, one was on engaged spirituality and mysticism, one was on technology, and one was on engaged radical art practices. We brought together amazing people from all over the different institutes and schools at Harvard and MIT and the Boston art community and we started to get to know each other. People were working in radically different fields and different areas of inquiry. But within these, a main theme emerged for me, that all of us were rethinking how spirituality was possible in contemporary terms in our work and in our lives, and how to cultivate care and compassion and inward research. We began to talk with each other about how these ideas could be brought to bear on the ways that we were working and on our research questions, both individually and collectively. I tried to find people who were sparkling, wide-minded thinkers, secret genius radicals, people who don't fit neatly into their various departments at Harvard or MIT, which are often structured in disciplinary categories.

In the second year of Vision Lab, I wanted to see how we could start to work together and make things together as spiritual beings and as inquiry-minded researchers, but also as artists and performaers. In that year we were involved in a series of commissions from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. We made three performances together with Vision Lab members from wildly different backgrounds, some of whom don’t even consider themselves artists. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020 and by that time, there was so much momentum and so much interest in what we were making together, that it became apparent we had to find a way to continue. And there were so many things that Vision Lab was needed for in that moment. We realized with that skin-thrilling feeling, that this was actually why Vision Lab had come into existence, without our knowing it beforehand, that we were here to face and speak to this crisis, as artists, as spiritual beings, as people who are deeply trained in different forms of intellectual inquiry. We realized that we needed to speak to what was happening. It began with COVID-19, but then there was the murder of George Floyd and the exacerbation of police violence against black people, and the protests that emerged from that at the beginning of the summer, and all the political corruption in an election year, and the deep need for environmental stewardship as the forests began to burn... all of these issues require us to work collectively, to bring our work to bear meaningfully on the world.

GJ: And how has it been for you? You are clearly a very magnetic person and somebody who has a talent for bringing people together and creating community. What have been some of the challenges for you?

KH: Well, everybody in Vision Lab has also been dealing directly with these issues in their own lives. There have been members of Vision Lab who developed the coronavirus or whose family members or friends have died from coronavirus. There are members who have lost their jobs and are experiencing astonishing precarity of means. There are also members who have been beaten up and maced by police at protests.

For me personally, it's been a mixture of things because there's also been a possibility of unity that wasn't present before. If you spend time at a university, you make friends with people far-flung across the world. Vision Lab makes possible maybe for the first time an art collective and a spiritual sangha gathering of like-minded people who I deeply love and who are friends from all over the world. People join and start to become friends with each other and start to make things together and talk and share resources and share stories and a space of openness and intimacy and love naturally develops a kind of compassionate approach to the world.

One dream I had, right at the beginning of the pandemic in March, during the shutdown of Harvard and the moving of Vision Lab online -- I dreamt that there was a flock of birds moving across the screen of my vision. They seemed to be migrating and it was night. And these birds, each one of them was made out of light and there was this incredibly beautiful view of the flock passing across my screen. And when I scrunched my eyes and was looking at my dream, it seemed like the birds themselves made the shape of one bird. It reminded me of the medieval Sufi allegory of the Conference of the Birds, a story of birds who go on a quest together for enlightenment.

GJ: Can you describe your own phoenix project, or projects?

KH: So, actually all of this started because I had written a book of poems called Firebird, which refers to the phoenix in the Russian version of the myth. Obviously I had written all these poems before the pandemic, but I received the first box of my printed books while deep in quarantine. Normally that would be a happy moment for a poet, but I felt a strange set of emotions -- On the one hand, I was grateful and happy that these books could be printed safely at this time. But I also felt my heart sinking a little, as I was thinking -- what possible meaning can a book of poetry have in the middle of this complete breakdown of life and health and politics and global financial crisis? It was right at the beginning of the George Floyd protests and I just felt like, I'm writing poetry, what’s the purpose of that? I took that into my meditation and I thought, okay, if there's one thing about this book that is meaningful at this time, what would it be? I thought about the image of the phoenix and how it shows up in nearly every culture of the world. And I thought about this cycle that we've been trapped in, with police violence and political corruption and mourning and the inability of our society to mourn together or to do anything with unity, that there was this really horrific repetition compulsion syndrome or cycle at play, that's all about death, death, death, and violence. And I was thinking, what is the way out of this? And actually the phoenix myth represents a possibility for us to reinterpret this moment, because the phoenix is not afraid to die and it dies consciously and it dies without any sort of white-washing or denial of what's happening in its own life. It makes this conscious choice with dignity and it burns itself down to the ground. And then something new emerges. It’s fire purified to light. It’s like Hannah Arendt’s idea of natality, something new that hasn't been in existence before. We really need this in society and in our individual lives right now, we need a way of accessing things we haven't thought or felt or been before, we need to actually become the visionaries. I think we need to evolve and take responsibility for our own consciousness and our own evolution in the way that we treat each other in the world.

GJ: I love that idea of the phoenix choosing to die a dignified death. That was particularly powerful for me at the height of the pandemic, thinking about—it's a really troubling thought—the way people were leaving this life, hooked up to a respirator and without their loved ones nearby. That moved me a lot to think about how this might be an opportunity to not only imagine new life, but to also get more comfortable with death maybe, to have some contact with it on your own terms in that way that the phoenix does. It's a whole other conversation to talk about our culture’s relationship to death and how strained it is, but we should talk about that at some point.

KH: I think our culture doesn't know how to die and doesn't know how to mourn and much less how to mourn collectively. There's so much divisiveness. Many anthropologists have talked about one of the basic markers of a culture being how it treats its dead. And I think we're coming up against the problem of whether in fact we are truly civilized. Maybe we need new mourning rituals. I think that's happening with some of the protests. I think Black Lives Matter is doing an excellent job of not only demanding truth and sincerity and justice in society, but also respect for life, which is also a respect for the dead.

GJ: Would you like to talk about your creative process?

KH: Primarily I'm a poet and a writer in my creative process. This way of thinking began with my first experiences with poetry, when I encountered poetry as a child. It was like finding a secret place and in fact, the only place for me at that time in which this extraordinary immediacy and intimacy of what a child experiences could be expressed. It was a secret and crucial lifeline for me. Because of a really difficult and abusive situation in my family at the time, poetry felt like a private, inner life that I could work with in order to survive. It was a way of making up my own language.

Reading was absolutely essential to this. I would spend hours in the public library, avoiding my home and I read everything, even boring things, first of all, to escape, but yet somehow also in this immersion in language and words and in a whole world of art and creativity, somehow I found lines of poems that seemed to speak directly to me across time and space at a time when it felt like nothing else reached me, when I couldn't understand why I was a person in existence in the world. Some of these were Rainer Maria Rilke’s: “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?” Amiri Baraka was another important early influence. He has a poem called ‘An Agony. As Now’. Sylvia Plath has a fearless and undying character, Lady Lazarus, in one of her poems, and Wordsworth’s “sense sublime… deeply interfused.” I felt like these were all clues. So many people who become artists or poets start from a point of just needing to survive their lives in some sense, so I'm certainly not alone in that, but I remember feeling utterly shocked by the realization of not being alone. Because like so many people in traumatic situations, I believed that I was a freak, completely alone, and unlovable, like I didn't fit into the world. And what these poems originally offered me was a profound sense of being seen and acknowledged, not just at the personal level, but at the soul level. They affirmed aspects of my life and my experience that were latent or unsayable, deep longings for a spiritual perspective, things I didn't even know how to articulate or describe at the time, because there was no one around me to reflect this intuition of the vastness of who we really are. I also experienced a sense of community with a whole lineage of poets, living and dead, of makers, artists, saints and martyrs and spiritual writers, because if someone else could feel and express what it was that I was feeling, these intimations that were so inchoate, that expressed something about life that I didn't know, it made my whole sense of being alive and being a person into a conscious endeavor, a shared and evolving human endeavor, rather than a private and hopeless personal one. Throughout our lives, we're all trying to understand these larger questions like, who am I really? What poetry can do is actually open us up, pry us loose, and acknowledge the secret parts of ourselves and the longings for something deeper and more true, to bring all that we feel and imagine ourselves to be, and to place it really truly and honestly out in the open. And then actually taking it further to use all the experiences of solitude, of having been in danger, of having a really precarious life, or depth of suffering, of having gone through something all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further and to use this conviction and determination and insight to help us evolve as human beings and as makers, and to use our own language and creativity to radically change our ways of being in the world. Poetic language actually has the potential to reveal these truly visionary human possibilities, to realize new and better forms, to realize new senses beyond our acceptable cliché of the five senses, to realize new meanings and more sustainable political realities, and really ultimately, I think, new ways of manifesting new lived realities of love.

GJ: Wow. That’s an amazing manifesto, Kythe. My next question is about your spiritual practice as it relates to your creative process. Can you say a few things about that?

KH: I've been on the spiritual path for a really long time. I mostly think about it now in terms of every breath, really trying to remember who I am with every breath. I’ve engaged in many different meditation practices going back more than 20 years. I started when I was a really messed up runaway kid. Through many different prolonged times of living and working in meditation centers and many different long-term intensive meditation retreats and the study of yoga. I went through many religious traditions and was deeply immersed in several of them and was lucky enough, I don't know how, to find a teacher to work with who I could respect. This is the Sufi Shaikh Muhammad Raheem Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, who left his body in 1986, so I never met him in person. But he formed a community in Philadelphia and his shrine, his Mazhar, it's called, a kind of burial site, is a space of pilgrimage for the Muslim diaspora from all over the world and is just an hour outside of Philadelphia. I’ve been deeply engaged with the teachings and study of this Sufi Shaikh and the community that he founded for about 10 years now. I rented a room in the house of the Imam, and I spend a lot of my time in spiritual study and contemplation here. There are many different practices and esoteric dimensions, but a concept that I think about a lot is called the insan al-kamil, which means the true human being. This is, in traditional Islamic Sufi thought, the idea that being human is something to aspire to rather than claim. There are traditionally 99 names associated with Allah, the divine, plus the hundredth secret name. These 99 names express different aspects of divine nature. One would be compassion. One would be patience. One might be overwhelming love or wisdom… all these are different human qualities it's possible to cultivate. If we empty ourselves of everything that's not a divine quality, all the egoic constructions and ideas we have about ourselves would be the out-breath, so when you breathe out, you're letting go of all the egoic constructions and everything that's not divine. Then when you breathe in, you're inhaling truth and wisdom and light and clarity and compassion and love and everything that might be associated with God. And so if you can merge into that state where nothing except for these beautiful qualities exist in you, and you cultivate them and attend to them and reveal them within yourself, then you have the possibility of becoming a true human being, which is essentially a vehicle for the divine being present as an imminence in this world. But it's not quite that simple because the insan kamil is also not conceived as an individualistic ideal, because there's a very famous verse of the Koran, which says, wherever you look, there is the face of God.

So, Grace, if I look at you and I see that you did something really compassionate without any intention of gain or any impurity, or if you see something beautiful in someone else, or a tree or an animal or anything, all of these qualities are also being constantly reflected back to us. So, our own capacity to see these qualities in other people reflects back on us. There's this constant reciprocity and inter-subjectivity that's built into the way of conceiving of these qualities. It's not like they actually exist in you and you own them, it's that they're qualities of divine imminence in the world and your capacity to reveal them in yourself actually changes your state so that you reveal who you truly are in the deepest sense, by living in a way where there is nothing other than this compassionate benevolence towards all that is.

GJ: I like that using that language of revealing as opposed to kind of extracting from oneself, because I think in our culture there's a lot of pressure to “self-actualize,” to cultivate ourselves, to be fit and healthy, to eat well, to meditate. And the discourse of wellness I think can be rather oppressive. This more organic way of framing it, as a process of becoming, of revealing, of allowing things to come through that that are imminent is a much more helpful way to think about it.

My final question is, what you have found to be permanent the summer in the midst of so much change and loss? What do you see as offering us a refuge, maybe a sanctuary or just a sense of continuity?

KH: It's really interesting that we've been forced inside. To be forced inside can be many different things, depending on what state you're in. It can be a prison, it can be isolation. It can be very precarious depending on your situation, but it also can be a space of meditation and refuge and a deep study of yourself, and a way to learn more about your own relationship to your deeper life and love and wisdom, it can be a space of cultivation or revealing who you truly are and actually the capacity and time and space to ask that question, you know, what is ultimately real for you? What do you really care about? One thing that was interesting about the pandemic, immediately everything that was inessential in our lives, like these advertisements for $3,000 Chanel handbags, or other expensive things that no one really needs, all these things immediately showed themselves to be full of nothing. They weren't going to help us in any way. I, for the first time, planted a garden, because I want to be able to know how to grow food. Who knows what will happen in the world? There's a sense of, in the external world, at least, wanting to know what matters, what forms of mutual care and resources people can offer to each other, what structures can help us survive and thrive? And then in the inner world, I think there's this incredibly spacious sense of needing to grow as individuals and as a society, that it's important not to be so outwardly focused all the time and to manage these distractions, when actually the inner questions will help us live more stable and meaningful lives. That's one level. And then there's a much, much deeper search that it's possible to engage with. Like, if nothing in the world satisfies you or can be helpful at this time, if you're literally being forced inside, maybe there's a way to take advantage of that and to really do a deep dive into these inner questions and to find out what it is for you that is permanent, what truly exists and to build a relationship with that, you know? I think everyone has to answer this in their own way, but I've found it to be a spacious time for that path.

GJ: Last question. What are your hopes for the current moment?

KH: I so much hope that people can find genuine ways of meeting each other where we truly are, and really loving each other and really caring for each other, developing wisdom and grace under pressure and becoming our best, best selves and doing whatever we need to do to help each other make it through this time. I want to bring back that image of the birds made out of light, the flock of birds, the murmuration, the transmigration of birds as far as they need to fly. Each of us in a sense is like a bird of light. And I know not everyone believes the same thing. This was just the dream I had, but I really hope we can remember this image of the birds and the beings of light and that possibility of moving together and finding a very graceful, very joyous and beautiful way of being together now and in the future in every breath.

KH: How did you come to be involved with this video project and what kinds of meanings does it hold for you personally?

GJ: For me, this project was as a way of pushing my filmmaking practice into a more experimental mode, and discovering non-linear ways of creating meaning in video. Instead of telling a linear story with several pieces of footage and a voiceover, for example, which is what I would typically do with a documentary, we’ve taken a much more associative approach to the images and the words, and the relationship between them. It’s been fun to challenge myself to let go of some of the drive for linear narrative and think more in terms of shapes and sensations.

We have a range of shots in the film, some of very close to or in the middle of the fire, which are quite abstract. Others are more literal, you can see a beach, you can see the ocean, you know where you are. Finding a way to combine these images in a way that would bring out the poem’s underlying emotional experience.

The other big part of the project for me was collaborating with you, Kythe, which was amazing and also really intense in a good way. It felt like a real collaboration. As an editor, I wasn't just taking direction from you as the director of the film. Rather, we were figuring things out together, going back and forth on where a certain image belonged or when to use black. That felt really good because often collaborations are asymmetric. That isn't always a bad thing, but this one felt truly collaborative in spirit as well as practice. That was a great thing for me to experience as an editor.

KH: That was so eloquent, Grace. Could you speak to how this film participates in the idea of the phoenix? I'm working on the website now, and I’ve been organizing all the projects into the seven valleys from The Conference of The Birds, which has been a motif for Vision Lab this year. I decided which project went where based on intuition, and I ended up putting this project into the Valley of The Quest. Do you see any connections with this particular project and the idea of the quest or the phoenix?

GJ: I would have considered the Valley of Annihilation and Rebirth for this project, but I think it fits just as well in the Valley of the Quest, in that this poem and hopefully the video as well, represent a journey inward. Although I just said that this was a non-linear project, in a way it does have its own trajectory because it is a journey into the heart of trauma and out the other side. That’s obviously very connected to the idea of the phoenix, which purposefully destroys itself in order to gain another birth. If you read the poem and spend time with the poem, it really does feel like a very intentional journey, almost like seeing how close you can get to a fire without burning yourself, except in the poem, you actually do burn yourself and then see what is left at the end of that process. It’s a spiritual process, given physical form in the video. After the ritual burning the mattress, what is left is possibility and potentiality. These are all meanings that participate in the phoenix narrative and they are very personal in your poem. They tell your story, but they're also very applicable to everyone's experiences of disintegration in 2020.

KH: Thank you. I love what you said about collaboration. That’s so much a part of my response to this too. It's sort of an inner revelation, that we could work on this intimate thing together, despite being separated by an ocean. I wanted to ask you one more question, about how this whole process of making things together and meeting in Vision Lab has affected your own life? Is there anything from this process that has affected the way you think about your future or prompted a kind of visionary experience? Or any more concrete outcomes?

GJ: Well, I don't want to say too, too much about my plans for next year, because they’re tentative. But being part of Vision Lab and working on this project with you has helped me reflect on the kind of creative work I want to be doing in the future, and helped me recommit to having a personal filmmaking practice. I am planning on a fairly radical change in my creative life next year, hopefully to embark on something I’ve been thinking about for a long time but haven’t been in a position to pursue.

KH: Beautiful. Are there any other things about this project or about Vision Lab in general that you feel like you need to meaningfully address in this conversation that we haven’t touched on?

GJ: I want to emphasize again how amazing it is that this video was a collaboration, not just between you and me, but between you, Andrew [Stauffer], Nick [Denton Protsack], George [Trsak] and Lise [King] – all these artists who were involved who are in different parts of the world. When we were working on the video, I remember thinking about all the different components, from the video track to the sync sound from the beach to Andrew’s tone poem to your voice. It’s multimedia in the truest sense.

KH: That’s so beautiful. It’s so funny, we've been working so much on it and we’ve been so inside it that I have just gotten used to how deeply interwoven all those pieces are. This way of working is sort of what I've always dreamed about, you know? It just seems like utopia to me to be together with all your friends that you really respect and who are involved in a practice of art making and creativity and spirituality, to make things together and support each other.

GJ: What about you, Kythe? This is just one of many projects that has spun off from your book of poems. How is this one different from the others? And how is it the same as the others?

KH: I think there's like a few different levels to this. The mattress burning ritual itself was very internal, an inward curve of practice. I didn’t even realize until we started working on this, that it was bound up with the poem. So, I think this has been a process of integration, psychological integration, integrating all these separate parts of myself.

GJ: Can you put a timeline together? Did the poem come first, or the ritual?

KH: I can't remember if I wrote the poem first or had the intention of making that ritual first, but before this project, they were definitely separated in my mind. I had notes for the poems for a long time – I put them together in early 2020, and created that version of the poem. I burned the mattress in a kind of ritual a few years ago, on the beach in Provincetown, unrelated to the poem. Then, when I was recording myself reading the poems and working with Andrew on the sound, it wasn't intended to be part of a video. So, looking at all of these pieces, it feels almost like the same process that’s driving the book, with these different versions of the burning girl locked in their traumas, who end up meeting each other and forming some sort of integration and movement beyond the self. And I kind of feel like that actually has happened, that same kind of movement has happened with all the different people that have been involved in these projects. And I just feel like the process of collaboration itself is almost like this mirroring, you know, where we can see ourselves in each other, by working together, more clearly. So, this material in a way seems to have provided some sort of matrix for integration of different parts of ourselves through each other, through the lenses of each other. It’s a matrix in which love in action can flow through. And I think that maybe, subliminally, that was part of the intention all along. If you create a space for people who you really love and respect, to work together, maybe that could be almost a proof of love and action. Like, can we try it? Does it work? So, maybe this process of making things together is way more important than the outcome or the product, maybe it provides a kind of structure for love, you know? I feel profound gratitude, so much so that it sort of silences me. I'm not sure entirely how to talk about it, but it's been so meaningful. I feel like you have helped me on so many different levels and it's been an incredible privilege to just see that this is possible. I struck out on my own at a very early age and it’s always been quite difficult for me to trust people and ask for collaboration and help. And I think this whole year and this project has really opened me up a lot as a person. In ways I don't even realize yet. It's sort of like a flowering or an unfurling, and I hope that it’s the same for other people too, that we can actually track the progress of this experiment, this lab of vision and our own quest.

GJ: Absolutely. It has been that for me. After a year of meeting and talking and working together, I feel like what remains is obviously the work, but also the relationships that have been fostered and nurtured with people I've never met in person, which is incredible, you know?

KH: It is incredible. And it also feels like the beginning. I mean, I feel like the birds just made this big lift off. Yeah. And we definitely all need a break and I think it's good to take like a month. And a half, and then it'll be interesting to come back together and to just see where people are at and what we all want to do next, you know?


Lise King, interviewed by Kythe Heller

KH: Can you introduce yourself and tell me how you’re connected to Vision Lab?

My name is Lise King and I live in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I've been out here since leaving Harvard in 2014. My mom lives down the street and I spent a lot of time here when I was growing up, so it was a good place to land after finishing my academic work. When Kythe was first starting Vision Lab in 2017, she reached out to me and asked if I would participate. I drove to Cambridge for the first meeting, and we sat around this large table at this beautiful sort of retreat in the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard. It’s off on a side street in Cambridge and it's a very quiet and unassuming place, you go through this gate and there's this beautiful courtyard, it reminded me of a Zen garden. So, we had a meeting and we all introduced ourselves. At that point I was still working with HBO documentaries and Kythe asked me to do a presentation. I talked about the work that I do in social impact producing, using media as a tool for social impact.

Can you tell me more about your professional background?

My background is in media and also in politics and public policy. I did my master’s in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School. I've always been fascinated by how we can use storytelling and media to do good work, to move the needle on an issue or to help educate the public about something of critical importance. For example, a recent project I’ve worked on as a producer is a feature documentary called Entangled. It’s about the race to save the right whales from extinction and the conflict between the conservationists and the fishing industry, the task of balancing the economic needs of working people in Massachusetts and Maine with the survival of this apex species, with fewer than 400 of them left. It’s a perfect example of the kind of work that I'm interested in doing and that I've been doing for a number of years now.

This year Vision Lab has taken the idea and the image of the phoenix as its theme. Do you have a phoenix project?

Kythe has been a friend since we met in a documentary filmmaking class at Harvard. One day, after I’d moved to Provincetown, she called me up with this crazy idea where she wanted to do an installation on the beach out here. She had an old mattress and she was going to drive it down from Cambridge and she wanted to put it on the beach and do a ceremony and burn it. We got into a very deep conversation about the metaphor of the burning bed. Not just about domestic violence, which is a big piece of it, but also as the space where we spend a lot of our lives and where we dream. The bed is our cocoon space, so to speak, it's a respite. But it can also be a trap, you know, when you don’t want to get out of bed.

So, Kythe said, “I want to go burn this bed and I want to film it.” And she asked me if I would film it with her. I said, of course. So, she came down here. It was a chilly day, kind of gray. I wanted to make sure that we did the right thing environmentally, and that we wouldn’t leave anything behind us on the beach. So, we talked it through and went down to the wide expanse of the beach. I immediately saw how deeply meaningful and visual this would be, to shoot the mattress, way off in the distance, from the beach head, on this grey evening. There was so much emotion and story just in that one shot, this washed-up mattress on the beach. Kythe did a ceremony where she created a fire on the mattress and I filmed it, then we burned it. She had a camera and I had a camera, so we got shots from different angles.

I think part of the reason that she reached out to me was that before I went to grad school I went through a very tumultuous divorce, which included, sadly, my ex-husband who I loved very much, becoming more and more abusive. The hardest part of that, for me, was giving up the dream of the family, this idea that you’ve created something that will last forever, till you die, that will be your legacy. So, I innately understand the feeling of the burning bed. The violence is a kind of burning, but there’s also a sense that you’re letting go of those dreams with the burning, and that you have to let them go. It’s partly ceremonial – burning that place where you slept and made a family together. That was the hardest part for me, and I've talked to so many other women about it who agree that the hardest part is letting go of the dream of the family and the nest.

The other part of it, though, which the phoenix teaches, is that you don't get to skip any of the stages of destruction for renovation. Like what’s happening in society right now with the pandemic. A lot of things are being deconstructed. And if you think of it as a ceremony, like the burning bed, it’s about having the courage to step into the void. That’s the phoenix experience. To be in that darkness and not know what's coming next. But not in a passive way. It’s about faith and work, letting go and also being willing to take whatever steps are necessary. So, the phoenix signifies action that is part organic and part willful. It’s an important metaphor for right now, because we are going through such great changes and you can either go back to bed, or step into the void with some faith and do the work.

When you go through big changes in life, it feels like the ego gets cracked, and falls away. And it has to fall away—the markers of identity you have, the expectations about the future…when those things come apart, your ego is destroyed. And it feels like that's what we're going through right now as a nation, as a culture, even on the community level. It’s very scary for people when the collective ego begins to fall away. So, it seems really timely that Kythe has created this sort of salon of people that are examining the concept of the phoenix and rebirth. Maybe there won’t be any answers, but just having the conversation is helpful.

What have you found to be permanent in the midst of all the change and loss and trauma as the past year?

Sickness and death has really stuck out this year, of course, and the the message that life is fleeting, it's temporary. It feels like the timeline of existence, of being present on the planet in this body, has been shortened. I feel this urgency. It used to feel like you could stand on a hill and envision your future stretching away into the distance and you couldn’t see the horizon, it just went on and on, and the end was unknown. The end feels known now. I feel the potential for the end of life more viscerally. That’s a big change for this generation.

The result of that has been a constant feeling of, what am I doing in this day? How can I make sure that I’m spending my time mindfully? It’s been so strange. Just yesterday I was in my garden and this Monarch butterfly came and landed on my beautiful Buddleia, also called the butterfly bush. How many Monarch butterflies have you seen in your life? But I'm watching this butterfly open and close its wings and looking at the coloration, and it was like hyper-focused and hyper-colored. It felt like I had been re-sensitized, that the sensorium has been heightened, having gone through the pandemic and lost people and been afraid of losing people and getting sick. And it can sound cliché, but I'm literally making choices like, do I really want to do this job? Do I really want to do this? What is it that I really want to be doing?

I think storytelling and the work Vision Lab is doing with the phoenix is really valuable at this time. One of the things I do is work with other people and help them tell their story, whatever it is that they're trying to produce, whether it's a podcast or a book or a video. Sometimes the question is, what's your legacy going to be? We're not going to be here forever. The process of storytelling, putting it down, cutting a film, writing your story – that’s a legacy that you can leave. And being willing to be vulnerable and tell your story honestly is the most generous thing you can do. Because it helps other people know they're not alone. And it creates the shared experience that makes us feel connected as part of the human race. We really need that right now.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Something that really influenced me in the summer of 2020 was a dear friend’s death. Her name was Taryn Power-Greendeer, and we were friends since my twenties. She had acute myeloid leukemia. She had come here to see me last year right before she got her diagnosis. It was almost like she knew, you know, she was like traveling around and seeing a lot of friends. The moment that's going to stick with me, that crystallizes the experience that we're all having right now, was making the decision to ask my son to help me drive to Wisconsin in the middle of the pandemic when everyone was still in lockdown, to attend her memorial on her land. And the feeling of putting my hands on the mound of crusty, clayish earth that she was buried underneath. Putting my hands on that dirt and knowing that she was there under the earth. I haven't quite integrated that completely, but it was that's the moment that really changed everything for me. Then, about three weeks ago I had a dream about her for the first time since her passing. In my dream, I went to go hug this woman, and told her, “wow, you really look a lot like my friend Taryn.” Then I realized it was her. The hug felt so real and she was so warm. And I just started bawling in my dream. It made me think about the phoenix, and made me question what is on the other side. We have this consciousness, this experience of being in these bodies and having this life and the attachments that we have to people, and then it's over. I'm hoping that the phoenix experience will help us understand that transfiguration, that when you burn something, it looks like whatever's being burned disappears, but the energy goes somewhere. It doesn’t go away, it just takes another form.

Kythe Heller is a poet, multimedia artist, and scholar whose work re-imagines art-making as a practice of consciousness: In what ways can our work become sites of evolution, realizations of new social, technological, and ecological relationships, by considering how to use language and media to radically change our ways of being in the world? She is author of the poetry collection  Firebird  (Arrowsmith), two chapbooks, critical studies in philosophy of religion and poetics published by Cambridge UP and Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, and essays and poems. Her performance and multimedia work has been staged at the Harvard Film Studies Center, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, SEEDS Festival, Sonoma State University, WAXworks (NYC), BAX (NYC), Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and elsewhere.  Currently she is completing a doctorate at Harvard University in Comparative Religion and Art, Film, and Visual Studies/ Critical Media Practice. She founded VISION LAB in 2017.

Grace Jackson is a filmmaker, writer and English-Chinese translator based in Cumbria, UK. Having lived for several years in Taiwan, her interests include Chinese and Taiwanese history, ethnographic filmmaking and international experiential education (pre-pandemic, she designed and led several study abroad trips in Taiwan and China). Grace holds an MA in East Asian Studies from Harvard University and a BA in English from the University of Cambridge.

Andrew Stauffer is a percussionist, sound artist, and scholar from Texas. He is a member of Vision Lab, an interdisciplinary experimental arts and research collective based at Harvard University with collaborators from across the earth. Andrew lives in Kelowna, B.C., Canada, where he performs as a musician, manages community programming and exhibitions at the Rotary Centre for the Arts, and organizes the Living Things International Arts Festival. He holds an M.Div. in religious and cultural studies from Harvard Divinity School, an M.A. in philosophy from Ohio University, and a B.A. in philosophy from Texas State University.

Lise Balk King is a filmmaker, media consultant, and photographer specializing in social impact and public policy. Lise serves as a Provincetown Select Board Member and is a founding Board Member of the Provincetown Public Art Foundation. After completing her Master in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2011, she served three years as a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and studied documentary filmmaking at Harvard VES.