The phase of the lifecycle of any project that we refer to as “source” considers the location where materials are obtained. Materials could be sourced directly from the earth, like pigments that are sourced from rocks, or from bodies if you are using body hair or your voice. Other places for sourcing could be an art supply store, the internet, or an archive, depending on what your project requires. If you are working with plywood, for example, you could trace it back to yellow poplar from the Mississippi River, aspen and white birch from Canada, and Douglas fir and lodgepole pine from the Northwest of the United States. Or the plywood could be traced to the place where you obtained it—your local lumber yard or a chain store. How does the location where you source your materials connect to the capacities you wish to embody?

Alice Sheppard is a dancer and choreographer who attends to the complex intersections of disability, gender, and race by exploring the societal and cultural significance of difference. Sheppard spoke about the balance of the phases that we call source, depart, transfer, and labor when thinking about sourcing materials for her recent collective project, DESCENT. In DESCENT, an evening-length dance work, a sculptural ramp creates an architectural stage on which Sheppard and Laurel Lawson dance. In an interview with us, describing choices around the materials for the ramp, Sheppard said:

The primary frame that I am putting on [choices around sourcing materials for the ramp] is artists’ safety. So, insofar as I have a politics of environmental sustainability, and might want to do things differently—the thing that I have really worked to think about is artists’ safety. So, for the construction of the ramp, would it be nice to use sustainable resources? Yes. How environmentally sustainable are my sources? Maybe the thing that I’ve come back with is, what materials do I need to be able to guarantee [the ramp] will last the life of this project, that can be built in ways to support the work? So, the way I’ve compromised on that is to understand that the shops that I work with might not source their materials in ecologically and environmentally sustainable ways, but I try to work with artist-supported small shops. Balance, and that’s a trade-off that I’m making.

So, as much as I’d like to have a found materials approach, for this project that hasn’t been there. For the next project, which is really about a different kind of materials, I think that I can pretty much work with recycled materials. You know, but there again I have to buy a new marley [dancers’ material] for the floor. So, even though we can work with recycled materials or found materials for props, I’m going to have to invest in new flooring to sustain that over the long term. So, it’s not an environmentally conscious way, but I’m trying to think about it in a sustainable manner.

Sheppard zooms out to consider the whole life of a project while sourcing materials. She has developed the capacity that we refer to as “develop craft and skills,” or “the materials and tools I use are chosen intentionally and applied with care.” She also highlights some of the contradictions you might have to consider when obtaining materials. How would you balance sourcing with sustainable materials and local production with hired labor? While a wooden ramp can be more easily recycled, Sheppard wants to work with local shops, and therefore she cannot control exactly which wood shops will use. In the future, when making a ramp with more metal elements, Sheppard will prioritize encounter over source or depart, using metal to prolong the encounter with the ramp in public performances. What phases will you prioritize, and why, when making a project?

Download the full chapter: Source as a PDF

Download Teacher/Facilitator Guides

  1. Future Project: Source (worksheet)
  2. Past Project: Source (worksheet)
  3. Historical Consciousness (worksheet)
  4. Choose One Material and Research Its Journey from the Site Where It Was Extracted to the Place Where You Obtained It (assignment)
  5. Take Apart a Sculpture or an Everyday Object to Make a New Sculpture. (assignment)
  6. Make a Drawing Using Materials Sourced from the Natural Environment around You (assignment)