The Cove—Statement

© Kristen Lewis, Loumille Métros & Nell Saba

By Kristen Lewis, Loumille Métros and Nell Saba

1 december 2020


The Cove is a video project made in the summer of 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. It started without a plan or method. In that sense, it was “authentic”a singular experience that emerged out of specific circumstances. Kristen, an improvisational dancer, and Loumille, an academic, explored movement and technique in an open and passionate way. This experience was a form of survival. Nell added to this exploration with her music, and Men Not Without Cats offered some of the shots. The project wasn’t trying to say something (art wasn’t the expression of something); rather, there was an open exploration of the Cove and of the possibilities offered by gesture and image.


By Kristen Lewis

The instructions were simple:

         go to this one place, very close to where you live but hitherto unknown to you.

         Keep returning, day after day, for a whole season—in our case, summer.

It is not that we planned it this way or received instructions beforehand. Nor did we prepare in advance a clear statement of research questions, accompanied by a well-reasoned discussion of methodological approaches. We did not know, before we set out, what we were looking for, still less what methodologies would best allow this place to reveal to us its many and unexpected gifts. Nor did we realize we would keep returning, almost every day at around the same time, for long enough to see how the August sun, golden and lower in the sky, would shade these rocks in ways far different from June’s white, high, near-shadowless light.

         No—we just set out on foot, foolish pilgrims with no holy land in sight (researchers with no research questions and no methodology!). We set out on foot—to wander and to see. There are many other places we could have gone, and at first we did. But this place—The Cove—kept pulling us back; the pull of the growingly familiar stronger, in the end, than the lure of possible new territory to cover. We were, in other words: committed. And not because this place demanded that we be; no ultimatum forced us to love the Cove above all other places. Rather, we returned, over and over, because, maybe, this place got under our skin while we were not looking, inspiring in us a devotion far deeper than this world-weary word “commitment” can contain.

         Devotees of the Cove, without a plan we returned, nearly every day for a whole season. June to early September. Summer in the time of covid-19. Sometimes we went alone, each following personal instincts in conversation with this land whose features called forth our longing—a longing to simply be here, in this place, for a while, and to see. More often, though, we went together—meeting on the path halfway between our respective houses, letting our feet carry us as our noses, eyes, ears, skin took in the ever-evolving beauty of this place.

         Walking through the wooded path down the hill to the open field that led to the Cove, in me the anticipation would grow—and how would the Cove be today? What would it show us? The anticipation did not diminish, because this place did not grow old, but new with time—newer the more we knew it. 

The anticipation, and our bodies with and as it, was grounded always in the specificities of this place. The maples green and strong at the start of summer, the earth still wet and musky with the memory of spring’s not-distant rains. Later, the first hints of drying brown at the edges of the maple leaf tips—signs of summer’s end while the days were still, almost, as long as ever. Later, the ground growing hard under-foot as late summer thirsted for absent rain; the grass yellow, too, as bitter blackberries warmed into momentary ripeness. None of this would last forever, summer least of all. Knowing this made the anticipation sweeter, and maybe sadder, too; we were here for a season, if we were lucky. And we were.

         And so, yes, our anticipation, ourselves, our explorations, our research: all were contained, always, in this familiar but always-changing landscape. It held us and the maples and the blackberries and the dry grass and our sorrow and everything else—and we held it also—in an open, unfolding, enfolding, undemanding embrace.

         And we returned and kept returning. Other things did too—people and animals and everything else that makes and unmakes a world. But this is our story; a patch of time and space told from our shifting perspectives. Yes, we returned and kept returning. That was our research and our method. The rocks taught our feet a new kind of knowing—intelligent, flexible, strong, intuiting—more and more—where to step without looking. Through our soles we learned the language of these sun-warmed, salt-licked rocks—barnacled, many of them, when low tide exposed more of who they were. Barefoot rock-walking, you see, was a primary activity, there. By summer’s end my feet were as cracked and hard as this rocky landscape, whose wisdom fed me unannounced, from the ground up, as we chatted, as friends do, soaking up the sun.

         What, then, was our discipline? Our indiscipline? Our discipline was to keep coming back. To notice. To let this little patch of world in, even as we entered it. The land itself was our discipline, our department, our silo; our disciplinary or indisciplinary home, if only for a season. We would swim, sometimes, in the always-cold ocean. It taught us the gentle discipline of how not to resist. “Let the pain in! Let it in!” We learned how the surface of the skin can melt, a little; the shock-you cold water reminding us that skin is, after all, a fragile, thin membrane—hardly anything at all separating “self” from a world that is not, after all, separate the way our other disciplines, maybe, taught us to think of it as being. 

World and self, revealed to us in these cold-water and hot-rock moments as part of the same unfolding, enfolded continuum; penetrated and penetrating, we would put these bodies—called only-ever provisionally “ours”—into this Cove-Body, made of rocks, of barnacles, of geese, of the thick smell of otter shit rotting in the later afternoon sun, and a thousand other uncountable things. All this we were and did become; all this we took in and then released, even as it took us in and released us—in an empty fullness that served no purpose, maybe, except to undo, a little, the disciplines that, before, had disciplined us into thinking we were less and more than all this.

         We let our stomachs soften and our skin turn brown and felt, for moments here and there, winds of a freedom that never was contained in the abstractions of “disciplinary” containers—in our case, pursuits that are housed in departments like “law,” “philosophy,” “literature,” “dance,” “film,” “performance studies”; “self,” “other.” And all the attendant epistemologies. But we brought our disciplines here, too—not just law, literature, and the rest of it but also: our shared heritage in the world of elite-level distance sports, our childhoods spent as wandering immigrants-in-disguise, children of the middle-class dispossessed. We brought our history and our hearts here: who we were and thought we were, what we wanted or thought we wanted to become. There was room enough in the Cove for all that, too—because the land itself was the discipline; this specific place, this chunk of time-out-of-time given to us to be in.

         The land, the place, this particular chunk of time, these specific instances of life that each of us were; these were the ingredients for the unfolding of an un-substitutable, deep, exacting, demanding discipline; disciples for a while, we showed up; we noticed; we had fun as friends do—and sometimes, quite often actually—we made films. These films are less a record of our time in The Cove than evidence—like otter shit and dried-up seaweed left on the shore after a September storm—that we were there. These films, as much as the barnacles or we ourselves, for a season, belong to the Cove. They, like a million other iterations of nature in nature as nature, are what makes and unmakes and remakes us; our fundamental indiscipline.  

Creation as ignorance [1]: gestural video art

By Loumille Métros

We left aesthetic savoir-faire and perfection aside. Very little of the creative process of The Cove had to do with virtuosity [2].

In this sense, the creative process was one of ignorance, of not-knowing, of going towards the improvised, the unforeseen. Filmmaking felt like Marguerite Duras’s notion of writing, defined as going into the wild: if you knew beforehand what you wanted to say, it would no longer be worth saying. Writing and filmmaking in a way become a “savage” [3] utopia. There is a certain freedom that comes from going into the wild, into the unknown/unknowing, into the Cove and into the making of The Cove

Knowing too much can establish a sort of fixity [4].

With a proliferation of instructional videos on “how to make your videos look like Hollywood films” comes a reduction of diversity, making film standard, industrial, institutional (insofar as aesthetic norms are institutional). This also falls squarely into the logic of making your film (for the sake of being) liked by as many, and thus within a capitalist logic [5]. When everyone knows the same techniques, uses the same library of ready-made special effects, the singularity of the cinematographic experience is diminished—everything risks looking the same [6], favouring industrial normality, which affects what people expect, creating a loop [7]. Rather, it was a case for us of allowing the project to unfold in its own way, not for the sake of an audience.

This singular style, this accepting of flaws, is a key for improvisation, which can be defined as the emergence of what is unforeseen. If there is too much know-how, then the improvisation becomes predictable. As Sara Ramshaw and Paul Stapleton point out, Ornette Coleman had to switch to the trumpet and violin, instruments he played much less than the saxophone, in order to be able to truly improvise [8]. 

At the same time, Loumille was developing a philosophy of anarchy. Contrary to popular notions, anarchy is not chaos or a political program, but rather allowing what has been kept outside to emerge. It goes against the idea that creation, as an “act,” is the “expression” of an interior “Will” or potential, which implies an “origin” and “principle command” (terms associated with the Greek archē)—one cannot obey one’s will; it’s a logical contradiction. In a postconscious, postsubjective context [9], these “emergences” are radically unforeseen confluences and exteriorities. Similarly, there is much that is not knowable that goes into the creative process: the contingent and imperfect encounters between the personal and impersonal, consciousness and the pre/postconscious, pre/postsubjective, between the human and the nonhuman, and between art/skill (technē) and ignorance. 

There was a corresponding emphasis on the materiality of film, allowing its own qualities to speak. This materiality is clear, for example, in “Pandemicities” (episode 4), where the sound of the wind creates interesting effects, such as sounding like the baggage on rollers that Kristen is pulling. The brutal sound of the wind recorded on an old Samsung Galaxy S7, without fancy sound equipment. A favourite part was when the wind whistles towards the end of that episode, with the recurrence of the geese from episode 1. Another imperfection that Loumille tried to work with was the compromised footage. Such as when the shots shake, have grainy imperfections, or are overexposed, whose light was then used to generate a thematic of light, as in episode 5, “The Threshold.” 

There are wonderful moments of serendipity in these videos, precisely because there wasn’t fancy sound equipment to silence the exterior—such as when a child repeats, “It looks like she’s naked. It looks like she’s naked…” at the beginning of “The Threshold.” Likewise with filmed content, as when the seal appears at the end of that same episode: while filming, neither Kristen nor Loumille knew the seal was there! Very little is planned and, in the editing process, entirely new aspects come into play. Such as when Loumille took sample sounds of air conditioning systems for the opening of “Pandemicities,” and this ended up sounding like sea waves that can be heard over shots of the hallways of UVic. In a sense, it’s learning what to do with what emerges: the entire process was improvisational and gestural [10]: allowing movement to emerge with no purpose except its own intuitive unfolding. 

This is why Loumille now refers to this creative process as “gestural video art” [11]: not only are there filmed “subjects,” in this case the Cove and Kristen Lewis doing improvisational movement and speech, but the very filming of the dance is improvisational—and in “sync,” since Kristen learned to anticipate and to play with Loumille’s filming. Also, our friend “Men Not Without Cats” was given complete artistic freedom, and created such beautiful shots as the openings of episodes 1 and 2, and the main dance movement in episode 2, “Gestures Remain,” which has Kristen’s lower body on the deck with the shadows of the bars. From that, a newness was allowed to grow, combined with Nell Saba’s music, where image danced with melody, creating rhythmic flow as “a distinctive, improvised, momentary and modifiable form” [12]. There was a strange latency happening between Nell and Kristen, in their reciprocity: Nell composed to Kristen’s dances from far away in central British Columbia; Kristen danced to Nell’s music, creating a bond between them, mediated through film [13].

There weren’t any second takes, since there never was a script. The first episode, “The Barnacular,” is an example of this, where Loumille simply asked Kristen to put on her lawyer persona; and Loumille had the vague idea of a joke with the inflatable dinghy (which he was originally supposed to use for filming Kristen in the water). That’s it. Kristen ran with it, and the entire monologue was improvised on the spot. Furthermore, the editing process is also almost entirely improvised, without a storyboard. And when it comes to Nell’s improvised music, there was an intuition that there needed to be balance across all episodes in terms of which ones had music or not (episodes 2, 5, 6, versus 1, 3 and 7, respectively [14]). For those episodes with music, Nell had a fundamental impact insofar as the editing tries to match her melodies. Very loose instructions were given to Nell, who came up with her own melodies, rhythms, cadences, tones, etc. 

So, the filmmaking process was multiply gestural: filmed/filming subjects and music-making/editing subjects. Gesture as a self-reflexive process that highlights its materiality, its own taking-place [15]. To therefore liberate (the) language (of cinema) from action, from the act, and turn it into an improvisational gesture. And it was a truly collective and open process. Almost like a dream, when I look back at it.

Never Played Twice

By Nell Saba @nellen5

This was my first time recording my piano improvisations, let alone my first time collaborating with others on an artistic project such as this. I have always enjoyed being behind the camera, filming small videos as a manifestation of my obsessive need to record everything I see that strikes me as interesting. Providing sound for video and dance was completely new to me, and I didn’t have any idea how to approach it. I tried to play as I watched Loumille’s and Kristen’s footage, but I couldn’t get immersed in the footage while at the same time trying to create something that fit. So instead I took the loose themes that Loumille provided me with and came up with my own musical interpretation. I never played something twice; that notion felt impossible. Somehow, my interpretation of the themes I was provided with fit in and helped to create something meaningful within this project. 

Becoming part of the Cove, I would completely adapt to being able to move around it. If you placed me in a city I would be crawling about and somersaulting, and it wouldn’t make any sense. Then you place me back here in the Cove and all of a sudden it makes sense, and I’m somersaulting freely. But then there would be a storm, and I’d have to figure out my way around that, because everything would have moved. That’s why I’d be considered a fool and useless. But at least I’d have meaning. And then I would die in some stupid way, by diving onto a rock. Maybe they’d make a name for me. The weird ninja, or Fair Nell, Feral Nell… Saint Nell. Haha.


[1] Cf. Giorgio Agamben, Creation and Anarchy (2017/2019). This book is an attempt by its author to elaborate an anarchistic conception of creation/art. A similar (anarchist) approach is taken in Karman (published the same year). But Agamben’s thought on Will, art, action etc. date from his first book, The Man Without Content (1995/1970), and his thoughts on gesture appeared for the first time in his short essay, “Notes on Gesture” (in Means without End, 2000/1996). An alternative to ignorance is naïveté, one that goes against the common idea of originality where art does what’s never been done before and “makes a contribution” in some progressive accumulation of knowledge.

[2] When Loumille was asked to contribute something for a virtual conference in Poland in June, 2020, he decided to make a video because he didn’t want to record himself reading a paper. He enjoyed the process enormously, and this was the birth of a filmmaker. While he had had some experience teaching cinema (and contemplated film studies in his undergraduate years), the practical aspect was new. Prior to that, he had imagined that editing would be this insanely difficult rubik’s cube: change one element and everything else you made gets messed up. But to his surprise, the process was much less rational than he’d thought, more intuitive and rhythmical, which suited his penchant for the poetic and improvisational.

[3] “Sauvage” in French, which is related to the wild: “Ça rend sauvage l’écriture. On rejoint une sauvagerie d’avant la vie. Et on la reconnaît toujours, c’est celle des forêts, celle ancienne comme le temps. Celle de la peur de tout, distincte et inséparable de la vie même. On est acharné. On ne peut pas écrire sans la force du corps. Il faut être plus fort que soi pour aborder l’écriture, il faut être plus fort que ce qu’on écrit. C’est une drôle de chose, oui. C’est pas seulement l’écriture, l’écrit, c’est les cris des bêtes la nuit, ceux de tous, ceux de vous et de moi, ceux des chiens […]” (Duras, Écrire, 28-29).
“L’écriture, c’est l’inconnu. Avant d’écrire on ne sait rien de ce qu’on va écrire. En toute lucidité” (64).
“Si on savait quelque chose de ce qu’on va écrire, avant de le faire, avant d’écrire, on n’écrirait jamais. Ce ne serait pas la peine.
Écrire, c’est tenter de savoir ce qu’on écrirait si on écrivait — on ne le sait qu’après — avant, c’est la question la plus dangereuse que l’on puisse se poser. Mais c’est la plus courante aussi.
L’écrit ça arrive comme le vent, c’est nu, c’est de l’encre, c’est l’écrit, et ça passe comme rien d’autre ne passe dans la vie, rien de plus, sauf elle, la vie” (65).

[4] Cf. Hannah Arendt on Karl Jaspers, for whom “human freedom is guaranteed by our not having the truth” (Arendt, 1971, Part Two, “Willing”, p. 22).

[5] The same logic is at play with research, which is expected to have as broad an outreach as possible. “Expected outcomes” and “knowledge mobilization” create a condition in which only knowledge that fits certain criteria is valid. Using as standard a language as possible, thereby reducing it to what everyone already knows.

[6] Thus for instance the appearance of filters, such as the possibility of making your videos look like super-8 videos using an app. There is actually an app for this. The use of super-8 cameras is interesting. Derek Jarman made several films that weren’t intended for the public, and yet these highlight the materiality of film. The Hollywood film Super 8 (2011, but set in 1979) uses super-8 footage supposedly from kids (the super-8 was a cheap and easy-to-use camera, most often for home videos). Since then, the super-8 aesthetic has been more broadly adopted, but it is quite removed from Jarman’s experimental aesthetics.

[7] Maybe a bit less rigid than the Dogme 95 rules, but somewhat in the same spirit: We used costumes, and props like a dinghy and a whip; had less emphasis on narrative; didn’t hesitate to play with sound; and “truth” was an irrelevant concept.

[8] Ramshaw says that Coleman “attempts to escape the trauma of memory and ‘short-circuit the habitual aspects of his saxophone playing’ by taking up the violin and the trumpet” (Ramshaw and Stapleton, “(Un)remembering. Countering law’s archive — improvisation as social practice” in Stewart Motha and Honni van Rijswijk, eds., Law, Violence, Memory: Uncovering the Counter-Archive (Routledge, 2015) 50-69).

[9] See Agamben, “Absolute Immanence” in Potentialities (1999), pp. 220-242.

[10] While there has been a philosophical preference for gesture (e.g. in Agamben), improvisation is equally important. Derrida is perhaps the only major philosopher to have taken it seriously, in his text on Ornette Coleman. See “Quand Ornette Coleman improvisait avec Jacques Derrida”: Where I define improvisation as the emergence of the unforeseen from a singular context, gesture is focused on movements and practices in that context.

[11] Or “gestural video portraiture” insofar as the videos are portrayals of and by Kristen.

[12] From the opening quote in “Gestures Remain”. This epigraph was inspired by Emile Benveniste’s essay, “La notion de ‘rythme’ dans son expression linguistique” (in Problèmes de linguistique générale, 1, Paris: Gallimard, 1969, 327-35). There, Benveniste demonstrates how Plato and Aristotle transformed rhythm into measure, away from a conception of rhythm that we might see as improvisational, immanent and flexible.

[13] The two recently met, and a new film will be made about the encounter.

[14] Episode 3 is a 13th floor that does(n’t) exist: “Episode 3” was made by two dancers, Lucas Wilson-Bilbro and Olivia Fauland in the context of the Summer of Theory 2 in August, 2020. See their video here:

[15] Cf. Agamben, “Beyond Action” in Karman (2018), pp. 60-85, in particular p. 84:
“If we call this third mode of human activity “gesture,” we can then say that gesture, as pure means, breaks the false alternative between making that is always a means directed toward an end— production—and action that has its end in itself—praxis—but also and above all that between an action without a work and a necessarily operative action. Gesture is not in fact simply lacking a work, but instead defines its own special activity through the neutralization of the works to which it is linked as means (the cre- ation and conservation of law for pure violence, quotidian move- ments directed at an end in the case of dance and mime). That is to say, it is an activity or a potential that consists in deactivating human works and rendering them inoperative, and in this way, it opens them to a new, possible use. This holds both for the opera- tions of the body and for those of the mind: gesture exposes and contemplates the sensation in sensation, the thought in thought, the art in art, the speech in speech, the action in action.”


Agamben, Giorgio. The Man Without Content. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1995 (1970).

Agamben, Giorgio. “Absolute Immanence” in Potentialities. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Agamben, Giorgio. “Notes on Gesture,” in Means without End (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000/1996).

Agamben, Giorgio. Creation and Anarchy. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2019 (2017).

Agamben, Giorgio. Karman. Brief Treatise on Action, Guilt, and Gesture. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2018 (2017).

Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcourt, 1971.

Benveniste, Emile. “La notion de ‘rythme’ dans son expression linguistique”, in Problèmes de linguistique générale 1 (Paris: Gallimard, 1969): 327-35.

Duras, Marguerite. Écrire, Paris: Gallimard, 1993.

Ramshaw, Sara and Paul Stapleton, “(Un)remembering. Countering law’s archive—improvisation as social practice” in Stewart Motha and Honni van Rijswijk, eds., Law, Violence, Memory: Uncovering the Counter-Archive (Routledge, 2015): 50–69.

The entire Cove collection can be found Vimeo or on YouTube.

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