Nocturnal Medicine: Dancing in the Dark

At first glance, throwing a dance party to help people process emotions about ecological grief is a curious concept. I’d never considered such a thing until I heard from Larissa Belcic and Michelle Shofet of Nocturnal Medicine – a New York based design studio that creates experiences and spaces for working with the emotional challenges of the climate and ecological crisis. After speaking with the pair, it makes perfect sense: It’s dark out there, let’s dance!

I caught up with Larissa and Michelle to find out more about their thoughts on the connection between design and emotions, grief and dance. Their approach and vision, are fascinating and important.

Hi Larissa and Michelle! Tell me about Nocturnal Medicine. When did you start it, and why? We met at Harvard University Graduate School of Design while studying for our master’s in landscape architecture. Our collaboration blossomed and grew to encompass a wide-ranging set of projects ­– we were working together on academic studio projects, doing installations outside of our schoolwork, DJing together, and throwing a party series called Dark Freak. 

There are a few main threads that comprise the essence that became Nocturnal Medicine. Through our landscape architecture design and research at Harvard, we were working on designing for the darker, more challenging aspects of contemporary urban life, bringing to them a philosophy of intimacy and freedom from shame.

Whereas we saw most urban landscape projects as papering over troubled histories or unwanted infrastructures, we developed a speculative city rooted in daily intimacy with trash; a public landscape for pleasure, contemplation and ceremony sited within a functioning Los Angeles oil field; a set of proposals for creating loving relationships with electrical infrastructure. 

At the same time, we started throwing parties for ourselves, our friends and community. Called Dark Freak, they were these very sensual, tactile events ­– a dark room, dancing, fog, buffets of oils and glitters to anoint and adorn each other with. At the time we were also working as beekeepers, and at one event had on offer slabs of raw honeycomb. The rooms would be filled with plant material and smells of incense – very fertile, fecund spaces that provoked and seduced you into looseness and a deeper comfort with yourselves and those around you.

Michelle Shofet and Larissa Belcic of Nocturnal Medicine

We developed a methodology wherein intuition and emotion are core guiding principles. We were interested in creating work that was at first confrontational, even perverse, provoking discomfort, but then invited you to stay in that emotional space, held you there and helped you find it comfortable, even beautiful and generous.

Over the process of the last six years, through a lot of intuitive making and reflecting on what we were doing and why, we were able to divine the essential core of our work: using design to encounter the emotional challenges of environmental loss and degradation, and on the other side, change and transformation.  We named ourselves Nocturnal Medicine. “Nocturnal” has two meanings – one being the literal one, of things that thrive at night. Our work often engages the night-time and its expanded sense of possibility, depth, and wildness. The other meaning refers to the dark side of our present moment and the human relationship to environment. And “Medicine”– this is a reference to bringing people to a place of confrontation, release, and ultimately healing. So Nocturnal Medicine – healing for the dark, in the dark.

Rave for Ecological Grief, by Nocturnal Medicine
Elegy for Insects, by Nocturnal Medicine. Neon Pieces by Anahita (Ani) Bradbury

I recently wrote a story on ecological grief and one thing that really struck me was the realisation that we have very few accepted cultural rituals to help us frame and process our feelings around ecological loss and climate crisis. What are your thoughts on ritual and its importance in the here and now? Yes! The observation that you had is one that we had as well – we’re dealing with challenges and losses on a scale and of a type that we never have, and at the same time we’re basically devoid of places and practices to talk about, process, reflect, and move through these challenges as individuals and as a society. We wind up with lots of feelings that we don’t know what to do with, and then there’s anxiety, being overwhelmed, shutting down. In this regard, we’ve been very inspired by the work of sociologist Kari Norgaard, whose work on emotions and climate denial points to fear and insecurity as a primary driver of inaction around climate change.

Ritual is a huge part of the design methodology we use to facilitate the process of encountering concepts and feelings that are frightening, strange, unwieldy. Rituals create a structure through which peoples’ encounters with the emotions related to ecological loss are guided. Ritual serves as a skeleton that holds you and that feeling together, gives you a way to understand one another, to co-exist in the same space, to move together. Ritual also serves as a structure to collectively make meaning and sense out of experience. We often cite common rituals – singing “Happy Birthday” and then blowing out candles on a cake – to make this point – that through that group action, we together mark not just the aging of the birthday person, but the beloved position they hold within our group and the importance of the transformation they are undergoing. 

Parties are very powerful places to play in the space between grief and joy because they dissolve boundaries and create channels for intimacy.

Larissa Belcic

In our work, we engage ritual on multiple scales. Often our events have a large-scale, collective action or experience embedded within them that builds a framework that enables everyone to move through an experience together. Examples have been the trash altar at the Rave for Ecological Grief and the sound bath of the Momentary Chapel for Insect Loss.

We also work a lot with what we might call a common language of ritual – these smaller moves within an experience that are not built out into full-scale ritual, but reference widely understood ritualistic acts as a way to create moments and markings – of sacredness, inclusivity, grieving. These often include the lighting of candles, the tasting of a special food with a particular instrument, anointing participants with a special substance. These are often moves that we invite participants to take ownership of, to play with, and they’re deliberately left open-ended. As important as ritual is when encountering ecological loss, we also are very sensitive to the fact that for these rituals to be effective and truly meaningful, participation in them has to be consensual and their structures need to be co-developed and co-owned.

Rave for Ecological Grief, by Nocturnal Medicine

I’m fascinated by the way you speak of design as a tool to create space for processing and acknowledging the complex emotions that arise from living in a time of radical climatic and ecological changes. Can you speak a little more this? We do this primarily through three avenues — creating experiences, creating spaces, and creating media (zines, essays, projections, etc). Often these methods are combined and integrated to create immersive, multi-dimensional works. For example, we work a lot with social gathering, and in any one event the design work might include printed media written and/or drawn by us, lighting design, event design and production (choreographing what will happen over the course of a gathering), video production, spatial layout and design, custom-made artifacts, sound composition, facilitating ritual etc. We work in a very multi-disciplinary fashion.

All of these methodologies serve as ways to access our primary medium: crafting an emotional experience. We are always aiming to create scenarios in which people are brought into contact with the emotional underpinnings of climate change and ecological loss and degradation.

We often design in terms of emotional arc – thinking through the experience someone will have from the moment they come into contact with a space or an event, and how we can tune that experience to facilitate a desired emotional process or reflection. We also think a lot about designing multiple entry points – designing to accommodate diverse ways of approaching and connecting to a concept. As an example of this, at our party that centred on insect extinction, An Elegy for Insects, we worked a lot through aesthetics and sensuality to evoke insect loss, but also provided a bibliography and a reading room for those who process better in this way.

We’re dealing with challenges and losses on a scale and of a type that we never have, and at the same time we’re basically devoid of places and practices to talk about, process, reflect….

Michelle Shofet

We work a lot within the scale of an event – something that takes place over several hours – as this scale affords you the ability to craft a completely immersive world. But we’re also interested in designing for the longer time scales of more traditional landscape architecture, which typically centres around constructing permanent, or at least long-duration, spaces.

A lot of our landscape-scale work, much of which still lives within the speculative and theoretical, engages with regeneration – defining the specifics of the spaces and systems that could comprise a world designed for deeper intimacy with our sticky environmental problems.

At the event-scale, regeneration can be short-lived – perhaps there is a fleeting transcendent moment that takes place within a party wherein we glimpse what it could look like, feel like. But often regeneration, when it comes to experience, is about the impressions and afterglow – the thoughts that linger, the feelings that bubble up days, months later. It’s a more nebulous way of constructing new possibilities, although not less potent.

An Elegy for Insects, by Nocturnal Medicine

Let’s talk about parties and grief. It seems a curious combination! Why is the party an important framework for transforming/exploring ecological grief and the climate crisis? Can you tell us a little about what happened at the Rave for Ecological Grief? We designed and produced the Rave for Ecological Grief as part of an essay we wrote for Thresholds – Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) architectural journal. In the piece, Party: Ecological Architecture for Intimate Relations, we lay out the case for party as an architectural medium that can do the work of collective emotional processing and meaning-making. Inspired by our ongoing party series, Dark Freak, the second half of the essay proposes the use of party as a platform for creating ecological intimacy, connection, and transformation for ourselves in relation to the world of non-human others. 

At the Rave for Ecological Grief, which was held at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, we explored what it is to be open to the sadness that is awareness of our present-day environmental crisis, while also being in a place of joy and sociality.

People often come to us after or during an event and thank us. They tell us how badly they’ve needed this kind of experience.

Michelle Shofet

We embedded into the party multiple entry points into the issue – a written meditation offered at the entrance, materially promiscuous installations meant to be touched and eaten, a quiet room populated with traces of crude oil, fossils, and reading materials as prompts for delving into the theme of the night. Dee Diggs DJ-ed the party, filling the space with dark, cathartic techno that helped guide the emotional arc of the guests.

We made the decision to remove all waste bins from the party space, and instead constructed a black marble slab in the heart of the room, designed to hold all waste generated during the event. At first, guests were confused as to where to put their empties. But word spread about what the slab was for, and over the course of the party this strange, beautiful altar of trash, flowers and candlelight emerged in the centre of the dance floor, created collectively by everyone at the party. By the end of the night people were attending to the altar with so much care–tidying piles of bottles, wiping up spills, laying flowers down. It was powerful to see.

Rave for Ecological Grief, by Nocturnal Medicine
An Elegy for Insects, by Nocturnal Medicine

And what about the Momentary Chapel for Insect Loss at Plant Material in LA? The Momentary Chapel was our way of creating a temporary public space for reflection on one element of the ecological crisis: insect population collapse. The event consisted of two spaces – the garden and the chapel. The garden space, Plant Material’s nursery, was the convivial living room of the event, where guests hung out and chatted amongst the plants. The chapel itself was built out in a tiny room off the garden. Glowing red, the chapel was entered through a thin veil of mosquito netting. Inside, we had created a sort of baroque funerary tableau on a low table of crushed velvet. At the centre of the table we had a white marble slab with a massive heap of dead bees on it. The slab was surrounded by antique candelabras, lilies and roses – the familiar objects of funerary events. Scattered across the table, we had piles of peaches, plums and other bee-pollinated fruits, as well as a variety of distinctive honeys cultivated around Los Angeles by David Bock of Buzzed Honeys. Visitors were invited to touch and eat as they reflected. One guest even went so far as to dip one of the dead bees into honey and eat it as some kind of ceremonial act… 

The mood in the chapel was poignant. People immediately fell silent upon stepping in. Sometimes people just stood there together in silence; at other times people were moved to speak on the subject. The vibe was just reverent. 

At the height of the evening, we gathered the guests to the garden for an insectine sound bath. As guests were laying down on the garden floor, a symphony of insect sounds slowly blossomed from different points in the garden, layering and thickening to a crescendo. Our friend and sound healer, Natalia Alyse, then commenced playing her singing bowl, sending a heavy wave of sound into the mix of cicadas, crickets, bees and katydids. 

Plant Material is a super special gem of a horticulture/art shop in Los Angeles, and we worked with Matt Burrows and David Godshall, the owners, to put on the event. At the end of the night as we were cleaning up the space, the question of bee disposal arose. Matt suggested we bury them in the garden, and so the night closed with an impromptu bee burial at Plant Material.

Momentary chapel for insect loss, by Nocturnal Medicine

Usually there’s a sense of looseness, fun, and unhinged joy at parties (good ones, anyway!) but your parties are also about loss and death and grief. I’m very curious about how people respond to your parties and events? Do you have a sense of what conversations, thoughts, emotions arise and whether they’re particular to the environment/energy of the event? A lot of our work lives in the liminal zone between grief and joy. Because the parties we throw are about loss, change, mourning, it’s also important to offer opportunities for people to work it out and release the weight. That can look like many different things. In some of our events the release has come in the form of a deep, cathartic rave.

A friend who attended An Elegy for Insects (a more elaborate, dance party iteration of Momentary Chapel) told us that as the sound bath came to a close, she was overcome with sadness. As she lay there considering how she’d re-enter the party in her blue state, the music commenced. It was a deep, atmospheric track that held her mood and moved her to dance through it. It was striking how intensely the whole vibe of the party changed after the sound bath – it’s like it centred everybody to the issue we were there to reflect on. 

Parties are very powerful places to play in the space between grief and joy because they dissolve boundaries and create channels for intimacy. We try to offer multiple entry points into whatever issue we’re focusing on, understanding that everybody responds differently to different inputs. Some people prefer a more didactic way into an issue, while others respond more strongly to tactile, sensory experiences. 

To live fully aware and attuned to the truth of the vast changes happening on Earth right now, and the losses we face going forward, is full on. It’s both terrifying and motivating. Personally, I’ve found that my creative practice is really important in giving me a framework for thinking and acting. It’s probably the only thing that keeps me (somewhat) sane. I wonder what your thoughts are on the role of creativity, not just design, in stimulating and imagining change? Absolutely – creating this work helps us both move through these changes ourselves. It’s important for us to help people see what is possible for how we process these enormous issues today and in the future.

Relatedly, how has your work with Nocturnal Medicine affected your perspective on the current state of the world. What have you learned about yourselves and others? Because the work itself is about intimacy and presence and loving, it has demanded of both of us that we learn how to do those things. You can’t hold that kind of space for other people if you can’t do it for yourself. We learn alongside the people who come to the parties, and it’s been profoundly transformative and challenging. People often come to us after or during an event and thank us. They tell us how badly they’ve needed this kind of experience.

What’s next for Nocturnal Medicine? We have two areas of focus at the moment. First, we’re continuing to develop small scale, local projects within the NYC community. For example, we’re in the process of partnering with different groups in the NYC rave scene to integrate our work into an existing party infrastructure. Second, we’re working on plugging into large scale climate change advocacy projects where we’re brought in as consultants or collaborators to work on the social and emotional aspects of climate change adaptation work.

Finally, if you were a plant, what would you be and why? A purple lily dipped in black liquid latex.

Elegy for Insects, by Nocturnal Medicine. Neon Pieces by Anahita (Ani) Bradbury