- The Objectification of Things
The Objectification of Things, created and performed by Michelle Ellsworth, was a multimedia extravaganza in which we not only witnessed the lifecycle of an object—a hamburger—through birth, life, death, and resurrection, but also were challenged to consider the reality of climate change in an entirely new light. The performance conveyed serious content—such as facts on the carbon emissions produced from the production, life, and molecular breakdown of a single pound of hamburger—via modern dance, the female body, and game shows. I was deeply moved and invigorated by this strange representation of contemporary issues. The Objectification of Things is a masterful, very postmodern attempt to lead us to new pathways for perceiving information pertinent to climate change by performing this content through incongruous forms. The combination of scientific form and artistic expression resulted in an exaggerated contrast between form and content.
Objectification opened with Ellsworth center stage, a black-hooded figure, lit from above, summoning down a large wooden crate. As the crate came down, ominous music intensified its descent. The two female backup dancers hooded in deep red velvet, flanked either side of the box and opened it dramatically. Frantically Ellsworth, as high priestess/ master of ceremonies, removed layer after bizarre layer that covered the object within. As the last was removed, the hamburger was born. A sassy little musical number celebrated the occasion: three female performers earnestly sung lyrics such as “this burger is carbon-based,” thus beginning our consideration of the carbon footprint, or hoofprint, of this burger. Assuming a hurried and apologetic demeanor, Ellsworth launched into a scientific explanation of just how much carbon was present in this hamburger through a complex molecular breakdown, illustrated by slides on the screen behind her. Although the performance was ridiculous throughout—Ellsworth carried out her examination of the carbon life of her burger to the extremes—the performers remained seriously intent on their given tasks.
Ellsworth created early incarnations of this performance in collaboration with a scientist at the University of Colorado for EcoArts, an annual festival in Boulder that focuses on the combined efforts of artists and scientists to invigorate the discussion on climate change. Objectification is thus firmly situated in a growing trend in the arts to integrate scientific exploration with artistic expression, as evidenced by [End Page 489] choreographer Liz Lerman’s recent work, Ferocious Beauty: Genome, which explored the ethics of human genetics research. Although the average audience member was probably not aware of the larger context, it soon became apparent that this performance combined scientific authority and creativity. At one point in her lecture, Ellsworth pulled up her floor-length dress to reveal that she was outfitted with an electriconic dog collar on her thigh. She explained that an actual scientist sat in the audience to ensure that all of the scientific material she was delivering to us was, indeed, true. If it was incorrect, he was to press a button that delivered a shock to her body via the dog collar. Later in the show, after a seemingly involuntary scream erupts from Ellsworth, we realized that our scientist had just zapped her, after which she apologetically retraced her words, correcting her error. This ridiculous and somewhat demeaning devise brought into question the distrust an audience may have of a dancer conveying scientific information; it demanded that the audience face that mistrust by her explanation that she was succumbing to this devise in order to assuage our doubts as to her credibility, making the audience somewhat culpable in this perverse arrangement. Here, and throughout the performance, Ellsworth clearly situates herself as a postmodern artist, providing a radical reappraisal of commonly held assumptions through extreme measures.
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It is in that same spirit that the performance presented the female dancing body as a form that was communicating, or aiding in the communication of, content on climate change. The two assistants, who did most of...