- Performance in the Face of Climate CrisisPoetics versus Polemics
Privilege lies in obliviousness. One of the great privileges of living in the affluent parts of the modern world is that we’ve been able to forget that the natural world even exists. In our lifetimes it’s served mostly as a backdrop.Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
We are all suffering from exhaustion, worn out by the language wars. Every day another assault, another disaster. Yes, Greenland is melting, Iceland no longer has any ice, and polar bears are starving to death in the Arctic and Alaska. Waterfalls are spewing forth from glaciers. And the temperature keeps rising. And this epidemic of mass shootings is a kind of meltdown as well. Reason breaks apart into islands of fear, dissolving into a primal scream. It is only going to get worse before it gets better. How many people truly understand that everything in the greater forest of our lives is affected by this environmental climate crisis? Therapists are reporting that a deep sense of foreboding and even panic has begun to enter the mass consciousness. Still most people are oblivious to the larger implications. Thus, they aren’t willing to make the changes needed, aren’t willing to give up anything in their wasteful unsustainable lifestyles until the house burns down. It feels like the end of the world as we know it, and maybe it is.
So the question arises as to how those of us in the arts, and in performance in particular, can take on this crisis in a manner that not just informs, but illuminates, awakens, and activates on a visceral and experiential level so that we feel it in our bodies and souls. Is it even possible for an artwork or an artist-advocate [End Page 59]
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to sufficiently and effectively influence the collective conscience to substantially change the way we live? It is an enormous challenge. No one has taken it on with the intellect, passion, power, and moral outrage that Rachel Rosenthal has brought to her prophetic performance works from the 1980s into the 2000s. It appears that in this moment of unrelenting verbiage, hyperbole, and propaganda, language has not been the chosen media of those artists attempting to address this subject matter in one way or another.
In the face of the climate crisis, interdisciplinary artist Carole Kim has chosen poetics over polemics. Kim, who works with video projections, recently approached the topic by creating an immersive site-specific performance work that visually and sonically connects us to the natural world of which we are a part. Her approach considers the fact that we often don’t think about this complex subject in our daily lives, even though nature’s destructive power is the source of an ever-present repressed anxiety for those of us living in southern California. Fire, floods, and earthquakes can strike at any time.
Kim, who has experimented extensively with inserting layers of projected images into physical spaces and orchestrating them in real time, has spent the past year as the first artist-in-residence at Descanso Gardens in La Cañada, California. She became an inhabitant in the gardens, conversing with them and taking note of the day-to-day, season-to-season changes that transpired over time. She came to know this environment as a complex interdependent living system, and her discoveries accumulated into a heightened state of awareness and a deeper sense of connection and appreciation. Her engagement culminated in a live performance event titled The Seed Will Search, through which she sought to share her experience of wonderment. And indeed, the words “magical,” “otherworldly,” “transporting,” “dreamlike” best convey the effect it had on the participating audiences, who were led through the dark...