As The Air Moves Back From You
Art in the Age of Anthropocene
D. Chase Angier
Many believe that we have entered the age of Anthropocene – a time when human activities are having a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. In my lifetime, I have witnessed significant changes in our environmental landscape. I have heard stories about how these shifts have displaced people, animals, communities, and plant life. I have seen many of the same science reports, news headlines, grafts and documentaries about global change that you have: reports of impending mass extinction in the oceans, famine, severe droughts, and radical weather patterns. Flying over California recently, I was shocked to see the color of my home state. Formerly lush green hills are now dry and brown. Growing up in Los Angeles, my father used to boast about his St. Augustine grass that we watered daily and mowed weekly. Now that would be illegal. I wonder at times, “How we can all absorb this information about climate change so calmly”? How can I go rehearse or create a work when I just read a headline about possible mass extinction in the ocean? What role does Art play in this particular time of great ecological shifts?
In 2015 I collaboratively created a large-scale work titled, As the Air Moves Back From You. It was four shifting performance installations, one each week for four weeks, exhibited at the Fosdick Nelson Gallery in Alfred, New York. It included one hundred fourteen hours of exhibition, twenty hours of original sound design, fourteen and one half hours of performance, ten performers, ten thousand pounds of rice and original multimedia work by artists Sean Gallero and Petra Bachmaier of Luftwerk. Every week, the installation would have a different configuration of rice, different performers, different types of performances ranging from dance to durational performance art, and different sound design. All of the collaborators are listed in the video linked to this introduction.
This piece did not stem from a conscious activist moment deciding that I was going to do a piece addressing climate change. I am not that bold, and that is not that way I create. This piece began as most of my works do: as an unidentifiable impulse that was shaped through a visual and embodied exploration. After a year of intensive work searching for images, and moving through, over under five hundred pounds of rice – sculpting, throwing, scattering - and at times feeling like Richard Dryfuss in Close Encounters of the Third kind when he creates a mountains out of mash potatoes obsessively following his impulses - I started to sense that what was driving this piece. That it was my anxiety and fear about the shifts in our global climate, as well as my deep grief as the glaciers melt and the seas rise. It was at this point that I created the overall structure that the piece would begin in Abundance and move towards Scarcity.
The first week started with the full ten thousand pounds of rice. I was working with the idea of abundance – abundance of time, space, and resources. There was a symbiotic relationship between the environment and its inhabitants. The movement of the three dancers was indulgent in time, simple in its execution, sculptural in its clarity and flowed easily from one movement to the next for two hours. The projection on the rice was of topographical maps that moved easily like water. The shape of the rice was inspired by California’s palisades, beaches, and deserts. The ambient sound design filled the gallery and created an atmosphere that supported the concept.
The second week the amount of rice diminished and was shaped into eighteen rectangles. Each rectangle was carefully measured to be the same height, width, and depth as the others. Art Historian Dr. Mary McInnis wrote, “The lights before and after the dance were highly active—both diverse in color (changing in hue and in spectra) and in pattern (from monochromatic to Bauhaus- inspired geometrics)…Adding to its pulsing quality was the soundtrack that had a similar agitated, incessant, and mechanized quality.” The five dancers never touched the rice. Instead they danced quickly and adeptly through the narrow concrete alleys and corridors. The movement was clear, direct, quirky and changed often. We explored ideas surrounding human cultivation of the environment, and control of nature in densely urban areas. In our cities, often our only experience with the earth is planned by design – a park, a promenade, a small green space - the natural environment being displaced by urban infrastructures.
The third week, the amount of rice was diminished again. In the beginning of the day, the gallery was quiet except for the sound of the rice falling for one and a half hours as it slowly created a large pile. The vacuous space was dark except for the illuminated white rice. A women in red, (a shade of red inspired by this image) would first slowly walk through the rice, sensuously indulge in it, and then violently destroy the pile, slashing and throwing it with wild abandon to the tumultuous sound score created by John Laprade. We were working with the idea of destruction, indulgence, gluttony and waste through the violent displacement of the rice from its simple original form. The scattered residue would be left for the remainder of the day. This event would repeat for four days.
The forth and final week, the rice returned to the corner, referring back to the first week but there was significantly less rice. A woman stood alone and still each day, in the same spot for five hours witnessing the landscape. The sound design was a variation of the sound in the first week but slower, evoking a sense of memory and mourning. The audience watched the woman witnessing the shifting landscape, and also witnessed the landscape with her. Each day when the viewer entered the gallery, the amount of rice had diminished making the shoreline further from the woman - until the third day when the viewer entered the gallery and the woman was gone. The gallery was open for two more days until there was only a handful of rice left and the exhibition closed.
After the show, all of the rice was donated to local farmers for both chicken and cow feed, and to local artists who created neon art, ceramic art, and used it as filling for soft sculptures.
When As the Air Moves Back from You was finished, I realized that although this piece did tap into an intense sadness, it also equally paid homage to the beauty and power of the earth - A memorial in a way, as we together remembered, and genuinely appreciated the impact the natural landscape has made, still makes, on our lives.
The performance installation As the Air Moves Back From You created a place amongst a shifting landscape. It served as a marker of time, a memorial, and a community maker surrounding an ephemeral art event. During these times of geological shifts, urban shifts or just shifts in age, I now feel, more than ever, a need to appreciate and a need to connect with others. Art can foster that connection: creating a shared aesthetic experience and a shared space while we celebrate, contemplate, or rally to make a change. We are all in this together.