“Humanity has so far played the role of planetary killer, concerned only with its own short-term survival.”
– Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life.
Under the deluge of political madness that dominates the daily news cycle, and the constant state of anxiety it produces, it is easy to forget about the other longer-term crisis that is of even greater magnitude – climate change and the state of the natural environment. The spectacle of tyrannical corruption, deceit, and abuse of power by a leader untethered from reality has a more attention-grabbing impact than that of gradual extinction due to ecological destruction. And yet they are the outcome of the same underlying systemic disease, humanity’s predatory instincts and arrogant pursuit of shaping the world to its own needs, desires, and image. Thus it is no coincidence that choreographer and award-winning filmmaker Robin Bisio, whose work has been engaged with environmental issues for several decades, would conceive of her latest project the day Trump took office. For Bisio, and her collaborator intermedia artist and cinematographer Ethan Turpin, it was a ”call to arms”.
From that day forward we have witnessed the denial and ridicule of scientific facts, along with the insidious undermining of environmental laws and the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is taking place quietly in the wings, while the Russians and the porn star hold center stage along with the verbal garbage spewing forth from the President. When it comes to climate change it is not simply in defiance of fact, but stubborn denial of the evidence – severe drought, fires, and floods, melting glaciers, undrinkable water, destroyed habitats, endangered species, polluted oceans, rising sea levels. The list is long, the consequences dire, and the clock is ticking. Without water, the essential element for life, the entire planet would die. But when nature turns on us with a vengeance for our abuses, water can become an instrument of destruction. Bisio who is a long time resident of Santa Barbara recently witnessed torrential rains flood neighboring Montecito and bury the town in debris flow mud.
As a choreographer and filmmaker Bisio’s goal has been to present dances that celebrate landscape, and awaken in her audiences a sense of connection. Both her site-specific public dance works performed in city parks, beaches and backcountry, and her dance films have explored the relationship between the human body in motion and the elements and forces of nature. As a visual artist Turpin, who is also a documentarian and installation designer, has collaborated with scientists on numerous environmental projects, most recently depicting the effects of water pollution, including the dangers of plastic materials in the ocean. Like Bisio, he is concerned with the “wildland/urban/human interface” and its emotional landscape. Thus in the wake of the 2016 election, California’s recent fires and floods, and as coastal dwellers, Bisio and Turpin felt a deep sense of urgency about making a public artwork that would “reconnect humanity“ to our responsibility for the earth and its endangered resources. “Our entanglements in our consumer culture have finally caught up with us, and I wanted to demonstrate the alarming results,” Bisio stated.
The challenge for any artist dealing with the science and politics of the environmental crisis is how to engage an audience on a visceral and sensory level that makes the subject matter experiential, rather than another form of instructional reportage. Thus the search for visual analogies whose complexity encompasses multiple layers of meaning and references without an explanatory text is not only necessary, but essential.
This brings us to Entangled Waters, Bisio and Turpin’s immersive multi-dimensional film installation in the outdoor courtyard of Santa Barbara’s historic County Courthouse. It is perhaps an ironic meta-text that this work should be staged at a site where legal battles over coastal and ocean preservation are fought. However the stately architecture with its grand archways, and mythic stone statuary of Poseidon and Aphrodite at the front edifice was an inspired choice for the projected film’s underwater imagery that was perfectly mapped onto the architecture. Inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel panel The Deluge, the front archway was transformed into an ethereal ghostly fresco as a dancer in a regal ruby red and cream-colored robe rose up across the curve of the arch, fabric, hair and limbs undulating in the water, then dissolving like an apparition. It is a metaphoric reference, not an appropriation of the actual imagery in which terrified naked people huddle together or try to get onto the Ark. While the biblical flood was the act of a vengeful punishing God, Bisio’s flood is of our own making, and thus so will be our survival and salvation should we choose to change our course.
The other archway subtly implies one of the obstacles to be overcome – our addiction to fossil fuels. Covered in a rippling abstract pattern of droplets of oil moving on water, the image brings to mind ocean oil-spills, and if you dig a little deeper the fact that the plastic products accumulating in our oceans are a by-product of petroleum. At the top of this catastrophic food chain are billion dollar industries with enormous political power belching ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, heating the oceans, causing glaciers to melt, and the sea levels to rise. And that’s just the beginning.
But let us return to Bisio and Turpin’s more poetic evocation of human entanglements with water pollution. On the adjacent wall the dancers, two women and three men clad in contemporary clothes, move through deep water like people ejected from a sunken ship, cast into the sea, or swept away in a great flood, their bodies twisting, turning, floating past. Their efforts to reach the surface are impeded by the debris flowing around them. Sheets of transparent plastic in shades of blue, white, red, pink, undulate like pieces of clothing carried along by the water currents. They brush past, or drift and curl, catching the swimmers in their folds, entangling them. Some of the plastic is almost luminescent, taking on forms that seem strangely lifelike. The swimmers struggle to break free. But they are soon outnumbered, caught like fish in ghost nets. Looped in seamless repetition, the twenty-five minute sequence is hypnotic and seductive, but do not be mislead by in its sensuous beauty for its message is an ominous warning.
On the opposite wall volumes of shimmering translucent plastic sheeting swim through the water in exquisite cloud-like masses. There are no humans, no fish, no sea creatures or plants. At the same time Poseidon and Aphrodite sit in stony silence at the front entrance illuminated by projections of flowing water. Poseidon, god of the sea, is its guardian, but he is also god of earthquakes. He is not to be callously messed with, or treated with wasteful disregard. His domain is not our disposal dump for all our toxic products and byproducts. If we continue to despoil our oceans, we will drown in our own garbage. Going back to the first Archway with its biblical allusions via Michelangelo, consider the plight of our current Ark, now bound to be grounded on a floating island of plastic waste where its passengers will all die of thirst. But there is hope in the courtyard of the Courthouse, for in Entangled Waters we are swimming towards transcendence, the possibility of a renewed consciousness, not simply for survival but for enlightened stewardship.
We are reminded that time is of the essence. The clock on the tower of the front edifice ticks in an orb of light in which Turpin’s immersed curled body turns round and round counterclockwise, as if trying to turn back the tide. It is eerily dislodged from time, ghostlike, almost like an image in a sonogram.
The beauty of Entangled Waters as a public artwork is that there is no explanatory text. It is instead a visual poem, implicit rather than explicit, and therein is its imaginative power as a wake up call. From Bisio’s perspective “Saving the ocean is an epic pursuit”, so she chose to draw from a mythical base. As a story of creation and destruction it can be read in many ways, leaving its audience to contemplate its meaning in the larger scope of things – our relationship with water, our place in nature, and our spiritual, social and political role in preserving or destroying the ecological balance of the planet. The power of art is in its ability to awaken us to see things in a different light. The answers we come up with are entirely ones we will each have to find on our own. Or better still in conversation with each other. Regardless of the insanity in Washington, we are all still citizens who can act on a local level, from the actions we take in our own lives to collective actions taken to the Courthouse. This planet is the only home we have. There is no escape. Leaving me with this succinct observation from Westworld –
Dolores: “What is real?” Bernard: “That which is irreplaceable.”
Public Art Installation
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse
Friday April 13 and Saturday April 14, 2018, 8:00 – 10:30pm
Choreographer and film director: ROBIN BISIO
Cinematography and editing: ETHAN TURPIN
Projection mapping: THE ENVIRONMENT MAKERS
Project producer: ETHAN TURPIN
Executive producer: LAMARA HEARTWELL
Costume design: ANAYA CULLEN
Music: JIM CONNOLLY
Underwater dancers: Lamara Heartwell, , Kaita Mrazek, Erick Alvarez, Turpin, Kweisi Petillo.
Sponsors: Lamara Heartwell/ Inspiratia International, Santa Barbara County Office of Arts & Culture. Community Environmental Council, Santa Barbara Earth Day Festival, Food and Water Watch