Facing the unknown

Drawing: Lin Hixson

Lin Hixson & Matthew Goulish | 15.12.2020

                At 7PM on Friday, February 22nd, 2019, we attended the performance of Nature Theatre of Oblivia at Link’s Hall in Chicago. Of all the things we could say about this performance, we will say only two.

                First, the performance began with the softest imaginable light. It rose to illuminate a quintet of performers who appeared to stand very still in postures imitating trees. Nothing else happened for some time. It became clear in that first moment, and clearer as time went on and the light intensified, that the five human performers would pretend, physically and sonically, at signifying various plants, animals, birds, or other sentient non-human entities, and with their pretending they would supply the “theatre” of the title, just as the objects of their pretending supplied the “nature.” But we will get to that when we say the second thing. First, about the light: it seemed to have no source, like the rising glow of a predawn atmosphere with the sun still below the horizon. Once the sun rises, all light draws into it as a gradient. Shadows find themselves cast in one particular direction. The light changes the air, warms it, and with the thickening air the creatures too quicken and become expansive. We mean to say that, unlike the human performers, the light did not pretend. It suffused the room, behaving in the same way as the light in fields that we have seen, or walked through, or stood still in beside a marsh, in order not to frighten away the red-winged blackbird cocking its head to assess us from its precarious grip on a bowing stalk of cattail. If you think birds or mammals in the wild do not notice light, you have never been out at this early hour, when they begin to rustle, to chorus, and eventually to rush about going who knows where. You have never been walking at the other end of the day, in the hour when light withdraws, slowly at first, and dark advances, when swallows dip in the air for insects, the bats in a column rise “in their million hordes,” the larger creatures join in a parade, and “the fox ran out of its hole.” All of them seem to measure life by the photoperiod; the length of each day during which an organism receives illumination. What do we mean by “receives”? They seem to operate always on a basic knowledge, from which we in our human hives recede, of an equation between light and life, the two as resonant and rhyming as their words in this language. Every day’s time of light lengthens or diminishes, depending on the earth’s position in its solar orbit. The light changes in every moment. All creatures attune to each micro-shift, as anyone will tell you who has attended to a sunrise and the awakening of a field. Lights up on the field stage in the nature theater. Thus in the theater that evening, before the light dawned, we knew only the void, the dream of the world from which the performance awakened us. With light, like in those first verses of Genesis, there came breath and then movement. A world comes into being that comes from the same forces that give rise to the dance of cranes with tail feathers flying, and the five slowly start to move in their pentatonic permutations. They move as if they must recreate this world again and again or else it will stop existing. They move as if wonder is an environmental affect. They move as if joy is a way out of ecological despair—the joy of imitation of those photosensitive creatures who live according to this simple rule that we have forgotten, but remain capable of recalling, of experiencing as a return, this theater of life/light. It’s the simplest reason why some among us say, again and again, I cannot survive away from the presence of wild things.

                Second, about that movement, its quality — the performers scamper into what cannot be said, co-stepping with

a tree

a mushroom

fungi and

skittish animals.

They say —

stay tethered to pleasure while presenting the ominous and

possess the air of the non-sequitur.

Did you know that animals need to balance the effectiveness and efficiency of their behaviors with just enough variability to spare them from being predictable? Otherwise they would fall victim to predators. The performers get down on all fours and rotate to keep the world spinning. They up the ante, their toes leave the ground, and wonder surrounds them as an environmental by-product. We will call it “wild” choreography, semi-planned, predicated on simple rules of simultaneous leading, following, and deviating. Each one at all times remains sensitive to the shifts of all the others, and specifically correcting for the maneuvers of the nearest neighbor. Each metamorphosis entrains the collective. We note flocking patterns that we have come to identify with any set of like-minded creatures, as well as a set of performers who, roughly one year later, celebrate their ensemble’s 20th year of existence. They have developed themselves within the secret codes of closeness. Such laws of similar movement speak of the mind of the herd. Roughly two years later we find ourselves wandering in a new wilderness, facing the unknown, the unknowable, facing it less as a group than as groping individuals. Those least sensitive to the risk that others endure speak of “herd immunity,” a vocabulary unconditioned by suffering and loss. Is this the herd they mean? They apply the term to humans in their least herd-like behavior, at their most self-absorbed. Back then, on February 22nd, 2019, at 7:20 or so PM, the herd of five inhabited that strange, familiar zone in which the individual redistributes itself within the group’s constellation, proving once again the strange dictum that in the repetition of group uniformity the nuance of individual difference makes itself most known. This one has this quality, and that one has that quality, demonstrated as they all play at the same stork wading in shallow water. We recall this loose choreographic rule now with a kind of nostalgia, recognizing in it, after the fact, a form of care, and knowing, now that they have gone, those days when we moved according to this word: “together”— when hardship seemed less hard, and happiness more happy, because we experienced them “together.” Maybe it was the beginning of the end of a cycle. Now before another beginning presents itself, we remember the movement of that evening this way, as it recedes in the mirror behind us.

                Silently howling at the rivers that can no longer swim, they listen to the rain.