On May 13, 2020, in the middle of the global pandemic, the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center in the United Arab Emirates hosted a streaming event consisting of a four-and-a-half-hour filmed version of HOLOSCENES, a durational performance installation that was originally presented there live in November of 2016. The event also included a conversation with Lars Jan, artist, writer and project director, as well as members of his team. HOLOSCENES is comprised of performers going about common, every-day tasks while the aquarium in which they are confined fills and empties with water. Although conceived as a commentary on “states of drowning” – rising seas, melting glaciers, intensifying storms, floods, and their impact on daily life – the project takes on additional meaning as we struggle with our own physical and psychological confinements during the great global quarantine.
HOLOSCENES was developed as a project of Early Morning Opera (EMO), a performance and art lab that incorporates emerging technologies, live audiences, cutting-edge experiences and collaborative processes. It began as a daydream that Lars Jan, who is also the founder of EMO, had of a room flooding while a man is reading a newspaper. As the water rises, the person ignores what is happening and keeps turning the pages until finally, the newspaper disintegrates. First installed in October 2014 at the Scotiabank Nuit Blanche in Toronto, Canada, HOLOSCENES has been performed at the John & Marble Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida (2015); MDC Live Arts Miami, Florida (2015); London’s Burning in London, England (2016); The World Science Festival and Times Square Arts in Times Square, New York (2017); and the Gold Coast Games in Brisbane, Australia (2018).
Engaging engineers, climate scientists, free divers, dancers and hydraulic scientists, HOLOSCENES took four years to realize and one million dollars to produce. The 13-feet tall aquarium tank in which the performances take place, drains and fills by a custom-made hydraulic system that pumps 15 tons of water in and out in less than a minute. The performers, many of them free divers, have been trained to hold their breaths for long periods of time, sometimes as much as four minutes, before they rise to the surface. They were instructed to be fluid and not to resist the water or actively swim as they go about trying to conduct the tasks of cleaning, reading a newspaper, playing an instrument, untangling a hose and other common activities that were chosen from among suggestions sent to EMO through an international call. Performers in each of the scenes creatively interact with props that are necessary for the designated task by tumbling, tugging, throwing, floating, hauling, rolling, flipping, rising, sinking and sometimes surrendering in 45 minute segments. Invented by the performers, the scenes are based on structured improvisations. Presented in public spaces, HOLOSCENES enables visitors to view the actions in the tank as daily life occurs around them.
The performance in Abu Dhabi took place in the NYU Arts Center’s central plaza, located in the middle of the campus, to emphasize how climate disruption is central to our 21st century existence. As we watch the performers in each scene, we hear the sounds coming from the local train station, including announcements of arrivals and departures, and see the movements of visitors and passers-by. We also observe the changes in lighting from daylight to sundown to darkness. The scenes performed at night with the only light coming from inside the aquarium are otherworldly and eerie.
Many words can be used to describe the performances: mesmerizing, visually stunning, provocative, fascinating, edgy, even uncomfortable. Fundamentally, they show individuals coping the best they can with the reality of rising water that is interrupting their lives. They are trying to do what they usually do and put order into something that wants to go its own way, much as we are trying to order our lives amidst an invading virus that we can’t see or control, and a forced quarantine that severely restricts our behavior.
During the streaming event’s interview session, Jan referred to HOLOSCENES as a metaphor for human endurance – the water is a given but how individuals respond to it is the difference between merely coping and productively adapting. It also exposes the struggle of living in isolation – the performers are on their own in this ever-changing world like we are now physically isolated from our own usual networks of support during a period of rapid change. Although HOLOSCENES was created to suggest that drowning during increasingly strong storm events and rising tides will be a reality for many as climate disruption intensifies, it can be said that in our current environment, we are all now metaphorically drowning in anxiety and information.
One of the performers who spoke during the streaming event’s interview session described what it was like to be inside the aquarium. She related how, unlike other performances in which she has participated, she could not see or feel the presence of the audience even though she knew they were there. Comparing that sense of total isolation to our current period of quarantine, she expressed that she feels a similar sense of disconnect when she is on a Zoom call. On Zoom, she can see square blocks containing people’s faces on the computer screen and hear the individuals talking, but she can’t perceive their presence or reach out and touch them.
Besides an understanding of the need to adapt to a threatening situation, the desire to make order out of disarray, and the overwhelming feelings of isolation, what additional meaning can we take from revisiting HOLOSCENES during the global pandemic? Perhaps it is that during times of crises like our own, as we try to make sense of our changing reality, art can serve as a life raft and hold us up while we get our bearings.
This article is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Artists & Climate Change on June 18, 2020, as part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.