How do we escape Modernity? In Ecological Thought, 2014, Timothy Morton writes,
We simply can’t unthink modernity. If there is any enchantment, it lies in the future. The ecological “enchants the world,” if enchantment means exploring the profound and wonderful openness and intimacy of the mesh. What can we make of the new constellation? What art, literature, music, science, and philosophy are suitable to it? Art can contain utopian energy. As Percy Shelley put it, art is a kind of shadow from the future that looms into our present world.
In what kinds art do we find these foreshadowings? I can only speak from my own experience: earlier this month I underwent just such a foreshadowing at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Attractor, a dance performance by Australia’s Dancenorth and Lucy Guerin Inc. choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin with music by the Indonesian duo, Senyawa, enchanted me. I was mesmerized by a vision that seemed to broach the sentience of the nonhuman – that, for the fleeting moments of the performance, seemed to animate the universe.
I was primed for the experience, having just finished Morton’s book Humankind, Solidarity with Nonhuman People, 2017, in which he invites us to eschew the anthropocentric and embrace the “cold and dark and mysterious and spooky….spectrality” that lurks within the modern world of exclusively human animation - which we have fashioned so carefully over the last half millennium. The dance represented an invitation to establish a solidarity with nonhuman people (Morton’s phrase for all the species, land forms, geological formations, and micro-organisms that subsist betwixt, between and within us all, in elaborate symbiosis). This, even though it was a dance of human people (their micro-organisms jiggling, giggling within) - but their movements and the music referred to the fully animate universe in which we all, human and nonhuman, dwell.
Susan Leigh Foster, who is Professor of Choreography, History and Theories of the Body, in the Department of Dance at U.C.L.A., and a friend, attended the same performance. She was at pains to enumerate the formal shortcomings and clichéd stylings of the performance. Such is the lot of an experienced eye and ear as opposed to my joyfully naïve viewpoint.
In UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance program, under the heading, “A Note on this Unique Ritual” it claims that “Senyawa reinterprets the Javanese tradition of entering trance through dance and music as a powerful, secular, present day ritual”, and goes on to suggest that the music “builds to a euphoric pitch while the dancers are propelled into wild physical abandonment and ecstatic release, creating a visceral, empathic experience for the audience”. So yes, we are told what to feel; and yes, as Susan complained, there may be an element of cultural appropriation here – perhaps of ancient paleolithic cultural rites and yes, from this appropriation arises the stench of colonialism which hangs heavy over Australia, where Europeans have largely subsumed the aboriginal tribal culture within their conquering Western civilization.
In Indonesia, under colonial rule for half a millennium, first by the Portuguese and then the Dutch, the Austronesian people (who had arrived in the archipelago some 1,500 years earlier) survived and now make up most of the population. Ironically, they usurped the original Island inhabitants who had populated both Indonesia and Australia some 45,000 years ago. These ancient migrants continued to live undisturbed in Australia until a few hundred years ago, when they suffered a genocide during the European invasion.
Cultural appropriation of primitive rites in this performance piece concerns Javanese rituals rather than aboriginal practices of corroboree. Ancient Australian aboriginal music was composed of clap sticks and voice chants, while their dance moves focused on the imitation of animals and birds (the didgeridoo is a very late addition to aboriginal musical culture). Javanese music is substantially richer to western ears but in any case, the stringed instruments, flutes and polyphonic percussion such as the gamelan are all comparatively recent, dating back, perhaps, to the twelfth century. Senyawa’s appropriation of these historic forms is influenced by Heavy Metal bands like Black Sabbath, Metallica and Iron Maiden where the noise and distortion usually transcend the melody line and demands screamed and frantic vocal performances. In Attractor, faux primitive instruments are electrified and amplified to Heavy Metal pitch while the dancing echoes the ecstatic, frenzied and repetitive vocal parts.
This brief overview of the elements of appropriation make it clear that the artists are not acting out of any obvious colonial privilege nor condescending to tribal primitivism. Instead, the artists have created a mash-up of historic musical forms (Heavy Metal and Javanese trance music) and applied choreographed movement that is a combination of traditional ecstatic dance forms and a kinetic shadowing of vigorous, headbanging Heavy Metal vocals. The two members of Seyawa, Rully Shabara and Wukir Suryadi are avant-garde artists toying with various Javanese and Western traditions – they are in no way traditional folk musicians but belong instead to a global tribe of musicians - comfortable collaborating with sound engineers in Denmark, Australia, or the U.S. to produce their combination of abstract (nonhuman?) vocalizations played against the sonic assault of Suryadi’s home made electric instruments. No patronizing of indigenous cultures here: full membership instead (for better or worse), in the global media village; their live performances in Java recorded, for instance, by the fashionable French filmmaker, Vincent Moon (Calling The New Gods - Senyawa Live in Java). The choreographers, Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin, are acting out of a similarly avant-garde, international practice.
So, their collaborative performance in Attractor injects contemporary essences of ecstatic faux-primitivism directly into the audience and establishes intimations of future regressions into a fully animate world. In their presence, we may glimpse a future no longer completely beholden to the modernist project and imagine a world of connections instead of ideological impositions. They generate a whiff of freedom: of a future where we are no longer indentured to neoliberalism, where we can escape the Western disease and can find new meaning in the nonhuman realm.
Is this consciousness available outside the realm of art and performance? Can we carry it with us out into the world? David Orr writes in his new book, Dangerous Years, the Long Emergency and the Way Forward, 2016, that we cannot simply “will ourselves to that empathic new world”, but he notes that there exists “an inexplicable process of metanoia” which involves “liberation from bondage – physical, mental emotional – a total change of perspective”. Morton’s notion ‘of utopian energy’ generated by art can kick-start Orr’s ‘metanoia’ where we can establish, in this change of perspective, solidarity with the human and nonhuman.
On a personal level, we must wish it: finding light in the darkness of a climate-changed world - where weather terrorism has become the critical limit on humankind’s social, economic and scientific endeavors – involves a religious conversion, not towards what Orr speaks of as a Christian renewal, but towards an eschewal of the monotheisms which originally depended on the elimination of animist gods, and a reversion to an animated universe - to a world overflowing with nonhuman gods. This is the world to which Attractor transports us.
It is a world where there is an elision of the divisions between the human and nonhuman, where we might loose the bonds of Modernity and attempt our escape from its tentacular grip.