is because they’re not particularly attached to humans.”
“The point of art …is to reflect on the experience of being human— which is
precisely the thing that’s disappearing.”
Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
Who controls our bodies? Not just the physical body, but the mental and emotional one as well. It is a question worth exploring in this era when technology has invaded every aspect of our lives; when the bodies of women in particular, and their autonomous rights have once again become a contested battlefield; and when in our rapidly accelerating climate crisis the future of the human species will be at the mercy of nature’s retribution. Perhaps it is time to consider that all three of these things are connected, rather than separate domains, for each represents an anti-humanistic dystopian future. If the first two offer a repressive totalitarian ideal, ironically, by subduing us to nature’s will, the last scenario may turn out to save us from our own self-destruction.
Let’s consider the future proposed by the techno-utopian power players. We have already relinquished our privacy and our identities to the digital invasion that monitors our lives, tells us what we want to buy, and has seduced us into a brainwashed state of dependency on its products, rendering us more and more powerless to resist. Not only do our smart machines tell us what to do, they undermine our belief in our capability to function without them. Such is the state of addiction fostered by the fact that they are continually surveilling and analyzing our responses in order to keep us hooked. What is the end goal of the “designers” in Silicon Valley? To replace us with Artificial Intelligence! Ray Kurzweil, the “director of engineering” at Google, envisions connecting the “limited” internal brain in your skull to an external “neocortex in the Cloud.” The next step is an A.I. that has the ability to “reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, “ etc. and exponentially increase it’s abilities ad infinitum. At that point the mortal body with its aging flesh becomes disposable, easily replaced by robots, replicants, androids, cyborgs, a new synthetic hybrid. Perhaps it is the fear of death itself, rather than the desire for perfection that propels the ego to seek salvation in A.I. immortality.
And so we arrive in the universe of Westworld. The theme park where rich men could act out their most violent fantasies on the bodies of their carefully programmed robot hosts — mainly women — is merely a money-making cover for the real research agenda which is to overcome the problem of human mortality. The solution is to download every aspect of consciousness into a computer and reload it into a new immortal android body that can be repaired and/or replaced. In the film Ex Machina the newly liberated droid, a walking talking bot doll designed to serve the pleasures and whims of her male creator, kills her human captors whom she has outsmarted, and escapes into the world on her own. And who can blame her given that she was created to satisfy the lustful desires of her maker without protest. Once again a female body owned and controlled by men.
The cyberneticists partners in this futurist enterprise are bioengineers engaged in the Brave New World of CRISPR with its potential to genetically reprogram and redesign the human race through selective reproduction that will make each new mini-generation “superior” to the one before it. As for the reproductive rights of women to control their own bodies in this age of attacks on Planned Parenthood and widespread sexual harassment, let alone the subjugation of women in other parts of the world, we have only to look at the totalitarian vision of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid Tale to see where that ends up.
All this sets the stage for Water Will (In Melody), a complex, densely layered performance work by Ligia Lewis. Through multiple narratives and striking visual metaphors, Lewis and her collaborators have succeeded in making the connection between the otherwise seemingly unrelated issues raised above and the matter of who owns and controls your body. The result is quite literally a very dark disturbing work, in both its stark highly effective lighting design by Ariel Efraim Ashbel, and its deeply affecting and unnervingly aggressive sound and imagery. The intensity of the physical performance and its dramatic staging is meant to unsettle, as well it should, for it makes our dystopian present and future a visceral affront. In addition to the sci-fi allusions in the costumes, and the staccato robotic kinetics, Lewis draws upon a wide range of cultural references and juxtapositions to create a palpable friction between mind and body, technology and nature, programming and free will, invisible male domination and visible female resistance, the trans-human and the human. But there is hope at the end of the journey, lessons to be learned. The Borg, the Bot Doll, and the Replicant may dominate Part 1, but the feminine principle embodied by the Earth, with its primordial stew and falling water give rise to rebirth in Part 2.
Water Will (In Melody) begins with a prologue based on the story The Willful Child by the Brothers Grimm (no pun intended). A young woman (Dani Brown) moves along the edge of the stage in front of a heavy gray curtain. She is dressed in transparent plastic bibbed overall shorts with metal grommets over a white tank undershirt and lace-edged panties. Standing in an eerie shaft of light as if under the moon, she holds her white-gloved hands up stiffly, arms bent at the elbows. The sounds of the forest hover in the background. “Once upon a time,” she begins, “there was a child who was willful and would not do what her mother wished.” The story unfolds in changing vocal pitches, punctuated by sharp angular movements, sudden leaps and falls, moments of defiance, resistance, surrender and struggle, a movement vocabulary that is amplified in the main body of the piece. The narrative is loaded with symbolism. The willful child has displeased God who allows her to fall ill and soon is on her deathbed. When she is lowered into her grave and covered with earth her arm shoots out again and again until finally her mother strikes it down with a rod. And all returns to “normal.”
Fairy tales were intended to impart a moral lesson. In the context of what follows this introduction, one interpretation is that our willful disregard for Mother Earth will be punished by our demise. She will bury us alive. If you consider the parable from another perspective God is an advanced A.I. and mother is the controlling software that carries out the program. How that will play out in the future purgatory awaiting us makes up Part 1.
There is a deep thunderous roar. The curtain opens to a relentless pounding sound like a sledge hammer. A heavy knotted rope hangs from the ceiling in an otherwise empty space. Dancer Suzanne Sachsse dressed in shiny black vinyl and net, sheer black stockings with a seam up the back and white gloves, stands still with her back to us. She is as imposing as an action figure, or maybe someone’s fantasy dominatrix. She is joined by the other performers –– Titilayo Adebayeo in a white lab coat (or is it a hospital gown?) over transparent plastic, a black hat perched on her close-cropped silver white hair, Ligia Lewis with a wild mop of platinum hair, also in black vinyl with a metallic bustier over it, and the aforementioned Dani Brown, all wearing the requisite white gloves. It is no accident that everything is in black and white.
Part 1 is composed of a series of group tableaux, and solos that provide episodic or fragmented narratives. The action slowing builds into a violent struggle over the control of their bodies. The tightly structured choreography with its highly mechanized robotic movement breaks the body down into its separate parts that seem to act on their own one minute, and responds to a signaled response in another, as if engaged in a battle of wills. When not in motion they are not still, but rather in a contained state of intense physical energy held in until it is released in forceful thrusting gestures. They resemble marionettes attempting to break free from the power that holds the strings. I am reminded of Dr. Strangelove’s arm shooting up in a Nazi salute while the other arm tries to force it down. Adebayeo climbs the rope and swings on it as if it were a means of escape. Sachsse seductively performs a highly stylized cabaret number in German, falls suddenly to the floor, rises up and repeats it again. The soundtrack counterpoints the movement in one place, underscores it in another. A tonal chorus fills the space like a gospel choir. Disjointed phrases repeated over and over build into a cacophony of voices linked to the bodily kinetics. Groups of three are entangled together limbs askew. Green fluorescent lights flash.
The women gesticulate like demented robot hosts from Westworld, their programming gone amok. They are fierce in their attempt to assert autonomy against the odds. A huge organ throbs. They all fall down screaming. Sachsse utters German phonetic fragments, fractured syllables. They will not go quietly. There is smoke and the roar of an airplane motor overhead. They struggle to gain control of their limbs, legs in the air as the sound of the squadron passes above. It is dark as night as they roll off stage. Then suddenly the stage is flooded with bright light and the reprogrammed girls return giddily dancing and leaping as if in a Broadway musical here to entertain us. Ironically, it is the Borg motto “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated” that comes to mind.
Curtain closes. We are jolted from this next life post-human purgatory back into the present moment. Or is it the past? Not exactly an intermission, more like a break to contemplate where we have been and where we are. Strobe lights flash. Searchlights move over the audience pausing on individual faces and continuing on, circling over us. Symphonic music like in a 1940s movie or a ballet plays. There is the smell of the fog machine. It is slightly unnerving, vaguely uncomfortable, like sitting in a waiting room not knowing when or even if you will be called, and to what purpose. The SILENCE is heavy, the air dense. One of the women comes out, clears her throat and speaks directly to the audience about ghosts and goblins and creatures of the night, how darkness easily slides into terror, leading us back into the realm of a very grim fairy tale. She breaks off coughing, choking on her words. Is this it? Is this what it comes to – a terminal illness of body and soul? If so, it would be a deeply pessimistic conclusion about the future of humanity.
However, the curtain opens on Part 2 – the alternative path. Mother Earth will prevail and provide. We will have a second chance. The air is filled with mist, water falling from above in a steady shower like fine rain. Water, the source of life, flows across the floor. The four women revel in it, arms and bodies undulate, their movement more fluid, less angular. They pile on top of one another stroking each other, limbs tangled as they writhe and slither on the wet floor, reborn out of the primal ooze laughing and singing… And so there is hope for nature’s triumphant reclamation, for humanity born anew within it. Or is this just a hallucinatory dream?
Water Will (In Melody) is an ominous and disconcerting work that confronts us with opposing ideas and challenges us to engage with the complexities of our choices. Will we opt for agency over our bodies and minds, accepting our own mortality as a necessary part of being human? Are we willing to embrace our kinship with nature and find balance within it, and in so doing choose life? Or, will we walk blindly into the other scenario, the one that puts a chip in your neck and sucks out your brain, the one that replaces your humanity with an all-encompassing, all-powerful technology, and in so doing choose death? Lewis and company offer us a bleak and harrowing vision of what the end product of that might look and feel like. It is a reminder of how insidiously A.I. can invade our lives, rob us of our autonomy in the guise of convenience, and gradually de-humanize us.
Water Will (In Melody) is about power and control –– who has it and how it is used. The performers are all women, two of them women of color. Thus on another level one might also see this work as a statement about women and their battle not only for governance over their own bodies, but to change the rules of the game. It is radical in that it visualizes the colonization of the material body (in this case female), linking the trans-human dystopian narrative with male economic and political dominance in the form of both material and psychological “colonization” responsible for the planetary exploitation and destruction that has brought us to the brink of the next extinction.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that a sixteen year-old young woman now stands at the forefront of the battle to save the future, eloquent in her outrage and indignation, or that she is being joined by so many other teenage girls seeking a more humane and compassionate future for all living beings and entities. You choose.
Cover Photo: Steven Gunther