Transdisciplinary artist Aaron Czerny launched the series of public events linked to the University of San Francisco’s Fall 2016 Davies Forum, “Making Sense of the Anthropocene,” with a captivating participatory performance art piece on “Navigating the Anthropocene: Art and Artist as Guides through a Challenging Epoch.”
Playing on the audience’s expectation of a conventional academic lecture, Czerny transformed the lecture room using objects, sound and light and invited the audience to enter into a newly created ritual space. Expectations disrupted, Czerny next asked participants to relinquish their cell phones then performed a rite of removal, if you will, concealing the phones in order to shield participants from their electromagnetic and other types of interferences.
Another element of the performance entailed the passing of a mirror, each participant taking a turn peering at their reflection, before Czerny carefully folded a sheath around the mirror and smashed it with a staff.
Performing as an “artist/shaman,” Czerny undertook a sequence of ritual-like practices before eventually asking participants to collect a book and follow the directive inscribed inside the book’s cover. Each audience member was instructed to create a poem by randomly selecting printed words in the book. Next participants approached a staff placed within the center of a taped outline of a boat on the floor of the room, and spoke her or his poem into the microphone.
Czerny subtly engaged with each speaker to ensure that the recorded poem was layered as an audio track over a percussive rhythm as well as each of the preceding spoken poem tracks. With the ever-increasing strata of the looping audio, the room was initially filled with a cacophony of voices. But eventually the layers grew thick and the voices melded into more of a uniform chatter.
The ritual concluded with participants entering the outlined boat while Czerny conducted further ritualistic/artistic practices. Upon completion of the ritual, each participant was gifted with a piece of an antler containing a compass and/or mirror embedded within it.
The Anthropocene is a charged concept. Contemplating the human species as a geologic force evokes a range of questions. One interpretation of Czerny’s performance might be that the Anthropocene ruptures our sense of continuity between our past and future. In doing so, we are confronted with the challenge of arriving at new answers to the great human questions–Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going?
Weaving representations of time, journeying, stories, and unity-in-difference, among other things, Czerny seemed to be suggesting that art and artist can play vital creative roles in shaping the stories and rituals on which we as a species can begin to construct new meanings for life in the Anthropocene.