PERFORMANCE SPACE NEW YORK
OCTOBER 19 – DECEMBER 16, 2018
A Wild Ass Beyond: ApocalypseRN is a project by American Artist, Caitlin Cherry, Nora N. Khan, and Sondra Perry—a formidable group of four young artists and writers whose collaboration is rooted in their research into “competing visions for the end of the world,” or various manifestations of the American apocalyptic imagination: from predictions of eco-disaster and the collapse of social systems, to international or civil war. Surveying the national cultural landscape of doomsday preppers, survivalists, contemporary homesteaders, and “tiny house” enthusiasts—communities within which notions of self-reliance and apocalypse can appear as driving fantasies—these four artists of color inject a counter-narrative into a predominantly white—and in some sectors overtly nativist—conversation about the nature of survival in “the end-times.” They begin with a written declaration:
In the event of disaster, we, the people who have always been surviving, will simply continue to survive. We have learned skills you wouldn’t believe, enduring under police states. We refine trauma into gold and use exile as jet propellant.
From this premise, the artists undertake a thought-experiment, or a science-fictional endeavor, in the form of a miniature homestead and ramshackle “tiny house” staged as an environmental installation inside the Performance Space theater. Voluminous piles of dirt cover the floor, tucked with potted plants, a collapsing clay kiln, and construction detritus that surround a slipshod approximation of a little mobile home. Inside, the house is organized much like a typical travel-trailer, brightly decorated and featuring a library of well-read books and home print-outs on social theory, off-the-grid living, poetics of place, Black history and culture, and some choice sci-fi literature. In the “yard” of the tiny house, a conversation takes place. Projected onto an ad-hoc screen made of bedsheets is a recorded dialogue between the artists, who discuss possibilities for creating habitable spaces outside systems of oppression, and the costs and benefits of isolation from urban society. There’s no refined message, just a casual, candid speculation we’re invited to listen to for a spell, perhaps while sitting on a log that’s set into the dirt floor before the screen. The total environment created inside the theater is warm with the exuberance of artistic research and making.
This elaborate fake homestead, constructed inside a theater in the East Village, speaks to the importance of play—the performative, collaborative, imaginative act—as a critical mode for working through trauma and disaster. The installation is not a functional model of alternative living, and there’s some vague idealism about rural subsistence behind it, but that’s fully understood by the artists, who joke in the video about their total “lack of practical skills” for building communities outside the urban social fabric. They contribute something else to the cultural conversation on disaster-preparation, which is the insight that the “skills” required for thriving beyond disaster go past the need to build shelter, to find food, and weather the elements; just as essential are abilities for spiritual adaptation and making-meaning, for “refining trauma into gold.” These are faculties that artists are inherently equipped to provide, as are native people, people of color, queer people, and women—those who have always been surviving under oppressive systems. In a black-and-white zine that accompanies the show, printed alongside the artists’ collective declaration, are Magic: The Gathering-style “Survivalist Trading Cards” listing skills that include “emotional support,” “maintaining group memory,” “resource plunging,” and “holding it down.”
It’s this sincere playfulness that makes the exhibition so effective. There’s engagement with theory and literature here—odes to Anna Tsing, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Fred Moten are present in the little library and in the zine, which includes critical reflections by the artists as well as an interview with counter-cultural historian Fred Turner—but what Artist, Cherry, Khan, and Perry really offer is a model of art making that is informed by political urgency without getting bogged down in its own theoretical framework. It is joyfully free of the didactic moralizing that’s so common in political art right now, and it doesn’t fancy itself as a form of direct political activism.
Instead, ApocalypseRN is earnest, creative labor that lets us escape into imaginative speculation while also giving us plenty of things to think about: Do you plan for a future in which we collectively have fewer resources, or in which social systems are increasingly unable to meet our needs? What skills would you bring to an alternative community, or to a disaster? How can you—and how can people of color in particular—contribute to healing and meaning-making in times of precarity? And how do we begin to contemplate a future affected by ecological disaster, one that will inevitably hit underprivileged, socially dependent communities the worst? In considering these questions, the artists begin to re-define apocalypse, by suggesting that for those who have always been surviving, there is really no such thing to dread, or to look forward to. Hence the title, ApocalypseRN, which sounds like “Apocalypse right now” or “Apocalypse registered nurse,” demanding an immediate labor of care and healing that moves beyond basic survival, not in regard to some vague crisis that looms rapturously in the future, but one which is already underway.