Massive wildfires have become regular occurrences throughout the world: clear reminders that climate change is real and it won’t go away if we ignore our role in it. A few years ago John Millard (composer), Tomson Highway (lyricist), and Martha Ross (book writer) wrote a cabaret theatre piece with the express purpose of creatively responding to the reality of climate change. They called the simple premise for a theatre piece The Cave, with the goal of being entertaining, political, and tragic:
A group of animals flee a forest fire and take refuge in a cave. The animal characters sing about being trapped by the fire, while John as the entertaining cabaret host tells stories and jokes and elaborates on the animals’ dire situation. The initial levity of the show takes a darker turn and all the animals perish in the fire. The enduring spirit of the Fox character, that represents the spirit of the imagination, offers a glimmer of hope as he sings a song about the beauty of the night sky. End of story.
Naomi Campbell of Luminato became an immediate fan and put The Cave into the 2019 Luminato festival. Audiences raved about the power and beauty of the show and expressed how cathartic and effective it was.
The show’s success resulted in John and Martha receiving a Canada Council digital grant to work with me on the creation of an animated trailer of The Cave. Working with John and Martha was inspiring, and continues to be for all of us. After the Luminato Festival booked The Cave for another run in June 2022 at Theatre Passe Muraille at the heart of Queen West, we came up with the following ideas for the project, which we're currently shopping around.
Phase 1: ALT Projection Workshop
The first phase is early development, and involves a weeklong research period with the design team of The Cave, including projection designer Trevor Schwellnus and myself. We’ll workshop ways to bring new dimension to the show’s design and story by incorporating my animated landscape, fire, and animal imagery.
We want to further the presence of the encroaching fire, which we view as a character in its own right: one that is monstrous, unpredictable, and merciless. We also want to heighten the audience’s sense that they’re in an environment that is simultaneously cabaret and cave. Third, we want to augment the audience’s visceral sense of animal life and anxiety by integrating abstract footage with live performance, projected onto human figures, set elements, and crumpled reflective sculptural elements.
We’ll make several devices called zoopraxinoscopes—Muybridge’s predecessor to the projector—with 12-frame loops of individual animals running, and other loops of raging wildfire. This process uses cutout metal discs spinning in front of a strong light source. They’re simple rigs with a certain steam-punk utility and appeal. The light source makes them far more effective than conventional projectors, so the images appear brightly on multiple building surfaces at night, even in highly illuminated neighbourhoods, flickering and glitching as the surfaces change. Someone walking down Queen St. will suddenly become aware of a flaming wolf (for example) running past them along a wall and into the night. Selections from John’s exquisite music from The Cave will emanate from the cyclists’ backpacks. These neighbourhood ‘events’ will happen when it’s dark and will appear unannounced. We imagine this will be a wonderful and exciting surprise to passing pedestrians. And although they might produce a buzz for The Cave, their purpose is not publicity, but rather art events unto themselves.
Phase 2: City-Wide Installation
Continuing development and extending into production, the second phase will take cues and information from the first. Every night The Cave runs, moving bicycles will project painted animation of fire and flaming animals to create a mobile, city-wide installation.
Outside the theatre, after the performance, audiences will emerge to see moving imagery projected onto the outside of the theatre. They’ll be encouraged to follow several projector bikes as they set out from the theatre, creating a celebratory ‘Pied piper’ festival feel. Other bikes will take off independently and move to other parts of the city: busy downtown streets, residential neighbourhoods, public spaces, financial districts and the like. Our research for this animation event will investigate and be open to a wide range of possibilities for the projected animation.
Throughout the run we will film people watching the events with mobile phones that travel along with the bikes. We’ll post the material live on social media so as to reach different demographics and other parts of the world, rural and urban. As the footage accumulates we’ll edit in formats like Instagram Stories for fast contemporaneous distribution. As interest grows and as people discover the projections by chance, our social media outreach will include random perspectives and a groundswell of involvement form the wider public.
Starting during the event itself, we will assemble the footage into a documentary piece, including interviews with audience members, the creators, people on the street, and the projector bicyclists. We’re curious how people will respond to questions about climate change: ‘Is it too late for us?’ ‘Is climate change reversible?’ ‘Can Art be an effective tool for change?’ etc. This can easily expand into a more research-based documentary practice, involving interviews with scientists, activists, academics, and politicians.
Phase 3: Gallery & Web
The last phase of this project comes from an impulse that is almost opposite to the Bike Event. The Bike Event’s purpose is to take the images OUT into the world and to allow the event to become a communal experience, one that celebrates and promotes art in the city. For this third phase, we want to contain the images and take the spectator IN, on a literal level (inside a gallery), and on a psychological level so that the spectator experiences the story on a deeply personal, almost primordial level. We want to layer animation and song in a gallery situation so that people are immersed in a world that is on fire, peppered with helpful moments of comic relief and levity.
At this point we imagine a large open space, cordoned off in distinct areas, almost like Dubuffet rooms: interior spaces combining sculpture, projection, and sound. Spectators move from one to the next immersive rumination on individual animal songs. Imagine semi-abstract animated details of a large moose lumbering through a marsh, projected onto bundles of grasses and crumpled plastic, flickering to the night mysteries of John’s Moose Song; turn the corner to find yourself inside a wall of fire. Pass through fire to a deep blue-black crow flying high above the burning forest, looking for his lost love, the fox; turn the corner again and a wolf is climbing the walls of a cave trying to escape the fire... zoopraxinoscopes will mix with these ‘rooms,’ some automated and others as waiting invitations to turn the wheels and reveal one’s own burning animals shimmer on the gallery walls.
The moments and songs of The Cave will become an immersive, non-linear, tender and terrifying experience of fire. People in the gallery will feel like they are actually in the fire with the animals. At other times they will feel like they’re watching them from a distance. There will be stations throughout the gallery with headphones for people to listen to the songs in their entirety, and sound design inspired by different levels of fire.
We take our inspiration from the Van Gogh Exhibit that is traveling the world, and also a brilliant project created in 2015 by Julian Rosefeldt with Cate Blanchett, called Manifesto. John and Martha saw in Montreal a few years ago and were completely inspired and influenced by the experience.
The gallery installation will happen several months after the Bike Event. Our long-term goal is that it be seen in many galleries around the world.