Down to a Sunless Sea (2017)

“Down to a sunless sea” (2017), another Ovation Award winning immersive installation,  instigates an inward journey for all audience members. Typical of Meier’s work, space and texture become triggers for exploration, agency and movement-experience. Read a little more in 

Heather Dugmore’s pre-show article: Life washes up on a sea of trash

Here are some wonderful reviews of the work from National Arts Festival 2017:

The Critter: Down to a Sunless Sea: Got Milk?

Cue Online: Down to a Sunless Sea: Milk Bottles and Misanthropy

“Down  to a Sunless Sea” (2017) takes the form of an intestinal tunnel of about 1.2 meters in  diameter in the smaller spaces interspersed with larger chambers along the route. Audience members are asked to crawl through the 50 meters of tunnel and encounter a cramped, uncomfortable space and strange surreal performers (Geoffrey Smuts, Kate Pinchuck, Meyrick Tree and Sonja Smit). The sound engineering incorporated cutting edge technology, set up by Sean Devonport a Computer Science Masters student at UCAR, allowing live sound to be recorded and moved around the space. This three dimensional sound ‘danced’ along the tunnel with the movement of the audience.

The following text gives an excellent feel for the work and was written by Shannon Hansen, Fine Arts student at UCAR and audience member during the show’s NAF run in July 2017:

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“For this National Arts Festival installation and performance piece, choreographer Lexi Meier constructed a tactile and immersive space for audience members to explore. The work is composed of a tunnel made of plastic milk bottles, plastic piping and industrial plastic sheets that one has to climb through. The space is lit and glowing in an inviting, mysterious way, but simultaneously cramped, hard and uncomfortable to crawl in; one body behind the other like cattle forced through a tunnel to the slaughter.

As we wind around bends, we are met by strange performers along the way. A woman dressed in surgical white with rubber gloves, an industrial mask over her face, lies across the floor, blocking the tunnel. She takes someone’s foot in her hand and inspects it, making ambiguous, sexually-suggestive statements and posing philosophical questions. “Is taste a matter of desire, or ethics?” She inspects us, deciding whether or not we meet the standard to pass yet. Some overtake.

Further in, one comes across a dog-like character, barking, shaking and rubbing against the tunnel from the outside. We peep through gaps of plastic to try to get a better look. He is draped in strings of bottle-caps that rattle as he moves around enthusiastically. He fluctuates between being friendly and aggressive. Don’t get too comfortable.

Towards the end of the intestine-like tube that we have complicitly motioned through, a man and woman dressed in glowing green and white, with plastic mechanical tubes and surgical drips that look like udders attached to one of them, slowly squeeze drops of milk into polystyrene cups. They hand the cups to us one by one through an opening to one side of the tunnel. People hesitantly take it, sniff it, some sip on it. We are then forced out of the remainder of the plastic tube; a tiny crumpled opening that we have to wriggle through flat on the ground, excreted back into the outside world one by one. We expect to end up at some great climax, or end point, but instead we’re soon dumped back into the dark night, the sunless sea. Disappointed, I walk away smiling, thinking about the innate human condition of always wanting more.

The space reminds me of the plastic tunnels at fast-food restaurants that I would play in as a child, but something seems off – the jagged discomfort and the faint smell of old milk; the sinister characters observing us as we pass.

Meier refrains from giving away too much information about the work as a whole, leaving it up to individuals to interpret the space in their own ways. Broadly, it seems to speak of mass-consumption, plastic, human waste, animal agriculture, and factory farming- all facets of the same rapid, dehumanised modern-day cycle.

Kate Pinchuck, one of the performers that hands out polystyrene cups of milk, is a vegan. When I spoke to her about the performance, she mentioned how strange it was for her, as someone who chooses not to drink milk for ethical reasons, to hand this substance to people who simply consume it without question. “They don’t know what could be in it”, she tells me. This act becomes a metaphor in itself for the way members of society mindlessly consume what is handed to them without any objection or inquiry.

The animal agriculture industry as it exists today, is one of the most inhumane industries on every imaginable level. It is the leading cause of drought and deforestation, and produces more carbon dioxide emissions than the entirety of the world’s transport industries combined. On a mass scale, animals are pumped full of growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified crops in concrete feeding lots; living in separated cells of their own feces and waste. Most will never get to roam free in fields of green. They are forced through tunnels to be slaughtered, or milked continuously by machines, one after the other in an endless stream to feed the growing human population.

In Down to a Sunless Sea, the audience becomes the performance. How they engage and interact with the space, the performers, and even with each other, determines what meanings are created there. The cast and crew working in the space mention how each night is different, depending on the dynamic and demographic of the audiences. Sean Devonport, a Masters student at UCKAR, doing Computer Science and research in immersive audio, set up a total of 23 speakers around the winding tunnel. Two microphones are hidden, and the audience hears eerie loops and echoes of themselves. Enmeshed in these live reverberations are field recordings that Devonport and Geoffrey Smutts, another performer, made in spaces of human waste and consumption around Grahamstown, like the hum of a municipal electricity box and the gurgle of the city’s sewerage.

Where does all our waste go? The plastic, the feces, the rivers of sewerage drained from our streets? The title of the piece, Down to a Sunless Sea, is borrowed from a line in a poem, Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published in 1816. This line is also used as the title for the 1979 post-apocalyptic novel by David Graham about a nuclear war and extreme oil shortage in the USA, and later as the title of the short story by fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, published in the Guardian in 2013. Gaiman’s is a story about the winding river Thames in London that collects all of the dumped, drained waste, filth and decaying animal bodies of the industrial, populous city, and carries it all down to the sea.

We have separated ourselves and our consumption and from our waste. In Meier’s installation, we are herded through a tunnel of literal collected plastic waste, like the milk that passed through the intestines of those who consumed its gutted bottles, reminded that we never can truly separate ourselves from the cycle of it all. Our human waste only pollutes the environment that we are confined to, and maybe we are the small and insignificant waste in the broader scheme of it all.”

– Shannon Hansen: 2017

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down to a sunless sea poster
It must be noted that Kate Pinchuck joined the performers after this poster was printed and became a vital part of the performance, as you can see in the photographs that follow.

 

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audience in milk bottle tunnel: photo cred, Jan Potgieter, NAF

 

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Sonja Smit in the first chamber, performer nr 1: photo cred, Jan Potgieter, NAF

 

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audience encountering Geoffrey Smuts, performer 2: photo cred, Jan Potgieter, NAF

 

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Geoffrey Smuts, performer nr 2, through the industrial plastic chamber: photo cred, Jan Potgieter, NAF

 

 

 

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Kate Pinchuck and Meyrick Tree feeding the audience milk in chamber 3, performer nr 3 and 4: photo cred, Jan Potgieter, NAF

 

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Kate Pinchuck and Meyrick Tree watching the audience drink milk: photo cred, Jan Potgieter, NAF

 

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Kate Pinchuck, Lexi Meier and Meyrick Tree receiving our Ovation Award: photo cred, Jan Potgieter, NAF

 

 

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