Annie-B Parson magically blends movement and spoken word in a story about self-care fanatics from 80’s California.
Monday, December 6, 2021
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Thursday, September 23, 2021
$20-50; New York, NY; Through Sept 26
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I dial 646-694-8050 and hear the following message: “Thank you for calling the Utopian Hotline. We are collecting anonymous responses to help us build a better tomorrow. At the tone, please respond to the question: How do you imagine a more perfect future?”
After doing my best in summarizing my entire life philosophy in an elevator pitch, I hang up, my fingertips buzzing. Will somebody ever hear this? Will my message to the future be received? (Of course, I, like most other human beings, do tend to think about the future and have an opinion on how to make it better for everybody.)
Two years ago, Theater MITU, a Brooklyn-based company, set up a public telephone hotline as a part of the research for a new show. Those messages, as well as conversations with astronauts, astronomers, futurists, and middle school students, have become the source material for Utopian Hotline., a vinyl record and live performance.
Up to twelve audience members are invited to enter MITU580, the company’s studio, after removing their shoes. A lush pink carpet generously embraces my happy toes as I make my way to one of the round, white cushions placed around the perimeter of the black box theatre. There is a long, low table in the middle of the room with an array of telephones, tape records, vinyl record players, and microphones neatly assembled on it. An elongated projection screen hovers above the table, emanating a soft glow.
The aural components of Utopian Hotline. make it to the audience through headphones. Four femme performers dressed in white jumpsuits and yellow socks sing and deliver monologues through microphones and telephone receivers. Like operators on a space station, they move around the table with graceful precision, connecting and disconnecting recorders and record players. The performance is woven from songs, messages from the hotline callers, philosophical reflections on the nature of time, and personal memories.
Part sci-fi call center, part group therapy for those who long to connect, Utopian Hotline. is a meditative and soothing experience. The collage-like narrative takes the audience into the mind of a dyslexic person and to outer space, where the Voyager’s Golden Record is drifting alone in the dark, among other places. But the journey feels safe. And the haptic elements of the show’s design hold my body, much like the 21 layers of NASA’s first space suit held the early astronauts. From the soft touch of the playfully pink carpet to the comforting hug of the headphones, everything feels so calming that I don’t want to leave after the 45-minute performance is over.
The pressing immediacy of public and personal matters over the past two years has continued to knock many of us off our feet. But holding onto a sense of community and fixing our gaze upon the future helps us rise. This notion is what Utopian Hotline reminds us of: curiosity and care are inherent to humans as a species, and no matter what we are going through, we can always count on them. As Stephen Hawking puts it, the objects are not trapped in black holes forever. And “if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up, there is a way out.”
Sunday, June 20, 2021
Tucked behind the Netherland Monument at one of the entrances to Battery Park in Manhattan, you will find Un(re)solved, a temporary monument to a different page in American history; a more humane and ephemeral one.
Un(re)solved is an interactive installation that can be activated with a custom app. A brief audio introduction, prompted by the “Start” QR code on the pavement, invites you to step into the delicate structure on a slightly raised (but accessible) platform. Thirteen plexiglass panels of various heights form two concentric circles. Each panel contains a quilt with a drawing of a tree facing the circle and lists of names on the outside: 151 in total. Each of those people was murdered during the Civil Rights Movement-era, often simply because of their race. The murderers were not found or not punished. These cold cases were reopened by the Department of Justice in 2008 under the Emmet Till Unresolved Civil Rights Crime Act, but, for a lack of effort, resources, or evidence, most of them remain unsolved.
This touring installation provides a physical space to engage with the stories of political activists and humble workers, children, and adults--both named and anonymous--all lost to racial violence. The process feels like modern spiritual science. First, one needs to scan a QR code next to a name and, when prompted, say that name three times. Upon each call, augmented reality leaves appear on the phone screen and intensify their swirling until one of them comes forth, bearing a photo of the person summoned. More often than not, there is just a silhouette representing the deceased. The Un(re)solved app shows a short dossier consisting of their name and age, the circumstances in which the victim died, and the date and the place of their killing. The “read more” button leads to a longer description of the fatal events, the details of the initial investigation, and the current status of the case.
Some of the entries contain fragments of audio interviews with members of the family and the community of the deceased; some of the open cases are also featured in an interactive documentary. (I came across a couple of the audio interviews but didn’t watch any video fragments.) Simply reading these dossiers already felt like a visceral experience. The physical discomfort of squinting at my phone under a blazing sun, trying to shield myself in the shade of one of the taller panels seemed appropriate. For those who wish to take a break, however, there are two rows of park benches running on either side of the installation.The capacity of this multimedia project to grow as investigations progress in the future is remarkable. The combination of an expanding digital archive and a beautiful physical portal at the entrance of a park illustrates the ambivalent nature of time and history. The Civil Rights Movement-era belongs to the past, yet anti-Black violence continues to be a real threat in the United States. One can stay in the Un(re)solved installation as long as they need or want to. I couldn’t help but want to hear more people’s stories, yet I was also feeling completely overwhelmed at the same time. Eventually, I made it to the outro of the piece (an audio message activated by another QR code in the center of the circles). On my screen, overlaid with scenes from a summer day in the park, ghostly presences were summoned; they flooded the air in the form of the names of the 151 people unjustly killed. And I am horrified to think of how many more there might be.