The Local Sky Tonight Review

hUManities Blog, Long Exposures
Alexa Watson

Student and high-flyer in the Department of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba

Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan’s performance piece The Local Sky Tonight or What is Being Refusedwas originally commissioned as one of a series of pieces meant to represent different parts of stories. Their original prompt was on the hero’s call; the significance of the secondary title catalyzes from the moment our rabbit-guide begins their rumination of Campbell’s infamous monomyth of the hero’s journey. The hero is called and thus embarks on their journey, satisfying our expectation of the story’s unfolding. But, as our rabbit-performer mentions, there is a moment, a split second wherein the hero wants to say no. In every fiber of their being, they would rather ignore the call. This space, that microsecond of doubt between choosing to answer or to refuse the call—this threshold is where our rabbit-adventurer wedges themselves and begins to queer our hero story.

From the moment our show begins, this performance refuses expectations; when the spotlight first shines it is not on the stage, but between the seats. Within the audience our rabbit-narrator emerges and languidly makes their way toward the stage. The opening sets the tone for this performance—our rabbit is constantly collapsing boundaries; boundaries between audience and performer, science and art, and even between accepted and neglected stories. Most interestingly about this performance, The Local Sky Tonightis variable, it all changes based on our perspective; the sky we observe changes based on our temporal and geographic position. As a result, this performance changes as well. The fluidity of the piece heightens the very same metamorphic quality of performance-art as a medium. Performativity here suits our rabbit’s ruminations of stories aptly—what our performer shows us is that stories are performed, they require both a speaker and an audience for them to come alive. 

Performances are ephemeral, constantly in flux and ever-adapting; their semiotics are elusive, slipping out of our grasp. From the performance of bards and poets all the way to the Dadaist cabarets, our stories are embodied in performance. Remember that even our epitomic hero’s tale—Homer’s Iliad, was at first a performance. Homer never wrote his poem, we don’t truly know who Homer is. The shadow of the epic bard lives only in our cultural imagination. It wasn’t until hundreds of years after this poem was first uttered, passed through countless generations, that it was finally penned. Even the story of the hero we shackle ourselves to was at one point, ephemeral and ever-changing—who’s to say to how intact that poem is from its original, or how changed it is from its many performances. But don’t mistake me, I’m not so oblivious not to realize how thisHomer—a boundaryless, shifting collective of voices, conflicts with the one that lives in our cultural mind—Homer as a fixed, unchanging figure, the Iliad as a story written in stone.

Whichever story you choose to believe, stories are performed. It is only through this performance—this repetition, that our stories thrive. We embody our stories as we tell them and carry them through the millennia. But though we may think we have agency over the stories we tell, that we are shaping them, our rabbit-storyteller shows us how they in turn shape us. Take for example one of the many stories present in our local sky; we are told Taurus the bull is present but is overlapped by Orion the hunter. This may seem inconsequential, but the bull figure has represented feminine goddesses, fertility, and harmony with harvest cycles in a multitude of cultures. How strange it is that the masculine, violent figure of the hunter comes to overlap and overtake an older feminine story. This story can’t help but prompt me to think other stories, other discourses that shape our understanding of our world; this very-same shift in understanding the environment around us is argued in ecofeminist theory. Ecofeminism offers an alternative to the hyper-masculine way of viewing our relationship to the environment, instead of the abjection of ourselves from our environment, we exist in synch and in harmony with it. This radical and alternative story to how we choose to interact with our world is shown by our rabbit-friend to be written in the sky; how uncanny that we should see the very same story that ecofeminism strives to return to represented in constellations. As our rabbit says, “stories alwayswin”. So which story does win? Does one story eclipse the other, do we always return to Campbell and his theory of the monomyth, that there can be only one? Or, can we accept a multiplicity that allows room for not one, not two, but many existing in tandem.

I would like to propose that our curious rabbit-friend offers a space and time where this multiplicity can exist. In this moment, we are led, not unlike Alice, into a world of alternatives; this momentary space made by the performance allows for a rabbit to speak on quantum physics, astrology, cosmology, and narratology, it is absurd, strange, and profoundly peculiar. This space becomes a queer time, a resistant temporality that allows the radical refusal of dominant stories. Remember that there is no space for women in these hero myths—you could be Andromeda, or you can be Persephone, you can be bait or you can be waiting. Why is Alice not a hero? Why is she considered absurd, our rabbit wonders? Why are there no hero stories for these women? 

Speaking about space and time, time is a peculiar thing for our rabbit, they are constantly “late, I’m late for my entire life! To do lists referencing to do lists, referencing calendars referencing alerts long since ignored”. This rabbit simply cannot keep up, constantly running after the clock. But if this rabbit isalways late, then whenis our performance? A performance cannot be late, from the moment it starts it begins forming a new temporality, its own space and time demarked by the performance itself. This performance is an alternative time, creating an alternate space from wherein the rabbit and we are released from other stories. Here, the rabbit is not late, nor is there only one option for the hero or for the damsel. 

Our rabbit uses the planetary show to further the absurdity and strangeness of our space. She is not happy with the story of Cassiopeia or her constellation, and so changes its name in the middle of our performance to coffee-pot. It does sort of remind me of a coffee-pot (well, more than a seated woman at least), it might even look similar to the Moka pot I used earlier today if I took my glasses off and squinted. But it doesn’t matter, our rabbit suggests that it can be named anything, the signifier is arbitrary—it can change.

Suddenly we find ourselves led down a Derridean rabbit-hole by our guide; if the names we give to these constellations are arbitrary, so too are the stories we inscribe onto them. These arbitrary names and narratives we project onto the world around us dissolve into empty signs—Cassiopeia into coffeepot. Like Alice in her Wonderland, our rabbit-guest takes the meaningful and turns it into the absurd. If this arbitrariness seems bleak to you, robbing our stories of their meaning and substance, don’t fret, there’s a silver lining; our rabbit asks us “are our stories working?” Perhaps a better question would be whothey are working for. If they are not working, we are not shackled to their narrative like Andromeda to the rock, we can easily change one out for another. We don’t have to settle for Taurus being overlapped by Orion, we don’t have to accept Campbell’s monomyth, we can refuse the hero’s call.The performance itself earnestly carves out a space for the wonderfully queer and feminist stories. It was beautifully evocative and was followed by a thoughtful and thought-provoking panel.

The Panel: Serenity Joo, Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar, Helga Jakobson, Katrina Dunn, Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey.

The panel was led by Serenity Joo (UMIH) and included Katrina Dunn (Dept. of English, Theatre, Film & Media, University of Manitoba), Helga Jakobson (transdisciplinary artist), Vesna Milosevic-Zdjelar (Dept. of Physics, University of Winnipeg), and our two artists Shawna Dempsey and Lori Millan. It seems I wasn’t the only one chewing on our performer’s ruminations with a bit of ecofeminist theory in mind. Jakobson eloquently discusses the ecocritical and ecofeminist implications of the show. She sparks a discussion on the umwelt, and how the perspectives given by stories are the semiotics we use to craft our world. This performance is deeply concerned with perspective, with its fixedness and its variability. By discussing the theory of umwelt, Jakobson beautifully puts that by limiting our perspective, we are restricting our worlds. The panel evolved into a discussion of feminist speculative fiction and science fiction, speaking on the late Ursula K. Le Guin whose death was scarcely a year ago. Her carrier-bag theory of fiction is offered as an alternative to Campbell’s; the entirety of the panel continued the interrogation of the stories we proffer as a culture, taking a moment to consider feminist perspectives. Ultimately, this night ended with an open door—a series of questions that destabilize rather than reinforce. We ask where do our stories come from, do they work, when did we silo our bodies of knowledge—excising art from science, when did we lose touch with curiosity, the strange, and where did our rabbit go?  

Alexa Watson is currently an undergraduate student in the English Honours program. Her most recent interests are queer theory, feminist theory, ecocriticism, performance theory, poetics, and theatre. When she is not on campus, she is a cellist who both performs and works as a freelance musician. She is passionate about the local music and arts scene, having volunteered in the past for both the Manitoba Conservatory of Music and Arts, as well as Nuit Blanche.

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