Gaia, the global circus tragicomedy


An ark not to leave, but to stay. An ark to stay, that is the planet, our Earth (isn’t it?)

A Gaia global circus.  I’m not a theater professional, nor particularly well qualified to write reviews of pieces from the perspective of an expert in that field. I came to this play as a reader of Latour (somewhere between a social scientist and artist) with an interest in understanding the play’s animating provocation: How do we come to know and feel for a time or event unprecedented in our human history?

The time of the geos (earth) and the time of bios (life)

In philosophical and critical literature engaging the question of what it means to live and have politics in the anthropocene, temporality is a central problematic. It seems that our ability to understand human’s geologic transformation of the earth is contingent upon developing a new set of apparatuses and affects for knowing and feeling (being moved by) the Earth.

Gaia is set in a plurality of times and spaces that all elegantly fold into each other through the manipulation of light, shadow, color and, of course, the billowing balloon-lifted earth shell that hovers and moves over the stage throughout the performance. I would say that the inter-locking scenes within the play were quite disjunctured but I’m not sure that gives the correct impression. What climate change is, how to understand it, ways of retro-fitting our future for it, and the visions of destruction and “the fall” that global warming’s darker hues anticipate become the time-space of Gaia. After the first couple scenes that serve to calibrate the audience to time of Gaia, the play comes into its own, beginning to construct sense – of time, planet, affects – anew, all folded into the same bodies and minimal props. It is never quite clear when the play is set: From futuristic Stephen Hawkings moments to ancient Greece and the moments leading up to the construction of Noah’s great ark to climate change summits. The play double-downs on the pains of re-calibrating our clocks to the time of Gaia as she intrudes and cuts-across the imagining of anthropocentric temporality.

There are silly moments: How do we retrofit the cherished Nutella commercial of our childhood for the climate-changed future? Answer: Eco-friendly Nutella bars. Scene: Man coming home to his loving wife and eco-citizen in-the-making children. All is well, right? But the scene ends, dissolving into another: Climate change debates on “Earthquake TV” where science is dragged into the mud, cast as foolishness and pseudo-science. Climate change science is about certainty, but science does not work in the realm of playing God, and the climate change scientist is quickly out-debated by the skeptics who are quick to grasp onto, and run with, the uncertainty that undergirds the scientist’s claims.

The role of doubt looms over all of these scenes. Not just doubt allegorized as disbelief in the reality of climate change but a more amorphous one that continually throws characters into states of confusion and exasperation or obstinate disbelief. “Oh, Noah, you are coming to the bank to take out money to build an ark again? Because the flood is coming, right? Didn’t a flood come last week?” “No,” says the assured and far too busy banker to Noah, “I cannot support your business plan.” Prospects for the end of the world have come and gone too many times to make the building of an ark a sound investment (in this economic climate, at least).

Fragility and science

One of the most touching scenes was of a young girl runaway turned climate change scientist. A woman who made her own life out of circumstances that seemed less than favorable growing up. In once scene we see her weepingly explaining (in a ridiculously cute French accented English) the meaning of the Beetles song “She is leaving” to the audience as an allegory of her own life, and why she is running away from her childhood home. This young girl then morphs into Virginie, the accomplished and young climate scientist passionately lecturing about the oncoming destruction of global warming. Her speech is not a debate, but in the room full of bloggers rapidly marking down her words she is unexpectedly challenged by TED, the rough capitalist-climate-change skeptic that pops-up again and again throughout the scenes (he is the banker who refuses to give Noah a loan to build his ark). Virigine is caught in a political battle that seems to have less to do with the “facts” and more to do with her politics. And this frightens her. She does not know how to handle herself: Does she fight back with this aggressive man? Hold back, because this is not her job? And, after she is pushed to arguing with him and he is subsequently taken away by security, she walks timidly back to the podium – “any more questions?” She looks meekly over the audience. “Did I go too far?”,  she asks herself after. This is not the life she anticipated as a scientist.

As it turns out, Virginie is Gaia: The scientist-become-prophet/goddess residing within Virginie’s body. The scientist who never trained to be a politician or a prophet. The inter-mixing of these identities and bodies is perhaps one of the most suggestive aspect of the performance. It’s not only that scientists are now playing the role of prophets, but that they always have been mythical figures: They are manifestations of Gaia.

If science really did replace religion as the new mythology of world order in the Enlightenment, Gaia brings us back to this transition and reworks it: Where there was once ideological (logical) difference, there is recognition and similarity (if not outright sameness, Dr. Virginie is Gaia). Gaia is recognized anew, but she has always been there either within our science or else the bodying-forth of truth wrapped in the Enlightenment package. Because science gave us a way to separate ourselves from the earth, this recognition is perhaps the most provocative aspect of the play and, more generally, the greatest challenge of feeling and becoming-bodies of the anthropocene: We and Gaia are one.


Mythology and crises of faith

The resolution, the fallout of climate change,  is not a “world without us” apocalypse re-wilding or atomic destruction of the Earth. It is the Greeks in the Trojan Horse’s stomach. Suspicious of what is really inside the horse/the future of climate change, Gaia beseeches her fellows humans not to let the horse into their home. She tells of the destruction that it will bring and, ultimately, does bring as the fury of climate change is snuck-in through the front door and unleashed to rape and pillage the Earth.

The use of mythology – of Gaia, of course, but also of Cassandra, and biblical mythology, Noah and his ark – was a turn I was not quite expecting from the sociologist of science par excellence. But maybe I should have. The ways we imagine ourselves (the audience/the Earth’s human population) out of numbness and incapacity to feel is through the comfort, in terms of familiarity, of classic moral and end-of-the-earth tales. It’s not that the play pits Noah against climate science, but rather, shows us how the two have more in common than expected. To consider the possible new ways of being in a new world, what does it mean to go back to the classical frameworks for understanding moral and political dilemmas and the crises of faith ushered in be a new geologic era?

The situation painted upon the stage of Gaia is not so much a loss of faith but rather the question of where and how do we go forward into the future when what we know and believe to be true – what structures the possibilities of every decision and interaction we have on Earth – an Earth that no longer provide that framework for us? “Do you believe in reality?” is a short piece by Latour which I have always liked. It recites an encounter of Latour’s with a scientist at a conference, whereupon Latour’s interlocutor asks him, quite candidly and with sincerity, “do you [Latour] believe in reality?” The entire body of Latour’s work has lead the inquisitive scientist to this question, to which Latour finds laughable. Of course he believes in reality! But what constitutes reality is really at the heart of all those assertions  that “we have never been modern” and that the social is not a pre-constituted thing in the world but is perpetually “made.” Have we always been experimenting with mythological frameworks for understanding reality? The space between how we know it [fill in blank] and what it is [fill in blank] is the space of deferment, it seems, within which our noble species is cast. If faith is what lands us on one side or the other of this question about reality and how we know it – the ontological and the epistemological, in philosophical terms – then perhaps it makes sense to extend the critical framework for engaging with the impacts of climate change towards the mythological. What, in other words, might the stories of Noah or Cassandra have to teach us about ways of confronting climate change and the future?

Art and the framing of the earth

The creative thrust of the play is oriented around a paradox: Global warming and the gradual transformation is threatening the future of human kind and we feel almost nothing. Theater, within the logic of this assertion, seems to be the mode, tools, and means by which – if only for the time of the show – we begin to feel something. And, indeed, as confirmed by numerous attendees, the performance was very affective. The sound-system shook the stage, the performers drew-out a plurality of emotion for each of the characters they played, and the set itself – a large canopy of fabric attached to helium-filled balloons pulling it up – performed the role of the Earth’s atmosphere which moved with an almost haunting, ethereal grace (despite being particularly sensitive to changes of air temperature and pressure in the room).


I think the question of affect – the ability to be affected – by the transformation of Gaia is a provocative question. At the same time, it also feels like an incredibly naive, urban and Western European-centric staging ground for conversations about global climate change. But maybe this is okay. To the first question, about affect. I like it. The turn towards affect is pleasantly surprising. An affirmation and disavowal of science and knowledge, it reminds us in an utterly simple way that the transformation of affects, feelings, or emotions undergird the work that science and objectivity do in the world. To put it another way, climate science (all science) creates an affective rearrangement of the world that is felt as truth and objectivity. This is not to say the real isn’t real. It is. But part of what makes the real world are the affective, creative, and interpretive apparatuses (to channel Foucault) that conjoin to produce the real. Real world, real global climate change.

To the second question about affect in another way. It does seem to me that affect needs to be on the table in discussions about global climate change and the theoretical and personal instabilities that emerge with the naming of the anthropocene and its multiple strata of time and space. The assumption, however, that we feel nothing is what gives me pause. To quote a semi-famous line from my sister-in-law during a fight with her boyfriend, “we white man?” Her brother and I still do not know what prompted this response out of her during a rather troubled phone call argument with her boyfriend. Nevertheless, the question rang out loud and clear throughout the house, as did the disdain in her voice when she said it. Not to put Latour on the spot, but the “we” in Gaia’s description calls this question for me: Who feels nothing? Performed in front of a small crowd in Chelsea, NYC on a Thursday night the “we” is less questionable for me. But I’m not sure I can take that “we” everywhere. It’s crucial to acknowledge the fact that global warming and, in a broader sense, the movement of the Earth, is feel by many people throughout the world in many different ways. Anyone whose daily rhythms, livelihood, and memories are tied to the regular or irregular changing of the Earth – fantastical people who live by the tide, the sun, the migration of animals – who do not, at least a first glance, understand themselves as totally in control of Earth’s dynamic ecological and geological systems (and therefore do not assume that Nature is this fixed, pristine thing ‘out there’ to be experienced on a weekend trip up the Hudson Valley). Perhaps they feel something, and have long felt something the ‘moderns’ only dream of.

It would be incorrect, in my view, to say that there are more natural ways of being in the world that the moderns should emulate. But perhaps the proposition of Gaia should be oriented less around learning to be affected and, instead, proposing ways to become disaffected from what we see as the normative relationships between humans and the Earth, and all the relationships between the two that we take for granted as a given, as natural. I think we feel a lot, but maybe we need to recalibrate our affective capacities, and part of this might be figuring out how to get out of old habits.

Art and aesthetic experiences are certainly a way to do this. I agree with Bruno (if I may); it won’t be critical social or scientific or political theory that re-sensitize us. We need to exercise the muscles and imaginings that are found more so in the world of art in order to get to new affective possibilities. Or we at least need to remember that science and art, imagination and experimentation, have more in common than our textbooks suggest. The play is a very humanistic appeal from a writer who, at many first blushes, is steeped in way of thinking about the world that takes the unknown head-on, providing us with the theoretical apparatuses to see ourselves as already always quasi, as implicated in the worlds scientific thought has deigned to separate us from.

Déjà vu

One of the first things that struck me about Gaia was a resemblance to a performance piece I had recently worked on for an exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum in late 2012, New Jersey as Non-Site. The show focused on the role of New Jersey as a center for the production of avant-garde art practices in the post WW-II era, with an particular focus on land/Earth art – the namesake of the exhibition highlights the role of Robert Smithson as the central curatorial framing for the show. Exploring, experimenting, and transforming the natural and (sub)urban worlds of New Jersey was key to all the works featured in the show, whether sculptural, photographic, or experiential. Performance-based artworks were highlighted by the writings and ephemera of Allan Kaprow and the many ‘Happenings’ he staged in and around the NJ/NY area at the time – what would become a precursor to Fluxus. These performance art pieces used  play, improvisation, non-linear and iterative ‘scripts’ installed in what were called “total environments.” The idea was to break down the fourth wall between audience and art, to extend work into the world and, in doing so, transform the audience and artists experience of art and their  normative social and physical environments. Mildly carnivalesque, the works were meant to be all-encompassing and transformative, generative of new ways of seeing, feeling, and relating to the world.



For the exhibition I collaborated in re-staging one of these Happenings, The Sky is the Limit, with visual and performing artist Geoffrey Hendricks, who originally created the piece in 1969. The piece was oriented around images of clouds and animated by a pull to look up. To do this, we transformed the theater into a “cloud factory,” as one audience member put it. Filling-up and packaging white balloons in white boxes against bright projections of blue and white cloud; encompassing the audience in billowing white fabric, and jetting small white ping-pong balls, beach balls, flowers, and other materials out and over the audience. The idea was to create a new way of seeing the world but compelling the audience to re-orient to their environment, to the objects that surrounded them, and the people they were interacting with.

Looking at the staging of Gaia, a global circus the large white tent affixed with white and black helium-filled balloons was strikingly reminiscent of the Happening. When the actors came out on stage dressed in all-white jump suits the déjà vu feeling in me became stronger. While my Happening was distinctly not a theatrical performance about climate change, a similar ethos permeated the two pieces: A desire to use the space of theater, of performance, to figure a temporary scaffolding for envisioning the world anew. Both are playful yet political gestures that put a large task before themselves.

Another review by a fellows traveler on the Gaia voyage with me:

Happening AB1

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