People sitting in a giant aquarium in the middle of Place des Festivals cope with cyclical flooding. An extraordinary visual and visceral experience, Holoscenes questions our ability to respond to chaos.
Sweet, hypnotic and vital, water can also flood, devastate, drown. An extraordinary aquatic performance, Holoscenes floats between dream and reality, between the world we know and the catastrophe that looms. An impressive living installation where Lars Jan strikes the imagination by questioning our ability to respond to chaos. An urgent SOS and a call for resilience.
A giant aquarium sits imposingly in the middle of Place des Festivals. A succession of scenes from daily life: someone tunes a guitar, someone else sells fruit or reads the newspaper. In less than a minute, they are submerged under fifteen tonnes of water. Their gestures are transformed yet they pursue their activities; humans adapt. Fascinating and terrifying, this mélange of dance and physical theatre, a living sculpture by a multidisciplinary American artist, holds up a mirror to passersby of the impacts of climate change. An extraordinary visual and visceral experience.
Produced by Lars Jan – Early Morning Opera
Conceived and Directed by Lars Jan
Choreographed by Geoff Sobelle
Performed by Benjamin Kamino + Annie Saunders + Lua Shayenne + Geoff Sobelle
Show Control and Lighting Design Pablo N. Molina
Sound Design Nathan Ruyle + Mikaal Sulaiman
Sound Engineering Duncan Woodbury
Costume Design Irina Kruzhilina
Technical Director Eric Lin
Project Manager Christopher Pye
Company Manager Alexandria Yalj
Hydraulic Design Larry McDonald
Automation Design Erich Bolton
Originally produced by Mapp International Productions
In association with Aurora Nova
Created with the support of Robert Rauschenberg Foundation + MAP Fund + Surdna Foundation (New York) + NEA
This engagement is supported by Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts + Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Co-presented by Partenariat du Quartier des spectacles with the support of The Cole Foundation
Written by Elsa Pépin
Translated by Neil Kroetsch
Premiered at Scotiabank Nuit Blanche, Toronto, on October 4, 2014
With the support of
Lars Jan (Los Angeles) Early Morning Opera
The American artist Lars Jan is the son of immigrants from Afghanistan and Poland. Multidisciplinary in his approach, he is a director, writer and visual artist and the founder of Early Morning Opera, a laboratory that combines live performance with new technologies and unique experiences. His work deals with questions about the private and collective spheres, and are marked by striking, enigmatic imagery.
His 2015 multimedia piece The Institute of Memory (TIMe) was a reflection on memory that integrated family archives with tangible digital structures. In 2018-2019 he presented a theatre work based on Joan Didion’s essay The White Album at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival and at the UCLA Center for the Art of Performance.
A recent installation inspired by climate change, Holoscenes was a sensation in New York’s Times Square in 2017 as it coincided with the US withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords.
Initially presented at Nuit blanche in Toronto in 2014 and later on in Sarasota, Miami, London, Abu Dhabi and Australia, the piece exposes performers to cycles of flooding in an enclosed aquarium sitting in urban communal space. Inventing a new form of public art and living sculpture, the project calls into question the human capacity to adapt to climate change.
Holoscenes is inspired in part by a photo taken during floods in Pakistan in 2010. What did that image say to you?
After hurricane Katrina in 2005, I became interested in media coverage of floods and extreme weather around the world.
I discovered a photo by Daniel Berahulak of a devastating flood in Pakistan in 2010. Seen from above, a dozen people are moving in strange ways through the water.
Some are in water up to their necks, others up to their hips. It’s difficult to understand what is happening. That image conveys a classic but also enigmatic beauty. I found out that the photo was taken from a Pakistani military helicopter that was delivering food and water, and those people were desperately trying to retrieve the rations.
It is a terrifying moment, but also a very beautiful image that reminded me of paintings by Raphael during the Renaissance.
During that period I was researching water in the 21st century – rising sea levels, flooding, drought.
That was when I first encountered the term “anthropocene” to describe the Earth’s most recent geological time period, the idea that human activity is the dominant influence on the biosphere. That led me to a vision, a sort of waking dream of a man in a room that has a bookshelf and a desk.
He is sitting in a chair reading the newspaper. As the water rises to chest level, he takes a big breath and keeps turning the pages as water rises over his head. The paper is submerged and the pages disintegrate in his hands.
That visual idea led to this project, to creating sculptural performances in an aquarium. I’ve always been fascinated by aquariums. When you’re on the water’s surface you see nothing because of reflection.
I find aquariums captivating, that fine membrane separating two ecologies. That minimal barrier resembles the barrier that separates reality from the dreamspace. The movement of the water, its slow transformations, the way gravity acts on water and seems to modify the laws of physics are for me a springboard for my imagination.
The aquariums are made of mirror-like plexiglass. We view what is inside but also see a self-reflection, another version of oneself, an image somewhat deformed by reality.
What does the image of those individuals suddenly submerged in water, yet who continue with their activities, say about our ability to adapt to climate change?
The human being has an excellent capacity for adaptation. We are flexible, resilient and inventive, but our shortcoming is hubris. Man assumes he need not really change his behaviour because in the event of a crisis, he will solve the problem with technology. Holoscenes also portrays our short-term thinking.
The environment is being transformed, yet we do not change our behaviours. Since beginning this project in 2014 I have changed some of my habits, but have not made substantial changes to my behaviour. I increasingly feel guilty about the air travel that facilitates my art practice, that allows me to be in Montreal, yet I continue with it.”
How can art nourish reflection on climate change and how can it supplement science?
Scientists commented that the information on climate change is widely available, but it wasn’t being sufficiently reacted to by nearly anyone.People, politicians, the media are interested in the symptoms but not the sources, as that raises complex issues.
Many things have changed since the start of this project in 2011. Climate change is now part of the dominant discourse. We’re bombarded with images of catastrophes, but there is little room for imagination and contemplation.
We imagine a lot of post-apocalyptic scenarios, but we do not imagine what the future might look like if we chose to act. It has become clear to me that the major issue is not CO2 levels or pollution, but rather the human ability to make long-term decisions, our capacity for empathy across great distances, our fear of complexity. We are not good at dealing with the long-term actions that the climate crisis requires.
People who see Holoscenes wonder what it is, if it’s a real person, a hologram, a video or a magic trick. The longer they remain in doubt the more they try to comprehend, the more interested they are, under the influence of a sort of hypnosis.
Awakening people’s curiosity, getting them to ask what is this work, and why is this work being made — rather than telling them outright — is often the best way to engage with them.
“Holoscenes is a chilling intervention many hope is fiction, not forecast […] An epic performance-installation […] As the water level rises and falls, the actions take on the qualities of a fraught water ballet.”
Vice (États-Unis), 02-06-2017
“Part surrealist performance, part sculpture, part escapology-style spectacle. The ﬁgure inside the tank could be cleaning the windows one minute and totally submerged, ﬂoating upside down the next.”
The Guardian (Royaume-Uni), 29-09-2016
“The title of Jan’s installation is a play on words. Not only does it relate to the geological Holocene era, the 11,700 years since the last ice age, but it also plays on the theatrical notion of a “hollow scene”, an idea that Jan, whose background is in performance art, finds metaphorically dark and chilling.”
The National, 10-11-2016
“The ordinary man settled into his ordinary ritual. He lay down at the bottom of the empty, cubelike aquarium with his ﬂuffed-up pillow, crawled under his sheet and shut his eyes. But he was roused abruptly by a stream of water, and in less than a minute he was a man whose day had turned topsy-turvy: He ﬂoated and twisted, rose and sank, fought and surrendered. Then, just as suddenly, the water level dropped, only to rise and fall again for the next 45 minutes while spectators sat mesmerized.”
The New York Times (États-Unis), 04-12-2015