a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Afro Asian futurism is a method by which marginalized communities create “new collectivities based not just upon eviction and exclusion” (Johnson 2013:x) but also by “turning pain into power,” and are able to form “new and imaginative uses of technology, creativity, and spaces” (x). Working through this framework makes visible how [Fred] Ho was able to transform his own “double-consciousness” (Du Bois  1989:3) into a paradoxical mode of embodiment from which one reimagines and recreates a new epistemology based on his or her lived experience.
A countervailing oceanic politics stirs. As heritage and island studies expand in response to the exigencies of the Anthropocene, stories, performance, and art activate spaces-between where collective processes of crafting a trans-Pacific Oceanic politics can blossom. The dramaturgies of these fluid relations have the capacity to re-member our watery histories as we propel ourselves toward our futures, especially in the context of climate change.
In the face of increasingly dire reports, political and journalistic pleas, the protests and marches, the ongoing surges of climate refugees, migrants, and exiles, and the stories and art work that are circulating around the world about the misalignments of the human and non-human, the call to action on climate change requires many multi-faceted approaches. Jonathan Pugh notes that “[T]oday, the changing stakes of the Anthropocene encourage us to frame relationality and islands in [these] new terms of phasing within relation and in terms of how entities that are massively distributed in time, like global warming, nuclear plumes and hurricanes, exert downward pressure on short-lived entities, causing interference patterns where entities get caught up in intersecting temporalities” (Glissant, 1997a; Morton, 2013) (99). Radical forms of “performing our urban futures”—one which attends to these intersecting temporalities—can help us generate more possibilities for creating new relationships that will, one hopes, contribute to a different life on the earth.
Preparing the Space
In Spring 2019, I directed At the Water’s Edge, re-write of The Tempest in the context of climate change at the Maryland Institute College of Art (located in Baltimore, MD). In addition to collaborating with a professional team, which included a bee scientist, a writer, a dramaturg, music composer, animation film professor, lighting designer, new media and projection designer, and set designer, students also contributed to various production phases: writing, staging, costuming, film work, and set design. The project explored climate change through an adaptation of The Tempest with a specific focus on Baltimore and secondary references to global ports such as Hong Kong and Kochi, India. The production performed a multimedia investigation of the oceans, our localities, and the phases of our lives in relation to climate change that help us to learn to listen to the clamor coming towards us from both the human and the other-than-human worlds.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest—as you know—opens with a storm, the shipwreck, and the cries of “[a] confused noise within: ‘Mercy on us!’ — ‘We split, we split!’ — ‘Farewell, my wife and children!’ — ‘Farewell, brother!’ — ‘We split, we split, we split!’.” This scene opens a dramatic narrative that reveals the convergence of multiple forces: colonialism, magic, witchcraft, the power of books, and partial indices for the environmental chaos prominent at that time. Many postcolonial versions of The Tempest—in theatre, novels and poetry—have been taken up across multiple cultural and geographical contexts and, now, The Tempest is also increasingly being used as the dramatic device for exposés on climate change.
Nomads and Glacial Figures across the Baltimore Waterfront
Baltimore, a port city with one of the highest crime rates per capita in the US, has been rocked in recent years with continuing racial injustice, police brutality, and poverty. In such a city, it has proven difficult to galvanize certain communities who find climate change too abstract and who are more worried about getting food on the table. Thus, in Baltimore, there are two somewhat divergent activist movements at the grassroots level: climate action and food justice. In this context, how might a performative event dynamize the convergences of multiple communities around climate change through the lens of a re-telling of The Tempest that is partially based in Baltimore? There needed to be a series of structural interventions that prepare that performative space and activate what Kodwo Eshun has called “acts of ‘chronopolitical intervention’ [that] double, triple, quadruple, and even quintuple our consciousness about what it might mean to live in a black (brown, yellow, red) future” (Additions mine, 290). To map an oceanic politics for the future in relation to place-based tales of climate change, pressingly, we have to figure out how we begin to recalibrate how we understand the transpositions between the human and the non-human and how the very fabric of the scenography for a performance work on climate change must become something “other” than it has been in the past. In this version of At the Water’s Edge, an overture invited meditation on a new Tempest World, one inflected by an Afro-Asian futurism, which in a micrological way helps prepare us for the storm that is coming and the storm that is already upon us.
We know that Sycorax, the witch banished from Algiers to the island, is already dead in Shakespeare’s play. Yet, she continues to live on in that world: through Caliban, her son; through Ariel, the sprite who so angered her that she consigned him to a tree (from which Prospero later freed him). Importantly, Sycorax, the powerful matriarchal counterpoint to Prospero, acts both a racial and gendered threat in the context of the Tempest. Postcolonial artists, especially Caribbean writers, have taken up Sycorax as a figure who speaks, signifying the effort to recover the previously colonized community’s voices, particularly those of women. This approach undoes the dominant narrative of colonial and capitalist power, generating space for the islander’s stories.
In the Overture of At the Water’s Edge, live bees in a large jar were on stage with the “bee/keeper” Sycorax figure. The image of this opening, along with the undecipherable image of what may be a boat in the far right upper corner, is projected onto the mesh screen-tunnel. In the half light, we are sometimes not sure whether the bee and bee-keeper are on land or on water. Land becomes water; water becomes land. When the lighting is land-oriented, we might see the very faint outline of Baltimore; when it is sea-oriented, we see the boat against the horizon and perhaps, the view of Baltimore’s water’s edge from the distance. Sycorax stands poised as the guardian between worlds.
In this Tempest, Sycorax acts as the progenitor of multiple worlds; she is a type of Afro-futuristic figure, as Ruth Mayer describes, that “move[s] seamlessly back and forth through time and space, between cultural traditions and geographic time zones”—and thus between blackness as a dystopic relic of the past and as a harbinger of a new and more promising alien future” (2000: 556). Afro-Asian musician and critic Fred Ho has noted that “Developing the musical empathy and deep listening abilities needed for effective free collective improvisation perhaps may lead to innovative capabilities for telepathy…inter-species musical communication” (cited in Price, 59). Contrary to standard opinion that bees are deaf, they actually “hear” through vibrations (Jody Johnson, Interview).
What might that mean for our human and non-human relations that can radically upend what we mean by hearing spaces? How do we hear that which has been silenced, i.e. the voice(s) of Sycorax and the bees, who tune in through vibrations that allow them to detect air particle movements?
Moving Spaces/Traveling Architectures: South Asian Mobilities and the House on My Back
In addition to the question of how we prepare the space for At the Water’s Edge, I am also now in the process of crafting a practice which I am calling “The house on my back.” This practice tracks the relentless processes of moving spaces to traveling architectures in the context of Afro-Asian mobilities, especially in the context of climate change. Two things were especially important to me: I wanted to invite those of us working on At the Water’s Edge to re-consider who/what is getting washed up on shore as a result of that great storm at the beginning of The Tempest. Who are those that have been tossed up on the beach of that Island—in the face of the great storm of climate change? What nomads, migrants, or dispossessed, as we multiply our invocations of chronopolitical time: we called upon those from the Middle Passage; indentured servants; the Komagata Maru Incident; and transmigratory swarms of people propelled from their homelands by political, economic, and environmental crises.
The House on My Back
“This island’s mine” and
The forces that run through three rivers.
Even so, the earth cracks apart.
Flood, drought, and glacial worlds become pieces
Of a former life spilling over that dam of memory.
What held us together for so long? All this to become
What water there is
for us to now stand upon,
Like “berries in the water,”
until the next drought.
Only one line in, one line out, a language so precarious now,
That the land becomes its own answer
In those flashes of light and dark
That make the world a whorl,
When we turn our glance back up at the skies,
The wind rains down upon us.
Exiled, some climb
into their self-styled boats,
Nearly invisible in the morning light,
the boats become buoyed
on that bark of the past, the debris
that breaks us and carries us still.
Land, land, we cry. “I must eat my dinner.” Land.
Others stay next to the river, raising one foot after the other,
A talisman of remembrance, into the earth and back out again,
a haunting, of the land through our visceral wisdoms;
Name those islands.
Too late. A paean, then a dirge, where trees grow
On top of each other as if a descending sky.
“Trees are the earth’s endless effort
to speak to the listening heaven.”
Stuck in that raft of listening. Tree to earth.
And making our way through wood, boat and rope,
To stride over that grit underneath our feet.
A self-anointed nomad carries the acacia tree
that has remained all this time, through these histories,
Bent toward the wind, toward the place
Where the house on my back beckons.
This project asks what the possibilities might be in the face of these histories of violence as well as the present one for taking the long view. The already substantial body of work that re-visits The Tempest as the provocateur for a range of postcolonial turns, acts certainly as an initial set of indices for tracking those cultural memories “of the flesh.” Art is, however, a methodology that retrieves and re-incorporates history, and it often engages in a tactics of disequilibrium as well as reorientation. Art is forged at the interstices of multiple communities and histories can give form to an Afro-Asian futurism. In the context of his own art-making and activism, Fred Ho notes that “Afro Asia represents a different paradigm. Within the context of the performances, these are vision quests to demonstrate that the system is not infallible or invincible. They don’t subscribe to the illusion that capitalism has perpetuated (2011b). The synthesis of disparate performance disciplines creates an expanded vision of socioeconomic justice in which ‘new forces are exemplified and new forms of struggle are generated’ (2011b)” (Cited in Price 52). After the storm, what emerges?
As we chart At the Water’s Edge in the context of an oceanic politics that is still actively unfolding and shifting, as politicians, historians, cultural theorists, and artists, a new dramaturgy for the future—one which evokes “new terms of phasing within relation”—must be generated, one that “listens” to a series of vibro-acoustics that cuts across the human-non-human. The participants in At the Water’s Edge form one very modest part of a massive network of oceanic circulations; this project invokes a different meaning of “being related to” to the many diverse communities, and a new sense of recognition is activated when we encounter these histories.
In one movement of oceanic politics my father, a Punjabi, arrived in the United States in 1946, one year before India gained independence, on the USS Grant, a decommissioned US Army ship. This personal history about liquid circulations echoes across my work on the story of At the Water’s Edge. That corporeal passage across the waters lingers there as familial memory that haunts my sense-ability of where I have come from and where I may go. It propels me to track how collective memory works in the context of bodily memory. The excavation of diverse ways to recover and re-incorporate these histories demand that we chart “an assembly of new forms of collectivity” where “the past that is not done, the future may appear in diversely articulated forms of Afro [Asian]-Futurisms.”
 Jody Johnson, Interview. Consultant on bee science to At the Water’s Edge.
 Drawn from Maurya Wickstrom’s call for contributions to the 2018 ASTR Working Group on Oceanic Politics and a Black Radical Performance Aesthetic. Addition mine.
Collison, Clarence. (2016). “A Closer Look: Sound Generation and Hearing,” Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping. https://www.beeculture.com/a-closer-look-sound-generation-and-hearing/. Accessed June 2019.
Eshun, Kodwo. (2003). “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism.” The New Centennial Review. Volume 3 (2): 287-302.
Mayer, Ruth. 2000. “‘Africa as an Alien Future’: The Middle Passage, Afrofuturism, and Postcolonial Waterworlds.” Amerikastudien/American Studies 45.4: 555–566.
Price, Zachary. (2016). “Remembering Fred Ho: The Legacy of Afro Asian Futurism.” TDR/The Drama Review. Volume 60, Issue 2: 48-67.
Pugh, Jonathan. (2018). “Relationality and the Anthropocene,” Island Studies Journal, 13(2): 93-110.
At the Water’s Edge, a Spring 2019 Mainstage Production at the Maryland Institute College of Art, conceived and created by Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Ph.D. with Company Members—in Crystal Cheng, Alexus Crockett, Savannah Imani, Zachary Morhaim, Damla Yenigun, and others—along with Joan Weber, Dramaturg; Ken Dippong, Writer; Jody Johnson, Bee Scientist; Jacob Budenz, Composer; Lighting Designer, Todd Mion; Projection Engineer, Greg Chaprnka; Costume Director, Naomi Davidoff; and Technical Director: Nathan Best. A special thanks to everyone who contributed to the set, prop, costume, videography, and animated film work as well as resource materials for sound and film.
Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Ph.D., Founding Director of Folded Paper Dance and Theatre Limited, focuses her collaborative undertakings on building cross-cultural networks and new forms of dance and theatre laboratories. Her written scholarship includes topics such as water and performance, translation and embodiment, disability and performance, and transnational avant-garde Asian performance. She is the author of two books and many articles, a former editor of Theatre Topics, and current editor of Journal of Performance and Cultural Studies. Her recent awards include a Design Trust Grant (an Initiative of the Hong Kong Ambassadors of Design) (2016–2017) and a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Artist and Scholar Award (2017–2018).