Justin Ramsey

When Things Go Sideways

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Apocalypse Parade, Possible Worlds and the Value of Life

Written by Justin Ramsey
Re:generation is a special series of articles responding to Generation Hot at the 2016 Vancouver Fringe Festival. This is part 5 of 5.

And if they were to take a principled stance, what would the future look like?

This is a question that artist collective Popcorn Galaxy explores in Apocalypse Parade. I’ve been anticipating this play eagerly: anyone familiar with Keely O’Brien and June Fukumura’s theatre knows to expect an imaginative, sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears, with masterful puppets, extravagant costumes and an exquisite musical score. The detailed workmanship of these artists is something especially commendable at a time when stripped-back banality or heady conceptualism remains stubbornly in vogue.

As we stand in the covered parking lot during the transition between Saving Mother and Apocalypse Parade, Fukumura approaches audience members, dressed in a flamboyant purple suit with her face painted clownishly. Inside her up-turned top hat, which she proffers to each person, are folded slips of paper – blue and yellow. She compliments my outfit in her strange accent – “Ya luuke vurry gin-tell-man-leh!” – and invites me to take a paper. I draw a yellow one: the word ‘Festival’ is printed on it. Eavesdropping on my fellow theatregoers, the blue ones apparently say ‘Funeral’.

Thus is the concept of Apocalypse Parade: Fukumura divides the audience into two groups – ‘Festival’ is led by a cheerful trumpet-player dressed like a bumblebee, while ‘Funeral’ follows a tatty, black-clad steampunk figure who strums a sombre guitar – sending them out into the future. As Fukumura observes, there are innumerable possible futures; each group will see a different version of Granville Island, circa 2050.

As we traipse around Granville Island, it’s explained to us Festivalgoers that by 2050, the climate crisis has been solved, and Vancouver is one of the greenest cities in the world. Among its developments are unicycles – yes, unicycles – that generate power when pedalled, and a Granville Street Bridge comprised entirely of solar panels. Obviously, these so-called solutions are far from perfect – many critics of photovoltaic roads point to the facts that they can’t rotate to track the sun, and would constantly be covered up by vehicles and tread marks – but some of the ideas presented throughout our tour might be feasible. In any case, I get the idea that Apocalypse Parade is thumbing its nose flagrantly at our slaves-to-money policymakers: imagine what could be achieved if we actually tried.

All this information is imparted thanks to a motley crew of hosts: two faerie-like, hilarious young women whose high-on-life happiness verges on sugar-rush crazy, and a man wearing a hat coated in mirror shards, who rides alongside us on – you guessed it – a unicycle. When we first convene with these characters, they give everyone in our party a gorgeous lantern: fogged glass jars and colourful paper that radiate soft, phosphorescent light. There are also glowing effigies of the sun, the moon, and the earth, each bulbous sculpture suspended from a tall rod, to be carried by a few bold members of our crew. One of our hosts calls out: “Who’s going to carry our Mother Earth?” Of course, I volunteer myself.

Indeed, the Earth is heavy, but how can I complain? She’s splendidly beautiful – and she’s been saved! As we march, our trumpeter heralds our procession with a jubilant fanfare, to which our guides chant and sing:

“When I say, ‘We’re gonna,’ you say, ‘Party!’” “You-you-utopia!” “Weeee… DID IT!”

I realise it’s just a play, and the planet’s made of paper-mâché; but it still feels pretty darn good.

It’s dark as we head toward the playground and park outside of Arts Umbrella; and straight ahead, we see the Funeral march. In lieu of colourful lanterns, their whole group has to wear gasmasks; whereas our guides literally sparkle with rainbows and glitter, theirs are dressed in dour, Victorian garbs. The woman at the helm of the Funeral brigade looks especially austere, with a cage crinoline that resembles a metal exoskeleton. No unicycles for them, either: bringing up the rear is the figure of Death himself. The ominous cloaked figure stands at least eight or nine feet tall, with long bony arms controlled by a puppeteer somewhere in that black fabric – another feat of Popcorn Galaxy’s spellbinding creativity.

Here, Funeral and Festival collide as our hosts describe two very different futures for this same location: in our future, this playground has become an edible park, where a constant rotation of nutritious crops and herbs are harvested; in their future, it’s a synthetic park where plastic replicas of trees and flowers remind people of what used to be. When our two futures part ways again, we Festivalgoers form a circle in the park; I am asked to step into the centre with the luminous model of the earth. Thus commences what has become, in 2050, a nightly ritual of thanking the Earth, and kissing her effigy.

However, as we soon discover, Festival and Funeral cannot be so easily extricated; our guides inform us that not all animals could survive into this glorious future, and bid us to call out the names of our favourite animals to see whether or not they went extinct. Odd animals – the kookaburra, for example – made it just fine. We weren’t able to save the polar bears. But most disturbingly, the domestic animals didn’t make it. In this 2050, dogs and cats are extinct.

It’s been long established that pets – especially dogs – are the cure to modern misery. As technology limits our real-life interactions, as depression takes hold, as weight gain and inactive lifestyles grow more common, a canine’s company is the present-day panacea. Suddenly, our tour guides no longer seem over-the-top joyful. They’re not high on life, but their definitely high on something. Somewhere, between 2016 and 2050, something went horribly wrong.

If the climate crisis was resolved, then it’s unfathomable that dogs could’ve disappeared in a span of thirty-four years. Perhaps this is simply a touch of absurdism; this is the theatre, after all. Nonetheless, it raises the issue of human exceptionalism: that human life is the only life that matters. For domestic animals to be gone, they would’ve had to be culled. Someone must have made the decision – and others must have sanctioned it – that our animal companions weren’t worth sharing our food and water with. What’s the point of saving life on earth if we can’t preserve its diversity?

Take beluga whales, for example. Beluga whales are beautiful, remarkable animals. Highly intelligent, they’re sometimes called the ‘canaries of the sea’ due to their high-pitched chirps; they have a very specialised sense of hearing, and rely on echolocation to navigate under ice. Fascinatingly, their ‘melons’ – the mass of fatty tissue on their heads – actually change shape as they emit and receive different sounds. It’s their primary means of communicating, since their eyesight is poorer than that of other marine mammals.

Why am I telling you this? Research has found that large numbers of the beluga population in Québéc are dying off because of noise pollution. Upon being born, mothers can’t communicate with their offspring because of the sheer amount of intrusive background discord caused by human activity. In the news, this is reported as an unusual fact, a passing interest. Personally, I can’t process this information without feeling sick. I imagine the terror of being unable to communicate with my family, no matter what I try: I can’t hear them; I can’t even read their lips, because it all registers as garbled nonsense; if they try to write to me, all I see are scribbles. I’d think I was losing my mind. If, as in the case of belugas, being able to learn from my family was a matter of life and death, I’d feel as though I was being condemned to death by insanity. I can’t understand how people can learn this news about belugas and not be outraged, or devastated, or see it as a call to drastically alter our course.

Descartes said that animals were soulless automatons; we know he was wrong. Confucius claimed that they were nothing more than property; we know that he too was wrong. We know that animals are communicative and loving; that they nurture and protect; they feel fear and pain like we do. Anyone who has had the fortune of caring for a dog knows the range of emotions and signals they express. I won’t pretend that animals are benevolent deities; they can be proprietary, and petty, and compete for resources like us. What’s missing from them is the calculated, prejudiced hatred that is only capable in brains as complex as ours.

I recently came across a video comparing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to US Presidential Candidate Donald Trump. One of the top-rated comments stated that the two politicians exhibited the difference “between human and animal”. I can only presume he was likening Mr. Trudeau to an animal – moderate, patient, attuned to his surroundings – because Mr. Trump is, through and through, a human. He really couldn’t be anything else.

Well, besides a Windigo, maybe.

But here’s the catch: humans are, ultimately, still animals. The great ape. And like the belugas, we are social animals. The difference is that when we’re unable to communicate meaningfully with one another – when we lose our way, and are isolated from our communities – we do not physically die like the whales. A part of us does die, but we carry on, as ghosts in the machine. At all costs, we forge ahead, looking for the next new thing, no matter how debilitating it may be to our minds, our selves, our surroundings. We leave the world in our dust. We prosper.

Perhaps that’s what makes Windigo Windigo.

Generation Hot, Vancouver Fringe
This is Re:generation – A special series of articles responding to Generation Hot at the 2016 Vancouver Fringe Festival.
Read part 1, One Thousand Ways of Doing Nothing: The Lilacs Tackles the Millennial Crisis.

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