I must have missed something at the start of They Can Never Burn the Stars. A few minutes into the collaborative audiovisual performance by Pacific Islander interdisciplinary artist D.B. Amorin and Cree sound artist Chloe Alexandra Thompson, a few people stood up and started walking out.
“Wow, rude! The show just started,” I naively thought. Then more people got up and started walking—but not to leave. They just walked slowly around the space, in between the groups of chairs and the spectators seated on the floor, milling about with their hands clasped behind their backs in a thoughtful posture.
In combination with the blue LED lighting and the droning minor key of Thompson’s audio, these slow walkers looked eerie, like mellow zombies. I was almost feeling kind of freaked out. Except I have been to enough performance art happenings to be able to recognize a cue. I got up and joined the shuffling crowd, and sure enough this leap of faith unlocked important qualities of the work that I wouldn't really have understood if I had stuck to my wallflower ways.
They Can Never Burn the Stars is like a hyperobject of an artwork—a massive, sticky, mutable blob of sound and vision that shifted and morphed as I moved around the room.
The squirming and flickering of Amorin’s layered visuals complimented the interactions of the sound waves emitting from speakers placed strategically across the space.
Standing in certain locations turned viewers’ bodies into conduits for deep vibrating bass lines. Moving to another spot might reveal a high frequency sound, pleasant to some, ear piercing to others. The abstract images had a depth and rhythm of their own—at times resembling video feedback, a melting filmstrip, a primordial nebula, microscopic bacteria, and whatever else my overactive imagination decided to project onto the swirling colors and light.
The show’s co-presenter, independent curatorial project Knowledge of Wounds, has explained the programming as “a calling to vibrate in good relations across Indigenous time and space.” I’m not sure I could have predicted what such a calling in would be like based on the description alone, but it made perfect sense once I was in it.
Immersive artwork like They Can Never Burn the Stars usually requires careful setup, both for its physical installation and the various tech elements. The sound was terrific, and the main video projection was mesmerizing. Even the arrangement of the chairs was totally dialed in, with little groups of three seats scattered around at oblique angles to one another so that there was no real center, and even the artists became a part of the crowd. The two-channel video might have been slightly more effective if the smaller projector had been more powerful, but it wasn’t quite bright enough to do justice to the dark, textured imagery. Luckily, I could see every detail in the video displayed on the larger screen.
I have to confess that I got a little distracted while walking around, as I kept bumping into friends I hadn’t seen in forever and overhearing snippets of whispered conversations. Although this pulled me out of the performance a bit, it contributed to a sense of community and shared experience—things often tossed around as buzzwords in the art world, less often delivered on.
Sometimes art makes me feel kind of lonely, but this performance—sadly only offered once—felt like we had all gone on the same crazy ride. Thompson and Amorin took the audience on a trippy voyage through moments that were otherworldly, unnerving, and affirming. Maybe most importantly, they got us all out of our seats and interacting with the work instead of passively observing it.
In my humble opinion, They Can Never Burn the Stars is an example of TBA at its best. It had us questioning not just the boundaries of what art can be, but how we should experience it. And it definitely left everyone in my crew with plenty of good vibes.
Can't get enough TBA 2022? Read our ongoing reviews of the performances and picks for the festival. Thanks to PICA for making a contribution to our editorial budget. If you would like to support the Mercury's arts & culture writing, please consider making a small monthly contribution.