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Friday, November 21, 2014

Wayfinders—an interview with creator Holcombe Waller

by Chris Tyler

Holcombe Waller's Wayfinders opened Wednesday at BAM Fisher. An abstract, poetic rumination on the question, "Where are we?," Wayfinders "embraces the influences of science fiction and psychedelia to examine the interconnection of navigation and consciousness, the illusory nature of location and direction, and technology’s growing mediation between ourselves and the everyday world we perceive," as Waller notes.

We sat down with the Portland-based artist to learn a bit more about the process, the Spectacle, and exactly where we're all going.

A scene from Wayfinders. Photo: Kyle Richardson

Talk to me a little bit about the title of the piece, Wayfinders.

The title of the piece refers to one of the first points of inspiration of the work, a book by Wade Davis called The Wayfinders that discusses why ancient wisdom matters in the modern world. He’s an anthropologist, and the term “Wayfinders” refers to ancient Polynesian navigators who began settling the Pacific around 1500 BCE. Early in the process, I was focusing quite literally on navigation, orientation, and the relationship we have culturally with finding our bearings.

It's actually a companion piece to a show I created called Surfacing, and a theme that runs through both involves the loss of cultural legacy and the great sadness that surrounds it. If we’re really living in a world where fact can become fiction and fiction can become fact—where history can become the swindle of the schoolmasters, if you will—then it becomes incredibly important how we tell stories and communicate to each other. Right now, we’re experiencing a kind of cultural dementia. There’s a kind of psychosis that comes out of having every piece of information available at your fingertips because then we cease to tell stories and teach things to one another. We've devolved into a search-based culture—you don’t need to know anything because you can just type in a few words and have your answer. And when you look at how that plays out, there become fewer and fewer cultural influences pushing towards any kind of connectivity or shared sensibility.

Wayfinders. Photo: Kyle Richardson

And mystery is erased...

Yes, and there’s a very interesting relationship between reality and mystery, between fact—you know, empirical fact—and the kind of cultural mythology that tends to weave together all of these elements—the true and the false—in the spirit of greater purpose and collective cultural values. It’s interesting—if you read Wade Davis’ book, he writes a lot about the meeting point of environment and mythology. The way that certain ancient cultures would weave environmental necessities into their own mythologies to create systems for sustainable living. But what we have now is more fractured—and it yields an unsustainable mode of living in the modern world.

In both Surfacing and Wayfinders, a central theme involves this idea that we've become absorbed into the Spectacle—the mediation of social relationships by image. “Being” was supplanted by “having,” and then “having” was supplanted by merely “appearing to have,” so now appearance is everything. This all happened quite without our thinking, of course, but most of our everyday life is now completely absorbed in the image. It’s demented and disconnected, and—without a collective mythology or storytelling practice to weave together our dreams and aspirations with our realities and our resources—we’re completely losing our way in a cultural sense.

Wayfinders. Photo: Kyle Richardson
There seems to be a very direct relationship between this idea of Spectacle and certain contemporary framings of "identity"—where "identity" is cast as a kind of projection into cyberspace thanks largely to social technologies like Facebook and Instagram.

Absolutely. And Wayfinders just takes that idea to a very extreme conclusion. It takes place on a spaceship in a far future time. I play an Artificial Intelligence navigator who just chatters the whole time. I’m the navigator of the ship, I’m a program. And I just chatter.

Right, right, right. Not like people today, or anything...

Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] Although we mixed a lot of influences, we created a very simple narrative: we’re on a ship going to space, one person dies, and the navigator—in an effort to save humanity—must preserve this dying passenger’s mind by uploading it into the ship’s consciousness. It’s looking at this notion of (what we call in the show) the “last, most subtle mind.” This final piece of us that’s alive and real, this final piece of us that must be lost in order to become an entirely uploaded identity. Ultimately, it's a piece about the evolution of consciousness and the devolution of culture.

Can you talk a bit more about the music in Wayfinders and the compositional process?

The work is rooted in a combination of electronic music (to explore the theme of technology), songs of pilgrimage (specifically the sea shanty, to link into the theme of the epic journey), and, essentially, popular chamber music (to take advantage of smaller, more mobile instruments like the viola, horn, and flute). We wanted to really explore how much we could integrate the music technology at our disposal with modes of composition, arrangement, and performance.

We decided to keep the music simple so that the performers could remain mobile, unencumbered by music stands and chairs. It's almost entirely aurally conveyed, so anything that was written down had to be memorized immediately. This kept it in the realm of ritual from start to finish, and allowed us to formally pay tribute to the oral storytelling traditions of ancient cultures. The performers are engaged in what is essentially an hour-long walking meditation. And that movement—that walking meditation feeling—is extended into the music composition.

Wayfinders. Photo: Kyle Richardson

Would you consider this a concert? A play? Something altogether entirely?

I think it’s fair to say that all of my works are sort of abstract, highly-theatrical song cycles that do not always follow a specifically linear narrative. So it definitely falls between genres, and I think it’s difficult for people to write about my work or prepare other people for it. I think you just have come and see it. It’s a very layered, unusual artistic gesture, I think. It’s unlike anything I've ever done before. People have loved it, people have hated it.

That usually means it’s doing what it needs to do.

I guess that depends on who you are.

Wayfinders plays BAM Fisher through Saturday, Nov 22.

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