Lars Jan, the brain behind Holoscenes, an art and activism project Image Credit: Max Gordon

Imagine this scene: a man is reading a newspaper as water slowly rises and falls, throwing him off-balance as he attempts to go about this everyday task. Part performance, part art installation, “Holoscenes” by Lars Jan is a 3,500-gallon warning about the risks of climate change.

“This is the first installation or performance of any kind that I’ve done in the Middle East. I hope the project inspires curiosity and interest ... my reason for making the project very much had to do with issues around climate change but the piece is [also], on some level, abstract and open to interpretation,” says Jan.

The performance’s journey to Abu Dhabi was several years in the making.

“I first talked about ‘Holoscenes’ with Bill Bragin — who’s now the artistic director at NYUAD Arts Centre — when he was [director of public programming] at Lincoln Centre [for the Performing Arts in New York]. It’s a project we’ve explored [performing] there but before we got too far down that line, Bill ... moved on to NYUAD,” he says. “We’ve been sort of chatting about this possibility ever since ... we almost did it last year but I’m really excited that we’re finally bringing this conversation full circle.”

Now that it has arrived, Jan is excited to see how its message fits within Abu Dhabi’s environment, and is keenly observing audiences’ reactions to it.

“The piece takes on its local environment because it’s literally transparent and also reflective. The collision of the human body and water that’s at the centre of the piece resonates very differently depending on the context. In Abu Dhabi I’m looking forward to discovering what the impact is and what the environment is,” he says.

“One of my favourite [reactions was an] argument between three young boys who were fighting about whether the piece was about dreams or mermaids or death. I thought that was interesting. Another reaction was in Miami from a woman who was passing by. She was a Cuban immigrant. She saw [one of the performers acting] cleaning the tank and she asked if she was swimming in her own tears.”

Jan, the founding artistic director of the genre-bending performance and arts laboratory Early Morning Opera, was inspired to create “Holoscenes” when he came across a photograph in the “New York Times” of Pakistani flood victims in 2010 taken by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Daniel Berehulak.

“I think catastrophic dust storms, cyclones, hurricanes and flooding events are going to become more prevalent, and I do think that will become the new normal and we will adapt — for better or worse, as we have before — to challenging circumstances ... I think there’s much more consciousness around climate change. I’m proud to be a part of that and I’m hopeful that humans can recognise the massive impact we have on the biosphere and the fact that we need to make decisions together in light of that in a way that was never considered before.

“But the issue in terms of climate change [is] much less about flooding, which was one of the original inspirations for the project, but really about desertification and on another level, I think about the refugee crisis and the broader crisis in the region around water and agriculture and how that’s leading to certain kinds of instability.”

In a surreal life-imitating-art scenario, a recent photograph of a man reading a newspaper in a flooded Hong Kong café recently went viral, prompting increased discussions around global warming. “That was absolutely surreal and entirely mirrors the very first idea I had about ‘Holoscenes’, which was of a man reading a newspaper in a room, [which] slowly fills with water and the man not reacting as though it was unusual. So [he] continues to turn the pages even as the water passes his mouth and nose, and eventually over his head. The pages disintegrate in his hands and he keeps turning pages that aren’t there. I think that photograph is very much in that spirit.”

Each performance can run from five to 12 hours, and features four performers acting out daily tasks, such as putting on makeup, selling oranges or cleaning, in sets lasting between 90 minutes and two hours.

“One of the original plans in developing ‘Holoscenes’ was that every set we went to we’d develop new behaviours and maybe integrate one or two new performers. What we found was that the project actually is so demanding on performers in terms of safety training and the fluency they need to have with the project and system that introducing new people is much more complicated than we thought it might be ... but that continues to be a hope for the future.”

Jan also shared some of the challenges he faced developing “Holoscenes”. “The hardest thing at the beginning was trying to figure out how to communicate the idea effectively to other people because there wasn’t a lot of precedent, engineering-wise, visually or artistically, for what I had in mind. On some level that’s a good thing, [it] makes the project special and have a certain kind of integrity. On the other hand, it’s a complicated project that involves lots of specialities that are beyond my base of knowledge.

“It took a while for me to be able to even ask the right questions about how the project would be made and paramount to all these is the issue of safety and how to make sure that we’re prototyping, testing and implementing safety procedures along the way and in such a way that we’re protecting our performers and artists and audiences.”

After concluding its run in Abu Dhabi, Jan hopes to take the performance to various locations, including Australia, Canada, the US, Hong Kong and Belgium in 2017.

“It takes courageous curators and venues and their teams interested in the project to even begin to make it feasible or possible. We’ve invested a lot time and energy [over the past] four years in creating the project but we don’t, ourselves, fund the touring of the work and so we need [to be invited to perform],” he says.

Jan also shared some countries on his “Holoscenes” bucket list. “One dream I’ve had for a long time is to take the project, and have it sponsored somehow, to a coral atoll nation such as Kiribati ... [whose] land is disappearing at a frantic pace. I think that context would be a very powerful place to share this work. The collision of this artwork and this very real place, and to see these two places mirroring each other in a real space, would be phenomenal.”

The multi-disciplinary artist is also working on a couple of new projects: the staging of “The White Album”, a selection of essays by renowned American author Joan Didion, and a new performance piece.

“I recently secured the rights to [‘The White Album’, which] will premiere in 2018 in New York, Los Angeles and some other places. I’m also developing a new project; I’m not sure what form [it] will take actually. It’s somewhat of a performance but it’s also a conversation.

“It revolves around the idea of what the next renaissance might look like. It’s also sort of about the shadow of that question, which is what the next Dark Age might look like. I’m going to be working with artificial intelligence and roboticists to create an avatar to partner with me in addressing these questions with a [live] audience.”

The son of first generation Polish and Afghan immigrants to the US, Jan is ever aware of the context through which his works are potentially viewed and understood. “Many of my works don’t have language and since they’re highly visual, they can be appreciated universally. They’re heavily invested, sincere attempts at communicating things that are deeply meaningful to me. I try to make entertaining things but I’m also an activist at heart and I believe that art is one of the tools that we can use to make a positive change in the world.”

- Nathalie Farah is a writer based in Abu Dhabi.

“Holoscenes” is being performed at the NYUAD Arts Centre on Saadiyat island until November 19. For further information, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org