“Rot of the stars” is one name given to ‘star jelly’ – the gelatinous substance found on grass and branches that folklore records as having been deposited by meteor showers or shooting stars or formed from the inedible bits of frogs and toads. Whether it’s bird vomit or extra-terrestrial star-slubber, it’s a fascinating example of a substance whose explanation seems to elude science.
“Rot of the Stars” is also the name of Week 21/50 of fig-2’s collaboration between visual and performance artist Jo Fisher Roberts and experimental musician, Strange Attractor founder and writer Mark O Pilkington. We met Mark back in Week 14 when he led a ‘world tarot’ reading using Suzanne Trister’s HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck which seemed to accurately predict the outcome of the UK election.
He’s a far out guy, and their fig-2 installation was pretty cosmic. The ICA studio space was set out with the minimum of light. In the corner a crawl-in fungal mycelium, a space like Shelob’s Lair hung with strands of silky crap that left you picking star jelly out of your clothes and hair. Hung charcoal drawings depicted cell structures at once beautiful and grotesque, depicting scales at once infinitely small and infinitely large.
The performance itself was commendably weird, involving Jo draped in black crawling around a silk wigwam in the middle of the completely darkened performance space, splashing perfume and drawing a large circle around it with rock salt. Mark created feedback loops of sound that he manipulated electronically. A peculiar revery was set up by the strangeness and the darkness.
The handout at the show was a 1991 paper published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration “Conditions That Appear to Favor Extrasensory Interactions Between Homo Sapiens and Microbes” (C.M. Pleass & N. Dean Dey). The authors attempted to study the possibility of extrasensory interactions between humans and unicellular microbes (actual ones, I don’t mean Daily Mail readers) through three series’ of experiments, concluding that it didn’t work but going on to blame science for not usefully understanding anomalous phenomena.
The Society for Scientific Exploration is “a professional scientific society” that publishes “peer reviewed research” into unconventional subjects including “consciousness, physics, alternative energy, healing”, that sort of thing. Crypto-zoology and that fun mindbending Fortean stuff. I’m sure they’re awesome but I must admit their name rings the same alarm bells as when you hear of a “Democratic Republic of…” – a moniker that instantly alerts one to the absence of any democratic republicanism in that country. Scientific exploration, that’s a methodology rather than an object in itself, unless your object is to apply scientific methodology to subjects that stubbornly resist such approaches. Arguably this is what Freud did in ‘making scientific’ the study of the unconscious, but we have been less successful in studying ghosts and UFOs.
The ostensible purpose of the fig-2 show was to make an attempt to enter into an extrasensory interaction with the unicellular microbes that inhabit the plastisphere, an ecosystem inhabited by more than 1,000 species of bacteria and algae that have evolved to live on microplastic debris. This might even have been a serious attempt, given the precedent of the apparently serious experiments of the Society for Scientific Exploration.
As they explain in their interview with fig-2 curator Fatos Ustek, the idea of Jo and Mark’s collaboration and the Rot Of The Stars performances is to change your perceptions of space and time through plunging you into darkness. The ROTS performances chart an ongoing battle to black out spaces, in crypts under churches, in the Royal Academy, in studios in Berlin. They concede it would be easier to blindfold people rather than the space.
I can offer two experimental cases to illustrate the sensory deprivation in an art or entertainment context. Back in 2011 I attended “an evening of psychodramatic music” called “Disturbia”. The concert concluded with Luciano Berio’s long two-track tape piece Visage (1961), during which the audience was blindfolded with eye-masks. Something about sitting in an auditorium without the hallucinations of the imagination, the little flickers that think you see in darkness, demonstrated that sensory deprivation is not necessarily immersive and can be a bit boring.
Better was seeing Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s short play Not I for which the theatre actually switched off the Exit signs to present the spectacle of a disembodied mouth in otherwise almost complete darkness. The actor’s face was painted black with just the mouth showing, and the mouth seemed to move within the darkness, but this was an optical illusion: the actor was strapped in. A strange phenomenon and a unique theatrical experience.
In the Pleass/Dey paper they suggest (though can’t prove) that “the environment which an individual perceives may be a manifestation of their conscious and subconscious expectations” which might give a clue as to why ROTS attempt to upset your perceptions. If the attempt to communicate with microbes is to be successful it might require stripping away other noise from the senses: to take away quotidian sense stimuli and replace them with suggestive images, sounds and smells to channel thought toward the object.
Maybe the illusions are more real than reality; in an atomic sense Lisa Dwan’s mouth speaking Beckett’s lines in the pitch black really was moving around. Our brains have to smooth out what we perceive because otherwise we’d go mad. What we experience as reality is in reality a simplification of noise.
There is plenty of anecdotal record of sensory deprivation as sensory immersion as sensory overload as sensory awareness, and its expressive and communicative potentiality. Jo and Mark connect it with the experience of epilepsy, and Dostoevsky describes the “amazing God-like God-visiting overwhelming feeling of connectedness to everything” that comes during an attack. It is at such moments that people go on about alpha waves and beta waves and how we move into different scales and non-rational modes of being. Out of body experiences would count among these, and the feeling that sometimes goes along with that (maybe while on drugs, who knows) of being able to talk to God.
Can we talk to the (micro)animals? We’d better hope that we can get in touch with these new microbes and try to chivvy them along to get stuck in and start eating up this plastisphere and turning it into something delicious. Plankton are eating plastic, meaning we are all eating plastic too, which is not delicious so much as incredibly toxic and harmful.
We need to literally sort out our shit as a species. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is almost bigger than Ed Sheeran, already six times the size of mainland Britain, a black hole of plastic waste sucking in hope, and growing, filling the sea, a continent of chemical disaster just below the surface of the water, a thick desert of death. Reports of sailing through it are pretty harrowing, and soon, when the sea finally congeals into Hello Kitty, there will be a place in history for the first person to walk on foot from San Francisco to Hawaii.