When I was four we moved to a new house. The old owner left behind old pieces of exercise equipment: a lats pulldown machine I’d hang on to, lifting my legs, setting and re-setting the weights to let me down slower and slower until I’d reached my “weight”—when the bar would stop sinking, leaving me hanging in the air; a few other contraptions I remember crawling all over but don’t quite remember the purpose or shape of; and a treadmill. I’d push all my weight against the belt, proud to get the machine running without plugging it in, or turn on the machine to stand on and fall off, repeatedly, or use my arms to push myself up above the moving belt, swinging back and forth in the air.
Grisha Coleman’s echo::system brought me back to this part of my childhood. In part of performance, her performers raise themselves above the belt, making it appear as though they’re running on air; they set the treadmills on low, walk to the front of the treadmill, stand, fall, and repeat; they stand on the arms of the treadmill, balancing and singing—all the same things I did as a child, but with a purpose.
The audience enters the lobby-facing entrance of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, a high-ceilinged rectangular arts space in which Coleman has installed a series of screens for projections and, on the opposite side, lights to create a “sun” as well as a combination of a platform and ramp, with the ramp declining towards the center of the room. Several meters of empty space rest between the ramp and the projections and become occupied by several treadmills midway through the performance.
In a conversation after the performance between our group and Ron Ragin, a performer and Stanford ’05, Ragin revealed the performance to be a depiction of another society representing our own in some kind of ritual which, although unstated by Ragin or Coleman, is somewhat reminiscent of Horace Miller’s “Body Ritual of the Nacirema.” Miller’s essay depicts a version of America from a distance, describing it similarly to how we often tend to describe the customs of foreign or past peoples to the point where they seem unimaginable. In Coleman’s echo::system, we get just that: ourselves, from a distance. Past, present, and future.
Let’s start from the beginning: natural imagery coupled with raw movements, which transitions into images of increasing industrialization, restricted movements, and singing (which resembles several languages but belongs to no language). This escalates into industrialization, metallic music, and unnatural, hobbling movements, with images of technology’s horrors and wonders alongside one another. At one moment some performers drape themselves across the arms of the treadmill, hanging limply like Christ in the arms of Mary. At another, they lift themselves up, running slowly, as if in suspended gravity (re: moon landing). This is the history we know.
Past this, the message is ominous. A monologue reverberates through the room, the actual meaning clouded through our Nacirema scenario, escalating tone from informational talk to urgent scream. The treadmills are unplugged and folded up. The performers form what appears as a human puddle that slowly inches across the ground, resembling early forms of life like protozoa. They slowly form a pile, then crawl their way back to human form.
Unlike many depictions of environmental destruction, Grisha Coleman’s work shows us the path we’re headed on, but points to a less dreadful aftermath than we’re used to hearing. Yes, destruction of our environment is terrifying. Yes, we could wipe out our entire civilization. These things are, objectively, bad for us.
But there’s something beautiful in the way we can gather up the pieces of our past—the things we’ve uncovered about the earth before we even existed, about early humans, and so on—and figure out a timeline, and with that, a story. This story we discover might not be perfect, but it is reassuring. It reminds us that when we say history repeats itself, we don’t just mean that as a warning: we also acknowledge that we are creating history itself; that we will not go unnoticed.
Of course I’m not advocating for recklessness. I wouldn’t want to be remembered as the shitty era of people that self-destructed “just ‘cause.” We don’t have to be reckless to make history. Grisha Coleman’s performance shows an evident urging against that. In the structure of that performance, however—like how Coleman’s treadmills bring much-needed memories of childhood joy into my adulthood—Coleman’s humans evolve to their pre-treadmill state. In this, we see the cycles, narratives, moments of glory, and moments of tragedy that make life itself, and make it beautiful.
Photo courtesy of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.