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How Philly artist Arien Wilkerson’s new installation on climate change seeks out what’s at the core for us all

"EQUATORS," the artist explained, is intentionally spooky and intentionally looking at the climate crisis from myriad angles.

Arien Wilkerson performs "EQUATORS" at Icebox Project Space in the Crane Arts building in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. The performance installation "EQUATORS" opens this weekend at Icebox Project Space.
Arien Wilkerson performs "EQUATORS" at Icebox Project Space in the Crane Arts building in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021. The performance installation "EQUATORS" opens this weekend at Icebox Project Space.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The lights inside the performance installation EQUATORS are spare. Much of the gallery space remains pitch black. To follow the action, the eye has to look for the dancer’s body through the darkness.

Arien Wilkerson, founder/director of the cross-disciplinary performance company Tnmot Aztro and the sole dancer in EQUATORS, noted that the lights in their show stay set in place, never changing position.

“You don’t move the sun. The sun is where it is, and you move into light,” Wilkerson said. “I wanted the lighting to know that it is in control. I’m not in control. You know, the audience might think, ‘Oh, well this is a performance.’ I’m like, ‘No, this is a world.’”

EQUATORS, which runs Friday and Saturday in Kensington’s Icebox Project Space, has been organized in partnership with Wilkerson’s company, Icebox, and Vox Populi Gallery. Thematically, EQUATORS takes on climate change and its disparate impacts on communities of color. While noting that some of the music comes from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the artist explained their installation is intentionally spooky and intentionally looking at the climate crisis from myriad angles.

“These are real things that I see that are happening in the world, that I wanted to culminate into this piece prophetically,” they said, offering a cooking analogy, “in a way that wasn’t a spoonful of sugar, a little cup of milk or something. It was like, a lot of sugar, the whole jug of milk, some shrimp, some eggs, you know? I mean, like, stir it up, girl. Keep going. It’s not done yet.”

During the installation, Wilkerson dances throughout the space, manipulating hanging chains and strategically mounted buckets. As Wilkerson moves, they code-switch through dance vocabularies — modern, hip-hop, heels, and a little vogue. Like the lights that beam through darkness, the choreography achieves conveying passion through gloom. Sometimes the artist and their objects might be spinning or swinging centimeters away from the audience.

“My friend Dom [Pellegrini], that did all the clothing, he always says Libras are like a bubblegum dungeon,” said Wilkerson, a Libra. “I do think that is also my aesthetic, too. I’m a little bit of sporty and a little bit of sexy. And I’m also a little bit of like, I would f— you up, like period … I like that the piece does that.”

For EQUATORS at Icebox, Wilkerson worked with Pellegrini, lighting designer Jon-Paul LaRocco, installation designer David Borawski, artist Joe Bun Keo, and sound designer Kevin P. Keenan. First performed in 2017, Wilkerson explained that, considering that young white people are often the face of climate change activism, they were thinking about how their sister would have more to say about climate change than Greta Thunberg, but wouldn’t be validated in the same way.

Wilkerson spoke to The Inquirer after rehearsal this week, discussing their inspirations, and how the work has changed for them. This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

Can you walk me through when you first did EQUATORS and what was your inspiration then? And why you’re bringing it back now?

So when we did it in 2017 and 2018, there was no COVID; there was no none of that. And at that time, it was the wildfires. To be honest, I just always thought about — I’m sad to say this — but I thought about really horrid stories of people who died from a tornado or from a landslide or from a wildfire. And I just thought a lot about that pain. And I make a lot of work centered around that.

It was about making something critical, and making something that examined the ways in which we thought about climate as people, and also just to keep it real with you, it was just about challenging myself to make something scientific, challenging myself to make something critical, challenging myself to make something like that, that comes from myth, it was a larger exercise.

The biggest change from then to now is the work wasn’t aware of what it was doing. It was aware of its effect, if that makes any sense. Now I’m really fully aware of what it’s doing and its effect. I also think I needed to get my heart broken. I needed to have a couple of health scares, like I needed to actually also have things happen to me and my lived-in body to be like, “Oh, OK, yeah, now I gotta put it all into this work.”

You’re talking about how common it is for the narratives about Black people to be so focused on trauma and pain. There feels like there’s pain being worked through in that piece.

Oh, absolutely.

How do you place what that piece is in that context?

With this version of EQUATORS, I think I am entering the place of someone who understands casualties. And that’s kind of dark.

If you’re the president of the United States, people die every day, so I guess you gotta be fine to be with people dying. We don’t have to be fine with casualty because we don’t have the responsibility of lives on us every single day. So I think a lot about that, too. If I was a casualty to something tragic, I would want to be remembered this way. So I think I also try to do that through the piece. And that’s like, that’s the healing. That’s the thing.

Someone’s blood soaked that soil when they died, you know, and something about that earth has that person bound to the Earth forever, you know, and as pathetic or as mystic as it is, I think it’s true.

The buckets. Why did they speak to you and what are you hoping that they say to people?

I think something about the barrel, you can hold so much in it. I think it’s a great representation. For me, the buckets represented homes, land … bodies intertwined with each other, bodies not intertwined with one another. I chose the buckets because I also like its shape, its presence.

I can’t answer the second part, because I’m more curious as to what people think the buckets do.

I just felt like it was a really great symbol. It was a really great symbol for strife in a way that wasn’t seen before. Also, I like the idea of, like, it’s a seat; it’s something that you used to carry and store things with. It also is absorbent; it can hold water; it can hold paint. But it’s also fragile. Because if you wear it enough, it breaks … I think it’s a great representation of a human. I think humans are buckets.

You have a piece that is both giving horror vibes and that, at the same time, is you literally embodying the people who have been lost as a healing act for yourself and for others. Why put together a piece that is holding all of that? We’ve been talking about the different uses. Why was it important for you to have a Swiss Army knife of a piece?

It was important because I generally make work like that, I make very multiplicit works. I think humans are way much more complex than we like to give. And it’s very hard, because I feel like we give up on all of our complexities, to always result into just this one thing. And I’m like, no, it can never just be one thing. It’s 100 things.

[A woman who saw the piece] was like, “I’m from Ecuador. And why do you call it EQUATORS?” And I was like, well, we all have an equator. You know, it’s the center of us. I called it EQUATORS because it’s about the center of the universe, simple as that. Like what is at the core of us all?

How would you describe the climate of the center of us?

Either too jaded to see or not jaded enough.

“EQUATORS” can be seen Dec. 17, 18, and 19; 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday for $21.50, 3 p.m. Sunday for free, open bar included in admission, Icebox Project Space, 1400 N. American St.,