Workshop Performance: Memory of the Universe in L.A. Sept. 15th

MOTU (cowwoman) embodies the memory of the universe in Alysse Stepanian's 3D video, at Coaxial on Sept. 15th.
Review by Kelly Blunt

We are witnessing war. Machine guns, drones, and explosions of a confused nature ricochet in our heads. The silence reverberates. Soldiers casually dismiss the dead. Refugees are left stateless. A plastic bottle floats across a waterspace. MOTU, the strapping and heroic cowwoman introduced earlier in the video, flies through the water. She encounters a massive oil spill as a dozen plastic beverage containers float downward to further pollute the water. MOTU nearly gets trapped in the underwater folds of an American flag. It hugs her body momentarily, before she swims on. It continues floating through the water, resembling a sea creature.

On flat screen monitors factory farm pigs look sadly out from cages, and a monkey is rocketed into space. We see a mutilated boy’s body on pale sand. Sounds grate and dance in a frenzy. They mirror the movements and preoccupations of MOTU, whose name stands for Memory of the Universe. Digital text informs us that the setting for it all has been the planet Mars, where the American flag is being laundered in washing machines that dot the landscape.

An ecclesiastical monument, ringed by arches and columns, sits atop sand dunes on the Martian North Pole. Projected onto the wall of the central altar are surveillance video images from a military drone viewfinder lens, complete with crosshairs that target what appears in its sight. The irony of crosshairs, bearing slight resemblance to the religious cross, being used to rain death and destruction down upon displaced crowds is the first clue that the world has run amok. Outside, American flags flutter, clothes-pinned to lines stretched between two flagpoles.

The sound bears down and lightens up, becomes restless and agitated, then quiets in a staccato maze of complexity. It starts, halts, turning faster and slower, exposing and concealing tension and anxiety. A cup grates across prison cell or cage bars, in a rhythmic gesture, a premonition of the angst that is later revealed in “PersonHood,” the second of two videos by writer/director Alysse Stepanian and her partner Philip Mantione, musical composer and sound designer. The first video, Syria Planum, For Water For Oil, depicts a desolate landscape based on a world in tumult.

The videos are part of a performance and screening which will be presented at Coaxial on Sept 15th and document the transformation of a Nietzschean female “Übermensch” manifested as the mythopoeic MOTU. She seizes the audience from the onset, inhabiting the dynamic space of her own body in motion. Her stylized, curved figuration and magnanimous strength become our collective voice, unified into form and emboldened. She is ready to confront the conscience of the universe itself, and ultimately, to heal it.

Enhanced by Mantione’s music, the experimental video works evoke a powerfully visceral otherworld, which ushers one through a dystopian spacescape that seems to glimpse the world from afar as a distant memory. This haunting dream world echoes through the chambers of time, past and present, to be read simultaneously as a contemporary lament and as a far-reaching cry into the black hole of an apocalyptic netherworld... We follow MOTU, at once menacing and compassionate, as merciful as she is righteous. She clomps heroically through these scenes of an aerial, eerily calm nightmare. A Hannah Arendt-like banality is ascribed to this bizarre, almost peaceful overview of horror.

Like flyers across a posthuman universe, we soar through the atmosphere of an unfamiliar planet, a desperate refuge we never really reached. On earth, we were robbed of water and sustainability, torn apart by war and destruction. This epic, 3D journey is underscored by a haunting vision of a universe gone wrong. Stepanian worked with a cutting edge digital mapping technique, she says, which she applied to NASA/JPL images of Syria Planum and the North Pole of Mars to create two of the landscapes in the first video.

We see the results of remote killings. The scenes speak to the lack of ethics and the absence of humanity in American and Israeli policies. The notion that Syrian refugees could very well have been sent to Mars after being turned away in Europe is unspoken but addressed here directly. Reaching into unadulterated grips of industrial madness, the digitally configured images move us through a surrealistic planetscape, mourning our loss of gravity, which leaves us off kilter. Victims pile up, and the focus shifts to those washing machines oddly installed in the middle of nowhere where American flags are being laundered in an allegorical attempt to wash away the sins committed in the name of patriotism. Those relegated to subhuman status face their dehumanization and erasure. Myriad issues are sorted through in this collective grief.

From a bovine milk factory, marked by a cloned de-personalization that hearkens back to slavery, conformity, and commercial exploitation (from the perspective of a cow, a human or plastic waste spiraling through our waters), we bear witness to the assembly line of cruelty. White cows in row after row are milked in tandem while a single calf appears lost and alone inside the compound, amidst the cages where the industrial milking goes on unabated. The tubes and hoses attached to imprisoned udders represent humankind’s inhumanity and the destruction of nature. One assumes or hopes that the milk cows are freed by MOTU just before she, as savior and liberator, conducts a life-affirming ritual for the now limp, traumatized orphan calf in the restorative waters of the ocean.

In the end, as an undeniable symbol of redemption and salvation, an onslaught of sunflowers arrives from the sky. The moment they appear, they are daunting. Yet they are gently and geometrically poised, in a sunflower assemblage of restitution. At first they resemble weapons, like Chinese throwing stars, as they descend with their striking energy.

Yet they float peacefully and transcendentally into the water and down through the prison box where a tortured gorilla has cried out with his cup, clanging it across his prison bars in a mournful search for release. The glowing energy of these sunflowers, rife with symbolism and hope, permeates the universe as they float downward. The intensity of their petals and their center is a sustenance the world has been starving for. These sunflowers fall through everything, unhindered by any boundaries or barriers. Their transcendent nature is one of rebellion as well, hence their initial appearance of resistant and oppositional strength.

This is a type of posthuman nebulousness, an inferno of our own making. It is the haunting of our consciousness, which until now would have been doomed to repeat in an endless cycle of collective misery and recollection. We now glimpse the past and observe the posthuman collapse: colonialism, petro-political and water wars, the demise of ethical politics and society affect non-human and human life alike.

This setting evokes a fitting state of alienation and despair over the tragic occurrences that have befallen the earth. Global warming, animal abuse and the relegation of certain peoples, including women and “others” of a demonized lot to non-existence, perpetuate a cycle of madness that must be stopped. We are introduced to the planet gone awry, stripped and seen as a transformative journey, across war plains and into prison cells, through underwater passages and an ocean scene, where MOTU works her magic.

MOTU, whose name is an acronym for “memory of the universe”, alights, beset with purpose and vision, burdened by a burning creativity and alternative stance. She is determined to remake the world in a final moment of clarity. In the end, eyes aglow, she bathes the weakened baby calf in water, which recalls the ritual of baptism. But it is her compassion, rather than her religion that ultimately sends the message of healing. Holy water once robbed from this planet and turned toxic now regains its cleansing and peaceful nature. Glowing sunflowers appear. Sounds ignite, descend, and seem to light the entire world with the poignant power of peace.

Longtime collaborators Stepanian and Mantione perform together for the first time in L.A. on Saturday, Sept.15th at Coaxial, a non-profit art space located at1815 S. Main St., Los Angeles, CA 90015 in the heart of the downtown arts district. The pair will present a workshop preview of their most recent project, a provocative statement on geo-politics, the environment and gender constructs around natural resources and planetary issues titled #MemoryoftheUniverse | Bayesian Poisoning.

A 47-minute collaborative performance with 3D animations, live electronics and guitar, the presentation is part of a special program that begins at 8:30pm and also feature separate performances by soundscape designers/audionoise artists Loop Goat, Black Artiodactyls and Jay Howard. Tickets: $7. (213) 536-8020.  More info:;; or Reach writer/artist Kelly Blunt at


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