Sarah A.O. Rosner: Creating a New Queer Universe
Author: Marcie Bianco
January 19, 2014
It may be intellectually challenging to grasp what exactly the ETLE Universe project proposes by “a queer/feminist cyborg-time-travel epic,” but thankfully I was able to chat with choreographer and Universe founder Sarah A.O. Rosner about its inception and agenda. Rosner, the prodigy behind the A.O. Movement Collective, which aims to create and promote the arts through sustainable business practices, launched the Universe this past November. In her opening address she explained that the project will produce ten thematically interwoven works, all in different media, from the literary (a graphic novel, a collection of academic essays, and a second of fiction), to the visual (a fashion show), to the aural (a concept soundtrack). There will even be an “interactive video game.”
Hi Sarah! Why “a queer/feminist cyborg-time-travel epic”? Is the project, a constellation of works, about the creation of a universe? Does that universe have a teleology, an overarching narrative?
So, the ETLE Universe is a Mobius strip of sorts that combines two parallel narratives. The first narrative is the Universe’s internal content (which you can explore in more detail here)—a sprawling epic that begins in the near future and follows a global epidemic called the Absence, in which the world’s women being falling out of time and into an evolutionarily separate, structurally female understanding of the universe. This epidemic emphasizes sex characteristics that have long been identified as female—unknowabiltiy, multiplicity, absence—and amplifies our current gendered power imbalances (an ex of mine described it as “the single worst thing for gender relations anyone could imagine,”) threatening to make humanity extinct. A male corporate/government “solution” is eventually produced and then hacked by rebels, birthing a race of cybernetic women able to use their bodies as time machines to navigate infinitely-branching realities, and fight for their survival. And then there’s the second narrative in the Mobius strip—the IRL story of how this project is being created and produced (which you can explore here)—a multi-media, multi-artist, crowdfunded endeavor, which enlists our audience (who could also be described as readers, players, or users) to unlock different pieces of the timeline by “declaring themselves curators” and helping us bring the Universe into being.
The conceit of the project is that ETLE (the absent center of the first narrative) has implanted the idea for the Universe in my head (creating the second narrative) and only through our creation of this work and the participation of our audience will these future events transpire. We’re told that if we don’t, the rebel THIC will lose their revolution, and ETLE will wipe out all of humanity. In this way, the narratives enfold each other and become infinite—which is a sort of structural time travel that excites me. So the Universe we’re creating is both about queer feminism, time travel, etc, and is structurally feminist, queer, and chronomultiplous. It’s an experiment in building an epic universe and pioneering a new multi-dimensional and immersive way to create and consume a work.
How did you imagine this project? What was the impetus behind its inception?
I think a handful of my core interests collided (somewhere between car crash and big bang style)
and happened to find science fiction as a fertile breeding ground. I’ve always been interested in epic work, especially within the so-called “ephemeral” form of performance, and the performance work that my company, the A.O. Movement Collective, makes is usually developed and presented through experimental business structures which try to re-imagine ways in which this new type of ambitious, multi-dimensional performance work could sustain itself economically. I’m equally obsessed with ideas about how queerness and femininity relate to notions of the unknown, absence, multiplicity, and the monstrous, and how those relationships are regulated and contained by a male power structure that is singular, linear, external, and hierarchical. So as I started to think about this project, I was interested in setting up a structure that would encourage an epic yet sustainable work, and one that was built via a process of multiplicity and unknowability rather than clarity and linear thought.
I didn’t grow up heavy into science fiction, but I’ve gotten more and more into it as an adult—it’s become my preferred genre for the really juicy questions. It’s obsessed with otherness, and revolves around how we define humanness, and how many steps you can take away from that definition before human becomes alien. In our present society, humanness is increasingly defined as singular: cis/white/economically solvent/able/American/male/etc., rather than encompassing a multiplicity of ways to exist in the world, which of course leads to the policing and marginalization of the “alien” other. Many people are put off by science fiction as a genre (and getting people into this work despite their assumed aversion to it is one of the challenges we’ve been facing) but to me, there’s nothing more eerily sci-fi and dystopic than our current cultural and political climate.
The project of creating a universe suggests that there is a correlative desire to create a mythos. Is the ETLE Universe a mythic-making endeavor? If yes, what particular myth? Are you appropriating from other extant myths?
I’m interested in creating a new queer/feminist mythos for myself, open for others to adopt if interested, but primarily personal. I’m interested in a mythos that refuses to engage in the gas lighting that’s become so prevalent, that takes no shit, or violence, and that refuses to accept an understanding of human existence that was and is defined and perpetuated by such a small percentage of the people living it. I’m interested in what a feminine-centric structuring of reality might feel like and what it might produce, in a way that is both realistic and fantastic, and embraces technology, embodiment, and struggle, but never utopia. And I’m interested in a work that, if only from a fictional space, can provide a narrative of female violence, not as defensive or child-protecting, but from a place of offensive strategy and retribution. And then of course I’m interested in why that’s hugely problematic and horrible. I want a mythos that takes all my uncertainty and ache and absence from living in a singular linear world and turns it into power.
I think a lot about how mythos (or for that matter, conspiracy theories, culture, a summer blockbuster, etc.) is created. With the richest mythologies and epics, there seems to be a common trait of multiplicity—that these stories are not created by one person, but by the accumulation of theories, ideas, and connections of a huge collective consciousness—an evolution over time via multiple tellers and hearers rather than a single author or audience. The Universe’s multiplicity of authors and stories is one of the key textures of the project, as it hopes to encourage a real diversity of viewpoints, narratives, strategies, theories, etc. We’re drawing from a pastiche of religious iconography, myths, conspiracy theories, pop culture, and feminist, queer, film, and performance theory. I am excited that this work on the ETLE Universe is giving me space to create my personal mythos, and I hope it will encourage others to do the same. Maybe it’s also about giving permission—gifting the idea that you can make your own system (or reality, program, or universe) rather than fitting into the one that already exists.
Has the sequence of works been determined? What is the first work that will be produced? When can we anticipate it?
One of the things that excites (and terrifies) me most about this project is that there’s no set order—there’s no certainty or linearity of how the project will evolve now that it’s in motion. The Universe launched this past November, and is made up of ten works that will be produced over the next two years, each in a different media. There’s a graphic novel, a collection of writing, a collection of non-fiction essays, a concept album, a fashion show, a collection of photography, a 3D printed artifact, pornography, an interactive IRL/intramedia game, and a performance. To create these works, we’ve assembled a team of 35 collaborating artists, and we’ve opened the project for curation by the public.
The order in which the pieces will be premiered will be directly determined by what gets curated, and then funded, by our audience as a whole. Individuals can unlock different pieces of the narrative—the pieces that they’re most compelled by—and as each piece gets unlocked, I’m interested in the effect it will have on how the universe’s narratives and aesthetics are developed as a whole. For example, if the graphic novel gets curated before the fashion show, I’d imagine that the work produced by the illustrators might serve is a visual inspiration to the designers. But if the fashion show gets curated before the graphic novel, the illustrators might use the costumes designed as a jumping off point for their renderings of the story. All our collaborators will be in contact through the evolution of the project, but there’s no telling what that interaction will produce. To me, that fluidity is extremely exciting—it’s like we’ve created a living breathing organism and we get to see it grow. It’s real.
So far, the concept album is the only work that’s been fully curated—there are about 39 curator slots still available. The interactive game will premiere in April of 2014, and then the fashion show and concept album will premiere in a joint launch in September. The other works are yet to be scheduled, but will premiere sometime between now and the Universe’s final premiere, the AOMC’s performance of a work called ETLE and the Anders, in fall of 2015.
Can you elaborate on the book projects that are part of the ETLE Universe?
There are two main written components of the Universe – a collection of writing from ten authors, and a collection of non-fiction essays. Each collection will feature the work of ten authors, and this is also one of the works in the Universe that needs individual artist curators to unlock, so I think each collection will feel like a very communal endeavor. The essays will focus on intersections of science fiction with body-based performance, the applications and implications of the AOMC’s ETLE Universe project, and feminist/queer dissections of key themes within the work: alienation, othering, social justice, cyborgs, race, time travel, the abject/monstrous feminine, absence, multiplicity, etc. So much of my creative process on this work has come from reading theory, so I’m thrilled that our work will be producing new theory in turn.
The collection of creative writing pieces centers on the time period of the Absence, where women are falling out of time and extinction is on the horizon. I’m really hoping to encourage each of the authors to make their own space within the narrative. Their writing might be a take on the narratives surrounding the main characters, or they might choose to create entirely different individuals or events to focus on—they have equal ability and permission to create the universe with us, rather than just describe something that already exists. It looks like we’ll have quite a broad range of forms as well—short stories, plays, screenplays, poetry, etc.—so I’m very excited to see how these core ideas of the Universe evolve through each author’s form and content.
What would you say is the objective of this Universe, both for the artist and for the audience?
For me, the ETLE Universe is an attempt to evolve my own ability to make and think—to really throw myself into the deep end, and see if it’s possible to create in an entirely new way, both creatively and economically. I’m also interested in this idea of creating a work with a true multiplicity of voices and narratives—how important is my singular voice as an artist? How much freedom can I give these collaborating artists to really forge their own narratives within the universe before I feel compelled to jump back in and take control? How can I be at peace with the unknowable? How epic can we get while still sustaining ourselves? Is it possible? How can we encourage a radical diversity of audience members—not just lovers of experimental performance, but comic book nerds, fashionistas, musicians, readers, porn-watchers, consumers, etc?
For the audience, I think the objective is quite open ended. It’s an experiment—come play with us, come try out this new way of experiencing a story, and see if it ignites something for you. I think one of the objectives is to encourage interaction and ownership. For the audience not only to feel compelled by the work, but to feel like they have an active stake in the creation and development of it. I’m excited by the capacity that we’re giving the audience to be both a fan to the story and be inside it. It’s that Mobius strip again—since the creation of the work is part of the story, it both makes the science fictional narrative somehow based in reality, and the reality of building the work an interactive adventure. That’s my hope, anyway.
How does this project speak to the larger mission of the A.O. Collective?
I’m excited because the ETLE Universe not only speaks to the AOMC’s mission, but it’s really evolving what that mission is and how we go about fulfilling it. I’ve always been interested in creating ambitious, epic work with the AOMC, and the same goes for our interest in sustainability and experimental business, evolving the field economically. The Universe addresses those things, but it also pushes us farther in terms of creating something that’s really an entirely new way of creating and producing work. There’s a line in our mission about the AOMC wanting to “make performance that does not yet know how to be seen” and then building the systems through which it can be most fully experienced—I think the ETLE Universe does just that. It’s also pushing us to be better—how can this narrative center on the idea of multiplicity if we’re not directly addressing the problematically singular realities of our own creative process? How can we call ourselves multiplous if we we’re not addressing that our company (as with much of the experimental performance world) has historically been white, cis, able, middle class, etc? We can’t—so all the things that we’ve stood by in our politics but not yet in action (for instance, encouraging more racial and economic diversity within our company, paying all our artists a livable wage, creating work that actively resists insularity) must be addressed if this project wants to be successful. Not just ideologically, but in our action. It’s just a start, but I find that incredibly exciting.
A final question: What precisely is “queer art” to you? I ask because I myself struggle to arrive at a concrete definition, even though, yes, I know, “queer” by definition resists a certain fixity; it demands fluidity.
To me, queerness resists singularity, and therefore has no interest in being precise, which is such a huge relief! You’re right—queer art is so hard to pin down—I think it’s often multiplous, somehow monstrous in a beautiful and powerful way, layered, and resists knowability.
Recently I’ve been thinking about queerness through the lenses of Rosa Menkman’s Glitch Studies Manifesto, which has been one of my favorite pieces of writing through our work on this project. Menkman posits that a glitch is defined by its momentary unknowability, and that the second you recognize it as a glitch, it loses its glitch-ness. The glitch is other from whatever has come before it, and its radical difference from what precedes it both sets it apart, and redefines the system that it breaks from. The glitch is a true moment of the un-knowing, the unraveling of a seemingly understood reality into an amorphous and pre-verbal question of “what is that?” for the milliseconds before our mindbodies can stitch our perception of reality back into a coherent answer. To me, queer art lives in that un-knowing space—a space of preferring questions over answers, of working to create something that disrupts, and only by disrupting can discover what it truly is, and make sense of the world around it. I think some of the best queer art stays in that space as long as humanly possible, which is always a struggle in a world that keeps pushing you towards clarity and linear thought, towards a phallic external knowability of the world.
The ETLE Universe launched on November 2013, and is currently open for curation—you can explore it in full here.