BRAVE NEW WORLD
To build a nation in your own image is to rend yourself into an infinite number of increasingly tiny pieces, and by the time we sing our national anthem for the final time, Miranda July seems to be on the verge of tears. Her clothes are in tatters and she sings the words as though clinging to an ideal that’s run its course. Has it really been 20 years? And did things really go so wrong?
In New Society at BAM Fisher, Miranda July attempts to forge precisely that: a utopia in the sold-out auditorium. It begins with a proposal: “What if we just stayed?” Never left the theater; made this our new home, away from the death and isolation outside? What if we all stopped trying, and just existed, here, together? July asks for the house lights to be brought up. A show of hands indicates that the audience is game.
Accompanied on stage by nothing but a foldout table, a few microphones, and an electric piano, July immediately declares herself head of state, and proceeds to delegate the first essential tasks. We need a national anthem, and, of course, a flag. Two volunteers from the audience, a pianist and a graphic designer, set to work. The team of newly appointed medics needs armbands to distinguish themselves, and a pair of citizens reluctantly agree to cut the necessary strips of cloth from July’s own blouse, since no one else offers up their own. Soon we have a constitution, each article drafted by a different audience member, and even a currency. Our new home has taken shape, and the house lights fade to black.
If there is a thread that unites Miranda July’s work across the mediums, it’s the theme of human connection and all the humiliation, joy, and confusion it entails. The fate of our New Society now rests just as much in our own collective hands, it seems, as in those of the artist on stage. For better or worse, we’re in this together.
When the lights come up again, our leader reveals that a year has passed, and though there have been triumphs – new loves kindled (a baby!), challenges met – difficulties have cropped up everywhere. Faith is wavering. Constitutional stipulations are thrown out the window. People are tired and hunger constantly for the world outside. A year has proven to be a long time for this society, and there are still decades more to go.
July is a mercurial figure in the real world, and in the New Society she is no different, here displaying a range of emotions and uniquely human contradictions that are so often a society’s downfall. She is a fearless leader one moment (or, perhaps, one year) and a groveling failure the next. Maybe the root problem is that our society could never really be “new.” The past has etched itself irrevocably into us, and nowhere so clearly as on Miranda’s face as she displays a photo of her infant son to the audience. She invites others onto the stage to share pictures of loved ones from the outside world. A pair of brothers. A cat curled up in a sink, waiting for a bath. We’ve all left something, or someone, behind to join this society.
As the years tick by, the ideas that built our nation – isolation! self-reinvention! – throw into sharp relief all that we’ve lost by declaring ourselves an island. When the inevitable happens – the society dissolves, and we file back out into the night of our old world – it’s with a heightened awareness of the inescapable connections swirling around and inside of us. Any society, no matter how hermetically sealed, is made up of people who are tragically, desperately, human.