Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable: Penumbra
New YorkPerformance Space
May 15 and 16, 2019
The world premiere of Hannah Black and Juliana Huxtable’s live trial drama Penumbra put wildlife and ecology on the stand, putting animals in opposition to humankind. Complete with tables cleverly upended to represent a judge’s bench and witness stand, and benches and chairs in the gallery for spectators, the mock courtroom-stage was dramatically lit in a way reminiscent of a daytime soap opera. What followed was its own bizarre and abstract court melodrama inspired by criminal trials for animals in Europe in the 13th and 18th centuries, and the play Inherit the Wind (1955), an allegory for McCarthyism based on the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” Trial in which a Tennessee high school teacher was tried for teaching evolution in a science class. Surveillance, scrutiny and transmission—concepts also present in Black’s video installation Beginning, End, None (2017), shown in the same space earlier in this season—were apparent as two flat-screen monitors suspended from the ceiling provided a live feed and close-ups of the courtroom action.
As the audience filed into the space, sounds of nature—squeaking, mooing—filled the air. Once we were seated, Black and Huxtable entered the room in taupe suits, acting as prosecutor and defense attorney, respectively. The clerk of the court, sporting a pinstripe suit, followed in behind and announced, “all rise in the court.” (The spectators stayed seated.) Presiding over the court was an ant colony as judge, represented by a projection teaming with ants at the bench.
Huxtable’s client was the humble frog, a living specimen of a pallid variety imprisoned in a hexagonal glass tank that was wheeled over to the witness stand by the court clerk when called to testify. Calling the defendant to the stand, Black—representing humans—started a round of interrogation, tapping on the aquarium’s glass to get the amphibian’s attention. Absurd questions such as “Whose side are you on?” and “Where were you on 9/11?” were bandied about, interrupted by Huxtable’s objections. The judge “spoke” via a monitor that displayed simple text, and the defendant answered in blips when prompted, emitting noise from a sampler sitting on Huxtable’s table. On the other hand, the first witness, a black, yellow-beaked bird, screamed its responses. Its dissonant and driving music, percussive with synths and bells, wreaked havoc on the ears, contributing to the cacophony of Black and Huxtable talking over each other. Their clashing voices fell into a rhythm in counterpoint, fugue-like.
The second witness, a whale, was called to the stand, switched on screen by the court clerk. Huxtable and Black again were at it with more comic relief: “Is it true, you socialize with dolphins?” and “What is your stance on sharks?” Between witnesses they enjoyed professional banter, showing their collegial camaraderie and “human” sides. Eventually, the clerk brought in the next Prosecutor’s witness—flies represented by a bug lamp hanging from a stick—and the room lights flickered. “Can you confirm that you eat shit?” Black asked, with the room swelling with dark rave/techno sounds. “Can you confirm that you ruin summer?” she asked next, as she and Huxtable faced off again.
These humorous inquiries attempted to control animals and place humans legally and hierarchically above them, as if we are somehow superior to them with our science, our built environments, and our culture. However farcical the performance was, history tells us that shambolic times ride again, as anti-science crusaders and religious fundamentalism rear their heads in conservative politics. The ridiculousness and extremity of animal trials as an idea or practice matched that of Black and Huxtable’s performance in their courtroom drama—equally laughable, mad, and inconceivable as the broader political dramas that unfold in contemporary life. In this sense, the work challenged various asinine notions of supremacy in the human world, using its own absurdity as a tool.
In questioning the third defendant’s witness, a spider, Black screamed—turning away from the stand and cowering in fear, offering proof that it possesses the power to bring people to their knees on sight alone. Still turned away, bent over sitting and almost hiding behind her table, Black hysterically expounded on the Freudian psychoanalytic theory of arachnophobia as a fear of the “phallic mother.” In a strange turn, an alien was the last called to the stand, a being neither fully human nor animal, and totally otherworldly. As a final witness, the alien seemed to point at humankind’s ultimate fear of the unknowable and eventual subsumption by a higher power. Or, better yet, maybe the existence and survival of humans extra-terrestrially.
As the frog took to the stand one last time, the courtroom descended into chaos, and the judge called for order in the court as the room’s lights flashed red. Huxtable fastened a dog collar around Black’s neck, leading her out of the courtroom on all fours in a final gesture of dominance and humanity’s eventual submission to the natural world. After all, nature always triumphs.