MECHANICAL SHADOWS, 2014
This is the script of a short performance commissioned by Tenderpixel to accompany Geometries of Time (see Project Menu). I performed it in the basement reading room of Tenderbooks, Cecil Court, London, on 26 July 2014.
> Staging. A table is set close to the wall. The performer stands behind it. On the table are five desklamps focused on the performer. The lamps are angled so the heads make a rough arc, with the middle one highest.
> No lights are on. The performer faces the audience and begins.
It is some hours after midnight. The deepest night is over. In its blackness our sundials were useless. We have a word for that part of the night: intempesta. Time without time. Timeless time. A disordered, chaotic gap in the hours. We waited. We made offerings. We poured black ink into the river, pretending to liquefy and banish the dark. Our only light was the Moon's smooth mirror reflecting the botched Earth back at us.
Far beneath us just now the Sun god Ra is steering his small boat through the last of the twelve chambers of the Underworld. Every night he makes this journey while demons taunt him from the riverbank. He never sees them, only their shadows, long and menacing against the cave walls, thrown by his own light. Over and over the demons hiss their threats as he passes. They want to take him hostage. But out ahead of Ra, leading the way, is his lion-headed daughter, Sekhmet. Her roar shrinks the shadows of monsters into whimpering, whelp-like flickers. Mehen, the snake god with his tail in his mouth, helps too. He is coiled around Ra in protection. It is his and Sekhmet's job to return Ra to the sky and keep the circle of time revolving. What if they slip up? What if Ra does not come back?
Let your fears go. The Morning Star has already risen to announce the Sun. The first bird is singing.
> Switches on lamp 1 (furthest to audience's right). Turns to face it.
A cold light breaks the sky-rim in the East. Everything starts there. Ancient maps are oriented to the East. Temples face the orient.
First light throws first shadows in a world where everything and everyone is a sundial.
> Switches off lamp 1. Switches on lamp 2. Continues to face 'east' (lamp 1).
As the day goes on my shadow moves around my left as the Sun passes my right. Right is right: the truth, the light.
Left is shadow. Left is sinistra: sinister. To turn left, against the direction of the Sun, is out of order, abnormal, sinister. The old folk had a word for this: widdershins. Walk widdershins round a church and be damned.
Truth, form, chaos, doubt, direction, time.
The future casts a shadow over the past. To find out the future, I look over my shoulder and read my shadow. This is one definition of retromancy.
> Switches off lamp 2. Switches on lamp 3 and faces it.
What time is it? High Noon now. The Sun is highest above us. This is our time, not clock time.
In the tropics, on certain days for a few moments, the midday Sun throws no shadow at all. Timeless noon. The briefest intempesta.
> Switches off lamp 3. Switches on lamp 4 and faces it.
Everything is movement. Everything is change. Nothing is fixed.
> Switches off lamp 4. Switches on lamp 5 and faces it.
The crepuscular creep begins again.
The body's chemistry alters. The eye's pupil dilates. Its retina switches from cone cells to rods. The world goes grey. Things flitting in peripheral vision seem more vivid than objects in plain view.
On bright days, shadows give form. As dusk falls, shadows distort, hollowing out rococo cavities that disguise doubt, deceit, desire. Secrets grow. Fear returns. Shadows layer on shadows.
> Switches off all lamps. Faces audience.
Years ago these city streets were lit only on nights without a moon. Oil lamps made little holes that barely punctured the dark. Night was a black blanket, a ghost cloak. A miasma thickening the air with shadow matter. Heavy, engulfing. Weightless, ungraspable.
In the darkness cats' eyes flash yellow. Rabbits' eyes flash red. Unnatural lights. Lights that haunt the retina after their source has gone.
We're on a ghost train. Falling for the false lights of superstition. Blink them away.
To shadow used to mean to protect, as if under the cover of wings. Those trapped by day are freed by the invisibility cloak of night.
But light is right. And right is light. What if we made artificial moons to erase the night, said a father of the enlightenment. Now every street is lined with little suns.
> Switches on all lamps one by one in reverse order. Faces audience.
What time is it now?
We have entered the permanent high noon of artificial light. Intempesta. Time without time.
The Sun has lost its umbilical tug on us. The divine light has come to Earth.
True darkness is erased. Every hollow is lit. Every secret is out. Night is over.
The cycle of time has been cut into a marching line of stiff little units. The hour hand of the clock is a solidified sunshadow severed from its source.
Remember how it feels to walk at dusk from the park to the lit street: to move from the infinite sky-clock and disappear inside the mechanical clock.
It's not yet night. The streetlamps are off. We still have time.
> Switches off all lamps one by one starting with lamp 1. ENDS
Image: Cathy Haynes, Light Hammer, 2014.