1. To begin with, there’s you.
Close your eyes, if you can, and picture a beach. Maybe the beach of your childhood (if you’ve had that kind of childhood). Something incredibly familiar, almost impossibly benign. You’ll know it from the smell (salty-fishy), from the shifting ground, from the murmur of conversations in the distance, from the blinding light, the sea. The beach is crowded; if you reached out just a bit with your arm, you’d stroke someone’s thigh, or their dog. Here and there, you sleep, a light yet exquisite doze that is a little bit like listening. Children run past you – children always run. They run to where they want to be next, run back, and then again. In their wake, they throw sand up and onto your face with their feet. You get sticky. Sweat beads roll down from your belly button along your waist and onto the sand. It glistens on your forehead. Sometimes, you get sticky because ice cream melts too quickly on the beach. A breeze that is just a breath, and a tiny, passing cloud between you and the sun. You, at last, look up. Airplane exhaust fumes criss-cross the blue. Maybe once upon a time you used to draw pictures with them, constellations, or you’d wave at the people all the way up there who, you imagined, were waving back at you. Or else, you’d run your index along the sky, hiding from view the insect-size plane with your fingertip.
Those lines, they are not water. Their story is not the story of water.
Now you’re up there with that airplane. Well, maybe not that far up: come back. Somewhere in the middle. Picture yourself there, light as a ghost, hovering a a few meters above it all. The lives beneath you blur into and out of view. They do not see you, with the exception perhaps of the children and the animals, who always do. The mosaic of towels, sun hats, sandwiches, cocktails, frisbees and flesh shifts slightly, almost a quiver, and from where you are you can tell that they’re all moving to the rhythm of the waves beside them, which is the rhythm of the moon in the first place. So, really, they’re dancing to the moon. You turn to look at the shoreline. And from the waves, you look up and out and onto sea and sky, and the horizon is so, so much further away from up here, but you don’t know it, or else you don’t notice it, because all you see is blue, and in that blue there’s the story of everything, and just at that moment, the blue is too wide and too deep and too full to see anything else at all.
2. Then there’s Ann.
In the opening scene of Steven Soderbergh’s film Sex, Lies and Videotape, Ann, the protagonist, sits, cross-legged, on her psychotherapist’s sofa. “Garbage” she begins, “all I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage… I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff, eventually.” The object of this ecological insight, Ann recounts, is an imaginary garbage can that produces garbage. “And what would you do to try to stop something like that?”, she asks. I’m reminded of the animated sugar bowl in Walt Disney’s Sword in the Stone. Merlin forgets to tell it to stop pouring sugar into his tea, and as he talks, the sugar bowl, spoon after spoon, makes this cute little white mound overflowing out of the cup, which looks just like the sorcerer’s beard, upside-down.
Everything is upside down. Everything is transformed, and yet the garbage can will not stop producing garbage, and you and I only have a cartoon sorcerer’s piece of crockery to tell us that this is the spell we are putting on the planet – with all the possible spells at our disposal, this is the one we choose to cast.
Of course, to Ann’s therapeutic interlocutor, none of this has any relevance at all. Her concern, he not-so-subtly suggests, boils down to the fact that Ann doesn’t want her husband to touch her, and that she will not masturbate. But Ann is not simply – as the film would have her – an allegory of white, suburban, frigid America mirrored back at white, suburban, frigid America. This scene, I cannot get it out of my head. Over the years, I have watched Sex, Lies and Videotape more times that I care to admit. And every time, I cannot but think of this: what if it were the other way around, and Peter Gallagher just will not and cannot make it better. “It just seems so stupid, you know. Especially when you don’t know what to do with all the garbage.” What if Ann, tapping into some somatic experience of the bio-geosphere, does not feel like sex because of that endless, self-replicating, inconceivable pile of garbage. This is the cosmos talking – four hundred and twenty-five million years of aphrodisiac plants screaming out that there really is no point trying, if there’s no longer any soil to grow on.
3. Then the fish, and if it weren’t for the fish and the leaves there’d be no spring, no poem, no pleasure whatever, and the space between all things would be thickness, not song.
Prevalent visual depictions of the Anthropocene emphasize the colossal scale of anthropogenic impact by zooming out – up and away from the planet […] Where is the map showing the overlapping patterns of whale migrations with shipping and military routes? Or the sonic patterns of military and industrial noise as it reverberates through areas populated by cetaceans? Or established bird migration routes, many of which have been rendered inhospitable to avian life?
These zoomed-out views hide the mess, separates us from it. To be within that mess, enmeshed with the material and unevenly distributed conditions of environmental transformation – this is one of the greatest challenges of ecological apprehension, and perhaps, it even goes some way towards making sense of Ann’s psychosexual plight. To realise, and keep realising, in the fraction of a second between wanting a cup of coffee and drinking it, between one step and another, that we connect to each other, to objects, forests, beings and rocks in unfathomably complex and inescapably sticky ways.
Clustered around the beach are all these bodies, all these lives. I want to say little bodies, little lives, but scale is really what you make of it. What is the scale of a beach? We see it just a few meters above ground – here, a group of people and towels becomes a composition, a group of voices becomes a chorus. If we’re on it, and on holidays, perhaps, size shrinks to a bottle of sunscreen lotion, and time is a 7:15am flight tomorrow morning. The things that make us uneasy, those that itch, are immediately around us, and in our dimensions. Sunburnt shoulders and the like. In our gut, the well-being of millions of bacteria changes our moods and thoughts. The world traverses us at the same time as we traverse it. We eat, and we swim, and we vomit, we give birth and sometimes we drown. There, that’s transformation.
How far do eyes see, fingertips touch? In The Second Body, Daisy Hildyard describes not one but two human bodies, both of which, she insists, are absolutely material, tangible. There is the body we recognise as our own, more or less enclosed within a casing of skin and hair, occasionally leaking out. The bleeding body, the one-to-ten scale of pain… Then there’s the ‘second body’, that brings with it all of our interactions with the materials, minerals, events, waste products and exchanges that constitute a life lived. So: what is the scale of a beach, when one body is too small, and the other too big?
Four or five meters above Sun & Sea (Marina), we hover in the middle distance, as do its songs, poised between the immediate presence of its characters on the one hand, and their semi-conscious, semi-articulated insights on the other. Thoughts which pass through them, linger a second and float by. Eventually, something akin to a shared consciousness begins to emerge. In an opera, this reveal takes the form of a choir – from strangers on the beach comes harmony. Of course, nobody but us up here, libretto in hand, seems to be the wiser.
4. There are the mermaids and the ghosts (our kin), perched on the rocks around the beach, floating just below the surface of the water, swirling around jellyfish and plastic bags: a dance. Ghosts as thin as thoughts, and just as quickly gone (the jellyfish also: gone. Plastic stays).
On Sun & Sea (Marina)’s beach, a woman, simply called ‘the Siren’, has lost her husband to the sea. He wandered out, somewhere off the coast in Southeast Asia, and never came back. If you, like this Siren, have lost someone to the water, you may think of them a fish, by now. But not just one fish, a specific being somewhere in the vastness of the ocean, one you have to find or rejoin, eventually. What you lost has become fishiness, wateriness, jellyfishness itself: an all-over-the-place, dissipated, shapeless, incredibly vibrant near-perception of presence. For years, maybe forever, you speak to this sensation. You don’t eat anything that comes from water: that fishiness, you cannot eat it, though you may recognise it as your kin, and though sometimes you do eat what you love. Over time, you become a little bit like it, too: a little bit ocean. And when you cry, it is the sea itself that is coming out of you.
Other things do not melt at all, not for now, not ever. In her first aria, the Siren wonders how it’s possible that such a strong swimmer could have drowned. The story is small, personal, multipliable to the infinite but condensed into this very one. By the time she sings again, later in the opera, his foolish act of self-confidence becomes equivalent, metonymically, to humanity’s hubris as a whole: “He wants to conquer and control what is not his to own… ACIDY WAVES,/IVORY FOAM –/AIRPLANES IN THE SKY,/SHIPS SAILING THE SEA…” The techno-colonial sphere itself, stepping into the sea to master it (followed swiftly by the sea’s revenge).
On this beach, techno-Utopias take the shape of a self-perpetuating 3D-printed world that cares absolutely not at all that there’s nothing else left around it, so long as it can reproduce itself (a familiar story). In the ‘3D Sisters’ Song’, twin pre-teens describe how they came to be: “My mother left a 3D printer turned on./And the machine began to print me out./When my body dies, I will remain,/In an empty planet without birds, animals and corals./Yet with the press of a single button,/I will remake this world again.”
5. Then there’s is the unthinkable, the unbearable weight of all that’s dying, all that’s melting, all that’s rotting, breathing, watching, shivering and dreaming and piling up. The slow creaking of an exhausted Earth: a gasp.
Everything in Sun & Sea (Marina) ends as it began: with sunscreen. The characters have come very far, sung together and apart, briefly tuned into the widest possible sense of self, danced in their second bodies, and come right back again. The impasse, this impossibility of saying, is a quintessentially human problem in a more-than-human world. The aporia of consciousness, trained on physical objects in its immediate vicinity, taught to believe the senses, not the instinct. Obstinately holding onto the certainty that telepathy does not exist (it does), that there’s a discernible separation between self and other (there isn’t), that we know who we mean when we say ‘I’ (we really have no idea). That we can ignore it all for just as long as it takes to live a life and go.
Yet, in spite of it all, it may be unwise to think of this work as dystopian. For all of its subtle, emotional, environmental anxiety, Sun & Sea (Marina) carries its characters’ foolish optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence not with judgement but with relative care, with something akin to self-recognition. We may be four meters above for an hour or so, but for the most part, we’re on the beach, too, and in the beach, and also under the shoreline, becoming seaweed. “Rose-colored dresses flutter:/Jellyfish dance along in pairs –/With emerald-colored bags,/Bottles and red bottle-caps./O the sea never had so much color!” Sun & Sea (Marina) is an ode to a tired planet, and to the tired, singing, thinking beings swarming around it (trees, weeds, fish, cats, ghosts, bugs, rocks and all), like a fleshy, waxy, mossy, squishy earthly crust.
It’s been a while: you remember to look down. Someone below you unwraps a sandwich. A napkin flies away with the breeze, swoops down to rest on a dune, flies up again, then disappears off-stage and into the water.