“Don’t Go Back to Sleep”: The time for change is now

05/24/2014 8:00 AM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Chemical spills, ozone alerts, earthquakes and fracking, arctic melting.

Many Americans seem willing to put up with these dangers in exchange for jobs and lifestyle. Some wonder if it’s even possible to effect change given the power and influence of multinational corporations in matters relating to the environment.

The idea of agency — our ability to act and make choices to influence outcomes — is a central theme of “Don’t Go Back to Sleep,” a new video by 2012 Guggenheim fellow Stanya Kahn now playing at Grand Arts.

Sitting through the work’s full 75 minutes and absorbing its import, you won’t go back to sleep. In fact, it may well leave you sleepless.

The story unfolds as a series of vignettes in which young doctors and medical professionals cope with an intensifying environmental crisis that leaves victims weak and bleeding from the nose and eventually kills them.

In between medical emergencies, they dance and eat, philosophize and reminisce, and discuss changes in plant life and animal behavior brought on by human activity.

“I don’t work with traditional narrative structure,” Kahn said. “For me there is an internal logic to the piece.”

She repeatedly shows the scrubs-clad doctors moving dead bodies wrapped in white sheets outdoors, where the doctors risk being overcome by episodic outbreaks of a malignant vapor.

Kahn admits that “Don’t Go Back to Sleep” is “bleak,” in contrast to the humorous videos she is best known for. It’s a powerful work that goes quietly and insistently about the business of trying to inspire change.

The soundtrack, which includes original compositions by Kahn and musician Keith Wood, as well as snippets of well-known pop songs, is an important part of the production.

“Sound is huge,” Kahn said. “It’s a way to give an alternative to language and dialogue and help shape moods and feelings.”

The video is daring in its use of mostly non-actors drawn from KC whom the L.A.-based Kahn did not meet until shooting started. She nonetheless afforded them a wide berth for improvisation.

“Process became the bedrock of content, working with people I didn’t know,” she said. “I set up situations innately out of my control and offered them scenarios and prompts. I ended up with a piece that had live agency in its fabric.”

Nor had Kahn seen the locations, a series of vacant new homes and condos in and around Kansas City. These, like the cast, were scouted by Grand Arts before she arrived to begin work.

Outfitted with such accoutrements of the American dream as granite countertops, shiny appliances, a pool table and Lladro figurines, the settings exemplify the tradeoff society is willing to make: consumer goods, always brand new, in exchange for viable habitats.

But by portraying materialism as a given, Kahn begs us to ask ourselves, must it be?

The video is threaded with alluring shots of nature’s beauty — big Midwestern-sky sunsets and moonrises, rabbits scampering about a field, deer loping across a road at dusk — as if to say: Do you value this or this?

Moments of reminiscence about growing up on farms, tasselling sweet corn and buying it off the back of a truck strike an elegiac note in this context. Other discussions center on the proliferation of invasive species such as the ailanthus, also known as the “ghetto palm,” and poison ivy, which has thrived in response to weed whacking and the use of pesticides.

There’s a relentlessness to these observations of small changes that could gradually make the planet unlivable — if some huge industrial accident doesn’t make it happen sooner.

None of the characters has a name, including a dying young woman doctor ensconced in a bathtub. Voice weak and obviously suffering, she fulfills the role of group confessor until she expires.

In fact, all of the victims are drawn from the doctors’ ranks; in the video’s many shots of downtown Kansas City and the surrounding landscape, ordinary citizens never appear.

Threaded throughout are brief scenes featuring an animal-costumed trickster figure. Functioning apart from the group, often riding a bicycle through the landscape, this odd character assumes a variety of personifications, including grim reaper, free agent and helpmate, making sandwiches for a couple of doctors outside in a field.

Kahn keeps it all low-key. The camera frequently returns to the young doctors’ repeated and unsuccessful attempts to procure needed supplies by telephone, but even when dealing with urgent situations, they rarely raise their voices.

The cumulative effect is a sense of terrifying resignation in the face of forces beyond their control.

“My interest in showing resignation is to evoke agency and resilience in the viewer,” Kahn said. “We feel really powerless. I wouldn’t be working so hard to create and communicate if I didn’t have a stake in some sort of dialogue about change.”

In one scene, a female doctor confronts a male about what she sees as his high-handed behavior: “If you would talk to me like a human being, we would both figure something out instead of wasting time arguing,” she insists.

It’s a crucial moment in Kahn’s vision for “Don’t Go Back to Sleep.”

“It’s about how we’re going to have to come together and make things work,” she said, “incorporated in the making of the piece.”

A 75-minute video, laced with metaphor and crafted to carry much of its message through the way it was made, is a nigh impossible sell for general consumption. But difficult works like this perform a crucial role in shifting the zeitgeist, reframing our ideas about how to approach seemingly intractable problems and pushing the world to a better place.

After Kahn’s show ends in July, Grand Arts has one more major project planned before it closes in 2015.

The closing will leave a huge hole in Kansas City’s artistic and intellectual life. Under founder Margaret Silva, Grand Arts has been unique in its commitment to sponsoring such challenging and ambitious projects as Patricia Cronin’s groundbreaking same-sex mortuary statue, “Memorial to a Marriage,” and William Pope.L’s “Trinket,” a gigantic wind-blown American flag in Municipal Auditorium.

Works such as Alfredo Jaar’s “Muxima” have been exhibited around the world, and Kahn’s “Don’t Go Back to Sleep,” which was just shown at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, is likely to gain broad exposure.

Patrons such as Silva are rare. At present, it is hard to imagine another local institution investing in such provocative projects, which have helped earn Kansas City a global profile as an incubator of meaningful contemporary art.

To reach Alice Thorson, call 816-234-4763 or send email to athorson@kcstar.com.

On exhibit

“Stanya Kahn: Don’t Go Back to Sleep” continues at Grand Arts, 1819 Grand Blvd., through July 3. Regular screening times are 11 a.m. 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. See a trailer at http://vimeo.com/95813383. For more information, call 816-421-6887 or go to www.grandarts.com.

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