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Friday, October 16, 2015

Real Enemies—Shadow History

Real Enemies comes to the BAM Harvey Theater November 18—22, with music by Darcy James Argue, films by Peter Nigrini, and text and direction by Isaac Butler, who shares his thoughts here.

Darcy James Argue and his 18-piece band Secret Society. Photo: Noah Stern Weber

As of this writing, the Real Enemies team has just returned from developing the piece at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. People know Virginia Tech for many reasons—its unique limestone, football team, and engineering program are all legendary—but more recently, Tech and its environs have been in the news because of a spectacular act of violence. In late August, Vester Flanagan shot and killed two former colleagues on live television in the outskirts of Roanoke, less than 30 minutes from our hotel. Shortly thereafter, he released footage of the murder filmed from his own point of view, and then killed himself during a car chase with police.

That’s the official version of the story, the one I (and most Americans) believe. In the wake of the Roanoke shootings, however, a new shadow narrative emerged. According to this story, so-called “crisis actors” faked the shooting on camera in order to abet the government’s voracious quest to end gun rights. Similar stories burbled up from the tar pits of the internet after the Sandy Hook shootings.

These conspiracy theories are outlandish and, to many, offensive. Even worse, however, is that our government actually considered commissioning faked acts of terrorism in order to provoke and justify war with Cuba in 1962. Dubbed “Operation Northwoods,” and recommended by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before President Kennedy nixed the operation, the plan included flying fake Cuban MiGs past commuter jets, and killing American citizens in acts of terror that could be blamed on Castro.

Belief in conspiracies is one of the defining aspects of modern culture. It transcends political, economic, and other divides. Conservative or liberal, rich or poor, religious or secular, across all races and backgrounds there exists a conspiratorial strain of thought that believes there are forces secretly plotting against us, or controlling our fates. A conspiracy theory about King George III’s plans for the colonies even sits at the heart of the Declaration of Independence.

Conspiracy comes from the Latin conspirare, which literally means to breathe together, but in its everyday usage means to agree to or to plot. A plot is, of course, also a story, or a narrative. When the composer Darcy James Argue, the projection designer Peter Nigrini, and I set out to investigate and build a multimedia live music-theater piece about conspiracy theories, we realized very swiftly that we were actually investigating the nature of narrative itself.

E.M. Forster famously wrote that “The King died and then the Queen died,” is not a story, but “The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is. Causality lies at the heart of all narrative. Without causality, all that remains are isolated events. Conspiracy theories take these isolated events, and insert causality, making them into a plot. Conspiracy theories, then, are on one level simply another form of narrative sense-making, like taking the stars in the sky and weaving them into mythical scorpions and crabs and hunters.

These particular narratives tend to flourish at times when we have genuine cause to distrust those in power. When we learn that the NSA has been monitoring all of our emails and cataloging all of our phone calls, or that the FBI ran a secret illegal program for decades dedicated to destroying the American left, or that the CIA secretly dosed prisoners, drug addicts, housewives, and prostitutes with LSD as part of its mind control research, the only natural response is: “What else are they hiding from us?”

Real Enemies is ultimately a work of nonfiction, which is to say, it is an exploration of real world beliefs. Building it has entailed extensive research into a broad range of conspiracies, from the familiar and well-documented to the speculative and outlandish. The show traces the historical roots, iconography, ideology, rhetoric, and psychology of these conspiracies. It chronicles a shadow history of postwar America, touching on everything from COINTELPRO to the alleged CIA-Contra cocaine trafficking ring to reptilian shape-shifters from Alpha Draconis infiltrating our government at the highest level.

Darcy James Argue. Photo: Noah Stern Weber
As befitting a journey into postwar paranoia, the score draws on 12-tone techniques even as it departs from conventional notions about how those techniques are traditionally employed. In Real Enemies, the 12-tone row is a deep structural device, not just for the music, but for the formal and visual development of the entire work. Other musical touchstones include the film scores of Michael Small and David Shire, Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, early 1980s LA electrofunk-influenced hip hop, intricately layered polyrhythms at the intersection of post-minimalist classical music and contemporary jazz, and much more.

Using 15 projection screens, multi-channel video, stealthy staging, and a giant clock counting down to doomsday, Real Enemies combines found text and media from dozens of sources to spin a web of paranoia and distrust-. Seemingly disparate pieces of information gain a new coherence. After all, when the truth becomes increasingly elusive, we all have to decide what we believe, what stars we’ll connect, and what new constellations we’ll form. 

Reprinted from Oct 2015 BAMbill.

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