My Electric Genealogy

Female performer, wearing a 1930s man's dress shirt and tie and a woman's hat, looks intently and joyfully at her raised finger before a projected image of electricity arcing and a 1930s photos of a young woman in a similar pose.

So, this all started when I realized my grandfather would have been ninety-nine the year my daughter was born.

They almost share a century, but not really. He was born ten years into it. She came nine years after its not-yet-apocalyptic end. I float two-thirds of the way between them. The Kanouse reproductive rhythm seemingly calibrated in 33-year cycles, like a brood of undiscovered cicadas.

Poised on opposite shores of that oceanic expanse we call the twentieth century, they will never see each other’s faces, but mirror images they are all the same. 

- Opening lines of performance script, My Electric Genealogy

Description

For nearly forty years my grandfather designed, planned, and managed the spider-vein network of lines connecting Los Angeles to its distant sources of electric power.  From the 1930s until his retirement as general manager of the LA Department of Water and Power in 1972, my grandfather made a second family of the grid and its substations, converters, and interties, photographing these monuments of the modern everyday with one foot in the aesthetic and another in the techno-scientific sublime. When he died, he left behind images of transmission towers along with snapshots of birthdays and family Christmases, inspiring me to re-imagine the electric grid as populated by non-human ‘uncles’ and ‘cousins’ whose names I should know and whose legacies will pass to my child.

My Electric Genealogy is an original, 90-minute solo performance that proceeds from this imaginative re-reading of my family tree. It combines live storytelling with still and moving images, choreographed movement, and an original score to make intimate the crumbling, carbon-heavy infrastructures that imperil the planet and to probe the aesthetic, ethical, and practical responses they demand.  These systems include not just power plants and transmission lines, but also ‘infrastructures of feeling:’ closely held beliefs about nature, gender, race, and progress. Wearing a midcentury men’s suit, I alternately embody my grandfather, my grandmother, my teenaged-self, my professional-self, and my parent-self to seek intergenerational responsibility. What does it mean to raise another human being in a climate-ravaged world, and can that act of social reproduction become a project of social and political transformation?

Bookended by the 99 years that separate my grandfather’s birth and my daughter’s, the performance charts both the specific trajectory of Los Angeles’s development from the early twentieth century to the present.  While set in Los Angeles, the story addresses the broader cultural, political, and ecological imagination—from the modernist optimism that built the Hoover Dam to ideas about urban sustainability that lead the city to divest its share of the Navajo Generating Station in 2016.  Reframing the power grid as a dynamic entity that connects diverse and unequally vulnerable communities, I ask how an ethics of care and mutual obligation might animate the response to environmental crises of the past, present, and future.

Trailer

Excerpt

Work-in-Progress Performances

Boston, MA – Theatre Lab, Northeastern University, 2018

Williamstown, MA – Clark Art Institute, 2017

Santa Cruz Island, CA – Mapping Meaning, 2016

Valencia, CA – California Institute of the Arts, And Now! Blast Radius: Writing and the Other Arts, 2015

Ames, IA – Iowa State University, Goldfarb Lecture, 2015

Iowa City, IA – Englert Theater, Ten Tiny Performance, curated by Esther Baker-Tarpaga, 2014
(as “Sketches from the Death of My Grandfather”)

Credit

Sarah Kanouse, My Electric Genealogy, performance, work-in-progress anticipated 2019

Sound by Beau Kenyon