Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“I really don’t know if my hypothesis will work,” the speaker says halfway through his monologue. He proceeds to draw diagrams with white chalk on his drafting table, the only other thing on stage other than himself, with an overhead camera feeding a live recording of it onto the back wall. After more than half an hour of an impassioned speech on Galileo Galilei and Mars, he is nowhere near finished.
The North American premiere of The Terrestrial Trilogy marked the end of this year’s Crossing the Line Festival, an annual multimedia arts festival hosted by New York’s French Institute Alliance Française. The show, written by Bruno Latour, directed by Frédérique Aït-Touati, and performed by Duncan Evennou, combines three acts — “Inside,” “Moving Earths,” and “Viral,” produced in 2016, 2019, and 2020, respectively — into one three-hour theater presentation that is ambitiously complex and curiously engaging. This production, the culmination of Latour’s work, is a valedictory, as well. The influential French philosopher died, at age 75, just weeks before the opening of the festival.
Latour studied geology and cosmology in the context of socioanthropology, which inspired him to write the deeply complicated play. Its layered multimedia format seems to directly reflect its layered message: Earth isn’t simply a globe with flattened maps, it’s a much more complex makeup of interconnected everythings.
Evennou, as the sole performer on stage for the entirety of the The Terrestrial Trilogy, moves through a vast range of high-level concepts — from the flaws of our conventional understanding of Earth to the cobweb of our ecological connectedness, along with historical and contemporary attempts at reimagining our perception of nature and beyond. His fast pace turns The Terrestrial Trilogy into a high-intensity interdisciplinary classroom that combines politics and science, fervor and brains. While the performance leaves us with new ways of thinking about the planet, it stops short of the question all that thinking leads to: Now what?
The “lecture performance” starts with a critique of our obsession with the great outdoors, originating in popular narratives like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and NASA’s 1972 image “Blue Marble,” the first photo to show the full planet Earth floating in space. Urging us that this worldview needs to change, the philosopher presents his next big idea: the critical zone, a thin layer of the planet sustaining all living things, which is now ever fragile. Next, Galileo’s 1632 discovery of the cosmos is compared to the September 2019 climate strikes to demonstrate that our social and cosmic order move together. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis follows shortly after, as a positive frame of reference to the planet. Then, Evenouu sketches models of seven phases of Earth, in chronological order, commentating on evolution while invoking Brexit, the Russia-Ukraine war, Italy’s new conservative leader, and Brazil’s ensuing political violence — all within the span of a minute. The play concludes with the contrasting ideas of supremacy versus interdependence, imploring the audience to change their perception to the latter.
While Evennou’s constructed sense of urgency towards the planet is palpable, the abstract and complex subject matter risks alienating the viewer. Toward the end of Part I: “Inside,” one viewer reacted with a loud snoring sound. After the intermission, several seats had been vacated. Evennou himself repeated at three different points, “Have I completely lost you all?”
What The Terrestrial Trilogy gets right is its seamless and dynamic blend of high and low technology. Futuristic renderings are combined with physical print-outs and hands-on sketches, their tactile nature arousing deeper intimacy and engagement. It’s a pleasant contrast to an overly digitized and therefore detached method of presenting. Evennou paces about the stage to deliver Latour’s scientific findings, using large screens to project superimposed photos, moving diagrams, and three-dimensional videos, shifting his tone from soothing and colloquial, to dramatic and ominous. He’s eloquent and convincing, his feverish passion manifesting through his skilled execution, invoking the solitary genius.
But even with its compelling audiovisual elements, The Terrestrial Trilogy comes across as a frenzy of concepts from the Anthropocene. It succeeds in educating, but stops short of empowering — a crucial objective in ongoing climate change conversations. What it achieves in aesthetics, it forgoes in interactivity. Its didactic, doom-and-gloom nature inspires urgency by way of fear and anxiety, declining to offer any cause for hope.