Imminent annihilation plausibly threatening contemporary life as we know it, isn’t usually a subject for popular genres like musical theater — at least it hasn’t been since the Cold War. Yet, when facing the possibility of climate change catastrophe, A.I. apocalypse and nuclear incineration, what is more relatable than multidimensional permacrisis?
At the List Visual Arts Center, a museum for contemporary art within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, the multimedia and internet culture artist Lex Brown clocks the psychic tenor of ambient daily doom with her latest exhibition, “Carnelian.” As a 60-minute musical video unspools on four billboard-size screens in the darkened space of one of the museum’s salons, the show rides the emotional roller coaster of life under constant threat of demise, ruminating on the fraying of society’s collective nerves — through song.
A sci-fi tale told in a prologue and three acts, “Carnelian” follows three characters in a bunker — Orachrysops (Najee Duwon), Necyria (Ciani Barclay) and Bicyclus (Mya Drew Flood) — contending with a force they refer to only as “the Boom.” The ambiguity around the Boom drives the characters’ anxiety, and the work. By abstracting the terror they face, Brown makes viewers her monster’s collaborators, forcing us to shade in her blanks with our own nightmares.
Initially, I read “Carnelian” to be about the anxiety stemming from the rapid advances in artificial intelligence, and the scrum of articles about whether the technology might pose an existential threat to humanity.
Ultimately, though, “Carnelian” settled in as being less about any particular threat, and more about feeling lost amid the deluge of emergency overload. The song “Boom” has something to rile up everyone: “nothing’s as sacred and reviled as the womb,” “plastic passes for food,” “the market crashes” — there’s even a mention of the writers’ strike in Hollywood. Are these end times vibes unique to today or, as Necyria sings, “just the latest in how many centuries of turmoil that we’ve had?” All three chime in: “But over the horizon something is new. I know I heard it go boom.”
The linguistic dexterity of “Carnelian” is a hallmark of Brown’s work. (She has also written the erotic sci-fi novel “My Wet Hot Drone Summer.”) Her wordplay here lands even more incisively given the show’s location at M.I.T., where it’s hard to avoid thinking about the role of elite universities in grooming minds to engineer existentially consequential technologies in the name of perpetual advancement.
Her lyrics and the catchy singalong music (written with Samuel Beebe) help subvert the fear permeating the project, lending a surprising approachability to a looming apocalypse. “Carnelian” uses this catchiness to address society’s impulse to self-soothe through cheap hits of social media. “Maybe scroll? Try scrolling!” Orachrysops shouts, desperate to listen to “The Script,” a fictional daily podcast produced by the fictional Omnesia Radio.
Brown herself makes an audio cameo, as the conspiracy-minded host of “The Script.” “Governments are predicting a catastrophic loss,” she chirps. “What else can we expect? Military exercises and natural events that may be caustic.”
As if that weren’t enough, she adds, “And what nobody wants you to know?: It’s about the horse tranquilizer!”
This fictional pop-authoritarian podcast and parent company call back to the corporate villain in Brown’s earlier video works like “The Glass Eye” and “Communication,” in which the artist stars as multiple characters resisting Omnesia’s digital clutches. And by opening “Carnelian” with an auction of a box branded with the film’s name (before plunging us into her characters’ parallel universe through that portal), Brown once again explores how the digital ad business shapes our perceptions of reality through algorithmically personalized feeds designed to keep us scrolling.
Combating threats like climate change, nuclear war and A.I. unraveling civilization requires global cooperation, Brown argues; market dynamics won’t prevent the worst from happening. Fortunately, the looping narrative structure of “Carnelian” provides endless chances. Over and over, Brown’s protagonists awaken to the shock of what they believe will be their last day. Implicitly, she asks, will this be the time they collectively face these challenges with empathy? And by extension, when will we?
Lex Brown: Carnelian
Through July 16, MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames Street, Building E15, Cambridge, Mass.; listart.mit.edu/; 617-253-4680
This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.