Some writing...

Sasha Petrenko // Work Plan: Oro Residency

In April ‘18 I spent 10 days on the isolated Farrallon Islands, with 6 other government employees and volunteers, 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, California. The islands, a nature preserve, are closed to the public, and notoriously difficult to reach. The ocean swells are particularly choppy beyond the bay due to volcanic outcroppings and strong ocean currents. A major shark feeding ground, the area is also known for being the site of over 400 hundred recorded ship and airplane wrecks since the islands discovery by the Spaniards in the late 16th century. With no dock or pier due to the islands sheer walls, we step off 2 by 2 from the deep hulled fishing boat onto a less impressive raft fitted with an outboard motor and make our way towards a craggy inlet. We are picked up by a crane and transferred safely onto land. Offloading is the same but in reverse and can only be done when the weather is fair. One unexpected swell could thrash the raft or the fishing boat against razor sharp cliffs.


We spent our time on the island abating invasive spinach, hiking around in white Tyvec suits worn to protect our clothes, we are told, from the blue dye of the diluted pesticide spray we used to subdue the unfortunate intruder. The irony was not lost on us, who are we to call the other an invasive. But the trained ecologists did not respond well when pressed on the issue. Restoration is their livelihood. And so I kept my disturbing questions to myself.

During the day we worked mostly in isolation, wandering the cliffs, clearly outnumbered by the thousands of birds that swarmed, fed and fought around us. Hundreds of seals basked, dove and swam along the islands bays and fingers. When we approached the birds took flight creating sonic clouds of white while the seals weighed down by pounds of flesh and fat growled and barked earthly and guttural, and we humans, stuck in the middle, pulled plants from the rocky soil, much like those who came before us. We were both stuck in the middle between sea and the mainland, heaven and earth.

Within a few days a daily pattern emerged. Up at dawn to brew coffee by the pot, breakfast comparisons, then suiting up in white and mounting 40 pound packs of blue fluid on our backs to dash the island spinach plant that was already haunting our dreams. Around 1 we’d start to fall out for lunch and after 5 or 6, dinner, that nightly was cooked by a different volunteer. Working on the island we developed healthy appetites and our meals together were highlights of the day. Then the evenings were spent describing everything we wish we had with us, whiskey, a guitar, more cigarettes. Later we’d read or write alone in one of the shared bedrooms in the former home for the lighthouse keeper and his family. After over a century of operation it was decided conditions were not suitable for a man and his family. The deaths of several children were recorded in official ledgers. The lighthouse has been automated for 45 years.

The isolation and general lack of what we were used to having resulted in a growing sensory awareness of my body, its vulnerability, on the island, on the rocks, in the wind, which would flap and whip at my white Tyvek suit, as I’d stare out across the prehistoric landscape, and the limitless sea. Like a thousand white kites, gulls rode the wind above me. While the wind filled my ears, I could imagine myself a time traveler or an astronaut dropped down on this barren isle, charged with restoring some lost ecology, while destroying the remaining one.

Time periods coexist. Human time, earth time, sea gull time, whale time, prehistoric time, all time inscribed in the rocks, in the architecture of the buildings pealing white paint and blackening wood, worn down nautical fixtures of copper and brass, submerged and sand encrusted. Violet light racing across the unbelievable and edgeless horizon. The sun cracks through the clouds and spills onto the sea in theatrical display. I’m not religious, but I felt this sense of deep time through and in my body during my stay on the islands which hums in me still. The Farallons. I heard myself asking “Where are we going?” And “Why?” What drives us, in an almost suicidal impulse to discover what? A new land, home, a purpose, a resurrection, our better nature, forgiveness, freedom, love?

What has this to do with my desire to experience time on the Oro Archipelago? My work for the past 6 or 7 years has been about exploring the relationships between human and extra human nature. My performance work, writing, sound work and video is layered, like a cosmic ecological sandwich. I identify systems that involve both human and extra human participants. [In my view there is no divide or border between us, despite our best or worst efforts. Their is no wall long or tall enough to stop the interweaving of our species’ fate.] But I am no scientist, or authority on anything but my own way, and that is even questionable at best. So my work asks questions by drawing parallels between us and them, humanity and animals, plants and people, our bodies and the universe.

My Work Plan: I would like to use my time on Oro to continue research, writing, conduct field work and begin filming a new video series about the human body and how it relates to the universe. Using systems thinking (social, political, botanical, geological, ecological) I will draw parallels between human anatomy, planetary systems and ultimately expand out to the astronomical and universal. Only slightly a kin to the canonical The Powers of 10 film by the famous American designers, Charles and Ray Eames, where as the Eames’s film was concerned with the relative scale of things in the universe, my video series will pay closer attention to a complete collapse in scale.

I plan to spend the first 10 days to 2 weeks of my residency walking around the archipelago, as walking is part of my process, and reading or listening to audio books. [I frequently refer to my work as psychedelic book reports given how much reading I do prior to production.] Typically what happens next is I will write and write and just as I am about to pull out my hair something happens and then it is recorded. I may dialogue with my computer using text to speech and or call on friends to translate and record passages in a language other than my own. And so I begin to fill in and to lay down the grounding tracks for a series. Often all the audio is completed prior to shooting video. This method I find helps me to build a structure for the series before the overwhelming idea of the visual comes into the picture. 

My second 2 weeks will involve much filming and some editing. I will come prepared with essential equipment, my camera, green screen fabric, projector, sound equipment and then I will go out for my walks with my camera, recording and looking for miracles in the soil, in the trees, along the waterways. It’s not hard to find. It just takes time, patience and faith in the oneness of everything there is and a desire to tell this story so we can delight in our connection to each other and to the unbelievable cosmos, right here and now and always. 

It is my hope to begin a work that aims to explore the relationships between our bodies, a sense of place, our planet, the universe and time. Quite a shopping list I agree. But if I can begin to tell the story and show how patterns in our bodies mirror those in plants and the universe, and how time is like a flower and we are all held in it’s scent, sliding down layers upon layers of satin pedals of perception, pulled continuously to the core of all that is and will ever be... it shall be something.