Burning Bright: On Stephanie Barber’s surreally poignant “In the Jungle”

“Science is about knowledge and power. In our time, natural science defines the human being’s place in nature and history and provides the instruments of domination of the body and the community. By constructing the category nature, natural science imposes limits on history and self-formation. So science is part of the struggle over the nature of our lives.”
— Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

Something ridiculously simple yet genuinely odd happens about 15 minutes into Stephanie Barber’s In the Jungle, her new film version of a solo performance piece that she debuted in 2009. The general ideas of the three-act plot remain the same: a scientist (Barber in the solo performance) narrates her ethnographic field notes about studying plants in the first part, presents something like a paper based on her fieldwork to the International Association of Botanists in the second, and listens to a radio DJ’s late-night broadcast in the third. In the first and third sections the scientist is ostensibly in the jungle for her research, yet what she says and how she says them make you wonder if you can believe the veracity of her findings and statements. She’s scientist, our modern producer of knowledge, as an unreliable narrator.

In the original solo performances, Barber segued between sections with stretches of improvised music and a video projection of a tiger running superimposed on a series photographs, which moved from nature scenes to the more domestic and urban imagery of civilization. In the new film Jungle, which was shot in 2015 when Barber staged the piece at the Theatre Project starring Cricket Arrison as the scientist and Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt as the radio DJ, both the tiger video and abstract soundtrack remain, but she adds a curious wrinkle: cinematographer Mathew Robert Thompson’s camera begins a slow 360-degree pan at the end of Jungle‘s first section, where Arrison is typing up her field notes on a giant typewriter created bet set designers Smelling Salts Amusements. As the camera starts making its slow turn, which takes a few minutes, black-clad stage hands enter the frame and begin breaking down the stage to change sets. Eventually the camera takes in the black of the theater’s wall before arriving at the attending audience, backlit, creating a halo of faces looking forward. Visually this shot kinda recalls the faceless cavalcade of the angry mob at the end of John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust, only instead of figures darting to and fro in front of giant searchlights, it’s slowly taking in a group of people sitting patiently, docile, waiting.

Not to take anything away from Barber’s writing or performance skills, but film is her most expressive and precise artistic language, and this simple camera motions introduces another wrinkle to In the Jungle‘s droll thematic universe, brining the audience into its world of artifice. Like much of Barber’s creative labor, Jungle exists in the tension of both recognizing the profound beauty of the natural world that we inhabit while coming to grips with the inadequacies of our knowledge systems, including language, to describe and understand it. As a solo piece Jungle also toyed with language’s inability to describe the self, the scientist’s field notes and presentation confounding and illuminating in equal measure. With the film Jungle, Barber suggests that language might also be fairly deficient in its ability to allow us to understand each other.

Credit Arrison and Schmidt for helping Barber suss out this aspect of the piece; they turn these formerly solo personas into stand-alone characters that have different ways of speaking, body language, and, just by being different people, qualities of voices. Arrison, particularly, is a pleasure to watch in this role. As an actor she’s got a gift for not only handling verbally complex dialog parts—see also: her The World is Round performance—but finding the human being who would talk and think in such ways. And she handles Barber’s script, which hews to the style and tone of ethnography while also parodying them. In the first section—which the scientist ludicrously says is her 1,612nd day in the field, or roughly four and a half years—she first reveals that perhaps we can’t trust what she says, that she might be, intentionally or unintentionally, untruthful:

“I grow more convinced that, not only should I not share the wonders and secrets to which I have been privy these years here in the jungle, but that perhaps I should willfully obfuscate and misinform those who wish to learn its charms. Perhaps the revolutionary faction of the fern family has been filling my head with vibrant propaganda while sleep and, like the sugars which trees release at regularly timed intervals to control the ascension of beetles and other underground insects needing alarms, perhaps the plants are sweetening my sense of time.”

Arrison delivers these lines in the calm, clinical voice of doctor dictating patient notes, but she also occasionally tilts her head, pauses as if considering what to say, and rushes through parts as if words are coming to her in a torrent of ideas. During the presentation in the middle section, Arrison’s performance is even more tightly controlled, part lecture by a learned expertise in her field and part woman doing her best not to tell people what she’s really thinking.

Being a slow learner, it was only while watching the film version of In the Jungle that I realized the entire piece is basically a thematic fugue of three monologues and sound: the scientist’s almost internal monologue of the field notes, the lecture presentation, and the radio DJ. In the first and third the audience for these texts are unknown to the speakers. While the scientist listens to the radio DJ’s broadcast and even calls in a request—and, well, tells the DJ that she’s a snake—there’s no implicit relationship between the two, and Schmidt’s dry wit and debonair voice only amplifies the chasm separating the scientist and him. To her, he’s a warm voice on a lonely night; to him, she’s the lady up late calling in because she wants to hear a song. And she’s saying she’s a snake out there with all her snake friends. OK, sure.

In only the second part of Jungle is the intended audience for a monologue known and seen—us, sitting in the theater, which Jungle‘s set even deliberately pokes fun at with two rows of cardboard cutout attendees placed onstage in front of Arrison’s scientist. This presentation is both the work’s most completely off its rocker piece of writing and the most succinct articulation of its core concerns: our complete and utter inability to hear and understand each other’s ordinary, everyday pain. That Barber’s script delivers such passionately vulnerability in a stretch of genuinely arch comedy—seriously, Arrison’s lecture performance impressively somersaults from deadpan humor to pretentious gravitas—bores a hole into the customary language of modern scientific and philosophical writing, and is the reason for the Donna Haraway quote that begins this review. Watching this In the Jungle brought to mind Haraway’s mediation on the political economy (re)produced in biological ideas and the role of language in that process, which the historian of science explores in that same book:

“One thing is undeniable about biology since its early formulations in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: biology tells tales about origins, about genesis, and about nature. Further, modern feminists have inherited our story in a patriarchal voice. Biology is the science of life, conceived and authored by a word from the father. Feminists have inherited knowledge through the paternal line. The word was Aristotle’s, Galileo’s, Bacon’s, Newton’s, Linnaeus’s, Darwin’s; the flesh was woman’s. And the word was made flesh, naturally. We have been engendered. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979), in their study of nineteenth-century women writers, discuss women’s travail to construct a voice, to have authority, to author a text, to tell a story, to give birth to the word. To author is to have the power to originate, to name. Women who seek to produce natural knowledge, like our sisters who learned to write and speak, also must decipher a text, the book of nature, authored legitimately by men.”

In the Jungle isn’t so obvious as to come out and ask, “Does this phenomenology make my butt look big?”—but in Barber’s winding sentences and Arrison’s controlled performance, they ably show how language and knowledge systems hide as much as they tell, are able to identify some things and not others, and are often as close as we can get to sharing something about ourselves and yet still remain completely obscured by the forests of consciousness’ night. By turns odd, funny, and ultimately touching, the film wants to discuss the problems of the very way we know things but has to use those ways we know things to point out that we might not know what we think we do. And when we finally realize the futility of just such an endeavor, maybe the best we can hope for is a friendly disembodied voice in the night, who picks up the phone when we call, and who plays our favorite song, just because we asked.