As we enter the Black Box for the theater capstone of Harshini Karunaratne, Class of 2018, at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Center, a warning sign greets us: this performance will include the use of strobe lights and haze. At the center of the performance area is a tall podium with an old oil lamp on top of it. Beyond that, there is nothing but darkness around. There are no seats, and the audience is unsure what to do. We walk around slowly and position ourselves around the podium. On one side, a small stage has been propped and two cellists begin to play sad, ominous music. Two blue stage lights drop down on them and drown them in blue light, making their flowy white clothing glow with luminescent light.

A girl walks in and picks up the lamp on the podium, switches it on and begins to walk around the podium. She asks “Life is a wonder of wonders, isn’t it? It’s beautiful. It all is. Can you remember ? It’s okay if you can’t” The audience is still unsure as to what to do. We look at each other and no one is moving. The girl then moves closer to the audience. “Come with me,” she says, as she looks directly into the eyes of every single audience member and brings the lamp closer to the faces of the audience. Hesitant at first, the audience eventually starts walking with her and follows her around in a circle.

The performance explores the afterlife stage through VJing. This type of technologically embedded visual performance is accompanied by music and is often found at concerts and nightclubs. Karunaratne fondly refers to her project as a club capstone.

Karunaratne’s theater capstone stemmed out of her film capstone research project on magic lanterns, which was a 17th century pre-cinematic technology which combined a projector, pictures and light, and how these magic lanterns were utilized in a 19th century theatrical experience called phantasmagoria show.

Karunaratne’s show attempts to create a visual stimulus for people to create an atmosphere that evokes 1980s club culture.

I chose the 1980s because that’s when VJing specifically originated from, and so it’s a combination of a phantasmagoria show and a club scene to create a very visual and visceral experience,” she said.

In the show, the girl finishes her walk around the podium, returns to the podium and places the lamp on top. Once the lamp is placed, smoke begins to emit from the podium and fills up the entire room. The smoke is especially highlighted towards the roof as lights flash through the room. It gives an effect of clouds floating above us. The cellists especially are cloaked in an ethereal effect. In addition to the cello music, club music starts to play and the two different melodies flow into each other and sometimes clash with each other.

Karunaratne describes the show as having illustrations of devils, ghosts, phantoms.

When you project these images in a very dark room with an audience that’s kind of intoxicated and sometimes drugged, they believe that these creatures are coming to earth from the dead,” she said.

The audience stays still and looks around at each other as new light projections begin to start streaking their way through the floor, and occasionally climbing over the audience members. Excluding the side with the cellists, a human figure bending and straightening up is projected in white light onto the walls.
Karunaratne stated that the human light figure was directly inspired by the 19th century shows that would project phantoms, and hence the human light figure was of a phantom figure.

The performer joins the audience and starts dancing. Most of the audience stays still while some audience members start dancing along to the music.

Karunaratne talked about how the concept of light formed an important role in her life and served as inspiration for her project.

During the Vesak festival in Sri Lanka, many people make colourful lanterns, light them up with either candles or bulbs and then use them to decorate their homes and streets. Karunaratne claimed that this festival, which celebrates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha, created a strong link for her between light and the afterlife, through the visually stimulating lights.

My first visual of light is this floating orb of light and to me that orb in my mind has a presence, it has a life to it. So I started really examining why I was attaching presence with light. [I discovered that] it has to do with a lot of stories about my family and our connection to ideas about the afterlife and our experiences – the passing away of relatives, particularly stories from my mother,” Karunaratne said.

When the performance came to an end, it took the audience a few minutes to re-situate themselves as they slowly walked out behind the performer to reconvene at the majilis, contemplating their deep and immersive experience of light over the last thirty minutes.

— By Thirangie Jayatilake and Shalini Corea

— Photo courtesy of Arthur De Olivera

Originally published by ‘The Gazelle’, an NYUAD student publication on 01st April, 2018.