The Visual Magic of Phantom Limb

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

Phantom Limb Company produces visually stunning work for the stage that combines dance and puppetry. Co-founded in 2007 by artist, director, and set designer Jessica Grindstaff, and composer and puppet maker Erik Sanko, Phantom Limb has been developing a trilogy of shows that grapples with humans’ relationship to nature and climate change. The first show, 69˚S., inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, opened in 2011 and toured extensively. The second show, Memory Rings, played at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in November 2016. Memory Rings refers to both the resonance and impact of 4784 years of a living being, and the poetry of age shown through dendrochronology – the science of dating events by using the characteristic patterns of annual growth rings in trees. The final piece, Falling Out, a cross-cultural collaboration with Japan, is currently in development.

Jessica answered a few questions for Artists & Climate Change about the company’s process of researching and creating these pieces.

The icebergs melt, nature is defeated in 69˚S. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2011. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

You are working on a trilogy of shows that engage with the environment. Can you talk about how and why you conceived these shows?

In 2009, we started with a concept that involved putting performers on stilts in a white expanse. When we imagined this, the Frank Hurley photographs of the Endurance expedition (Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to traverse the continent of Antarctica) came to mind. We began to develop ideas for a retelling of this story when I discovered there was a grant that would support artists to travel to Antarctica. One of the questions in the grant was about broader impacts. I started to think deeply about the idea of retelling a story that many people already knew and what difference it could make in a contemporary context. Shackleton’s leadership skills are what make that story so profound today. In fact, people have written books on his leadership style – how it saved the lives of every single person on the expedition. Historically, polar explorers would pre-sell press rights to their journeys and have the queen or prime minister prompt them to do anything to follow through with their initial intentions. You see it over and over again in these early exploration stories. Shackleton stood out because in a moment of crisis, he stopped, took a new look at his situation, and changed his objectives and the values of the mission for the greater good of the group. We started to look at this as an example for leadership in our own country and in our communities, specifically around the topic of climate. As leaders, will we continue to forge ahead with our original objectives regardless of what happens around us, or can we remain fluid and adaptable?

In the end, we got the grant to go to Antarctica and we spent about a month there, collecting visual and aural data, visiting Shackleton and Scott’s historic huts, and having extensive meetings with scientists. This was a life changing trip on many levels. We were awestruck by the continent itself, like a trip to Mars, unlike anything you have ever experienced before. But more importantly, we developed a new passion for working with science, scientists, and environmental issues.

It was at this time that we made a decision to dedicate the next decade of our life to making a trilogy about humans’ connection to nature, and our uncertain future.

         The seven dwarves in Memory Rings, OZ Arts Nashville, 2015. Photo by Sierra Urich.



What qualities do puppets possess that make them good spokespersons for the environment?

They don’t actually speak. They leave space. A puppet works through empathy. Erik’s puppets have an uncanny ability to draw people in in a way that they often can’t explain. People leave with images that stay with them for a long time, and they keep thinking about the narrative and topics well after the performance is over. Direct, instructive, didactic information about climate seems to slide right off of most people’s back. The puppets somehow manage to creep into our most vulnerable parts, and resonate.

What do you look for when you do research? For example, did you have an idea before you went to Antarctica?

We’re both visual artists and Erik is a composer so we attach ourselves to image and sound first. We find sources that inspire us and then dig deeper.

I was immediately attracted to satellite images showing changes to sea ice around Antarctica so I knew I wanted to have our video artists play with animating that and making it a part of the landscape.

Erik and I found out that there was an active volcano near the base where we were staying, and a glacier slowly traveling across it. That was immediately inspiring – the idea of a raging volcanic source surrounded by ice. We sought out scientists who were working with that particular volcano and found a bank of sounds that had been recorded over a long period and then sped up 100 times to be audible. This became the sound of the impending breakup of the ship in our narrative.

We also knew we’d have access to the men’s original clothes. The huts have been preserved as if the men had left yesterday so we carefully documented the garments for historic re-creation.

We had access to the journals of the log keeper from the Endurance expedition and poured over those for days on end. For our show Memory Rings, we went through extreme measures to locate the world’s oldest living tree, found it, and documented it in ways that are integral to the tapestry of the final piece.

Research and expedition are key elements to our developmental process. I am in the process now of creating an itinerary in Japan that involves the Fukushima region, Butoh, and Japanese puppetry.

Memory Rings at Center for the Art of Performance, University of California Los Angeles, 2016. Photo by Phinn Sriployrung.



With a radically changed political climate in the US, many government agencies silenced, and information about climate change removed from websites, what do you hope your work can accomplish?

The same thing I wanted it to accomplish before. I’m not a radical protestor; I’m an artist who creates visual poetry. The only tool I have is the work that I do together with Erik. It moves people, it makes them lean in and listen a little more closely, and it inspires them to do their own important work within their communities.

The one goal that I have for the final piece is to get it outside of New York and Los Angeles so that we can expand the conversation and engage people who aren’t already aware of humans’ impact on climate change. We always have seminars, panel discussions with climate scientists, workshops, and other types of outreach when we present our work. We are committed to keeping the dialogue going outside of the theatre as a vital part of our work.  We’ve also begun to teach a bit and I think teaching students how to make work that has social implications while still speaking to them as artists is crucial.

What is the single most important thing that artists can do to address climate change?

Address it. When we started creating work that was about climate, it wasn’t very au courant. The topic has since had its rise and fall, and now the hot topic is you-know-who and immigration and diversity… Everything is important always, but nothing else will matter when all of our coastal cities and settlements are underwater. No other issue is as time sensitive.

Additionally, all artists have a responsibility to evaluate their development process and look for ways to be more efficient and produce less waste.

Erik, Jessica and Freya in the Eastern Sierras in front of the Methuseleh tree, 2014. Photo by by Daniel Leeb.



What gives you hope?

Small things. My 4 year-old daughter. A visit to my grandparent’s home, which was built the year I was born. There is a weeping birch tree at the top of the rolling hill of wildflowers that sweeps down to a little shaded valley of ferns and a stand of pines on the edge of a lake. It is amazing to watch a tiny piece of the planet that has brought so much joy grow and change and stay the same. My daughter sits under the branches of the same birch – “the story tree” – and tells stories with her great-grandmother.

(Top image: Shackleton and his men in 69˚S. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2011. Photo by by Pavel Antonov.)


About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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