Michael Joo: Where is the Balance? Circannual Rhythm (Piboktok)

When Michael Joo asks, “Where is the balance?” he is not worrying about his check book. He refers to the skewed accounting that occurs on an imaginary earth ledger. One side of this accounting is occupied by forms of life and non-living matter that have escaped human tampering. The other side is occupied by people alive today along with all the things human populations currently use and the residue of all past cultures.

The expansion of technological power, material redundancy, and abundant entertainments has long been regarded as a sign of progress. But the diminishing reserves appearing on the non-human side of the ledger is of growing concern. To environmentalists like Joo, such advances advance in the direction of the depletion of humanity’s non-living inheritance, corruption of our relations with other living entities, and spiritual bankruptcy. Joo undertakes a quest for rightful balance between humans and the non-human realm, searching on behalf of all those who feel impoverished in the midst of material abundance. 

Joo’s search of rightful balance was conducted as an actual journey. For 18 days he trekked along a route that paralleled the massive Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Filmed documentation of his journey provides the central image of a video installation entitled Circannual Rhythm (pibloktok) (2003).  Events unfold on three simultaneous 20-minute looped DVD projections that are too intricate to be described in detail in this essay. Instead, the text focuses on the film’s exploration of three alienating facets of contemporary experience that produce troublesome disequilibrium: centralized locations where the products of advanced technologies and the resources from across the globe convene; refined oil that fuels contemporary life styles; and synthesized representations of fauna, flora, and their habitats. Joo travels to Alaska to counterbalance these weighty phenomena and replenish the three kinds of energy reserves that they deplete: authentic energy of an indigenous culture; raw energy of crude oil; and inviolable energy of the pristine wilderness.

The central image in the installation presents a lonely figure trudging onward through flat barren tundra until the landscape evolves into lush alpine forest that eventually yields to the majestic expanse of snow-covered mountains. The distance, as measured in terms of human stamina, is astonishing. It is also astonishing when measured in terms of human ingenuity and power. The pipeline that parallels this route extends 400-miles, crosses 800 rivers and streams and three mountain ranges. The scene pits a single human against two massive forces. One is a human-made structure that channels crude oil through 48-inch-diameter pipes, and delivers approximately 950,000 barrels to the Port of Valdez every day. The other is the vast Alaskan wilderness. During the course of several interviews, Joo disclosed three thematic dichotomies that elevate his personal journey to the status of a cultural parable: fringe/center, raw/processed, authentic/contrived.

Fringe/Center: Joo’s desire to escape the frenetic, commercialized life at the “center” drives him to Alaska. He explains, “Within the U.S., the Arctic is the least tampered with, most remote region.”  But he discovers that even this desolate region at the “fringe” of civilization “is not pure.”  In one scene, for example, a native Inuit hunter appears wearing an outfit that could carry the Cabela label. His commercial, mass-produced garb shatters romanticized notions of Alaskans perpetuating a genuinely indigenous lifestyle. Yet the man defends his native culture. Speaking in the Inuit language, he berates Joo for frightening the native animals. By disclosing that the pure indigenous refuge is a hybrid culture, the scene establishes the difficulty of fulfilling a quest for balance.

Surprise also attended Joo’s encounter with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. It was not a visual blemish. Joo notes, “The Alaskan pipeline is a big straw running through the landscape, but it seems to pretend not to be there. It is not a malignant presence in the landscape…It is its own universe, as long as it remains intact.” In the interview he noted that oil becomes disruptive when it is refined to fuel industry, war, and domestic conveniences at the center. Joo explains oil’s insidious contribution to cultural disequilibrium by stating, “The center saps the energies from the fringe, while the fringe still exists as a romanticized ideal of native peoples flourishing within a primeval wilderness. It took millions of years of natural processes to create crude oil. Now it is being subjected to human time and need. We are sucking it dry. Oil’s dissemination from ships in the harbor turns it into consumer product. Then it begins to play a role in geopolitics and other artificial human constructs.”

Furthermore, the extraction of oil actually provides Inuit populations with significant advantages. Joo explains, “The Inuit may inhabit the outermost edges of human habitation, but, as shareholders and landlords, they are major players in the global economy. The Inuit Corporation rents land to the mega-oil companies. They hold the on/off switch that controls the release of oil, an arcane and primordial substance that drives industry, economics, politics, and culture. This local resource has great commercial value. The Inuits have the opportunity to capitalize on a resource they had no role in creating.” 

Raw/Processed:  Processed energy fuels is combusted to plow, harness, extract, pave, drill, construct and conduct the other tasks of managing technologically advanced societies. Joo yearns to correct this imbalance by experiencing a pure and unprocessed form of energy. Crude oil is a raw substance that was formed deep within the earth’s mantle millions of years before the first Homo sapiens appeared on earth. When crude oil is pumped to the surface, it is like an emissary from primeval times offering evidence of the planet before it was subjected to human interventions. Joo explains, “While oil is flowing it is unassigned energy. Its identity is part of nature. It is still close to the ground. That is the energy I wanted to be close to in my walk. The walk operated symbolically. I entered the time/space in which oil operates.” 

Although he is accompanied by a film crew in a well-stocked van, Joo disassociates himself from the time and space of his normal life. He refrains from speaking, washing, or changing his clothes. He only takes minimal food and water. He walks long distances. Day by day, the synthesized and processed energies that sustain his normal life style are purged from his system. He seems to shrink as the landscape through which he passes becomes increasingly grand, cold, and forbidding. Joo, the lead actor in the film, is not an “action” hero. Instead, he allows himself to be acted upon by the harsh conditions of the climate.

Alternating camera positions filming Joo’s trek emphasize the conflicting aspects of achieving balance. A camera located in front records Joo venturing into the fringe toward the source of the raw energies he desires. A second camera positioned behind him records him distancing himself from the refined energies that monopolize life at the center. The visual dialogue between these camera angles raises the question, “How far must people travel from the center, and how many conveniences and comforts must they relinquish to attain accord with their environment?”

Joo acknowledges that abandoning advanced conveniences and comforts is not a viable option for people at the center or the fringe. “It doesn’t make sense to stop drilling oil. Stopping is the symbol of the desire to hold on to the past. Oil is literally a fossil. It is the Arctic’s memory. Life here is precarious. The environment can easily kill you. Oil has the power to make us comfortable, even in such uninhabitable areas as Alaska.” Instead of abandoning contemporary advantages, Joo suggests changing tactics, “The way our culture is currently transforming energy is brutal. This is old school. It provokes conflicts. I am not averse to the human impulse to enter nature and utilize its resources. But I question the need to conquer it. Our power to control the environment diminishes our appreciation of its power over us.”

Contrived/Authentic:  Joo comments, “Nature only exists when human minds conjure it. Every conception of nature, therefore, includes humans. Thus, in addition to situations where we act upon nature physically, we project ourselves upon it mentally.”  The media exerts enormous influence over these projections by contriving and disseminating impressions of non-human realms and indigenous cultures. Joo addresses three genres of media that tend to manipulate animal behavior, plant growth, habitats, and so forth in order to make nature appear “digestible and entertaining.” They are the Western, the nature documentary, and commercial cinema.  Joo laments that their “constructions of nature give us the illusion that we are familiar with it, that we have always been there, and that we can always control it.”
Western: Dressed for his long walk like a cowboy in boots, jeans, and a light flannel shirt, Joo establishes a reference to Western cinema and then exposes the genre’s false pretexts. Instead of showing a rustler who gallops across the range, the star of this Western foregoes his horse, lasso, Colt .45, and abandons the prairies and deserts that comprise the usual setting for these films. The search for action at a frontier has driven this cowboy into the harsh Arctic tundra. This relocation corrects the misleading myth, perpetuated by Western movies, that the West is an unsettled, open range. It is too encroached upon by ranches, industrial installations, power plants, suburbia, and cities to satisfy the desire to escape the constraints of civilization.

By shifting the frontier to Alaska, Joo transforms this Western into a Northern. But the western also became an Eastern when Joo cast himself, an Asian-American, in the leading role. These cultural and geographical shifts confirm historic facts. When the North American expansion hit the west coast, it bounced back, carrying with it Asian immigrants to construct the railroads. Later the gold rush directed the frontier northward toward the Yukon.

Documentary: The “Feeding Sequence” that occupies the left screen in the installation exposes the factual distortions that frequently appear in nature documentaries. Although this form of media representation is commonly accepted as a reliable source of information, in actually most documentaries compress time, eliminate uneventful footage, and contrive artificial situations. Joo highlights this trickery by presenting two conflicting views of the same scene in the Alaskan wilderness. One camera is placed inside the body of a caribou. The unusual perspective reveals that some manipulative strategy has been employed by the filmmaker. In fact, the caribou was hollowed out, preserved through taxidermy, and returned to the wild. A second camera located outside the body gives the mistaken impression that the dead caribou has just been discovered. Then Joo staged a remarkable spectacle to further highlight the linkage of documentation and deception. He placed real meat inside the preserved caribou’s body cavity. For two weeks, a surveillance camera transmitted close-up views of the ensuing drama as the hoards of real insects and worms actually feasted on the putrefying meat. These devices instigate a complementary drama. It involves the viewer’s growing awareness that documentaries obstruct relationships between humans and non-human life forms by conveying misleading information. 

Commercial cinema: The “Possession Sequence” on the right screen exposes another form of media manipulation that viewers might accept as an authentic representation. This sequence shows local Inuit hunters vigorously shoveling snow to expose the buried remains of an actual village. This village was erected in the 1960s to serve as a setting for a Walt Disney film, not to house real native people. As the scene progresses, a native shaman arrives. As he walks toward this false representation of his indigenous culture he  falls backwards in the snow and begins to writhe and mutter. The mysterious force that has taken possession of the shaman’s senses is known as “pibloktok.” The term is the Inuit name for a trance that elicits clairvoyant wisdom. This pibloktok channels detailed data about the varied states of ice—essential information for traditional Inuit hunters. Joo explains, “The shaman’s energy comes from the earth, from the environment.” He embodies the concept of “authentic” just as Disney personifies the concept of “contrived.”

Once again, Joo confronts evidence that complicates his quest for authenticity. The shaman may be the guardian of tradition, but he has updated his lifestyle by driving a noisy snowmobile. Thus, while he may perpetuate the energy of ancient wisdom, he also combusts the energy of fossil fuels that disrupt pristine territories and the culture attuned to it. Joo explains, “He is poised between old cultural roots and new cultural opportunities. He represents a sustenance-based economy, but he is the landlord of major corporations. He wonders how to protect the interests of his people, of humanity, and of the world we inhabit.” The shaman searches for balance at the fringe just as Joo searches for balance at the center. They share a common dilemma. Joo asks, “If we are so busy doing damage control from past misdeeds, who will assume the role of the avatar of balance?”   

Although disequilibrium pervades Circannual Rhythm, idealized states of balance appear twice. One is presented as an animation; the other as a diagram. Joo employs these devices to reveal that they are imagined states, not observed realities. The animation presents the shaman’s body surrounded by a closed energy cycle. Blue arrows are labeled to represent coldness from the environment entering his body. They are balanced by red arrows depicting heat exiting his body and entering the environment. Joo explains that the imaginary, vaporized shaman “manifests a contemporary being in perfect balance with his context. He represents my desire.”

But this idealized state is fleeting. The diagram quickly fades and morphs into Nanook of the North, a character in a renowned 1922 film by Robert J. Flaherty. Although the film is celebrated as the first feature-length documentary ever released, it is commonly known that Flaherty staged the action and costumed the Inuit actors. He thereby established the tradition of presenting media fabrications as documented truths.

A second instance of balance takes the form of a diagram of the Arctic nutrient cycle. Plants, fish, and sea mammals are on one side. Snowy owls, foxes, lemmings, and caribou occupy the other side. The diagram also traces the participation of Inuit people in a balanced flow of energy throughout the ecosystem. Joo states that this flow chart of Arctic energy “is a utopic search, a blending of all disciplines.”  The extraction of crude oil and the combustion of refined oil are conspicuously absent from this harmonious vision. It, too, fades.

Joo never arrives at his destination, the source of crude oil, explaining, “This would seem too final, there is always further to go.” Instead of presenting a triumphant fulfillment of the quest for balance, the dramatic tension in this work of art is supplied by vivid depictions of the confused state of humans who cope with the discrepancies between material prosperity, environmental estrangement, and spiritual discontent. Circannual Rhythm explores three sets of dichotomies to manifest that matter, experience, and information are overwhelmingly processed and contrived at the center. Joo seeks balance by entering the domain of the raw and the authentic at the fringe. What he discovers is that energies of the center are infiltrating the fringe, while the energies inherent to the fringe are being modified. 

Circannual Rhythm dramatizes the complexities of discovering a proper niche for humanity upon the earth. Joo ultimately escapes human ambitions and manipulations by paying homage to the sun. This grandiose celestial energy source dominates the diagram of living creatures participating in Alaska’s sea and tundra cycles. The sun has been completing its circannual cycle, year after year, since the beginning of time. It presides over the entire solar system, overriding all human deeds. Joo concludes, “What sets the rhythm of our existence? We have grown far removed from the sun as the origin of oil and all the cycles that power our world. Manufacturing and sales are not the end-all. The sun is the origin of the upwelling of the environment. The sun is the place where earth cycles begin again. That is why I titled the movie to refer to the circannual cycle. Spiritually and physically, the sun is the catalytic force.”