Forget the Marvel Universe — the ETLE Universe has just been birthed in Brooklyn.
Faced with the challenge of how to make a career as a dancer relevant and profitable, Sarah A.O. Rosner and her team at the A.O. Movement Collective decided to embark on creating an intentionally undefinable “queer/ feminist cyborg time travel epic thing” that involves over 50 collaborating artists and 10 distinct works that range from academic essays to pornography.
This weekend the collective is holding a variety of events at The Loft on Classon (172 Classon Ave.) to premier three of the works from the ETLE universe, described as a “network of original science fictions(s),”: a graphic novel called ETLE ILLUS, which brings together the work of five different illustrators, a collection of ten 3D-printed rings, and a photography exhibition.
When Rosner spoke to me of her frustrations with the dance community, she said that the community’s insularity is great because it allows for a specialized dialogue–“but economically that means it’s in a constant state of dying. It means that diversity-wise it’s really white and really upper-class and really unaccessible and uninteresting and alienating to a lot of people. And it has no history – it has not ability to exist beyond itself.
Before The ETLE Universe was born, Rosner and her troupe were focused on a performance inspired by Law and Order: SVU (Rosner was obsessed the show and decided she needed to make her binge-watching productive). It was at this show that Rosner first met ETLE ILLUS contributor Poppy Lyttle and told about her next project, something based in a sci-fi near future, with robots as the characters (Rosner had moved on from Law and Order to the X-Files).
A few months later Rosner put a call out for artists – the idea being that they’d all work in the same universe, progressing the same general story, but the different works would contradict each other, have their own internal story lines, and leave gaps that never get explained. Someone could find the universe through one work and never hear about the big picture. “It’s meant to be something that people have their minds on for days or months or years,” Rosner said. “I like the idea of someone buying a ring on Etsy because they think it looks cool, and then finding out that there’s a graphic novel or a porn, a whole universe or story behind it.”
When asked how she’d describe the ETLE universe, Rosner said, “If Lord of the Rings is like hobbits and wizards and mystical creatures fighting and going on journeys, then this is maybe like queer feminist epic time travel cyborg thing. Generally, it’s this idea of non-binary people and women who start falling out of time and then start experiencing their life with chronomultiplicity (having access to a multiplicity of times rather than a singularity of time and existence), starting with an epidemic, and looking at how the government reacts to that, how the economy changes, and then looking at this sort of rebel group of body hackers or cyborgs are catalyzed by those rebels and ends up with the narrative arc of them coming back and implanting the story in us.”
Lyttle responded to the A.O. Collective’s initial call for artists and became a part of the collective as one of five illustrators who would make a graphic novel set in Rosner’s universe. She’d worked at Marvel as an intern and was jaded by the corporate comic world but was excited to work on a collaborative project that she herself feels like she can’t totally explain. “One of the characters in my comic book, I still don’t know what their gender is. I know how to draw them. I know how they were born. But that’s it.” Lyttle said that even before working on the graphic novel she’d been interested in gender representation, using a lot of her pieces to play with how people see something illustrated and then realizing that it’s not gendered the way they’d thought.
To make sure that everyone was on the same page about how the universe worked and what the stories were, Rosner and the artists for the graphic novel would meet weekly at a bar in the Lower East Side. Lyttle explained the process as them getting strings of ideas from Rosner and them weaving that into their own vision. It wasn’t their world, but they were helping to create it.
This also happened with the development of the 3D rings. Rosner talked about how Jeff Poulin, the only artist on that project, had brought up that he was interested in doing something that involved hormones and conspiracy theories in the story. Rosner wasn’t into it at first, but after a few weeks conspiracy theories and hormone therapy became a major narrative in the universe.
“Mankind is flushing itself down the toilet,” Poulin said, explaining his take on what the ETLE narrative is. “We’re destroying the planet. We’re killing off every kind of person that’s different. So this entity, wherever it comes from, is jumpstarting evolution to fix an imbalance that exists in the masculine and feminine energies of the planet. One of the main themes of the story is that there’s a violent female revolution where they’re trying to kill off the men… I don’t necessarily believe in violence myself and I don’t think that’s a means to an end but just understanding where that came from, like what that anger is and how women are dealing with how they’re being treated by these things, it’s such an intense and empowering idea.”
Poulin said that with all of his work he aims to “throw little monkey wrenches into people’s typical thought processes” and mentioned his genderevolution ring, which challenges the idea that in society we have only two sexes, and how sexuality and gender and anatomy can exist on a spectrum.
Rosner’s looking to not only create a queer narrative, but also “queer all of these structures that are based on singularity and based on simplicity and clarity.” She doesn’t want there to be one explanation of what this project is or tell people how they should experience it or what they should take away from it.
Everything still starts with dance—every week the collective gets together and asks questions like, what does it mean to use the body-based process of performance, so focused on authenticity, to create a work that is science fiction? How do they embody a future femininity or masculinity? How do they display what a future queer body looks like? But now Rosner has the ability to reach beyond the constraints of dance while she wonders, “What would it be like to envision time, to envision desire, to envision relationships in this way that is multiplus and unknowable and always shifting and restructuring reality into a queer valuing of those events? I feel like that’s both the narrative of the project and the way we’ve been creating it and the way to experience it.”
In addition to this weekend’s events, a multi-player game was launched last summer. Though it’s no longer fully functional (the game in its entirety involved receiving mail or text messages), parts of it can still be accessed online. An evening-length performance, fashion show, and launch of a “concept soundtrack” will premier at another show this fall.