Out of Line: Q&A with Janani Balasubramanian

Now in its second year, Out of Line presents a new set of arresting, intriguing, and playful performances by some of New York City's most exciting contemporary artists.

Janani Balasubramanian is a writer of speculative fiction whose art and editorial work has been featured in The New Yorker, Guernica, Creative Time Reports, and presented at more than 160 stages across North America and Europe, including The Public Theater, MOMA, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Balasubramanian is currently working on Sleeper—a dystopian trilogy about sleep, dreams, and physics. We're excited to welcome them to the High Line with their new work, "Heisenberg," as part of our Out of Line series.

"Heisenberg" is an invitation to participate in an audio-based immersive reality game that explores concepts of uncertainty and chaos.

Friends of the High Line: This is a brand new piece, how did it come to be? What influenced you when creating it?
Janani Balasubramanian: Initially, this work was going to be an entirely different one—in concept, medium, and structure. But after the Brexit vote and the US election, my attention shifted to the emotional undercurrents of those events. Specifically, I wanted to explore the intensity of our ideological divisions, the failures of prediction/statistics, and the sweeping assumptions made about one another's existences. I also wanted to make work that spoke to the tumult of that time/this time. So I scrapped my initial ideas and started from those new kernels.

I sought to create a piece where audience members could encounter difficult, trying concepts like uncertainty, chaos, and difference—but in a delightful, transformative way. Thus "Heisenberg" became a participatory game.

From there I delved into conceptual frameworks around uncertainty I resonate with. For me, these are found in quantum physics and embedded more broadly in the history of our universe. The name "Heisenberg" comes from the work of German quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose eponymous uncertainty principle states the limits to the precision with which certain properties about quantum particles can be known. Such limits are not flaws in us as observers or in our experimental methods—they are inherent! Similarly, "Heisenberg" the game explores the limits to the precision with which we can know one another or our respective realities, and how we proceed in the face of such limitations.

Participants begin the game at the origins of the universe and proceed through a variety of matter and energy transformations, all the way into the future. The majority of characters participants play are not human. "Heisenberg's" narrative structure is a nod to Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics, an enchanting set of science fiction fables. Calvino was a contemporary of Werner Heisenberg's and their stories are intertwined in particular, complicated ways—won't give away too much, you may learn more about this at the game!

The game is written like a storybook, with certain tasks along the way. While you don't need an understanding of physics or any other science to play, the science of it is very much part of the world; it's how the story and concepts advance. The game voiceover is underlaid with a beautiful audio-scape, created by composer Tina-Hanaé Miller, arranger Solomon Hoffman, and a wonderful ensemble of musicians.

FHL: What makes the High Line as a venue unique or challenging to you and your work?
JB: It's been a tremendous joy to create work that translates well to an unconventional, outdoor space. The space invites innovation; it compelled me to think very differently in form and execution. And so I made a piece driven by ostensible opposites. One with strong narrative, yet also fully participatory. Immersive in a different world, and also conscious of the physical site. A game in which the audio becomes a visual experience. I was keen to use the walls, the metal, even the sky.

FHL: What do you want attendees to take away from your work?
JB: I hope attendees will take away what they need from it; but if anything, I should like them to experience new ways of engaging with uncertainty and chaos. I also want participants to explore unfamiliar emotional corners and crevasses. And of course to play.

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