Idea:  OTHER ORBITS is a sci-fi art installation, where humans and aliens can practice democracy together.
Primary artistic medium: performance


Theater artist Rebecca Wright (she/her) is the named applicant for this project in her role as Artistic Director of Applied Mechanics, the Philadelphia-based experimental performance collective who are producing the OTHER ORBITS project. Applied Mechanics has been making original, immersive theater since 2009. The company’s inaugural shows took place in apartments—moving all the furniture out and installing fishing villages, prairies, mountain ranges, arctic tundras—and bars—peppering circus performers among the regulars. These scrappy immersive works, in which audience members were surrounded by stories and invited to move freely about the space, soon gave rise to large-scale immersive experiments: a 26-person historical fantasia of Napoleonic Europe, an invasion play that unpacks out of suitcases, a punk rock play with music taking over an entire warehouse loft, a food play serving dinner to 40 within a story of ingredients transforming over time and cross-cultural contact, a densely orchestrated multimedia exploration of hidden histories and received narratives installed in a former auto shop. Applied Mechanics has made more than a dozen original works, each surrounding the audience with a 360-degree installation set and simultaneously unfolding stories, each created with a radically collaborative process that empowers collaborating artists and attending audiences.

Applied Mechanics has toured from Texas to Maine, conducted UX workshops at Microsoft and Turner Broadcasting, performed with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, worked with students at the University of the Arts and the University of Michigan (among others), been featured in American Theater Magazine, published by TCG, and presented by the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts and the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts. For years they hosted bi-annual Community Dinners, free home-cooked meals that anyone is welcome to attend. They are proud members of the Philadelphia Coalition for Affordable Communities, and have partnered with both PCAC and the Women’s Community Revitalization Project to engage in actions across Philadelphia, as well as organizing protest events with ACT UP. They are a major architect of the New Philly Aesthetic and continually empower other artists to impact the Philly and national scenes. Applied Mechanics is Rebecca Wright, Jess Hurley (she/they), Thomas Choinacky (he/they), Mary Tuomanen (they/she), Severin Blake (they/we/all), Brett Ashley Robinson (she/her) and Izzy Sazak (they/them).

Over thirteen years of working as a collective, Applied Mechanics have spent as much time working on developing radically democratic and empowering working systems (both creative and administrative) as we have making artistic work. Over the past several years this work has come to seem ever more meaningful as we see racist, fascist, patriarchal, ecocidal, and colonial modes of governance becoming increasingly powerful across the globe. With OTHER ORBITS, we seek to share what we’ve learned and empower a broad public with tools to build their own systems from the ground up. In an increasingly fractured and isolating time, we want to use the power of public art to make publicness itself desirable again – to remind people of the joy and connection to be found in building worlds with others.

Project Description

OTHER ORBITS is a fantastical installation and immersive performance where human audiences can practice radical democracy with alien creatures. Attendees find themselves transported to a distant planet where a motley crew of mutant mammals, plantlife, and sentient machines try to live harmoniously in light of their many differences. Their form of governance combines work and play: diplomatic meetings take place simultaneously with a dance party, decisions are passed with songs, and space is made to hear what the planet itself has to say. During the performance, attendees can walk directly from a delicate interspecies negotiation between a 5-ton walrus and a blackberry, into a dance-off between a mushroom and a mutant pig. The installation set will accommodate every kind of alien body as well as human ones – creating an atmosphere where all are welcome to come, go, and get down in the consensual manner of their choice. The performance will unfold in an interactive public art installation, open to visitors both during the show and throughout the day. In the installation, visitors will be invited to engage with materials from this alien society and contemplate how they cooperate with their neighbors and express their civic power in their own human lives.

As an immersive performance and installation, OTHER ORBITS delightfully reimagines democratic process and accessibility. It harnesses the power of science fiction to manifest other possible realities, alternative systems, and new social structures that center cooperation, care and respect for personhood, regardless of species. In a range of participatory experiences, OTHER ORBITS invites visitors to engage with fantastic alien beings to make alternative forms of governance – non-hierarchical, messy, fun, and sometimes difficult. Like the work of visionaries like Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, and Janelle Monae, OTHER ORBITS expands the possible: with it, we build a community of imaginative thinkers who not only refuse to accept the world we live in, but set off to build a better one.

The creatures in OTHER ORBITS are being created by a multiracial and predominantly queer and genderqueer ensemble of 11 Philadelphia theater artists brought together by the experimental performance collective Applied Mechanics. The collaborators, mostly in their late 30 and early 40s, are developing this piece in response to deeply contemplating their generation’s responsibility in the unfolding climate crisis. They are creating these alien characters to practice a form of governance that could avert major planetary disaster on an imaginary planet, in order to develop and share a radical civic consciousness that might help us face our own social and ecological crises. The installation performance piece OTHER ORBITS incorporates the audience into that exercise – dreaming up an egalitarian, non-hierarchical civics to help us imagine how we can navigate the largest existential threat of the 21st century without recourse to the border-obsessed and militaristic thinking that is taking over civic life across the globe. The piece will be installed in May 2023 and run through early June, in a Philadelphia venue to be determined.