Plaza de la Cathedral, is an open space except during special events like Liberation Day. On Liberation Day, bands, stands and volunteer hands fill the plaza, inviting curious pedestrians and bon vivants. The Church of Santiago stands to the West, lively open-air cafés stand to the North, and old mansions hide behind a row of palm trees to the East. From the South, the grand cathedral of Cádiz, oblivious to the sinful lives outside, overlooks the square with a serene façade.
In the aftermath of summer, before dusk gains so much against the long twilight that the city becomes a bit chilly, you decide to visit Boulevard—previously Boulevard of Broken Dreams—the theatre festival at Plaza de la Cathedral. Initially, you are reluctant (your recent break-up with your boyfriend has made you weary), but you can’t wallow in self-pity at home forever. On top of that, the flamenco night you normally frequent at the Plaza de la Merced in the oldest part of town is cancelled. It rarely rains in Cadiz, but if it does, it pours.
Arriving at the newly crowded square, your mood picks up the vibrant atmosphere, a gathering of kindred souls and more interesting acts than you could possibly follow. The sheer number of exhibits to visit is the imminent problem: you buy a passe-partout and download a programme app to your phone to figure out where to go.
That’s the only way to access the programme: on your smartphone. The app is intuitive and interactive, but the number of acts to choose from is still overwhelming. So many that they have spread beyond the Plaza de la Cathedral to other locations in the city. Hard choices, the bane of your recent life: the health problems of your mother (thankfully, your brother is taking care of her tonight), the way your boyfriend dumped you (he was rude, and vicious), and questioning which dream to follow (the offer of the faraway University in Barcelona or the BASc here in Cádiz?). But tonight, you want to escape all that, live in the moment. Focus only on choosing which act to attend. At random, if necessary.
So, you open the app. With your eyes closed, you swipe for good luck. Right next to your polished nail you see the word “veil”, only to find that ‘Within the’ was covered by your thumb. The app called it a mixed media performance, an audio-visual attack that gets under your skin. Via the narrow, cobbled streets, you head to Plaza Candelaria, where the app says the “Within the Veil” act is located. It is right across from Café Royalty, the historic landmark from the Belle Epoque, with its exquisite woodwork and gold-leafed plasters.
A blue, circular tent speckled with images of six-pointed shooting stars, swirling nebulae, medieval moons & planets, suns with rays like spikes, and glowing green aurorae curtains. ‘Within the Veil,’ a sign above the slim entrance says. You enter, torn between frisson and glee.
You walk through a narrow corridor and exit into a circular arena surrounded by a ring-shaped stage. All is quiet except the murmur of the audience; the light is a shade of azure except for the occasional flicker of smartphones. A resounding thud marks the closing of the entrance and the beginning of the performance.
In the semi-darkness faces light up, one by one. It was a neck-straining experience: spotlights shine on a different woman’s face every few seconds on the 360-degree stage. It’s almost impossible to take all of the faces in: a smiling African woman in traditional dress, a redhead with dimples in her cheeks, an Asian girl with twinkling eyes, a bright Latina with freckles, a Native American elder with greying ponytails, an Inuit woman in high spirits, and more. Slowly, more than one face remains in the air, but never quite all of them. The vivid azure background gradually darkens to an intense indigo.
You hear a diaphanous hum crossing the sonic threshold, an indiscernible background chatter with ominous overtones. Even if certain moods spike through the elusive exchanges, the general drift remains just out of reach.
An open, subtle guitar phrase starts a melody that fluctuates between a haunting minor and a taunting major. Individual voices become perceptible against the murmuring background: hoarse whispers, throaty sighs, deadpan edicts, and crystal-clear singsong voices.
At first, a few of the faces turned apprehensive. As the melodic plucks evolve into chilling power chords, the mood shifts, and more and more of the women become anxious, disturbed, livid. The auditorium fills with angry shouts, screams, guttural grunts, chants, harrowing choirs singing creepy harmonies:
feeling pain and loss
no mercy, no fright
as we quietly cross
the streets at night
coming for you!
And even though some are black and some are white, some are yellow and some are red, increasingly these faces look as if they’re from one and the same woman, the voices from the same throat.
I’ve. . .been. . .mistreated
I’ve. . .been. . .mistreated
And you will. . .suffer. . .my wrath
Against the cacophony of intertwining voices, whispers, screams and moans; against the sonic beatdown of staccato guitar riffs, pumping bass and pounding drums; against the maddening stroboscopic images something rectangular appears: an absorbing box of white noise, a shining diamond of static, a white door of cleansing light. It grows until it overwhelms everything: a reverse singularity, a burst of anti-sound, a nova of negation. The brightness becomes almost unbearable until the inevitable
Butterflies in your stomach: the chaotic insects are launching mini-tornadoes through your nervous system. This was too intense, too reminiscent of your recent break-up. How could he? You never have time for me, he complained. But you were doing all you could, what, with your mother just out of intensive care and impending University entrance exams. No: ditch the problems, that’s not what you came here for. You push yourself to find the next act, the next distraction.
You walk through the busy crowd and try to figure out what show to attend. The Plaza de la Cathedral is packed, and some of the attractions take place to other parts of the city. Some are at the Punta Candelaria—an old bastion turned into an exposition space where, two weeks ago, you had a good time at the Cádiz book fair. Other acts are located in the ancient amphitheatre in Parque Genovés, and others in the Castillo de Santa Catalina where your friend Yanet had a small art exhibition.
The Artemis Theatre? Gentuza? The Universal Church of the Fragmented God? Les Ballets C. de la B.? The added complication is that what you see is not always what you get. But then a performance that seems more down-to-earth catches your eye. Obscure Clay, the description reads, an exercise in pot-healing. Seems like something more mundane in the middle of an avant-garde extravaganza. The gig is right at the centre of the plaza.
You arrive at a thatched structure with a rich, earthy smell. Inside, it’s cool, despite the summer heat. The floor feels squishy, and the air cracks with energy. Tribal drums and ecstatic cantata entwine. A heady atmosphere, a cauldron of mixed emotions. In the middle, a mud pit.
Nothing hints as to when the performance will begin, or if it already has. Judging from the people walking out, the previous one just ended. Only the ambiance, laden with ever-varying percussion & hymns, the complex bouquet of smells, and the sense of anticipation remains.
Everything seems to emanate from the earth mound in the centre, a heap of wet, clay-colored soil. A bubbling sound appears in syncopated bursts from the squelchy earth. White smoke rises from cloth-wrapped candles encircling the strange organic stew, which now looks like boiling black molasses.
A single voice escapes from the clay, echoing, transforming, multiplying, looping back on itself in a muddy a cappella counterpoint:
DeepDown – down/down/down –dowan. . .n. . .nn. . .nnn. . .da-da-down. . . dowan. . .n. . .nn. . .n. . .now – wow – wow -wowow – wowow –dow/down. . .
The beat becomes frantic, voices cry in exaltation. The mud pit moves, as if something is brewing up from the burned and blackened land. A spectre rises, in the form of a cross. A shattered man, in sweat and grime. He rises up from the clay with his legs together and his arms spread wide. He then returns to the earth like a down beat dirt messiah. Mud dripping from the long, curly strands of his hair and beard.
With one final, sucking echo he leaves the earth, floating higher, turning over, tilting sideways. A radiating presence in an obscure vacuum. Drifting upright, he pulls his legs up into lotus position. His dirt-streaked hair and beard retract into his head and his tight belly expands until a smiling figure of Buddha looks down upon the crowd, rotating slowly in the plane of the ecliptic.
Visions explode from his mind, taking the form of energy swirling around his head: a scene of mini toboggans sliding down a wicked sandbox, blue flies flying in a fish sky kissing the cold reality, Papa Mugaya entering the sinister funkhouse, and precious human stress fueling the burning time.
He stretches out his hands, and the clay rises up to meet them. While the lump of clay remains hanging in place, the galactic pot-healer revolves around it, shaping it, creating. The mud is acting as a positive nucleus keeping the electron cloud of its creator in orbit.
Intricately detailed pottery rains down, bit by bit by bit, like dirty snow, poetry incarnate. Shards descend in a spiral and settle as concentric walls within the circle of candles. Some are piling on top of each other, forming a miniature tower of Babylon.
As the last piece of earthenware completes the ceramic pinnacle below, the hovering Buddha slims and stretches. Long, thick strands of hair sprout out of his cranium. He rises, and the thatched reeds of the roof disentangle and reach for the sky to let him pass. Through the opening, the figure ascends, and seems to stop on the precipice of a starred eternity. Then he bounces up, and dives down.
Accelerating to the earth, glowing like a burning spear, he slams into the towering structure, melting it down into one huge, white-hot blob. The magma rebounds from the black surface, cools to red, falls down again, then chills to black before being reabsorbed. Ripples spread from the epicentral impact, phase down, refract, break into fractals, and fade to black. . .
Suddenly: miniature bubbles pierce the slick serenity and tiny fragments of song and minute bursts of rhythm announce that the nirvana is no more.
It’s intriguing, you think, yet I can’t quite capture it. You aren’t sure that this assault on the senses makes sense.
You’re slowly becoming convinced that the future is today: a theatre application on your smartphone that allows all the visitors to propose the kind of act they want to see, and then tailor performances according to the demands. If only the app could work for other kinds of demands. Then you could have your cake and eat it too—experience the challenge of a University degree while remaining in the safety of your hometown, looking after your mum. Once she’s recovered, you can go anywhere. . .
Forget the app. Maybe it’s better to follow your gut instinct. You find yourself criss-crossing past La Casa del Chocolate in Calle San Pedro where your sister ekes out a living—and zig-zagging through the narrow, cobbled streets. Even passing the bustling plazas and local craft shops but nothing quite catches your fancy. You’re about to give up, when, at the very south-east point of the Plaza de la Cathedral, you spot a giant, floating disc. There are sea gulls flying around the bogie. The briny smell of the Atlantic Ocean soaks into your nostrils, and Neon letters above it spell out: Flight into the Unknown. This sculpture hangs there with a nonchalant air, beaming down deep blue rays that scatter off the centuries-old cobblestones like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Robotic figures guard its projected circumference, and ask everybody who approaches them:
“Greetings, carbon-based bipeds. Do you want to be probed?” Willing victims are then escorted to the focal point beneath the drifting gyre, and are lifted on a beam of white light.
Unlike most of the big attractions, it’s free. “Our masters are like galactic cowgirls,” the robot tells you in an androgynous voice, “they hoard the precious: alien info.” With the other volunteers, you’re herded into a central circle, which feels smooth as glass. A swish, a crackle, a pop and you’re floating upwards on a moonbeam-powered tabletop.
From the historic marketplace you rise into the futuristic unknown. Inside the strange artifact, it’s dark and the only light seems to emanate from yourself: the visitor. You throw your hands up in despair, and somehow, your open palms send cones of brilliance into a starred eternity.
Surprised, you point a finger at the weird spectacle to find that your index finger aims a tight arrow of light. By using your hands, wits and this newfound ability, you find that while the ceiling seems unlimited, there is a horizontal opening to your left.
You enter into a wide-open space: a sea of tranquillity awash with possibilities. Another sexless drone guides you into a pair of what it calls non-grav seats. The creature tells you to fasten your buckle. The exact moment you click the fastener home, your seat flies off into the great space. Like the other spectators, you’re scattered everywhere, yet somehow all pointed in one direction. You feel like you’re hovering on the brink.
After an indefinite time, three space suits float into view. A bottom-heavy, triangular sound bursts loose into the not-quite-vacuum interstellar gaps, topped off with drums, bass, and a desperate banjo riff. Despite—or possibly because of—the space gear, the feminine qualities of the cosmonauts are now unmistakable. In their fishbowl helmets, their heads are slowly turning blue. Their cries echo with despair:
“PUMP. . .UP. . .THE. . .SPACE. . .SUIT. . .”
“Speak to me,” the situation requests and as the crowd empathizes loudly, the three women breathe in relief. They take their fishbowl helmets off, and toss them away like cowgirl hats. “Welcome to a space that never ends: Emily, Leigh and Paula!” Instruments appear, their space gloves disappear and they begin to sing about their adventures, a private concert in our solar backyard.
“We are the Cosmic Chicks, and we bring you: space in your face!”
These characters live on a ranch orbiting Mars. They herd galactic cows, funny-looking flat and hollow creatures like parachute pancakes, stretching several square kilometres in a parabolic array. Sunlight and raw waste are being converted into fresh volatiles. Apart from feeding them, milking them and checking their health, the chicks keep them from wandering off, and—most importantly—protect them from the notorious cattle thieves: the star pirates from the asteroid belt.
Herding back a stray parabolic cow to a higher altitude, Emily notices a subtle change in the starry background – a tiny dot with a changing albedo. She notifies Leigh and Paula on their shared quantum link and the alien vessel accelerates sharply. It’s fast, faster than she’s ever seen, and it isn’t reacting to her requests to communicate at any frequency. As it approaches, Emily’s instruments go haywire.
She fires, aiming for the bow. Nothing. Another: no dice. A shot after the stern, which normally disrupts the drive: nothing. Try again, with no effect. Only six shots, Emily thinks, what now? She pulls a lever that activates a scatter-EMP to blind them from their target but again, this returns no reaction. A desperate attempt on the bow, which just deflects, the alien craft maintains its course.
Looking over Emily’s shoulder through the instant link, fellow technochick Paula is awed by the spacecraft’s intensely focused magnetic field and frantically reels their herd in with an electric lasso. You can tell that she’s freaked by the alien vessel’s vector: it’s pickup momentum is multitudes greater than anything she’s seen sailing the spaceways.
The helpless Cosmic Chicks watch as the strange spacecraft ropes in the cosmic cow herd with uncanny efficiency. Then, Leigh finally connects the dots: it’s accessing much more power than a belt pirate ship. That shifting albedo, as if it’s spinning like mad. . .
“Triangulate the vacuum rippler at it.” she says.
“That useless experiment of yours?” Paula protests.
“Do it fast or it’s a goner. Trust me.” Emily decides to roll the dice and the chicks fire a triangulated shot of modulated nothing at the alien vessel. It comes around and Leigh follows her intuition and uploads a new code with the FC protocol through the vacu-rippler.
“It can’t be.” Paula, catching up.
“It is.” Leigh, torn between hope and fear.
And it is–indeed–First Contact.
Emily looks puzzled. Paula’s disbelief is in superposition. Leigh has the future of mankind in her hands and…
The music crescendos to a thundering silence. . .
The adventure stops. . .
And all the spectators are dropped, swiftly, on the Plaza de la Cathedral.
What a ride, but a more conflicted part of you feels a bit cheated: It wasn’t finished. What happens next? Who are the aliens? You brain goes into temporary overdrive–maybe machine intelligences that thought the cosmic cow was a primitive life form– maybe pranksters from a nearby secret UFO test program–and more. You can’t help it: you just love a mental and existential challenge.
Possibly the app has a few helpful hints: you open it, and it shows blue cover depicting a mysterious figure staring at a statue of a lizard embracing a woman, which is surrounded by red traffic cones. Zencore! Cone Zero in a Cern Zoo, the title says. When you look ‘Flight into the Unknown’ up, the app. only shows the title with a picture of the floating vessel and a caption “. . .has departed.”
That’s crazy. You go back to the bottom end of the Plaza de la Cathedral and there’s just an empty spot. The tavern near the tower is still there, and the other acts, but the UFO is gone. Then, the lights go out as Cádiz is hit by a blackout. In the sudden serenity, you look up. Staring into the nighttime sky, you see yourself as a mortal, mesmerized by infinity. Your mind burns with angst and anticipation.