Building Beyond is an ongoing series of conversations about how much fun worldbuilding can be. Building a world doesn’t have to be hard or scary. Let’s give it a try, together.
The big scary apocalypse happened a generation ago. Society hasn't recovered yet; there are survivors, but not cities or towns. You and your band of survivors meet an artist.
Paul Emily Ryan (him/her) is a full-time computer programmer, part-time Masters student, and 75%-time digital spectre. She mostly hasn’t been using social media much lately, but he goes by @kickbackyak in a number of places. Current location: Somewhere in Ireland.
Gailey: What are the materials the artist uses, and what subjects are they drawn to?
Paul Emily: Salvage from the flotsam. This of course might seem harder than it usually is because, well, it’s the post apocalypse. Worldbuilding always involves borrowing from other worlds to make your own, after all, this one and fictional ones, and while we’re at it will involve tearing down parts of your world and starting again. But you have to be careful to make it your world. Then it can (hopefully) become everyone else’s.
They call themselves the Sawdancer, sometimes. They don’t use saws, in general, and they don’t dance. People aren’t always sure what to make of the Sawdancer, as a name, but generally it’s accepted with confusion but good grace.
It should be said that the community is accomodating to the Sawdancer, and the Sawdancer to them. It’s not an unconditional accommodation; there will always be those holdouts who aren’t sure if what’s good for one is what’s good for all. Even if people aren’t convinced of the importance of art to themselves personally, they generally agree on the importance of it to the Sawdancer, and the importance of it to the World at Large. Because there is still one out there, and they are a part of it.
The Sawdancer uses the salvage to create dioramas of what life was, is, and may someday be. And also just how they’re feeling now. They’re also looking into starting to explore poetry and drama. Literature was looking tough there for a bit; writing material is even harder to come by than salvage. Then again, the oral tradition hasn’t entirely gone away. Literature doesn’t quite require nothing, but the conditions are different. Their relationship to fiction is… tricky. They flirt with it, but they’re also not entirely sure that luxury exists anymore, or if and when it will come back.
In some sense, they said, their desire to explore multiple forms of art is related to their hopes for what’s to come. Something specific they mentioned about that stuck with me for some reason: we must always be free to imagine a multiple-choice future. I would modify that by adding that it depends on the choices, and that part of being a better person is knowing when to accept those choices, and when to reject them.
Gailey: Does the Sawdancer distribute or display their art?
PE: A decent-sized building has been set aside for the Sawdancer to display their dioramas. It was very important to them that the housing site was in one of a specific number of locations. Former buildings from life before emanate a low-level psychic aura of their presence. Nothing too drastic, but you always know they were there. It’s not clear if the auras will fade as time goes by, or if they will simply be… replaced. As such, we can safely say that the Sawdancer’s gallery is situated somewhere that was important to art before.
The Sawdancer talks about their art to the community; the community doesn’t really travel, so the only way word gets out is through those who pass through. They generally mention what they’re working on to the community, whoever they happen to be with when they feel comfortable sharing. When the Sawdancer talks, the word spreads. The Sawdancer will perform on and off, as announced in good time, and all are welcome to attend as they can. They will place a lot of importance on intention and the expression of emotion, as they always do.
Gailey: How do you and your companions feel about the art?
PE: We feel quite mixed all in all. We’re a varied group! That said, we’ve been through enough over the time we’ve been together that disagreeing over something like this won’t tear us apart.
As for myself, I expect I feel good, without knowing exactly why I feel good, or whether I should feel good. It’d take me some time in the background as a running process, to make sure of what I feel and why. (Side note: autistic people happily thrive in this post apocalypse. We don’t know whether the Sawdancer is neurodivergent or not, but we accept that they will reveal themselves as they wish.)
To touch on just a few of my compatriots: Old Tedesco is very happy about this. It’s tempered with a little of the pragmatism the post apocalypse has embedded in us all, but overall he is very happy. There was even a sense that he might want to settle down here, join the Sawdancer in their community. Ultimately, he decided to continue with the group. Happiness isn’t the end of the road, and in any case he doesn’t feel he’s reached his yet. Parva disapproves, naturally. Her signing on the matter is vigorous. It’s not personal; she’s just always been one of the more practical members of the group. Her wife Rebecca is more appreciative; Parva signs for herself, of course, but Rebecca also signs to assure the Sawdancer that they themselves like the work and to concur that Parva is not reacting out of malice. Everyone allows Parva some space after this. By the end, she tells us that they are… not bad. As art goes.
We knew art existed before this. It’s not uncommon. Dramatic productions like the Sawdancer talked about doing spring up every so often. We’ve heard rumours of travelling orchestras in the Haudenosaunee performing ukulele music and The Voyage of Captain Kathryn Janeway. Someone else once attempted to revive something they called “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play”; they were greeted with disapproving stares when they mentioned it, and the idea quickly died.
Even in a post apocalypse - especially in a post apocalypse - there will always be those who are compelled to wander. We’re not the only ones, but we are some of them. We’re not looking for a home, not yet in any case. Some of us want to see the world, some of us would rather be anywhere than where we were, and we’ve all decided to do it together. We aim to wholly bring ourselves to wherever we go, pitch in as and how we can and are required to. We have a wide-ranging skill set, and a powerful sense of right and wrong. We try not to outstay our welcome. Something new is always calling out to us from tomorrow, and the road rolls beneath us.
You can read the unabridged version of Paul Emily's response here.
Elisabeth R. Moore is a German writer, birder and literature grad student. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Luna Station Quarterly and a variety of other venues. Her fiction features ghosts, strange plants, and the German experience, and while she tries to fight it, her firm belief in Zero Waste Living, ecological conservation and climate change activism often bleeds into her work. She lives with her wife, two cats and extremely lazy dog in the Ruhrgebiet. Find her at spacelesbian.zone or @willowcabins on Twitter.
Gailey: What kind of art does the artist make?
Moore: Clothes. The post-apocalyptic artist definitely makes clothes out of recycled trash, wool and other organic material. Practical art was some of the first art humans ever made, and so I think it will be a key thing to return to. Not only is good clothing crucial for survival – especially in pre-industrial conditions – it is also both beautiful and useful.
I also think that, if asked, the artist would explain that clothing art is continually recyclable. This is something historians talk about all the time: the reason we don’t have many old dresses from even time periods as recent as the 17th C is because clothes could be continually remade. One woman’s old dress transforms into another woman’s new dress, or four children’s dresses, or even just the lining in one man’s robe. This means that partially, the artist’s role is also grief companion – when someone dies, their clothes, their physical legacy, is reclaimed by the Commune. A way to remember the deceased member is to unravel their sweater, knit a couple of pairs of socks out of the new wool, and then honor and thank their memory every time the socks are worn.
Another role the artist would hold in the commune would be looking to help every resident create the clothes that fit their presentation and occupation the best. They would love collaborating with people to make the perfect clothing for them, while also remaining eternally curious about new clothing creation techniques.
Gailey: Does the artist distribute or display their art? How, and to whom?
M: Part of the reason I think my artist is drawn to Clothing Art is because of the way its displayed. When everyone in a commune is wearing beautifully embroidered jackets and slim fitting shirts in bright patchwork colors, everyone in the commune gets to enjoy the artist’s work. There is also a feeling of communal responsibility for The Artworks—the laundry team are as proud of the vibrant colors of the clothing and the Wearers are as proud of the unripped nature of their clothing as the artist is of the final work. All art is a process of collaboration, and while I think capitalism tries to obscure this, The Apocalypse would reveal that underlying communion again.
Gailey: How does seeing the art make you and your compatriots feel?
M: Filled with joy! Even today, I love seeing people wear clothes that look beautiful, were created mindfully, and that celebrate their presentation. I feel like seeing people reusing the trash of the previous generation is also such an important artistic statement: it reminds us both of our terrible legacy (all that trash!) and what we will be bringing to the future (a transformation of trash into useful and practical art).
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not writing a response of my own this week the way I usually do, because my beloved COVID-19 vaccine has me pancaked for now. (I am very happy to be this variety of pancake, my immune system is just excitable. This is absolutely worth it. Please join me in pancake-town as soon as you can.) With that said:
All of these possibilities are just beginnings. Paul Emily's writing is the foundation of a first-person journal-style memoir of travels through a recovering wasteland. Elisabeth's artist's mission is the start of a brilliant examination of a budding zero-waste society that actively incorporates reuse into culture.
What does your post-apocalyptic artist create? What is their vision? How are they received by those who get to experience their art?
Do whatever you want with these questions. You can write something down in the comments or on social media or in a notebook nobody will ever see. You can draw or paint or sit down a friend and talk their ear off about your ideas. You can stare at the horizon and imagine, letting the infinite landscape of your mind unfold just a little farther than it did yesterday. No matter what you do, take pride in the knowledge that you’re creating something that has never existed before. You’re building a little corner of a whole new world.
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