The Future Is Calling: Intimate, Interactive Performance Art Highlights Ecological Crisis

Fereshteh Toosi is a multidisciplinary artist whose work aims to build a sense of reverence and respect for all living, nonhuman beings on Earth.
Fereshteh Toosi is a multidisciplinary artist whose work aims to build a sense of reverence and respect for all living, nonhuman beings on Earth. Photo by Laura Mitchell
What if, instead of thinking of petroleum as simply a substance that fuels our cars, paves our roads, and lights our homes, we embraced it as part of our own human DNA? What if, when we burned oil, which is essentially a collection of decomposed life, we saw this act as burning a part of our own past, the very life that created us?

Oil Ancestors: Metaphysical Hotline is a Miami-grown performance-art piece by multidisciplinary artist Fereshteh Toosi that implores participants to rethink their relationship to oil, plastics, and other substances whose consumption contributes to the growing global ecological crisis. Toosi accomplishes this task by taking their performances from the stage to a much more intimate setting: the telephone.

Running from June 9-20, Oil Ancestors is a series of 24 one-on-one performances between preselected participants and Toosi, who plays a pair of roles: a medium with the power to summon humans living seven generations after us, and a young person from the future living in a post-oil economy and entranced by our generation’s work to halt the damage of climate change. Limited spots to experience this work are still available, says Toosi, and those interested should complete this questionnaire for a chance to receive a call.

“When you look at a substance like petroleum, it encroaches on every aspect of our lives,” says Toosi, an assistant professor in the Florida International University department of art and art history. “It’s a powerful substance in the amount of energy it can produce for its size and the way it's produced from dead organisms that have built up energy over time. What is the reverence we have for that? We think nothing of filling up our gas tank. We are so dependent on it, yet it has a lot of control over our lives. What would it mean to move away from that? The concept of Oil Ancestors came about through thinking of not only living beings as our kin but plastic or petroleum itself as kin.”

Toosi says each performance aims to create a sense of trust and community for participants by encouraging vulnerability, reflection, and dialogue on topics such as their current understanding of what contributes to the climate crisis and what actions they can or want to take to stop it.

“There is something very powerful that happens between two individuals engaged in valuable dialogue,” Toosi says. “You as the audience member listen to the characters, but you get to contribute and have a conversation. There's a vulnerability that opens up when you know it’s just one other person on the line. It’s just you and the story.”

While on the phone, participants are addressed as “ancestors,” a gentle reminder that actions today beget results tomorrow. Each ancestor is guided through a curated tour of the past as the character from a future generation pulls audio files from their grandmother’s “memory chip.” Selections include a performance of work songs Black Americans sang while building the railroads and music played on garbage cans in Trinidad.

Toosi says conceptualizing this work as a conversation between an ancestor and a future descendant helps participants experience time — and their role within it — in a new way.

“It's pretty typical that humans have difficulty thinking in deep time, seeing beyond our own lifespan or the generation just before or after. In order to address the ecological crisis, we have to learn to look at a bigger span of time and act on it. I think that takes a different kind of attention,” says Toosi, who is of Iranian and Azeri (Azerbaijani) ancestry. “There’s a healing modality around connecting to one’s ancestors. In a traditional American spiritualist seance, it’s a one-way communication looking back to the recent past. This project connects to ancestors throughout human existence. You start to look at yourself in the bigger picture of time, not just through your lifetime.”

Toosi believes the work's message of gratitude sent from the distant future will appeal not only to the staunchest of environmental activists, but also to those who are simply looking to do more for the planet.

"I vacillate between being very pessimistic about the future of humanity and remaining hopeful and trying to do what I can today. This project puts you in a position of thinking, yes, there is a future, and the people living in it are very thankful to me for my work. The caller thinks, Wow, am I really doing enough?"Toosi says. "Some callers may feel a lack of hope or burnout about the work they’re doing, while others who might feel they’re not doing enough will experience the piece in a different way."

In creating their piece, Toosi was inspired by the work of Joanna Macy, an author and Buddhist eco-philosopher who rose to prominence during the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. As part of her “Work That Reconnects,” Macy created exercises meant to rejuvenate and recharge the willpower of activists. Toosi broadened this group-processing work for general audiences and added their penchant for performance art and archival materials.

Oil Ancestors continues Toosi’s mission of fostering animistic experiences, creating reverence for nonhuman life through sensory experiences.

“All of the beings — the birds, the trees — represent an ancestral lineage as well,” says Toosi, whose previous work includes guiding small groups through forest bathing outings and kayak trips around Miami waterways. “I'm trying to become better at being attuned to deeper connections with nonhuman beings.

Presented by Miami Dade College’s Live Arts Miami, Toosi’s work is part of the LALA Performance Series, which addresses climate change and sustainability. Live Arts Miami executive director Kathryn Garcia says her organization commissioned local artists to “speak out on the climate crisis from a Miami lens.”

“Artists have a very special role to play in this crisis because of their incredible capacity to inspire, incite reflection, and to ultimately open hearts and minds. They work hand in hand with the activists, oftentimes planting seeds for the necessary action to take root,” Garcia explains. “The challenges we face are ultimately about stewardship, so I hope, as a result of experiencing Fereshteh’s work, people are empowered to find ways to make a difference. What we do affects countless generations to come.”

Just before hanging up the phone, each caller is asked to make a wish for the future. This is Toosi’s way of gently nudging each participant into setting intentions not just for the future of their families, but for the future of the entire Earth.

“I want people to think: If I can have this aspiration in this imaginary moment with this fictional character, how am I going to deliver on it? If this character is thankful to me, can I live up to their praise and gratitude? If the future is going to exist with humans in it, how can I put my contribution into that? Everyone will have a different answer,” Toosi says. “This piece puts you on the hook and says, 'Don’t give up if you are doing something, and if you're not doing anything, what can you do?'”

Oil Ancestors: Metaphysical Hotline. Wednesday, June 9, through Sunday, June 20;
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Tyler Francischine is a writer, event planner, and audiophile with dual passions for creating community engagement and telling stories that sing in a reader’s mind. Her work has been featured in American Way, Melted Magazine, and the Huffington Post.