Barbara Smith phoned Roy Walford the other day. Nothing special. Except that Smith was calling from Katmandu and Walford was inside Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert. And the call was processed through the Electronic Cafe in Santa Monica.
This unusual conference call has been repeated from various sites around the world over the last four months as part of the “21st Century Odyssey,” a project created by performance artist Smith and physician Walford designed to “explore the possibilities in relationships,” both personal and global.
Smith and Walford have communicated with each other via telephone, computer and videophone as she traveled through India, Thailand, Nepal and Australia and while he remained sealed inside the prototype space colony.
Smith arrived back in Santa Monica last week, and she plans to depart again in September for Japan, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Greece, Europe, Africa and South Amercia. She hopes this second leg of her journey will last more than nine months.
“It’s a perfect situation,” Smith said. “A dialogue between two worlds. While Roy is inside the biosphere, a self-sustaining system, a tiny replica world, I am traveling around in the big world, and we are in intermittent communication with each other.”
Walford, the physician inside Biosphere 2, is one of four men and four women who are sealed inside the 3-acre, $150-million domed glass complex outside Tucson. The crew is attempting to live inside the structure for two years, growing all their own food and recycling air, water and waste in the closed ecological environment.
Smith raised about $60,000 for her project, primarily through private contributions. As she records her expedition through video and still cameras, Walford, whom she has known for six years, has been similarly documenting his experience in the biosphere. Their dialogue has been printed and on display at the Electronic Cafe International, a media art space and conferencing center housed at the 18th Street Arts Complex in Santa Monica.
In her travels, the 60-year-old Smith has explored the rituals of other cultures, visiting sacred sites and art spaces and staging art performances. Her performances and communications with Walford have been broadcast at the Electronic Cafe.
“It’s been a fabulous experience,” Smith said. “I didn’t have many expectations. But I loved the cultures, especially of Thailand, India and Nepal, because they have not been overrun by (Western culture).”
Smith views the project as a continuation of her performing and teaching performance art for the last 20 years at UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Irvine.
“Performance art is ordeal art,” she explained. “Like this trip, it is about breaking barriers, opening doors, uniting with people, moving beyond the mundaneness of daily life. It’s not about performing or acting, it’s about actually doing it.”
Smith began her journey with a partner, but for economic reasons he left midtrip. She plans to complete the second half of her travels alone and hopes her expedition will encourage women, especially older women, to continue to take risks.
“It would be easy to let up, and the thoughts come into one’s mind to let the younger ones do these things,” she said. “You can’t let those thoughts get you. It’s important to grab life, if you have fun things you want to do, to do them. There’s still a chance for growth, to give back, to have goals and to reach them.”