A solar flare wipes the world's electronic media stores clean. Electricity no longer flows. And a new dark age begins, along with a new form of storytelling. It's all chronicled in a strange art show from the future.
Artist Stephen Hendee's new show, Dark Age Era North America: The Ice Next Time, is on display right now at Las Vegas' Barrick Museum - but it's set in 2429. It's a speculative fiction story told in the form of a future exhibit in a North American history museum, exploring what happens to storytelling in an era without electricity or books. As we learn in the accompanying museum catalog, most books are burned for fuel during the first few months of the global blackout after the solar flares start. So an old kind of storytelling is revived - storytellers and actors who remember the old novels and movies of the pre-Dark Age create "storytelling drops" marked with giant cloth banners advertising the tales they'll tell. They travel from town to town, far from the abandoned cities, recreating science fiction stories they once knew. This is how Hendee describes it:
Storyteller's Drops (2035-2250)
Before the chaos, most of the world's libraries and archives had been converted into digital formats. Paper books became antiquated and though cherished by many, the production and distribution of book editions had diminished to a trickle and completely ceased more than a decade before the disruption. It is obvious to us now during the event of 2026, we lost nearly the entirety of human historical record. It was no small tragedy that most print paper had already become uncommon, but compounding this problem the electricity used to run all other informational archives both public and personal disappeared almost overnight. Unaware of the scope of the unfolding events anything that could be burned for warmth or cooking was used for survival, including most of the remaining books and paper.
For as many who wandered looking simply for food and clean water there were as many in shock that their lives, location, and history had been erased. Individuals and then groups became recognized for their ability to remember and re-record the history of collective memory among the survivors. Traveling storytellers became an instrumental part of community life. The arrival of those reciting their personal and handed down memories was met with excitement and anticipation.
Many storytellers would travel with lightweight banners often painted with a list of authors or stories they were keen to perform. Sometimes these selections were an assortment of fragmentary works, with others the oeuvre of specific authors might be the focus, or single works of literature that would be recited over many nights. Central meeting places became a social hub of storytelling, music, shared communal knowledge, and history.
I love the way the authors' names and story titles have been mutated over time, just the way they might if oral traditions took over and people's memories of the originals faded.
Hendee's show features a number of quilts from these storyteller drops, as well as the kinds of costumes that actors and authorities wore during the Dark Ages. Here's the description of some of these:
Man Outside the Field / Boogy Man / Death (Burlap)
Man on the Road / Old Military Ghost (Green)
Trickster/ Chaos & Plenty (Orange/ Blue / Stripes)
As the warlords dissolved with the formation of the Authority, costumes representing the most fearsome of these unsettling archetypes made their way into community plays. At one time used by the warlords to entertain coercion from weary travelers, they also were used to hide the identities of the criminals. In time, these characters were used by the Authority to inform children of dangers inherent outside the protection of the community zones and cities. Eventually these figures became an accepted and essential presence in birthing rituals, funerals, and field blessings, each with their own unique ritualized task integral to the narrative of the event.
Hendee also includes examples of the blue uniforms of the "Water and Land Authority" who took over in North America during most of the Dark Ages. Later, when the solar flares die down, the orange-uniformed "Dawn Workers and Cablers" began to rebuild the electrical systems and internet - but they keep their work secret for almost a century, because the Water and Land Authority have demonized electrical power. As the Dawn Workers gained power, they began to advertise electrical power sources with quilts that read "The Power Is On." Instead of storyteller's drops, as the Dark Ages receded, we had power drops:
The power is on (2127)
Reconstructed example of camouflage Dawn Worker's signal banner used to alert the presence of powered structures or resources. Between 2110 and 2211, the return of possible electrical generation was kept secret to all but a score of scientists focused on restoring electrical power. The secrecy maintained was to avoid the public fear of returning to the digital culture before the Fall and the associated mental disorders such as incurable distraction, memory loss, and mass sociopathological narcissism (MSN). The public belief at the time was that these scourges were caused by a dependence upon instantaneous digital access.