Organism Extravaganza!: AKA The most fun interruption of Tax Day Providence has ever seen

On Saturday, April 15, a vast array of curious and eager modern humans gathered in the lobby of the Providence Public Library for the most fun interruption of “Tax Day” PVD has seen in about 450 million years. 

Eli Nixon, Pawtucket-based artist and activist, was in full-public-spectaculah form as they revealed the culmination of their DIY artist residency at the Providence Public Library: Organism Extravaganza! It was an afternoon celebration of collaborative, community crafting nine months (or 450 million years) in the making, and part of BLOODTIDE, Nixon’s proposed holiday in homage to horseshoe crabs. While nine months may seem like a long time,  the 300 humans (ages nine weeks to 83 years) who transformed newspaper, masking tape, paper bags, and other recycled materials into organisms for a gorgeous, unfinishable homage to Earth’s biodiversity, were just a blip on the radar in comparison to the timespan recognized on this holiday. 

Eli Nixon performs onstage (Jay Ruzicka)

SIDENOTE: If you missed the event, don’t despair! You can check out the exhibit atPPL over the next few months. Additionally, Eli has written a whole guidebook on how to conjure a holiday whenever one feels needed. 

Pooled in PPL’s lobby in the present, literally and figuratively, celebrators marveled at the base of the primordial organism timeline spiraling up the stairwell, representing a tiny fraction of the flora and fauna that evolved over the last 450 million years. A respectful hush fell over the crowd as Lorén Spears of The Tomaquag Museum shared a land acknowledgement in the language of the Narragansetts and then in English. She sang and Eli thanked Spears and others at the event and suddenly the pulse of the Undertow Brass Band pulled the moving and grooving sea of humans towards the stairs. 

Upward they boogied, backward in time, weaving upward through a fishing-line web of community-created lifeforms. Dangling at the bottom of the installation (ie: 2023) is a giant mobile of tiny modern humans, built by tiny modern humans from URI’s Feinstein Child Development Center. At the top of the installation, representing 450 million years ago, is the ancient soup of eels and a bacteria ball built by estuarine scientists and teenagers. All along the way are cardboard horseshoe crabs, since they’ve been here the whole time. As the crowd danced through time, kids and adults identified organisms they helped paper mache. In fact, no one organism in the exhibit was made by any one person alone – both Eli’s point and process. Eli describes the months of asynchronous workshops as “a magical opportunity to steward each life form though so many sets of hands. Participants would choose what flora or fauna to build, we’d raid the children’s book collection for photos, I’d help people get started, and then just keep passing each one on to whoever came next until I decided each one was done. Stewarding this evolution was a pleasure and a gift. Seeing them all at rest finally in the stairwell together, it’s, well…a total holiday feeling.”

While some celebrators marveled at the enormous sperm whale and snazzy axolotl without guidance, others made use of the project’s minizine, an interactive seek & find with primordial mad-libs for those who prefer making e a game out of the experience (all of these materials are still available in little carrels on the PPL stairwell). On the third floor, people of all ages gathered around an arts and crafts table and crafted their own organisms, while others perused a wall-sized photo display depicting the project in progress.

As part of celebration, Eli invited some modern humans working to make our present/future time more survivable, (D.A.R.E.’s Behind the Walls Coalition) to set up a table and spread the word about their “Bail on 32” probation reform campaign. To sign D.A.R.E.’s petition, click here. Celebrants were also encouraged to support Lois Harada’s efforts to #RENAMEVICTORYDAY.

#RenameVictoryDay with cardboard horsehoe crab (Gina Lerman)

Meanwhile, many revelers followed Eli into the PPL auditorium for a show. Local poet Vatic Kuumba kicked off the performance by inviting a bunch of kids on stage for a sing-along about organisms. Eli then took the stage to share their suitcase theater show which they explain as “a live proposal to the audience to join me in celebrating horseshoe crabs, to grapple with our collective enmeshment, to laugh at our flimsy modernity, and to move toward healing sites of environmental and cultural harm though practices of reparative return – all in a haphazard clown show where I get to do a primordial striptease and become a dinosaur (again).” The audience was receptive to this invitation and really went wild when ‘crab-e-oke’ began: a rousing tribute to horseshoe crabs to the tune of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler (but with altered lyrics by Eli). Imagine, instead of the chorus being “Turn around…” the audience sings “Horseshoe crabs…” while learning facts about the animal in each verse. This truly epic experience was enhanced by a classic-karaoke style video made by Matt Derby and Eli, of actual horseshoe crabs on the shore, artistic blue-flag twirling, and lyrics. This was a peak BLOODTIDE moment, brimming with creative, joyous spirit. 

Vatic Kuumba singing along with the children (Jay Ruzicka)

At the conclusion of the show, the Undertow Brass Band waited outside the auditorium doors to lead the audience in a procession down the stairwell to a dance party that spilled onto Empire Street – briefly absorbing a wedding party and slowing traffic with rubberneckers who were confused, yet still wanted in. This is Providence. Check out Eli’s illustrated holiday manual to learn more about DIY holiday-making and ways to unsettle ourselves from traditions that reinscribe settler-colonial harm. Their book BLOODTIDE is available at the Providence Public Library, local books stores, and online from participating retailers.

Undertow Brass Band out on the street (Jay Ruzicka)