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Wayfinders: A Look at How We Journey

by Holcombe Waller

Holcombe Waller, Wayfinders

Photo: Tyler Kalberg


Holcombe Waller reflects on the inspiration for his performance, Wayfinders, at MCA Stage November 7–9.

on Holcombe’s influences

In Wade Davis's audio-lecture series, The Wayfinders, Davis recounts Nainoa Thompson's first solo voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1980 on the Hōkūle’a, a handmade re-creation of a double-hull, ancient Polynesian voyaging canoe. In making this journey, Thompson became the first contemporary native Hawaiian to successfully travel thousands of nautical miles without instruments, using only the traditional Polynesian art of navigation taught to him by the last living Micronesian master navigator, Mau Piailug.

Thompson’s story is very dramatic. After almost a month at sea, Thompson and his crew faced days and nights of relentlessly overcast skies, hiding the stars and sun. Sitting in silent meditation, tracking every piece of data to sustain a mental picture of the ship’s dead-reckoning across the open sea—including waves, winds, birds, fish, clouds, and the often obscured sun and stars—Thompson felt his thread of focus unravel, and realized that the Hōkūle’a might be lost at sea. But before fear overcame him, he remembered a simple teaching that master navigator Mau Piailug repeated often: Remember that everything you need is on board the ancient canoe.

Hawaiian navigators sailing a multi-hulled canoe, c. 1781


Through their work, Mau Piailug and Thompson reclaimed the legacy of ancient Polynesian navigation and its historical role in populating the vast archipelago of Polynesia—catalyzing the final undoing of the historical theory of accidental drift from Peru associated with National Geographic hero Thor Heyerdahl and his famous journey on the Kon-Tiki raft.

I was struck by the profound existential themes of Thompson’s journey. Open-sea navigation, guided only by one’s knowledge and senses, seems impossible to me, and yet Thompson overcomes this impossibility. The vastness of the sea overwhelms the tiny canoe and its crew, but they move through this vastness to pinpoint the culture they are seeking on a distant island. They make the connection to that culture through the power of ancient seafaring wisdom. The crew of the canoe faces imminent death and despair, but they have the resources within them to face both success and failure.

My performance Wayfinders is not about Nainoa Thompson's journey. Instead, it uses the themes within his story as a point of inspiration. My interpretation branched into roughly three areas: the evolving technology of navigation (now including ubiquitous GPS carried on almost all of our persons); the role of navigation in evolution, including the theory that the evolutionary purpose of “consciousness” is to mobilize and navigate an organism; and the cultural shifts of how we relate to space and place, particularly today, when technology so thoroughly mediates our relationships with people, places, and things.

In a series of workshops, including one conducted at the MCA, the performers, designers, and I created pieces of performance around musical sketches. When confronted with a creative obstacle, we reminded ourselves that everything we needed was with us, in the theater. In this way, the work became about the meta-narrative of a set of people cocreating their own reality and their own journey. This idea led to the notion of an isolated spaceship—inspired by Thompson’s description of the voyaging canoe as “the spaceship of the ancestors”—in which technology comes to mediate consciousness itself, allowing a kind of virtual world in which place, trajectory, and identity are all fluid constructs that the passengers can actively imagine into being.

Wayfinders: A Look at How We Journey video still



Very quickly I realized we were in the territory of science fiction. A chance re-viewing of the original Matrix film led me to the writer William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” in his Sprawl trilogy and predicted the notions of “the matrix,” virtual reality, and even the World Wide Web. I found a synchronicity of thought between the ideas we devised in workshop and the narrative threads of Gibson's writing, particularly how his books discuss the notion of living entirely virtually, even after the death of the body.

Thinking about the degree to which we relinquish our privacy to benefit from an increasingly connected existence, I began paying attention to how social media is transforming our relationship to death and loss. Online profiles of deceased friends and family take on an active life of their own. Reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead, I found a connection between its description of the stages of death and our own contemporary surrendering of our personal boundaries. Wayfinders imagines a kind of convergence of William Gibson's vision of a virtual afterlife with the Buddhist belief in the last, most subtle mind as the final boundary before a oneness with all things.

Wayfinders occurs in a highly meta, non-linear, imaginary state of consciousness. In many ways, the creation of this work has coincided with my own personal journey—an attempt to align words, music, and stage picture to an existential question: “Where am I?”

I invite you to come and experience the world of Wayfinders at MCA Chicago.

Hear Holcombe talk more about his performance and to see clips from his workshop at the MCA.