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'What Does the Apocalypse Smell Like?'

As we move into an uncertain, potentially dystopian future, Lindsay Tunkl uses performance art to explore death and the end of the world.


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Tunkl created a prize wheel, where the spinner lands on "everything matters" or "nothing matters." - PHOTO COURTESY OF LINDSAY TUNKL
  • Photo courtesy of Lindsay Tunkl
  • Tunkl created a prize wheel, where the spinner lands on "everything matters" or "nothing matters."

She was 2 years old when she first encountered the concept of death — it's one of her very first memories. Her dad was telling her a meandering bedtime story about how humans evolved from monkeys, black holes, how the sun was one day going to burn out, and everything and everyone would die.

Tunkl doesn't have many happy memories from her childhood. "There was a lot of my mom taking me and disappearing from my dad, and then my dad getting visitation and keeping me for months beyond, and then him disappearing from my mom," she said. "There was all this weird back and forth as they muddled through their own insanities and addictions and tried to care about having a kid."

Her mom would often wake her up in the middle of the night and announce they were about to fly to another country. She'd spend long periods of time alone when she probably shouldn't have been alone. She remembers being 5 years old, playing with a ring on her tongue, choking, and realizing there was no one around to help. She threw her body against the stairs, coughed out the ring, and learned to soothe herself.

Eventually, her mom's drug addiction got so bad that Tunkl was sent to live with her dad. But he struggled with drugs as well, she said. And then, when Tunkl was 13, she dealt with her own addiction. It started with cannabis, then the over-the-counter cough suppressant Coricidin, also known as Triple C. ("You're supposed to take one every 24 hours. I was taking 32 in a weekend.") Then meth. She got arrested the first time she attempted to deal drugs and went to rehab. With the exception of a stint of intense drinking at age 18, she said she's been sober ever since.

Considering those early years, it's no wonder Tunkl became so preoccupied with death. "There have been periods of time with my family where I thought, 'You could die,'" she said, referring to her parents. "I'd wake up every morning thinking, "Is my dad going to be dead today?' ... For a long time it was a big part of my identity, being someone who survived the kind of childhood that I had."

Tunkl chooses not to dwell on her past anymore, but she doesn't hide it either.

"The individual experiences she's had from birth to coming into an adult are insane, almost incomprehensible — how can all of that happen to one person?" said Amanda Ribas-Tugwell, one of Tunkl's closest friends from graduate school. "With that said, she's experienced a lot of highs and lows as a kid, and I think that's created a desire for heightened experience as an adult, in terms of staying stimulated and awake and present. ... It's a gift that comes from some hard places."

But Tunkl's survival isn't the only thing fueling her art. It's also the intense emotional and healing work that went into mending her relationships with her parents. It's also the love.

As Ribas-Tugwell put it, "It's very clear that her art and her life are completely interwoven."

What does the apocalypse smell like? That's Tunkl's first question in Pre Apocalypse Counseling, another round of one-on-one performance art sessions she started holding in 2014. It was preceded by years of research. Tunkl joined message boards and interviewed people, known as preppers, who actively prepare for doomsday scenarios. She even embarked on a two-week solo camping expedition in the name of testing her survival skills. ("What I learned very quickly doing this work was I would not survive," she said with a laugh. "I should stop trying.")

The result was a one-hour exploration of the end of the world — Tunkl determined there are 185 different possible forms of the apocalypse — and what you'd do during, say, a nuclear blast, catastrophic tsunami, or Tunkl's historical favorite, an asteroid collision.

Early on in the sessions, she would ask, "Do you think you would survive an extinction-level event?" Most people said, 'yes,' which surprised Tunkl. The other thing that shocked her was hearing how badly people wanted to survive. "Does it make sense to live in desolation with nobody? With nothing? Why? What is it you're clinging to? ... I don't think people come to those answers out of fear or ignorance," she said. "It's because we're not talking about it enough."

All sorts of people signed up for these sessions, from folks who adore apocalypse movies to those who claim to never think about it. But after the 2016 presidential election, a rush of people contacted Tunkl for Pre Apocalypse Counseling. Those sessions felt different, more urgent. "This is the end of the world for some people in a very real way," she said.   

The apocalypse work spawned a body of related objects. She collaborated with a scent artist and created a line of perfumes that smelled like different forms of the apocalypse. (Tsunami, for example, gave off a potent whiff of sea mist, green leaves, tidal pull, blue metal, oily smoke, rubber, and oil.) She published Pre Apocalypse Co-Counseling, a handbook for folks to conduct their own sessions at home. San Francisco's Parallax Press also released Origins and Endings: Seeing Yourself through the Apocalypse, a divination book allowing playful psychoanalysis through an accompanying apocalypse-themed inkblot card deck.