The Artificial Nature Project. Photo credit: Jan Lietart
Between 2009 and 2012 I created a performance series entitled The Artificial Nature Series. As a choreographer I was interested in exploring movement as an encounter between human and nonhuman agency. The works I made shifted the focus away from the human performer, in order to give visibility to nonhuman forces and the expressivity of inanimate things. I used the theatre as a laboratory for how to practice moving beyond anthropocentric thinking. Over the three years I developed five performances; evaporated landscapes, The Extra Sensorial Garden, The Light Forest, Speculations, and The Artificial Nature Project. Together they inform the poetic principles of performance, that you will find outlined below.
Nonhuman choreography: Attributing to inanimate things the capacity to express, act and affect**
A while ago, I listened to Isabelle Stengers speaking about her recent book In Catastrophic Times. It made me think that perhaps the works in The Artificial Nature Series had all along been connected to the ambiguous notion of the Anthropocene. In this epoch there is nothing natural about nature—everything is a series of causes and effects, stemming from our anthropocentric desire to act, control, exploit, abandon and therefore artificialise nature. However, as Stengers argues, the newly achieved success of the Anthropocene epoch in both scientific and academic fields signifies a transition in the understanding of our relationship to the environment, but not necessarily a growing capacity to overcome the problems that we are facing. In her book she names the consequences of the Anthropocene and the uncontrollable forces of nature—Gaia (after the Greek goddess of the earth) and explains what we are now up against as follows.
Gaia is ticklish and that is why she must be named as a being. We are no longer dealing (only) with a wild and threatening nature, nor with a fragile nature to be protected, nor a nature to be mercilessly exploited. The case is new. Gaia, she who intrudes, asks nothing of us, not even a response to the question she imposes. Offended, Gaia is indifferent to the question “who is responsible?”1
Anthropomorphising the nonhuman force of the earth by giving it a superhuman name signals yet again the inability to think beyond our own anthropocentrism. At the same time Stengers obviously understands Gaia as an assemblage of nonhuman forces acting beyond human control. Her gesture also proposes something else; the power Gaia acquires by taking the form of a being makes her physically palpable and consequently unavoidable. A power and force that one cannot ignore, whose anger can lead to unknown effects—including the total annihilation of humankind, if we follow Stengers’ predictions. By making the forces of the earth into a ticklish being and naming it Gaia, Stengers suggests that a new composition of reciprocity and interaction between humans and nonhumans has to be found.
Despite Gaia’s indifference to us, this new composition gives rise to an interesting poetic principle in regards to nonhuman theatre. It is a principle that attributes to nonhumans the capacities to act, express and affect those who are paying attention. A principle where human bodies move with and through the nonhuman world, not for the sake of one’s own survival, nor to feel one’s own body moving, but to start practicing movement as a relation to external environments and nonhuman actors.
This poetic principle of anthropomorphising things, can however not be one of resemblance—of wanting nonhumans to look or behave like human beings. Rather, the principle has to transform the understanding of our own bodies by entering into composition with nonhumans in ways that also challenge our sense of self. And by that, allow the resulting expression to disturb our centralised notions of what a moving body is.
The Light Forest. Photo credit: Sabine Bruckner
Material agency: Creating a sensorial problem
If a moving body is no longer conceived of as human our way of looking at it in theatre must also transform. What follows from this is another mode of watching performance, one that does not rely on the usual mechanisms of recognition, identification and communication so often central to theatre as a human and social encounter. Instead, by sitting in front of nonhuman actors—light, sound, foam, bubbles, particles, colours, stones, minerals or vibrations—the spectator is confronted with the sensorial problem of how to translate what is seen in one medium of expression into another; from nonhuman utterance to bodily experience. Sensorial response is nevertheless exactly what these works aim to produce by creating an encounter with nonhumans that uncannily starts to talk back, to act and to express. The sensorial problem created for the spectators emerges from the following questions: How can theatre propose a space for listening to things that don’t speak in a human language? What is the relationship between the animate and the inanimate world? What does it mean to make a choreography for materials, where human movement is no longer the centre of attention? These questions distinguish the performances in The Artificial Nature Series from other more anthropocentric forms of theatre.
Immersive stage environments: Removing the distance between the body of the spectator and the stage
All the works, except The Artificial Nature Project, dispense with a conventional frontal theatre stage. The reasons for this are many. By removing stage frontality, vision as the primary sense through which we receive choreography and dance is put into question. Secondly, the distance to the stage that a frontal set up favours is substituted by environments that envelop and touch the spectators, placing them inside the performance area. Another question I posed repeatedly regarding these works—bringing the performance even closer to the body of the spectator—was how to make a performance that literally would take place inside the body of the spectator and by that, make the spectator the location of the performative event.
The use of space: Formatting spatial performativity
With evaporated landscapes, the spatial dispositif was purposely made very small. The stage was only five by eight meters large, with two rows of platforms on the long sides to sit on. The audience literally sat inside the materials: Their feet were covered by the low fog that invaded the space, or their heads enveloped by the smoke that reflected light just above them. One motivation behind this was to question how theatre effects are most often used in large-scale productions, to enhance the visual and psychological intensity of a theatrical expression. By removing the spatial distance to the public—as well as to the human performer—I attempted to create a different kind of spectatorial position. The intimacy and proximity with which the audience was allowed to observe the materials gave the performances a stronger sensorial impact.
An opposite strategy was used in The Light Forest. Instead of bringing the stage so close to the viewer that all divisions of space would dissolve, the notion of the stage was extended as far as possible beyond the walls of the theatre into a natural landscape. By installing lights in an actual forest, the notion of the stage space was opened up to include the entire terrain of the woods, but also the city that was visible from it. The audience was invited to ‘step on stage’ by walking through the forest, and thus make their physical movements part of the performance. In the first case, the idea was that the shift from frontal to adjacent or intimate space would suggest a rethinking of spectatorship, by favouring synesthetic experience and the collaboration between the different senses, rather than placing vision as the primary sense through which we perceive theatre. In the case of The Light Forest, the aim was that the physical activity of the spectator, while walking over the forest stage, would place their sensorimotor activity as the primary action-stimulating perception. The shift towards sensorimotor activity was proposed by choreographing the paths to be followed throughout the forest. Sometimes the audience would walk on existing paths, sometimes through bushes or uphill following sporadically flashing lights, thus highlighting the physical awareness of bodily engagement needed to complete the walk.
Evaporated Landscapes. Photo credit: Tania Kelley
Sensorial participation: Activating sensory perception
Besides the spatial poetics that run through these works, another defining principle of the different dispositifs explored was how they stimulate sensorial participation in the spectators’ bodies; a form of participation that is composed between seeing, hearing and moving, in other words, as sensorially active ways of receiving performance. By reducing the information flow that emanates from the ‘stage’, the audience is invited to focus on the minute changes happening in the evaporating materials, or in the immaterial movements of colours, lights and sounds. In this case, perception becomes an extremely active state of co-constituting the performance, where the performative expression is composed between what is being represented and how every different body sensorially responds to it. In his book Action in Perception, philosopher Alva Noë clarifies how perception is not something that happens to us, or in us, but is something that we do.2 Specifically, he writes about our perception of colours, and the notion of ‘colour constancy’. Colour constancy is, for instance, when your mind makes you perceive a wall as being entirely white, while it is in fact quite colourful, due to shadows and light reflections. Your brain reduces information and narrows down the colours in order to help you identify objects. Noë argues that simultaneous to the constancy of the colour white you attribute to the wall, your ability to also see the other colours depends on your implicit understanding of movement and of sensorimotor knowledge.
The use of time: Intensifying sensation by slowing down the time of perception
The colour perceptions activated in evaporated landscapes, The Extra Sensorial Garden and The Artificial Nature Project are defined by gradual and invisible modulations, asking the spectator to zoom into the nonhuman expression in order to have a perception of it. Changes in intensities, tones and colours happen so slowly that it’s impossible to identify the moment when a shift is taking place. You can only conclude that a change has happened once it is already too late.
The knowing, or becoming aware, of how perception is faster than recognition, gives rise to a very specific kind of experience. I call this mode of receiving performance ‘sensorial participation’ to signal that perceiving is an action that the spectator is part of creating and not something that is simply happening to them, in spite of the immersive and sensorially impressive nature of the environments. The form of conscious sensorial participation that results from this adds perceptive awareness to the topics of investigation that these works delineate. Perceptive awareness is connected to our capacity to understand how audio-visual materials communicate and operate on our bodies in order to create affective and sensorial responses. Perceptive operations of images are implicitly connected to the speed and the time that they are given to create sensations. Obviously, most cultural images produced today are dominated by fast cuts, sudden interruptions and loud surround-sound effects. The question is, could such an over-stimulating and easily manipulative economy of images be counteracted by offering a slower temporality with its altered sensorial effects?
Evaporated Landscapes. Photo credit: Tania Kelley
The production of affect: Linking sensory perception to verbal articulation
The awareness of bodily mechanisms—the fact that the speed of your perception is faster than the speed of your recognition—directly connects to affect. At a very early stage of trying to figure out what affect was, I remember someone trying to explain it to me like this: First you run, then you fear the bear. Your body reacts to the lurking danger of the bear before you have actually formed an explicit and conscious image of it.
While trying to figure out how affect in this way is subconscious—thus rendering the body vulnerable to affective manipulation as it operates outside of conscious awareness or rational control—I found a text by Brian Massumi pushing this point even further. 3 In his essay, he makes the fragilisation of the body directly political, explaining how affective fragility renders bodies susceptible to governmental control. In his text he shows how the colour coding system—installed to signal the levels of danger in the United States post 9/11—created a permanent state of fear in the population, rendering their bodies vulnerable and prey to affective control.
The explicitly political character of affect exemplified by this story has an entirely other dimension than what one can undertake in a theatre of artificial nature. Nevertheless, I remember how it elucidated the question of affective control in a very concrete manner, triggering other thoughts and questions regarding the nature of theatre. What is the relation between subconscious affective experience and sensory manipulation, and how is this expressed in theatre? How can perceptive awareness be used to bridge the gap between subliminal sensory experience and verbal articulation? How can the theatre become a space to practice and train our ability to build these bridges between affect and language? And, how does this connect to our experiences of nonhuman expressions on stage?
Immateriality: Staging processes of evaporation, dissolution and dispersion
The fact that language was used extensively to produce all of these works—even as a choreographic material within several of them—reveal that the material processes of evaporation, dissolution and dispersion are closely connected to immaterial processes of discussion, articulation and communication. What comes from reading transversally though these works is perhaps exactly a connection between the material, sensorial and affective aspects of these choreographies, and specific ways in which they relate to discourse and language production.
When I started working on this series I was interested in understanding the notion of immateriality, its relation to our material bodies and what this might mean to choreography and dance. Immateriality was a word I tried to discern as diversely as possible. I wanted to understand the fluctuating movements of air streams and flows of materials, because I felt they also related to understanding invisible flows of money, information and communication characteristic of our current immaterial labour economy. I thought about how, in this economy, our bodies are no longer material workers creating objects in the factory assembly line. Rather, we are permanently called upon to also participate in the labour economy with our affects, sensations, ideas and imaginations as a way of developing projects, improving services, communications and information, to enhance experience as a new product. What was provoked by these reflections on immateriality, was a reconsideration of how movements could be formed beyond the human body in its intersection with materials, machines, imaginations, affects and sensations. This was a way of turning attention towards processes of dematerialisation, but of course it was also a way of proposing a non-anthropocentric notion of dance and the body, by including the expressions of nonhuman elements. The specific understanding of bodies that arose from these works—light bodies, sound bodies, particle bodies, foam bodies, fog bodies, bubble bodies that burst and disappeared into air—were all produced by using mechanical and technological extensions. Machines that were obviously created by humans, at the same time producing stage realities that aimed, through their theatrical fictions and imaginations, to compose a feeling of autonomous material expression and agency within nonhuman worlds. This use of technical extensions of the body also echoed how bodies today are no longer separated from technology and how subjectivities are permanently being shaped by technological prolongations. What also appeared through working on these bodies of material evaporation, dissolution and dispersion, was perhaps a reflection on the precariousness of these bodies on the edge of existing; bodies that easily burst, dissolve and disappear.
The Artificial Nature Project. Photo credit: Hans Meijer
Artificial nature: Forming a poetics
In the beginning, the external frames of what my theatrical questions could be connected to outside of the theatre were blurry to me. As I progressed through the works, I understood that they corresponded to the poetic principles outlined above. I also realised that producing stage expressions through these principles was an attempt to understand movement processes as they happen outside the theatre, specifically in regards to notions of artificialised nature. The focus of the poetics they developed—although the pieces sometimes also ‘represent’ nature—was primarily concerned with staging the processes of nature and how this potentially could give rise to less familiar experiences of matter. This interest developed from a desire to experiment with choreographing nonhuman movements and to making them visible both inside and outside of the theatre. The processes that concretely interested me were the unpredictable configurations of clouds, the invisible movements of winds, the turbulences of hurricanes, the shadows of trees, the surface reflections of the sea, the chaos of fires, the forcefulness of volcanic eruptions—but also the movement of industrial and immaterial forms of labour production as they create uncontrollable effects in the natural nonhuman world.
What The Artificial Nature Series tries to show is that dance or choreography does not necessarily come from within the body but can also be entirely decorporalised or created in the intersection between humans and larger nonhuman environments. The body in these performances thus always operates in conjunction with the ‘nonhuman forces of nature’ that are staged as independent, autonomous, threatening and even overwhelming to the human body moving within it. To place the body within such a network of relations between human and nonhuman actors, and to confront the problems it poses to theatre, and to us as human performers no longer in the centre of attention, is simultaneously fascinating, absorbing and highly problematic.
What I was searching for with The Artificial Nature Series was to decentralise the expression that was presented on stage, so that it was performed either entirely by nonhumans or through the collaboration between human and nonhuman actors.
Throughout the work on The Artificial Nature Project, it was challenging for the performers to be put in a peripheral position and to understand human agency as a relation to be composed with nonhumans. But it was a way of insisting on practicing a decentralised or inverted relationship to the material world, and to disrupt theatrical anthropocentrism. The safe environment of the theatre was used as a space to experiment with ways of coexisting and composing with nature, dead matters, machines and other unpredictable nonhuman forces. And perhaps, also, an opportunity to create models of thought that can contribute to shaping a less anthropocentric view of the world, both inside and outside of the theatre.