Recipes for Being with Things
Sodja Zupanc Lotker | 25 08 2020 | Essay
This text consists of a few thoughts about non-human agents in the theatre, coming mainly from my practice as a dramaturg, curator and teacher but also simply from being human. These thoughts are not tightly connected. They are loose. Coherent in non-academic way. They live together in this text to present a world of thinking sometimes contradictory – but definitely not just one unified ‘well developed’ thought. These thoughts are thoughts of a deviser. Just like in devised theatre process – as I write I follow notions, tendencies, events – allowing myself not to know what exactly I follow. Letting things advance in front of me. Sometimes I will simplify, sometimes I will be naïve, but probably there would be no writing without it.
I call these thoughts ‘recipes’. One imagines a ‘recipe’ as something very precise and uncreative: ‘100g of flower, 1,5 cup of milk, 2 spoons of cinnamon, 3 small eggs’ – type of thing. But recipes are ‘living’ things that change with quality of ingredients, types of dishes they are made in, people’s moods, (I have heard of French women that do not make quiche when they are PMSed, because they are not in the right state of mind.)… weather, amounts to be made etc. When I cook, I often do not use these ‘prescribed recipes’, nor do I taste the food while cooking. I follow the consistency, the textures, the colors, the smells, the touch of the prepared food. I feel how sticky it is, how tender, how floaty it is. I follow the material. Just like a puppet-maker must follow the structure of the wood as she makes the puppet, for the nose, head of leg not to break. I am with the material. I do something and it gives me a sign what needs to be done next. It is not even a dialogue – because the thoughts and events and agency are so intermingled that I almost become one with the recipe… Still, I say: ‘I made…’. And I guess I do.
Theatre works like that. We rely heavily on space, the stage, the tickets, the posters, the costumes, the set, the props, the audience. It cannot be done without these other ingredients – things and people. The conflict, the dialogue, merging with, rejecting these other things and people, but always in relations. Sometimes these relations are so intense that we linger somewhere between absorbing everything into the ego, centralizing, everything becoming ‘me’ (and this is why sometimes maybe actors seem like egotistic madman) and disappearing into things, where one almost does not exist, does not have clear identity, becomes a ghost of oneself, vanishing into ‘otherness’. (All this might sound romantic here, but in reality: it is painful and joyful and silly and radically rational in the same time.)
This is probably one of the reasons for the historical critique of theatre as a medium: this lack of autonomy, the lack of integrity. Because the theatre does not exist ‘in itself’, alone, without anyone watching, without anyone taking part, without ‘assister à’ (participating through being present), without things. It is always ‘in relation’, always relative, almost defined. Where meaning and emotions and thinking appears only to disappear, never to stay. This is the instability of theatre, the precariousness, the illusion that people are afraid of.
But in the conventional drama theatre the relationship to non-human agents is hierarchical. Everything is in service of the play, of the plot, of the characters. The props are never objects. The set is almost never space. Costumes are almost never clothes. They are always in service, always ‘pretend’, in order to help the play and its development. Things are taken for granted, ‘used’ and often abandoned.
It is the postdramatic theatre, theatre of Wilson, Goebbels and Needcompany, as defined by Hans-Thies Lehmann, theatre that created space for different ways of relating on stage – the light, the movement, the objects, the space, the clothes – all became elements that perform in less hierarchized way, not only to support the play, but also using their own full qualities – the color, the textures, the histories, the weight, the movement… In postdramatic theatre, that relies on composition and compositional ‘moods’ and not on drama and stories, stage elements gained space and started ‘performing’, doing things in their way. The shift away from drama, from characters and plot, and into larger composition of things gave way for spaces and objects and weather and even animals to enter the performance.
In contemporary performance the situation is radically different. While theatre relies on non-human agents, using them in service of the drama, and post-dramatic allows for the non-human agents to be in different hierarchies within the dramaturgical system of performance: contemporary performance often points to the agency of non-human entities, it uncovers it, focuses on it.
But first: what is the agency of non-human entities? Online sources say that: Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment. Or as we would say: it performs, it does things, things that have effect. Now it is important to understand that non-human agents do not operate the same way as human agents. Non-human agents for the most part do not necessarily have desires, intentions, and action plans. They do not ‘want to’ do things, but they still have effect. A chair does not necessarily ‘want you’ to sit in it, but it can be inviting or even irresistible. A rock does not ‘want to’ scare you, but it still might produce a feeling of dread that can last for days. Taking things for granted and as passive, and as something only to be used passively without it doing anything to us, comes from the strange feeling of superiority of humans that was developed over the ages. We forget all the work the things invest into us and us into them: choosing them, taking care of them, them working for us, us working for them. Most of the time we are in alliances with things to achieve effects: tools, instruments, helpers, friends.
In teaching devised theatre I train students to look at things as if they have never seen them before. Saying that something is a chair, or just sitting in it even without acknowledging it, is probably necessary in the everyday life where we have to focus on a goal of the moment. But in creating performance one has to be extremely aware of the material one is working with, with the goal to understand the full potential of things. So, we often look at things and ask: What audience sees at first sight; What could it be? What could it become?; What do we call it?; What is its functional potential (what is it made to do?), phenomenological potential: color, sound, shape, soft/hard, touchable (functional and non-functional); What does it look like?; What does it behave like? How does it move; What is its potential in time (decay?, getting old), reparability, age; What is the cultural reference of the thing?, psychological reference/ personal relationship to object; memory of the material (scars); archetypical reference (symbolism); Where does it come from?; Where does it go to die?; Does it have layers? Inside/outside; Does it raise curiosity (to touch, to open etc.)/ questions it raises; Is it consistent or transformable? Does it have a history? Geography? Value (economic, personal, cultural)? Previous Ownership? It is a very human way to look at things, but one has to start somewhere, in order to understand the whole worlds around things, the networks of things and meanings and activities and actions around them. Networks of agencies that are so complex that are often illegible. What is important is to start looking at them seriously.
This close looking at things, or listening to material (spaces, objects, clothes, nature etc.) is a crucial part of the devising process we go through with my students. Where you try to see everything that it is and could be and could have been. The point is not to take some objective position, to deny your own presence in looking at things in order to find the pure agency of things – how they perform, what they do in themselves. The point is to allow as many possibilities to arise in relations. And ultimately to see your own self in wider context of things. And this wider context of things will provide you with possibilities, inspirations – dramaturgical potentialities to be explored in the performance. But it also allows you to see your own self not as the beginning and an end of things, but as part of the network of things. And sometimes you even forget about yourself.
This different way of relating to the environment, to things, nature, objects, animals etc. is a crucial turn in the contemporary performance, performance after post-dramatic theatre. Sometimes it comes from political or ecological positions (with strong ethics background focusing on emancipation of things) and sometimes it comes from pure love of textures, movements, colors (aesthetic aspects). But they both come from a need to relate to the world differently, and following the complexities of networks of agencies – it usually comes to entanglements of such levels of will, materiality, purpose, texture, use, misuse, creativity, stubbornness… that we have to give up understanding agency as something clean and clear, because it is always entangled with other agencies.
Homo Novus festival, under the artistic leadership of Gundega Laiviņa, is one of the important ‘hubs’ of these explorations. This festival has I would say a ‘tradition’ of following nature, animals, objects, spaces – looking for different ways of relating to the world. In recent editions the festival presented and coproduced numerous explorations of this kind. Some of them are very direct: Parliament of Things by Building Conversation from the Netherlands/Belgium is a performance-dialogue where the audience enacts a parliament in which they stand for non-human agents, based on writing of Bruno Latour; Microcosm installation by Philippe Quesne is a dance performance for paper, sponge, plastic, and paint moving in a postapocalyptic movement – neither human nor non-human; in HALL07 installation by TAAT the found space performs, and the activation of performance happens only by presence, the careful placing of the audience in space; Hannah concert performance by Norwegian Verdensteatret is fully performed by objects that move and make sounds; in Nocturne a night walk by Krista Burāne and Andy Field – places and things and animals appear and behave differently in the midst of night when there is no people around; in Les Louvres and/or Kicking the Dead by visual artist Walid Raad mystification allows for paintings to gain magical agencies.
Performance Aurora by Alessandro Sciarroni, presented at Homo Novus in 2017 seemingly does not work with non-human agents, but in this performance focusing on Goalball, a Paralympic team sport for the blind and visually impaired, we follow this sport only to understand how much the blind rely on sound and touch – or better said on the ball and on the space in order to play. And this reliance of things reminds us of our own dependence on things around us. This list could continue. But it is important to note that contemporary performance does not present mainly stories (like drama theatre) or mainly theatrical images (like postdramatic theatre), contemporary performance focus on exploring practices, events, issues and situations. Sometimes this is done through stories, sometimes mainly through images, often through direct relating with audience.
Now what does all this mean to dramaturgy – my own main practice? First, dramaturgy of the drama theatre is based in constructing relations (usually conflicts) between characters and groups of people. Second, dramaturgy of postdramatic theatre, also called ‘visual dramaturgy’ by Lehmann, consists of relations between the stage elements, compositional relations of light, sound, movement, words, spacing etc. Finally, dramaturgy of devised theatre and contemporary performance is often also based in exploration of relationships: relationships between stage and auditorium, between different specific social groups (often marginalized), between ideologies, between things, events etc.; coming to terms with the world, finding new ways to relate.
A lot of it happens through letting go of previous ways to relate and without knowing where one will end – looking for new ways. It is deconstructing previous habits and ideologies, while making new on the go, sometimes without finding them. In the book about visual art theory Confronting Images, in which Georges Didi-Huberman describes that mere knowledge and understanding of an image is not enough, he writes about a moment in between the image and viewer, a moment ‘consisting of not-grasping the image, of letting oneself be grasped by it instead: thus of letting go of one’s knowledge about it.’ Creating with non-human agents in the theatre resembles this moment. We have to stop applying our knowledge and habits in order to see what they really do. We have to allow them ‘to grasp us’, we have to allow for the possibility that they too have things to say, power to do things, and reasons to exist, without us knowing in advance what those are. And it is very scary moment in the process that almost always comes: not having a clue what is happening, moments of pure unknown. And I think that these moments of the unknown and un-knowing, the gaps in ‘rational’ thinking are exactly the point of contemporary performance: its criticality, or at least this is the most interesting thing for me. But these moments are very necessary for finding different ways to relate to things, to be with them without conquering them with our prejudices, dismissing them with our knowledge, and using them only with our habits. Everything else is just ‘taking sides’, choosing positions in advance.
Arts have always been more than mere looking at the world or mirroring the world. Art is a way to relate to the world, or negotiations of finding ways to relate to the world. Ideology or spirituality are ways of relating to the world, looking for new positions or movements to relate. There is no person in the world without some kind of ideology, some kind of system of thinking and relating with the world. The key is in taking care of it, checking on it, questioning it.
Acknowledging the non-passivity or even creativity of things allows us to be different and differently in the world. Repositioning ourselves in this way, allowing to see that things are active and activating does not mean letting go of responsibility. It just makes us add response-ability (as Lehmann says) to it, ability ‘to be’ through dialogue with things, through ‘being with’.
Because ultimately: ‘me’ is not separate. ‘Me’ is made of food and liquid that I consume, it is made of people and things and animals and plants that I encounter, of events and weather I experienced, of textures and moods that I lived. There is a phrase from the Native American Lakota language: ‘Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ’ that is used in many prayers. In English it translates as ‘all my relations’. I think it exactly depicts the understanding that ‘I’ is made of relations – of objects, matter, energies, histories, geographies, acquaintances, ancestors, spaces… It reflects dependencies and oneness with other people, animals, birds, insects, trees and plants, rocks, rivers, mountains. Dependence is a word that has strangely negative connotations. But dependence is our reality. We are not separate to the world – to the things, foods, other people, rivers, trees… We can only pay closer attention to our relations and our dependencies. And this does not have to be smooth – it is full of conflict, misunderstandings, the unknown, negotiations, but hopefully also respect and creativity. But definitely through seeing what things do – ‘how things perform’.
Here. I guess I have ‘taken the side’, assumed a position. And as every true belief, faith or ideology – it has consumed me so fully that I am barely aware of it anymore. To me it’s just reality. So, I try and write the previous sentences. But it still doesn’t help.
You will also do what you need to do.
I am in relations.
That saves me.
Sodja Zupanc-Lotker, is the course leader of international Master in Directing Devised and Object Theatre at the Prague Performing Arts Academy (DAMU), where she also teaches devised theatre dramaturgy. She works as a dramaturg for independent theatre, dance and exhibition projects (with Cristina Maldonado, Ahilan Ratnamohan, Julian Hetzel, Jan Mocek, Farm in the Cave, Lotte van den Berg, TAAT, Kristýna Lhotáková, Petra Tejnorová, Wojtek Ziemilski, Kunsthalle Praha). She was artistic director of the Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space 2008 – 2015, event she has worked for since 1999. She has also served as coordinating curator for a number of international artistic research projects such as: Global City Local City, Space – Performing Arts in Public Space and Urban Heat and is one of the main researchers in Costume Agency artistic research at KHiO Oslo 2018-21. She has given lectures and workshops at Columbia University, Yale School of Drama, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Reykjavik Arts Academy, Norwegian Theatre Academy, HKU Utrecht, Kiasma Helsinki and a number of festivals and symposia. From 2014 she is on Editorial Board of Theatre and Performance Design Journal; and on Editorial Board of Performance Research Journal, both published by Routledge.