It’s in the shape of fire
Dramaturge Jeroen Peeters for Ruhrtriennale (program booklet), 08.2017
“Theatre is a great place to dream,” says Meg Stuart in the solo “Hunter” (2014), to then continue her tongue in cheek monologue: “Imagine this place would not always be a theatre.” Just before that she spoke of online creativity as a blueprint for other realities, of the rigid character of architecture and urban spaces that have only one function, of people crossing in the subway or the supermarket but not really meeting one another. “Imagine this theatre would be a place where once a month you give blood. Or where people gather to collectively burn all their Ikea furniture in a ritual statement. Different actions, you know.” I remember spectators responding strongly to this proposal to imagine the theatre otherwise and discussing their own ideas in the foyer after the show. Perhaps that was the first spark – a collective dream spilling out of the theatre and slowly dispersing itself, carried by all the people present.
How do we envision theatres and other art spaces today and tomorrow? How do we shape these places of encounter, these laboratories for living together? During the past years these ques-tions have been recurring in our conversations – with choreographer Meg Stuart and scenographer Jozef Wouters, and with many others collaborating on “Projecting [Space[”. During the month of August 2017 the dance company Damaged Goods works on loca-tion in the Zentralwerkstatt Lohberg in Dinslaken, transforming it into a temporary environment for imagining and experimenting with collective practices of meeting and making.
These notes are inspired by the research and rehearsals towards “Projecting [Space[”, yet they were written before our arrival in Dinslaken – except for occasional location visits. They’re not quite a user’s guide, rather notes on issues that occupy us, notes that are in limbo. They address various transformations of energy, ecstatic encounters and care for the unfamiliar – all of it through a gamut of materials that were gathered to feed the smouldering bonfire that is a rehearsal process.
Always interested in the beauty of precarious structures, it’s Jozef Wouters who conjured up this image: “For me a bonfire is about building something that you plan to burn – it doesn’t need to be sturdy or last for years. Setting something ablaze means to consume it, to expend it. There is an aspect of hedonism in that. And as the fire burns the construction grows invisible and smaller, and then the circle of people around it becomes smaller too, until everyone sits down and eats marshmallows together.”
One wall of the studio is covered with images collected by all the collaborators. An arrangement of blue and red-brown images shows a body lying flat on an asphalt road, next to a huge land-scape grazed bare by bulldozers; and below that an underground parking lot that leads to a fantastic grotto with a shimmering light at the end. More worlds can be imagined underneath, perhaps reaching 1.2 kilometres deep – like the shafts and corridors left in Dinslaken-Lohberg by the mining industry. Once the coal excavated and burned in the Ruhr area spurred on a whole industry and culture of workers and production, while society and cultural patterns are now defined by different energy sources as fossil fuels are quickly running out.
If particular energy sources have a profound impact on the cul-tural production of a certain era, then what will the future look like? In “Art and Energy”, Barry Lord explores how cultural values are linked to energy sources that became available to us throughout the ages – from sexual and kinetic energy, to fire and cooperation, to nuclear power. In the studio, we picked up his speculations around renewable energy and a “culture of stewardship” that devo-tes more attention to our bodies and to the Earth. Our discussion quickly moved away from wood and coal to what drives bodies dancing, sensing, witnessing. “What about the energies of healing practices? Or the heat of a large group of bodies at a rave party? How can we catalyze the energy of the audience? Is sensitivity an energy source? And fiction?”
After having seen a documentary on gem stones and crystals, Márcio Kerber Canabarro, one of the dancers, told us they are born under a lot of pressure. What would it be like to harvest a crystal? Imagine the almost endless amount of time and pressure required to arrive at such a precise shape and substance. Or imagine the yet unborn fossils, minerals and crystals that carry traces of our time into a distant future. “They’re future ancient beings, a conscious-ness that will last long after we are all gone, when all organic forms will be depleted.”
Pushed to the side of the studio wall, there are some photos of dis-used industrial buildings, abandoned amusement parks and shopping malls, or derelict world fair pavilions and Olympic sports stadiums. Modern ruins devoid of human presence. What do the glossy photos of these imploded dreams tell us? The so -called ‘ruin porn’ imagery of former car factories and all manner of modern cathedrals in Detroit is mostly geared towards sensation and consumption. Economic crisis and the social dramas it entails, are drained from these images, which don’t invite a critical view. Do we perhaps need different images to practice alternative ways of looking at what produced these ruins?
The many disused coal and steel factories in the Ruhr area are in a sense giant rehearsal spaces. Some are in actuality converted into environments used for very different purposes, including the per-forming arts. They’re all attempts to give these buildings new func-tions and destinations, and, for the people who used to work there, to imagine their lives differently. Art comes in as a guardian of experiment and imagination, in a community’s probing of alternative ways to approach labour, food, education, gathering, ritual, etc. And not to forget: leisure, rest, protest, even laziness – also ‘not-doing’ are ways of doing that require attention.
Along with the interest in industrial archaeology, the reconversion of these factory buildings also provides training spaces in another sense. In the future, there will be new and other disused buil-dings awaiting new purposes. Imagine all those abandoned airports in the not-so-distant-future beyond peak oil – what will we do with them? Turn them into museums of modernity? Or will they, now hubs for impersonal and swift mobility, in the post-labour society become spots for lingering? Gym spaces for people to keep their atrophied bodies in shape when drones and robots do all the work? Environments for gathering, encounter and ritual? Imagine all the behaviours and lifestyles that could be practiced in such a space.
Also theatre buildings fall to ruin, even though the time of decay eludes the attention and imagination of us, theatre visitors. And yet, long before the forest takes over the debris of a derelict theatre, the elements are already fully alive in there. “How to be present to an event that does not address us? How can we attend to events and phenomena that lay beyond the senses?” In search of answers, the artist Augusto Corrieri follows a mosquito circling around the head of an actor and gets distracted from the play. Or he wonders how we can look at a theatre also as an actual stone building. Suddenly, the background shifts to the foreground, non-human agents and different temporalities come into play. In an essay, he concludes: “Courtesy of ecological catastrophe and anthropogenic climate change, an irrevocable shift in perspective has suddenly im-posed itself: the outside has burst inside the auditorium; or rather, we are only now realizing that the outside has always been inside.”
In another reversal of sorts, in a rehearsal Meg Stuart asked the dancers to read the landscape while the landscape is reading them at the same time. “Your body is highly sensitive, your limbs are like antennas. You’re tracing lines of connection – to the things in front of you, but also to the energy around, to presences that are not visible.” Imagine such an encounter in which the space is reading you whilst you are watching. Or imagine your highly sensitive body brushing up against the concrete floor of a former mining factory. Would your body become site-specific? Would material and spatial conditions become partners in the conversation, in this encounter of heterogeneous surfaces and desires? Imagine your attention to the smallest particles being stirred when someone blows a handful of dust across the room.
To the right, the photos climb higher up the studio wall. They follow the dynamics of the people in the images constructing spaces with wooden frames, organising things or drawing abstract lines in the air – gestures that defy gravity and entropy.
About a year ago, we found ourselves in a former cement factory, where Jozef Wouters guided a rehearsal around the vocabulary of building. In a delimited space full of stuff – stone, metal, wood – he asked everyone to elevate things. “Pick up something and decide whether it is waste or whether it has a higher energy potential. You can order things, put them upright, stack them, or throw them out if needed. Go about it in a practical manner. It’s like cleaning versus building.” After an hour or so, the space was full of compositions, both miniatures and large arrangements. The next task was to sit somewhere – to look at the environment from within, to inhabit it, perhaps to transform it yet again. How does your body fit in this space?
The memory of these improvisations lingers on whilst reading a wonderful essay by Robert Pogue Harrison on the gardens of homeless people in New York City. These transitory gardens are not exactly a green oasis, nor made for growing vegetables; rather, they’re compositions made in open spaces with stuff at hand – arrangements of stones and wood, trinkets, leaves and branches, or perhaps a stuffed animal that “conjures up the spirit of plant and animal life.” Some last only for a day. According to Harrison, gardens didn’t come into being for reasons of survival. “There is an equally fundamental craving in human beings to transfigure reality, to adorn it with costume and illusion, and thereby to respiritualize our experience of it.”
Gardens give order to our relation to nature, an embodied sense of human order. For the homeless, their compositions create not so much shelter but a pocket of repose and give “human dimensions to an otherwise unbounded urban expanse.” They introduce form in the inarticulate urban jungle and mark off an area in which speech, social intercourse and care become possible. How does your body fit in this space?
The images on the wall are rearranged every day. They’re pulled into an improvisation or ritually destroyed, to then rise again in a different order, taking on the form of a dragon or a tree of life. Together they also enable us to create scenarios and dream about the work in the making, or to explore how people would behave in certain environments. Travelling along and through those photographs, we could identify with the many nomadic figures in them and their extreme journeys. Vagabonds, squatters and walkaways, a delivery man with cardboard packages stacked high on his motorcycle, circus artists, refugees in a rubber boat, an astronaut with a parachute, a woman disguised as a building, another man carrying a boulder across the desert – a dancer asks, “are you sure it’s not the stone carrying the man?”
Imagine some of these figures form a nomadic tribe that would travel from the future to today’s time to share their lore – the stories, songs and dances that reflect their ways of living together, of practicing labour, care and ritual. Would we be able to understand their reports about the future state of things? Would we look at today’s world with different eyes? Would we be spurred on to sen-sitize ourselves and experiment with spaces and situations of encounter? Would we be able to push our imagination of the present to the edge of the familiar, approach other worlds and begin to experience and care for the foreign in our midst?
“What do you want to be called?” That’s how walkaways greet one another in Cory Doctorow’s sci -fi novel “Walkaway”, as an explicit invitation to remake yourself – and to enter into conversation as much as into practice. These walkaways are not walking out on society nor living off the grid, but they’re practicing to free them-selves of what they call ‘default reality’. “What’s the systemic outcome of being a walkaway?” – “I don’t think anyone knows yet. It’s going to be fun finding out.”
In Tom McCarthy’s novel “Satin Island”, two anthropologists visit the storage space of the anthropology museum in Frankfurt, which holds thousands of objects of the Sepik people in New Guinea. Detached from the undocumented practices of the Sepik, these objects are now only touched with white gloves and remain in limbo. “What do you think, for example, she asked, opening another cabinet and pulling out a strange wicker contraption, this thing is for? A fishing net; ceremonial head-gear; a bat for playing some kind of game; a cooking implement… Who knows? We don’t. We won’t. We haven’t even catalogued half this stuff. What should we do with it?” Returning things doesn’t appear to be an option either. “The tribe’s descendants don’t know what this wicker thing is for either; they’ve all got mobile phones and drink Coke.” Sometimes she feels like she’s in the final scene of “Citizen Kane”, all “the artefacts heading for the fire. This, she said, sweeping her now-dirty glove around once more, isn’t fire; but it’s oblivion all the same.”
Imagine a museum of experience, a time capsule in which practices are kept alive. Perhaps you could partake in the revival of extinct languages and practices of another era. Or perhaps you could even inhabit worlds projected from the future into today’s time. It might be an invitation to tune and hone your sensorium, experiment with ways of feeling and perceiving differently. It’s not more equipment you’d need for such a journey, rather the realisation that we are technology ourselves, open to embodying past and future archives.
After a speculative writing session, dancer Mariana Tengner Barros said it this way: “Understand that everything is in the detail. Change the scale. Minimize to observe. We develop, as masters, practices of perception, from different stimuli of the senses that we accept as valid and all the others for which we still do not have a name or form. We practice unknown dances, we practice what we don’t know with full will and dedication.”
Two more images with bright yellow and red colours have landed side by side in the map. A few years ago, several blast furnaces and containers to transport molten iron from the disused Phoenix West factory in Dortmund were sold and shipped to China. In a distant future they might travel back to the Ruhr area, transformed and embodied in an altogether different shape, their energy now contained in a fire-spitting Chinese dragon, with a large group of people dancing to hold up its cloth canopy high above their heads with sticks as the fabulous beast keeps on snaking and fuming.
Augusto Corrieri, ‘The Rock, The Butterfly, The Moon, and The Cloud: Notes on Dramaturgy in an Ecological Age’, in Konstantina Georgelou, Efrosini Protopapa, Danae Theodoridou (eds.), The Practice of Dramaturgy: Working on Actions in Performance, Amsterdam, 2017, pp. 233-246 Cory Doctorow, Walkaway, New York, 2017.
Robert Pogue Harrison, Gardens. An Essay on the Human Condition, Chicago, 2008.
Barry Lord, Art and Energy. How Culture Changes, Arlington VA, 2014.
Tom McCarthy, Satin Island, London, 2015.