Incidents and Incitements

Ecology and the Micro-politics of Spectatorship

Not Just a Mirror 2015English
Florian Malzacher (ed.), Not Just a Mirror. Looking for the Political Theatre of Today, Berlin/London: Alexander Verlag/Live Art Development Agency, 2015, pp. 44-55

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Scientists debating the advent of the Anthropocene, the UN negotiating a follow-up of the 1992 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, and the flood of daily reports on the far-reaching consequences of climate change have led to a growing awareness of the undeniable impact of human activity on the Earth’s ecosystems and the global crisis it provoked. The urgency and topicality of these matters also leaves a mark on the performing arts field. Many performance makers do have ecological concerns and also address them in their work as subject matter and/or through developing alternative, eco-efficient ways of producing – even though they would equally share their reluctance in calling it ‘eco-political theatre’. A quick glance at programme brochures makes plain how omnipresent ecological issues are in today’s theatre production, crystallizing in themes such as the landscape, biodiversity, food, gardens and urban farming, noise abatement and acoustic ecology, sustainable building and the reuse of industrial materials, climate change and future scenarios, commoning and an ecological economy, globalisation, environmental justice and ecological citizenship, mobility and re-localisation, waste, recycling and art as a form of symbolic waste, animism, trans-humanism, an object-oriented ontology and the Parliament of Things, and so on. Yet, a too narrow focus on themes or on reducing the ecological footprint of theatre production tends to overshadow a larger discussion on sustainable development (with its ecological, social, and economic components), an in-depth critical analysis of the current system, and the quest for a paradigm shift in our view of man and world – including the cultural discussion of what we consider the ‘good life’ in a global and intergenerational perspective, the political debate about the ways in which we hope to achieve it, and eventually also the role an artistic imagination and sense of experimentation can play in this. How to deal with the rather too large and complex scale of ecological questions? How can art, in ways of its own, play a role in the transition to a sustainable society? How to create art politically, rather than trying to reduce art to the spreading of clear political messages?

            Although theatre doesn’t occupy a central place in our society any longer, its political potential might still linger in the space it offers the audience to experiment with ways of viewing, with imagining oneself differently, and ultimately with citizenship. Rather than trying to provide an overview of ecological tendencies in the performing arts, this essay focuses on a few ‘incidents’ that happened in relation to performance works associated with ecology (in a broad sense) that I’ve seen in Brussels in recent years. They incited me to reflect on my role as a viewer or participant, and on the theatre as a public space for discussion. In this micropolitics of spectatorship there resonates larger questions about art and imagination, ecology and citizenship. They remain loose ends and open questions, to be sure, but hopefully not without care for a sense of confusion and curiosity, and for trying to articulate and share it.



‘There is a technical failure and we’re unable to continue right now. In order to resume the performance, we’ll have to reboot the entire system. We don’t know if it will solve the problem, nor how much time this will take. So may I ask you to leave the theatre in the meantime; you’ll be offered a drink in the foyer.’ When Mette Ingvartsen presented Evaporated Landscapes at the Kaaistudio’s in Brussels on 27 November 2009, an incident occurred halfway the performance. Just before the technical failure, Ingvartsen had been creating imaginary landscapes with stage elements, lighting, sound and other technologies such as a fog machine, exploring a sliding back and forth between familiar and unfamiliar imagery. Seated on both sides of the installation, audience members were not quite immersed in this landscape, but were constantly aware of its observation and of the people creating it.

Was this technical failure real or staged? To this day I don’t know and I prefer not to know – either way, it was a powerful dramaturgical gesture that produced a situation of insecurity and provoked spectators to navigate their way through the event, inviting them to define their own role, both in the theatre and just outside of it in the foyer.

As the performance was part of the Kaaitheater’s Burning Ice #2 festival devoted to issues of climate change and sustainable development, Evaporated Landscapes immediately sparked debate. How the performance was resumed and brought to a close I don’t remember, yet I do remember discussing – over drinks in the foyer – the technical failure as a mirror of our strong belief in progress and technical solutions for society’s problems. I remember thinking about our need for recognisable and soothing images of nature in times of ecological crisis. This reduction of the complex issue of climate change to somewhat naive associations with nature appears to have a function: it brings matters that are fairly abstract and difficult to imagine back to the familiar realm of images and their history. Today the familiar also includes a slick aesthetics of catastrophe, which is moreover morally dubious – are landscapes marked by climate change and human catastrophe bound to become the ‘ruin porn’ of the future? Such questions and critical reflection upon representation are at the heart of Mette Ingvartsen’s works that deal with our relation to nature. Near the end of Speculations (2011), in which Ingvartsen describes, remembers, and imagines certain events and performances in an otherwise empty theatre, she invokes the explosions of Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point, both celebrating and deconstructing catastrophe, to then conclude with a single material gesture on stage, a living sculpture of silver flakes stirred up by two leaf blowers.

For all the stagings of confetti clouds and smoke screens, the technical failure in Evaporated Landscapes invited the audience to engage in speculation that went beyond subject matter. Moving out of the theatre into the foyer and back into the theatre, the work quite literally sandwiched the discussion among the audience during the technical failure, a threshold choreography that opened up an insecure space where it was difficult to separate fact and fiction, theatre and world. How far are we willing to go in meeting the unfamiliar when facing the world through a work of art?



During the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels in May 2013, Jozef Wouters expanded the Natural History Museum with a new wing in the garden. Against the backdrop of the European Parliament, a giant construction of scaffolding with the inscription Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species supported an observation balcony looking out onto an exhibition with objects, photos, and captions. In the eponymous performance Wouters welcomed the audience in the institute and asked everyone to hold on to a sheet of paper with instructions, hastily Xeroxed and added to the official programme notes: ‘4. Ecology is not about guilt. Nature is not about harmony. The institute avoids apocalyptic doom scenarios, anthropocentric exaggeration or self-absorbed melancholy.’ And: ‘8. We should be angrier than we are.’

While you were seated at a desk and browsing through photos and other material for study, the performance unfolded as an audio-play. With a wink at scientific precision and Linnaeus’s taxonomy, Wouters was mainly occupied with giving ignorance and doubt a place in the museum: ‘A natural history museum has the task of providing us with images. The question is, which images will be able to evoke the story of a species that continually makes choices without knowing the consequences. How do you picture the not-knowing?’. In a personal and poetic style in search of meaning and imagination, Wouters told various stories about extinct species, evoking their history and each time pointing at the role humans played in their domestication or exploitation. All the collected images and anecdotes expressed paradoxes that occur when humans are asked to think and act on a global and ecological scale. The irritating Xeroxed guidelines and the overburdening of the discursive space made you wonder how all of this was meant to sit together.

            Taking a closer look at the exhibition during the second part of the performance, it became clear how much Wouters’s messy approach is his prime artistic strategy. Almost the entire installation consisted of Wikipedia printouts and YouTube footage, playing with the current confusion around the status of information and research. As a whole, the installation was something midway between the kitsch of Mini-Europe and the makeshift aesthetics of Thomas Hirschhorn. All the images were monuments for (in)significant moments, with the extinct species operating as a beacon for narrativity. However, did they have the power to create a public sphere? Walking among the objects, everyone was involved in lively discussions about ecology and probably as much about their own bafflement at trying to make sense out of this unruly collection and its presentation. The deliberately poor form of the Zoological Institute for Recently Extinct Species poignantly addressed the failure of our imagination, as a plea for both modesty and complexity. Wouters: ‘Filmmaker Werner Herzog says that an even greater problem than the ecological catastrophes themselves, is our lack of adequate imagery that enables us to represent and imagine our position on this planet.’

            In December 2014 Jozef Wouters received an accreditation to the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, where he collected 80 metaphors and figures of speech used to imagine climate change, and had them translated with the help of local interlocutors and printers into a booklet with images. Wouters adopted a quasi-anthropological stance, so the booklet consists of ‘poor’ images, as the traces of a failing imagination. The booklets were handed out on the last day at the conference and at various places in the city so that this collection initiated another chain of discussions in the public space and at home as ephemeral performances of practising the imagination of climate change. The first page states: ʻThis is not an official document. It is a draft upon which further negotiation is necessary.’



By bringing a real donkey on stage, in Balthazar (1. Stories)David Weber-Krebs seeks to install an alternative relationality between performers and spectators in the theatre. In the version performed at De Bottelarij in Brussels on 28 March 2013, six human performers and a donkey walked patterns together. Together means here that sometimes the donkey walked at the front, sometimes at the back, sometimes it followed the human performers, sometimes not, and sometimes it seemed as if they understood each other and were executing a choreography together. Sometimes the donkey was compliant, sometimes it was as ‘stubborn as a mule’. Sometimes it addressed the audience, sometimes it couldn’t be bothered. Sometimes the donkey was waiting by the door because it would have liked to leave the theatre as soon as possible. Sometimes it was shitting all across the stage. Actually, nothing much happened and that was wonderful. Although the performance did also develop our projections onto the animal in a literal dramaturgical fashion – using props, stories, and a second donkey – the stories mentioned in the title were basically already in the spectator’s mind.

Even though the donkey Lily appeared to have a good amount of performance experience – at the children’s farm and in historical re-enactments – it didn’t exactly like performing in the theatre. In the post-performance talk, Weber-Krebs commented on the donkey constantly aiming for the door during rehearsals: ʻThe human actors had to learn to listen to the animal and what it responds to. It’s a matter of anticipation and reflection that takes the habits of the animal as a starting point. Since the animal wants to leave the space and we’re nevertheless in a theatre, the question for me as a director was: how do you deal with this situation?’.

            Balthazar (1. Stories) initiated a particular theatrical situation and offered space for reflection on our relation to animals. Although animals did once have a self-evident place in our living environment, the nostalgia for an authentic relation with animals, and hence for a naive way of standing in the world, is in itself a by-product of modernity. Since man and animal don’t share language, there is no understanding of each other’s Umwelt, let alone a mutual understanding. Does the animal then indicate the limits of our understanding and of our sense of superiority? As a projection screen in the performance, the donkey was rather vulnerable because it could not speak back or demand attention for its individual biography. With a view towards political theatre, the donkey’s silence was most striking, since it time and again provoked the question: who speaks?

            If political theatre is in a sense an extension of Michael Oakeshott’s ʻconversation of mankind’, that ʻunrehearsed intellectual adventure’ in which a universe unfolds from the irreducible diversity of voices and discourses, then an interesting problem emerges here: can nature speak for itself? Since our natural environment is a silent conversation partner – and so cannot speak back or protest in our language-ridden public sphere – it is being mobilized for miscellaneous causes. This is one of the reasons why the development of a political ecology remains a difficult affair. In Vibrant Matter (2010) the philosopher Jane Bennett laconically points out a practical obstacle for the ‘Parliament of Things’ – in which language would the members communicate? How can we involve other, non-human members of the community – animals, plants, and their ecocultures, minerals and actants – in our political consciousness and actions?



Vortex Temporum by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Rosas is a group piece in which dancers and musicians explore the principle ʻmy walking is my dancing’ whilst describing and negotiating circular patterns to spectral music by Gérard Grisey. Even though De Keersmaeker has an appetite for challenging her own artistic legacy, the work is formal and contained. The whirlpool of our times was stirred up right after, when De Keersmaeker joined the company on stage to greet the audience after a performance at the opera house La Monnaie in Brussels on 7 November 2013. All the performers lined up, clad in a variety of black costumes, with De Keersmaeker right in the middle wearing a brown t-shirt with a scramble of white letters. When they arrived at the front of the stage and everyone took a bow, De Keersmaeker herself quickly turned her back towards the audience, now exposing a statement in white lettering: ʻSTOP MONSANTO!’ It lasted no longer than a moment, but immediately people in the audience started shouting – ʻYou should refrain from politics and just make art!’ – or cheering in approval.

            Whoever believes that this act after Vortex Temporum was just an incident overlooks two things. De Keersmaeker has a long history of sharing her concerns about the social-ecological crisis in public. In the national media for example she defended activists who were heavily sentenced for a demonstration against genetically modified organisms (a much discussed case in Belgium since the action in June 2011), and in 2003 she addressed the theatre sector in her State of the Union speech, stating: ʻif you destroy the environment, you also destroy yourself.’ And there is the precise dramaturgy of the act, which was apparently also repeated on tour. De Keersmaeker’s strategy seemed to consist exactly in separating radical artistic work from a clear political statement she makes as a citizen, yet at the same time heightening the friction by choreographing its timing and spacing. Right at end of the performance, when the applause still keeps the fictional universe in limbo before bringing it back to everyday reality, and right at the edge of the stage, the threshold between performers and spectators, between stage and world, and this in the La Monnaie opera house, still one of these few places where decision-makers and politicians go to the theatre in Europe’s capital, and, as mythology has it, the theatre where the Belgian Revolution started on 25 August 1830 when the patriotic opera La Muette de Portici caused turmoil in the audience and spilled into the streets – it was right there De Keersmaeker performed her activist statement, putting all of this into perspective.

            This act still resonates with me for what it caused in the audience, challenging each individual viewer to negotiate for themselves the balance between spectatorship and citizenship. De Keersmaeker’s act did not just divide the audience, it activated the public sphere. Curiously, none of the newspaper reviews of Vortex Temporum mentions the ‘incident’, while, by contrast, several bloggers commented on it. In spite of humanism’s legacy and convictions about the place of art and criticism in our society, the public sphere is not just a given but to be invented and mobilized time and again.



Through gentrification, tourism, and consumerism the public space of our cities is in crisis, which has an impact on the behaviour of citizens and also on the perception of public theatrical acts such as demonstrations. With Les Marches de la Bourse, Anna Rispoli opened the Kunstenfestivaldesarts on 8 May 2015 with a re-enactment of 27 demonstrations that took place between 1963 and 2015 at the steps of the Stock Exchange, a spot downtown known for its demonstrations – ʻa symbolic place in the history of civil protest.’ The performance playfully made a case for claiming those steps as public space in times of gentrification and privatisation: ʻWe claim a vision of the hybrid and vital public space where speaking-out is part of the urban complexity, and are making use of the “non-standard” context of an art festival to regain ground on the definition of possible action.’

The demonstrations covered a wide scope of causes and ideologies, also conflicting ones, which all came with a particular aesthetics and performance strategy as they were re-enacted with the original speeches, songs, banners, and costumes. They also included actions related to ecology: for street-sharing and car-free Sundays, against night flights and noise pollution, against uranium weapons, etc. Artist and activist Geert Vaes repeated his humorous 2011 Stimulating Growth action, showering himself with a watering-can. All these demonstrations added up to a huge tableau vivant, which despite rehearsals grew fairly chaotic and cacophonous in the course of one hour, with participants straying from the script to claim extra time for their cause, pushing the planned performance more towards the realm of demonstration.

These dynamics mirrored a similar confusion at the side of the audience: festival visitors armed with programme notes mingled with passers-by, activists and citizens joined the songs and slogans from within the crowd, a police escort clogged the street – cranking up the whispers that ʻthe queen would visit the festival’ – and ‘real’ demonstrations planned elsewhere in the city migrated to intervene in Les Marches de la Bourse and profit from the attention. As the distinction between demonstration and performance, fiction and reality grew more complex, also the various ways of participating blurred the distinction between spectatorship and citizenship, challenging you to reflect upon your own position in this public event.



The Brussels-based Agency, established in 1992 by artist Kobe Matthys, has been building an archive of ‘things’ that defy a clear distinction between culture and nature, mostly derived from juridical cases involving intellectual property. In order to reflect on an alternative ʻecology of art practices’, Agency presents these ‘things’ in exhibition and performance settings. Assembly (Burning Ice #7) – Thing 000773 (Pseudomonas) (28 March 2014 at the Kaaistudio’s in Brussels) for instance revolved around “a conflict between Ananda Chakrabarty, an Indian micro-biologist at the General Electric Company, and Sidney Diamond, a commissioner at the US Patent Office, about a genetically modified bacterium called Pseudomonas that is used to clean oil spills. For thousands of years cow dung slurry or ‘gomaya’ has been used in India as a remedy for detoxifying pollutant waste. When sprinkled over oil spillage, the Pseudomonas bacteria in the cow dung soak up and degrade crude oil. During the 1980 court case ‘Chakrabarty v. Diamond’ at the US Supreme Court, Judge Burger had to decide whether the genetically modified Pseudomonas microorganism was a new invention protected under patent law or a mere ‘product of nature’.”

            Seated at four sides of the thing – a jar with the Pseudomonas and the case file – several experts (a micro-biologist, an activist, a lawyer, and a philosopher) and the audience were reading through the official report of the lawsuit, discussing it paragraph by paragraph. The Assembly didn’t re-enact the original case and its verdict, nor did it come to a conclusion – engrossed in the complexity and ambiguity of the matter, it left all of this suspended in deliberation.

Now the ʻSTOP MONSANTO!’ protest appears in another perspective to be related to the public sphere and intellectual property. For multinationals like Monsanto patents are a powerful tool for privatisation and the creation of a monopoly on the seed market. By contrast, the governance and free exchange of seeds as a commons in view of maintaining biodiversity is a model that challenges the distinctions between public/private and state/market. The creation of commons doesn’t express ownership but a different type of relation that claims an egalitarian redistribution of resources and their governance within the civil society. It is a social practice of ‘economic citizenship’ that seeks to reclaim the public space – from the market as well as from the state monopoly on the public sphere – and that includes the ecosystem in its relationality. The model of the commons might very well function as a paradigm for reflecting on the co-creation of meaning and imagination as a distributed responsibility within an artistic context – and thus upon the role of spectators as participants and co-producers.



While the Kaaitheater hosted Burning Ice #8 in February 2015, under the umbrella radical_hope the dancer and artist Heike Langsdorf and a group of collaborators set up Sitting with the Body 24/7 in a shopping mall downtown during seven days, inviting everyone for a ʻretreat in public space’. Sitting with the body 24/7 created a space with a strict time schedule for practising everyday activities that involve the body: sitting, lying, standing, walking, resting, making, dancing, speaking, and seeing. The project allowed for a broad spectrum of participation, in which the difference between artistic practices and everyday practices in an urban context was no longer clear – does the difference matter?

            After 1pm Sitting with the body 24/7 hosted a silent lunch, followed by a space of rest where people could take a nap, bring their knitting or read the paper. It ended every day at 3pm with ʻmaking with the body’, the construction of a mandala. After a hesitant start and the careful placement of all the objects in the space according to a symmetrical pattern, people would make subtle adjustments and negotiations through doing, always different and always wonderfully poetic. People forgot about the technicality of craft and corporeal techniques, yet their attention remained focused on caring for this makeshift ʻcommunity of practice’ (Etienne Wenger), with a concrete sense of collaboration and a shared learning process.

The mandala and the makeshift community of practice offer a succinct image to understanding the dynamics of participation in Sitting with the body 24/7. The group of collaborators was a motley crowd indeed. Heike Langsdorf and the core group of practitioners have hybrid careers and practices that they brought to the project, eager to share their appetite for experimentation with labour and time. How to own your life, work, and practice as an artist or researcher and do this in a relational context? Many people offered advice or support, or worked as volunteers to take care of the space and keep it running 24/7. A glance at the credits of the project suffices to realise that it challenges the usual economy of artistic production in the subsidised field – it mentions at length everyone involved, including volunteers, who are considered ‘co-producers’ next to supporting authorities and art institutions. In directly involving all parties and their embodied knowledge in the production and use of resources, Sitting with the Body 24/7 thus established its own commons and sought to create use value from within the civil society.

            At the beginning of the week active participation in the physical practices was met by many visitors and passers-by with some inconvenience, but a growing involvement in a variety of ways over the week made it abundantly clear that many people in a city like Brussels are constantly looking for meaningful ways to spend their days: commuters, functionaries and businessmen, unemployed people and volunteers, artists and activists, bloggers and photographers, teenagers and the homeless… What bound them in Sitting with the body 24/7 was a mutual engagement in a ‘disinterested’ activity outside daily routines. An artistic community of practice offered everyone involved the opportunity to negotiate the freedom to spend their lives, time and labour in ways alternative to the productivity of capitalism that exerts pressure on the welfare state as we know it. It was an invitation to spectators and visitors to become participants and co-producers, practising and experimenting with citizenship.