Fragments and gestures for an earthly cosmology

Notes on In Many Hands by Kate McIntosh

Sarma Apr 2017English

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Contextual note
This essay was commissioned by Kate McIntosh and published in April 2017. 'In Many Hands' had its opening night on 14 Oct. 2016 at PACT Zollverein in Essen. I've attended performances on 9 Nov. 2016 at Vooruit Ghent and on 1 April 2017 at Bronks during the Performatik festival in Brussels.

“Please, free your hands” reads a small card with a drawing of stuff people might be carrying around, such as rings, bracelets, watches, a cell phone, tobacco, a coat, bags and whatnot. A performer says welcome and makes sure everyone has indeed found their way to the wardrobe and is ready for attending the performance of In Many Hands. Everyone lingers on a little longer here in the theatre lobby. How much decompression time do you need before you’re ready to enter the theatre? Often these transitional moments of leaving one’s everyday life and worries behind, are simply lost in dispersed attention, yet here they’re amplified like small rituals of preparation, negotiating a series of thresholds between the outside world and the sheltered space of the theatre.

Somewhat later on you find yourself in a smaller group and join a shared ritual of washing your hands to calm down the senses, while Kate McIntosh or one of her collaborators gives a brief explanation about the course of the evening. “You’ll be invited to find yourself a seat in the space. Preferably you’ll sit next to someone you don’t know, next to a stranger – would that be okay?” Everyone will have to collaborate to find the right timing and rhythm together, and this without using words. I’m wondering about a potential community of strangers – isn’t that what we go to the theatre for, experimenting with imagining ourselves differently while being witnessed by others?




Once inside, nothing much reminds you of the theatre space – except for the black walls and the lighting. There is no separation of auditorium and stage, just an open space with three long tables arranged in a triangle, the chairs placed in such a way that you’re seated next to one another and facing the walls. Upon the instigation of a performer everyone stretches out their arms on the table, palms facing up, so that your left hand is holding your neighbour’s and your right hand is supported by your other neighbour’s. It’s an unusual and slightly awkward gesture in the theatre, this intimacy of strangers touching one another’s hands – dry or sweaty, small, large, soft or wrinkled, a nail bitten off. It doesn’t exactly instill complicity, rather it hones the act of witnessing. What do other people’s hands know?

Via this chain of hands and bodies a series of small, contained objects is being passed on. They’re mostly natural things or things that relate to the human body: stones, small skulls, earth, dried plants, seaweed, coffee grounds, coloured chalk, a plastic jar with urine, a ponytail, a few natal teeth, a hammer. With each object you take the time to explore it by touching and smelling, by weighing it, by an oblique glance to gauge your neighbour’s attention and rhythm, and then pass it on. The way you receive an object from your neighbour also suggests a way of handling and relating to the object. Now that small objects mediate your attention, the unease of hands touching can unfold into the multiple sensations of touching and being touched, giving and receiving, active and passive exploration.

To recognize and name the different objects is easy enough, but to find a certain calm to spend more time with them is a difficult exercise for me. How to strip away quick associations and appreciate an object’s shape and texture, let alone its own gravity? It’s a negotiation and perhaps an impossible task, yet the qualities of the objects make this process and its experience rather different from what I’d have expected. When did I last really spend some time with a simple object such as a pebble? On a trip to the beach maybe, if not with my collection of stones back in my childhood. I can draw on such memories to enjoy the humour and poetry surrounding some of the objects, yet I also find most of the objects don’t speak to me. What strikes me most is the failure of my own imagination. Without performers or the theatre apparatus activating the objects, I’m left to my own devices and the things are like dead weight in my hands.

If In Many Hands seeks to focus on the experience of finding oneself between strangers, then the objects are certainly crucial players in that imaginary community. For now I’m groping along and perhaps also groping too much for meaning – it’s a hard to shake off compulsion that the theatre as a medium invites. And yet I’m not quite ready to embrace an entirely different understanding of time either, nor a profound feeling of boredom that would mirror the objects’ indifference. There are enough objects anyway, and also my neighbours keep up the pace, spurred on by their neighbours and the performers at the beginning of the chain. What I seem to lack is a sense of ‘material literacy’ – and precisely this I would like to understand better.




Knowledge of the world demands a kind of tactile flair. Sight slips over the surface of the universe. The hand knows that an object has physical bulk, that it is smooth or rough, that it is not soldered to heaven or earth from which it appears to be inseparable. The hand’s action defines the cavity of space and the fullness of the objects that occupy it. Surface, volume, density and weight are not optical phenomena. Man first learned about them between his finger and in the hollow of his palm. (…) Thus did gestures multiply man’s knowledge with a variety of touch and contour whose inventive power is now hidden to us by centuries of practice.” (Henri Focillon, In Praise of Hands, 1934)




At the end of the first part a zinc basin for washing your hands is being passed around. After all it appears the objects were small indeed but not exactly contained – after the earth and the seaweed and the chalk my hands are pretty dirty, and even now, after washing them with soap, the strong odour of moist coffee grounds persists.




After washing your hands, you can move with your chair to the outside of one of the tables, so that everyone finds themselves among new neighbours and faces everyone else. It’s a moment of pause in which you can look at people’s faces and see so many arms with rolled up sleeves lingering on the tables. What do everyone’s hands know? A performer suggests to test your neighbour’s hands by smelling, pressing and kneading them, or by playing their fingers like a thumb piano, turning the tables into a giant rattling sounding board.

Again you are invited to stretch out your arms and form a chain, now with the hands of  the people next to your neighbours, which results in a meshwork of sorts. Soon after the space is plunged in darkness and the chain of bodies passes on a new series of objects. This time they’re large or bulky, harder to grasp or define: ropes and knots of string, telephone books and snippets of paper, plastic bags filled with liquid, or several handfuls of peas. The contract of the chain is hard to maintain, yet at the same time a true meshwork is in the making, with the multiple sensations of hands touching and being touched and intermingling with the objects that have an unclear beginning or ending. The darkness facilitates this loss of self and stimulates a somewhat loose atmosphere in which people start laughing and making sounds, an acoustic imaginary that even evokes a tribal feeling.

If I was slightly bothered in the first part by some others being rather ‘too creative’ with the objects to mask what I take to be their unease, now that the spell of silence is somehow broken it seems like an obvious choice to let yourself go and enjoy this seismic wave of objects and bodies clamouring through the space. It’s the darkness and the sound that create distance and provide a rather familiar theatrical imagination – a carnival of the senses. It’s also the language of desire forged in the multiple, heterogeneous relations between bodies, objects and the theatre apparatus that speaks here, even if in a slightly unruly manner. After the silent and restrained first part, this feels like a relief, but it also makes me wonder in what ways we’d like to bring objects to speak and why. What stories do they tell?




Art always has to do with cosmogony, but it exposes cosmogony for what it is: necessarily plural, diffracted, discreet, a touch of color or tone, an agile turn of phrase or folded mass, a radiance, a scent, a song, or a suspended movement, exactly because it is the birth of a world (and not the construction of a system). A world is always as many worlds as it takes to make a world.” (Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, 1996)




Returning to the first part, it is clear that there are several silences at work, from the suspended speech of attentive human bodies to the profound silence of the objects and the foreign temporalities they contain – geological time for instance, or the time of death. In Many Hands seeks to “postpone verbal expression”, as Kate McIntosh puts it, yet next to memories and imagination, there is a good deal of stories lingering in the objects. The things are all chosen by the artists, and rather than exploring and passing on peculiar objects, I have the feeling they are already – perhaps inevitably – symbols. The somewhat melancholy poetry of these things is often lost on the modern city-dweller in me, yet the way in which the objects operate as a series also provides pause for reflection on the sense of material literacy I’m grappling with. From minerals, earth and plants to small vertebrate animals and human teeth to simple tools, as symbols these objects seem to hold a ‘cosmogony’ – a story about the origin of the world, with a material substratum but also full of potentiality. As such they also hold an invitation to invent the world anew – does the stress on things perhaps provide an alternative foundational myth for the community of strangers in the theatre?

It is only later, months after seeing In Many Hands, that I began to understand the larger scope of these issues when attending the conference Matter: Stages of Agency (curated by Stefanie Wenner and Siegmar Zacharias at the Hochschule für Bildende Kunst in Dresden, 27-29 January 2017). In her opening lecture, theatre scholar Ulrike Haß addressed the question of the mythological horizon in a close reading of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, one of the oldest known theatre fragments. The play speaks of an unfinished cosmology in which there isn’t a divine or natural origin yet, an issue that is moreover confronted with Prometheus’ resistance to the gods and with the process of humanisation through the use of fire and the development of technology. Two elements in particular interest me here. Haß pointed out that the cosmology’s unfinished character is mirrored in the form of the play, which is not exactly a delineated text but a fragment snatched from an oral tradition. Not authorship but use is what marks such traditions, crystallizing not so much in a readable text as opening up a space for listening – and thus for interpretation and deviation. Furthermore Haß observed that the play finds an alternative horizon for the arts in the ‘earthly’ character of mining and metallurgy, a modern reading that also brings the often overlooked earthquake into the foreground. In his story Prometheus, Franz Kafka evokes a world beyond the human and language: “There remained the inexplicable mass of rock. The legend tried to explain the inexplicable. As it came out of a substratum of truth it had in turn to end in the inexplicable.”

In this light the chain of bodies passing on objects in In Many Hands is reminiscent of the open, unfinished character of oral traditions with their inflections and deviations. The objects have material weight and they contain stories, yet what they symbolize is perhaps also how they’ve moulded our hands over centuries and contain the traces of sometimes forgotten or lost physical practices. At the far end they conjure up a seismic imaginary – do we perhaps need these originary earthly musings over objects to charge our environment with material narratives again and thus enable us to recover lost practices and knowledge? A sense of material literacy then appears to be a complex affair, in which various kinds of relations to objects and the tactile languages they engender are interwoven and require each other to thrive. A sense of material literacy which embraces alternatives in our digital age flooded with gadgets that cause a crisis of attention can only be in many hands indeed. The objects of In Many Hands remind us of the many hands of technology, craft, poetry, mythology, ecology and their precarious histories and embodied sources.




While the light slowly rises at the end of In Many Hands, a thin plastic foil passes through the meshwork of hands and up towards the ceiling of the theatre, as if there were ectoplasm afloat after this whirlwind of bodies, things and noises. For a short while the lit faces of the spectators betray surprise and bemusement during this open ending. It is followed by a timid applause, a hesitation that is perhaps not so much the outcome of a confusion of formats and rules, but a stuttering of hands now attuned to many things, a sort of tactile, syncopated music of hands clapping and mediated by all the objects that have passed through them.




How do we like to bring objects to speak? What kind of stories do we need or want? Back in the wardrobe to fetch my keys, wallet, watch, phone and other stuff, it occurs to me how many stories and gestures have remained locked in here and out of the theatre during the past one and a half hours. Also out here, in the real world, attention, time, poetry and material literacy will remain a difficult yet precious exercise.




Because (in principle) things outlast us, they know more about us than we know about them: they carry the experience they have had with us inside them and are – in fact – the book of our history opened before us.” (W.G. Sebald, Unrecounted, 2001)