SCENE 1. 1978, Wuppertal Opernhaus, Germany. A young dancer, her eyes closed, struggles to move freely in a darkened German kaffehaus, her movements made difficult by the walls that enclose her. Again and again, she hits the tables, she falls, she stumbles on the empty chairs that oscillate between being signs of an absence and being a very real presence as objects in space. Again and again the audience hears the sound walls make when hit violently by a tiny ballerina frame. This is Pina Bausch’s Café Müller.
SCENE 2. 1986, Chernobyl, Ukrainian SSR. As a result of a complex set of causes including various design flaws, one of four reactors at the local nuclear power plant exploded in the early hours of the 26th of April. What followed was a release of radiation amounting to at least 100 times the radiation of the infamous bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, leading the accident to be widely recognised as the biggest nuclear disaster in History and campaign groups such as Greenpeace to predict up to 93,000 extra cancer deaths as a direct result of it. This is the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster.
Scene 3. 1992. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Representatives of the governments of 172 nations meet for the first ever United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). In an attempt to recognise the impact the continuing deterioration of ecosystems is having on the well-being of humankind and to to tackle its progression, the conference culminates with the publication of, amongst others, Agenda 21, a non-biding action plan for the implementation of sustainable development policies at local, national, and global levels. The document will then be reaffirmed and modified at subsequent conferences. This is the first ever Earth Summit.
Scene 4. 1993, Venice, Italy. A British filmmaker presents his very small audience at the 50th Venice International Film Festival with seventy-six minutes of flickering International Klein Blue projected onto one of the screens at the Pallazo del Cinema, and accompanied by ambient sounds and disembodied voices who, hopelessly, narrate different fragments of the artist’s daily battle with HIV and of his struggle with AIDS-related blindness. This is Derek Jarman’s Blue.
Scene 5. 1997, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. For its first solo exhibition to be held at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, a famous fashion house collaborates with a Dutch microbiologist to create a series of eighteen dresses treated with different strains of bacteria and mould that, as the exhibition progresses, will be responsible for changing the colour and aspect of the garments worn by dummies displayed behind a glass wall. This is Maison Martin Margiela’s (9/4/1615).
Scene 6. Johannesburg, South Africa. A white man in drag wears an old chandelier as if it was a tutu and struggles to balance himself on his disproportionately high high-heel shoes while walking on debris, stones, and dirt in one of South Africa’s shanty towns. Around him, workers hired by the local authority, armed with crowbars and wearing orange overalls, demolish the locals’ dwellings to allow for the construction of the future Nelson Mandela bridge. This is Steven Cohen’s Chandelier.
Scene 7. 2002, Nature, Vol. 415. Nobel Prize winner chemist Paul Crutzen identifies a new epoch in geological time which, for the first time, coincides in time with the scientist’s writing. That new epoch is said to have started with the industrial revolution of the latter part of the eighteenth century, when humans finally became one of the most powerful forces of geological history, able to replace woodlands and forests with landscapes of steel, concrete, and smoke. This is the “Anthropocene.”
Scene 8. 2008, London, England. After announcing his true identity out loud to a packed theatre—”My name is Romeo Castellucci”, he says—the controversial Italian theatre director puts on a protection suit while a pack of German shepherds are led onto the stage by their trainers. After that, some of the animals attack the artist, bitting him while he lies defenceless on the floor. This is the Prologue of Socìetas Raffaelo Sanzio’s Inferno, the first of a trilogy inspired by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.
Scene 9. 2010, Ljubljana, Slovenia. A naked female body falls backwards in slow motion down the red-carpeted eighteen-century oval staircase of the Gruberjeva Palace. In its long fall, the body exists at the intersection of mastery and powerlessness, forced to permanently negotiate the unfolding of the event with the gravity that pulls it down and the late Baroque staircase that guides its movement. This is Kira O’Reilly’s Stair Falling, a rather alluring pas de deux between artist and architecture.
Scene 10. 2011, World Wide Web. In the aftermath of the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, a video appears on YouTube in which an anonymous worker wearing protection clothing approaches one of the CCTV cameras of the nuclear site, points at his contaminated surroundings and then at the centre of the camera, in what looks like a reenactment of Centers, the 1971 performance for camera by Vito Acconci. After twenty minutes—the exact same duration of Acconci’s original work—the worker walks away. The video goes viral. This is the ecological age.
The scenes just described highlight the tight interconnectedness of humans and nonhumans and, as a consequence, pose serious questions to the dreams of autonomy and emancipation from “Nature” that humans have been pursuing more or less intensely since the dawn of Modernity with its ideology of Enlightenment. As a result of the present ecological age and the apparent fall of the wall that used to separate “Nature” from “Culture”, the Arts and Humanities are being forced to reconsider their own ambit of study: how can its disciplines adapt to the rediscovered reality of a flat world in which humans and nonhumans seem to be permanently enmeshed in one another, in which human actions seem to often have nonhuman consequences and vice-versa?
Departing from that premise and those problems, the series of monthly posts which I start today will try to think the consequences that the ecological age will have for contemporary theories and practices of theatre and performance. In those coming posts, I will be presenting an overview of the anthropocentric role theatre and performance have played throughout History, some of the ways in which they have been criticised and reinvented, and, ultimately, the ways in which they ought to be thought differently as a consequence of their unfolding on the broad Anthropocenic stage.
Watch this space.
- João Florêncio
To tell you the truth, I was late to the whole 3-D movie thing. I’m not philosophically opposed as some of my filmmaking friends are. It’s just that until very recently there were no 3-D movies that seemed interesting to me. Much of what is being produced appears to be fantasy children’s stories, filled with magical characters and inanimate objects imbued with supernatural powers, or mindless special-effect heavy action flicks. Now, don’t infer that I’m action adverse. I mean how cool would Die Hard have been in 3-D? Luckily for me and maybe for you things on the three-dimensional front seem to be changing.
I’ve been kicking myself for more than a year since I missed my chance to see Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In a rare instance, Herzog is permitted to take his team and 3-D cameras into the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France. By virtue of an avalanche, this cave was sealed from both the grubby hands of humankind and the grievous effects of time until it was discovered in 1994. For 30 thousand years dozens of beautiful cave paintings were preserved just as they were when the artist created them. Herzog believed that 3-D was a way to bring a sort of tactile reality to a marvel that is closed to the public. Did he succeed? I couldn’t tell you, because I didn’t get to see it in 3-D.
Last weekend I saw my first 3-D movie, Wim Wender’s documentary Pina. Pina Bausch was a German choreographer most known for her modern dance works. Sadly, she died right before filming began. Instead of being a tribute, Pina became a memorial. But of course I didn’t know this when I walked into the theater. I just knew I was going to see a 3-D modern dance film by Wenders, and that was enough. The film was everything I could have hoped it would be. Pina presents non-contiguously four works by Bausch. Within the film, the works don’t exist as discrete pieces unto themselves. Instead, Wenders edits these works into a sort of narrative that becomes surprisingly emotional by the end. Although the film contains traditional elements of a biographical documentary (history, interviews, old film footage) Pina doesn’t feel like a documentary at all. Instead the film itself feels vibrant and alive as if the members of Tanztheater Wuppertal were performing the pieces right in front of me.
On the train ride home, I thought about what I’d just seen. I felt as if I’d seen something completely new, perhaps even a new medium. High-end theaters no longer show just films. They host live group meetings. Last year A Prairie Home Companion lured its listeners away from the dulcet voices of NPR and into movie houses across the country, where the show was broadcast live into theaters. The Century 12 Evanston/CinéArts 6 is currently hosting the Metropolitan Opera in High Definition, live! Imagine what that might be like in 3-D. It could be like being there. Maybe even better. It would mean that any town with a mall could also have an opera or a symphony, or an experimental German modern dance troupe. Of course, it wouldn’t really be a live performance, I know that. Wenders toyed with the idea of filming Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 3-D but it fell through. Too bad, perhaps that would have been the perfect marriage of art, action, and magic.