Photo by Lizzy Burt (http://lizzycan.com)

The stage, the performer, the audience, and the narrative around which all these conspire: performance inscribes an architecture for meaning. Subject and object, actors and props—an implicit hierarchy is incorporated and represented. Like many seemingly stable architectures, the Anthropocene disrupts that arrangement: landscape becomes an actor and the humblest props come to life. Based out of the University of Exeter (UK),  João Florêncio’s studies that instability and through his research of recent realist and materialist philosophies, ecology, and performance, asks what a nonhuman performance might look like, and what kind of ethics it might demand in turn.

Caroline Picard: Recently you were in Melbourne at a Performance Climates conference? 

João Florêncio: Performance Climates, the 22nd Performance Studies International conference, was very productive in how it covered a wide variety of work that brings performance theories and practices to intersect with issues of climate change and the Anthropocene. It was really interesting to see how performance artists and theatre makers have been using performance to address such big questions and to rethink climate and the place of the nonhuman within performance. I sat through some really fantastic panels on things from astroperformance to landscape and cyborg theatre, and a couple of very interesting performance-lectures on soil as interfacial medium between life and death, and on micro-algae and lab performance. On the less positive side—and especially since another mass shooting happened in the US while we were at the conference—some of us could not help but feel that intersections between climate change, the Anthropocene, issues of race, and embodied difference were sadly missing from the conference.

How can we keep on thinking the Anthropocene and anthropogenic climate change without reflecting on what that means for different bodies and human populations? Without reflecting the extent to which some bodies might have higher degrees of geological agency whilst others might have a higher likelihood of being affected by—and even dying as a result of—changing planetary dynamics? I believe this is one of the most important contributions performance studies can make to current debates on the Anthropocene and one that, unfortunately, was missing from most of the panels I attended. Having said that, the last keynote of the event—by Rebecca Schneider from Brown University—managed to very poignantly think through the Anthropocene and issues of race and settler-colonialism by reading pre-historic cave paintings of hands as a hailing out of time and articulating them with the contemporary hail, or call and response, of the “hands up, don’t shoot!” slogan of Black Lives Matter.

CP: In a recent paper for O-Zone, “Ecology without Nature, Theatre without Culture: Towards an Object-Oriented Ontology of Performance,” you suggest that performance might benefit from shifting towards an in-/nonhuman awareness, responding to a growing realization in the rest of the world that humanity is neither distinct from nor master of its environment. Can you say a bit more about how you see an non-anthropocentric approach to performance?

JF: For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about performance as something that takes place in the spaces between bodies, or between how bodies present themselves and what their ontology might be. Ultimately, for me, performance is about that fuzziness and uncertainty; about an inescapable out-of-phaseness between a body that encounters and a body that is encountered. Or, one could say, the space that exists between a body and its translation into meaningful knowledge, considering that a translation cannot replace its original any more than a map can replace the territory for which it stands. So this process of translation is, I believe, performance’s ontology; the space of translation is the space where performance dwells; it’s its territory. And all translations are contingent; all translations leave a remainder whilst also acquiring new possible readings from the new context in which they start circulating. Accordingly, this process is not exclusive to forms of human cultural performance but is, ultimately, also found in encounters with the more-than-human.

CP: Do you have an example?

JF: For instance: the semiotic reading of a prop on stage—its meaning in relation to other objects and performers on stage—does not exhaust its being, as Graham Harman would say. Rather, its existence as a prop is contingent on my encounter with it as a member of a theatrical audience. For a swallow that flies through the theatre door and dives on stage, that same prop will have a very different existence as, for instance, a place to stand on and rest. Ultimately what this allows us is to think again, and seriously, the idea of the world as theatre. Performance is a privileged body of knowledge and embodied practices that allow us to think these interstitial spaces between ontology and epistemology with a lot more care because, as both a field of knowledge and as a practice, performance has always had its home there.

CP: I read a little about a project you are currently collaborating on, Rock/Body: Performative Interfaces Between the Geologic and the Body. What do you mean when you describe the human body as an interfacial zone between bio- and geo-logics?

JF: This project came out of a realization that current scientific discourses on the Anthropocene were too quick to posit an abstract and universal “Humanity” as dominant geological force without taking into account existing scholarship, coming most from the critical humanities, on issues of embodied difference and biopolitics. So what we did was bring together a diverse group of researchers—scientists, humanities scholars, social scientists, etc.—alongside artists and curators to think about how different kinds of bodies might affect and be affected by the geological in different ways depending on their biopolitical differences. The way we’re going about doing that is by examining the zones of porosity—or the interfaces, as we’re calling them—between the lithic and the human body. Thinking about minerals, for instance, they were created by chemical processes in the stars and eventually entered the composition of rocky planets like ours. Some of them end up entering our bodies either through the food chain, the skin, or by being breathed in. Whilst some are essential for own own movement (by becoming essential for bone formation) and even survival (by entering essential cellular processes), others can become toxic, affect our behaviour and even kill us (think arsenic, mercury, lead, etc.). But not everybody is affected by these substances in the same way: miners suffer from black lung but not people living on the surface; people in developing countries (barely) paid for processing e-waste can become contaminated in ways that those of us in Europe or the USA using smartphones and tablets and computers won’t ever be. So the whole narrative of human geological agency and the health risks posed by anthropogenic changes to earth systems gain much more complex dimensions once we start thinking them alongside the circulation of labour and capital, planetary networks of commodity production, waste production and waste management, the materiality of media and planned obsolescence, as well as the types of human bodies that populate the various nodes of such massive planetary networks and the ways in which some of those bodies count more than others. In short, what we are trying to do is to sketch new avenues for interdisciplinary research that think together geo- and bio-politics by thinking human bodies—different iterations of the Anthropos in Anthropocene—as case-study sites where that porosity between Geos and Bios manifests itself in different ways. In a sense, to think the ways in which the Anthropocene can actually tell a story of exploitation, oppression and displacement of both geological and human bodies under capitalism.

CP: In another paper, “Encountering Worlds: Performance in/as Philosophy in the Ecological Age,” you write, “Capitalism has become an autonomous machine, a network through which flows of information circulated in the form of capital and are received and processed not only by finance analysts and high street and online shoppers but also, at a time when financial operations are executed automatically every second without the intervention of human agents, by  other nonhuman nodes of the machine,” highlighting the ways in which humanity has become more and more of a witness to algorithmic forces it set in motion and is now subject to, as though real-life (whatever that is) is a stage we do not act upon but watch unfold. What does being an audience member in a performance teach us about inhabiting the Anthropocene? Does performance become a mirror? Is passivity a benefit or a weakness?

JF: Two words spring to mind in that context: responsibility and care. And both are notions that are extremely important to performance. There is this unsigned contract between audience members and performers whereby both sides are aware of their responsibility over each other and the event. There is also certainly some level of passivity, of letting go, which I believe is an important aspect of any ethics of care: how does one care for something, how can one be responsible for something, whilst not losing sight of that crucial moment when an extremely difficult decision must be taken, when the ultimate demonstration of care is letting go. Michel Foucault has written something beautifully along those lines in his later work on the care of the self. About the tension between practices of care and liberty. If responsibility is about the ability to elicit a response, about opening that space of performance, of call and response, I mentioned earlier, responsibility demands a passing of the ball and waiting for it to bounce back. There’s something quite scary and uncertain but also quite poignant about that gesture of having control (or responsibility) only by letting go of it, by opening oneself to that space of the encounter and its generative potential, even when the outcomes can never be predicted in advance. So yes, there’s a level of passivity but an active (or creative?) passivity, if that makes sense. That’s exactly the kind of ethics I believe performance is grounded on.

CP: In the same paper you include a vision where “humans accept that they are members of a universe-wide, borderless, community of strangers” such that “the ethical debates that will follow will have to concern themselves with how best to approach one’s neighbor.” I was especially touched by this sentiment because of all the upheaval I see in the world at large, all of the acts of violence, defensiveness, tightening of borders, bullying, and retaliation. Your suggestion, by contrast feels like a defiant and glorious demand for openness and inclusion—what is especially pronounced by the “community of strangers.” Can you say more about that? 

JF: I totally agree with you. Opening ourselves to the other, welcoming strangers is about both human and more-than-human others. And I feel only an unilateral form of that openness can take us out of the terrible times we’re living through—politically, economically, environmentally. A big problem with existing attempts at solving these issues is that they keep on being grounded on a politics of recognition of rights. Although that might be useful in the short term—think about civil rights movement, feminism, LGBT movement, etc.—in the long term a politics of rights, whereby rights are ascribed to different bodies depending on their degree of sameness with bodies already in possession of rights, will do nothing to question the exclusionary logics upon which a rights-based ethics depends.

CP: What do you mean?

JF: In other words, for as long as we keep fighting for rights—of racial, gender, sexual, or ability minorities—we continue to occupy a logics of membership criteria: what do you have in common with me in order to gain my rights? How similar are you to me? This is also valid to the mainstream animal rights movement, for instance, which fights for animal rights on the basis of their similarity with humans (considered the benchmark). So we need to give animals more rights because they suffer like us, or because they have highly developed intellects, or because they’re capable of affects similar to ours. What most of the supporters of these strategies overlook is that such logics of membership of a club of rights will always depend, for its existence, on the exclusion of some bodies that do not possess the criteria for membership. To know who or what ought to be allowed into our communities of equals, we need others to be excluded by definition. Any community of equals needs an outside against which it defines itself. No matter how much we work on extending the criteria of membership, there will always be those left outside against which we can define those included inside. So what I advocate is a total rejection of a rights-based ethics and, instead, an unilateral openness to the other in its condition of stranger. To approach the other not according to what they might have in common with us but according to their difference, to their strangeness. Obviously this will make everyday life a lot harder because it will deprive us of all pre-existing codes of conduct, of all manuals on how to deal with others, ultimately of all law. But isn’t that what ethics demands from us anyway? That we approach the other with responsibility, consideration, and openness to the uncertain space of every single encounter rather than simply by acting according existing laws and postponing that most painful but most necessary moment of ethical decision-making?

When The Object Presents Itself: An Interview with João Florêncio