GPS

Changing Perspectives on Performance Collaboration: Problematizing More-Than-Human Subjectivities

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Ambayec, Alecks, Renata Gaspar, Sozita Goudouna, Jan-Tage Kühling, and Simon Probst. “Changing Perspectives on Performance Collaboration: Problematizing More-Than-Human Subjectivities.” Global Performance Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2021. https://doi.org/10.33303/gpsv4n2a4

Alecks Ambayec, Renata Gaspar, Sozita Goudouna, Jan-Tage Kühling, and Simon Probst

Introduction

The interest and literature within performance theory on the topic of the “nonhuman” is steadily growing (Read, 2000; Ridout, 2006; Knowles, 2013; Orozco, 2013; Parker-Starbuck, 2019), but its question is still mostly concerned with “what to do and how to do it in relation to the nonhuman” (Parker Starbuck xi). Considering Donna Haraway’s (2016) call for sympoiesis, for more-than-human world-making, it seems crucial to examine nonhumans not only as relating objects but fundamentally as co-creators in performance practice. To rephrase Parker Starbuck’s question: how to do with the nonhuman? That seems even more important given that the theorization of contemporary collaborative performance practices cannot be reduced to the analysis of modes of work along lines of division (and hierarchies) between actors, directors, set designers, and so on but calls instead for an “expanded definition of collaboration” (Cull Ó Maoilearca 102) — one that eventually also entails raising the question of the role of nonhuman beings in collaborative art making. Thus, it is important to address the ways nonhuman animals, (live) matter, and plants shape and influence artistic processes and the ways nonhumans become co-creators of performance practices and problematize notions of collaboration. As well as the impact of nonhuman collaborations to our understanding of human-nonhuman relations. We, as performance scholars and practitioners, find it important to analyze, map and trace nonhuman collaboration.

We do not understand the notion of collaboration within the context of a specific way of doing, that might be distinguishable from others or else of specific ontological entities who can collaborate while others cannot. Instead, we follow the art historian Charles Green who defines collaboration as follows: “Artistic collaboration is a special and obvious case of the manipulation of the figure of the artist, for at the very least collaboration involves a deliberately chosen alteration of artistic identity from individual to composite subjectivity” (x).

The proposition Green makes is important to the extent that it neither relates to a specific way of doing in collaboration nor to the entities that collaborate. Thus, Greens’ definition allows the detachment of the act of collaboration from any pre-given essentialist definition, be it towards the ways of doing, or else towards the specific beings doing that collaboration — e.g., who can collaborate and who cannot. By focusing on collaboration as the “manipulation of the figure of the artist,” Green shifts our attention to collaboration as being not only the result of, but a performative speech act itself. The means of declaring the art making collaborative — not the doing nor the being of the artists — shifts our attention to a different way of reception thereof. Just as this declaration of collaborative authorship is a performative utterance, performative and collaborative artworks accomplish this shift through their existence as performances in themselves. In other words, the manipulation of the figure of the author towards collaborative authorship as a speech act is made tangible by the performance itself — the performative artwork is the performance of a composite subjectivity. Consequently, this allows for a methodology that stays close to the artistic processes themselves, treating them as propositions of composite subjectivity that can be analyzed within their intrinsic claims.

The other implication of Green’s definition seems even more important, if looking and analyzing collaborative artistic practices with the non-human: it is crucial to notice that Green perceives collaborative authorship within the context of artistic identity as shifting from “individual to composite subjectivity” (x). Manifestations of collaborative authorship, in other words, are the self-declarative acts of collaborative subjectivity. Cull Ó Maoilearca rightfully acknowledges the problem that an expanded notion of collaboration might have as becoming a “vacuous term, a placeholder for everything and nothing” (105). Indeed, it may seem difficult to speak of collaborative authorship of human and non-human collaborators if collaboration is intended to designate the intentional act of working together. Artistic subjectivity however, cannot be reduced to the identity of the entities involved. Subjectivity instead, if seen as the effect of processes of a “performative materialization of its social [as well as its political, economic, ecological] environment” (Davis 881) can be composed of many bodies and many doings. It is a category that not only transcends a concept of individual (human) identity, but — as being the intersection of bodies and specific norms and surroundings — also sheds light on the circumstances of its production. Understanding artistic collaborative processes as deliberative and performative manipulations towards a collaborative subjectivity, thus allows us to research a wider field of artistic processes that encompass a variety of human and non-human authors. Stressing the necessity of tracing not the (ontologically) different beings but compositive subjectivities, we are investigating processes that are composed not only of humans, but also of a variety of non-human authors as non-human animals, non-human matter or plants.

On the following pages, we want to look at those acts of creating a collaborative subjectivity as a deliberate artistic performance. We present five artistic projects which differently reflect some of the ways in which the nonhuman can be part, or even constitutive component within an auctorial composite subjectivity. These projects, as we consider them, explore and critically engage with the theoretical groundings of what we identify as problems of human-nonhuman collaboration. Therefore, the projects are not only paradigms of human/ nonhuman collaboration, they also problematize certain concepts that lie at the center of the human-nonhuman dichotomy and bring up the problematics of a notion of subjectivity itself. Such concepts are the following: communication, production, anthropomorphism, spatiality and liveness. In analogy to Nicholas Ridout’s claim that “theatre’s failure, when theatre fails, is not anomalous, but somehow, perhaps constitutive” (3), we argue that to trace and analyze processes of human-nonhuman collaborations might be most efficient precisely when collaborative processes become difficult, problematic, or even fail.

Our collaborative writing about human/non-human collaboration also facilitates the process of exchange and collaboration in our work as a process of becoming a collaborative subject: taking into account that we come from diverse cultural, social, academic and artistic contexts with different knowledges, experiences and practices, the examples we provide differ in style, format, geographic context, institutional setting and therefore — necessarily — also in the ways we might perceive (non-)human collaboration. Coming together in collaboration, we write on non-human collaboration as the reason, the mode and the perspective of writing together.

Uttering

Athens Stray Dogs (2015) Athens, Greece © Santiago Sierra & Athens Art Residency

The collaborative project in the city of Athens, Athens Stray Dog Project,[1] was conceived in 2015, by Santiago Sierra, during the prolonged Greek economic austerity and addressed lingual communication in relation to the intrinsic value of money and currency, but also attempted to challenge structures of power, economic exploitation and hierarchies that operate in everyday life and cultural production. Collaboration is conceived by Sierra, not as an idealized form of dialogue and exchange between contributors, but as a means of employment and advanced production that involves manual and intellectual labor. The artist usually hires itinerant workers to enact menial tasks for minimal remuneration or to perform a specific activity so as to highlight the controversial interfaces between art and labor. It is this “unromanticized” notion of collaboration that is the focus here. Being a collaborator in Sierra’s projects means only implementing his vision while he is remotely supervising the process.

The collaborator, as instructed by the artist, dresses the stray dogs with T-shirts that feature the phrase I Have No Money, in Greek. But this is not only a crucial part of the score designed to be carried out by the collaborators, it is the very act that changes the notion of collaboration that is at stake in the project: as a direct performative act, Sierras dogs are not made to speak, but to signify — turning from stray, and most probably unnoticeable dogs into beings within the artistic collaborative subject that is formed within Sierra’s performance. The T-shirts are not only props that are given to the dogs, but mark a specific change in signification for the audience to understand them as a part of that artistic subjectivity. The project draws a parallel between the Athenian citizens and the stray dogs of Athens by giving dogs human attributes that non-humans do not normally require. Both language and currency are human attributes that non-humans do not share. The concern with the human-nonhuman dichotomy is significant to the extent that it raises the possibility of forging renewed communicative and ethical relationships in performative practices. Human language is inevitably culturally transmitted and, as Berger notes,

Between two men the two abysses are, in principle, bridged by language. Even if the encounter is hostile and no words are used (even if the two speak different languages), the existence of language allows that at least one of them, if not both mutually, is confirmed by the other. [] No animal confirms man, either positively or negatively. The animal can be killed and eaten []. The animal can be tamed []. But always its lack of common language, its silence, guarantees its distance, its distinctness, its exclusion, from and of man (5-6).

Despite Berger’s controversial arguments about human-nonhuman relations being more integrated before capitalism and modernity, and his distinction between visual and linguistic animals, the theoretical implications for thinking about communication in modernity are significant. Language does not only bridge: it can confirm and strengthen bonds, including those based on oppositionality and hostility. But how to relate in a meaningful way to those beings who have no language? How to communicate and bond with them?

As Sierra’s stray dogs are performatively inscribed into and subjugated to the norms of human language, they do only perform a collaborative subjectivity as walking signs. It is especially the way their subjectivity is created and performed that lays bare the mechanisms of exploitation through, a not only linguistic, but finally also economical apparatus of capture. Resonating through the linguistic inscriptions on their shirts are not only the words of the Greek citizens who are hit with more and more austerity measures, and thus become yet another instance of collaborative subjectivity. Also, the distance and the implicit tensions between the linguistic and economic systems and a form of life that is signifying and significant in itself becomes obvious: Eduardo Kohn argues that conceiving of meaning processes exclusively in terms of language makes it impossible to credit thought and meaning to non-linguistic, nonhuman beings and stabilizes anthropocentric notions of communication (40). In terms of language, nonhumans cannot talk, they do not speak, and are as mute as they are meaningless. But in terms of Kohn’s more-than-human semiotics this is an error. Non-human animals interpret their environment and their fellow beings and act according to those interpretations (Kohn 78). They even interpret humans. They give meaning to the human as the human gives meaning to them. It is a mutual process. The stray dogs of Athens thus are not only a comment on the creation and subjugation of a collective through economic measures, but also implicitly forces us to ask different questions: what do those dogs think while they participate, without knowing, in this collaboration? What do they communicate apart from the slogans on their t-shirts? It is exactly the artificial context of the collaboration against which it becomes visible that they have a semiotic life of their own that cannot be fully integrated in a linguistic and artistic paradigm of producing meaning.

Shaping

Nonhuman Nonsense is a research-driven art and design studio founded by Leo Fidjeland and Linnea Våglund. They approach nonhuman beings in playful, fictional, as well as scientific and theoretical ways in order to work on the transformation of our relationships with the nonhuman. In the project Becoming Stone (2018) they chose one of the beings that arguably most extremely differs from humans as their nonhuman counterpart: a stone. In a performative installation, the audience is confronted with various sorts of stones, and is free to touch, to lift and to feel the stones. Constructed with wire and pebbles, there is a kind of suit made of stones, the audience members can try on. In the center of the installation, there is a vending machine that returns small pieces of gray clay labeled eat me after the insertion of 1€. Becoming Stone, as the title suggests, shifts our attention not towards other external subjectivities, but towards the composite subjectivities within the human body. In an act of a radical introspection, Becoming Stone questions the place of one’s own subjectivity and the ways human and non-human matter permeate each other in constructing the account of our perceived subjectivity.

Becoming Stone (2018) © Nonhuman Nonsense

Radical Introspection: Self-experiment in the Artist’s Studio

Choose one stone and take it into your hand. Let it rest in your palm. Run your fingers over its surface. Lift it in front of your eyes. Have a close look, a look so close that you see nothing but the stone you chose. Examine the microstructures. Be impressed by its shape. Then close your eyes. Rub the stone against the skin of your cheek. How does this feel? Lift it to one of your ears. Does the stone make any noise? Sound? Voice? Or does it make you hear your own blood? Stop listening. Put the stone in your mouth. Play with it, move it to different parts of your oral cavity. Wrap your tongue around it. Have you tasted anything like it before? Does it remind you of something? Now, spit the stone into your hand. Feel it again, now that it has absorbed some of your warmth and is wet from your saliva. And what about you? Does your mouth feel earthy? Are your ears deaf? Are your fingers stony? You remember these are your human senses sensing the stone. But haven’t they changed a little bit? Haven’t they absorbed something of the stones’ stoneness? The stone is taken, not asked to collaborate. But it is not simply used. It shapes the human. If this is a collaboration, it cannot be answered. Finally, don’t forget, there is the stone-suit, a clothing made of strings and stones. Take it on. Feel its weight on your shoulders, feel the different shapes of the stringed stones pressing against your body. Wouldn’t it be better to sit down? Just be heavy, heavier than usual. Rest. Haven’t you rested like this before? Still, you think, I am a human wearing this suit that makes me look like a pile of flesh and hair and string and stone. This is Art, you think. Still, haven’t you been reminded of something? Think, and try to be precise. What have you done? And how have you been moulded? What have you become?

– 2020

Through the well-directed arrangement of the different stones, the act of an almost ritualistic ingestion of the clay-stone and finally the gloomy foreshadowing of the title itself, the audience can perceive the everyday non-human matter of stones in a different, more attentive way. Becoming Stone sets the tone for a speculative and yet very realistic account of a composite subjectivity that lies at the core of this materialist encounter: it locates human subjectivity both as producer and witness at the crossing of human and non-human entanglement. The radical introspection of Becoming Stone is thus not only the meeting point of propositions of a composite human/non-human subjectivity within the human body itself, but also a powerful comment, a way to relegate the question of becoming — becoming matter, becoming human, becoming subject — towards the realm of the aesthetic experience itself. The performative installation becomes a way of perceiving and reflecting ways of dealing with non-human matter and how human and non-human matter are inseparably entangled: changing, shifting, morphing into each other and thus subverting the anthropological difference as an operation that enables relations between humans and nonhumans — in knowing as well as in doing — by tracing and installing resemblances that are essential for meaningful relations. Becoming Stone, in other words, reminds us of the processes by which human and nonhuman beings constantly shape and transform one another according to their own properties; anthropomorphism becomes a partial phenomenon in a much larger complex that Latour calls “x-morphisms” (12). To think in terms of mutual morphisms, shifts and changes raises the question: how exactly are the relationships with nonhuman collaborators being shaped? Which relations are enabled, or prevented, by this particular morphism? And vice-versa, how are we shaped by our nonhuman collaborators? What are the exchanges – their form(ing)s – that shape our doing-together? And, finally, how are we to encourage the unfolding of more-than-human intentions and ways of doing?

Becoming Stone portrays how such morphisms and changes that we experience are produced and processed as performances of subjective becoming, and how those becomings cannot be separated from the circumstances, machines and apparatuses we use, encounter and are – often – also changed, formed and maybe even consumed by. Because, the fact that the stone we are consuming is the product of a vending machine underlines the fact that composite subjectivities are formed and constructed as the effect of, as well as despite of, mechanisms of commodification. What finally is at stake in Becoming Stone is not only a meditation on the composition of human identity, but the implications and the performative doings of a performative becoming subject; being author, witness, human and non-human, consumer and consumed.

Placing

Pile (2019) © Künkel & Gaspar

A pile refers to a heap of things placed on top of each other; an object made of several individual and smaller units. Yet, a pile of sand or earth can be seen as a body of experiences, an itinerant collection of stories whose form remains in a state of permanent emergence.

För Künkel and Renata Gaspar have been exploring the materiality and narrative possibilities of piles in their work since 2016, when they visited the territories of Occupied Palestine and created the installation Stories from the perspective of piles (2017). More recently, they collaborated on Correspondence on migrating sediments (2019), a three-part project consisting of a sound installation, a performance and a publication. In this project, the main character — a pile of sand — is the only performer present on stage, upon whom a dramaturgy of sound, light and smoke is cast. The pile, a migrant in transit, speaks of her journey, not toward integration, as envisioned by hegemonic discourses on migration as an indispensable conclusion to the process of transition, but rather toward possibility and further creation. The pile’s account of how words and concepts travel with the movement of her body aims to expose the interconnectedness of sonic and semantic territories, as well as the untranslatability of some of the borders encountered (material and symbolic). Piles have their own language; a language marked by scattered lines of evasion, and the ongoing transit of displacement. The spatial in-betweenness of piles highlights their plurality; for in their dislocation, in their encounters with difference, piles both shape and incorporate different places in their bodies. Furthermore, their embodied connection to the ground paradoxically uncovers the interdependency of scales — soil, landscape, ecosystem, planet — and, the ways in which ground is also the terrain on which humans conceive and establish their socio-political, economic, and ecological relationships. The ground that needs care and repair. The ground wounded by compulsive mining, and other systems of extraction and exploitation of resources and people, under the legacy of colonial violence. Spatiality is shared by humans and nonhumans alike. Animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, mushrooms, stones, or piles of sand, are all matter with a form, moving through space, encountering one another in spatial relations. We are all, in some sense, piles of matter: accumulations of material particles that temporarily form spatial entities. Piles therefore, can serve as a material-semiotic figure of thought which allows us to reflect — in terms of spatial interconnectedness — on the involvement of nonhumans in the performance of artistic collaboration. How do different materialities meet? What are their journeys made of?

Correspondence on migrating sediments (2019) TAK Berlin, Germany © Künkel & Gaspar

In presenting a pile on stage, Künkel and Gaspar expand the ideas of a collective subjectivity from the individual body towards bodies that cannot be thought differently than in ways of accumulation, of movement and change. A pile of sand or earth marks a moment in between places, in between states and shapes of being, in between functions and possible futures. Piles are mobile interlocutors between different places; specifically, they materialize interconnections between the sites of extraction of natural resources and the sites of construction of human society. Throughout the process of their formation, piles accumulate numerous trajectories, both physical and narrative. Piles are diasporic beings. They survive on adaptation. They resist by shifting and changing shape, format, figure, nature, character, identity. Piles are not fixed nor stable in their enunciation — the place inhabited by the body of a pile is transitory, relational, demarcated by connections, just like piles themselves are incomplete topographies. The presentation of a pile on stage serves to mark those collective subjectivities that are the effect not only of the interrelated processes of the earth system but also the effect of a very concrete and historic doing: understanding the Anthropocene through its extractionist implications, piles are not only accidental gatherings, but the very effects and signifiers of the ecological catastrophe following the destruction of the lithosphere. Künkel and Gaspar’s pile reminds us not only of the global and earth systemic interrelations that form and shift the nature of human and non-human beings, but also of the way in which beings become subjugated and turn into migratory beings as the effect of concrete historical and ecological events.

Where

     do I come from?

I am sand same here as

elsewhere.              I migrate,

I shift, I transform. As I move, a hole is

                                  created and my body is displaced.

.

I

am

a moment.

Again, and again,

           always here.

In presenting the piles in the form of concrete poetry however, Künkel and Gaspar do not only bring together their specific and fleeting form closer to the similarly fleeting enunciation of the syllables, words and sentences. Shifting the subject of the enunciation and letting the pile speak, readers are asked to experience the poems from within the piles themselves and to rethink their own subjectivity alongside and through the mechanisms of processes of a more-than-human subjectiviation. When reading the poem Looking through the rubble — material traces of impermanence (2021), the piles’ linguistic and material matter coincide: language, as the primary means of human subjectivation loses its anthropocentric implication and becomes an invitation to re-imagine one’s own subjectivity as the effect of always different, heterogenous, composite and globally active flows of matter and meaning.

What surrounds us, what forms us, what happened and what might happen — are all parts of the plot of accumulations in a certain place. And place, following Dorren Massey, as a “sphere of relations, of contemporaneous multiplicity, and as always under construction” (148) reminds us of the partiality and incompleteness of our (human) perspectives and, thus, of collaboration as yet another place under construction. Thinking through the perspective of piles in more-than-human collaborations allows us to acknowledge relations of socio-spatial interdependence, and the ways these might make us think about difference, differently. The ascribed participation of the nonhuman in artistic collaboration entails a discursive elaboration on its position. This form of re-territorialization redirects the practice of collaboration towards an enduring relationality between human and nonhuman piles.

.

    Like

sketches,

              my stories remain

        unfinished. Yet my materiality

    is present and it gives them a

                                  solid foundation.

 

I am rhythm. A gap in transit.

 

At

once

a repetition

           and a splinter of myself.

   Like an echo. Unruly.

   Unfixed.

.

You

can read

  me through levels

  of sedimentation incomplete 

     and shattered. Incomprehensible,

    broken pasts and dubious futures.

                      An enigmatic presence.

 

We

can make

a pact to grow.

Alongside each other.

       We can create a language of   

      togetherness; with multiple voices,

     tempos and silences.

 

A way of inhabiting a place, of looking

                       otherwise, and becoming

          

                                 a possibility.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking through the rubble material traces of impermanence (2021) © Künkel & Gaspar

Living

The Pasig River (2017) © Alecks Ambayec

In Manila, Philippines, a 27-km river, namely the Pasig River, was declared biologically dead in the 1990s due to World War II and industrialization. Currently, the Pasig River is starting to show signs of life again as an effect of its rehabilitation. To support the Pasig River rehabilitation, Alecks Ambayec, an artist and an environmental advocate, has explored the possibilities that the river could offer as a performance site. Can a biologically dead river in resurrection perform? Can its creatures be active collaborators? Can they speak to the humans and remind the humans of a past long forgotten so that one day the Pasig River can fully come back to life again?

Utilizing the Pasig River Ferry, everyday commuters go to work and school. They step foot on the ferry like they always have. The ferry’s engine starts as it leaves the first station going to the next. Nothing new happens until the commuters hear the melody of National Artist Nicanor Abelardo’s Mutya ng Pasig being played on the speakers of the ferry. The song feels like a language that they have forgotten how to speak but still understand for some unknown reason. Then, a woman from the audience suddenly recites a line from the National Hero Jose Rizal’s famous novel, Noli Me Tangere, describing the crystal-clear waters of the river. A tilapia appears on the water, a creature slowly coming back to the river’s arms, as if dancing to the tune of Abelardo’s music, following the direction of the ferry as if it could catch up to the ferry’s speed. As the ferry moves and moves, water hyacinths (deemed as pests), make the audience aware of their existence, gathering at a nearby distance, while some hang to the sides of the ferry, joining the ongoing performance from one station to another. A voice from the speaker tells the legend of the Pasig River, accompanied by the stench (or the lack thereof) of the water, depending on the location of the ferry since some parts are still polluted (hence, the stench) and some are already rehabilitated (hence, the lack thereof). Like a river whose rehabilitation cannot halt until all of its tributaries are unpolluted, our environment is made of bodies of water that need ongoing attention. Within the logic of the work of art, what appears on stage as a final performance is the hermetic enclosement of a multitude of different collaborative processes of creative, managerial, technical and care work, which influence each other, pervade each other and work through each other. The ecosystem of the Pasig River becomes the site of the performance, and, furthermore, located in the scale between the individual and the global, becomes the ecosystem where meaningful collective subjectivities are established as ecological relationality. The performance at the Pasig River is not only performed at (or rather) in the river, but works as a site-specific performance focusing on the relationality of the locality, their actors and their specific doings as co-constitutional acts of an ecology of subjectivity and site.

Turning from locality to ecological site, the artwork is not only embedded in the ecosystems of the site, but the place in question in the performance is always embedded in the ecological relationality of the artwork itself. The artwork — the performance of place, actors and relationality — is composed of different composites that form ecological connections: a more-than-human subjectivity as composite and collaborative authorship. Site-specific artistic performances — if they allow for not only the doing of the nonhuman, but for an active and intentional recognition of its agency as integral part of the artistic experience — can highlight the aliveness and presence of the nonhuman as part and parcel of many of such processes of collaboration. In doing so, collaborations with the nonhuman can give way for performers and audiences alike to take part in the shared habitation of a place, witness its narratives and all the life forms that are present. Moreover, they offer the possibility of subverting the conventional separation between audience and performers, potentially resulting in a heightened level of audience participation and reciprocation (May 96).

The awareness of ecological subjectivity can be highlighted, providing a greater possibility for audiences to enliven their sense of connection with the environment. The non-recognition of the nonhuman and the neglect for its existence repeatedly bring about the ecological harms we encounter in our time of climate change. There is an imperative — also in performance — to acknowledge that the nonhuman is present and alive with us. Furthermore, there is an urgency to act, to care, continuously. This act of care, though, as visible in the performance at the site of the Pasig River, should be understood within a very specific kind of action: it is through the withdrawal of waste, pollution and — generally speaking — the disastrous influences of the human species on the more-than-human ecosystem, that the river starts to speak again. And, consequently, it is only through what performance scholar Tuija Kokkonen, relating to Derrida, coins as “weak action”, the “nonpower at the heart of power” (369), that the non-human actors become visible and perceivable in the performance. Only in re-shifting the balance of action(s) within a composite ecological subjectivity and stepping back as humans, the actions and the doings — the specific performances of the fish, the plants, the air, wind and water as non-human actors can be perceived and recognized as meaningful and integral parts of a composite subjectivity. We are part of ecology, of the interconnectedness of all that forms, shapes and surrounds us. As the adage goes, no man is an island. And, no nonhuman is an island. Such all-encompassing outlook entails not only to refuse to see oneself separate from others, but also to shift normative-inspired perceptions of oneself, of one’s subjectivity, such as the idea of an independent, autonomous and rational subject in full control of her life and decisions, as it is promoted by dominant neoliberalist ideologies.

Nonhuman collaborations can indeed propose creative ways of reconstituting our perceptions of human selves in relation to nonhuman selves. For these modes of collaboration can bring about a kind of subjectivity that is embedded in a more-than-human “ecology of selves” (Kohn 83). Our shared world however, not only is shaped by fruitful encounters and vital ways of worldmaking, it is also structured by manifold restrictions, acts of exploitation, non – and misunderstandings, neglect and destruction.

Valuing

Broken Promise (2020) © Miriam Jakob

In her 2020 work The Broken Promise, Berlin based choreographer Miriam Jakob investigates a very specific form of collaboration, since their nonhuman is itself only a product of the work undertaken by Jakob and her team. The performance works through different, simultaneous time-spaces with and of human and non-human beings. Set on different levels within a studio, three performers casually but carefully manipulate the objects surrounding them: strings that cross the space, pieces of rags lying on the floor, musical instruments as an accordion and a mouth organ, and — hanging from the ceiling — green flowerlike objects: organic membranes that serve as loudspeakers. They were harvested as Laminaria digitate, brown algae in the Baltic Sea, boiled, then molded by Jakob and her team around a metal structure. Now they twine around the faces of the human performers, sending their sound right through them. The light grows dim, we hear electronic sounds, as if water was flowing all around us, later the voice of a performer at the waterfront of Helsinki, describing her impression of the city and nature surrounding her. Very much like the performers on stage, the audience seems to be drawn closer to and immersed into the sonic landscape and its cold waters. Between the softly spoken words and the ephemeral tunes, the performance transmits a feeling that the processes of production, of growth and transformation pile up onto each other: the shaping of the algae by the water, its nutrients, its temperature and salinity; the molding of the speakers by Jakob and her team; finally, the imprints of the different human and nonhuman elements on the audience — different loose, even contradicting times, places, needs and states of being.

Broken Promise (2020) © Miriam Jakob

The other examples described here, presented us with the performative manipulation of the figure of the authors at stake within the production and reception of the artworks as collaborative subjectivities. In doing so they were manifestations of different, heterogenous bodies in regards to specific economic, linguistic, material, and ecological apparatuses, surroundings and norms. Collaborative artistic subjectivities were created at the junction of human and non-human bodies and specific, also normative orders. Thus, they allow for a performative reiteration not only of the bodies at stake as being part of a more-than-human subjectivity, but also enable an insightful and critical approach towards those orders which have subjugated the bodies in the first place. With Jacob’s work, on the other hand, the audience is confronted with a somewhat different problem: the way the performance is structured does not allow for an identification of but one linguistic system, one form of movement, one form of visual expression or one form of bodily action. What we witness, instead, is the portrayal of constant fragmentation, dispersion and dissolution of a stable notion of orders or normative guidelines. The performance is full of different ways of production, of different bodily and acoustic ways of enunciation, of different ways of spatial and temporal expression through a multiplicity of media. We do not only experience the analogous bodies present in the studio, but bodies that are far away in Helsinki, digital bodies, bodies that are moving and expressing themselves in a distinct manner, finally bodies that produce and that are produced at the same time. Jacob and her team do not present us with a functioning (ecological) subjectivity but with a multiplicity of different beings that do not yet form a totality, rather open the space for a different question: can we think a mode of collective being that exceeds the human body not only in regards to a multiplicity of different forms of subjectivity, but towards an opening of the mechanisms of subjugation itself? Can we conceive a place from which to think of a collaborative more-than-human authorship without falling into the trap of already established concepts that ultimately might represent another way of an anthropocentric apparatus of capture?

In what Franco Berardi calls “semio-capitalism” (8), collaboration turns into an economical imperative. Shifting from a modernist and Taylorist to a neoliberal society that is based on the free global flow of goods, workforce and data, not order and standardization but mobility, connectivity and a decentralized subjectivity are at the heart of contemporary society. Collaboration has lost its critical power and serves as the expression of an economical dispositive. What is more important here, is that for this relation of work, not equality but otherness is key: with its surplus value increasing in proportion to the differences that are in display in collaboration, “otherness itself becomes a value in collaboration” (77), as philosopher Bojana Kunst argues. This process affects the role of the nonhuman: with otherness as core value of capitalist production within collaborative work, the nonhuman turns from being the paradigmatic subject of exploitation into a role-model of contemporary production. The nonhuman instead of being the spectacular other becomes the normative other. The nonhuman is thus not only exploited within an economy that cannot be detached from creativity and the constant search for novelty; going a long way from being the other that is internalized on stage, and yet always excluded and displayed, the nonhuman represents now the very inside of a dispositive that asks for constant externalization as a mode of diversification and value production. Nonhumans on stage are not spectacular things but the very essence of a reiterated norm of economic diversification.

If Kunst writes that today “what is a part of speculations of capital is not art itself, but mostly artistic life” (3), we have to rethink nonhuman artistic life, too. Not so much as a characteristic that allows us to distinguish between biological and inorganic entities, but as a value that is fundamentally not economic but ethical; something that is not only the object of value production but can be — and should be — thought of as something at least potentially resistant. (How) can human and nonhuman life — the life of nonhuman animals, the life of plant beings, the life of stones (?) — represent a value that is not only speculated upon but that becomes what is at stake in artistic collaboration? “If collaboration represents common work, the divisive factor will be, the quality of the meeting that enables this common work – the quality of time” (Kunst 86-87). Thus, we should not ask how collaboration can be an act of doing with others and of creating different collaborative subjectivities but engage it as a critical mode of questioning the ways in which we compose and decompose our ordinary more-than-human subjectivities.

Conclusion

In the process of redefining ourselves — ethically and ontologically — as humans in a more-than-human world, artistic encounters with nonhumans can help to understand how we always bring about our subjectivities in encounters with nonhuman-beings. The process of composing a shared world with nonhumans, however we call it, will always be confronted with the problems of anthropocentrism, exploitation and appropriation. Therefore, an active awareness of the manifold interspecies differences is needed wherever we compose our worlds with nonhumans, a deeply engaged awareness of both the restrictions and the non-innocence involved in the processes of addressing the nonhuman. As collaborations with nonhuman make these processes visible, they allow us to reflect on them in their diversity.

The perspectives of uttering, valuing, shaping, placing and living that we developed in this text present a matrix to critically reflect on different dimensions of composing more-than-human subjectivities. They do not resolve their inherent limitations, but allow us to draw a detailed and multivalent map that explores those limitations as well as ways of sharing the world with nonhumans. Part of our research in the changing perspectives on performance collaboration examines humans as well as of nonhumans as open ended material-semiotic processes of spatial becoming that creates a common ground to trace how human and nonhuman matter, before all differences, meet in artistic processes; By detaching meaning from language and engaging with trans-species acts of communication we attempted to trace where nonhumans are forced into anthropocentric systems of signification, and where and how their own non-linguistic meanings matter. Our intention is to decenter the anthropocentric notion of anthropomorphism and to embed it into the larger field of metamorphism as a tool of describing the many ways in which human and nonhuman, living and nonliving beings, mutually shape each other according to their own properties. We are principally interested in the ways we cohabitate this world with nonhuman beings, ecosystems and artworks alike, so as to pay attention and to listen to nonhuman ways of worldmaking in the same way we pay attention and listen to artists and our fellow human beings. These artistic collaborations reflect upon the production of artistic value in order to highlight the problems of artistic exploitation of the nonhuman and bring into view the many fragmented encounters with the nonhuman that might not resolve into any coherent subjectivity. This shared world is structured by many restrictions, by acts of exploitation, of non- and misunderstanding, by neglect and destruction, but also by encounters across semiotic modes and fundamental ways of worldmaking. The recurrent problems in the relationships between nonhumans and humans urge an attentive and ethically committed artistic exploration of encounters with the nonhuman which are, nonetheless, possible and desirable.

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Works Cited

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Künkel, F. and Gaspar, R. “Correspondence on migrating sediments.” Renatagaspar. https://www.renatagaspar.com/installation.

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Endnotes

  1. cf.: https://www.artlyst.com/features/art-under-austerity-contemporary-art-abides-amidst-the-greek-economic-crisis/ [Accessed July 31, 2021]

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