SOMETHING (out of nothing) © Kristof Vrancken

Kristof van Baarle

Leestijd 11 — 14 minuten

Voices from the dark

The mystery of the end in the work of Michiel Vandevelde and Kris Verdonck  

Anyone growing up today has little difficulty imagining the end of the / a world. Our unbridled patterns of consumption fuel extreme global warming and ruthless pandemics, among other things. A virus or climate catastrophe could, in the ‘worst’ case scenario, wipe out the entire human race, but it also shakes ideologies, societies and worldviews. How can theatre deal with such an end times sensation? And shouldn’t the theatre tap into its mystical origins again to do so? Kristof van Baarle talks about this in reference to works by Kris Verdonck and Michiel Vandevelde, two makers with whom he himself collaborates as a dramaturge.  

If we don’t take care of them, the dead will really die.
But even if we deal responsibly with the way they continue to exist,
that doesn’t mean at all that their existence is entirely determined by us.
The task of offering them more existence repeats itself.
(Vinciane Despret, Au Bonheur des Morts)

The imperative to write a text about performances that reveal something about ends of worlds suddenly seems to date from a world before the end. Suddenly a society fell silent because of a life-threatening virus. Suddenly also the ecological and socio-economic system changes necessary for a more sustainable society became possible, at least for a while. Airplanes were grounded, refugees were given temporary civil rights in some countries, basic incomes were set up. Why, a world that ends and allows a new world to emerge: that’s a classic biblical apocalypse!

“To paraphrase the dramaturge Marianne Van Kerkhoven: the minor dramaturgy of a death is always embedded in a major, societal dramaturgy.”

For a number of years now, the end has been a subject in which I, as a researcher and dramaturge, have been trying to deepen my understanding because of the many catastrophes that are taking place today, but also because of the difficulty that many catastrophic systems such as capitalism and humanism have with giving place to death, loss and negativity. Growth, pleasure, profit, progress, extraction, faster, more, immediately, … those are the mantras that bring not only ecosystems and biological species to an end, but also social structures, cultures, values and lives. Certainly from a Western perspective it now seems clear that the ‘Great Values’ that have been declared dead for some time now – humanism with a good and centrally placed European cultivated Man, the enlightenment with the ratio and law as golden compasses – are now really on their way back, although their frantic convulsions remain dangerous and painful.

In order to make new balances and forms of coexistence possible, we have to let older things come to an end. Preferably with dignity and not with aggression. This becomes difficult when there is little room for farewell, grief and mourning in an ‘overpositive’ society with success stories and growth paths as the dominant images. The consequences are known: depression, burn-out and loneliness, but also the sixth mass extinction, resulting in a planet that has become unlivable for humans. The end of individual lives is invariably linked in one way or another to larger systems of meaning and larger endings. The death of a last specimen of a species is a very striking example of this. To paraphrase the dramaturge Marianne Van Kerkhoven: the minor dramaturgy of a death is always embedded in a major, societal dramaturgy.

SOMETHING (out of nothing) © Kristof Vrancken

The feeling of an end time is of all times. However, two aspects are different now. Today the feeling of an end is secularized. The traces of the religious roots are still there, but now it is no longer a god or messiah, but Gaia or the invisible hand that delivers the blows.
It also goes much slower; endings unfold steadily and pass several points of no return, it does not happen with a bang. ‘The end is not what it used to be,’ knew the German intellectual Hans Magnus Enzensberger at the end of the last century. Indeed, a simple apocalypse that separates the good from the bad through divine intervention and marks the beginning of a kingdom of God no longer seems to exist here.

In the theatre, the end has always been quite concrete. Aristotle wrote in the fifth century B.C. that a good drama has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that they follow logically from each other according to a chain of cause and effect. The end of a tragedy then means the end of this chain, just as a fairy tale closes with ‘and they lived happily ever after’. In this classic conception of theatre that has deeply influenced the entire Western theatre and film tradition, the end is a point. But what if your play already begins at the end, or doesn’t stop when the causes and consequences are exhausted? How does a dramaturgy of and after the end work? What about the slow and long endings, as we see for example after nuclear disasters in Chernobyl or Fukushima: not only do they mean the beginning of many traumas and dormant illnesses, but also of a long time during which radioactive radiation makes an environment uninhabitable.

If a performance starts with or after the end, then all drama is eliminated in advance. Acts and psychology can no longer be explained from a causal scheme. Time and place are no longer a function of story. Think, for example, of how the work of Samuel Beckett and Heiner Müller is situated in an after-time. You could read Müller’s Hamletmachine as a scene long after the end of Shakespeare’s drama. The absurdity and abstraction of Beckett were also a consequence of the end of the possibility of telling another logical story. The deconstruction of narrative and theatrical form meant the deconstruction of a world, in response to a crumbling framework of values and the trauma of the Second World War. In the year 2020 these dynamics are still continuing. The ‘post’, the ‘after’, becomes even more literal and real with the unfolding climate catastrophe and mass extinction. Deconstruction becomes destruction.

SOMETHING (out of nothing) © Kristof Vrancken

In Kris Verdonck’s 2019 performance SOMETHING (out of nothing), we find ourselves in such an end time, caused by human hubris and a merciless dynamic in which long- term consequences are denied or unknowable. The performance finds itself on the threshold between current and past affairs, that is, between presence and absence. Threatening soundscapes, amorphous inflatable sculptures, a post-apocalyptic voice-over and a group of four masked figures move on the threshold between something and nothing. Without faces and with their bodies concealed in a black, velvet bodysuit, they are reduced to a silhouette. They seem to be in a world after the end of the human, yet they still walk around in it. Their desperate, futile behavior points to the absurdity of business as usual and of the many attempts to improve something without fundamentally changing the frame of reference. A chain of successive actions is still being tried, a game is still being played although its rules seem utterly nonsensical, movements are carried out as if they were memories. They all share the same quality, namely that it does not matter whether they make the movement or not.

“Whereas Verdonck is more focused on the nothingness and absurdity of human-made endings, Vandevelde places the emphasis on the disintegration of communities, even of communality as such.”

The friction between humans and their environment leads to a deep alienation. An end of a world occurs, as the Italian activist and philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes, when ‘its inhabitants are unable to say anything effective about the events and things that surround them’. What remains is a great Nothing. SOMETHING (out of nothing) resonates with the existential discomfort that death, of humans and other species, continues to cause. In this sense, the performance is not only about the climate catastrophe and the end of humankind, but also about the place that death has (not) when you live without the deep awareness of your mortality and how it interweaves you with the earth system you are a part of. After all, living well also means dying well.

The special thing about this performance is that it makes the nothingness palpable and at the same time seems to state with a Beckettian gaze that ‘you must go on, I cannot go on, I will go on’. The miracle, then, lies in the fact that despite the nothingness in which the figures find themselves, ‘something’ is still being done. It’s a bit like the short texts of that other writer who occupies a prominent place in Verdonk’s oeuvre: Daniil Charms. The events in those texts, but also the texts themselves, are ‘incidents’, small performative shifts provoked in the context of Stalin’s purges and the long occupation of St. Petersburg during the Second World War. ‘Now, one day, a man went to work, and on the way he met another man, who, having bought a loaf of Polish bread, was heading back home where he came from. And that’s it, more or less.’ One of the things that becomes clear in such a situation is that it is incredibly difficult to make ‘something’ happen in this great indifferent nothing. It is a matter of continuing to search for energy, for a kind of pure potentiality, while all real action has come to a standstill. And that is also what the four figures on stage are trying to do.

Ends of Worlds (2019) by choreographer Michiel Vandevelde also takes as its starting point the observation that a world or different worlds (arising from shared systems of meaning) have been lost. Whereas Verdonck is more focused on the nothingness and absurdity of human-made endings, Vandevelde places the emphasis on the disintegration of communities, even of communality as such. To understand, on the one hand, how this loss has come about and, on the other hand, to explore what kind of community would still be possible, Vandevelde uses a science fiction framework.

Ends of Worlds © Jozef Devillé

In the prologue, a voice tells us that long after the extinction of homo sapiens, only cyborgs remain, artificial creatures whose early versions were conceived and created by humans. Using old media carriers, these cyborgs try to reconstruct the past in order to understand their present.

The cyborgs suffer from loneliness. The four dancers – who are intended as reconstructions of human bodies – present five periods from the twentieth century that each represent a community. A prologue inspired by Japanese butoh dance casts the emergence of a new, distraught human being after the atomic bomb as a shadow over what follows. A scene change brings us to the beginning of the twentieth century and the optimistic group choreographies of Isadora Duncan, with Lenin and the masses of workers as an infini in the background. This positive commonality is then contrasted with the darkness of the fascist, exclusive Nazi community. The choreography, based on Kurt Jooss’s Ausdruckstanz, mainly expresses violence and fear, reinforced scenographically by an ominous photo from the Auschwitz extermination camp.

“An end of a world occurs, as philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi writes, when
‘its inhabitants are unable to say anything effective about it’.”

The choreographies that can be situated after the Second World War show an increasingly individualized society. A scene that draws on an exorcism ritual by the American choreographer Anna Halprin tries dance in vain as a medicine for a sick (collective) body. The fact that disasters are piling up is also evident from a projected text fragment from Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History’, who cannot but look back on the disasters piling up beneath it. By subsequently staging Steve Paxton’s contact improvisation as a battle, it becomes clear that after May ‘68 the ideals of freedom and self-development were mainly twisted into a neo-liberal society. Relationships crumble and become interchangeable; individuals face each other as competitors. This is driven to the extreme in the last part of this showcase: the four dancers become fashion models, each on their own path, or better still, in front of their own lens. Artificial poses, glitching transitions: this individual, mediatized body has long since ceased to be flesh and blood, and it no longer forms a community at all, except for sham communities on social media. What remains is an automated evolution of technology, and the evolutions in ecosystems. America’s Next Top Model as the end of history.

Staging this evolution to understand the end has the quality of a séance to it. The ghosts of the past are evoked to explain the present (or within the framework of the performance: the future). Who will deny that the ghost of fascism is reappearing in the twenty-first century, as do anti-Semitism, the glowing desire of communism, or the ongoing movement towards individualization? According to Berardi, many of these twentieth-century ideologies return, but without foundation in a community, without a vision of the future, only as a gaze toward a past that may never have existed.

Ends of Worlds © Illias Teirlinck

Seeking to counter this tendency, the imagination that Ends of Worlds evokes by so emphatically proclaiming the end of a world resides in the leap of time frame in this story. The leap from 2019 to a distant future is left open. What happens in the meantime? That gap takes place in the mind of the spectator who, after watching a reconstruction of the twentieth century from a distance, continues to unwind the film themselves. In my case, that film was very similar to La possibilité d’une île (2005) by Michel Houellebecq: humankind is extinguished by ecological disasters, only the clones of a bizarre sect remain. And yet, Ends of Worlds seems to want to reinvigorate the engine of history, on the one hand by returning and picking up unused potential and on the other hand by positioning the present against a future that, however dystopian it may be, still depends on us.

That potential is not an affirmative alternative. It occurs, as with Verdonck, in the emptiness that opens up at this end. In the dark, the same voice from the prologue describes the loss of world, while a follow spot illuminates the fallen bodies. What community is possible at the end, what world can we still share? If we consult the twentieth century again, it could be an unspeakable community. Philosopher Edith Wyschogrod sees such a community based on a shared commitment to life and the other – human, animal, plant, air, water or thing – arising in response to ‘mass death events’. The unspeakable community exchanges productivity for inoperativity, power for passivity and indifference for responsibility. It is a community where not the self but an other is central.

It is reminiscent of a short but powerful essay, ‘A ship from Delos’, from a volume with the revealing title Learning to Die. Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. In it, the Canadian poet Jan Zwicky refers to the story of Socrates and his forced suicide by drinking from the poison cup, and how he used his last moments to continue conversations with his friends. How do you spend your time in sight of the end, as an individual, community or species, whether it happens in a month or a thousand years’ time? An ethics of the end asks us to be accountable to our environment, because it will survive us. It also asks us to leave room for the Other: after all, why still hold on to borders, money, rights in the light of the coming endings?

Climatic Dances © Martin La Caldera

Darkness, nothingness, emptiness: endings are real and at the same time elusive. Maybe we should conclude from this that endings teach us that the intangible is a fundamental part of our reality. The end is a mystery, writes the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. For him this mystery is a theatrical event – just think of the ancient Greek mysteries, orgiastic performances in which a deeper awareness of the world was played out. This took place far away from the theatres and the classical tragedy that Aristotle prescribed. For outsiders these mysteries must have looked bizarre, but for insiders they carried meaning and were a way to make sense of life. Have we today become outsiders who look at the end without seeing it? How can we still be initiated into the mysteries of death?

“The end is a mystery, writes the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. For him this mystery is a theatrical event – just think of the ancient Greek mysteries.”

That is exactly what the Chilean-Mexican-Austrian choreographer Amanda Piña does in her recent work. For the Americas, 1492 meant the end of the world. Not only did colonization cost millions of lives, it also destroyed cultures and traditions. The ecological ravage of colonization – which continues today, if you look at what is happening in the Amazon forest for example – also means the destruction of the landscape that was an essential part of the systems of meaning of the original inhabitants. Certainly, in Climatic Dances (2020) or The Jaguar and the Snake (2017), Piña brings old dance practices from suppressed communities back to the stage from that point of view. As she told in an interview in Etcetera 160, these dances are ‘technologies’ for making contact with human and non-human ancestors and sacred entities such as a mountain. Attending a performance of Piña as a Westerner is like an uninitiated look at a mystery that brings together environment, destruction, history, people and non-humans in a meaningful way. Piña’s work is a testament to how the West should learn from the First Nations in Canada, Australia and the Americas, as Brazilian philosopher Deborah Danowski and anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro propose. They already live after an end of a world, and one that continues to end.

A lot of theatre today is not mysterious enough. By this I don’t mean that theatre is not elitist enough, but rather that there is a lack of sharing of effects, of feelings and thoughts around ends and especially around their mystery, despite this connection via the primal form of theatre. It comes down to shaping the darkness, without wanting to understand it in a purely rational way and thus turn it into a bite-sized chunk. This requires a form of modesty. The current version of that question we are left with today is how we will deal with the mystery of the pandemic. How to stage and perform this mass death event and mass uncertainty event? The roles seem to have been reversed: we have all become insiders in one way or another. Now the theatre must follow.

 

• Agamben, G. (2017). The Mystery of Evil. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

• Berardi, F. (2015). AND. Phenomenology of the end. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

• Berger, J. (1999). After the End. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

• Zwicky, J. (2018). A Ship from Delos. Learning to Die. Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis (Bringhurst, R., Zwicky, J.). Regina: University of Regina Press.

• Danowski, D., & Viveiros de Castro, E. (2017). The Ends of the World, Cambridge: Polity Books.

• Despret, V. (2015). Au Bonheur des Morts. Paris: La Découverte.

• Enzensberger, H.M. (1982). Critical Essays. New York: Continuum.

• Wyschogrod, E. (1990). Man-made Mass Death. Journal of American Academy of Religion, 58(2).

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essay
Leestijd 11 — 14 minuten

#161

15.09.2020

14.12.2020

Kristof van Baarle

Kristof van Baarle is a postdoctoral assistant at Antwerp University’s Research Centre for Visual Poetics. As a dramaturge he works with Kris Verdonck, Michiel Vandevelde and others. Together with Kris Verdonck he is currently working on a research project about the convergences between Samuel Beckett and Noh theatre, supported by KASK-School of Arts.