The Digital Sublime and Fragility in the Time of COVID-19 and the Eco-crisis: The Dynamics of Becoming
The narrative of self-control and self-governance was unexpectedly shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. Face-to-face encounters were minimized and social distancing was encouraged to avoid spreading the disease. The Finnish mainstream theatre machine began calculating economic losses with neoliberal logic. Self-employed artists, on the other hand, created “digital public spaces” negotiating new forms of digital presence and interaction rituals. This article explores the embodied experience of COVID-19 and how this new materiality can impact forms of performative and political sensibility. COVID-19 and social distancing are material-bodily processes which also have broader cultural, political, and theoretical consequences. These themes will be evaluated using a posthumanist feminist and new materialist theoretical framework.
Keywords: posthumanist, Braidotti, Butler, Koronan kohottamat, Saimaan teatteri, Pimeässä olemisesta, Reality Research Center, Samuli Laine
In the Anthropocene, we have been forced to become aware of the power of human agency, our ability to destroy and our simultaneous incompetence to control the consequences of our own actions. From a neo-materialist and posthumanist viewpoint, the human being is no more a sovereign subject. Man is no more the measure of all things. An increasing number of theatre professionals share the idea that mankind can survive only by abandoning the notion of human-centeredness. Posthumanism looks for alternative, non-hierarchical ways to understand the properties and interrelationships of different objects and subjects. The starting point is the idea of the human being who is not defined by opposing often violent, relationships with the nonhuman. Posthumanist, feminist and neo-materialist approaches emphasize that cultural imaginaries operate on both material and bodily levels.
COVID-19 has shaken the narrative of self-control and self-governance even more radically than the eco-crisis. I will explore what kind of political and performative impacts (as well as affective impacts) and consequences this new materiality of the two intertwined crises—the eco-crisis and COVID-19—continue to have in Finland. My focus is on the new sensibilities and collaborative mind-sets that theatre professionals can have in the era of ecological reconstruction and the COVID-19 crisis. We have become more conscious of the vulnerability that binds human, species and earth together.
COVID-19 has had an impact on the level of affects. People found themselves in a situation and circumstances marked by fear, distress and anxiety. Our human condition has been and will continue to be determined by this pandemic. These pre-subjective and pre-personal feelings and forces (with their materiality) are poorly communicative linguistically, but performances can try to convey this unexpected collective experience (such as Brian Massumi’s Politics of Affect or Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism). Affects drive subjects towards futures which open new ways of how to act.
The Precarious Affect
The precarious affect of the self-employed theatre professionals can no longer be ignored even in Finland, where the theatre ecosystem has traditionally been institution-driven: city theatres function as repertory theatres with permanent ensembles. Open-ended employment contracts are giving way to fixed-term contracts as theatres rely more on self-employed artists and designers. Independent groups and companies have traditionally only had intermittently employed personnel. Across the board, among all theatre professions, there are a growing number of self-employed professionals.
Judith Butler stated more than fifteen years ago (2004) that life’s fundamental quality is precariousness and that man is inherently vulnerable. Subjects are at the mercy of others. In a state of precariousness, the fragility of being human shows itself at its most extreme. This precariousness means the unpredictability and fragmentation of working life—man as a disposable item within neoliberal capitalism (Butler, Frames of War; Excitable Speech). The pandemic highlighted the structural inequality of artists and the already fragile ecosystem of the self-employed. Others have a permanent employment relationship and earnings-related unemployment security enabled by this. The institutions have laid off or dismissed only a few permanent employees. For self-employed artists, however, the jobs and, therefore, their incomes came to a sudden halt.
The COVID crisis brought about a temporary change in which employment protection was extended to these self-employed professionals. In the future, the change is likely to become solidified so that both labour and social rights will also apply to those employees with various non-permanent working statuses. It is also a matter of mutual solidarity between those working within the art field. Finnish private foundations, the Ministry of Education and Culture and Arts Promotion Centre Finland have worked together to grant swift assistance to the arts and culture professionals who have been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. The state is visibly committed to easing the cultural sector’s situation with additional public funding.
As a consequence of COVID-19, a new space for unfulfilled potential opened up where one could act in alternative ways—against the grain and against repetition. This kind of becoming (according to neo-materialism) emphasizes radical movement and dynamism. These becomings are material-bodily processes and thus real (Braidotti, Metamorphoses; Transpositions; The Posthuman).
Contemporary theatre seeks to capture the emotional mood and sound (Zeitgeist) of the present, as well as the affects and sensations embedded within it. Additionally, contemporary theatre tries to access “political” affects which cannot be reached cognitively or rationally. The control of emotions as well as the constant standardization, measurement, assessment and optimization of a citizen’s entire life has been part of the ethos of our present competitive society. On the other hand, emotions and sensations are also constantly capitalized, and profit is made through consumption and addictions. We are driven by lavish affective currents—moved by a variety of social, political and economic processes. We have become easy prey for controlling affects and emotions. During COVID-19, those affective currents decreased.
Performances are haptic interaction rituals that maintain community and express cohesion. The political potential of theatre lies in the gesture of gathering together (Guénoun). How will the act of becoming conscious of the political as community be possible when physical act of Gathering is not allowed? What happens when professionals with kinetic expertise and compassion are removed and when the traditionally understood core of the Live—the physical presence and interaction—is not possible? How are we to replace this gesture of gathering together?
Connectedness and Solidarity—Newly Thought Presence—Virtual Live
I looked into the intertwining of the two crises through three cases. These collaborative performative responses to COVID-19 created by performing artists living in quarantine facilitated a deeper understanding of connectedness and solidarity, as well as new findings on the idea of telepresence.
Koronan kohottamat (Uplifted by Corona) was a spontaneous survival project by artists that grew into a wide range of digitally produced rituals. The new performances were launched at a certain time. Koronan kohottamat was a free and open collective that spread from the “virus of doing things together,” (Juha Jokela, the initiator) the starting point of which can be found on YouTube. The goal was to build a powerful sense of togetherness despite isolation. The mini productions were carried out using remote instructions received via mobile phone, e-mail, video call and even by letter.
Through Facebook, Juha Jokela invited his artist partners to implement Hamlet’s monologue To be or not to be together remotely through his own interpretation, which then became a polyphonic interpretation. Playwright Anna Krogerus created the idea of the 19 Forbidden Touches. In this concept, three-person teams selected at random produced a few minutes of live poetry or a monologue (on a topic chosen by the actor) over three days remotely. The work was videotaped, and videos were published once a day. Since the first pieces, the Forbidden Touches have expanded into the areas of music, dance and visual arts. The musicians, dancers and visual artists have created their versions of Forbidden Touches.
The Forbidden Touches are distinguishable through their sublimity and melancholy. Sublimity refers to something of enormous proportions that evokes fearful amazement, wonder. In nineteenth-century Romantic paintings, man was either positioned against the vast natural forces of nature, or he was completely absent from the scene altogether. Simultaneously, the sublime sensibilities of COVID-19 convey a self-reflexive and self-critical stance towards our place in nature and on earth. In the eco-crisis, we have already encountered what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—entities which have such dimensions that they defeat the traditional idea of a thing. COVID-19 is this new kind of invisible complex and vicious hyperobject which is globally distributed.
Saimaan teatteri (Lake Saimaa Theatre) is a collective which normally tours by boat in the lake of Saimaa, performing in old community and workers’ assembly houses during the summertime. Due to COVID-19, their usual tour was cancelled. The collective created a series of podcasts which took the listeners to the lived history of these houses. The episodes written by the working group were partly based on interviews with locals, and each house had its own episode. The series culminated in the Evening on Lake Saimaa event which was presented live on the Saimaa Theater Facebook page on July 18. The podcast form was able to combine sensual elements such as bodily affects. The sensitized perceptions of the actors at the materiality of the workers’ houses conveyed their vitality (that is, “smell,” “the feeling”). Workers’ houses were shown as non-human agents with the micro-historical memories of people, and the significance of these kinds of collective gathering places. The houses became living materiality.
There is an interest in attempting to experiment ways in which the bodily-material processes and affects could be transmitted and how “new live performance” could be made possible by technology. The bodily processes—the becomings—can occur both in the body as well as in the virtual world. This kind of digital transformation included not only the streaming of live performances and the opening up digital archives of theatres, but more profoundly radical new thinking on the ontology and basis of what digital liveness could mean.
COVID-era Zoom and Teams meetings, all this digital communication make technology mundane, compassionate and haphazard. We are born with new ways of being in the world through telepresence. What makes this forced transformation particularly interesting is the humanization or perceived and experienced fragility of technology. It is precisely this do-it-yourself technology that we use while simultaneously striving to achieve presence and sharing through contact and connection with rather rudimentary means of communication such as Zoom or Teams. Technology is demystified, it is stripped of its power. Paradoxically, limitations inseminate experimentations.
Towards the Future
We ought to be looking forward towards the future. Braidotti and other posthumanist philosophers argue that in order to develop a sustainable way of living, we need to change—not only at the level of political and economic practices, but also at the level of subjective experience.
Already before the COVID-19 crisis, the performing arts scene was flourishing ecologically through sustainable small-scale intimate, multi-art and interdisciplinary performances, installations, workshops and discussions. These various performative encounters took place mainly outside of the traditional institutional frameworks and theatre spaces. For example, the work of the Live Art collective Other Spaces is based on collective corporeal exercises that provide the opportunity to visit nonhuman forms of experience and being. Likewise, our posthumanistic sensitivity towards non-human and other materialities was enriched by performances in which we performed to plants or with plants.
The act of performing encounters also builds ecological utopias. In walking, promenade or trekking works, experiencer-participants are placed in a listening relationship—nature is no longer something external, nor is it something idyllic to make us aware of the ways in which human agency both shapes and dismantles man against it. Being in the Dark (which takes place on an island) is an example of a site-specific ecologically sustainable performance about being in the dark, dealing with darkness and our fears, silence, and light and sound pollution. The work completed in the process is a suggestion for an ecologically sustainable performance. Such performances put the conventions and traditions of performances under scrutiny and critically question what kind of construction and consequent destruction each creation requires. Nature is no more an environment surrounding us or a projection of our object-orientated ideas. Instead, nature and man are in an ongoing intertwined process of change.
Performance CollectiveReality Research Center and Samuli Laine will produce a one-on-one performance, Nurture, where the performer (Samuli Laine) investigates the politics of gender, nurturing and coexistence through the act of breastfeeding. The performance emerged from a desire to suggest new perspectives softly and tenderly, studying the act of nurturing as a radical driver of change. As Laine states:
Nurture centres on the fragility of life and the need to identify and acknowledge your own vulnerability. The performance invites you to scrutinize the network of connections and co-dependency that sustain life on earth. Our co-dependence means that we are linked to countless networks of human communities as well as endless biological processes that sustain our bodies and enable life on our planet in the first place.
What is the common link between these critical COVID-19 months’ digital encounters and post-COVID performances?
Both are united by a new kind of ethical code and performing ethos emphasizing consideration and respect for other materialities. They show the eco-centric ethics of performance. They remind us that COVID-19 is medical while climate change and mass-extinction are natural, but that none of these are limited to their own spheres. We must not leave these problems siloed only in one policy or research sector. They are also most profoundly social policy, art and artist policy. The challenge is to ask new questions—including through the arts—in a new way and attempt to establish broader perspectives. COVID-19 and climate change are cross-border spheres during this era of reconstruction in which the arts and culture will have an important role to play.
Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses: Towards A Materialist Theory of Becoming. Wiley, 2002.
—. The Posthuman. Wiley, 2013.
—. Transpositions: Nomadic Ethics. Polity, 2006.
Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. Routledge, 2013.
—. Frames of War: When is Life Grievable. Verso, 2009.
Guénoun, Denis. Näyttämön filosofia. Translated by Kaisa Sivenius, Esa Kirkkopelto and Riina Maukola. LIKE, 2007.
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. The U of Minnesota P, 2013.
*Hanna Helavuori is a freelance writer and teacher. She has written articles on the changes of authorships in Finnish theatre, on gendered structures in the sector and on the emancipatory potential of performing arts companies. She lectures at the University of the Arts Helsinki (Theatre Academy) and Tampere University (Degree Programme in Theatre Arts). She is also a SLA teacher in Finnish.
Copyright © 2020 Hanna Helavuori
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