Anthropocentrism on the Stage

Milo Juráni*

Abstract

This article offers an analysis of two theatre pieces that seek to extend our awareness of non-human forms of life. Estado Vegetal from Chile steps into the world of plant life while Organism Democracy is a German-language participatory guideline for performances seeking to create a multi-species society.

Keywords: Anthropocentrism, posthuman ethics, performance art

Manuela Infante is a playwright, stage director and musician from Chile. Her writings and performances, such as Zoo, Realismo, Estado Vegetal (Vegetative State) and How to Turn to Stone, reveal strategies for what can be called a non-anthropocentric type of theatre, a non-human-based theatre. In her play Estado Vegetal, for example, created in 2017, Infante subverts the anthropocentric in two ways. She speculates on the mysteriousness of plants and imitates plant morphology in  the “body” of the piece. That is, the notion of Plant itself becomes  the composition, the theme, the plot and the organisation of her play.

Infante finds her inspiration in the works of the neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso and the philosopher Michael Marder. Mancuso examines plant intelligence, plant memory and collaboration among plants in different environments. Marder, on the other hand, in his publication Plant-thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life,  argues for plants as living beings and confronts our own historical biases. His aim is to facilitate deeper encounters between humans and plants.

Infante’s vision of such encounters is found in Estado Vegetal. It begins with an accident. Large branches of an old tree suddenly fall cutting power lines and plunging a street into darkness. A fireman, riding down the dark road on a motorbike, hits the tree at speed and emerges into what we would call a vegetative state, a non-human state. Through a series of monologues, we unravel exactly who or what was responsible for the accident. Infante is offering us  a mystery,  a space for contemplation about human–plant relations. “The thing is, you don’t see a tree move. . . . A tree moves so slowly that it seems still” (2).

Estado Vegetal. Teatro a Mil, 2017. Photo: Isabel Ortiz

In her play, the natural sciences and humanities blend into a new style, one she calls “vegetable dramaturgy” (14). The plot, the theme, the structure all imitate the logic of plant morphology. One can say that the whole storyline grows from a single seed with the root of the drama being the accident. Other elements branch out from this event with characters appearing “mute alongside the plants that glacially shift into the foreground throughout the play” (31).

Secondary stories reveal how plants grow into their own full lives. A woman speaks with her plants until they grow over her. The young man talks to the trees in his vegetative state and wishes to become more like them. Movement itself eventually stops. Only relationships between things exist. They are only able, as the philosopher Jane Bennet puts it, “to listen and understand their testimonies, and propositions” (110).

Marder has argued that “the predominant use of the verb ‘to vegetate’ is negative, linked to the passivity or inactivity of animals or human beings” (20). Infante deconstructs those biases. In the drama, plants commit the acts of rebellion to grow and gain space. Plants overwhelm houses. As an eyewitness tells an imaginary policeman:You are interrogating the wrong people” (14).

Plants, of course, use a biochemical language consisting of chemical reactions and transformations to communicate with things and to react to things. In the penultimate scene of Estado Vegetal, the young man reveals his sympathy for such communication:

I want to use signifiers that taste of iodine. Signs that can only be deciphered with touch. Sentences that if exposed to the sun, refract into mineral spectrums of blues and greens. I want to deliver speeches of poison. Let us recite poems whose lines only rhyme their levels of acidity.

15–16

Infante clearly crosses the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Her depictions are dramatically ambiguous. They don’t explain what is real and what is not. This uncanny quality blurs the lucid image we hold of plants pushing the viewer off-balance.

Girl:  Did you see anything?
The tree screams..
Yes? Yes.
He speaks. He screams.
How?
Like a stadium. Like this.
Haaaaa, haaaa.
The tree is not one, it is many. The tree speaks with all its voices.

5
Estado Vegetal. Baryshnikov Arts Center New York, 2019; excerpt

The closing scene reveals a secret. The young man did not, after all, hit a tree, but rather a tree hit him. The tree here is not passive but is also a living being—rational, sovereign and resisting injustice. Infante dramatically confronts two kinds of entities that share a single space and time yet live in different ways, with differing life rhythms, and operate under different rules. From the point of view of science, the young man is now more plant than human. In the language of post-humanism, plants have begun to stand up, take revenge, call for help and pay arboreal homage only to those who protect them.

This ending touches upon wider issues of ethics. It questions the relations between plants and humans, and asks, for example, who is a greater threat to the other. Humans can change the climate, influence forest fires, cause habitat destruction, and they can produce unstable monocultural societies. Yet, what will happen if plants simply grow freely?

We must find ways to develop ethical thinking towards that which is radically different from us, suggests Infante. Her innovative art is one filled with an intertwined multi-species community not usually seen on a stage.

Organism Democracy

Another experiment in this area is called Organism Democracy, a dramatic ideaby Georg Reinhardt and Marianne Ramsay-Sonneck which argues that all living forms have political rights. Produced by the theatre company Club Real in Vienna, it is actually a series of provocations, the first one produced in  an abandoned greenhouse in 2017. In  2019, they offered a second event in Berlin which continues to exist today as a sovereign space for non-humans.

Berlin’s Organism Democracy. 2020; Part 1

Not a script, Organism Democracy is a form of artistic research that brings together  performance art, politics, activism, role-play and reality. In this interlaced composition, creators perform any specific polis where every single organism has the right to participate in all the polis’s relevant political decisions.

Each such event creates its own team of officials who are obliged to fight for the rights of all living things negotiating laws in regular meetings with an executive charged with carrying out the decisions. Elected humans here must take responsibility not only for the rights of fellow humans but also for the non-humans (divided into eight groups[1] according to a biological classification of species). A Parliament maintains justice.

How it works. Graphic description of Organism Democracy’s system. Source: Club Real

In one event, the representative of Grass claimed that mowing stands in the way of its expansion. Others take opposing views—Grass could jeopardise other species by uncontrolled proliferation. The Parliament needs to find a compromise that would effectively negotiate the rate and period of mowing. For their part, representatives of Invertebrates want a fence to prevent the indiscriminate passing through of mammals. But are borders part of a democracy? Then, there is the issue of neobiota—newcomers from across the border.

This work is clearly part of what Hans-Thies Lehman has called “Postdramatic Theatre.” Instead of a pre-defined plot, there is just an outline; instead of professional actors, the participants are simply people of  “different ages, groups and socio-cultural backgrounds.” All meetings, are simply participatory events open not just to members of parliament but also to official spectators, the curious, friends, neighbours and visitors passing through.

First meeting of Parliament of Berliner Organism Democracy. Members and spectators, Osloer Str. Berlin, 2019. Photo: Brygida Kowalska-Nwaimo, Club Real

The duties of active participants are found in the general rules: the Universal declaration of Organism Rights. The summary of the rules contains an ambitious challenge—to create a community able “to live together in mutual respect and with the greatest regard for plurality in unity, with a goal of achieving the greatest gain with the least disadvantage regarding all involved organisms” (1).

Decisions by the parliament create the frame of performative actions. Each decision affects the physical appearance of the site and influences the vital life of particular organisms, groups, assemblages and what is called “the natural community.” Parliamentary sessions—suggestions, debates and resolutions—happen throughout. Recycled rituals connect all participants. Non-human beings continuously confront human beings. The experience is visual, sensory and embodied. Each new situation immerses the participants into a time-specific composition. Choices made underline (and recycle)  the responsibility of each human involved.

The guide to Berliner Organism Democracy, Club Real, 2020; Part 2

Need it be said that each event has an educational as well as an ethical character? The goal is to inspire participants to try and understand profoundly every form of life, be attentive to them and comprehend the complex relations that maintain life itself. Participants learn how to listen and respond.  

In the Organism event that the authors designed for the 2020 Freiburg Festival (City Parliament of Living Beings), they extended the central idea to involve everything and everyone occupying the Stühlinger Church square there. Other versions of the project are even more clearly political.

In the end, Organism Democracy says it seeks to form a global democratic coexistence among human and non-human entities that can contribute real solutions to concrete problems that cross the boundaries of human and non-human existence.

On-line Palace of Justice session of Berliner Organism Democracy (the lockdown version), Club Real, 2020

Surely the ethics of such events can actually extend human society, open  new questions of how to live together on our endangered planet and raise questions about how we might better adapt to the Anthropocene age.

Both these events—the play and the provocation—offer their own creative strategies and principles. And both represent two sides of contemporary dramatic form as they try to mediate between the human and the non-human.

Manuela Infante uses the natural sciences to create what is literally a plant-based drama while Club Real experiments with the law to create a more-than-human society based on the solidarity of shared existence. Both try to bend, stretch and remove the borders of anthropocentrism in the performing arts and in contemporary society. Both seek new ways of being on the Earth and its recycling powers.

Conclusion

After many centuries of recycling stories and practices of domination over the natural world, people must realize that the time has come to further discuss how to reverse or find a way to live in new conditions. Images of climate change and environmental destruction recycled by the media, images of melting ice and starving polar bears balancing on small pieces of ice, is not enough. Understanding non-human life is perhaps the ultimate in dealing with otherness. It also establishes new stories and histories while re-creating a human world-view, collecting more facts, activating new perceptions and myths. Certainly, this is an evolution of different forms of ethical storytelling that can include what until now has been the excluded and can challenge all the arts.


Endnotes

[1] Worms and Molluscs, Arthropods, Trees Shrubs and Climbers, Perennials, Grasses, Herbs, Fungi, Mosses. Lichens, Vertebrates, Bacteria, Single Celled Organisms, Viruses and Newcomers.


Bibliography

Bennet, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke UP, 2010.

Club Real. Constitution: Organisms Republic_Berlin, 2019.

Infante, Manuela.  “Estado Vegetal” [“Vegetative State”]. 2017. Theatrical script.

Marder, Michael. Plant-thinking: a Philosophy of Vegetal Life. Columbia UP, 2013. 


*Milo Juráni holds a joint degree in Environmental Studies and Theatre Studies in Bratislava, Slovakia. Former Editor-in-Chief of the Slovak Theatre Journal kød, he has been a visiting scholar at Ruhr Universität in Bochum, Germany and ran a seminar on the connection between ecology and the performing arts. In 2019, Dr. Juráni co-organised an international conference on Ecology and Environment in the Performing Arts, as part of Bratislava’s New Drama Festival.

Copyright © 2021 Milo Juráni
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