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What Things Want

On the making of the tiger eats the zebra and the bird, alarmed, takes off and theatre in times of climate catastrophe

How does art become political? How do you reflect the silence of the non-existent public debate on the climate catastrophe? How do you present theatre in an ecological system that is increasingly and irreparably changing? How do you make work that is sustainable?

Benjamin Verdonck is searching for answers. His political engagement has inspired a broad collection of performances, installations, actions and charters. The tiger eats the zebra and the bird, alarmed, takes off, ‘a peep show onto the whole wide world’, is both a continuation and a new phase of that engagement.

The place of things

The show is a sequel to Verdonck’s growing series of small, mobile installations, such as One More Thing (2014), Gille leert lezen (2016) and Waldeinsamkeit (2018): miniature theatre shows that were made with simple means and are ideal for traveling lightly. On the one hand, Verdonck seems to be increasingly moving away from theatre: only shapes and planes come into view, in a bit of appropriated time. On the other hand, he is falling back on age-old theatre traditions: peep shows, tabletop theatre and the Theater der Dingen (Theatre of Objects), where puppets, figures and objects inhabit the stage. He breaks theatrical codes and plays with them. He presents tangible theatre that can be set up anywhere and at any time, and can appeal to everyone – even audiences unfamiliar with art.

That’s how this show also started out. the tiger eats the zebra and the bird, alarmed, takes off was inspired by a scale model that Verdonck made for Extinction Rebellion. Lukas Van Haesbroeck and other members of his team were fascinated by the volume of the figures in the model. They wanted to enlarge the whole. Verdonck had always been able to manipulate such objects, but what if he made them bigger than himself? What if this model were to occupy the entire stage? What if these figures were life-sized and given space? What if they could dance? In recent years, his mini theatres had become bigger and bigger, as in the case of notallwhowanderarelost (2014) and of Liedje voor Gigi (2018). Here, however, the increase in scale is extreme. A planetarium of gliding shapes and planes fills the stage. The result is a cascading series of occurrences.

A striking consequence of this increase in scale is the alteration of perspective. Verdonck’s mini theatres seem to have stepped out of a baroque tradition in which all lines converge at one point to form a perfect, privileged viewing position. This arrangement of the space, this establishment of the perspective of the audience, is one of the most important basic principles of theatre. But the ‘planetarium of adhesive tape’ couldn’t care less about that central perspective. Although the arrangement is the same (an enlarged model of a peep show), the number of possible perspectives is infinite. The objects can radiate and reflect light, so that the angle you are looking from determines how the figures are distorted. From every seat, you see a different show. There are objects you sometimes get to see, and others you never see.

This multiplicity of viewpoints goes hand in hand with the disappearance of the actor. Whereas the actor is present on stage in Verdonck’s other peep shows, visibly manipulating the mini theatre and determining what we see, in the tiger eats the zebra and the bird, alarmed, takes off, only things remain on stage. The six co-performers are both the operators and attendants of these objects: they pull the ropes in the wings. In a show where no people come on stage, people can still be felt: the pulling of the ropes is done manually, the composition has to be carried out each time anew, the music is performed or directed live. As a result, a perfect replication of the show is impossible, and it will always turn out slightly differently. The score can be played otherwise; there is room for what happens at the moment. Caprice betrays the human aspect.

How we deal with things

There is something endearing about it: a gigantic (human) construction goes through a series of motions in a theatre, while invisible people breathlessly attempt to make, to push, to operate that planetarium. People who are all endeavouring to play a role in the course of things. This abstract clockwork requires unremitting hard work, and many hands to carry out that physical effort.

As such, it touches upon engagement. In the context of the ecological catastrophe, individual action is never, ever, enough. Political mobilization is needed. The consequences of the ecological crisis affect everything and everyone – regardless of background or political affiliation. In his book We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast (2019)¸ Jonathan Safran Foer argues for the power of collective action: the colossal impact of jointly making a small, repeatable gesture (such as reducing our meat consumption). Individual action requires only a small effort, but collective action has a crucial, indispensable effect.

An important line of approach to the production was figuring out what had to be done behind the scenes, organizing the working process. The scale model, which had been made in Benjamin’s studio, expanded in all directions, like a rhizome. Everyone was, and is, responsible for the show: Van Haesbroeck, Sven Roofthooft and Leen Hammenecker, but also Anton Leysen, Chris Reijnen and various other Toneelhuis personnel. In a natural and logical manner, everyone assumed a role within the system, everyone delved into the materiality of the project. Everyone cuts, snips, tapes, looks and thinks, grabs and pulls.

As for the composition of this project, Verdonck is the conductor. He determines the boundaries of the game board on which the figures move. He indicates the crescendos and diminuendos, determines the rhythm of concealment and revelation, beats out the tempo of the duet between expectation and surprise. He is the outside eye that, like an interpreter, tells what the objects want – how they like gravity, for example, and when they stick together with the light. He translates this parallel world, so that movement, colour, music, materiality and light interlock and become a slow tone poem. Planes and shapes pass by and change, in an enchanting choreography of moving images where not one figure stays the same.

How things vibrate

Verdonck’s miniature theatres tie in with the typical 19th century tradition of dioramas: three-dimensional scenes of preserved nature, visual contraptions for marvelling at picturesque beauty, Cabinets of Wonder that celebrate life by reducing it to taxidermy. With Verdonck, however, we find nothing dead behind the little doors and peepholes. On the contrary, he cherishes things, odds and ends, rubbish. He takes bits and pieces, found objects and refuse and puts them on stage – as for instance in notallwhowanderarelost (2014) and AREN (2019) – where they effervesce and sparkle.

He shows what the new materialists, a recent philosophical movement in reaction to current economic, ecological and technological developments, have been writing for some time. We exist by the grace of materiality. We are surrounded, overwhelmed, shaped by matter. We must reconsider our relation to this materiality and how we deal with it. All matter, the new materialists claim, is dynamic. Materialities have their own form of agency, of ‘thing power’, ‘the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle’. This power, writes Jane Bennett in The Force of Things (2004), is not necessarily human (or even organic), but has a great impact on us.

According to these radical philosophers, materialities interact with each other through time and space, forming a network, a constellation. Objects have often been defined as passive, and thus opposite to the dynamic body of the actor. New materialism goes against such classical patterns of thinking. All matter is actively part of a performance, plays a role. Verdonck often breaks through this vertical relationship between performer and things, by presenting everything and everyone, human and nonhuman, side-by-side. Things are given a great deal of freedom in his performances, but are also somewhat prodded and pushed, so that ‘the thing loses some of its agency’. In a letter written in the summer of 2019, Verdonck says of the tiger eats the zebra and the bird, alarmed, takes off:

seeing as it is a show, and by extension someone who is concentrating on it,
all I can think of is to start something
(dialogue, conflict, investigation, dance, song, doubt, mutation)
with that thing in the hope of, with the idea of , drawing out some of its vibration

Something may happen, but nothing must.

Anthropologist and climate activist Bruno Latour likewise criticizes the dichotomy between culture and nature, person and object. In the context of climate change, such a dichotomy creates a false image of our relation to nature, in that nature only serves as a setting for our actions. But nowadays, posits Latour in his book Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime (2015), it is as if ‘the décor had gotten up on stage to share the drama with the actors’. In his following essay, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime (2018), he also states that we must not consider the Earth as the background for our actions. The Earth itself has the capacity to act: today it is as if ‘the sets, backstage, the whole building, has climbed onto the stage boards’.

The actor no longer plays the main role in Verdonck’s work. The setting does not merely serve to frame his actions, to put him in the spotlight. The change goes even further: the setting now plays an equally important role and is partly shaped by the actor. This brings us to the contemporary concept of the Anthropocene: nature is not indifferent to humankind but is (increasingly) determined by the latter. The impressive ballet of figures in this production is humbling. Whereas with the small mobile installations we could still survey the whole and primarily remain co-sceneshifters, this large-scale planetarium emphasizes our insignificance. It shows the limits of our control, the end of the rope. We are passers-by, mere dots in the darkness (threatening or otherwise). What if we no longer are the maker, manipulator, sceneshifter of things? What if things want something else than we do? This production soon makes it clear that things do not easily let themselves be pushed around. How do things steer us?

How we show things

Part of what has inspired the development of Verdonck’s peep shows and miniature theatres is wanting to go on tour in a more sustainable way. He increasingly has made smaller works that ignore the general conditions and expectations of touring. He challenges the neoliberal assumption that every demand has to be met at all times in any way that is possible. That a (municipal) theatre must internationalize at all costs. That touring abroad is an all too simple transaction for accumulating more (symbolic) capitol. At the same time, Verdonck and his team want to share their work and conduct a dialogue with this increasingly globalized society. How can we find a new way of touring that breaks through the monetary logic?

The challenges continue. For example, Verdonck received an invitation from the TEART Festival in Minsk to perform Liedje voor Gigi in September 2020. However, Verdonck and his team never travel by plane out of ecological considerations. They prefer to travel slowly and sustainably (usually by train). In this case, they would like to drive to Minsk, with the set and the crew fitting into one vehicle, but then three extra stops would be necessary along the way. Verdonck wrote a letter to other theatres, festivals and programmers located along the route from Antwerp to Minsk – many positive reactions, but so far no invitations (except from Lithuania, which is even further away than Minsk).

A production like the tiger eats the zebra and the bird, alarmed, takes off that opts for expansion seems difficult to reconcile with this idea of sustainable touring. Nevertheless, the set was deliberately restricted to 11 metres, so that it can also be erected in smaller venues and fits in a delivery van. All of the materials were carefully selected for environmental friendliness – with varying degrees of success, to be sure.

Back to Safran Foer. In his aforementioned book, in which he argues so strongly for individual change, he admits that even he does not always succeed in adhering to veganism. But, he says, indulgence is important here. We must be tolerant, with ourselves and with others, without seeing that as an excuse for a free pass: just keep striving, keep trying, keep seeking.

How we look at things

Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course did not change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky. The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky. Every event is inscribed in its own time. Events may cluster and their times overlap, but the time in common between events does not extend as law beyond the clustering. A famine is a tragic cluster of events to which the Great Plough is indifferent, existing as it does in another time.
(John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, 1994)

Although this production seeks out the large stage, it purposely does not prop it full. The emptiness of the stage is not simply a canvas for the figures, it also plays a role in itself. It is the spectators who add the final movement to the stoic dance. It is we who betray our own emotion (or not). More than other productions, perhaps, this is a tragedy.

The above quotation from Berger, the radical art critic, had already inspired Benjamin Verdonck in KALENDER. 365 dagen actie in Antwerpen (2009). It serves as a guiding principle here too. How we tell something, how we incorporate the world around us in our stories, determines how we see that world – although the world essentially does not change. To tell stories is to draw (imaginary) lines. Two events – for example, a shooting star and lovers meeting each other – can coincide in time, but the connection does not go beyond that hypothetical constellation.

If we see the hard-to-stomach science of the climate catastrophe in a different light, it becomes totally unimportant. The sky is filled with sober relativity, Taoist indifference: the bird takes off, the moon keeps shining, the Great Plough is still there. While our eyes are lured by the luminous objects in the tiger eats the zebra and the bird, alarmed, takes off, it is in the quiet darkness, the massive emptiness, that we find tragic solace.

Edith Cassiers
(based on letters, meetings, eating cake together, a performance of the show and an interview)

 

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