Mette Ingvartsen
The Artificial Nature Project – Or how to make choreography for nonhuman performers

In 2009 I made “evaporated landscapes” a performance for evaporating materials. With soap bubbles, foam, fog, smoke, light and sound a miniature model-landscape was created for the spectators to be emerged in. The set-up of the performance was small and experimental in order for the audience to have a tactile and physical experience of the transformative, artificial landscapes that were presented. The performance was operated by three technicians who manipulated machines, creating an animated world without human presence. The theatre as an illusion making machinery was unfolded by making theatrical illusions, at the same time as showing the operations that make such illusions possible.

The piece evoked questions in the audiences around natural disasters, environmental destructions and around people’s personal relationship to nature and contemplation. Listening to what the piece evoked in people, I had the feeling that the piece itself started to talk back. As if I had made something that all of a sudden had a life of its own, a voice and a capacity to speak.

What does it mean to make a choreography for materials, where human movement is no longer in the centre of attention? What does it mean to address the force of things, the forces of materials, objects and matters as something that acts upon humans? What is the relationship between the animate and the inanimate world? When do objects start to gain their own life? Can a thing create agency? Do materials have the capacity to move human bodies? These questions kept disturbing me even more after the performance was finished than during making it. Wherever I looked I had the feeling that we live in a time where natural forces constantly push us to reconsider the relationship between human/inhuman, animate/inanimate, subject/object, harmony/chaos, protection and threat.

I was thinking about the extreme forces of natural disasters destroying all human constructions and leaving dreadful situations behind. But more than that, I was thinking about how the amplitude of the terrible effects left behind, can often be traced back to human errors, miscalculations and lack of security measures. This seems to be the case with for instance with the Katrina hurricane. The human redirections of the Mississippi river had already before the hurricane proven to be dangerous for the citizens. Similarly with Fukushima where the tsunami was only the first step in the sequence of natural/man-made disasters. What interested me in this is not the moralistic concern for the decay of nature, but rather the breaking moment when the force of things detaches itself from human control. When the disaster finally hits us, we are forced to accept the fact that we as humans are not in the centre of the world able to control it, and in this moment the relationship between human and non-human actors gets reconfigured.

It is through imagining such a reconfiguration that “The Artificial Nature Project” is made. A poetics that is not centred abound the identity and personality of the performer but rather focused on the expressivity of materials and what materials are able to perform. This does not mean that the human presence is not important on stage. Rather the centre of attention is shifted around, offering the spectator is a possibility to reconsider her own relationship to materiality.

In earlier works I was very often concerned with the materiality of the body and how to make the body appear as expressive matter. In “The Artificial Nature Project” I am rather interested in how matter and materiality can be understood as a body. A body understood in these terms is not a body of human flesh, but rather an organization of elements that all operate in order to make a situation function. By making a choreography for materials, operated partly by humans, partly by machines and partly by the minds of the spectators, the notions of human beings being at the centre of all action, activity and agency is put in question.

In the process of materializing these ideas, it was extremely interesting to observe how the expressive qualities of the materials would immediately retreat if the presence of the human performers would come in the foreground. What we searched for is how to remain in a relation where the labour of the performers is always clear and evident, so that the focus can remain on the non-human expression. But the force of the performers is still extremely visible throughout the performance. Their force is transferred into the materials, thus the movements of the materials are the movements of the performers. It is not because the performers are masked or hidden that what they do is not important, rather the opposite. They are important exactly in how they are able to collaborate to become invisible, or to constantly change their ways of manipulating the materials in order for the spectator to experience the uncanny feeling off dead matter talking back. The performativity of this piece is neither in the humans nor in the materials alone, but in the intersection between them. It is the third image that is composed in between that creates the particularity of the performance. All elements are considered to have equal agency. Humans, non-human materials, machines, cables, curtains, lamps, immaterial lights and sounds effect the entire situation in a complex network of relations.

The first part happens without the presences of human performers. The audience enters into a conventional frontal theatre space, but when the lights go down they are hit by a penetrating darkness. Something seems to be moving in the air in front of them. Little glimpses of light blink in the air, as if we would be far out in a galaxy or surrounded by tiny florescent animals flying in the air. The light phenomena changes shape, colour, height, density to the point where it becomes impossible to fasten a decision on what it might be that is going on, on stage.

Then there is a hard cut and the space opens up

In the second part of the performance, the performers are operating the materials manually like material researchers, attempting by alchemy to transform one material into another. The images change from post-apocalyptic, to more natural landscapes in construction. We see lava, liquids and rain, but most of all a long transformation of qualities that could also be considered abstract movements.

After a while the performers leave the performance space and when they come back they bring air-blowers and several other tools to manipulate the materials with. This third part starts with a hard cut into a fictional situation.

It looks like a catastrophic site where everything is burning. The red light makes the silver materials glow as if they were burning hot. The performers are both creating a problem and being subjected to the problem at the same time. They keep things moving in the air and all around. It is a chaotic situation with many different activities. A self- created disaster. Actions counteract one another, some people try to spread the fire while others try to extinguish it. Some are trying to clean up the catastrophic mess while others are flickering the lights violently, together they are making it impossible to achieve any focused task.

The piece finishes by the light being covered by the performers. Like closing a window you had been able to look out through, to see a landscape in constant making, transformation, destruction and reconstruction. An illusion that both showed it’s mesmerizing effect and it’s laborious production.

Written in 2013