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Musings: Am I Integrated?

Alex Lazaridis F.

I'm the artistic director of the performance company Fight With a Stick. It's a sort of hybrid theatre-and-installation-art company that tends to make shows for small audiences. This is partly due to our scenographic compositions but mostly due to small budgets that restrict scaling up. With more money we could go from 36 to 360 people per show. Because the audiences are small, I can’t help asking myself if we’re reaching enough people.

This question becomes more urgent as issues of climate stress, social inequity, and settler-indigenous relations become increasingly transparent (at least to those of us who, likely for reasons of personal privilege, hadn’t noticed them before). It matters to me because Fight With a Stick wrestles with the above issues and seeks to create transformative experiences that allow for philosophical, political, and spiritual reflection.

In a recent conversation with two respected local visual artists I raised the question, “Am I having enough of an impact?” For them, having larger audiences isn’t the goal. In fact they often create what are sometimes called “micro” performances — performances and participatory events for, or with, as few as one or two people. They argue that having an impact on just one person is enough. I agree with them … sort of.

I’ve both made and taken part in micro performances. They’re as good as macro performances. But for me, unfortunately, the question of impact persists. Fight With a Stick's audience is very diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and age. And people come from all areas of artistic interest: theatre, visual art, dance, architecture, etc. I love these people. I can’t help wishing we could reach more of them. How many would satisfy me? I don’t know. How would maximizing audience size affect the work? Again, I don’t know.

The question of impact and quantity has remained unresolvable for some time. Recently, a different question took shape, one that should have been obvious to me. Fight With a Stick’s work for the past five years has explicitly been about collaborating with the other-than-human — which means everything around us and within us. The company has come to mistrust the millennia-old, obsessive focus on the human figure in the performing arts (at least in Western performing arts). We try to put the human on a more horizontal level with the other-than-human — things, atmospheres, software, lights, found objects, designed and constructed objects, and so on. The artists I collaborate with try to bring what is normally in the background and periphery to the foreground and center. We allow ourselves to linger on sound, light, objects, and to feel ourselves within the overall assemblage.

The difficult question, “Is it enough?” — and by implication “Am I enough?” — fades a bit when instead I ask, “Am I integrated?” Integrated with what? With everything around me. Every situation, every environment, every relationship.

It’s not a matter of becoming ‘one with nature.’ Or to put it in other terms: overcoming cultural conditioning in order to somehow become a more ‘natural’ human being. The culture-nature divide is useful as a concept, but only up to a point. Does sitting on a chair surrounded by drywall feel different from sitting on a log in a forest surrounded by ferns? Yes. Does that mean the forest is nature and the room is culture? I’m not so sure.

If we insist on a strict division between human and other-than-human then maybe it is. But how strictly can we maintain this division? The human body itself is a collaboration of human cells and other-than-human cells, and includes bits of viruses that have cohabited with our ‘human’ cells for eons. In fact it is estimated that the majority of the cells in our bodies don’t have human DNA. As the philosopher Jane Bennett puts it in her book Vibrant Matter, what we call human and what we call human will is a collaboration of “forces” that include our human and nonhuman cells, the materials around us, what we had for breakfast, the bacteria breaking down that breakfast, the humidity in the room, the weather outside, the quality of light, sounds and voices, etc.

As I write, all of these forces collaborate to create this text. If any of them were different this text would be different. The sound of construction machinery alternating with the chirping of birds outside my window is a partner in this composition. The shape of this laptop screen, its backlight, the number of pixels, the feel of the plastic keys — all will influence what happens. I’m not the master of any of these, just a conscious or unconscious participant. Am I a unique conglomeration of matter and energy? Yes. Am I independent of these intersecting energies and materials? No.

In other words, I’m not really separate from nature, even here in the city. The city is not separate from nature. Humans make cities in collaboration with other materials and forces. We try to transform materials for our uses. Animals do the same, but usually with less of a global impact, although you might argue that a virus like COVID 19 (what kind of 'life' or non-life is a virus anyway?) or the recent plague of locusts in East Africa have had impressive global impact. Plants do the same.

Humans and cities are cultural productions but they are also expressions of nature.

The nature-culture divide can be useful for talking about different processes and different types of relationships. But what if we take the word nature out of it, and treat nature and culture as one thing? Or what happens if we call it all culture? We could say there are human cultures and there are animal cultures. There are plant cultures and geological cultures. No culture is absolutely separate from another on this planet. Every development has ripples of effect. Maybe it would be interesting to talk about city cultures and forest cultures.

The non-dualistic approach I’m describing may be obvious to some, perhaps especially to people of certain non-Western traditions, but all around me I hear the assertion that humans and human culture are essentially separate from the thing we call nature, and that this separation has lead to environmental destruction. So it seems this very idea — the idea that humans are separate from nature — contributes to the destruction of the other-than-human world, which in turn undermines human survival.

Let’s say that both humans and rocks are culture. Each has its own tendencies and its own habits of growth, evolution, and change. Each has a duration. Human duration — what we call a person — as a coherent body, has a very short life-span relative to igneous rock. Sphagnum moss makes peat bogs: it acidifies the pH of the water and builds the bog on layers of dead sphagnum material over hundreds of years. Humans make concrete from rock and staggering amounts of fresh water. The manufacture of concrete takes days or weeks (if we take out the eons required to create the rock required for concrete). Beavers build dams in a matter of days.

Sphagnum makes bogs, beavers make dams, humans make concrete. None of these constructions is intrinsically good or bad. Each is an expression of nature and is therefore a type of culture. Each one alters the environment that they are inseparable from.

So what if the next time you step on to a sidewalk you allow yourself to become aware of the layers of material involved in the exchange: your bones, flesh and skin, your socks, the plastic soles of your shoes, the concrete, and the lines of paint. The humidity. Not only are these materials encountering one another in the exchange of human movement and non-human materiality, but their histories are coming together. The genetic/biological/spiritual narrative that is the community of cells that make up a human, and the long stretch of geological time that is the community of minerals and chemical bonds, acted upon and acting with atmospheric conditions and other elements, make contact in obvious and less obvious ways.

We usually try to make this encounter as predictable as possible. We make the concrete as smooth as we can. We create treads on our shoes that grip the sidewalk. When we walk successfully in a coordinated manner, when our shoes perform as we hope they will, and when the concrete is new, everything goes according to plan. But so much can go wrong. We may be disoriented for one reason or another. Frost heave or seismic disturbance may have cracked the concrete. We might trip. When something like this happens we become aware of the tenuousness of the relationships.

It’s what happens when the software doesn’t work the way we thought it would, when the actor forgets their line, when the power failure darkens the city, when the plumbing backs up, when only a few people buy tickets to the show and the expected energy is lacking, or when the theatre is sold out but still the energy is lacking.

Mastery is an illusion. Collaboration with the other-than-human, conscious or unconscious, is inevitable.

Is what I’m suggesting just bizarre? It depends on your cultural references. There are societies that divide the world up not according to nature and culture, but according to social relations. These relations include the other-than-human: certain animals, certain plants, certain rocks, certain locations. Some of these other-than-human agents are part of a social contract, some are not. Often the contract has to do with whether or not the other-than-human and the human have similar family structures and therefore understand one another’s social organisation.

For example, the Achuar people of the Amazon and toucans (the birds) have similar family structures. They have similar laws. Those who do not follow these laws are often treated as outside the social contract, like the solitary jaguar that has no regard for family structure.

As a performance maker, what interests me is the blurring of boundaries between ‘things’: between things and humans, and between humans and other humans. Or between self and atmosphere. And so on. This is the kind of ‘immersive’ performance that draws me in, destabilizes my sense of emplacement, and wakes me up to everything around me.

In rethinking art, performance — and being — in this way, even that which I call “I” becomes less central to whatever experience “I” am taking part in. As someone who grew up in an interesting matrix of Western cultural traditions, thinking this way is a little outside the norm. On the other hand — and contrary to a lot of discussion these days that focuses only on the most oppressive legacies of Western thought and culture — Western traditions also have many ways of discussing relations of human and other-than-human integration. I’ll mention one that has had the most immediate influence on my current explorations: assemblage theory.

This is a theory articulated in the late 20th century by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They themselves were influenced by the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who talked about things as “forces” that worked together to create situations. Deleuze and Guattari had great impact on some of the current thinkers that have helped me develop my practice: Jane Bennett, Elizabeth Grosz, Gayatari Spivak, Karen Barad, Manuel DeLanda, and Philippe Descola.

Assemblage theory proposes that every moment or situation arises from a confluence of agents or energies working in harmony (and to a lesser extent in opposition) to temporarily create a moment or situation. Everything comes into play: people, electromagnetic energy, dust, water molecules, rocks, public policy, civic infrastructure, weather — you name it.

An assemblage might create a state that lasts a minute, a week, a year, or one that goes on for eons. As written above, the human body is a kind of assemblage of micro- and macro-organisms. Jane Bennett would call it a “confederacy” of agents. Together with other factors, these maintain, from the time we are born until we die, the changing coherence we call a 'self.'

Assemblage theory might be the most radical and inclusive of human and other-than-human concepts of integration. Nothing is excluded. Everything contributes. There are no obvious hierarchies when it comes to cause-and-effect. You are both a cause and effect, as are all your ‘parts’ and everything around you, near and far.

It isn’t a comforting concept when we want a trace a simple, linear progression of cause-and-effect through time. Nor does it affirm absolute contours of self in relation to everything around self. In some ways it affirms current concepts of gender fluidity. In some ways it undermines such efforts to self-identify as any chosen gender at all, because the fixity this would require is not available within the time scale of a human life. It doesn’t exactly leave us adrift. Rather, it places us as but one force in an ever changing confluence of forces. That change may be imperceptible when the time scale is a few seconds. It may be more perceptible over years.

Asking the question “Am I integrated,” then, is a way of staying awake and alive to the moment and to every situation I happen to find myself in.

When my collaborators and I compose ourselves and our materials in a given performance space, we try to remain awake to the assemblage we are part of. How does the wood grain on a wall panel express itself? How does it interact with fifty kilowatts of lavender-coloured light? How does a political argument a collaborator makes become part of this relationship? What is my effect on, and how am I being affected by, these factors? How does it change from minute to minute, hour to hour, and day to day? To what extent am I aware of how the performance location is situated in a larger socio-political, historical, and geographical context? Are there really boundaries between the forces, and should they be clearly inscribed and upheld? Or is there a possible astonishment to be had in the recognition of the temporary nature of such boundaries and of their blurring into one another?

Working this way I am released, at least for the time being, from worries about having a greater impact and a larger audience. I’m less concerned with my social relevance and more aware of my place within an ever changing assemblage.

But I have to confess that when I’m at a micro or small-audience performance, and when I look around and am able identify just about everyone there as an artist or arts administrator, or as a friend of one of the above, versions of the old “Is it enough?” question return. There’s an insularity to the situation. It looks like an awfully small group of people and an awfully small conversation.

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