At HowlRound, we continue our exploration of Theatre in the Age of Climate Change with more urgency than ever. With the looming eradication of climate science data from US government websites and the appointment of Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Trump has indicated in no uncertain terms that the health of the planet and its inhabitants are of no concern to him. As theatre artists, how do we respond? Kenn Watt discusses how environmental participatory performance can point to a desirable future inclusive of humans, nonhumans, and matter, and incite communities to take steps towards realizing this vision. — Chantal Bilodeau
In a shady grove in the middle of the Civic Action installation at Socrates Sculpture Park in the summer of 2012, an imposing, incongruous structure on massive iron pilings rose through the treetops. What at first appeared to be construction scaffolding was revealed as a solidly engineered tree house with metal stairs climbing twelve feet to a plywood platform, a laminated table, and four office chairs bolted to its deck. It was equipped with Wi-Fi. With a direct view of Manhattan across the East River, Natalie Jeremijenko’s TREExOFFICE was open and remained in use during the park’s long summer hours. Its open-air exposure grandly surrounded the venerable oak tree that formed its central pillar and canopy, shading it with leaves. There was ample space to hold a dozen people without crowding. Occupying the space for more than a few minutes inspired several identifiable effects. We were amid the inquiring eyes of children and their guardians below, and the milieu began to feel like a performance. It was a kind of “invisible theatre.”
Yet, unlike Augusto Boal’s interventions in civic politics that model alternative responses to power and subjectivity, TREExOFFICE was a site of direct enactment of an alternative form of living, a witnessing of immersion into nature. Our presence there represented a proposition for a healthier future, a philosophy of sustainability in embodied form conceived at the fundamental level of where and how we work. We were modeling the behavior of the office worker of some utopian, restorative vision of the artist, meant to remediate the environmental health of Long Island City in summer 2012.
“These performative acts are meant to be generative, to point to possibilities. They are direct enactments of wished-for conditions, propositions that assert an alternative reality… They are invitations to affirm new configurations of networks among humans, nonhumans, and the material world.”
As part of Jeremijenko’s contribution to the Noguchi Museum’s Civic Action project, the tree was conceived to be its own owner and landlord, modeled after a historical contract from the early twentieth century in which a Georgian landowner created a deed of trust for a favorite tree to sustain the tree’s presence and health in perpetuity. In an act of playful ventriloquism, Jeremijenko made the tree “speak” via wry tweets—able to enter into contracts, to determine its own use of resources, and to be in dialogue with human partners. In the exhibition catalog edited by Julie V. Iovine, Jeremijenko writes:
“Under the new property ownership regime of UP_2_U, trees can of course exploit their property for their own uses.…Further, the current technological opportunity transforms trees’ capacities to self-monitor and report, tweet, and account for their uses by people and other organisms…Using simple, inexpensive sensors, the trees assume their own voices and capacity to exert corporate personhoods within this new structure of ownership.”
Sometimes theatre enacts what it pretends to convey. Historically and traditionally, theatre has often been associated with the creation of a public commons, and the formation of citizenship. Artists working in environmental participatory performance experiments are on the edge of theatrical avant-garde, returning to these kind of concerns, along with activist political imaging and the incorporation of digital networking.
Jeremijenko’s work is one example of performance’s return to community, but with an important difference. The community on offer is triangular, encompassing humans, nonhuman animals, and the material world. This community even grants inanimates—trees, animals, matter—their own forms of agency that conditions, relates, and determines the survivability of the human within the context of the entire triangle. The work is political and the community of networks (animal, human, and material) are a response to environmental damage as a solution, a remediation, and a philosophy of survival. And yet, how is this inventive work performance? Paraphrasing Josette Féral at the Université du Québec à Montréal from “Theatricality: The Specificity of Theatrical Language,” we might say that TREExOFFICE offers several key theatrical aspects: separation from ordinary environments; opposition of the fictional (theatre) to the real (performance); and an alteration within the spectator, who can “perform” a new environmental personhood. We can almost imagine this display of forward-looking, environmentally conscious behavior on display as an exhibit in some kind of new world’s fair—reminiscent of unveiling the “kitchen of the future,” or the automobile with the space-age design. Except the new thing on display here is behavior and community, not a commodity behavior that represents direct performance, activism, and an ongoing commitment to redefining community as a form of environmental citizenship.
Naturally, the conditions for a “lifestyle experiment” like TREExOFFICE are not yet optimal. Enormous practical concerns are unresolved, such as engineering of public space, cost, transportation, seasonal weather, and communications, which prevent a tree office from being realized now.
But as theatre, the tree provokes responses that question the status quo, open new vistas, and point us in the direction of how much utopia can be realized in the near term. The “performance” fails to realize what it represents, but succeeds as a leader of newly imagined communities and landscapes. It is a kind of “performative failure,” failure here not indicating a lack of success, but a conscious strategy on the part of the artist to gesture towards outside the performance space. Personal health, improved air and water quality, soil remediation, and increased use of urban farming and inhabitation with other species were clearly delineated as shared goals. These performative acts are meant to be generative, to point to possibilities. They are direct enactments of wished-for conditions, propositions that assert an alternative reality rather than lobbying for, or requesting such futures. They are invitations to affirm new configurations of networks among humans, nonhumans, and the material world.
An office was created around a tree trunk in London, 2015. Photo by Natalie Jeremijenko.
If not full realizations, Jeremijenko’s designs capture the full potential of imaginative placemaking. They feature a radical democracy of species and a palpable sense of individual becoming. She offers a fluid aesthetic, situating spectator-participants within environmental remediation, in which the role to be played is that of socially aware, right-sized steward.
Jeremijenko’s work can be read through the lens of current trends focusing on sustainability models and greening practices within the theatre. Unlike the Broadway Green Alliance in New York, or Julie’s Bicycle in London, the XClinic does not publish scientific studies or simply advocate for better practices of reusing material waste. Advocacy, journalism, legislation, and data reporting are left to those better positioned to be effective in those areas. The set of practices organized under the umbrella of the XClinic are a powerful expression of a new hybrid medium, environmental arts activism.
Other artists also use performance, spectacle, and participation to situate the viewer as co-creator of environmentally-responsible citizenship. For example, Earth Celebrations is led by Felicia Young, another New York artist. Since 1991, Earth Celebrations has presented pageants, performances, workshops, residencies, the creation of community gardens, and partnerships with NY-based schools and community groups. All events, which have reached over 10,000 individuals, address climate change, river restoration, the preservation of habitats, and a healthier urban environment.
Young’s river-based pageants, featuring dozens of actors, dancers, puppets and musicians, have performed with audiences to draw attention to the state of rivers, from the Hudson, to the Vaigai River in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, South India, which is in a severe crisis due to pollution, waste dumping, and the drying effects of climate change. Anyone can sign up to participate in the events on the organization’s website. The critical attention and publicity the events have generated have helped these community celebrations reach more artists and volunteers every year, and have been the subject of a documentary. Working alone as artistic director and producer, Young has built an impressive consortium of community partners over the years including: PS41, The River Project, Solar One, NYU, The New School, Greenpeace, The Hudson River Park Trust, various high schools, and many others.
Here, the focus is on commemorating threatened waterways, and another form of community arts activism. Unlike Jeremijenko’s alternative spaces, Young encourages a more overt arts focus, promoting a different, more familiar form of environmental connection that follows the counterculture traditions of Happenings, Fluxus works, and Bread and Puppet Theater. Jeremijenko’s work draws from more recent forms of work like the tactical media events of the late Beatriz da Costa and Critical Art Ensemble, which combined citizen science demonstrations and performances, scholarship, installation, and art as social demonstration. Earth Celebrations prefers the adoption of fictive, fantastical costume, and performing of spectacle and pageantry, music, dance, and community discussion, supported by workshops for all ages.
Both Jeremijenko and Young’s projects are a form of citizenship, and they strategize through what I call “performative failure.” In other words, not failure per se, but as incomplete realizations of the utopian worlds they present. This sense of incompleteness should not be viewed pejoratively, but rather as a call to further action and as a version of Alice O’Grady’s “risky aesthetics”—performance “designed to produce a sense of critical vulnerability in the participant to achieve affect, transformation or attitudinal shift.” They are offers of complicity, co-authorship, co-responsibility, and a contract of temporary community that serves as a blueprint for collective political activism.
Participatory performance is decidedly difficult to produce. One risks being trapped by the twin poles of performance versus activism. If the production were completely successful, one might ask: would it still be theatre, or would it become something else? As scholar Claire Bishop has written about such performance, one can’t rely entirely on good intentions or politics; there must still be an artistic object, something separate from the participants, to evaluate critically. These productions, and others like them, are raising those questions, asking how performance can be both art and activism, and beckoning us to answer them for ourselves.