the sublime in the anthropocene


Doctoral research at Kask/School of Arts, Ghent (2017- )

The sublime in its romantic tradition is provoked by bombastic experiences, often related to extreme situations of (outside) phenomena (storms in high mountains, shipwrecks, …). It is an out-of-scale experience and it is always a fiction as it implies a distance between the phenomenon and the beholder. In the body of work that I am creating, this ambivalent dis-orientation happens with forms that involve the spectator in a different way. The situation that is either proposed from the start or that evolves through time is fragile. It can fail at any moment. It is on a verge, at a tipping point. But, unlike in the romantic sublime, it is not a fiction. It is not a representation of a fragile situation. It is really happening in the space. And precisely because it is situated at a fragile threshold the spectators realize that they have agency on what is happening. They are placed in the situation of being responsible for it. My research analyzes the strategy, goals and signification of this transition from aesthetic experience to ethical responsibility.

One important line pursued in the course of this research is the work on the series of performative conferences titled On Enclosed Spaces and the Great Outdoors, co-hosted and co-curated with the researcher and and dramaturg Jeroen Peeters. In this series we researched on the porous frontier existing between the outside and the inside of the art institution, and maybe more specifically the theatre. We live in an age in which human activity has a profound impact on our physical and ecological surroundings. Nevertheless, these transformations often go unseen – they are literally too large or too small for our senses and imagination to take in. So what happens when we enter the theatre? Can theatre be a place in which these transformations can receive other qualities and intensities and therefore exacerbate our agency as actors and spectators?

The lecture-performance The Actual Event constitutes the poetics of my theatre work. It consists of an actualisation and invocation of all the infinitesimal elements that our senses fail to grasp or that we don’t pay attention to or that are either too big or too small for our senses to grasp. But these elements have a true agency in a theater space while we are present: sound vibrations, dust, electromagnetic radiations, bacteria, body fluids, heart beats… By drawing the attention of the spectators on the infinitesimal, the performance functions as an enhancer for the senses. It also places the (human) spectator as an agent that carries responsibility for what is happening.

This research has been defined until now with the urge to define a certain type of theatre that situates itself in a constant ambivalence. It is the ambivalence between being a metaphor, a mere image of what is happening outside, and being a model of it that respond to its own rules and therefore is a space for speculations on other possibles. It is a place where spectators gather every night in order to play what I call “the game of care, fragility and responsibility”. But it is not always clear how serious this game is and what is exactly at stake. In Tonight, Lights out! for example, spectators have a light switch in their hands and they are asked to collectively switch off the lights (of the theatre evening). But the motivations for this remain open. Are they doing this for ecological reasons, as a gesture for the climate? Or is it something that is meant to remain solely in between the four walls of where the performance happens?