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María Evelia Marmolejo, perfomance Anónimo 4, Río Cauca, Colombia, 1982. Cortesía/Courtesy: prometeogallery di Ida Pisani Milan/Lucca
From the middle

The research and event series Studio 13: Ecologies of Practice [1] organised with my colleagues Silke Bake, Alice Chauchat and Siegmar Zacharias in Berlin’s Tanzfabrik in Winter 2016-2017 aimed at cultivating and sharing our multiple artistic, chorographical, dramaturgical, curatorial practices from the midst of being within their complex habitats. Experimenting with various settings of work and conversation we took our current interests, methodologies, friendships, affinities, practices as starting point to engage, think and not least share a meal, with guests from contemporary dance, performance and other disciplines as well as an interested audience. Starting from an extended notion of the ecological -including the socio-political, the environmental, the artistic realms-, the evenings were exercises in multiple layers of hosting and guesting: a word that strangely enough doesn’t exist in English nor in many other languages. We were guests in Berlin’s Tanzfabrik, whose director and team were present and cooked soup for each of the three-hour long evenings. Each one of us prepared and invited guests for one evening, which was nevertheless co-hosted by all of us.

Guests were invited to join exercises of relational dance, of being a resistant object, or of silently eating and feeding each other along with Alice Chauchat, Anna Nowicka, and Maria F. Scaroni, all three dancers and choreographers. Artists Siegmar Zacharias, Emma Haugh, Roni Katz and Técha Noble threw visitors into delirious femme fluidities with poetry, performance and videos. They could follow the slow, non-representational reflection of curators and dramaturges about their (ecological) labour of creating and maintaining relations or failing to do so with Silke Bake and Stefanie Wenner, or jointly contemplated what can’t be discarded, ranging from plastics or placentas to food leftovers with Pepe Dayaw, Sophia New, María Evelia Marmolejo, Tejal Shah and myself.

Rather than presenting coherent overviews of our current state of research, delineating theoretical frameworks, we operated from being in the midst, in the middle of it, being surrounded by, and immersed in materials, practices, questions, and limits. In An Ecology of Practices Isabelle Stengers adopts Deleuze’s notion of penser par le milieu in the double sense of milieu as surrounding or habitat and middle. She writes:

"Through the middle" would mean without grounding definitions or an ideal horizon. "With the surroundings" would mean that no theory gives you the power to disentangle something from its particular surroundings, that is, to go beyond the particular towards something we would be able to recognise and grasp in spite of particular appearances. [2]

Brian Massumi and Erin Manning have referred to Isabelle Stengers’ thinking "through the middle" and further elaborated an ecological, immersive, non-neurotypical modality of perception inspired by autism activists and writers. This field wide, non-human centred perception, which considers the unboundedness and relationality of matter, objects, things, has been described by Manning and Massumi as “dance of attention” in the mode of “middling” or “aroundness”. [3]

Being in the middle and around: The evenings took place in Berlin’s Uferstudios, the rebuild former depot and workshop of Berlin’s public transport company that now hosts organisations and events in the field of dance and performance. More concretely, we temporarily inhabited an interstitial space (the entrance or lobby) that was originally one of the many workshops: a rather rough, tiled, corridor-like room leading to adjacent dance studios. It afforded us with the possibility to enter the dance studio for collective somatic practices between our conversations. It also turned into an echo chamber resonating with the rehearsals taking place nearby. But even more so it was an apt space for inhabiting the intimacy of relational practice without erasing the notion of non-accommodation, distance, even alterity.

Performing (as) waste

The evening I co-hosted was inspired by my current research about and with feminist queer performance artists, whose work explores discarded matter, materials and bodies. [4] Engaging with waste and death, guiding us into landfills, morgues, laboratories, urban sewages, hospitals, kitchen... these artists create connection to that which is not meant to be seen, heard, felt, touched, smelled or be attended to. They experiment with waste intimacies: living intimately with, off or even as waste.

Contemporary Western waste habits are mostly built on disposability, distance, and denial, on active not knowing [5] and forgetting [6]. However it is increasingly difficult to remain blind to the presence and agency of waste all around us and through the flows of toxins, chemicals, plastic particles, metals also in us. A number of artists and scholars, therefore, call for closer attention to waste’s material specificity, interrelationality and generative power, rather than only perpetuating an environmental discourse, which "uses waste to stage the destruction of the planet". By depicting nature as passive victim and humans as alienated perpetrators, Hawkins stresses that such a discourse (involuntarily) affirms rather than questions the dualism of the human imagined as independent of and separated from nature. [7] Also such “environmental grand narratives” [8] have the tendency of creating withdrawal, paralysis and guilt rather than inspiring the urgently needed experimentation with different knowledge and modes of living.

If we don’t consider waste only as a result of human epistemological attempts of classification, but also look at its material specificity, its agency, its network qualities, what do we notice? [9] What does waste do?

It stays on, it lingers, it remains.
It assembles, it gathers, it sticks.
It leaks, it flows, it drifts, it evaporates.
It decomposes, it deteriorates, it falls, it dissolves.
It is of multiple temporalities, of past and future.
It escapes terminal capture, refuses to be fully categorized.
It "issues a call", [10] it "comes to act in unusual ways." [11]

What remains

I began the evening with sharing a document that is somehow a leftover from previous curatorial endeavours, a work that stays with me that I can’t forget, maybe because it refuses to be settled within an identifiable temporal or conceptual frame. It is a 1982 video-documentation of the performance Anónimo 4 by Colombian artist María Evelia Marmolejo, one of the first performance artists who engaged with feminist issues in the late 1970’s in Colombia. [12] In her performances, which evoked and responded to Colombia’s violent recent and past history of colonialism and ecological destruction, she often worked with a specific type of waste such as blood, urine, human placentas, but also dirt, plastic remains and sewage. In the short, blurry and damaged video documentation of the private performance realised at the banks of the Cauca River, we see a figure wrapped all over in shimmery, transparent plastic with some patches of dark, voluminous blobs of matter tied to her body, standing in a triangular hole in the ground in an unidentifiable landscape. While she tries to tear open the plastic wrapped around her body, she is repeatedly bending, throwing up, raising, putting her head back and opening her arms, only to bend again, tear at the plastic again, vomit again, seemingly caught in a repetitive movement pattern without escape. Only from the artist’s description do we learn that the triangular-shaped hole is filled with placentas and the three smaller surrounding triangles with sewage. The plastic wrapped around her body is also holding human placentas, which had been collected in hospitals in the nearby city Cali from women who had given birth on the very day of the performance. Marmolejo described this ritual, that she conducted twice, as engaging with the “fear of being born into a society where the option to survive is not guaranteed.”

This haunting work did not only stay with me. It also inspired Berlin based performance artist Sophia New to do something about the placenta, that was lurking in her freezer for more than nine years, since the birth of her daughter Ruby. What followed was a private performance with her daughter which was filmed by partner and father Daniel Belasco and was later shown only in special, intimate settings as installation or single channel video (The Matter between you and me, video, 2015, by Sophia New and Ruby New Belasco). In the video – Sophia New got permission from her daughter to share it with us this evening – we can see mother and daughter struggling to get a Tupperware box out of the freezer and its contents out of its plastic wrappings. They discuss what they once shared while the content of the box slowly melts at the dining room table. Together they reflect upon birth and death, rituals, materiality, corporeality, ownership. They invent questions, stories and songs to delight and distract one another from that which intrigues and disgusts them: this "freaky, smelly thing," that doesn’t behave as they thought it would, that was "made" by one of them and now feels as "the centre" of the other, that makes them feel "disgusted, horrified and happy" all at the same time.

Waste remains: The placenta was kept in the freezer for all this time because the mother didn’t want to leave it to the corporate medical system – eventually being put to commercial use such as in face cream; and because she was waiting for the right moment and right space to ceremoniously burry it.

Waste remains: The placenta is back now in the freezer, because the daughter got so attached to it that she doesn’t want to let go of it anymore.

Limits

Another guest, the itinerant artist, dancer and cook Pepe Dayaw, also contributed a placenta story and thoughts about remaining. Dayaw is the inventor of Nowhere Kitchen, an artistic research tool based on cooking with other people’s leftovers. [13] As he couldn’t attend the event due to prohibited re-entry in his chosen country of residence – due to lack of papers and to border and migration regimes –, he wrote a long, poetic letter that we read in full and I quote here in excerpts:

Waste-free. No waste. Another choreography of avoidance. Another ‘Do not’. ... It’s just a matter of time, ... that ‘Waste-free’ will be the new tag line. ... An obsession to proclaim that we are doing the right thing. People have thought that they were doing the right thing, for thousands of years. And we are merely leftovers of a series of consequences of this excess towards the right thing, but never knew or forgot how to put a limit. (...) I go back to the fridge. I call it the garbage bin of our subconscious. (...) To use what is already there as a place for work / living. Nowhere Kitchen was never about waste-free cooking. It’s more about cleaning the fridge as a ritual (...) Cooking with leftovers, means cooking with what is there. Improvisation.

Pepe’s letter continues to contemplate bodily leftovers as food: his own body after death as feast for other earthly creatures; ritual preservation of placenta and finger nails of babies for future ceremonies in Bali; being asked to cook placenta for an artist friend in Zürich (who later changed her mind), and tasting mothers milk by the same artists and other friends – which brings him to this conclusion:

Last week, Bettina pointed out to me that mother’s milk is not a leftover, it is something that is only produced when necessary. And there it was. In my mother’s mother tongue, leftover is translated as "tada". It’s a verb. An action word. It means to leave something behind for the other. It never meant waste. This is my point with mother’s milk. (...) It is about the understanding of how to create our own limit. (...) mother’s milk is a proof that our body is capable of creating limits for the humans to survive. We somehow lack or lost this motor skill, the capacity to put a limit to what we produce. But the mother’s body demonstrate that we actually can. I discovered this ’territory of knowledge’ out of inhabiting mess, out of improvising, out of a critical habitation and colonisation of my everyday life, out of accepting the consequences of my pain, out of encountering my shadows (...)

To die knowing that we have cooked our own leftovers. With love. Tada.

Ending and not

Inhabiting the mess, a territory of knowing limits, improvising with what remains, is also central to Tejal Shah’s futuristic, poetic, erotic fable Between the Waves (2012, multichannel video installation). Screening Channel I - A Fable in Five Chapters ended the evening. "Set into the future of the long past, it imagines a possible scope of what remains" writes the artist about this work, which could also be imagined as "transmission send to us in asymmetrical time" or the content of a "time capsule". While nearing the end we are catapulted in the multiple temporalities of that what remains. We follow eco-sexual, queer, unicorn like creatures, who seek slow pleasure in "immersive (waste) environments", which could be both "spaces of refuge or expulsion". The five chapters, which also seem to stand in for a new-old alphabet, a new-old language [14] , guide us through various scenarios and landscapes:

The sign (-), and love-making in a deserted landscape of rocks and ruins;
being washed up at a soiled shoreline;
caressing and cleaning a damp, destroyed mangrove forest;
stitching together a plastic coral reef under water;
licking and fucking in eye-cunt-plastic-grape assemblages in toxic dwelling above the city.

The movement patterns of these creatures are earthbound: they lay around, roll, embrace, tumble, stroll, crawl, stoop, crouch.
They favour haptic touch, not only visual sense: they touch, lick, penetrate with all their multiple extensions. They are rhythmic: dancing, following, entering the waves, the ripples, the vibrations of damaged landscapes.

This makes me think of Donna Haraway’s notion of theory in the mud or muddle [15] which resonates with Stengers’ thinking through the middle and Manning/Massumi’s aroundness, quoted above. Haraway uses muddle, not only referring to the notion of confusion, but also to the old Dutch meaning of muddying the water: "as a theoretical trope and soothing wallow to trouble the trope of visual clarity as the only sense and affect for mortal thinking. Muddles team with company. Empty spaces and clear vision are bad fictions for thinking." [16] But not only company and muddied vision but also wallowing seems for Haraway to be a good fiction for thinking. Wallowing is a whole body immersive, dirty affair, plunging in the midst of it, full of pleasure, nothing remaining untouched, unstained, unsullied. Wallowing is horizontal, rather than vertical, it implies to give up upright posture and is associated with rolling or tumbling movement. While the wallow is full of movement - wet, slimy dirt is advantageous for all kinds of micro-movements - wallowing does not imply to cross far distances, but rather to remain in the muddle. Therefore thinking through the middle, or in the muddle is a bounded operation. It puts limits.

Tejal Shah’s earthbound, wallowing, pleasure seeking creatures bring me back to the beginning, to Marmolejo’s singular plastic clad, mourning figure, dug into the ground. Both figurations seem multitemporal, both of the past and future, both can’t escape the damage, destruction and mess, but they seem to offer different possible forms of inhabiting that "dream, you did not believe possible yet do not again and again wake from." [17]

Notes:

[1Borrowing from (and slightly twisting) Isabelle Stengers’ inspirational title "An Ecology of Practices".

[2STENGERS, ISABELLE: "An Ecology of Practices", Cultural Studies Review, vol 11, no 1, March 2005, p. 187.

[3MANNING, ERIN; MASSUMI, BRIAN: Thought in the Act. Passages in the Ecology of Experiences, Minnesota, 2014, pp. 6-7.

[4Performing (as) waste, ongoing practice as research Phd at Department of Drama, Theatre and Performance, Roehampton University London.

[5HAWKINS, G.: The Ethics of Waste. How we relate to Rubbish, Oxford, 2006, p. 16.

[6HIRD, MYRA J.: "Waste Landfills, and an Environmental Ethic of Vulnerability", Ethics and the Environment, 18, no. 1, 2013, p. 106.

[7Ibídem, p. 7.

[8HEDDON, D.; MACKEY, S.: 
"Environmentalism, performance and applications: uncertainties and emancipations", Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 
17 (2), 2012, p. 164.

[9CHRISTIANE LEWE, TIM OTHOLD UND NICOLAS OXEN: Müll - Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven auf das Übrig-Gebliebene, Bielefeld: transcript, 2016, p. 19.

[10BENNETT, JANE: Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things. Durham/London: Duke University Press, 2010, p. 4.

[11VINEY, WILLIAM:Waste. A philosophy of things. London: Bloomsbury, 2004, pp. 32-33.

[12See archive and exhibition project re.act.feminism # 2 – a performing archive (2011-2014, co-curated with B.E. Stammer): www.reactfeminism.org; This particular video has been contributed to the archive by Brazilian artist and author Eleonora Fabião. See E. FABIÃO: Performing Feminist Archives, in: Knaup, B. / Stammer, B.E. (ed.) reactfeminism # 2– a performing archive, Nuremberg/London, 2014, pp. 29-36.

[13For more information see: http://pepethework.cc/ and https://nowherekitchen.com/

[14A pictographic seal from the Indus valley introduces each chapter. The language of the Indus valley is not yet deciphered.

[15HARAWAY, DONNA J. (2016) Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham/London: Duke University Press, p. 31.

[16Ibídem, p. 174, fn 7.

[17Transcribed from Tejal Shah, Between the Waves, Channel V – Morse Code.

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