Thomas Oberender in conversation with Bruno Latour and Frédérique Aït-Touati21.07.2020 Von: BERLINER FESTSPIELE
Bruno Latour: Can you just frame very basically what the context is, Thomas?
Thomas Oberender: Bruno, ‘Down to Earth’ is also a “little organum” for us in the Brechtian sense – a practical tool, a guide for changing behaviour. This comes very close to our intentions with the project we are preparing. Instead of making another exhibition with artistic positions on climate change, we want to reveal and partially change the operating system of exhibition making. No flights, transparency regarding the resources consumed, exclusively analogue works, public expert discussions, live music, openness, presence, hospitality – all these gestures create a different form of encounter. It is about a temporary caesura, but also a different quality of presence and analogue encounter. Your and Frédérique’s fascination with theatre has a practical interest – it is about the change in world view that we have to shape. In your book you keep speaking in theatre metaphors and you handle it as a rather contemporary system. You write: “Today, everyone: decor, sets, backstage, the whole building, has climbed onto the stage boards and denies the actors the leading roles.” It’s no longer just human beings, but the things of the theatre, for example, and everything that embraces and embeds them, that act. This is reminiscent of the “systemic” view of James Lovelock, and a change of world view that is as fundamental as the one Galileo brought about. Both of you have repeatedly turned this analogy into theatre on stage in recent years. And in exhibitions. What other philosopher does that? Which director? So it would be wonderful if we talk a bit about Brecht and theatre. Especially because I was surprised how modern the theatre form you have developed for it is. In your production ‘Moving Earths’, you use an American film adaptation of Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’ from 1975, a touchingly traditional costume film, which is basically the complete opposite of your own form of theatre.
Frédérique Aït-Touati: You’re right! Bruno is very fond of this film… at first I didn’t want to use it, precisely because it is so different from the kind of theatre I make. But finally I have found a way to integrate it into the play as one of the materials used by Bruno to make his argument. And it is indeed exactly the role this film had in the process of developing the project. Of course, using this film creates a tension: we take a fiction as paradoxial “evidence” for the demonstration.
TO: The staging of evidence was a very early part of Bruno’s work. Let’s say a starting point for our conversation is your work about Pasteur. Frédérique explained your interest in the ways how scientists stage evidence in her essay ‘When Non-Humans Enter the Stage’. You have written about Pasteur’s genius to create a theatrical situation in which the evidence of his discovery of lactic acid fermentation became visible to everyone. Brecht on the other hand strove to develop a “theatre of the scientific age”. In Brecht’s play, Galileo is 46 years old, his work is stagnating, and suddenly a young man brings him early news of the invention of binoculars in the Netherlands. And with this instrument a revolution in Galileo’s thinking begins, because he can now make a new world view visible to everyone. Brecht shows us this man as a giant and a loner, very traditional. It seems different with you.
BL: We had this difficulty… I was castigated by Frédérique when I wanted to make the parallel between Galileo and Lovelock: she said this is ridiculous, we cannot have a 21st century parallel between this great man Galileo and another great man in the 20th century, Lovelock. My first draft of a parallel between the two had to change because it made no sense to imagine that Galileo was alone in the 16th century, in the 17th century: he was not. We had to redistribute activities first with Lynn Margulis, a woman and a scientist, unfortunately she died in 2011, re-associating with Lovelock, he is 101 now.
FA: Brecht was a good starting point because he makes the link between Galileo and the scientific age. In the ‘Little Organum’, he explains that he wants to make a theatre for the scientific age. But it is precisely this type of cosmology and physics that is called into question by the Gaia theory of Lovelock and Margulis. So we needed to draw a parallel and a reversal at the same time. Bruno at some point said: “Ok, we need a new Brecht in order to tell the story of Lovelock. In telling the story of Galileo, Brecht links the cosmological revolution with the social upheaval of the 17th century. Now again, we need a playwright to tell the story of Lovelock, the discovery of Gaia and its political consequences, to draw the link between change in the cosmological order and change in the political order.” The Galileo/Lovelock parallel is an intuition which is already a theatrical situation, in a way: Galileo looks up to the sky with his telescope and discovers that the Earth is a planet among others; Lovelock imagines a Martian pointing his hypersensitive instrument towards the Earth and discovers that the Earth is unique. The problem is that Brecht – following a long tradition in the history of science – has made Galileo into the heroic figure of a scientist who opens the way for modernity. We can’t tell this kind of story anymore, with the male scientist alone as the hero. Bruno’s book on Pasteur, which you mentioned Thomas, is a perfect criticism of this narrative. Especially because the history of the discovery of Gaia is much more complex, interesting and collective! That was one reason why we couldn’t simply turn ‘Life of Galileo’ into ‘Life of Lovelock’.
BL: We don’t have heroes, but we have Gaia.
TO: Is Gaia a female character or is it without gender?
BL: Female, a mythical one and a fairly big one. The idea was to reuse not the great-man-story, but use theatre as a way to give a feeling for the novelty of Gaia. This was the first idea we had when we did a traditional play. But Frédérique’s idea was actually to have the presence of Gaia visible on stage. This was your initial question: I came to this through the dramatization of the concept, which I was always interested in. I have been teaching first-year students for 40 years. If you teach first-year students you cannot get too complicated, you have to dramatize a concept. I was very struck working on Pasteur to see that this was also the drive of a great scientist, when he or she wants to have a sort of dramatized discovery. When I used the expression “theatre of proof” it triggered something for Frédérique, because she was interested coming from theatre in a question which was sort of resonating with us, and that’s why we have collaborated now for a long time.
TO: There is a very interesting critique of the plays of Brecht by Botho Strauß: he is a contemporary playwright in Germany. He says it’s all from the age before cybernetics, it’s a mechanical understanding of the world, thinking and dealing with objects instead of agencies. It’s always a relation of cause and effect, a linear process. Strauß says that this is not an image of the world of our time. If we think about the model of feedback, phenomena like emergence, Chaos Theory, and being embedded in various networks and actors who are not humans. One of your basic theories is about this. Strauß also turns away from the Brecht school of dialectic for political reasons: they are too violent for him and scientifically too linear.
BL: We were interested in what linearity is. Because precisely this contrasted with the circular feedback thinking of Lovelock: it was more dramatic. We were never sure how to reinterpret this last scene. Because when he’s talking, not knowing if he should apologize or not for the crimes committed by this linear view, that is one of the issues. This was my very naive approach, to take every scene of Brecht and shift it by using several sentences which could be applied to both. So I’ve done a long description of (laughs) a play where when there is a carnival… of course a carnival is very easy to shift, but also the episode of the Little Monk. In Brecht the Little Monk apologizes for having abandoned science because he didn’t want to make his parents despair. We did the same exercise this time with American students about Trump. And of course the scene when the demonstration with the telescope is negated by the astronomers and philosophers…
TO: They don’t want to look through this instrument.
BL: We have exactly the same scene with Lovelock, when the successive proof of feedback is denied by several types of disciplines. It ended in a play that was as traditional as Brecht and we didn’t want to do it.
FA: It was a rehearsal: we used it as a template to highlight the differences. You should describe why Brecht was so important for you at some point: he makes the link between the cosmological and the political argument. That was one of the main reasons for this parallelism, and it is what we finally kept in ‘Moving Earths’.
BL: It’s interesting, there is Brecht’s play, and there is Losey’s version: the film of 1975. You said it’s traditional – I love it! I’ve seen it ten times. It’s very beautiful. Then there is this imitation of Brecht in the first version that we made, trying to follow the same pattern. Then, there is something which is completely different, it’s a lecture. But we kept one of the central elements from Brecht, where he links the social order and the scientific cosmology in an extraordinary way. And that’s exactly where I am now. I would say that our experiment, although it’s formally different, is even more Brechtian than Brecht. We took the feverish attempt of Brecht’s play to establish a connection between social or political order and scientific cosmology and made it much more intense. I’ve learned a lot about Brecht and about Galileo. I’ve done this historical work. When we presented this work to historians of Galileo, they were amazed by the quality of the play. We are both historians of science, so it’s very important that the link with history would be good. And now, of course, we are trying to do the same with Margulis and Lovelock. So, it’s a different form, but one aspect of the Brecht “doctrine” was kept.
TO: I think that Galileo is not such a Brechtian play, in terms of his own theory. His formal design is rather naturalistic and could have been created by Gerhart Hauptmann.
BL: It’s a very un-Brechtian play, we spoke a lot about that.
TO: There is one moment, when they, Andrea and Galileo, sit working all night. Brecht writes in the set description: “They sit down to work eagerly. The stage goes dark but Jupiter and its accompanying moons can still be seen on the cyclorama. When the light returns, they are still sitting there, wearing winter coats.” The two lines are stage directions that suddenly show the machine of the theatre itself – the “naturalness” of the scene is shown as something artificial by the demonstrative fast forward. Brecht briefly plays with time, only to return to the familiar mode afterwards, which is only possible if this convention of theatre is the basis. This little moment is epic – here we did something with the scene, rather than within the scene. The epic style of Brecht’s theatre is naturally much more pronounced in some earlier plays than in this monumental work. His plays have a narrator who describes and directs the scene on behalf of the hidden author. But this is not what Brecht does in this play: he wrote it like a Hollywood movie, in a very well-made way.
BL: Do we know why he used this type of theatre, which is so different from the rest, for this topic?
TO: I think it’s because he wants to convince everyone. The historical situation in 1939. He wrote the play in exile in Denmark. He wrote for the dominant theatre model of his time. With plays like ‘Life of Galileo’ or ‘Mother Courage and Her Children’ he wanted to change the practice of the theatre less formally than argumentatively and intentionally. Why do you write a play about a scientist in 1939? The play says: “I believe that people are reasonable. If they have proof then they will change their behaviour. Adverse circumstances do not last forever. Even if they do screw us up.” Which is why Brecht presents this lonely scholar as sensual, devious, an egomaniac, a scientist and practical engineer, capable of malice and naivety in equal measure. And always confronted by the question of how strongly the assertion of truth depends on the circumstances and one’s own strength of character. Brecht’s Galileo has political opponents, but on the scientific question he is simply right – and that is a bit boring because we all know that.
BL: That’s a great difficulty that we have, when we show a parallel with Lovelock. Because no-one knows who he is, nobody believes that he is right. When you make a parallel, you use a very interesting tension. We spoke to younger people and many don’t know about the scientific revolution. We make the Brecht play more Brechtian several times, for example in the scene with the cardinals, when the Old Cardinal says that Galileo is an enemy of the people. When you frame this moment with Lovelock, people tend to associate it with a cardinal, not with Galileo. Who is this man who comes to destroy the cosmic and social order? That’s what is so extraordinary, when you don’t take a scientist who is well-known and everyone agrees with, but a scientist who is actually controversial, the play shifts in very interesting ways. At the Centre Pompidou, people would say: “Ah, wow, the cardinal is really right, why is that? He’s destroying the social and cosmic order.”
TO: For me, Ludovico is a very contemporary figure. He speaks on behalf of the rich patrician families. Originally, he wanted to study with Galileo: “Mother thinks a little science is necessary. Everyone is taking their wine with science these days, you know.” And then Brecht shows this enormous power of the old families, of the whole system, which is behind Ludovico. Towards the end of the play, he talks to Galileo as if he were a child who had not yet understood the game – it’s all about the interests of industry, one would say today. Even the next Pope, he tells him quite openly, will have to consider how the country’s noble families feel about him. Today, this industry is global and today it forms a “capitalist international” which despises the masses as much as Ludovico.
BL: He was very good at understanding the other side in the Galileo play. When the Pope – played by Lonsdale in the film, a marvellous moment –, the whole argument… it is why I was mentioning the shift when you make Brecht more Brechtian, suddenly people realize how good the Pope’s arguments are, the Cardinal and the different things. This is why it tests the quality of the original play. Even though it was not Brechtian in form, it was amazingly good in terms of the multiplicity of characters. The last production in France at the Comédie Française was an absolute disaster, a complete rationalist-positivist version: the play was dead, dead on arrival. Precisely because it insisted too much on the pedagogy. But when you add religious parallels, when all of the other alternative characters, Ludovico, the Pope, the Cardinal, the Old Cardinal, begin to be highlighted, the play becomes extraordinarily un-pedagogical. Because our position is exactly the opposite: we are experiencing the same change of cosmology, the same shift between science and social order, and we don’t know where we are. Do we support the lobbyists? Do we support climate sceptics? Do we support science? Suddenly you look at Brecht’s play as an extraordinary rich, contradictory mix, which is extraordinary.
TO: I think one interesting aspect of your own parallel between Galileo and Lovelock is that in ‘Theory of the Modern Drama’, one idea put forward by Peter Szondi is that it’s not possible to write a historical play about a person who is alive. Because the idea of drama is that you take the character out of time and space – and he has no relation to reality. The stage is the absolute world. It’s a very nice idea. If you take a contemporary character, everybody would say “I know him from television and he’s looking completely different. And he never said that…” People would always compare the character with the original person. And then, for the theory, he loses his primary relation to the people on stage.
BL: Lovelock is a hundred years old, so he almost is an historical character. And he is not known well enough for the public to be able to say: “He didn’t say this and that…”
FA: Lovelock was extremely flattered to know that Bruno was writing a play, in which he was paralleled with Galileo.
BL: He was aware that this was fiction. Because he said “I don’t know if it’s true, but even if it’s not true, it’s worth living for a hundred years.”
FA: He knew it was making him into – as you say – a character above reality.
TO: That’s often the problem with biopics, if you know the real person…
FA: That’s precisely the reason why the final version of the play is actually a conference, not a play with characters: we wanted to avoid the fictionalization of historical figures. Little by little we understood that the play is not about Lovelock. The play is about Lovelock and Margulis, Gaia, politics and the change of cosmos.
TO: I loved it because it’s so open to real time. In Brecht, every text is fixed: it’s like a machine, you only repeat what is written on the paper. Of course this is also a magical moment when the spirit enters the body and you start to embody those thoughts. But in your set up, I love the free way you speak, giving examples, and switching the level of arguments all the time.
FA: You are absolutely right: it’s not fixed at all, Bruno was improvising.
TO: This also brings the audience in and makes it more convincing, it’s so precise and about enjoying the moment itself. By the way, I’m interested in why you called an earlier project a “circus”, the ‘Gaia Global Circus’. Because, for me, a circus is something that is so far removed from any linear narration.
FA: For us, it was a “circus” in the sense of having all those conceptual characters together. During the writing process, we had two plays: first the ‘Cosmocolosse’, which was written in this house by Bruno, Chloé and myself; it then became a radio play for Bayerischer Rundfunk. But then we understood that we needed something a bit different. The second version, ‘Gaia Global Circus’, written by Pierre Daubigny from the same material, is a tragi-comedy about our disarray in the face of growing scientific alerts and confusing emotions and reactions when “Facing Gaia” was written. It was written ten years ago, but we already had Lovelock, Margulis, the terrible news brought by Clive Hamilton, the communication tricks of the climate sceptics. “Circus” also referred to the tone of the play. We wanted to mix genres: we didn’t want to do something too serious.
BL: We also wanted to get out of the moralization implied by ethical thoughts. At this time, it was important to show that these questions were not necessarily framed into a moralistic view: you have to take this seriously because it’s important. The circus element was actually why people enjoyed the play: it gave a handle on something.
TO: ‘Cosmocolosse’ reminded me very much of the medieval tradition of giving examples by characters. It’s close to the play ‘Jedermann’.
BL: ‘Cosmocolosse’ worked as a radio show, but it was a catastrophe when we tried to stage it.
FA: Yes, because ‘Cosmocolosse’ is written with conceptual characters taking positions, like in an 18th century philosophical dialogue. That worked very well on the radio, to have voices in a controversy taking positions, almost like in Diderot’s dialogues. ‘Gaia Global Circus’ is more based on contemporary “écriture de plateau”: you have four actors on stage, they receive bad news, they have to react. Bruno was writing ‘Facing Gaia’ and he was sharing with us all the terrible books, news, articles he was reading. And we were reading ‘Requiem for a Species’ by Hamilton, and also the pages about the Apocalypse in the Bible! So we were plunged into this moment of ‘Facing Gaia’. ‘Gaia Global Circus’ is really the result of us taking on board these feelings and emotions, and trying to share them with our audience.
TO: Would you both do me the favour of describing the character of Gaia? If you imagine Gaia as a character, what would its profile be? How would you shape it?
BL: Scientifically we now have a much better idea of what Gaia is – a non-character, so to speak, something which is widely different from nature. The distinction between nature and Gaia is very clearly defined, because when people talk about nature they include everything from the Big Bang to COVID-19. COVID-19 is in Gaia, the Big Bang isn’t. There is a scientific specification of Gaia. Then there is a whole work on Gaia as a myth in Greek, it’s an extraordinary interesting series of work on the multiplicity of names of Gaia in the Greek tragedy and in Greek tradition. She has many names always. She keeps changing names. It’s not a character which is easy to situate. Then there is another interesting work on what Gaia legally is, what sort of legal character Gaia is. Because it weighs on us. It has some sort of authority, but it’s not the state. Then we have a lot of ways of engaging Gaia in questions of origin, it’s more in the eco-feminist tradition, of course Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers. There are a vast number of people who are trying to rethink what Gaia is, because that’s where we are, but we don’t know where we are. Landing on earth, being down to earth requires rethinking what Gaia is. It’s not an object in the old tradition of Galileo. Instead of interconnected and overlapping actions it has a very different feel, and we are all trying to feel our way there, because if you land on earth… in the Galilean earth, or if you land on the Lovelockian, Margulisian earth, all of the attitudes, feelings, resistance of material are different. There is a very interesting reinterpretation to be made of the before last scene we were talking about in Brecht’s ‘Galileo’, the one with Andrea, which was rewritten by Brecht after the bomb on Hiroshima. It’s a very complex reinterpretation of the direction science drives in. In that sense we are concerned with the same situation, where we reinterpret things, not only because of the atomic bomb – which is still there, by the way – but because of the ecological mutation that means we all need to reinterpret things. If you are down to earth, you explore a general ontology which is as different from Galileo’s one as Galileo’s one itself was from the scholastic version he was attacking – and profiting from, actually. We should not hurry to determine what Gaia is. And now we need what Frédérique is trying to make us do, which is to capture a whole set of different dispositifs, including what you together with Tino Sehgal are doing in Berlin for ‘Down to Earth’. The ‘Critical Zones’ show in Karlsruhe is very important for me because all of the different versions of Gaia are visible there.
FA: Gaia is not a kind character. I think the detour via the mythical Gaia was very important, because in mythology Gaia is terrible. Someone – I think it was Margulis or Stengers – said: “Gaia is a bitch”.
BL: No, it’s Margulis and she said: “Gaia is a tough bitch”.
FA: I was very struck, when Bruno wrote this little article more than ten years ago about theatre and science. The last line of this article, which is written as a dialogue between fictional characters, is: “Gaia enters the stage”. At that time, I didn’t understand what Bruno meant, because Gaia was not a name that was used at all. But of course, Gaia was entering the scientific stage, the political stage, and the theatrical stage, simultaneously. One of the things that we worked a lot on during the ‘Gaia Global Circus’ project ten years ago, was scenography, stage design. For us, Gaia became one of the actors on stage, the fifth actor. Hence the need to imagine a kind of flying canopy. It was a very naive model, that’s what we loved about it. It was a naive model of the feedback loop. One of the questions at that time for many climate scientists was how to design more and more accurate and convincing climate change models. My own theatrical answer was this floating stage device, a theatrical model, which was of course not really Gaia. But some aspects of Gaia were kept: the feedback loops and the self-animation.
TO: In my understanding Gaia tries to hold the whole being alive. A mother could be also a tough bitch.
BL: She is a good female mother. She is not a bad mother.
TO: That makes me think of Lyotard’s idea that male and female are not biological categories, they are about the relation to death. Men in the metaphysical sense put the idea above life. They sacrifice themselves and others for an abstract principle. Feminine in the metaphysical sense is someone who does not sacrifice life for an idea. I can’t imagine Gaia as a character who is destroying life.
BL: But it did many times. It was a close call many times.
TO: The volcanoes or the comets.
BL: Or the ice. It was really a close call. There is nothing balanced in Lovelockian and Margulis’ Gaia, it’s not balanced, it’s just the accumulation of a lot of successive, careful, lucky moments, so to speak. I don’t think we should draw any conclusion from it. This is why I’m worried that it’s a feminine character. It’s a mythical character, it’s deeper than the difference between male and female. It’s an original character. It’s about origin, yes, but not a female character. In the history of the mythological as well as in the scientific Gaia, there is a tough way of understanding how life continues. There is nothing balanced about it. It’s a very important aspect. It’s not nature in the sense of a positivist or neo-Darwinian struggle for life. It has nothing to do with balance and union. Margulis even more than Lovelock insisted very much on the non-motherly character of Gaia. It’s something that has to be worked out with great precision, because if not, we enter an ecological womb, the mother of the womb, so to speak. It’s a vastly more interesting character if it’s not reusing balance, and of course not a global one. It has a very strange way of being global, as we saw with the COVID-19 capacity spreading everywhere as contagion from one person to another. For me, the virus is a very beautiful example of the sort of thing that allowed Gaia to grow. It has nothing to do with being big: it’s very small. A small entity, accumulated over four million years, producing big effects. It has none of the characteristics associated with Mother Earth. So, why do you call your project ‘Down to Earth’?
TO: In these times of transition: Where do we find grip in terms of a hold? In your book, you direct our attention to what you call “critical zones”. You talk about helpful, underestimated practices such as tinkering, the work of negotiation, efforts to develop overlaps between different national and local interests and structures. In our eyes, this has a lot to do with certain artistic practices of our time. Many of them are activist. Many activities do not look like art at all. There are so many forms of stocktaking by citizens in our country, experimenting with a different kind of agriculture and nutrition, new kinds of house building, etc. Artists who bring living earth into our exhibition space: a sawn-up Porsche, shamans. For us, the team of the ‘Immersion’-programme, the climate issue was, so to speak, the greatest example of an immersive phenomenon, of something that we not only face, but that we constantly influence, just as the climate influences us. But of course the whole concept of the exhibition now also has a lot to do with the work Tino Sehgal has been doing for many years and our concept has been very decisively shaped by him as an artist. The show must break a habit – at least for the short time of the exhibition. A break that at the same time makes an offer. That’s why your book is so helpful for us, your idea of the third attractor: it’s not the local, it’s not the global, it’s something that is the territory of your life.
BL: I’m interested in the German title because “terrestrisch” doesn’t really work in German. You would not call a festival “Terrestrisches Manifest”.
TO: No, it’s not really a popular term. But ‘The Terrestrial Manifesto’ appealed to me anyway. Because who is the character? Who is the author? The earth? What should it mean? For us, it’s the climax of a long development of our programme series. The central idea is this term of immersion which means you are in the middle of something. Everything is around you: it’s not possible to see it from outside. The last exhibition Tino Sehgal and I did was called ‘Welt ohne Außen’.
BL: ‘Inside’ is one of our lectures. In the other one, ‘Moving Earths’, we describe a parallel with Galileo, because in the scene when he’s looking at the moon, it’s really the opposite of what Lovelock does with his electron detector. You can go much further in the comparison between the two: they are both engineers, they are both picking an instrument, they are both working for the state. And when I worked with Lovelock, I saw a little note from the Head of MI5, of this intelligence service, thanking James Lovelock for this 50 or 60 years of work for the state – like Galileo in the arsenal. There is the same extraordinary interest in language, because at 60 Lovelock started to write popular books in plain English instead of articles. And at first he was not very good at writing them. I asked him how he wrote his first book and he said “I started”. He didn’t know he was a writer. He’s a very efficient writer.
TO: The subject of language is also very important in Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’. Galileo always asks the scholars and people of status to speak colloquially in the company of his colleagues, rather than in Latin. It is about what we associate today with the concept of “plain language” in the publications of museums and offices. I too have noticed that a term like “immersion” has produced a great deal of rejection in the German-speaking world. It was very quickly filled with fear, maybe because Germans have a painful experience with everything that is affective or intuitive. Yet immersion is a very old idea in the field of theatre. That we are seized by something that is more a ritual than a show, that goes deeper than the conceptual mind, was at its origin. When we use this word, it is usually on a different level of meaning – for us, it marks the end of a worldview based on the isolation of discrete phenomena, on a dialectical back and forth. For us, immersion means living in systems that are characterized by hybrids and quasi-objects, by actors who can also be machines and other species with which we are connected in many different ways. All the things you both described earlier in connection with Gaia.
BL: We are immersed in Gaia, but we have to find a non-immersive way to stay in the Brecht line. Showing people that they are immersed. This was what we had in the mind with ‘Inside’. ‘Inside’ is completely artificial as a theatrical device, there is not one single moment when you can believe the situation – that is the Brechtian part. But it’s also about being inside. Is this sort of dialectical… not dialectical, I hate dialectical… is this a contradiction which interests you?
TO: Well, it’s complicated because it always happens on several levels. When I move as an avatar in a VR world, I can get a real fear of heights in front of a virtual abyss. My head knows I’m in a game, but I’m experiencing it for real. Nobody really loses awareness of the artificial situation in the theatre. Nevertheless, the theatre is able to let us experience that we always experience the world as something manufactured. Usually I see the bird outside the window, but not the window, as Thomas Metzinger says. Theatre can create an awareness of this. When we talk about art, the use of the term immersion gets a little more complicated, because there you have to distinguish between the psychological experience, which is very empathic, and a more technical aspect, which characterizes a specific genre of art. The latter is characterized by the fact that I actually sit physically in the middle of the stage – the scene surrounds me, and does not face me “objectively”.
BL: Frédérique finds I have a very naive way of wanting characters on stage, and she says “this is finished, we are in a post-romantic wave”, because you risk immersing the audience in a thing, this thing about the fourth wall, which has to be destroyed and so on and so on.
FA: That’s not exactly what I say! And it’s not an absolute doctrine. It’s just that I think we have all seen the limits of a specific linear dramatic narrative. I believe that theatre people, writers, we need other ways of telling stories, just because we are not only human entities on stage. There is this discussion between us, because I think Bruno leads us writers, directors towards a new path, but at the same time, Bruno, you always say: “I like the old theatre, with characters and a story”. How would you answer Bruno’s question, Thomas?
TO: I’m afraid I like it better in the movies too. But in theatre this oscillation I was talking about I already like a lot, and in theatre, to my mind, it needs a more modern form. One which also shows the window, so to speak, and not just the bird. Frédérique, you yourself have just described that you want to show different kinds of protagonists – not only people, but also things, the apparatus of the theatre itself on stage as a kind of protagonists. The longer I deal with the theme of immersion as a space-based genre and look at works such as those by SIGNA or Vegard Vinge and Ida Müller, the clearer it becomes to me that in the end you act within a scenario of a scripted reality and are constantly being steered unnoticed. In these theatrical forms, the levels on which the play speaks to us have been potentiated and with it the influence of this scripted reality. Clever artists can lead us very, very far into other areas of understanding of the world and of ourselves, and ethically this is very challenging, if you speak about immersiveness on stage, you speak about real time.
BL: With your argument, how would you characterize a lecture? Because Frédérique’s idea is to use a lecture to remove the fourth wall because you are addressing the public. And of course in real time because you are sort of improvising. Would you defend, as Frédérique does, the lecture as a sort of fictional lecture or not so fictional, a real lecture, because I give real lectures.
FA: But in a theatrical setting, people who attend lectures know they are fictional. They are used to lectures given by artists, mocking or playing with the academic format. Our performance-lectures are actually real lectures, with the idea of sharing a thought in the making. Tino Sehgal has another way of doing immersion, as we know, which was very important for me when I discovered it in Kassel at the Documenta 13. And I have never forgotten this moment of discovering Tino’s way of creating situations. Even when I stage lectures, which are a very front-on kind of format, I try to find this kind of life-sharing moment effect.
BL: But is it a new genre of theatre, Thomas?
TO: If you extend the concept of theatre very far, which I think is good, then: yes. Maybe you are more a kind of performer in the contemporary dance sense. You’re not performing a part. The material of the role is more or less you. The form of the staged lecture brings philosophical wonder to the theatre and to do this you use all the forms of showing and telling the complex apparatus of the stage requires. Compared to the works by Tino Sehgal I would say that he doesn’t need a proscenium anymore. He uses exhibition halls, because he is creating a new form of ritual. A ritual is always a kind of immersive encounter, it’s not something you look at from outside. Tino creates absorbing spaces through his kind of choreographed behaviour. Tino’s work is no longer about this unfolding of conflicts and narratives: it’s about experience within a specific situation. The reality of the situation is more important than the concept of development. Usually theatre is time-based and exhibitions are space-based. For a few years now we have been interested in exhibitions that function more like theatre – such as those of Omer Fast and Philippe Parreno. What we did with ‘Welt ohne Außen’ was a time-based exhibition: an exhibition that changes and is different in every moment. Visitors saw a different exhibition on different days or at different times. And this will partly also shape ‘Down to Earth’. Frédérique, can you imagine a form of theatre with no outside?
FA: The ‘Critical Zone’ is a fascinating concept, a concept that Bruno borrowed from geology, from people we work with in the Institute of Geology (IPGP) in Paris. For them, it has a very precise, strict definition: they know where the critical zone starts and where it ends. What I find fascinating about Bruno’s way of working is that he takes these scientific concepts and brings them into philosophy and into art. One of the reasons why this concept of the ‘Critical Zone’ has been so important is because it changes our cosmology, it changes the way in which we inhabit the earth. When you start to think for yourself that you’re not walking on a globe like the Galilean physics taught us in the 17th century, but actually you are living, breathing, walking inside something, then of course it changes everything. For Bruno, I think exhibitions and theatre are ways of thinking, not simply ways of illustrating his ideas. It’s really through making plays and performances and exhibitions that he develops his concepts. What could a theatre with no outside mean… I’m not sure. What I know is that theatre is one way of approaching, of testing, sensing, feeling, experimenting with this change in our way of inhabiting a place. That’s why we have developed the philosophical dialogue ‘Cosmocolosse’. We tried this half comedy, half tragedy – that was ‘Gaia Global Circus’. We carried out a political experiment – that was the ‘Theatre of Negotiations’. And finally, we tried to put the philosopher inside the critical zone, and that was ‘Inside’. I’d love to know how you define this kind of theatre yourself.
TO: I think if this kind of theatre like ‘Inside’ would have been done by Rimini Protokoll, you would say it’s a theatre of experts: everything you see is rooted in their knowledge. There is this nice remark Bruno made about the relation between art and science: “They are artworks and in the same time they are thinkworks.”
FA: As Bruno mentioned, we were both originally historians of science. I used to work a lot on 17th century astronomy and the development of empiricism. The idea that theatre is a kind of experiment is absolutely key for both Bruno and me. In a way, I could even say that, for me, doing theatre is really conducting thought experiments. It helps a lot to bring in the idea of experiment and the idea of the laboratory, although it’s very common now to speak of theatre as a laboratory. But I think for people like Bruno and me it really comes from a love for scientific modes of thinking, and the reverse is true: we consider science as a kind of theatre. That’s why you were very right to start the discussion by mentioning Pasteur and Bruno’s whole analysis in his Pasteur book of laboratory as a “theatre of proof”. It’s exactly at that junction that Bruno and I met. He sees science as a theatre of proof, and I consider theatre to be a way to create fictional experiments, fictional spaces and thought experiments. We have the same deep idea about how art and science are not divided at all, how they were already working together a long time ago. It’s not a surprise that so many artists read him: he is really liberating in so many ways. It’s no longer Galileo who is teaching Andrea a lesson, it’s the opposite. Galileo’s daughter no longer needs to ask her father’s permission to be happy. Madame Sarti takes her revenge and is no longer a maid full of popular wisdom and common sense – who will pay for the milk? – who takes care of the house: she has turned into a powerful philosopher – Isabelle Stengers, Anna Tsing, Donna Haraway, Vinciane Despret, Émilie Hache. Lovelock was right scientifically and discovered Gaia but Margulis is the character who interests me most in the play, because she is the one who sees the philosophical and aesthetic consequences of Gaia.
TO: I don’t like ‘Life of Galileo’ so much as a play either when I reread it, because it is always teaching ‘stupid’ people, it is always asking questions whose answers are complete. When I see ‘Inside’, nothing is finished. It’s based on a gesture of searching.
FA: For ‘Moving Earths’, I thought: “Ok, let’s share with the audience the pleasure I have in seeing this ongoing thinking, which is not dogmatic, which is not top-down, which is in the making”. Each project is a different experiment, a different hypothesis to test. Therefore each one requires a specific scenic and dramaturgical dispositif. We are very interested in what you call “immersion”, the spatial and human organization that would allow us to interact with the audience in a new way. That’s why at the moment our new project is to create a form that would stem from the AOC questionnaire, and more broadly the questions and conversations opened up by what Bruno calls “les nouveaux cahiers de doléances” [new ledgers of complaints]. This is immersive in the sense that people are welcome and in fact needed in the ongoing discussion. We would like to link the political problem of re-politicising our ecological situation and the virus’s way of moving. A contagion of political gestures, so to speak!
This discussion took place within the framework of the Berliner Festspiele’s ‘Immersion’ programme series, whose final project ‘Down to Earth’ will take place from 13 August to 13 September 2020 in the Gropius Bau. The title and concept refer to the book of the same name by Bruno Latour.