‘It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us.’
Baruch Spinoza, Short Treatise II
‘Thing-Power : the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle’
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter
In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett theorizes a ‘vital materiality’ that runs through and across bodies, both human and non-human. She explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the adhoc configurations of human and non-human forces. Recognising that agency is distributed in this way and is not the sole province of humans, Bennett suggests, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics, through what she terms as ‘vital materialism’.
As a director and researcher I’m deeply enmeshed in materiality in my work: of spaces, of sites, of objects and of actors bodies. I’ve long held an interest in the generative possibilities of sites: multiple, layered, complex; and responding to and exploring these are central to the ways that I work and research. Bennett’s appeal, in Vibrant Matter, to attend to and accord matter and objects with the capacity to act, to influence other bodies, makes sense to me. Its radical aim, the de-hierarchising of categories of being, towards a flatter, more aware treatment of ourselves in co-existence with matter, and matter’s capacity to act upon us, in pursuit of a more enlightened political ecology, is exciting, appearing to hold possibilities for an affective, critical spatial practice.
In the Jerwood Space in south London, March 5th 2014, objects, matter, bodies in alignment, make initial attempts at opening up Bennett’s ‘space of vibrancy’. We, the ‘actors’ (‘actants’?) explore the space, and seek out objects which speak to us, which resonate. If Bennett is correct, if her radical call for the application of Spinoza’s ‘bodies’, across human and non-human matter can awaken heightened engagement with the materiality of existence, a useful awareness of the vibrancy of matter, a radical political ecology, what might this vision entail for performance and devising processes?
In a roundabout way, Bennett’s task links me back to my early influence, polish director and artist Tadeusz Kantor. Kantor’s work on “Informel Theatre” progressed through objects of low rank, objects on the brink of being rubbish and being objects: like Bennett’s ‘shimmering’ objects. Objects which have lost their link with instrumentalism, are available to us in other ways:
‘the lower the rank of the object, the greater the chance of revealing its objectness’
Tadeusz Kantor, Theatre of the Fairground Booth, A Journey Through Other Places
‘Objects at the threshold of becoming matter – rage tatters junk garbage’
Tadeusz Kantor, The Informel Theatre, A Journey Through Other Places
Exploring non-representational uses of objects, Kantor’s methods encourage actor-object collaborations: the creation of “object characters” who are non-human, animate, pursuing desires and actions through integration of person and object. In this workshop, made possible by the generous support of the Jerwood Space, objects were encountered, actors tested and explored their capacity for movement, for sound, their textures, ways in which meaning is generated through a gestural encounter. The squeaking wheels and groaning wood of a piano became a barrier through which horror was both revealed and veiled. A cold, shimmering metal pole was balanced, appearing weightless, then dropped clattering to the ground, evoking a lightness of being with a sudden catastrophic weightedness. An almost functionless dustbin lid became the obscene stand-in for a murdered child, gesturing its own profanity even as it evoked the void of loss.
These objects when encountered with openness, as if active agents of meaning, responded, in a sense, to our offer. In contact and encounter, other meanings became generated, non-rational, powerful associations arise. The potential of ‘thing-power’, in the context of the affective site, seems to me to be promising, offering in-roads to creative engagement with the material traces in a site which, through their concrete materiality hold us in the present immediate physical moment, while also gesturing towards other layers of association.