The challenges posed by posthuman performativity, as formulated by Karen Barad (2003), which suggest that the category of human cannot be taken as given, and by zoe-centered egalitarianism, as proposed by Rosi Braidotti (2017), which demands us to broaden our view from bios, or human life, to encompass the wider zoe, or animal and nonhuman life, necessarily affect the way we make art and artistic research as well. Expanding our considerations beyond the human to consider all forms of life might seem like a utopian endeavour in a situation with increasing inequality among humans, although at the same time absolutely necessary for developing a sustainable way of living on this “damaged planet” (Tsing et al. 2017), not only for other beings threatened by the current mass extinction but indeed for humans as well. Braidotti’s use of the terms bios and zoe could be regarded as somewhat simplified and the suggestion to replace the idea of life understood as bios or human life with zoe, or all forms of life, not to mention her notion “zoe-centred egalitarianism” seem challenging, if not utterly utopian, in the midst of the current pandemic. Who would like to defend the rights of the virus to consume human lives, or question the rights of doctors to kill the virus in their patients? It is nevertheless a relevant starting point for considering ways of living together with other life forms that we are completely entangled with and dependent on. In the following I will approach the notion through the action of calling for zoe, for a creative force beyond the human, for a future to come, by using as an example a performance of calling the dragon.
Looking at the question from an artist’s practical perspective, beginning with the action rather than the notion, we could first ask, what is utopian in climbing up on the roof of a bunker once a week for a year in order to record on video the calling for a dragon with a small bell in the four cardinal directions? Some utopian aspects are fairly obvious, like calling for a dragon, an imaginary creature, that is not very likely to respond to or even recognise the call, and the repetition of that action, which makes it an everyday ritual or hopeful routine. While calling for an imaginary or perhaps non-existent creature is utopian in the sense of wishful thinking, the act of revisiting the documentation of such repeated calling is utopian, in the meaning of being overly optimistic, in hoping to extract some new understanding from old experiments. The dimension that is the most relevant, however, is the utopian dimension in the act of calling, calling for something to come. In evoking or calling or summoning something one is trying to bring forth the future; the future is created in the act of calling for it. We could even understand the role of art, and by extension artistic research, as engaged in exactly such a calling for a liveable future, a possible way of living to come.
Concerning the term utopia, I use it here in its everyday sense, as something idealised or wished for but beyond reach, bordering on the impossible. In order to reconsider my understanding of the term, I returned to a lecture at the opening of the seminar “On Utopias” in Theatre Academy in May 2002. After asking “Why deal with utopias, why not discuss the reality around us today?” and referring to a friend’s comment that we can discuss utopias only with concepts taken from reality, I rephrased the question as “What is the task of the artist in society?” Or more precisely: “What is my task as an artist in this society today?” (Arlander 2002) Instead of trying to reply for myself I presented an example from the Russian tradition, which demands the artist or poet to be a visionary, a prophet, and discussed an artistic utopia by the futurist poet Velimir Khlebnikov, his text “The radio of the future” as well as his idea of the supersaga. (Khlebnikov 1985) According him the artist’s building block is no longer the word, but the first-order narrative. I took it to mean that an artist could or should start with what is there and found it significant that Khlebnikov used an architectural metaphor. If you envision yourself as building something, questions of representation, self-expression or communication are not the immediate and pressing ones, because the basic task is to make a composition, which can stand on its own, in some way. His idea of the independence and freedom of the parts, I found beautiful and also utopian, because in an artwork or performance everything tends to be interdependent and influenced by the context. Nevertheless, I recommended that idea as a motto for anybody working together. Utopian or not, and perhaps rather anarchistic, in some sense I still might recommend the idea. Despite our growing understanding of our deep interdependence with everything that exists.
Thomas Moore’s famous Utopia was an island, a perfect imaginary world, and serves as a blueprint for all ideal model societies. The literal meaning of u-topia or no-place is traditionally linked to eu-topia or a good place, and to dystopia, a bad place, with the striving for eutopias often resulting in dystopias. The idea of utopias has been challenged by other approaches, like Michel Foucault’s heterotopias or counter sites, real places that form a spatial or temporal break within ordinary space, like prisons, hospitals, theatres, libraries, museums, brothels, gardens or even a ship. (Foucault 1986, 24) Many feminists have emphasized the importance of imagining alternative worlds. It is easy to agree with Donna Haraway when she writes of science fiction and string figures, noting how “[s]cience fact and speculative fabulation need each other, and both need speculative feminism” (Haraway 2016, 3). And with Elisabeth Grosz when she celebrates the power of art: “In making sensations live, each [artwork] evokes a people and an earth to come, each summons up and pays homage to imperceptible cosmic forces, each participates in the (political) overcoming of the present and helps bring a new, rich and resonating future into being.” (Grosz 2008, 103). I will return to the idea of calling for a future at the end of this text. It is important to add, however, that the practice I will describe was not consciously conceived as a utopian gesture. The utopian dimension is something I have associated with the work when reflecting on it afterwards, especially via the challenging notion of zoe-centered egalitarianism.
This exposition1 consists of this introductory page with the main essay, augmented with three pages presenting video compilations: two versions of a video depicting a revisit in 2019 to the site where Calling the Dragon was performed in 2012, surrounded by the original videos, and a page with some other videos from 2012 related to those works, providing some context. This essay is describing the performances, revisiting some texts written about them, presenting Braidotti’s notion zoe or nonhuman life, looking at the dragon as an example of zoe, and ending with some notes of an experiment with collective calling and its utopian potential.
Calling the Dragon Again
Recently my interest has been to explore how to perform together with entities unlike us, and especially plants. Therefore, it would be tempting to use as example one of my previous works of performing landscape, such as Year of the Rabbit – With a Juniper (2012), which involves plants. I so much liked performing with junipers, actually, that I continued performing with junipers during the year I was supposed to be focused on calling the dragon. I have used a video depicting my revisit to the Juniper as an example elsewhere2 and will here focus on the next year in the same series, performed in the lunar year of the dragon (2012-2013). Indeed, compared to a juniper, a dragon might provide even more of a challenge when trying to expand beyond the human in performance. And calling a dragon might suggest an even more utopian gesture than holding hands with a shrub. Compared with the problems involved in performing with other than human beings, like plants, the dragon is problematic in another sense. We could even say it is all too human, a product of human imagination. Or then not; perhaps there have been dragons at some point in time, and they are now extinct, probably.
The year of the dragon was the next to last in the series of Animal Years (2002-2014) created on Harakka Island in Helsinki and named after the Chinese calendar, using its recurring twelve-year cycle as a structuring device. The year of the dragon is exceptional compared to the other works in the series in the sense that the dragon is the only mythic animal of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac like the rat, the ox, the tiger, the rabbit and so on. During the year of the dragon (between February 4, 2012 and February 3, 2013), I chose to call the dragon by ringing a small bell from the rooftop of an old bunker in the southern part of Harakka Island in Helsinki, and to repeat the action in four directions, first with the left hand, then with the right hand, and then behind the camera. The idea of recording the view in four directions with the camera at the centre was as an echo of my action during the year of the tiger (2010), when I moved the camera around the square structure of an old stone base of a building to create four perspectives to the same place.
On 10th September 2019 I visited the site of my weekly visits, the roof of the old bunker again. The construction had undergone a total remake into a bird watching platform, with a staircase along one of its walls and rails all around the roof. Now recording the view in all four directions is no longer possible. What I recorded during the revisit was the view to the south and recreated only that part of the action.
The video compilation titled “Calling the Dragon Again (Bell)” (see page with the same name) is an excerpt of the recording of this recent revisit to the site where I performed Calling the Dragon once a week during the year of the dragon (2012-2013). Into this contemporary video I have inserted the four-channel installation Calling the Dragon (Bell), which shows the view from the roof of the bunker, recorded in the four directions. In this version you cannot see my body in the image, but only hear me ringing the bell. In another, longer version based on the same revisit, “Calling the Dragon Again (North, East, South, West)” (see page with the same name), I have inserted the full-length work Calling the Dragon (North, East, South, West), where the action of calling is visible, too. There I am ringing the bell with my right hand to the left of the image, then with my left hand to the right of the frame. Although the human body is not dominating the image, human presence is emphasized. For an entry into the emergency index catalogue, which includes performances made during the year 2012 I described the performances as follows:
“During the year of the dragon 2012 I am calling the dragon once a week from the roof of a bunker built after the Second World War for dismantling mines on Harakka Island in Helsinki. The roof would be a good landing platform for a small dragon, not for a creature the size of a helicopter. I am calling the dragon by ringing a small green ceramic bell bought outside a temple in Kyoto, Japan. I record the performance on video and make notes in a blog in three languages. I planned to begin at the Chinese New Year on January 23, but the first performance was delayed due to thaw season with bad ice.
Calling the Dragon is one part in a series of twelve one-year projects performed for camera on the same island. The series, which I began in 2002, is based on the Chinese calendar and its cycle of twelve years, with each year named after a specific animal. Every year I have looked for a new perspective on landscape, a new aspect of the environment and a new kind of relationship between the human body and the place. My working method utilizes the traditions of performance art, video art and environmental art, moving in the borderland between them.
The dragon is the only mythical creature among the animals of the calendar, representing creative (masculine) power or good luck. In European mythology the dragon is a horrible monster, something the hero must face in combat in order to win his princess. A dragon can also mean the border between the known and the unknown, as in old maps: “Here be dragons”. That is why I feel a dragon is something I can only call.
Approximately once a week I repeat the following action: Wrapped in a green scarf I climb up on the roof of the bunker and call the dragon by ringing the small bell in four directions, beginning by facing north; I continue facing east, then south and finally west and the open sea. In each image I ring the bell first from the left, then from the right and lastly from behind the camera on tripod in the centre. So far nothing resembling a dragon has responded to my calls, although the helicopters frequently flying over the island seem to appear in response to the sound of the tiny bell.” (Arlander 2013)
Here or somewhere-nowhere?
The difference between holding on to a juniper, right there, and calling for an imaginary dragon from somewhere, perhaps nowhere, relates to our relationship to utopias, to the future and to what is unknown. In an article about transpositions (Arlander 2018) I compared calling the dragon with the action of holding on to a juniper the previous year and wondered why some practices are easily re-routed or re-sited, while others are hard to transpose? Visiting a specific juniper weekly in a specific place in 2011 was easily extended to other junipers in other places or even transformed into looking for junipers in places without such shrubs. Calling the dragon from the rooftop of a bunker, on the contrary, was not easily re-sited, although no specific rootedness was preventing transposition. Despite repeated attempts I never succeeded in calling the dragon anywhere else. Simply ringing the bell in various places did not seem to be enough; it was too easy, an empty gesture. Perhaps the idea of calling the dragon was too abstract, although one could expect that an abstract idea would be easy to transpose. Relating to and holding on to something that was there, like the juniper, was easier than calling for something somewhere, possibly existing or perhaps non-existent, from nowhere, like a dragon.
The junipers I performed with and “held hands with” were concrete shrubs, tangible, very much existing and alive, whereas the dragon I called was an idea, a fantastic animal, a fictional creature. While ringing the bell on the rooftop I concentrated on listening to the sound of the bell and to potential responses, and also on vision, since from the rooftop I could see far and wide. The dragon I called was something I tried to imagine or just forgot, while being immersed in the view and the wind. Whereas every juniper I met was both a partner and a place, something to encounter and engage with, the dragon was a slightly scary idea, nothing that I really managed to visualize in a productive way, a utopian idea, possibly even dystopian in some manner.
Calling for something that might or might not exist rather than encountering and engaging with something that is actually growing there next to you, explains the difference in my experience during these two projects to some extent. As the juniper is a living creature, performing with it differs from ringing a ceramic bell to call for an imaginary being. If one of our tasks in creating a liveable future is to overcome the ubiquitous mind–matter dualism or its common extension animate–inanimate dualism, plants seem to be easier partners to rehearse with than fantasy figures. It would be tempting to think of the difference with the help of other dichotomies like the contrast between approaches in documentary film and fiction film, or the differences between traditional performance art, focused on presentation or ‘the real’ and theatre, concerned with representation and fiction. These dichotomies do not explain, however, why the imaginary, fantastic and seemingly more immaterial practice of calling the dragon was harder to transpose and relocate than the concrete and at least superficially more material and site-specific practice of holding on to a juniper. Is that a general human predicament, to prefer what is here and tangible to what is possible, perhaps imaginary or utopian, unknown and therefore potentially dystopian as well?
Perhaps only my limited sensory apparatus or my restricted imagination, or my understanding of these two faculties as mutually excluding, prevents me from seeing the bell or the dragon as alive in the same manner as the juniper. For queer theorist and physicist Karen Barad they would all be part of the performance of the universe. For her meaning or intelligibility are not restricted to humans. She consequently refuses to separate discourse and materiality and prefers to speak of material-discursive practices. “Discursive practices are the material conditions for making meaning […] [and] meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility” (Barad 2007, 335).
Already in her seminal article “Posthumanist performativity – toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter” in 2003 Barad proposed “a specifically posthumanist notion of performativity—one that incorporates important material and discursive, social and scientific, human and nonhuman, and natural and cultural factors.” She suggested that a posthumanist account must question “the givenness of the differential categories of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’, examining the practices through which these differential boundaries are stabilized and destabilized.” (Barad 2003, 808) In the same text she explicitly states: “All bodies, not merely ‘human’ bodies, come to matter through the world’s iterative intra-activity—its performativity. /--/ Bodies are not objects with inherent boundaries and properties; they are material-discursive phenomena. ‘Human’ bodies are not inherently different from ‘nonhuman’ ones. What constitutes the ‘human’ (and the ‘nonhuman’) is not a fixed or pregiven notion, but nor is it a free-floating ideality.” (Barad 2003, 823) According to Barad “theories that focus exclusively on the materialization of ‘human’ bodies miss the crucial point that the very practices by which the differential boundaries of the ‘human’ and the ‘nonhuman’ are drawn are always already implicated in particular materializations.” (Barad 2003, 824)
Inspired by Barad, we could perhaps investigate how dragons and non-dragons are mutually constituted. Here, let us rather take a look at the notion mentioned in the beginning, zoe.
Rosi Braidotti has proposed zoe or non-human life - as opposed to the human bios - to be regarded as the ruling principle to be adopted, in her article “Four theses on Posthuman Feminism” in 2017. Moreover, she has introduced the notion “zoe-centered egalitarianism” to designate our relationship with other life-forms. In her “vitalist approach to living matter” she “displaces the boundary between the portion of life – both organic and discursive – that has traditionally been reserved for Anthropos, that is to say bios, and the wider scope of animal and nonhuman life also known as zoe.” (Braidotti 2017, 32) For Braidotti the “dynamic, self-organising structure of life as zoe stands for generative vitality.” (Ibid.)
Braidotti argues “for an activist embrace of zoe” or nonhuman life, a zoe-centered rather than human-centred approach. She also notes, however, that becoming zoe-centered means “a radical break from established patterns of thought”, and introducing such a “radically immanent relational dimension” can be “emotionally demanding at the level of identity”, and can be expected to “involve a sense of loss and pain.” (Braidotti 2017, 30) Besides the difficulty of acknowledging our dependence of other forms of life and of realizing our misguided conception of our position in the world as humans, there are other risks involved with this change of attitude. “The biogenetic structure of contemporary capitalism involves investments in ‘life’ as an informational system” (Braidotti 2017, 31), and is thus already zoe-centered in some sense. Moreover, “stem cell research and biotechnological intervention upon humans, animals, seeds, cells, and plants pave the way for scientific and economic control and the commodification of all that lives,” (Ibid.) she notes. Today, “what constitutes capital value is the informational power of living matter itself”, she adds (Ibid.).
The notion zoe-centred egalitarianims is intended to counteract this situation. In response to the system of commodification of life, Braidotti proposes “species egalitarianism, which opens up productive possibilities of relations, alliances, and mutual specification” (Braidotti 2017, 32) She takes as her starting point “the pragmatic fact that, as embodied and embedded entities, we are all part of something we used to call ‘nature’, despite transcendental claims made for human consciousness.” (Ibid.) Her thinking is based “on a monistic ontology “, a “neo-Spinozist vital materialist philosophy”, and on that ground she proposes “cross-species alliances with the productive and immanent force of zoe, or life in its non-human aspect.” (Braidotti 2017, 31) She further explains her position by stating that “a Spinozist monistic allows us to move toward a dynamic, nonessentialist, and relational brand of materialist vitalism” which “results in the dislocation of difference from binaries to rhizomatics, from sex-gender or nature-culture to processes of differing that take life itself, or the vitality of matter, as the main subject.” (Braidotti 2017, 34)
Braidotti’s “relational ontology is zoe-centered and hence nonanthropocentric, but it does not deny the anthropologically bound structure of the human.” (Braidotti 2017, 32) Importantly, she distinguishes anthropomorphism from anthropocentrism. For Braidotti anthropomorphism is “our specific embodied and embedded location, and acknowledging its situated nature is the first step toward antiantropocentrism.” (Ibid.) There is no way of denying our partial perspective, our human sensorium and the specific capacities of our bodies. We have to accept being human, which is not to say that we should not value other forms of life. We need to acknowledge “a life that is not ours – it is zoe driven and geocentered.” (Braidotti 2017, 34) For humans, however, “it will always be anthropomorphic, that is to say, embedded and embodied, enfleshed, affective, relational.” (Braidotti 2017, 35) According to Braidotti it is only “by embracing resiliently our anthropomorphic frame and the limits and possibilities it entails that we can become creatively zoe-centered, opening up to possible actualization of virtual forces.” (Braidotti 2017, 35) She underscores how the “relational capacity of the posthuman subject is not confined within our species, but it includes all nonanthropomorphic elements, starting from the air we breathe.” (Braidotti 2017, 33) “Living matter – including embodied human flesh – is intelligent and self-organizing”, she writes, “but it is so precisely because it is not disconnected from the rest of organic life.” (Ibid.)
Braidotti explicitly writes: “Zoe-centered egalitarianism is, for me, the core of the postanthropocentric turn”, because “it is a materialist, secular, grounded, and unsentimental response to the opportunistic transspecies commodification of life that is the logic of advanced capitalism.” (Braidotti 2017, 32) Although she stresses the grounded, situated and embodied aspects the notion is nevertheless also easily dismissed as utopian or idealistic, as notions of egalitarianism tend to be. What could zoe-centered egalitarianism mean in practice, for this practice?
Rather than asking, inspired by Braidotti, whether dragons should be included in zoe, or not – and why wouldn’t they, if they exist, and regardless of in what way they exist – we could rather think of the act of calling the dragon. Perhaps calling the dragon could be seen as an act of calling for zoe, calling for the generative life force, which our planet and many humans clearly need in order to recover from the results of human destruction. A force not necessarily in the masculine as in Chinese mythology, or, not necessarily monstrous, as in European mythology, but of course possibly so.
What would it mean if the dragon responded? Is it really possible for humans to even consider zoe-centred egalitarianism, for example equal rights or equal value for all forms of life, or is such a notion much too utopian in current circumstances, with an increasing inequality among humans as a result of the climate crises, extractivist policies and environmental degradation that demands our attention? Perhaps we could take one further step and think of the act of calling as a tool for utopian thinking. What do we want to call for with regards to the future? Is calling for the dragon, for a vital life force or vitality enough?
If we think of the tools of art in the service of everyday utopias and as tools for developing our social imaginary, there are at least two dimensions that could be further developed. The first aspect involves intention and choice of focus; what are we calling for, what kind of creature (like a dragon) or force (like the vitality of zoe) are we calling for? And the second aspect is the ritual dimension, the repeated action of returning to a specific site with specific props, perhaps even at a specific time. Where are we repeating our act of calling (like the rooftop of a bunker) and in what manner (like ringing a bell)? The imaginary and ambiguous dimension is significant and one of the aspects that art can bring to the equation; what is called for is at least partly fictional or fantastic, and also ambivalent. The ritual dimension, the repetition as an embodied action, is the specific contribution that performance can bring.
In his provocative text The Disappearance of Rituals Han, Byung-Chul notes: “Rituals are symbolic acts. They represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based. They bring forth a community without communication; today, however, communication without community prevails.” (Han 2020, 1) He also observes how “[t]he neoliberal imperative of optimization and performance does not allow for any completion. Everything is provisional and incomplete; nothing is final and conclusive.” (Han 2020,28)
Utopian aspects are included in most forms of political thinking ranging from apocalyptic or messianic visions to practical tools for imagining and creating a future. The notion everyday utopias might seem like a contradiction in terms - utopia usually understood as what is not here, or anywhere, and at least not part of the everyday. As Davina Cooper (2014) has shown, however, a wide range of social experiments or alternative spaces can be understood as everyday utopias, from Summerhill school to Hyde Park corner or nudist bathing. Such attempts at being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, as the old slogan suggested, trying live now in a way you would like to live in your future utopia, have sometimes been dismissed by “real” revolutionaries as idealistic nonsense, or the pastime of ladies with flower hats. They could nevertheless be understood as a prefigurative politics of sorts, which has gained in importance today, when the Tina (there is no alternative) doctrine is challenged by various groups exploring post capitalist alternatives, and diverse experiments in sustaining life in the remaining ruins.
The creation of rituals could be undertaken as a prefigurative politics of sorts. Common rituals can be dangerous tools, however, as many extremist movements and religious sects have shown. If we approach rituals as everyday actions, shared habits for learning rather than sanctified ceremonies of inclusion and exclusion, they might nevertheless be useful. This is something that many indigenous societies could teach us more about, although there too, we need to proceed with caution, both in terms of not idealising a past folk knowledge which can include elements of superstition and misconceptions, too, and in terms of appropriating piecemeal elements of worldviews without understanding the full context they belong to. Calling the dragon can be hazardous in many ways.
As always, a core challenge is how to do it together without assuming togetherness as given. At the end of my proposal3 for a conference in Barcelona in 2013 (called “Re-routing a Performance Practice - Visiting a Juniper, Calling the Dragon” for the meeting of the Performance as Research Working Group of the IFTR, International Federation for Theatre Research) I wrote: “I would also like to conduct an experiment of collectively calling the dragon with the working group in Barcelona.” And this we did, following the tradition of the working group to engage in various types of collaborative and participatory exercises and workshops related to our papers. I had brought with me small bells and distributed them among the participants, inviting them to call for the dragon with the instruction that only one bell should be heard at a time. If two people began ringing their bells at the same time both should stop, which meant that people really had to listen to each other. And this worked surprisingly well as a tuning in exercise, making us all sensitive to each other and to what was happening in the room. The sound of the cheap bells I had brought with me was not very beautiful, and one of the participants exclaimed that it was significant that the black (actually dark green) ceramic bell that I initiated the calling with had such a beautiful sound. This gesture of calling the dragon as a collective action I remembered only now, while thinking about the act of calling for something as a technique of imagining the future, as a tool for bringing forth a utopian idea. If we want to develop the action of calling for something as a tool for social imagination, we might invite the participants to propose what kind of being or becoming - rather than a dragon - we should call for together...
My proposal, today, would be to call for zoe, and yes, zoe-centered egalitarianism, not in the shape of a dragon, but perhaps rather a tree - or better still, a forest of trees, with plants, animals and alfs, fairies, fungi and microbes, molecules and more – a forest that could help us in imagining a livable future and in learning how to participate in zoe.