Material for the presentation in the PAR (Performance as Research) working group of IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) conference in Reykjavik 20-24.6.2022 see https://iftr.org/conference/past-conferences/2020s
Shifting the focus in performance as research - presentation
In the current climate crises, and accompanying ecological disasters, environmental injustices and species extinctions, the various forms of performing arts have been and are obliged to respond and shift their centre of attention from a narrow focus on human relationships to broader considerations of sharing the earth and the biosphere, with other life forms, learning to living together. Performance as research, too, must ask, how can we contribute to constructive posthumanist approaches?
My focus has been mainly in working with trees. In my current project Pondering with Pines (https://ponderingwithpines.wordpress.com) and the podcast Talking with Trees I build on experiences from the project Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees (https://meetingswithtrees.com) In the background I will show you some material related to my practice with a pine tree in Kaivopuisto Park in Helsinki, first a small split screen video, and then an unedited video clip, which shows the recording of my last session with the pine before I came here, on 18 June and where you can see the practice. The final time-lapse video will probably be a three-channel installation where you see only short fragments of each session.
In my abstract I proposed to take Craig Holdrege’s (2013) ideas on plants as teachers of transformation and context as a starting point for discussing possible methods for reconsidering our priorities in practice. And I hoped it could take place as part of a collaborative performance conversation related to the question “How can PAR methodology be used to address and/or intervene in our uncertain and constantly shifting environmental reality? Can PAR forge a pathway for a posthumanist view?”
The questions I proposed in the abstract are the following: What kind of methods of performing can be used in performing together with a tree? Is anthropomorphizing the only solution? Can we imagine alternatives to role play and phantasy? What can be learned from so called marginal traditions?
As Maya pointed out to me pines are themselves performing, and they have been doing that long before humans “entered the stage” of the biosphere. The problem is rather, how can humans perform with the pines.
While we watch the video, I will read a short section from the end of a book called Performing and Thinking with Trees, that is published later this year. There I speak of my practice with a pine in Nobelparken in Stockholm, which is rather similar to the one you can see on the video from Helsinki.
Plants can serve as teachers in very tangible ways, not only in how they respond to their site and situation but also in their embodiment of a processual way of being.In his remarkable book Thinking like a Plant (2018), Craig Holdrege takes up Goethe’s idea of plant metamorphosis and works with plants as pedagogical tools. The titles of the main chapters of his book give an idea of his approach: 1) From Object Thinking to Living Thinking 2) Rooted in the World 3) The Plant as Teacher of Transformation 4) The Plant as Teacher of Context 5) The Story of an Organism, and 6) Conclusion: A Quiet Revolution. Based on my experiences performing with trees, the idea of learning about transformation and process, as well as of site and context, from trees makes much sense. As “the plant grows and transforms according to its own inner pattern” it is “adjusting itself at all times to what it takes in from the environment” in a manner that is “dynamic, connected, resilient, and … always in relation to the world into which it grows”. “Why can’t we be like that?” Holdredge asks and suggests we adopt plants as “our teachers of living thinking”. On the one hand, plants are experts in site-specificity, as noted before; a plant reveals in its body “the environment of which it is a part” in such a way that by observing plants, “we are seeing through them the qualities of the environment”. They can teach us that “life is eminently contextual”.  On the other hand, we can learn transformation from plants, understanding the “rhythmic interplay of growth and decay” of “an organism that manifests itself over time” to become aware of life as “unfolding, growing and dying, transformation, dynamism, rhythm, and a unifying stream of creativity that brings forth diversity in an organism”. The trees are in a process of constant transformation, albeit more slowly. Trees can teach us “to establish a dynamic cognitive relation to the world” so that “our thinking becomes more dynamic”. Holdrege summarizes: “The plant shows us how to live in transformation; it shows us context sensitivity; it shows us the unique nature of organisms; it shows us how to overcome an object-relation to the world.” Or, to express it more modestly, plants can help us understand and value transformation and context or process and place, if only we regard them as our teachers. And surely there are other qualities or skills we can learn from plants, especially trees, such as patience and perseverance, or how to become still and silent for a moment, or to appreciate how remarkable some beings are, even ones we previously thought unremarkable.
Based on my experiences during these two projects, Performing with Plants and Meetings with Remarkable and Unremarkable Trees, I can say that one can enlist trees as teachers in various ways, depending on one’s focus. At the moment of this writing, I am visiting a pine tree in Nobelparken in Stockholm on the days I stay in the city, and my practice is divided into three actions or poses performed for the camera with the pine. First, I practice power, rootedness and grounding by doing the tree pose from Taiji, with bent knees, straight back and arms raised in front of me at shoulder height while facing the pine. Then I practice expansion, stretch and balance by reaching up on my toes towards the sky with the help of the branches of the pine, and finally I rest and receive support and energy by leaning on the pine’s trunk, learning about empathy with “all our relatives” in the world. And as befits a performance-as-research approach, I did not begin by thinking about what I should learn or what the pine tree could teach me. Rather, I began with practicing these poses again and again while considering what those poses and the pine might teach me only later on, thus exploring and learning by doing, first performing with and then thinking with the tree.
So, back to the questions: What kind of methods of performing can be used in performing together with a tree? Besides these examples I have tried writing letters to trees and also talking with trees. What else could I practice together with a pine tree? I invite you to share your experiences and give me advice how I could further develop my practice of pondering with pine trees.