Performance as Research Working Group 

 Proceedings of the meeting at the IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) conference, University of Hyderabad, India 6.-10.7.2015. 

Vegetal Democracy and Performance as Research


Annette Arlander


In recent years many attempts at moving beyond an anthropocentric perspective have been made. One example is the notion vegetal democracy, a principle that concerns all species without exception, developed by Michael Marder. The division of the world into mineral, vegetal and animal kingdoms, “the great chain of being” with rocks at the bottom and humans at the top is a traditional stratification that influences our way of making and understanding performances. In his study Plant-Thinking (2013) Marder offers a critique of this legacy by proposing a vegetal anti-metaphysics. Although more focused on philosophy than vegetation his work prompts us to reconsider our relationship to the environment. 


According to Marder an inherent divisibility and participation are paramount in the life of plants; a vegetal being must “remain an integral part of the milieu wherein it grows” and its relation to the elements is not domineering but receptive. (Marder 2013, 69.) For him “the vegetal democracy of sharing and participation is an onto-political effect of plant-soul” which must “eschew the metaphysical binaries of self and other, life and death, interiority and exteriority”. Moreover, “every consideration of a post-foundational, post-metaphysical ethics and politics worthy of its name must admit the contributions of vegetal life to … the non-essentialized mode of ‘living with’”. (Marder 2013, 53.) What this vegetal democracy might mean in practice, however, Marder does not explain. 


How could the idea of vegetal democracy help us develop the methodologies of performance as research? Divisibility and participation make sense in many types of performances, whether in terms of a collaborating ensemble working collectively with their audience, trying to avoid the traditional hierarchies of theatre production, or a small assemblage of camera, body, swing and tree, as in my example performances. Remembering and articulating the material-discursive practices involved (Barad 2007) and the relationship to natureculture (Haraway 2003), the milieu, the “when and where” something takes place, would probably take us a long way towards a more inclusive understanding of performance as research. 


In this text – very much a work in progress – I continue the discussion from my paper for the working group meeting at the conference in Warwick “Performing with plants – challenges to traditional hierarchies?” and include some sections of that paper here, too.  (For those of you who read this paper for the meeting in Warwick, I apologize for the repetition. I attach a small video documentation of the swinging in Warwick, towards the end, including the questions based on Marder's thoughts as an appendix.) Meanwhile I have also published an article referencing the work of Michael Marder and dealing with related topics, “Working with a Witches’ Broom / Att arbeta med en Markvast” (Arlander 2014), which is available on the web. (The exposition is bilingual; choose English for the English version.) In the following I will repeat parts of the same discussion and use a further development of my practice of swinging, what I call swinging together, as an example. 


The Great Chain of Being


Scholars and environmentalists like David Abram (2011) have analyzed the legacy of “the great chain of being” in western thought, the hierarchy from spirit to matter, and argued that we should look at matter in a different way. If we consider matter animate or self-organizing rather than inert, Abram notes, then the hierarchy collapses and we have instead a differentiated field of animate beings. And as humans we find ourselves in the “midst of this living field, our own sentience part and parcel of the sensuous landscape.” (Abram 2011, 47)


Abram maintains that the detached stance of science is dependent upon a more visceral reciprocity between the human organism and its world. The organs and tissues of every earthly organism are shaped by what he calls “the ageless intercourse between the body and the earth”, their coevolution. The eyes looking through the microscopes or the intelligence interpreting data are formed in participation with the rest of the animate landscape (Abram 2011, 73-74). Unlike the Cartesian assumption “[o]ur animal senses are neither deceptive nor untrustworthy; they are our access to the cosmos”, he claims (Abram 2011, 307). 


Abram points out that we can effect our own integration and coherence only by entering into relation with others. And such others need not be people, but they could be “wetlands, or works of art, or snakes slithering through the stubbed grass”, since each thing, if given attention, can gather our senses together in a unique way. According to Abram each being that we perceive enacts a subtle integration within us and alters our prior organization. “The sensing body is like an open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the surrounding earth” (Abram 2011, 254). This becomes evident for instance in the experience of swinging, where the tree, the swing, the moving body all work together and constitute the action of swinging.


Along the same lines, although from a post-cognitivist rather than phenomenological perspective, theatre scholar Teemu Paavolainen, in the introduction to his doctoral dissertation Theatre / Ecology / Cognition, Theorizing Performer - Object Interaction in Grotowski, Kantor and Meyerhold (University of Tampere 2011, or Palgrave 2012), discusses our heritage of “the great chain of being” with humans at the top and inanimate objects at the bottom. He looks at the replacement worry produced by the switching of functions of the human and the object-like, which is linked to the assumption of a prior existence of two distinct kinds of entities. It is this duality of subjects and objects, which he (and many others) wants to call into question, and thus also the very idea of a definite boundary between an actor and the surrounding world. He proposes an ecological epistemology, in which actors and objects, emerge in horizontal couplings over a field of relationships. (Paavolainen 2011, 24) Based on the psychology of J.J Gibson he suggests that the relationship of actors and objects consists of affordances. (Paavolainen 2011, 52) Although he speaks of theatre, his focus on blurring boundaries between the performer and the surrounding world is relevant for a broad spectrum of performances, including my examples of swinging together, whether as participant or viewer.


Jane Bennett (2010) takes this kind of thinking one step further by asserting the agency of assemblages. She tries to develop a distributive agency based on Spinoza’s “affective” bodies and Deleuze’s and Guattari’s “assemblages”. Due to the so-called globalization the earth itself has become a space of events with its parts both interconnected and conflictual. This coexistence of mutual dependency with friction and violence between parts, calls for new conceptualizations of the part-whole relation to replace old organicist models, in which each member obediently serves the whole, Bennett suggests. She chooses to speak of assemblages, which are “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts”, or “living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within”. Power is not distributed equally across their surface, nor does a central head govern them. The effects generated by an assemblage are emergent properties, with an ability to make something happen. Besides the vital force of each member there is efficacy proper to the grouping: an agency of the assemblage, she explains. An assemblage is never a solid block but an open-ended collective, a “non-totalizable sum” with a history of formation and a finite lifespan, she notes. (Bennett 2010, 23-24) 


Further along the path we would encounter Karen Barad’s ideas of material-discursive practices that constitute subjects and objects. According to her, the split into subject and object is enacted in each case, rather than given. “Intra-actions include the larger material arrangement (i.e., a set of material practices) that effect an agential cut between ‘subject’ and ‘object’ (in contrast to the more familiar Cartesian cut which takes this distinction for granted). That is, the agential cut enacts a resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological or semantic indeterminacy” (Barad, 2007, pp. 139-140). For Barad the primary ontological units are not ‘things’ but phenomena — dynamic topological reconfigurings/ entanglements/ relationalities/ (re)articulations of the world. And the primary semantic units are not ‘words’ but material-discursive practices through which (ontic and semantic) boundaries are constituted. /--/ The universe is agential intra-activity in its becoming” (Barad, 2007, p. 141). The fact that apparatuses are productive of the phenomena they measure does not mean that reality is a product of human concepts, Barad maintains; rather, concepts are specific material arrangements (Barad 2007, p. 334). For her, discourse is not a synonym for language and meaning or intelligibility are not a human-based notions. “Discursive practices are the material conditions for making meaning […] [and] meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility” (Barad 2007, p. 335).


Vegetal Democracy


In his book Plant – Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013) Michael Marder presents the notion vegetal democracy. He stresses the importance of understanding vegetal life for our attempts at avoiding metaphysical dualism and understanding what it means to “live with” other beings. He analyses historical attempts at describing the plant soul, starting with the legacy of Plato and Aristotle and states, “the dispersed life of plants is a mode of being in relation to all the others, being qua being-with.” (Marder 2013, 51.) In his opinion “all creatures share something of the vegetal soul and are alive in the most basic sense insofar as they neither coincide with themselves nor remain self-contained, but are infinitely divisible below the death masks of their identities” (Ibid.) For him the “shared divisibility of all living beings, first honed in the acts of the vegetal soul, pertains to the workings of the soul in general”, and for “the psyche to live it must receive guidance from the vegetal principle of divisibility, constantly becoming other to itself; in other words, it must be temporal through and through.” (Ibid.) 


Marder describes further how the psychic principles already in Plato have analogues in the political sphere, in the form of metaphysical justifications for a fixed distribution of power, Plato’s Republic being a case in point. There desire (the appetitive soul) is combined with the workers, courage (the spirited part of the soul) with the guardians and thinking (the rational soul) with the philosopher-kings. Marder is “adopting Plato’s psycho-politics rid of its hierarchical component” and proposing the term ‘vegetal democracy’ to designate “the potential political effects of plant-soul.” (Ibid.)


For Marder the principles of inherent divisibility and participation are paramount in the life of plants as well as in vegetal democracy. This means that vegetal democracy concerns all species without exception. (Marder 2013, 51-52.) For him the plant soul is “consonant with life’s hospitality” and stands for what is common and inclusive, not as a “naturalized foundation for actual and ideal democratic regimes” between autonomous individuals, but as a more basic principle of sharing. The generosity of the plant-soul, “giving itself without reserve to everything and everyone that lives, transcribes vegetal democracy into an ethical politics”, he writes, “free of any expectations of returns from the other.” (Marder 2013, 52.) According to Marder vegetal democracy brings together all ”growing things”, because “[l]ike plants, animals and humans too are ‘growing things’, even if in addition to the growth of hair, nails, claws, fur, or feathers, they exhibit other kinds of growth that are experiential, intellectual and so on. (Ibid.) 


Marder wants to distance himself from vitalism, however, and carefully explains how we have to “acknowledge the infinite differentiations, the ‘striatedness’ of the field of vitality, as well as the blurring of clear demarcations between life and death in the wake of Derridian deconstruction” with spectrality and survival as the shifting margins. Thus vegetal democracy does not advocate “a naive vitalism that would insulate life and the living from death; quite the contrary, it situates ‘participation in life’ in an intimate relation to mortality.” (Ibid.) In passing one may note that so does a vitalist and matter-realist like Rosi Braidotti, too (see Braidotti 2013, 95, 130-133.). She speaks of an expanded notion of matter, a ‘radical neo-materialism or ‘matter-realism’ and suggests that “‘matter-realists’ combine the legacy of post-structuralist anti-humanism with the rejection of the classical opposition ‘materialism/idealism’ to move towards ‘Life’ as a non-essentialist brand of contemporary vitalism and as a complex system.” (Braidottti 2013, 158.). 


Marder summarises: “If the vegetal democracy of sharing and participation is an onto-political effect of plant-soul, then it must, like this very soul, eschew the metaphysical binaries of self and other, life and death, interiority and exteriority.” (Marder 2013, 53.) What this vegetal democracy might mean in practice, however, Marder does not discuss or explain. Some hints can nevertheless be obtained from his idea of a plant as a collective being, its body  “a non-totalizing assemblage of multiplicities”. The body politics of vegetal democracy must be distinguished from organic models, he maintains. (2013, 85). ”To live is to be superficial and dis-organized: to exist outside the totality of an organism: to be a plant”, Marder (2013, 84) exclaims. The plant is not an organism consisting of organs, he notes, its parts transcend the distinction between “part” and “whole”; they are both members of a plant and independent entities in their own right, constituting a provisional unity of multiplicities. The plant is a collective being, a loose community, which is not interlaced by an inner essence. (Ibid.)


The plant, whose forms and functions are fluid, is not an organism but what Deleuze and Guattari term “a body without organs”, a mode of dis-organization, “a pure multiplicity of immanence”, Marder states (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 157, cited in Marder 2013, 84.). He is astonished by these thinkers’ way of choosing a plant, a tree, as an example of hierarchical organisation, when they write: “The tree articulates and hierarchizes tracings; tracings are like the leaves of a tree.” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 12, cited in Marder 2013, 84.). The leaf, however, is not an organ of a larger whole or a derivation from the original stem-root structure, Marder points out, but “an infinitely iterable and radically egalitarian building block of the tree”, because it is at the same time “the source, the product, and the minute reproduction of vegetal being, from which it may at any time fall away.” (Marder 2013, 84-85.). The plant is overturning the value difference between copies versus originals in a veritable anarchy, he notes, since its ‘body without organs’ maintains conceptual horizontality even in the verticality of a tree. In their interpenetration plant life and the vegetal inheritance of human existence shake up the metaphysical distinction between sameness and otherness. (Marder 2013, 85.)


Photosynthesis and plant-thinking


In everyday understanding photosynthesis or the plants’ capability of transforming carbon dioxide, water and energy to carbohydrates and oxygen is probably the most remarkable characteristic for vegetal life. Plants can combine water and carbon dioxide with the help of the energy in sunlight because of their chlorophyll. The chlorophyll molecules function as some kind of light absorbing antennae, which take in light and transmit it to the reaction centre. Photosynthesis forms the basis of the food chain humans and other animals are part of. Thus one could say that plants are the true creators of our world; they produce both the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, the base our life in its present form relies on. Surprisingly, Marder shows hardly any interest in this fact. He is simply more focused on historical philosophical ways of understanding the specificity of plants than the plants themselves or their way of life. He mentions photosynthesis once, in the chapter on the body of plants and the destruction of metaphysics, while describing plants as the mediators between heaven and earth:


Non-conscious vegetal striving towards the sun is the prototype of conscious life in German pan-psychism and in dialectics, Marder points out, but the plant’s intentionality is not unidirectional, since the roots, too, seek nutrients, sense the humidity of the soil, and avoid nearby roots; it is rather a combination of passive growth and an active “foraging” for resources, he notes. According to Marder, “the plant has a world (if not worlds) of its own, if in this ‘having’ we manage to discern the overtones of a non-appropriative relation to the environment, with, in and as which vegetal beings grow.” (Marder 2013, 159.) He compares vegetal intentionality and the dynamic extension of plants with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s pre-reflective intentionality of corporeity and the body’s non-conscious motility. “For the corporeal and the vegetal intentionalities, the subject/object dichotomy is irrelevant; their acts of living do not ‘objectivate’ that towards which they orient themselves…” (Ibid.)


While analysing their relationship to the environment he observes that plants seem not to be obliged to separate themselves from their surroundings, to negate their connection to a place, in order to fully become themselves through this oppositional stance, like other types of subjectivity. In order to exist a vegetal being must “remain an integral part of the milieu wherein it grows.” A plant’s relation to the elements is not domineering but receptive, as when a flower or leaf turn their widest surfaces to the sun, or the way the root imbibes everything, whether nutrients or poisonous substances, in the soil into which it burrows, he adds. (Marder 2013, 69.) Further than that, however, he does not analyse the role of plants in what could be called the primary production of the conditions for animal, including human, life.


It Thinks


Marder presents his reflections on vegetal intelligence as a footnote to Nietzsche’s suggestion that, in the re-evaluation of all values, “one should start with the ‘sagacity’ of plants.” (Nietzsche 1968, 349, cited in Marder 2013, 151.) To do that one must begin by reckoning their mode of being and “transposing the functions of the vegetal soul onto the discourse of thinking”. (Marder 2013, 152.) According to him the “non-conscious intentionality of vegetal life” amounts to an essentialism-free way of thinking that is fluid, receptive, dispersed, non-oppositional, non-representational, immanent, and material-practical, provided that these descriptors are extracted from their metaphysical context. He tries to formulate a post-metaphysical way of thinking by focusing on “the suppressed vegetal sources of human thought, which is both an idealizing and an idealized permutation of plant-thinking.” (Marder 2013, 152.)


A human being who thinks like a plant becomes a plant, since the destruction of classical logos annihilates the thing that distinguishes us from other living beings, Marder observes, responding to Deleuze and Guattari’s injunction “Follow the plants!” (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 11, cited in Marder 2013, 165.) by engaging in irreverent plant-thinking, on the path of becoming-plant. Thinking like a plant means to think without following the prescriptions of formal logic and therefore, in some sense, not to think, he notes. Thinking is not the sole privilege of the human subject, which leads him to introduce the notion it thinks:


[A]side from altering the form of thought (which becomes inseparable from its opposite, the non-thought), and changing its content (which includes contradictions), “non-identical thinking” indicates freedom from the substantive and self-enclosed identity of the thinkers themselves. In place of the Kantian transcendental synthesis of I think that supposedly accompanies all my representations, plant-thinking posits it thinks, a much more impersonal, non-subjective, and non-anthropomorphic agency. (Marder 2013, 165.)


The vegetal it thinks, which might mean for instance a tree that thinks, refers to a much more undecided subject as well, like in the expression it rains. It thinks is not concerned with “who or what does the thinking?” but “when and where does thinking happen?” he explains, because it arises from and returns to the plant’s embeddedness in the environment. All radically contextual thought is an inheritor of vegetal life, as are texts that lay bare and reveal their own margins, he adds, and lists as methodological inheritors hermeneutics, historicism, immanent criticism, and deconstruction. (Marder 2013, 169.). He tries to formulate the lived spatio-temporal conditions of thought and notes that plant-thinking happens 


(1) when the presumed self-identity of ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’ that populate a given milieu recedes, allowing a rhizomatic assemblage to surge up to the foreground, to be activated by sharing difference among its various nodes, and

(2) where the spacings and connections, communication lines and gaps between the participants in this assemblage prevail over what is delimited within them. (Ibid.). 


Marder expresses his belief in a poetic phrasing: “When it thinks, it does so non-hierarchically and, like the growing grass, keeps close to the ground, to existence, to the immanence of what is ‘here below’”. (Ibid.). He defines the thinker as well: “At the core of the subject who proclaims: ‘I think’, lies the subjectless vegetal it thinks, at once shoring up and destabilizing the thinking of this ‘I’”. (Marder 2013, 170.).


Vegetal democracy and performance as research


What could be drawn out of these thoughts on plant-thinking to help us develop the methodologies of performance as research? To think of rhizomatic assemblages instead of self-identical subjects makes sense in many types of performances, whether in terms of a collaborating ensemble working collectively, trying to avoid the traditional hierarchies of the theatre stage, or a small assemblage of agents like the tree, the swing and the bodies in my examples, augmented by camera, editing and projector as well. To think of the sites of connections and gaps between the participants rather than the participants themselves as self-enclosed entities is relatively easy to understand through the legacy of theatrical traditions emphasizing ensemble. It is not what you do but how your colleagues respond to your action that produces the character on stage, to think of one obvious example. It is not what happens in the image but how the action in the image is connected to the following one that creates the rhythm in my examples. To focus on relationships and connections between human actors, whether performers or other contributors to a performance is fairly easy to remember, I guess, even in traditional forms, where the division of labour and the hierarchies of production never completely obscure the ethos of the whole being more than the parts. But to extend this understanding to thinking that extends beyond the whole and the parts, and to include the various material-discursive practices and conditions for action is another thing. The main point is remembering and articulating the relationship to “an outside”, a site and context, a system, an environment, a milieu, the “when and where” something takes place rather than focusing on who does it. And this can sometimes be difficult with regard to performance practices, which are so focused on human beings, highlighted and deliberately “ taken out” of their context. To focus on the contextual requirements and assumptions could probably take us a long way towards a more inclusive and systemic understanding of performance practices.


Swinging together 

Usually my main focus has been in the relationship to environmental elements, and landscape in a broad sense. In the following examples a collective of performers brings us a little bit closer to the notion of vegetal democracy, or at least an appearance of it.

The idea of documenting various people swinging in the same swing and editing their action into a continuous movement formed one part of the project “Year of the Snake Swinging” (2014), which served as an example in the previous version of this paper. In one of the video works created on Harakka Island, “Year of the Snake – Swinging Along” 2014 (26 min. 30 sec.) people visiting or working on the island sit for a while in a swing attached to an aspen on the western shore approximately once a week during the year of the snake between 10 February 2013 and 28 January 2014.  Each time I went to fasten the small blue swing in the tree on the shore and to document my swinging on video, I asked a colleague or temporary visitor on the island to join me, to sit in the swing for a while, and thus to perform in my video work. Some days there was no visitor accompanying me to the swing, and consequently some sessions with an empty swing are inserted between the images of swingers in this version of the video.  


In another, shorter version edited of the same material, “Year of the Snake – Swinging Along (mix)” 2014 (3 min. 40 sec.) I inserted me swinging in the place of the images of the empty swing. By editing the material in such a way that the movement of the swing seems continuous, not only the time lapse between sessions (approximately once a week) is overcome, but also one person is smoothly transformed into another person and they form a continuous succession of swingers. The actual people never met each other, though.


Swinging together took place as part of a workshop at the working group meeting last year, and the documentation is edited into a video called “Swinging at Warwick” (1 min 29 sec.) In this brief video clip some of the participants in the meeting of the Performance as Research Working Group of the IFTR (International Federation for Theatre Research) are swinging during and after a workshop at the conference in Warwick on 29 July 2014. The workshop, which included a section with the swing, was prepared for the working group by Juan Manuel Aldape Munoz, Stephanie Bauerochse and Annette Arlander. During the official session some questions inspired by Michael Marder's book Plant-Thinking, A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013) were presented to the swingers, which they could think about while swinging and answer afterwards. Some extra swinging, just for the experience, took place after the workshop as well. 


Already the previous year, while the work “Year of the Snake - Swinging” was still in the making I presented the project in a workshop, which is documented on the video “Swinging with the Snake in Stanford” (52 sec.) This video clip is a brief documentation of the presentation of the work Year of the Snake - Swinging that took place on June 27th 2013 at the Porous Studio organized by the Artists' Committee of PSi (Performance Studies International) at the conference PSi #19 at Stanford University. The participants testing the swing are Ray Langenbach, Johanna Householder, Angel Viator Smith, Jenni Kokkomäki, Pamela Davis Kivelson and Annette Arlander. In this first joint experiment focus was on experiencing the magnificent tree; the documentation on video was not really planned. Thus the camera angle is rather strange and the image is more or less haphazardly framed.


These workshops at conferences were not conceived as artworks but more like experiential demonstrations. Only after finishing my project on Harakka island, when the four-channel installation Year of the Snake – Swinging had been presented in an exhibition at Muu gallery and the whole twelve year project was over, did I start thinking of how to develop swinging into a live performance. One of the inspirations for experimenting with outdoor projections was a description of Lorie Novak projecting an image of her mother on vegetation at night (Hirsch in Smith & Watson 2002, 248). I have combined live action with the projected image of a similar action before, starting with Tuulikaide – Wind Rail (12.-13.10.2002.) but not projected a video onto the site where it was recorded. During the summer 2014 I made two experiments with a new type of participatory performances that consist of two parts: The first part is a participatory pre-performance with the participants swinging, documented on video. The second part is a solo performance with me swinging in relationship to the projected image of the documentation of the participatory event. The main point is that the image is projected onto the site of its making. 


“Swinging Tonight” in Suomenlinna and “Swinging in Moonlight” on Harakka Island were performances with projections created in the same places. I fastened the same blue swing on a tree, invited the public to swing, and documented their swinging on video. In the actual performance, more than a month later, the edited video was projected onto the same site while I tried to swing synchronized with the swinging in the image, which forms a ghostly shadow with its own will to the swinging. 


The first participatory pre-performance took place at the “t0NiGHt” event in Suomenlinna 23 -24 May. I invited those present to swing in a tree next to gallery Augusta just before sunrise. For the actual performance at the next “t0NiGHt” event 25- 26 July the edited video was projected on the roof next to the tree, while I tried to swing synchronized with it for approximately 90 minutes. The first minute was recorded and some images remain. 


The second participatory pre-performance took place at the opening of the exhibition “Water Images” on Harakka Island 29 May 2014, with the swing fastened to an old birch in the yard. The actual performance took place at the Moonlight Party on 9 August 2014 on the same site. The projection was visible against the white trunk of the birch at night. Part of the performance was recorded.


Of these two experiments the second one was more successful, partly due to a more suitable site, partly due to the more informal character of the events on Harakka, a site more familiar to me, and of course also as a result of learning from experience. Only in the second experiment, for instance, did I ask the participants to write down their names in order to be able to include them in the credits. The solo performance part of the first experiment was the part I was most unhappy with, since I explored many unnecessary movements, tried to copy the actions of the swingers, changed direction in the swing and so on. Only during the second experiment did I relax, enjoy the swinging and take advantage of the durational character of the performance to let go of the internalized demand to maintain the attention of the audience and focus on creating a mobile image. 


The participatory dimension in these experiments was modest, in the sense that the participants were actually performing more like extras in my show, fulfilling my demands, as it were, rather than creating a work of their own. And the idea of togetherness is relative, since people were swinging each at their turn. Unlike in my first experiments of swinging along during the year of the snake, where each visitor was swinging alone, in the later experiments people were able to witness each other swinging, to encourage each other, and so on. In the pre-performance the participants seemed to enjoy the experience of swinging, and the idea of being documented did not disturb most of them but spurred many of them into action. As a performance or artwork the act of swinging together, one after the other, was confusing for some spectators, though, since it did not have any conceptual or critical dimension; what was the point? Some accepted that the main thing was the experience. In the second part of the performance, the solo with the projection, the people who had witnessed the first part enjoyed seeing themselves, although the projected image was so blurred that it was hard to distinguish who was swinging; the movement was discernible like a ghostly shadow with its own will.


These examples of participatory action are not emancipatory or democratic in any traditional sense. The final image produces some form of “democracy”, however, at the level of the image, by turning everybody into equal elements in the same movement. Individual characteristics are basically preserved, but organised in a way that emphasizes the shared continuous movement. One swinger is composed of many participants or many participants produce the appearance of one swinger, as it were. Thus some form of divisibility and multiplicity is created, perhaps even resembling a vegetal democracy of sorts, although realized in a rather paradoxical way; everybody is turned into a more or less vague shadow in the end.  On the level of imagery we could perhaps nevertheless speak of vegetal democracy in the sense of a “living (or swinging) with…” 




Video documentation of swinging in Warwick, 2014.

Note / Appendix 


The following questions are inspired by Michael Marder 2013. Plant-Thinking. A Philosophy of Vegetal Life. New York: Columbia University Press. Some of them were presented for the working group while swinging together at the meeting in Warwick 2014:


How can we think of “inherent divisibility and participation,” the dispersed life of plants as a model for ‘being-with’ in performance or performance-as research?


How can we “eschew the metaphysical binaries of self and other, life and death, interiority and exteriority” in performance-as-research?


What could returning to the middle, to ‘between heaven and earth’, mean within performance-as research?


How can we avoid subject-object dichotomies?


Can we understand performance practices through ‘pre-reflective intentionality’?


What would it mean to emphasize receptiveness?


In what way could performance-as-research “remain an integral part of the milieu where it grows”?


How is performance-as-research something collective, without a ‘part and whole’ distinction?


Is performance and performance-as-research overturning the hierarchy of copies versus originals?


What would it mean to say of a performance (or performance-as-research) that ‘it thinks’?


Could performance-as-research be a form of thinking with life (Bergson)?


Could performance-as-research focus on the system of organism and environment (Bateson)?


Does performance-as-research necessarily include a rhizomatic connection to an ‘outside’ (Deleuze & Guattari)?


What happens if we start asking ‘when and where’ instead of ‘who’?


In what way could we look at assemblages instead of subjects and objects, connections and gaps rather than entities?

Video links


“Year of the Snake – Swinging Along” 2014 (26 min. 30 sec.) HD 16:9


“Year of the Snake – Swinging Along (mix)” 2014 (3 min. 40 sec.) HD 16:9


“Swinging at Warwick” 29th July 2014 (I min 29 sec.)


“Swinging with the Snake in Stanford” 27th June 2013 (52 sec.)


“Swinging Tonight” 25th July 2014 (1 min 1 sec.)


“Swinging in Moonlight” 9th August 2014 (4 min 11 sec)



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Arlander, Annette. 2014. “Working with a Witches’ Broom / Att arbeta med en markvast” In Maarit Mäkelä & Jyrki Siukonen (eds.) Materiality and Artistic Research. Ruukku – Studies in Artistic Research #3.


Arlander, Annette. 2012. Performing Landscape – Notes on Site-specific Work and Artistic Research. Texts 2001-2011. Acta Scenica 28. Helsinki: Theatre Academy Helsinki.


Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.


Bennett, Jane. 2010. Vibrant Matter, a political ecology of things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.


Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge, UK; Malden MA: Polity Press.


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