Boyan Manchev

Main content and navigation area

What Do the Things Want?

Dynamic Ontology and the Future of Performance

(Originally published as Program for Inhuman Theater, or What is the Desire of the Things?; in Carpa4 Proceedings: The Non-human and the Inhuman in Performing Arts — Bodies, Organisms and Objects, ed. by Annette Arlander, Helsinki, 2016). Read in Bulgarian


In this essay I will propose a new articulation of the reflection on things in performance, in direct connection with the perspective of the transformationist materialism. My hypothesis is the following: in order to exceed the hegemonic economy of performance capitalism, contemporary performance has to re-open the general economy of things, to re-form and re-compose their assembly. But what does “a thing” mean? And why should a thing perform? And what is a community of things?

The question to start with: What do the things want?

The turning point of the things

Contemporary performances are possessed by things, by things that perform or that pretend to perform. In its turn, contemporary discourse on performance is seduced by the auratic presence of things, and it is being possessed itself by the irrational belief that performance should be the space for this turn – aesthetic, philosophical, political – to be executed.

In fact, recent critical proposals on the tendencies in contemporary dance and performance in question tried to connect them to a contemporary line in philosophy, the so-called ”object-oriented ontology” 1, characterized by the attempt to oppose the Kantian idea for conformity of objects of knowledge to human mind, and therefore of existence and being, trying to undermine it by promoting the ontological equality of object relations. However, in this way the new discourse-invested performances are exposed to the tangible risk of new banal representational expectation: to just put things in the performance or manipulate them doesn’t mean to invent new forms of performance or of production of aesthetic or performance value, and even less to activate any sort of aesthetic or political subversion.

Nevertheless, the question of things is crucial to both theatre and philosophy: it is grounded in philosophical, aesthetic and political necessities. So, what is the more profound, structural reason of the appearance of the things? My hypothesis, in contrast with the ”object-oriented” discourses, is the following: the question of things is crucial today only as extension and radicalisation of the question of subjectivity, therefore of agencies and forces, thus radicalising also the political question of decision, of rupture and change. These questions could be approached in emancipated way only in radicalised Kantian perspective, extending and intensifying the very concepts of subject, object, and of their supposed correlation 2.

Unlike the ”object-oriented” discourses, we cannot think of any ”flat” ontology, because we cannot exclude forces, dynamics and negativity from the world; we cannot reduce the poïetic and transforming power of chaos, or cosmos. Our task is rather to face things as agencies of complex simultaneous or hetero-simultaneous processes, processes, which we try to compose through our own, subjective at the end, activities. Thus, transformationist materialism establishes the premises of understanding and experimenting with the poïetic and auto-poïetic potential of the things. There are no frozen things. The things are agencies – agencies, which lead to a transformation of composed by forces sets of conditions. Thus our central question is the question of change, the question of movement, metabolé, and therefore the question of the dialectical connection of thing and process, of thing and change. In the perspective of transformationist materialism things are conceived as dynamic forms or forces. That is why things could be only thought and must be thought as elements of dynamic ontologies 3.

Against the line of the so-called ”speculative realism”, becoming today a sort of magic thinking legitimising new tendencies in performance, the aisthetic materialist should insist that a thing is already and always the product of thinking. We cannot get rid of Kant; we need instead a radical new Kantianism, where things would appear not as phenomena for human mind but as subjective entities themselves, as stellar, disseminating and nebulous, transforming minds.

Performing things

I will claim here that if we could speak of a potential shift in contemporary performance production, it should be in the horizon of new dynamic ontologies. The new tendencies at stake are formulating through artistic means questions and experimenting with problems, simultaneous to the crucial for contemporary philosophy, science and politics questions: What is agency? What is process? What is change? What is decision? Or, what is the force of desire? What is the desire of the things?

Hence, this transformative-materialist turn comes not as a sequel, but as critical reformulation or even as sharp contrast to the relational and/or ”social” turn of the previous decades: the dynamic demand of things is opposed to the performative connections in the age of networks. The obscure demand of things, demand of tumultuous forces and desires, insists against the hegemonic reality of performance capitalism 4. Instead of focusing on ”relationality”, or instrumental relations, today we must face the complex processes, complex agencies and operations, techniques and forms of production and organisation, the understanding of which only could make the transformation of the initial conditions possible. Instead of speaking of ”simple”, substantial or quasi-substantial things and relations (both commodified as products), we need to formulate anew the question of agencies and subjectivities, therefore the question of conditions of transformation, division and therefore decision. These are the things at stake.

Through the structural observations of series of important dance and performance pieces in the last two decades, I will propose a preliminary distinction of few types of performative manipulation of things:

  • Jérôme Bel’s Nom donné par l’auteur, 1994:

    Formal-semantic manipulаtion of things by human performers, as well as subversion of their use-value of ”things” (materials, objects, instruments, products, machines), constituting performative plane where meaning and things are operating on the same scale: ”flat” ontology;

  • Mette Ingvartsen’s Evaporated Landscapes (2009) and Artificial Nature Project (2013):

    Attempt to establish autonomous dispositive, where human bodies try to induce autonomy to objects and devices through contradictory operations, stimuli, ”instructions”, in order to face their contingency of ”forces” rather than things: polemic or ”stasic” ontology;

  • Lisa Hinterreithner & Jack Hauser’s series The Call of Things (2014):

    Creation of metabolic system, system of transformation and exchange – a complex dispositive of dynamic agencies, working with specific set of material conditions, in which the things cease being ”themselves”, while becoming other – agencies, human-things, humans, other-than-things: metabolic ontology.

The Theater of Miracles: Bignia Wehrli, Sternenschrift (2014):

The interest in things is interest in what it is – therefore in becomings and in agencies. The Swiss visual artist Bignia Wehrli’s recent work Sternenschrift presents a mysterious agency, which, through complex technical device, creates exquisite and enigmatic ”writing”. I will approach this work, conveying an utopian artistic proposal, as powerful example for the proposed thesis.

Behind the visually appealing ”surface” of this work with enigmatic title we discover complex artistic operation – sequence of technical agencies, media and material transformations which determine the effect, without reducing neither the process nor its outcome. Thus the outcome presents itself not simply as artistic product, but as a new semiotic-ontological entity: the writing of the stars. As if, undermining the frame of modern scientific worldview, Wehrli was returning to millenary tradition, going back to Aristotle’s Meteorologica and especially to his pupil Theophrastus’ The Book of Signs, thus trying to embody the hyper-semiotic belief of premodern people in the symptomatic value of the meteora, the celestial phenomena, conceived as the enigmatic writing of transcendent and opaque forces. As if she creates a miraculous device to let the natural forces write their enigmatic runes, hieroglyphs or monstrous celestial system of signs again.

At the background of the complex media-transformative operation at stake there is a material substance, related to spatial trajectory accomplished by a human body – an itinerary of work or choreography in/of potentia. Although this path appears as contingent to the external gaze, the author’s presentation of the dispositive of Sternenschrift reveals a strong determination behind the quasi-contingent structures of the itinerary. The writing of the stars turn to be a ”replica” of an itinerary traced by GPS device: the itinerary of the enduring in agricultural work father of the artist (an amateur-farmer, by profession physicist, therefore dealing himself with the core of the question of forces and things), the duration of which spans on an entire working day, from morning to evening 5. The human body appears as the invisible material mediator of the artistic operation. However the invisible in the celestial texture of the stellar writings body of the father appears as the determined agent, whose endurance as if provides the gravitational intensity, necessary for capturing the energy of the celestial agencies – the stars, and for focusing their stellar ink, their light in the complex pen-device, the writing device of the star: Sternenschift.

Here or nowhere we could take the risk to claim that the created by Wehrli device, The Star-Pen, the Sternenschift, making possible the Sternenschrift, marks a radical (post-Kantian or radically Kantian?) shift, namely the inversion of the position of the subjective agency: not the human reason but the imagining – creating images – star. The star that imagines its own extension as print through the newly established condition of its aisthetic autonomy. Thus the star acts as agency of perception, imperceptible action on the abyss of the sublime sleeping sky, of the maelstrom of the dark forces of the universe. On one hand the star is projected on the paper: its intensity, captured by the producing-autonomy device, is thus spilled out. But on the other hand, it absorbs, captures and prints on the dark and bottomless night skin of the sky the tattoo of a dark and invisible imperceptible from the height even of an earthly cloud body, the body of a walking man – the body of the physicist–farmer of Sternenberg, the Shore-of-the-stars. The anonymous star, the celestial force creates a celestial choreography, it writes movement in the sky, chora, and this movement establishes an enigmatic sign, but also a new astrological sign – it transforms the star in multiplicity, a multiplicity of archaic monster, or miracle – of thauma. As if Wehrli’s curious device was establishing a frame of activity for a cosmo-theatrical artifice of the performing-writing stars: a Cosmo-Theater, in which each star appears as singular thing and therefore agency, the agency of peculiar écriture, peculiar writing – unique color and unrepeatable rhythmic patterns, different forms of concentration and attention, of presence.

At the end, the operation at stake in Wehrli’s performance-based visual artwork could be perceived as an outstanding example for a new type of artistic operation. Namely, artistic operation where the media are conceived as dynamic transformer, meant to inject autonomous agency and therefore autonomous will to an inanimate agent (or patient), thus opening a possibility for non-human actors to enter the stage of (aesthetic) production of meaning 6. But in this operation the substance of the human body – the subjective consistency – is not erased. It becomes a thing among the things: a force in the maelstrom of cosmic forces, maelstrom of blind elements mixed with the all-seeing and penetrating the dark of the galaxies power of the affect. The invisible persistence of the walking human body (a would-be ”ordinary” object of aesthetic representation), through series of miraculous media-transmissions, is not simply transposed on cosmic plane, but becomes a dynamic schema-model for a Cosmo-Theater – a theatre where the contingent chaotic force-imagination of the elements is invited to act. However, this is not new quasi-alchemical operation, projecting naively the microcosm on the macrocosm. The imagination and the technical capacity, the deinos of the artist, effectuates the vertiginous transfer of agency of imagination and production – of productive imagination, of imagination producing images and signs – to the celestial phenomena, to the meteora, to the stars.

The Theater of Miracles

Theatre of the writing stars. They spill their microscopic light like a shiny ink, focused through the lenses of persisting through effort desire and technique.

The writing of the stars on the photographic paper is miracle as every sign of force is.

Things are miracles because they are – but since they are, they desire, and they act.

The time for post-human theatre, theatre of limitless desire and unlimited subjectivation of things, has come.