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Anthropocene Engagement: an Aesthetic of the Performing Arts in a More-than-Human Age

dissertation - Dept. of Dance & Theatre Studies
Freie Universität Berlin

This project researches the specific ‘doings’ of performance and the performing arts in the Anthropocene, the proposed geological era that acknowledges the impact of the human species on the earth-system. Although the dissertation strongly reverberates with current ecopolitical events, its aim is neither to contribute to a history of ecological performance, nor to advocate for a mere political theory of engagement. Instead, in proposing a theory of an ‘anthropocene engagement’, the dissertation describes performing arts’ specific aesthetic as well as political mode of being. Working alongside Adorno’s theory of the aesthetic engagement and by merging analyses of contemporary performance work (among others: Mette Ingvartsen, Antonia Baehr, Dries Verhoeven, Xavier LeRoy, Philipp Quesne) with close-readings of seminal texts within the Anthropocene discourse, the project examines contemporary performance’s complicity with the geological and political project that created the anthropocene in the first place.  

The main hypothesis the dissertation seeks to set forth is, that the Anthropocene affects performance theory by unfolding as a performative event. Contemporary performance art does neither critically distance nor uncritically embrace the Anthropocene’s master narrative. Instead, in acknowledging performance’s power of (un)doing – both its apersonal efficacy, its techno-performative imperative, as well as its ability to reiterate, shift and change our notions of the world –, contemporary performance art engages with the trouble it caused. Thus, performance art accounts for what becomes apparent in the Anthropocene as an epistemological as well as political dilemma: the constant necessity of understanding and portraying non-human worlds and the impossibility of adequately doing so. Instead of advocating thus an unmediated approach to non-human worlds and matter, contemporary performance artists problematize notions of both human and non-human matter and subjectivity but also bethink themselves of very ‘human’ means – the use of fictionality, of narration, the imaginary and the poetic. Instead of reaching for modes of ‘posthuman performativity’, the artists portrayed in the dissertation critically approach the (utopian) investment that is ascribed to concepts of matter, ephemerality and performativity.

In a time where whole ecosystems, the arctic ice and a wide range of non-human species manifest their impermanence, the Anthropocene discloses concepts of performativity both as highly problematic as well as – read with an ecological twist – crucially political. Instead of writing and reading performance art within the dispositive of a pure present, contemporary performance art thus acknowledges something else: The necessity of ‘staying with the trouble’ (Haraway)– that is the investment in and the engagement with non-human stories, as well as with the human itself: the megalomaniac author and ever-consuming spectator of the anthropocene.

Project supervisor Prof. Dr. Gabriele Brandstetter // 2nd supervisor Prof. Dr. Matthias Warstat // further members of examination board Prof. Dr. Gabriele Dürbeck, Prof. Dr. Anette Jaelmann, Dr. Thorsten Jost

Funded by a research scholarship of Heinrich-Böll-Foundation (2016-2020)

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