Theatre and violence
EXHAUST is all about the execution of an internal combustion engine: over-revving a truck engine in a public space until it blows up.
EXHAUST follows the same steps as a medieval execution. The subject of the execution sentence, in this case a combustion engine, is carried through the city followed by a procession to a square where a scaffold has been set up and its crimes are read aloud from a balcony, after which the execution is carried out. The goal of EXHAUST is to bury the combustion engine once and for all. Its crimes are the broken promises of endless progress and endless growth. Violence is subjected to violence, so that catharsis can take place.
Internal Ccombustion engine
The engine is probably one of the most important inventions of the last century, sparking the industrial revolution. The benefits have been colossal, but the ecological consequences – pollution as the price we have to pay – are tremendous. This story needs to come to an end. We need to change, and change requires sacrifice.
When openly exposed, the insane aggression and power of a truck engine are unprecedented. The experiences of DANCER #1 and #3 (see left) tell us that the audience is often shocked by the power of the emissions, by the brutality. When we rev the engine until it literally explodes, the noise will far exceed 130 decibels. Yet the engine is an everyday object, only one that is completely hidden from view.
Our goal with EXHAUST is to execute an engine in a public space, as with a genuine public execution. We want to rev the engine until it explodes, allowing us to feel, hear, and see its power and force, to subject violence to violence.
Benjamin Verdonck will take on the role of the executioner.
The accusations that will be made are based on Filippo Marinetti's futurist manifesto (Kris Verdonck will rework this text into an "accusatory" one). In this manifesto, Marinetti, as head of the futurist movement, sings of speed, the future, aggressiveness and activism, and resolutely rejects the past. The internal combustion engine was the machine to ensure this progress. The symbol of this belief in infinite progress, is surely the internal combustion engine. This machine, was the catalyst for the insane technical progress known to mankind during the 20th century.
However, our disappointment is now also complete: ecological catastrophes are piling up, and irreparable damage has been done to the planet, partly because of this machine. So, we must put an end to it by making a sacrifice. The culprit, the combustion engine, must pay and will therefore have to be executed.
Watching such force from a ‘safe’ theatre context or the familiar circle of onlookers can lay bare the social and political dynamics of violence. The Greek tragedies are a good example of this, as well as Japanese Noh theatre or Shakespeare and his revenge tragedies.
In the Greek tragedies and mythology, sacrifices are violent rituals aimed at resolving conflicts. For EXHAUST, we delve deeper into the dynamics of using violence for conflict resolution and the search for a purifying violence – like Agamemnon sacrificing his daughter in exchange for wind to sail to Troy, and public executions intended to restore social balance. The greater the sacrifice, the more profound the request addressed to the gods, as in a bizarre alchemical experiment. The more the sacrifice distresses the people responsible for it, the greater the impact.
We have a complex relationship to violence, which is always a conversion of sorts. Heiner Müller – who, incidentally, has also adapted numerous tragedies, such as Ajax, zum beispiel – once said that there is always a fixed amount of violence in the world that needs to find a way out. If governments do not turn the violence outwards, such as with the war in Ukraine, it will turn inwards. This can be observed on a small, individual scale too.
Tragedies can also be viewed as a purification ritual to come to grips with violence in wars, power struggles, and relationships between people or between people and gods. In that sense, the relationship between an audience and a violent event is an interesting one but can it provide relief? Is it a form of revenge?
A sacrifice for the climate
What kind of sacrifice would be needed to appease climate change – largely the result of industrial revolutions? With AJAX, Kris Verdonck / A Two Dogs Company are proposing a massive ‘mechanical sacrifice’.
More concretely, we want to cause a large truck engine to ‘explode’ in a public space, preferably on a square close to the theatre. Kris Verdonck is anything but a novice in this area. In DANCER #2, he ran a Alfa Romeo V6 engine in overdrive to the point of almost exploding. But whereas this was a repeatable installation involving the same engine, a non-reversible performance is created here in every instance. The ‘sacrifice’ has also been scaled up: the impact, sound, amount of energy – a truck engine easily achieves an output of 1000 horsepower – must be great enough to impact on the scale of an eco-catastrophe.
Years of experience have taught us that people have a directly empathetic relationship to machines. So, when we sacrifice a ‘humanised machine’ (such as DANCER #1, a ‘dying grinding disc’) and have it ‘suffer’, this elicits almost the same reaction from the audience as an animal sacrifice. Can we also use this empathy for a sacrifice?
But there is more than empathy for the object alone. The sacrifice in AJAX is a bit more ambiguous. It can symbolise the sacrifice of the latest fossil fuel combustion engine, an event bordering on utopia. In relation to the current climate catastrophe, this sacrifice may also represent the violence perpetrated by humans against the planet through technology and extraction-fuelled pollution. In a city like Brussels, where 16,000 trucks circulate daily, we are unaware of the violence that rages around and through the capital. In AJAX, we remove it from under the bonnet and expose it.
Sophocles’ Ajax, the Greek tragedy that will be our focus in the year ahead, is also about a hero who is mistaken: he is blinded by the gods and kills the wrong enemy, namely cattle instead of the other Greek warriors he wants to wreak vengeance on because they received the armour from the fallen Achilles instead of him. His brute force is diametrically opposed to the cunning schemes and empathy of Odysseus. The message is twofold: criticism of indiscriminate violence against fellow humans, while also a warning against the hubris of humans and of the hero. In other words, be careful with stubbornly insisting on your own views, as the hard measures you take to maintain your position may very well be directed towards the wrong goal. Is the unshakeable confidence in green energy (the EU’s ‘Green Deal’) actually such an indisputably good idea? Are we not already experiencing the consequences of Europe’s addiction to cheap gas? Are we not inadvertently sacrificing our children as we desperately cling to our lifestyle?