"Perhaps the objects around us derive their immobility only from our certainty that they are what they are and not anything else; they gain their immobility from the inflexibility of the thinking with which we respond to them."
In Kris Verdonck’s work, objects and machines are just as performative as human dancers and actors. In IN VOID this equal ranking of human and object goes so far that man disappears from the equation. Objects, machines and projected images populate the theatre in a reflection on the end of mankind. A critical view of the relationship between man and technology is a constant in Verdonck’s oeuvre. IN VOID is not his first project without human performers. Installations and installation circuits such as DANCER #1-3 and ACTOR #1 explore the performativity of objects and the possibility of a theatre with no live actors.
In IN VOID he goes even further: the machines themselves take the leading role. Man has made himself superfluous by his urge for growth, progress, knowledge and control, and the resulting inventions and technologies. Now, when we are celebrating the ascertainment of the Anthropocene, and our legacy has become lodged deep in the surface of the earth, there appear to be many realistic routes to the sudden end of humanity. In an interview with Alexander Kluge, Heiner Müller once said: “But the thing that occupies that place may constantly change. It need not be a human being, but may also be a computer or a vegetable substance, or anything else.
According to some philosophers (Kojève, Agamben, Fukuyama, Baudrillard et al.), we are already in a sort of post-history of satiation, stagnation, resignation and slow extinction. This post-historical condition has led to two related feelings. On the one hand a profound impotence: an experience of the incapacity to make any changes to the course (or standstill) of history. This impotence is contiguous with a second sensation: a fatalism that is almost a yearning for the Apocalypse. This sense of the end of time is characteristic of a period that is creaking and looks like cracking up as it changes into the next phase. Benjamin’s Angel of History can likewise only look on while the ruins pile up as the end draws him ever closer. Thinking beyond the existence of man is a difficult occupation and one that goes against our nature; it is a virtually impossible, yet, in the given circumstances, nevertheless realistic mental exercise. There is in any case one image that is illustrative of the void that is left after the devastation: a robot which, after the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, was sent into the desolation to pray for the victims.
The theatre, as a place of human presence and charisma, is perhaps the perfect place to reflect on human absence. All that remains in IN VOID are machines, objects, projected images, sound, light and – not without importance – the building. These ‘things’ occupy the theatre building and perform autonomously. The machines and objects play the leading part, while a supporting role – as visitors – has been kept for the people. Yet a comparison with a museum would not be correct, since it is definitely ‘theatre’. IN VOID consists of a number of existing installations plus some new ones for which a whole range of stage and multimedia techniques and robotics from previous work can be used again, and if necessary has been further developed to perform permanently for a whole ‘working day’. Together, these various installations form a theatrical environment from which the human performer has disappeared, a haunted house where the objects come to life.
Ghosts and performing objects
In Western society, objects are becoming increasingly alive. We still hold onto the division between living people and dead objects, while the hybrids lie in our pockets and bags. For this reason, living objects are often experienced as uncanny (unheimlich). In 1970, Masahiro Mori, the Japanese professor of robotics, came up with the notion of ‘Uncanny Valley’ to relate the empathy we have with objects to their resemblance to man: the more like humans they are, the more empathy we feel with them. There is a critical point, however, at which we ‘fall’ into Uncanny Valley: the familiar dead object becomes too real or ‘alive’ and it becomes literally unheimlich (homeless). It can no longer be put into existing categories and ends up in the grey area of living things.
Historically speaking, new technologies have invariably led to fear and amazement, such as the superstitious linkage of the first telephones to the presence of ghosts – ‘the voice on the telephone line’. New technologies often also create a new sort of presence in objects; one only has to think of the strange realisation, as a result of the advertising they present to you, that Facebook and Amazon know you very well. In the theatre, ghosts on stage have a material origin in the tradition of la servante, or the ‘ghost light’. A single lamp on a standard in the middle of the stage that remains alight all night so that nocturnal workers can find their way in the auditorium or on stage. In this way, all theatres have or acquire their own ghost. IN VOID can be viewed in the same way: when the last human leaves the stage, all that remains is the things and a ghostlike presence.
The ‘ghostlike’ theatrical installations in IN VOID could be described as variations on absence. Some works refer explicitly to such human causes as pollution, war and hyper-capitalism. Others are more autonomous and in this way reflect the possibility and feasibility of man’s superfluity. Qualities and skills which we like to call typically human – presence, dance, music – turn out to be by no means the exclusive domain of man and machines can actually carry on without us. Nature, of which man is also a part, and in which he has recently become the greatest driving force, dies or is technically reproduced. The various installations are what Brecht called ‘ghosts from the future’: the germs of what will later have catastrophic consequences, of which there are already clear signs. This ensemble of theatrical installations does not tell a story of a poetic and gradual decline, but is one of crude, aggressive devastation. The various works show a violence which in our society lies in war, economic exploitation, speed, over-stimulation and ecological disasters.