"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 as performative as human dancers and actors. In the installation circuit IN VOID II, this equality of man and object goes so far that the human as good as disappears. Objects, machines and projections populate the theatre in a reflection of the end of mankind. A critical gaze at the relationship between man and technology and the possibilities coupled with them at the end of humanity are a constant in Verdonck’s work. ACTOR #1 (2010)and IN VOID (2016) already explored de performativity of objects and human absence. UNTITLED (2014) and Conversations (at the end of the world) (2017) go deeper into the emptiness of human action in an end time that doesn’t seem to end. IN VOID II continues along these lines and adds the question as to what is left of human performativity in this environment.
Indeed, the machines are given the leading role in IN VOID II. Because of the human craving for growth, progress, knowledge, control, inventions and technologies and all that they entail, man has made himself redundant. At the point that we celebrate the establishment of the anthropocene and have lodged our legacy deep in the earth, the tracks to a sudden end of mankind appear frequent and realistic. As Heiner Müller said in an interview with Alexander Kluge: “But that which occupies the place can change continuously. It need not necessarily be human, it can also be a computer or a vegetable matter, or anything else.”
According to some philosophers (Kojève, Agamben, Fukuyama, Baudrillard, …) we are already in a sort of post-history of satiation, stagnation, resignation and slow extinction. This post-historic condition has led to two related feelings. On the one hand a deep powerlessness: an experience of the powerlessness to change anything in the course (or stagnation) of history. This powerlessness borders on a second sensation: a fatalism that nearly yearns for an Apocalypse. This end-time feeling is characteristic for a period in which the joint of the epoch cracks and appears to split en route to a following phase. Benjamin’s Angel of History can likewise only look on at how the rubbish piles up while the end sucks him in. Thinking beyond man – that basically impossible, and considering the circumstances yet so realistic, thought exercise – is a difficult and practically perverse activity. One particular image is meanwhile illustrative of the emptiness that remains after the destruction: a robot that after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima is sent out to the inhospitable region to go and pray there for the victims.
Spoken and performing objects
In our Western civilization objects are becoming more and more animated. We still cling to the division between living people and dead objects, while the hybrid figures are in our trouser pockets and shoulder bag. For this reason, living objects are often considered as unheimlich (uncanny). In 1970, the Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori devised the Uncanny Valley to bring empathy for objects in relation to their similarity to man: the more they resemble the human, the more empathy we experience for them. There is however a critical point on which we ‘fall’ in the Uncanny Valley: the familiar dead thing becomes too real or ‘living’ and thus it literally becomes uncanny unheimlich (homeless). It cannot be placed any more in the existing categories and finds itself in the grey area of the living things. Today we are surrounded by ‘uncanny beings’: from smart phones and AI to animistic objects and the mysterious characteristics of consumption goods in what Marx called ‘commodity fetishism’. The question as to whether we actually know what these things are and do, imposes itself more and more.
In IN VOID II, objects reflect the ‘liveliness’ of things, such as the inflatables in BOGUS I and BOGUS II, or the jumping robot DANCER #3.
Historically, new technologies led invariably to fear and astonishment, such as the superstition surrounding ghosts and the first telephones – ‘the voice in the telephone line’. New technologies also often create a new kind of presence of objects; think of the strange perception that Facebook and Amazon seem to know you very well through the publicity they offer you. 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 stand in the middle of the stage that remains lit the whole night to allow the night workers to find their way in the theatre or on stage. One can consider IN VOID II in the same way: when the last person has left the stage, the things and an eerie presence are the only remnants left.
Besides the specific selection of installations, Verdonck also created for IN VOID II one new installation. In UNIT the disappeared human being becomes the performer dressed as a mascot, not to be different from the lifeless doubles that are also in the room. These people who have become “living objects” are a variation on the end: what if you still exist after it’s all over? When every action has become pointless and all that remains is waiting and boredom. The mascot, the symbol of a brand, country or team, represents at the same time a painful substitutability of the person in it. We do not see him or her any more: the mascot is both the zero degree as well as the terror of performance in an inhuman world.
The ‘ghostly’ theatrical installations in IN VOID II could be described as variations on absence. Some works explicitly refer to human causes of a possible end of the world through pollution, war or hyper-capitalism. Others are more autonomous and are as such a reflection of the possibility and feasibility of a redundant humankind. Characteristics or skills that we like to call typically human – presence, dancing, music – appear anything but the exclusive terrain of man and the machines, even without us, carry on regardless. The various installations are what Brecht called ‘ghosts from the future’: the seeds of what later will have catastrophic consequences of which now already clear traces are visible. The ensemble of theatrical installations do not tell a story of a poetic and gradual decline, but form one of raw, aggressive destruction. The different works testify to violence that in our society is present in war, economic exploitation, speed, over-excitement and ecologic disasters.