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In-Situ/City: Stonework

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A human-lithic embrace - about Stonework by Espen Hjort and Mees Borgman

In-Situ/City is an ongoing project that focuses on the city as an ever-changing changing collection of historical, cultural, political and social signifiers. For Gaudeamus 2022, four young makers (groups) were commissioned to create new work that reflects on this theme, with a special focus on the relationship between humans and non-humans. In four articles, music journalist and researcher Joep Christenhusz dives deep into their work and themes.

Stone is old. Very old. An unimaginable 1.5 billion years old. It was in the middle of the Proterozoic that he was formed on the fault line of two continental plates, roughly where the Atlantic Ocean now flows. Temperature and pressure were so immense that the stone’s parent rock underwent a metamorphosis. Something with rotating crystals and parallel flowing mineral molecules, which harden into the speckled gneiss of which Stone is composed.

Stone is now of a manageable size: approximately the size of a large loaf of bread, weighing 9.3 kilograms (20.5 lb) . This used to be different. In the Cambrian era, say 600 million years ago, Stone was a rock formation hundreds of kilometres long that hitched a ride north-eastwards with tectonic movements. Destination: present-day Norway, where Stone was deposited in the Hallingskarvet mountain range some 400 million years ago. The massif was once higher than the Himalayas. What remains now is a remarkably level plateau averaging 1,500 metres in height: the work of all-pulverizing glaciers in three intervening ice ages.

It was in this glacial violence that Stone crumbled and continued his life as an individual. Initially as a rough chunk, but over the years water and wind ground its sharp edges into soft curves. Imperceptibly he became smaller, with time grinding part of its lithic body into sand. It is a process that is still continuing. In the end, Stone will also turn back into dust.

Summer 2018. Theatre-makers Espen Hjort (1989) and Mees Borgman (1992) are in Hallingskarvet National Park for a walking holiday. The views are best described as sublime: wide cloudy skies surround bare rocks, covered with a thin blanket of snow. In the foreground, flowering saxifrage and bladder campion surround a glistening mountain lake.

It is here, along the water’s edge, that the pair had their first encounter with Stone. “He was lying between all the other stones,” Borgman recalls in a video interview in early June. “Kindred spirits, I think, or siblings.” Nevertheless, Stone stood out: “He had a fine shape, a fine weight. It just felt right.” Hjort: “It’s actually just as it is with people. Sometimes you meet someone and immediately feel you can be friends.”

In the meantime Stone has traded the Scandinavian mountain air for a flourishing stage career, and he has a leading role in a new project by Hjort and Borgman. Stonework is the name of the performance that will premiere at Gaudeamus on 9 September. The concept text describes it as a “physical and musical duet between human and stone”, in which the makers say they are dealing with “the most urgent theme of our time”: the ecological crisis. “Science has been telling us for years that it is high time for a radical change,” Hjort emphasises. “We want to explore what we as artists can contribute to this cause.”

Mees Borgman

Meeting on equal terms
Stonework is not the first performance in which Hjort and Borgman explore ecological questions, especially the relationship between humans and non-humans. In 2017 they made Goat Song, a quest for the animal in the human. A 45-minute video registration on Vimeo shows how, bit by bit, Borgman transforms into a goat. We see how she steps out of her human body, as it were, shedding her skin and muscles, only to wriggle her uncomfortable goat body (awkward, those missing hands) into a rough woollen sweatshirt. On her knees she saunters across the stage, rubbing her new fur against a piece of scenery. “Meh!”

The research project Wild Audiences followed in 2019. Problem statement: “Is it possible to create theatre for a non-human audience?” Hjort: “In retrospect it wasn’t quite the right question, since one of our conclusions was that a non-human audience doesn’t exist. There is a stone audience, a bird audience, a tree audience, but they cannot be placed in a generic group. If you do not recognise this diversity, you fall irrevocably into a dichotomy: humans versus the rest. That is precisely the anthropocentric perspective that we wanted to shake off by means of this project.”

Meanwhile, the theme has shifted. With their new performance collective Landmarks, which also witnessed the birth of Stonework, they approach other life forms and materials not as an audience but as fully-fledged partners. Borgman: “We want to break with the stubborn habit of always thinking of theatre from the human point of view. What if we try to take up a radically different perspective, in which we relate more consciously to all those different non-humans? Can such a perspective enable us to develop a more equal relationship with the world around us?”

Because it is this equality that is currently lacking, Hjort continues: “The ecological crisis is first and foremost a relationship crisis. It stems from the way humankind has related to the earth for centuries, as a sovereign species that felt elevated above everything else. In our work we want to create space for a fundamentally equal meeting with others.”

Espen Hjort

Strangely familiar
Speaking of relationships: In his book Stone, an Ecology of the Inhuman (2015), American medievalist and author Jeffrey Jerome Cohen discerns a paradox in our human relations with stone. On the one hand, Cohen writes, humans tend to see stone as an inanimate material, as an inert object, as cold and hard primordial matter that embodies an inhuman duration and temporality. It is precisely this deeply felt strangeness that makes stone a rewarding protagonist, Hjort emphasises: “Stone is almost everything that a human being is not. Stones have no eyes, no heart, no lungs. Something so far removed from our world of experience is ideally suited to shatter our one-sided human perspective.”

And yet, if we view stone without those anthropocentric glasses, space is then created for the ‘on the other hand’ in Cohen’s paradoxical human-stone relationship. What Cohen is arguing in general terms is this: stone may seem foreign to us at first glance, but if you look closer you will see that we maintain close relationships with it. We live in stone, we carve our collective memories in marble and granite, we move around thanks to a skeleton made of minerals, and for centuries we have attributed to stone a vital role in our most elementary stories (weren’t Moses’ tablets made of stone?). Stone, in other words, is by no means a dead, distant object, but an active and vital material that is connected to us in numerous ways.

Cohen puts it aptly with a reflection on that other lithic myth: “What if the tale of Sisyphus is not only about a human and a stone, each in its solitude, vying for the status of chief character, but a multifaceted narrative of cross-taxonomic relation: a human who attempts to grasp a boulder that never ceases to tumble, hands upon hard surface, rock against hands, an epochal embrace?” Slowly things start to shift. What at first seemed alien begins to feel strangely familiar. Hard taxonomic boundaries between subject and object become intimate connecting lines.

“Are you thinking about the sand?”
“Can you come to room 305?” asks the message on my mobile. It is the middle of May. In CREA, the cultural centre of the University of Amsterdam, Hjort and Borgman are presenting a first run-through of Stonework. On the floor Stone lies silently heavy between a collection of A4s, notebooks and Post-it notes. Three chairs stand against the back wall. “Eventually we will present other materials such as pebbles, ice and sand in those places”, Borgman explains. “Together they symbolise the life cycle of Stone, from rock formation to dust.” Laughing: “But now it’s up to you to imagine that for yourself.”

What follows is a series of physical duets between Stone and Borgman. In one of them, Cohen’s notion of a trans-taxonomic embrace takes shape when Borgman, lying on the floor, curls her body around Stone. A landscape wells up from a loudspeaker – the whistling of the wind. For a moment you imagine yourself in Hallingskarvet.

In another scene Borgman embodies Stone’s strength. Clenched fists, tight muscles, a pulsating carotid artery. Followed by weight: while panting and puffing she whirls Stone around in space, an electronic composition by Irish composer Seán Ó Dálaigh can be heard in the background. When working on Stonework he had asked himself what Stone sounds like and whether he could listen. “Stones often have a high density,” he writes in a draft text for Stonework. “This means that they only start to sound at very large vibrations. With this in mind, I started experimenting with very loud and low sounds.” At the same time he explored Stone’s resonance frequencies, or “the specific pitches that vibrate in Stone’s body.” From these internal vibrations, Ó Dálaigh distilled slowly sliding sine tones that become interwoven on tape with Borgman’s long-drawn-out vocals. Human-lithic close harmony.

“Actually, they are all ways of trying to get closer,” is how Hjort explains the scenes over the Skype connection a month later. “Earlier we were talking about our aim of achieving a radically equal meeting between the human and the non-human. I think that such an equality begins with the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the more-than-human other. In Stonework, therefore, we ask ourselves how we can make contact with Stone. How can we communicate with him in a language he can understand? That can be an acoustic language of resonances and vibrations, but also a physical language involving strength of both muscles and gravity.”

Sometimes Hjort and Borgman also resort to words. For example, the short spoken prologue in which Borgman tries to gain access to Stone’s world of experience: “I want so much to do something for you, Stone, to make you happy. Are you worried? Are you thinking about the end? Are you thinking about the sand? Come with me, I will carry your worries. I will make you lighter.”

Seeking rapprochement. Making contact. Finding your place. According to British philosopher Timothy Morton these are all manifestations of a deeper process he calls tuning. In his book Being Ecological (2018) Morton describes this tuning as an essentially ecological mentality, because it presupposes not only equality and connection but also a reciprocity between things. Tuning as such describes a two-way traffic. Whoever tunes in not only directs his attention towards another, but simultaneously recognises that the other is also, already, tuning to us. Tuning and being tuned, so to speak.

For those who think that tuning is only reserved for Zen masters and Yoda-like people, Morton has a reassuring message: we are all born tuners. One example he frequently cites is that of the art lover. Because, Morton argues, the aesthetic experience rests a priori on a reciprocal relationship between subject and object, spectator and artwork, human and non-human. In his own words: “In the beauty experience, there is some kind of mind-meld-like thing that takes place, where I can’t tell whether it’s me or the artwork that is causing the beauty experience: if I try to reduce it to the artwork or to me, I pretty much ruin it.” In this sense, Morton writes, all art requires a certain degree of ecological consciousness, because it calls for a deeply felt solidarity with non-humans. According to him, ecologically engaged art simply places this solidarity in the foreground. This brings us back to Stonework, a performance that emphatically attempts a more-than-human dialogue, rather than a human one-way conversation in a mirror that happens to be made of gneiss.

Deep time
One might of course wonder exactly what Stone is saying in his reply to that multi-species dialogue. If you ask me, he is whispering to the good listener things about unsuspected connections, familiar strangeness and the fact that we need a more versatile and vital understanding of matter if humankind (and especially modern Western civilization) wishes to change its role on earth for the better.

But Stone also teaches us something essential about time. His staggering age of approximately 1.5 billion years implies that our human time frame is, to say the least, relative. To put it another way: where our temporal horizon covers at very best a century (but more often stops at quarterly figures and four-year election periods), Stone embodies the deep time inherent in geological and ecological processes.

In this context, Timothy Morton (there he is again) speaks of hyperobjects, or: “Things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.” In his eponymous book Hyperobjects, Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (2013) Morton writes that hyperobjects are characterised by what he calls ‘temporal undulation’. They unfold on such enormous time scales that, from our limited field of vision, they appear to be infinitely slow or in phases. In concrete terms this means that hyperobjects are impossible to experience in their entirety. What we receive are individual symptoms, fractions, snapshots.

Sounds abstract? And yet our current era is packed with concrete examples: microplastics that will continue to pollute the earth for hundreds of years; nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years; the slow but steady march of climate change and a sixth wave of mass extinction.

It is precisely in this context that Stone, himself a snapshot of a hyperobject spanning billions of years, has urgent things to tell us. In all his unflinching hardness he invites us to tune our temporal antennae to hyperobjects that are crucial for us to confront, and to hope for a distant future that will be more ecologically aware.

What will that future look like for Stone? He will ultimately crumble into sand. If it’s up to Hjort and Borgman, Stone will spend his old age in the place where he belongs: the Hallingskarvet mountain range. Borgman: “Ecologically speaking, our decision to bring Stone to the Netherlands has of course had a considerable impact. We have taken him out of his familiar habitat and his life’s journey, which has already lasted so long. But of course he will go back. We know exactly where he should lie. But not quite yet, because for now he is enjoying a sabbatical.”