Suoraan sisältöön
Riikka Lakea

How to stay together: Looking for sustainable practices in the frame of working groups in performing arts (2019)

Better storytelling for earthly survival

If we industrial western-world humans are to lead a sustainable life both now and in the future, we must change our way of thinking, speaking and acting – namely, we need to tell better, more diverse stories of life. As Haraway writes, “it matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with, […] it matters what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions” (Haraway 2016a, 12). Here is where art comes into the picture: as all the arts have a tradition of introducing new and diverse ways of experiencing, sensing and seeing the world throughout history, artists also play a crucial role in changing the story of the heroic Anthropos towards a more complex, ecological-minded storytelling today. A sustainable art piece cannot only run on wind-power and consist of recycled materials, it also must dive into the messy matter of the symbiotic real in its content and language and acknowledge the nonhuman forces that already inhabit artistic work.

Timothy Morton and Donna J. Haraway are my dearest co-thinkers on language, storytelling and nonhuman subjects – I borrow the name of this chapter from the film Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016) about Haraway’s work by Fabrizio Terranova. Both Morton and Haraway, together with their reference network, provide concrete theories and tools for reformulating the narrative of artistic work towards a less anthropocentric, more sustainable mode. In the previous chapter, I introduced Morton’s playful work on the “cheapening” and subscendence of concepts. In this chapter I will focus on Donna J. Haraway’s views and tools on multi-species storytelling “attuned to still possible finite flourishing, still possible recuperation” (Haraway 2016a, 10), a.k.a. storytelling towards a more sustainable life, together with describing how those tools might translate into different narrative forms in performance.

Haraway puts a strong emphasis on creating and collecting new words to describe our symbiotic reality to avoid anthropocentrism. In the centre of her work is the move of replacing the name of our era from Anthropocene to a more ecologically-minded, symbiosis-acknowledging Chthulucene. The Chthulucene is inhabited by the chtonic{51} ones, that “are not safe; […] they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters and places on earth” (Haraway 2016a, 2). Haraway also describes the Chthulucene as follows: “the unfinished Chthulucene must collect up the trash of the Anthropocene, the determinism of Capitalocene, and chipping and shredding and layering like a mad gardener make a much hotter compost pile for still possible pasts, presents and futures” (Haraway 2016a, 57). Apart from a beautiful description of a possible near future, I read this passage as a call to ruin what ruins, to start building new complex, multi-layered, non-linear stories from the uneasy and hurtful histories of oppression the Western industrial civilisation is based on. A sustainable artistic practice must have a strong emphasis on reformulating both artistic and organisational language to articulate new, porous, inherently relational and more equal worlds.

In the performing arts, storytelling does not only happen through text or writing, even though scripting plots and communicating through program texts and written materials in installations or site-specific pieces are central practices in constructing performance events. The idea of formulating new language in performance expands to performative body practices, the composition and dramaturgy of pieces and the representations the performance material creates when composed in a specific order. Thus, ecologically complex and sustainable storytelling in performance could mean anything from e.g., decomposing the conventional climax-oriented dramaturgy into more steadily ongoing, fragmented or pulsating events during the performance, to e.g., refocusing nonhuman agents as the protagonists of a piece through spatial placement and lighting or to creating movement and voice practices focusing on human-nonhuman relationality and interaction. The manifold of practices included under the umbrella term “performing arts” makes this field an especially fertile platform for exploring and inventing symbiotically sustainable narratives.

In addition to finding rich forms, concepts and wording to describe our ecological reality, acknowledging creative processes as a collective, ecological, symbiotic processes is at the core of a sustainable art practice. In the third chapter of Staying with the Trouble Haraway evokes the term sympoiesis with the help of M. Beth Dempster (Haraway 2016a, 33) to highlight the nature of storytelling as a collective act. Sympoiesis simply means “making-with”, which means that nothing in the world is self-organizing or autopoietic (Haraway 2016a, 58). Haraway writes: “Sympoiesis is a word proper to complex, dynamic, responsive, situated, historical systems. It is a word for worlding with, in company” (Haraway 2016a, 58, emphasis in original). A crucial mode of sympoiesis is writing history in remembrance of the symbiotic nature of both the past and the present, meaning the acknowledgement of past human and nonhuman cultures and their extinction alongside with seeking for more apt representations for presenting forms of abundant, diverse forms of living. Today, it is still very hard to keep alive any other stories than the devastating victory march of the colonising, oppressing, growth-based capitalist Anthropos. Thus, the practice of telling better, more complex, more ecological stories is not only post-human, but also deeply feminist, anti-colonial, and anti-racist. I would argue that recognizing storytelling as always in sympoiesis is a way towards sustainable storytelling in favour of the ongoingness of all kinds of humans and critters.

Sympoiesis is to some extent inherent in the performing arts, since theatre and dance pieces are most often collaborations between professionals from different fields of performance and stage design, but the organisation of work and crediting of pieces still tends to focus around single authors as writers, directors or choreographers. Moreover, including the nonhuman agents of performances into authorship and marketing communication is even rarer than crediting wholes and collectives, and communicating the collaborative mode of creating performances more accurately could be one concrete mode of making sympoiesis visible. But realising work in sympoiesis can also take many other forms than proper crediting or acknowledgement of what life forces were at play during the creation of a piece: it could mean building work outdoors to minimise human control and maximise the environments element of surprise, working in transdisciplinary art-science-hybrids, basing collaborations on multi-species entanglements, or creating a platform of feminist alliance in giving a privileged space to artists representing oppressed minorities or forgotten non-Anthropo-centric histories. Sympoiesis might also show in practical organisation of the everyday life structures of working groups and more equal delegation of responsibility amongst the group members, which I will exemplify in more detail in the next chapter.

Staying with the trouble of staying together – questions & concerns for structuring sustainable collaborations

As an already-exhausted, anxious MA level academic dance artist, that has never practiced work completely outside of an educational institution, I am terrified to enter the symbiotic real of the working life of a freelance artist: the material and financial resources are getting scarcer, the production cycle of performing arts pieces keep shortening and accelerating and more and more colleagues are equally restless and burnt out as I am. The urgency for formulating sustainable working cultures and structures in the performing arts is greater than ever. Therefore, I want to pose questions and draft guidelines for working groups that wish to structure their work sustainably in a deeply ecological, post-Anthropos sense. In addition to literature and inspirational examples of organisation from the European performing arts field, the thoughts I present in this chapter are strongly affected by my experience of being a young contemporary dance artist. To contextualise my thoughts on working groups and artistic work, I will next share a few characterizing aspects of my professional background.

I have been educated in dance and choreography in theatre academies in Denmark and Finland, with an emphasis on the professionality of a dancer as a maker and self-producing artist rather than strictly an interpreter and employee of another author. Most of my own artistic work has happened in small, low-hierarchical group structures or responsibility-sharing collectives. The roles of performer, maker, choreographer/director and producer have always been combined or existed side-by-side in my work. Thus, I tend to be interested in poking my nose into all the work phases, folds and nooks of the rhizomatic ecology of a performing arts production.

In addition, or maybe as a result of this haunting curiosity, or the shape-shifter working mode, I see the structuring of a production and the piece’s artistic content as utterly inter-connected and entangled. In other words, I would argue that there is no material that is not limited and thus shaped by and inside the funding, scheduling, social and material frames of a piece: just like the walled-off Anthropos idea of humanity is absurd in the ecological wake, a genius, authentic artistic idea, that would stay untouched by the binding relational production structures surrounding it, seems unthinkable in the 21st century. Consequently, creating sustainable production structures entails that the same rules and values apply for actions both on stage and off stage. This means that the ethics of working towards an art piece must correlate with the ethics described in the artistic work itself – a piece can hardly be feminist or post-human if its creation was not organised in a feminist, post-human mode. In my point of view, sustainability can only be reached, if there is a coherence in ethics between different areas of life – or different areas of work, in this case the building of a piece and the public performance of a piece. Thus, sustainability measures must reach all the areas of a performing arts production, and that will most certainly mean changes in the form, aesthetics and priorities of art pieces, just as a feminist, non-anthropocentric sustainability movement would most likely have a new, non-unitary, uncanny look to it.

In this chapter, I will suggest thematic areas to be considered when building more sustainable working constellations in the frame of professional working groups in the field of performing arts. I have gathered the areas to consider under six categories, that are: equality and communication, energy use, enjoyment, temporality, locality, and delegating responsibility. I use the idea of posing similar questions to both the structuring of working culture and to the structuring of the artistic material of a piece as a dialogical thread throughout this chapter. The categories presented below are entangled and often overlap each other, just like Guattari’s three ecologies, and thus must be taken into consideration with equal care.

Nonetheless, I must note that it would be utterly hypocrite to state that one could always have one’s eyes on everything, that one could solve all sustainability issues during one production – or during one lifetime, or even a century. The illusion of such control over one’s actions would be yet another way of elevating oneself to a pedestal above others and discarding one’s limits. It is very easy to slip to the familiar, cosy, safe, anthropocentric assumption that things could be well-planned, balanced and kept in a status quo for infinite flourishing while reading any kind of guidelines for sustainable practices. Thus, it is crucial to remember that sustainability is a constant, locally specific, embodied, ever-changing process of negotiation, just like striving for social equality, or finding ways to recover energy sufficiently, or nourishing a collaborative relationship: one must start somewhere, and surely in every artistic production some areas of sustainability will be more urgent or central than others. Bearing this in mind, I want to challenge my artist colleagues to stick with the challenge of building sustainable working cultures by staying with the trouble of staying together in our shared, complex, ecological times.

Equality & clear, transparent communication

As I have stated in the previous chapters, I see equality between humans, critters, things and all kinds of agents as the foundation of sustainable structures. In the heart of this ecological and feminist equality is acknowledgement of difference, diversity and specificity in contrast to equality as the expectation of sameness. Following this thought, working towards equality in an artistic working group does not mean having similar responsibilities or roles or doing the same tasks. Rather, it means to create environments where the specific personal characteristics and professional expertise of the group members are cherished and good conditions for all the different work assignments between the members are accommodated. This will allow the members to feel ownership of the piece and its production together with feeling respected, safe and welcomed in the group.

Equality and inequality are a question of power relations, and in a working group the power relations are most apparent in social structures and the hierarchies of decision making. The core principle for sustainable working cultures is transparency of power structures, paired up with having enough time and opportunity for dialogue and negotiations on those structures. In my experience the most energy-consuming and distressing issues during artistic productions have been directly tied to hidden group dynamics, untraceable lines of decision making and miscommunication, and therefore I suggest that a considerable amount of time is put aside for evaluating and formulating roles and group dynamics inside an artistic working groups’ working hours.

Striving for equality in a performing art working group is cultivating mutual respect between the members of the working group. For me, having a feeling of being heard is the key to feeling welcomed and respected, and consequently feeling like a meaningful member of the working group. For achieving the feeling of being heard, an atmosphere, where every group member’s specific characteristics, abilities and needs are respected and where their wishes for the production structures are listened to equally, must be built. This is an ongoing construction work that is certainly deemed to fail at a reoccurring basis, since the power structures at play in a working situations are not only those between an employer and an employee, or a choreographer and a performer, but the members of a working group also bring the privileges and minority positions from other areas of their life to the working situation. The different amounts of this energy and exhaustion brought to the production from the “outside” will directly affect the amounts of responsibility and pressure each member can take without breaking. It goes without saying that such amounts of intersectional relations of oppression and privilege are impossible to constantly keep track of, but the sensitivity for them and the possibility to express and process uneasiness and exhaustion should be built into the social structuring and scheduling of an artistic working group to enhance the groups sustainability.

One concrete way towards sustainable dialogue is simply having enough time for dialogue in general. In addition, it should be made sure that the different access modes to conversation of every group member are accommodated in the conversation structures used for that dialogue. This means that members are not expected to behave similarly, as in taking equal time to talk, expressing their feelings in a similar intensity or having the same tempo of processing information, and that the production has structures for accommodating the particularities of its members’ diverse ways of expression. It is impossible to name any bullet-proof methods for this, since every production is different, but a good place to start is to find out what kind of conversation situations are comfortable for everyone: is it best to make all the decision democratically with the whole group, or does it get very uncomfortable for someone to express themselves in front of everybody constantly? Is it easier if everybody has one reliable go-to-person when a challenging situation arises? Should every discussion start with collecting one’s thoughts on paper silently before opening any mouths? These are some examples of questions that could be asked when forming the communication structures of an artistic working group. Another tool I have found very helpful for preventing major social crisis is to regularly reserve time for talking about how the group is doing, e.g., by having a “talk-time” allocated for addressing social issues concerning the working group outside of strictly productional or artistic matters.

It is worth noting that sometimes it is very hard to know what is best for a group, or what would be most comfortable for oneself in a specific group setting, especially if the members of the group are not very well acquainted with one another before the project starts. Again, striving for equality and good communication is not about total control or completely avoiding friction, but more a matter of staying with the trouble of trying out, failing, listening and learning. Moreover, just as equality does not equal sameness, it does not need to have the aesthetics of harmony, balance, ease or happiness. Conflicts and misunderstanding are an important part of group processes, but the group can only be sustained if those conflicts are infused with positivity; positivity here referring to the propelling force towards sustainability formulated by Rosi Braidotti. The feminist discourse on safer and braver spaces, where no violent assumptions are made of any subject’s identity, desires, or abilities, can work as an inspiration for formulating codes of social conduct in artistic working groups. A safer and braver space is meant to ease the exhaustion of oppression of those in minority positions, but also to prompt sustainable discussion on equality issues. A great example of very clear and concrete safer space guidelines is the Safer Space Policy (2019) for a queer, sex-positive work and event space held by QUERQ ry in Helsinki.

Even though the continuous mapping of group dynamics is time consuming, and thus easier to accomplish in group constellations with fewer members, I don’t think spending time on forming equal decision making and feedback structures should be the luxury of small collectives – quite the opposite! It is even more crucial for more hierarchical working constellations, like huge spectacles for the main stage of the state theatre, to care for clear internal communication and nourish a constant dialogue on the group member’s responsibilities – I will analyse an experience I had on challenging, unsustainable communication in a big stage production in the next part of this work.

I see equality work as the attempt to recognise the specificities of subjects to be able to organise every one’s enjoyment in a satisfying and sustainable manner. At the core of equality work is the acknowledgement of the limits and bondages of an ecological subject as the basic condition for the subjects’ existence and action, and that those limits must constantly be affirmed and re-formulated for the subject to be sustained. Funnily enough, I have personally had the experience that respecting the limits of my own very limited energy reserve and evolving professional skills have in fact boosted my ability to take on responsibilities in a project and increased my agency in and ownership of the project, rather than having the limitations been felt as a restriction. Of course, this is only in the case that the space to express those limitations and an atmosphere of accepting and respecting every group member’s personal limits have been established – exhaustion and burn out lurk right around the corner if a subject’s bodily limits are repeatedly transgressed by not having the time to even notice them.

Moving from a working group’s social dynamics to the realm of the artistic content of a piece, equality issues should be in the heart of artistic material of any sustainability-seeking, ecological-minded project. I am not suggesting that every piece should be directly about multi-species symbiosis or equal human rights, but I would like to put into question what kind of stories are constantly being reproduced and restaged. As an example, most of the western tradition’s classics of literature, film and theatre have been written in misogynist, racist, ableist Anthropos-hero-mode, and I wonder if the classics of the 21st century could we authored in sympoiesis, acknowledging the ecological nature of subjects and narratives. I am also wondering if the era of “eye-opening”, one-to-one reproductions of acts of violence in the forms of e.g., rape, abuse and genocide, a still very popular way of pin-pointing societal problems in dance and theatre today, could finally be over. I would much rather experience performances that focus on acts of repair or the acknowledgement of the subject as an ecological identity, and I also believe that is the pathway towards a more sustainable, messy, abundant narrative mode. Again, this is not to say that a sustainable performance would have a certain aesthetic, duration, media or form, or that the performing arts discourse couldn’t use a provocation every now and then – I am only inviting my reader to think towards a more diverse an equal organisation of enjoyment among all kinds of humans, critters and forms of zoe-life.

Redirecting energy

Energy is the force that vibrates and locomotes everything from atomic changes to cosmic movements, and the ontological models we use to describe this force are crucial to how we view the world and organise ourselves as ecological subjects, as Allan Stoekl points out. The human harnessing of fossil fuels, especially oil, to fuel the industrial humankind’s needs has had a huge impact on the industrial human subject’s experience and view on how the world works, and this experience directly affects the way cultures of working and production are formulated, also in the performing arts.

Antti Salminen and Tere Vadén formulate this experience of oil very accurately in their book Energy and Experience: An Essay in Nafthology (2015). Oil, as a fuel, has a very high EROEI (abbreviation for “energy return on energy investment”), which means that the energy that can be produced by using oil as a fuel is way higher than the amounts of energy needed to extract and refine it, which makes oil an outstandingly efficient fuel in comparison to any other fuel (Salminen & Vadén 2015, 31–32) – of course, this model is a simplification, since it is very hard to calculate the exact amounts of labour that go into extracting and refining oil to fuel. What this extremely energy-rich fuel has enabled in the past 200 years of fossil fuelled industrialism is the acceleration of movement and rate of change, the global spreading of industrialism and generalisation of cultures, and most importantly, the complete disconnect to the amounts of energy we use every day because of the hidden fossil energy slaves; a hidden labour similar to the people-making labour the authors of Feminism for the 99% claim capitalism hides when merely valuing profit-making labour. Salminen and Vadén use the term con-distancing to describe how, simply put, oil simultaneously binds the industrial people together by fuelling the global capitalist economy, that is based on extracting materials in one place and using them somewhere else, and thus disconnects subjects from their locality by distracting and hiding the actual amount of energy used by the nonhuman energy slaves in everyday actions of e.g., powering machines, heating houses and transporting people and goods (Salminen & Vadén 2015, 38; 41; 82; 119).

Looking at the experience of energy that the contemporary working people have from Salminen & Vadén’s point of view, it is obvious why so many workers and colleagues get exhausted and completely burn out. If one is already completely disconnected from the production of energy one uses every day to power machines and vehicles, how could one be connected to one’s own body’s energy reserve? If nonhuman production machines can run on oil and coal, (or the electricity produced with them), round-the-clock seven days a week, why couldn’t the human body machine do the same? In a fossil economy that idolizes growth, (which we still live in today), production is running at high speed non-stop, just because it is possible, and because growth and speed are seen as economical and moral progress. The problem of a closed economy and stockpiling energy (as suggested by Stoekl 2007) appear again: if an economy is based on carefully managing the finite amounts of fossil energy, efficiency – the idea of making more with less – becomes the main virtue of that economy. Efficient use of both human and nonhuman resources is managed logistically, mechanically, not with the organisation on equal enjoyment in mind. The pleasures, excess and ecstasy of the general, solar economy are lost, and generosity is replaced with scarcity and puritan conservatism and conservationism. In a closed, fossil economy, prolonged survival of the walled-off, manageable and familiar become far more important than the sustaining of ecologically meaningful, lush and abundant living. The urgency of letting go of a fossil-based general economy and finding another, regenerative and sustainable way of describing and generating energy is ever more urgent today, since the production of oil has already reached its peak and fossil fuels are running out.

I would like to bring to question the notion of efficiency, the idea of doing more with less in the general oil economy, which is also the underlining condition of most freelance contemporary performance art productions today. What if we just did less with less? What if performance production just were smaller if there were less funds, less time, less materials, less people to do work? The basic guideline for dreaming about projects in their planning phase (that I adopted through my studies) is to “dream big”, which in my experience leads in always having too ambitious plans, too little time and a lot of stress and distress when the deadline of the premiere approaches. What if having big plans could mean making small gestures? Of course, I do not want to prompt an idea of sustainability as balance without conflicts or energy-intense emotions or making less as energy-saving: valuing small, simple and less with less can risk sounding like idolising scarcity and austerity as the true virtues of sustainability in the stock-piling logic. But what if making less would mean refocusing, recycling, and recognising what is already there to work with, to indulge in the magnificent performance of the symbiotic real already happening? Making less would thus mean making work less-anthropocentric, less over-arching, and more about the locality and the body.

As an example, artist and professor Tuija Kokkonen has worked with creating performances in collaboration with non-human actors in her doctoral artistic research project The potential nature of performance: The relationship to the non-human in the performance event from the perspective of duration and potentiality (2006–2017), and proposes weak human action as a concrete performative tool to move the focus from the human agent towards the nonhuman agent. Central to this weak action is the practice of “active passivity” as a human actor (Kokkonen 2017, 168), and it is paired up with other artistic material that asks the spectator to focus on nonhuman processes and temporality in Kokkonen’s work. Her tools for performativity and creating material have been very inspirational during the production of Of being in the dark (2019), a site-sensitive outdoors performance I will present in the next chapter.

On a more productional level, inventing practices of generating renewable energy is one of the most common and debated subjects throughout the history of the growth and fossil fuel-loathing industrial sustainability movement, and likewise a major question in the performing arts is how energy and electricity is produced for the logistics of powering stage technology or tour transportation when energy resources grow scarcer. In addition, recycling of raw materials and re-using products, also an important sustainability measure in the consumerist capitalist society, is an important issue to consider when building theatres, scenography, props and costumes, and there is actually a great tradition of recycling materials in performing arts simply because the funding and material resources have always been scarce for theatre, dance and performance art. But apart from these sustainability measures that fall into the category of Guattari’s environmental ecology, the most concrete and everyday energy and resource depletion happens at the scale of the social and the individual subject.

A working culture cannot be sustainable if there is not enough time for rest, which is too often the case in performing arts productions: again, too much is too often trying to be accomplished with too little. The most basic thing is to have a comprehensive schedule with enough breaks from the beginning of a production. What I have appreciated in projects I participated in lately is the decision to work shorter days (around five or six hours in one go) to keep the working days lighter and free more room for reflection and recuperation or make possible to work on multiple projects simultaneously. Still, it has proven to be very challenging to match the amount of work to be done to the wish to work less, which means that extra hours will have to be added to the schedule towards the end of the production to fulfil the “big dreams” made in the beginning of the project. Thus, I encourage a working group to carefully and continually assess whether the artistic goals of the project match the confining frame of the production’s material and energetic resources.

In addition to the wish to have shorter working days, I have been happy to witness a general wish amongst my colleagues to create group structures that would be sensitive to the diverse and individual needs of their members – nonetheless, it is common to feel uneasiness in a collective where equality does not equal similar workload, similar working hours or similar personal resources. There is a lot of work to be done in formulating structures for working where group members can enter with diverse abilities and situations in this time of repeated burn out, overflow of informational stimuli in the medialised culture and well-hidden, over-arching, intersectional oppressive power structures. Sustainable energy use is again tied back to equality work, where relieving the pressure of oppression on subjects would free great amounts of energy to other uses than simply existing and surviving. So again, to create equality-driven, communicative and transparent working structures is a great place to start for striving to regenerate energy for sustainable artistic work.

Enjoying work: pleasure, fun & joy

It is rather odd, that a certain admiration for a completely committed, workaholic and slightly suffering artist lingers above the contemporary arts, when it is often stated that art is always created in excess: that art is a curious play that starts when other more basic needs, like having food, care and shelter, are met. Consequently, it does not seem reasonable to base sustainable artistic practices on simply working harder now to reach possible future professional successes at any cost or to rest and recuperate later to get results faster. As stated in the previous chapters, the limits and desires of an ecological subject must be considered now to positively sustain the subject to a future time, and I would argue that reaching that positivity includes a certain amount of joy.

In my opinion, having fun at work is the only way to work sustainably in the arts. I personally have a hard time when the aesthetics of working must be “serious” for an artwork to be taken seriously, meaning that presumably I cannot be working seriously if I am not constantly producing something during the hours I am working, with a slight frown on my forehead, at all times. To enjoy oneself doesn’t mean to simply be comfortable, or at ease, but to find pleasure in work: even though a challenge can be energy-consuming, anxiety-provoking and haunting, working with a meaningful challenge can bring great satisfaction. Art making for me is serious fun, and having a playful angle to a subject and being ready to be silly are key to making good art.

I would add having fun together straight into the basic sustainability toolkit of an artistic working group. In my experience, in groups where idle time together, generously long breaks or common leisure time has been scheduled inside the working hours, the group members have had the chance to better get to know each other and form more resilient bonds for future challenges. Having spent time in excess in a non-productive mode, or even getting bored together, is usually the possibility condition for injecting fresh ideas to the artistic work. In addition, having had a good time with a certain group might mean that the work of the same working group could possibly continue with another project, creating sustainable continuity of work possibilities in the future.

Moreover, having a pleasurable working environment, including clear communication and equal treatment between members, is a good base towards preparing for crisis. Having a work place one wants to spend time in gives a buffer for facing problems when they arise, whereas if one or more of the group’s members are already suffering due to exhaustion or ill communication, the group’s integrity snaps instantly when a challenging situation occurs. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that keeping up an enjoyable atmosphere is no easy task, and that it is, once again, a constant, transforming practice to be taken seriously. As an example, all the working group’s members don’t necessarily share the same pleasures: spending time on leisure activities or having breaks all together can feel forced or pressuring to a member that needs great amounts of time alone for regenerating energy for working and socializing. Thus, it is more relevant to emphasise the sustainability effect of having a playful approach to working, rather than striving to find team-building activities that apply to all working groups, since no such things exist.

Moving from backstage pleasures to the pleasures on the stage, I find it deeply political to represent diverse kinds of pleasure modes in art pieces, this being the politics of moving towards sustainable, ecological, post-anthropocentric ethics. The stage is a greatly affective place for dreaming of, and experimenting on, sustainable futures based on the diversification of pleasure enhancement and abundant, joyful multispecies entanglements. I am pleased to witness a growing trend of interacting with other-than human materials and subjects in the form of e.g., plants, logs, pieces of fabric or plastic, construction tools and other everyday objects in a curiously indulgent and even erotic modem within European contemporary dance pieces, great examples of this being the work of Sonja Jokiniemi or the piece Biofiction (2019) by Simone Aughterlony and Hahn Rowe. To turn the traumas of e.g. sexism, racism and the Severing into positive affirmative practices and passions in the frame of sustainable stage art, this type of acquiring of new performance playmates together with other illustrations and representations of both human and nonhuman pleasure and fun must continue.

Time, temporality & duration

The main goal of sustainability thinking, were it anthropocentric or not, is to preserve and sustain decent conditions for living for the future generations as well as guarantee healthy and meaningful life for the people living now. Planning so far ahead requires thinking that surpasses a human lifetime’s limits and is thus a stretch of imagination that must be practiced. The western mind is trained to admire fast thinking and efficient work, efficiency also usually associating with fast speed, or optionally doing more work with less resources. The praise for fast results and instant profit is everywhere in our culture, from workout programs to marketing and politics, and it seems very hard to give oneself the time to stop and think over what a sustainable practice would look like. I myself am very impatient, a product of my time, and tend to move to the next thing if the previous one isn’t satisfying fast enough. But if sustainability requires the ability to flex our time-thinking muscles, sustainable practices must include taking time to tune into other-than human timescales and to reflect, reassess, plan well and rest.

Tuija Kokkonen evokes the term chronopolitics in her doctoral dissertation to point to how ideas and models of duration and temporality directly affect politics and decision making. She borrows the concept from anthropologist Johannes Fabian, who used it to describe the common distancing move of portraying the subjects of research, indigenous people, as if they were living in another time than the one of the anthropologist’s, thus denying the indigenous others from contemporaneity. Kokkonen expands Fabian’s notion of chronopolitics to characterise the politics of time in general, including both the distancing anthropocentric human culture constantly makes to nonhuman entities and the work required to overcome that distance in order to live together in the future. She believes that our chronopolitical understanding is tied to the human abilities to notice different temporalities and durations, and that the ability to recognise other-than human temporalities and nonhuman subjects as our contemporaries should be trained to make less antropocentric chronopolitics in the future. (Kokkonen 2017, 201)

In the pieces presented in her dissertation, Kokkonen has worked with durational pieces with installation-like layered, simultaneous narratives and materials, both in physical living bodies and other multiple medias. The audience members have had a lot of freedom in how and when they experience the different happenings of the piece. Some of the pieces also happened outdoors, where many of the artist-produced materials at the site invited the audience to spend time with nonhuman things and watch their non-produced outdoor surroundings as a part of the performance – basically anything that was already there could be seen as a performative act. These are examples of how a piece could be structured towards a more diverse idea of being in time, and I think reconsidering a performance’s temporality and duration are in the heart of working towards a more sustainable stage. Giving nonhuman temporalities (and thus narratives), the spotlight is crucial, because to practice sustainability is to practice both human and nonhuman tempos and durations. If our relationship to time moulds our models of how the symbiotic real functions, it is the responsibility of a sustainability-seeking art piece to present possible ways to make post-anthropocentric, more inclusive chronopolitics.

On a more individual scale, a performance can serve as an excuse to be out of efficient production time, the possibility to spend an hour or two to get in tune with an unfamiliar body, maybe a dancer, or a houseplant, or a rock. In addition to being an arena of intense emotions, revelations and politics, a theatre can be a place to rest and recuperate oneself, which is often lacking especially in hectic, urban contemporary lives. I personally enjoy the opportunity for complete idleness when I am a spectator, “forced” to sit in a soft chair in a dark room for an hour with nothing else to do then experience what’s there. Together with the shift away from anthropocentrism, a sustainable piece could offer an oasis out of everyday efficient and productive time, a temporary bubble with time for alternative tempos of human and nonhuman multi-species becoming. One great example of such a bubble is theplastic bubble tent in the piece Acts of care (2018) by the Helsinki-based performance group Theatre Circus Maximus. The piece is a durational installation that “invites the audience and the people passing by to enter and receive care”, care here meaning “trying to study and rehearse what happens when you try to make post-fossil art” (Circus Maximus 2019). The first steps towards sustainability can be taking a break and collecting powers for the next challenge. I will describe another approach to performance as recuperation and healing in the next chapter under the headline olento / olio / otus / eläin / eläjä).

Taking time, both for working and resting, is also one of the central sustainability concerns inside an artistic working group’s everyday life. The shared experience of time in small-scale freelance productions is surely that there is no time, or at least not enough time to properly finish a project according to the original plan. The scarcity of resources often results in the expectation of being very efficient (a.k.a. faster), meaning having to finish a project in less time with fewer resources than planned or thought possible. In other words, even though there are constantly less funds given out to finance projects, and thus less working time with decent salary for fewer people entering the field, the ambition for what is to be achieved with the scarcer resources does not seem to lessen accordingly. It seems that it is extremely hard to plan for doing less in little time, especially because we’re taught to “dream big” and always write big ambitious plans for funding applications in the hopes of getting more money; and then when less funding is received, meaning that the budget will not sustain the whole intended project, it is still common to try to accomplish the original plan in its totality anyway, instead of choosing a narrower area of focus in the work that would match the scarcer resources at hand. This results in working over one’s limits over and over again, finally causing a crack in the unsustained freelance artist subject.

Another common solution on the everyday scheduling level for managing with having fewer working hours is the attempt to become faster, as in more efficient workers, by sticking to the artistic subject and skipping everything “ineffective” and possibly unimportant, like negotiating equal decision making structures, taking enough breaks or occasionally making sure that the members of the group are okay. Usually, the effect of such efficiency measures results in the complete opposite situation, by causing e.g., the burn out of some of the group members just in time for the premiere of the project or an explosion of an unsolved argument that breaks the group up.

I would argue that a sustainable working schedule has enough air and buffer for surprises in it. Taking time to map a group’s wishes, needs, and the member’s personal resources, expectations and goals for the project, regularly taking time to check the group’s well-being and having enough time for rest and reflection, which is always needed in greater amounts than one would expect, are good ways to prevent major crisis and exhaustion during a process. This simply means having enough time to build resilient structures, because taking time to agree on functioning practice for all will save time in the future of the project by preventing possible collapse. As an example, if there is a reoccurring, regular time slot in the working schedule for addressing any social issues in the group, there is a good chance that a problem is being addressed already before it grows into the deal-breaking crisis, even though it would seem that the time put aside from “actual” artistic work slows the production down. Formulating sustainable practice needs time and taking that time will usually only pay off in the long run. Thus, sustainable artistic practices must be based on exercising nonhuman timescales, long-term continuity of communities and artists transcending the fragmented project-based production structures and carefully planning for resource use in the given productional frames to avoid exhaustion and collapse.

Locality & focality

Antti Salminen and Tere Vadén depict in Energy and Experience: An Essay in Nafthology (2015) how the use of oil as a fuel, together with colonialism and global capitalism, has disconnected us from our locality and focal practices. Salminen and Vadén appreciate indigenous cultures for their multi-generational ecological knowledge and self-sufficient lifestyles and state that there is a lot to learn from them, while acknowledging that the focal practices in the post-fossil era will be different and surprising, yet utterly necessary, when the energy-intense global economy cannot be sustained any more (Salminen & Vadén 2015, 123–124). Similarly, a common feminist and environmentalist guideline is to “think global, act local”, which emphasises the ultimate local specificity of situations and corrective actions while the problems and challenges at hand, like racism or climate change, can be recognised globally. Engaging with locality, as in community, place and subject, and the specificity of that locality is at the heart of sustainable practice, in both art and life in general.

As a dancer, the focal practice of training a dancing body and taking care of that specific body is very central to my professional practice, and whether that body is sustained or not is directly dependent on the everyday working structures. In most cases, the connection to the body is cut through trying to accomplish too many things in too little time “efficiently”,which means that the body is not sustained very well: it is under constant stress and over-stimulated, which results in frequently falling ill, getting injured or being chronically exhausted. Having repeatedly been forced to work in an exhausted and less-than-ideal body state throughout my professional life, I have started to use a slogan “work with what you’ve got” as an everyday guideline for respecting the specificity of my fluctuating situation.

Focusing on what is already there is a very concrete sustainability tool for engaging with locality in an artistic working group, both productionally and artistically. “Working with what you’ve got” could mean equally e.g., making a site-specific piece outdoors or at the artist’s home, artistically working with a local environmental or social struggle, only using recycled and borrowed materials or creating a working group from local artists, amateur performers or activists. In the frame of the working group’s social dynamic, in addition to supporting the specific wishes and taking care of the limited resource conditions of each group member, drawing artistic material from the personally specific skills and artistic abilities of each member is a great way to root a piece to the local material of the group: in my experience the feeling of meaningfulness has been greatest and my agency as a group member highest in the productions where the artistic material has sprung from the group members individual interests and specialities, rather than there having been a ready-made script or choreography in the beginning of the process. Whatever form it might take, respecting embedded, embodied, situated knowledge is key to building sustainable focal practices.

Nonetheless, sticking to a locality can be challenging in the globalised world, where performing artists are constantly pressured towards international recognition and touring. There is a danger of valuing transnational familiarity over local specificity, especially in the contemporary dance field, where the professional circles are so small and internationally oriented that it is hard to build a successful or financially sustainable career without extensive touring and traveling. Consequently, establishing sustainable working structures might mean diversifying forms of local collaborations including finding unconventional nonhuman and human connections.

Donna Haraway calls this “making oddkin” as forming trans- and multi-species kinships, in other words requiring each other in “unexpected collaboration and combinations” (Haraway 2016a, 4). This might mean doing transdisciplinary collaborations e.g., between the arts and science or art and activism or finding hybrid ways of funding and resourcing projects through other than specifically art funding institutional bodies. A straight-forward non-anthropocentric move artistically is to find collaborators in nonhumans for making pieces or even to make performances for nonhumans: one personal favourite group of mine that does performances for plants is the international research group dance for plants, that combines an international network of artists dedicated to locally rooted plant audiences (Dance for plants 2019).

Letting go of control

Letting go of anthropocentrism is ultimately to let go of control, or the illusion of having control. Telling stories in sympoiesis is to let go of the delusion of the single (Anthropos) author and to acknowledge sympoiesis as the basic narrative mode of the symbiotic real is the foundation for sustainable storytelling and art making.

The performing arts, especially contemporary dance, has a great tradition for fragmented, ambiguous, layered, multiple and bodily storylines and of deconstructing and remaking old classics and narratives. I would argue that there is a high tolerance for oddity and uncanniness in the contemporary dance field, which I think is a fruitful place to start to dive deeper into ecological human-nonhuman stories. To create sustainable art requires moving the spotlight onto the nonhuman agent always-already at work, or at least widening the spotlight to invite the nonhuman into focus, or even to the realm of “human”.

Another inherent feature in the performing arts that makes it a promising platform for symbiotic storytelling is the default collaborative mode of working: pieces in the theatre are almost always a collective effort of professionals with different expertise, like performers, directors and choreographers, and set, light and sound designers. No performance is done alone, and it might not be such a big step to include the nonhuman professionals as authors of the piece, or at least acknowledge the ecological reality of the piece on the program leaflet – a very straight-forward way of cheapening the human and including the nonhuman to the makers of a piece. In the recent years I have been happy to witness great diversification of how authorship and ownership of projects is formulated in performance credits, and the work of expressing authorship adequately is central in making productions more equal and sustainable: as an example, the credits of the above mentioned piece Acts of Care (2018) include “different kind of creatures, phenomena and processes” (Circus Maximus, 2019) in the piece’s credits under the names of the human artists.

In connection to making symbiotic co-authoring visible, careful delegation of the project’s workload is key for sustainable working structures in all kind of productions, whether they were collectively and democratically structured or hierarchical productions with clear leaders. Successful delegation is directly tied to clear and transparent communication, but also to the ability to compromise and reformulate goals. A clear artistic vision surely gives direction, but in my experience holding too tight on ideas usually blocks from seeing other, possibly more fitting, solutions. In addition, hoarding responsibility as a way to keep track of everything, was it as a leader or another group member, and trying to hold all the threads in one’s hands is exhausting, and thus impossible to sustain for long periods of time. This kind of need for control can end up in relying on only one or few people having enough information of the project as a whole to complete the production, which is a very risky mode of communicating: if most responsibility lies on one pair of shoulders, the whole production crumbles when those shoulders cannot carry any more weight.;

To summarise, a sustainable artistic working group practices delegation of responsibility and authorship with both its human and nonhuman agents. Moreover, it is important to exercise ways to articulate the diverse ways of authorship and the symbiotic relations for narration at play in an art piece to underline the ecological nature of the symbiotic real in our everyday language.


(51) See Haraway 2016a, 169 note 2, for a specification of how the spelling of Chthulucene was decided upon and how “chtonic” does not refer to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu or any other “monster or deity”.


Circus Maximus. 2019. “Acts of Care performs in Prague in June 2019”. Circus Maximus home page. Accessed 22 September 2019.

Dance for plants. 2019. Dance for plants homepage. Accessed 20 September 2019.

Haraway, Donna J. 2016a. Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Experimental futures: Technological lives, scientific arts, anthropological voices, series edited by Michael M. J. Fischer and Joseph Dumit. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kokkonen, Tuija. 2017. Esityksen mahdollinen luonto: Suhde ei-inhimilliseen esitystapahtumassa keston ja potentiaalisuuden näkökulmasta. Acta Scenica 48. Helsinki: University of the Arts Helsinki, Theatre Academy.

QUERQ ry. 2019. Safer Spaces Policy. Last updated 17 July 2019. Accessed 19 August 2019.

Salminen, Antti & Vadén, Tere. 2015. Energy and Experience: An essay in Naftology. Chicago: MCM’ Publishing.

Stoekl, Allan. 2007. Bataille’s peak: Energy, religion, and postsustainability. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Story Telling for Earthly Survival. 2016. Fabrizio Terranova. Film.

Riikka Lakea

Riikka Lakea (former Laurilehto) has been educated as a dance artist in Copenhagen (The Danish National School of Performing Arts) and Helsinki (Uniarts Helsinki’s Theater Academy). At the core of her artistic practice are creating performer- and site-specific pieces, using improvisation as a work and performance tool and continuously researching for more sustainable and equal working structures. In her work the roles of performer, choreographer, film maker, facilitator and producer intertwine and are in constant dialogue. Lakea’s work is guided by an ecological, intersectional, and feminist worldview, that perceives different agents and phenomena as deeply relational and interconnected.

Lakea’s artistic work builds on collective, dialogical, and low-hierarchical group work. At the moment, her choreographic work focuses on developing the improvisation practice dancing music in collaboration with dance artist Vincent Jonsson in an ongoing research project A cCompany Dancing. Lakea’s earlier choreographic works include e.g. the process-oriented musical short film With a little help from my friends (2017), the wandering site-sensitive dance piece BUNDLE (2017) and the dance performance LET’S NOT PRETEND TO BE ALONE HERE (2016). Her work has been performed around Northern Europe at festivals like Works at Work in Denmark, NEUNOW in Amsterdam and UrbanApa in Helsinki. Lakea’s latest collaborations, where she has been working as a performer and collaborator, include the practice-based sound and dance piece olento /olio /otus /eläin /eläjä (2019), audio walk and pop album Urban Anatomies Teleport (2019) and the trek performance Of being in the dark (2019).

Lakea has performed in others’ work in Denmark at The Danish National School of Performing Arts, The Royal Danish Theatre and Aaben Dans -dance theatre and in Finland at Uniarts Helsinki’s Theatre Academy and in various works by independent choreographers. She has performed in pieces by Lea Moro, Liz Kinoshita, Rebecca Hilton, Thomas Eisenhardt, Sonya Lindfors and Valtteri Raekallio, among others.

In addition to her artistic work, Lakea works as a producer for other performing artists. She works as the producer of Helsinki-based theatre Circus Maximus and as a production coordinator and assistant for choreographers Sonya Lindfors and Valtteri Raekallio.