Baz Kershaw / ‘This is the way the world ends, not…’? On climate change and performance compulsion. (or) A worldly catechism: on the performance paradoxes of climate change

| Kategoria: Teksty

Informal comment on sub-title: my talk is a series of questions in the style of a ‘catechism’, defined as ‘a close and intense session of questioning on a particular subject, especially forming an examination or interrogation’.

1. Why are performance paradoxes crucial to climate change? 

On the 14th April 2010, just south of latitude 64˚ North, an Icelandic glacial-ice-capped volcano erupted explosively. It injected a plume of ash charged with glass-rich particles six miles up into the Earth’s polar jet stream flowing southwesterly from the Artic ice-sheet. As a result, air-traffic over much of Europe was intermittently banned, 95,000 flights were cancelled, millions of passengers scattered across every continent were stuck. Airline operators attacked the decision to ban and air agencies estimated losses of £130–200 million a day. Following the global-banking meltdown of 2008, the UK international tourist industry — the world’s fifth largest — came close to collapse.
Economically, the 2010 ‘disaster’ impacted on travel trade worldwide in ways reminiscent of the 11th September 2001 terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. But environmentally its effects were interestingly mixed, as the following sequence of relevant scientific and aero-industry data for the whole event show:

1. Aviation carbon emissions = savings of 1.6% (8.3 million tonnes) on:
2. Aviation carbon emissions final annual total 2010 = 519 million tonnes.
3. Volcano carbon emissions = 1.68 million tones.
4. Volcano iron ore emissions 8-12% of total eruption materials = contributing to:
5. Global atmospheric carbon levels (May-July) falling by approx. 2.82ppm.
6. Global atmospheric carbon levels 2010 predicted = 390+ppm.
7. Global atmospheric carbon levels end 2010 actual = 389.27ppm.

That final carbon level difference may seem tiny, but its implications are enormous, because on two counts the eruption apparently contributed to a slowing down of global warming.
The global-scale paradoxes of this event are crucial to how humans might best perform in response to climate change. So, for example: a natural explosion triggers homeopathic healing of damage from an excess of cultural desire. An interruption threatening financial collapse adds stability to environmental resources. An excessive display of ecological power exposes the waste of technological invention. And so on. These are typical of the mind-boggling conundrums of local-global ecological processes. They indicate in a planet-sized nutshell why people can so easily ‘disagree on climate change’, why stories of its effects can vary starkly, and why wars continuously rage over who owns the Earth’s riches.
But this spectacle of advancing human knowledge matched by fundamental disagreements is particularly puzzling in a very singular respect. The more that Homo sapiens creates new ways of better understanding the interacting networks of global performance systems, the more those seem to set local limits on everyday human responses to increasing signs of ecological crisis.

2. Why do humans need to take for granted the excesses of climate change?

The local limits of everyday human responses to climate change may partly result from an information overload that is generally abstract: the statistics distract rather than focus attention on action. But that cannot be a sufficient cause for the widespread denial that it is actually happening. Otherwise, why would Homo sapiens almost everywhere be in thrall to increasingly excessive consumption in respect, say, of airline flights? Why have humans become increasingly fixated on rising fossil fuel consumption? Perhaps such obvious long-term and widespread commitments to everyday, environmentally negative impacts indicate a new combination of factors in human subjectivity, which I have called: performance compulsions. And here is another paradox of the processes that create climate change, because the normalisation of everyday practices renders those compulsions invisible. The more we inhabit them the less we are aware that we do.
Let us think about this conundrum in terms of sufficient causes. A cause that is sufficient is like a feather, just enough to tip the balance of a condition radically from one thing to another. So in looking for sources of climate change in human subjectivity we need to take distracting excess – of fossil fuels, greed, whatever – for granted. Consider too, that throughout the late twentieth century a majority of humans increasingly may have denied the extremity of their environmental harm by dressing it up in conventional logic. We gave it a masterly disguise of genuine good sense, say. Given that, is there now a quality to our species’ relationship with the Earth, which — like a brilliant magician’s patter — blindingly indicates why we can’t perceive the obvious? So that however hard our gaze becomes we will not penetrate past its most blatant effects; which therefore will always stay baldly normal, a taken-for-granted fact.
That could result simply because, when our attention on performing becoming through excess is so intent, our focus gives way to wholesale absorption: a twenty-first century Narcissus syndrome. Then there could be some aspect of the ordinary act of becoming intensely absorbed that transforms a lack of critically negative feedback into a welcome embrace. Through these everyday acts of performance we end up fooling our own extraordinary intelligence

3. Why must humans reject the famous eco-activist motto ‘Think global, act local’?

Under the conditions I am describing, the more that humans act through local norms the less able they become in thinking global. And that double bind, through which all ‘solutions’ to climate change become worst choices, quite simply results from the logic of binary – often contradicting – constructions imposed on the Earth.
But to advance an analysis of general performance compulsion in relation to that endemic human syndrome requires tests of such conditions in actual performances that can illuminate aspects of its dynamics. So our next questions are addressed to contrasting examples of scientific and artistic experiments that produced contradictory modes of participatory performance. Their common denominator was to involve interactions and exchanges between simian primates and human adults and children. These might serve to indicate where humans might best look for the fundamental drivers of climate change in Homo sapiens subjectivity. Their common denominator was to involve interactions and exchanges between simian primates and human adults and children.

4. What is a key negative ecological lesson to be learned from very young primates?

UK primatologist Victoria Horner invented an ingenious puzzle-box experiment that tested the cognitive skills of humans and chimpanzees at age 4–6 years old. Both species learned to perform a simple sequence of actions, taught them by an adult laboratory assistant, in order to retrieve a reward from two similar boxes.  The sequence had several steps, but two were crucial. A stick was pushed through a hole in the top then tapped onto a surface inside. It was also inserted into a hole in the box front to get the reward.
The first part of the test used an opaque box. The routine was repeated with an identical but transparent box that revealed the top-hole step was unnecessary to getting the reward: the stick was just tapping a false bottom inside. Even though they could now see this, the children continued to perform the whole routine. But the majority of chimps skipped the false-bottom step to more efficiently gain the prize. Horner explains the children’s behaviour as resulting from long-established impulses to imitate adults, in this case the lab-assistant. The chimpanzees, however, improvised an interpretative flexibility that, in ecological and evolutionary terms, translates into increased chances of survival. The experiment was repeated in Africa and elsewhere, with highly consistent results. So the puzzle-box exposed significant discontinuities between non-human primates and Homo sapiens engagement in the Earthly performance commons.
The children’s performances implied a — possibly species-wide — human disconnect from somatically-based experiential logic, thus potentially indicating a crucial vector of our current ecological crises. Following philosopher Georgio Agamben’s thinking in Homo Sacer, we might say that Homo sapiens may not be what he calls ‘bare life’ enough to respond effectively to a species-threatening ‘state of exception’ in the global performance commons, such as anthropogenic climate change. In other words, many humans risk becoming less intelligent than they might think in disguising from themselves that they act from compulsions to perform according to past norms.

5. What is a key positive ecological lesson to be learned from very young primates?

In 2005 I devised a creative research experiment at Bristol Zoological Gardens, England that directly explored the shifting somatic dynamics between primate species. My co-director, movement artist Sandra Reeve, developed an ecological movement improvisation system with two performers that enabled them to undertake a five-hour durational performance in the zoo’s public spaces during each of three days when it was increasingly crowded with visitors. The project was called Being in Between, because the movement style allowed them to interact simultaneously with the zoo’s animals, visitors, zookeepers and gardeners. The daily scenario included repeat performances at the enclosures of four simian species — a black-headed spider monkey, mongoose lemurs, owl monkeys and lowland gorillas — which aimed never deliberately to draw spectators’ attention away from those amazing creatures. This led to sustained and repeated movement sequences being developing between the monkeys, apes and human performers that appeared to be fully interactive. For example, in the sessions with the group of four gorillas in their indoor enclosure, the animals frequently moved position and focus in response to the performers, one even standing erect twice to follow the action. This took place as the keepers tidied the gorillas’ outdoor island following an afternoon public feeding display and conservation talk about the endangered species.  Then the performers, draped just in blankets, walked onto the island to simply sit by its moat in the same place that the gorillas had occupied earlier for the feeding and talk..
This spectacle of substitution produced a very wide range of reactions from the zoo visitors. But one brief exchange between a six-year old girl and her brother age four is especially interesting.

GIRL: I can see a lady… Oh yes there they are. I can’t see any gorilla.
BOY: I can see a goo. See, goo.
GIRL: Oh yea.
BOY: They have towels round them. (Indicates moat) They must have had a bath in there.
MUM: (calling) Gary, Gary.
BOY: Mummy, them … they’re gorillas. They’re there ‘cos they’re nice and cosy. They’ve been having a bath in there.

What had these children seen in the performers’ appearance that prompted this odd human-simian storytelling? Their imaginative projection of linked identities as between human and simian primates is evocative of very ancient evolutionary links. Quite possibly it may have intuitively reflected the fact that gorillas and humans share 97%+ of their genetic codes.
So this simple zoo experiment evoked a performance from the children that can be interpreted as a response to the human somatic disconnect exposed by the puzzle box routine. So perhaps it might show aspects of an uncertain future through which everyday environmental human failings might be countered through the recognition of simple but profound cross-species connectivities. An in-between zone where, ironically, children might become parents to a greater eco-sanity in Homo sapiens adults.
I hope this interpretation evades sentimental notions of the wisdom of childlike innocence. I hope together the puzzle box and island sit-in might suggest imaginative experimental couplings of science and arts in creative interspecies research aimed to untangle the puzzles of invisible human performance compulsion. The minor everyday failures of humans in ecologically mis-performing on Earth might even become a source of hope, paradoxically revealing there is no necessary shadow the future always casts as it approaches.

6. What is the worst that can happen to Homo Sapiens?

To test the relevance of these observations to human performance compulsion requires we set them against a darker scene of extreme, human-produced world disorders. Disorders such as: an un-winnable war of terror on terror; a proliferation of highly destructive technologies; a global climate increasingly running out of control. Here is a visual quotation from the remarkable anthropologist-polymath Gregory Bateson which references those frightening factors.
The diagram’s cartoon-like quality may seem a simplification too far, a crude advertisement for an apocalypse to end all Earthly resources. Yet basically it does little more than picture a major aspect of ecology: a process of positive feedback which is automatically additive. Thus panic in a herd of animals causes a stampede, people fervently emptying their accounts cause a bank run.
And as Bateson explains, each of its three central cycles is ‘autocatalytic’ or self-reinforcing: ‘the bigger the population the faster it grows; the more technology we have, the faster the rate of invention; and the more we believe in our “power” over an enemy environment … the more spiteful the environment seems to be.’ Each cycle is a vicious circle reinforcing the others, thus producing a vicious spiral that threatens the Earth’s biosphere and its integration of all living things.
But how might human performance compulsion in actuality be producing such a horrifying future? Answers to this would probably need a counter-intuitive analysis of my puzzle box and gorilla island comparison. So we should not treat their findings as producing a useful, but still unresolved, contrast between human failure and success in engaging with the environment. Rather, we should view them as providing a model for answers to the questions posed by Bateson’s frightening cartoon. Thus the environmental disconnect exposed by the puzzled box finds a ‘solution’ in the gorilla island scene.
Following this model the responses to Bateson’s vision would run as follows. Technology can create negative outputs, such as atomic weapons, but it will also solve the problem of climate change. Population growth might exceed Earth’s current carrying capacity, but increased human productivity will save the day. Human hubris — blind arrogance — may be destroying other species, but events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill will bring humanity to its senses. Strictly apply this reasoning to the dynamics of ecological crisis as outlined by Bateson and – eureka! – the additive senses of ‘positive’ feedback become environmentally ethical. The worst news becomes seedbed to the best. The forces destroying the world will save it.
From this perspective, human environmental detachment is not a denial of climate change, but the best way of recognizing the threat to make it manageable. And through that logic the detachment itself is denied. Eureka: human performance compulsion is reinforced by embracing its worst effects as environmentally positive.

7.What can human performance best do to avert climate change?

I’ve been searching for a simple and practical creative answer to this question for several years now. So I will report on my most recent attempt through straightforward description of a land-based performance project I started in 2010, when I moved with my partner to a rural area of South West England. The place has two slightly sloping meadow areas that had been close grazed for many years, but by May 2011 they had regenerated with a fair diversity of wild flowers and grasses. In one of these areas I positioned fence stakes to make a simple grid based on a Mercator map of the world, which I then used as a scale guide to slowly tread a meandering path in the pattern of a major ecological feature of Earth. (SLIDE 10) Here you can see a part of this, umm, installation. If it were outlined to scale on the globe’s surface as seen from the Moon, it would be clearly visible to the naked human eye.
The path was relatively accessible and its direction easy to follow by the lay of the grass. But there were several junctions where it branched or crossed itself. From ground level, though, its overall shape could not be seen. So from that perspective it might seem like a simple puzzle or maze, or perhaps even a labyrinth. But its shape meant that its users were simultaneously positioned as local walkers and/or global travellers.
Visits by artists, academics, friends and family served as try-outs of the meander’s affects and effects. A few knew in advance which global ecological feature it represented. The rest were asked if they wanted to know before they used it, but the majority chose not to. Two descriptions of its affects and effects give some idea of its ecological potential.
Paula Kramer, outdoor dancer and doctoral student wrote:

One thing that I still wonder about is the co-existence of the ‘meander’ and ‘the real world’ in your back yard. I’m fascinated by this double-ness and also a bit torn in what I might make of this…
I loved the entry and exit points. I remember a motorway feeling. Running, rushing, gushing, around and around and around.
I’m also walking-crawling very delicately and slow. The wonderful feeling that it’s impossible to get lost. The infinite following along …
There’s also a sense of fragility of the whole thing. A sense that it needs care. And at the same time I have the urge to not follow the path, to make new ones, to destroy it all, to play in the meadow as a meadow disregarding the path-making that has been going on. I don’t do this, but I’m tempted to trespass, to burst the boundaries.

Phil Smith, maker of walks and mythogeographer, wrote:

The maze pushes the focus outwards. It allows little introspection.
The maze slopes and constantly challenges the body to shift its centre of gravity in response. The maze is somatic.
The maze ‘empties’ the mind — by shaking the brain it opens up coagulated gaps, rendering them vulnerable to an outside that rushes in to fill the tiny sucking vacuums.
The maze strips and rips the shape from the experience, hurls meanings to the beside, by the centripetal force of the whirl of the meadow-chart, by its performance-likeness, by its flat globalisation of a place with the footprint of a large cottage, its conceptualisation and its projection; these currents … plough on without decision, enigmatic — as if behind a faceless face things are gathering towards a spasm that never comes. Relax. Don’t do it.
I am not very affected by this. Except for this prosthesis that I have now got attached to me. Thrashing about.

In July this year I recreated this meadow meander in an urban environment in the Northern city of Leeds for an international performance conference. The site was a cemetery holding 93,000 bodies of citizens who died between the 1830s and 1950s.  The path was used by around 250 visitors, many of them adding to a rich array of documentation and feedback. But for me this image of children quite naturally showing their parents the way of the meander is especially resonant. Even in the field of death there seems to be hope yet for reducing performance compulsion through the lightest touch of childlike eco-sanity.
So I’ll leave you with a ridiculously optimistic motto attached to a world-changing image.


The above is an edited and reframed version of:
Baz Kershaw (2012): ‘This is the way the world ends, not …?’: On performance compulsion and climate change, Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 17:4, 5-17

Short list of relevant sources: texts and websites
Bateson, Gregory (2000) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, University of Chicago Press.
BBC News 2010 – [1] ‘Flight disruptions cost airlines $1.7 billion, says IATA’: <> [2] ‘Volcanic ash: Flight chaos to continue into weekend’: <> Both accessed 04.02.12
IATA – (1) International Air Transport Association 2010: Wearden, Graeme ‘Ash clouds costing airlines £100m a day’, The Guardian (16 April 2010): < industry-iata> Accessed 03.02.12 (2) 2011 Fact Sheet Environment < ent.aspx > Accessed 05.05.12
ICAO – International Civil Aviation Authority, Environment Report, 2010, p 42, Fig 1: < df > Accessed 3.02.12
IEA – International Energy Agency, ‘CO2 Emissions from Fuel Combustion: Highlights’, p 64: <> Accessed 03.02.12
IES/NVS – Institute of Earth Sciences/Nordic Volcanological Center, ‘Chemical composition’: <> Accessed 03.02.12
IPCC 2007 – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Fourth Assessment Report Climate Change 2007 [1] Working Group I Report: The Physical Science Basis: Projections…
< projections-of.html> [2] Working Group II Report: Impacts, Adaptability, Vulnerability: Sect 6.7 Conclusions, Table 6.12, col 4: < 7.html#box-6-6 All accessed 04.02.12
Horner, Victoria, and Whiten, Andrew. ‘Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens)’, Animal Cognition 8 (2005): 164-81.
Hulme, Mike (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kershaw, Baz (2007) Theatre Ecology: Environments and performance events, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kershaw, Baz (2012) ‘Dancing with monkeys? On performance commons and scientific experiment’, in Readings in Performance and Ecology, Wendy Arons and Theresa May (eds), New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Kramer, Paula (2011) ‘visiting the earthrise’, Performance Footprint:
<> Accessed 04.03.12.
NOAA – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – ‘CO2 level trends’:
<> Accessed 03.02.12
Reeve, Sandra 2011 – Move into Life:
<> Accessed 02.04.12
Smith, Phil (2011) ‘Theses nailed to the cottage door’, Performance Footprint:
<> Accessed 04.03.12.
Wikipedia – 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull:ökull – Air travel disruption after the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption: Eyjafjallajökull_eruption Accessed 03.02.12

Baz Kershaw
Earthrise Repair Shop, Devon, UK
November 2012

Baz Kershaw is Emeritus Professor of Performance, University of Warwick, and previously held the Foundation Chair of Drama at the University of Bristol. Originally an electro-mechanical engineer, he later studied at the Universities of Manchester, Hawaii and Exeter. He has worked extensively in experimental, community-based, site-responsive and eco-oriented theatre, and recently established an Earthrise Repair Shop for performance conservation and regeneration. His many publications include The Radical in Performance (1999), The Cambridge History of British Theatre Volume 3 (2004), and Theatre Ecology: Environments and Performance Events (2007).

Text was written on the basis of the presentation at ECOLOGIES conference. Full programme: