Book Review: Research Theatre, Climate Change, and the Ecocide Project

If contemporary art is our cultural navigator of the anthropocene, then Research Theatre, Climate Change, and the Ecocide Project, a five-part manifesto outlining one group of artists’ processes and philosophy of eco-art, could well become a necessary navigational tool. The book’s main authors, Una Chaudhuri and Shonni Enelow, are academics steeped in the world of drama, performance, and visual art, their most recent efforts directing them towards a new theory of dramatic arts-making they call “research theatre.” Influenced by such critical theorists as Jane Bennet, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Rob Nixon, and Deleuze and Guattari, the authors make it a point to differentiate between themselves and some of their dramatic contemporaries who, more often than not, engage with social and environmental issues through metonymic representation, presenting vignettes of aggressor/victim relationships. Instead, Chaudhuri, Enelow, and their collaborators take a rather novel, more philosophical approach, taking Rob Nixon’s concept of slow violence – that certain “violent” acts, like climate change, have consequences that are often so incremental as to be unseen and thus unrepresentable – as a starting point and exploring the deleuzoguattarian concept of becoming to either blur or blatantly erase the lines between self and other, human and non-human. In a world in which the human is a recognized geological force, such critical and artistic processes are not unfounded; rather, research theatre and similar art forms are key to instigating a necessary shift in the way we experience the natural, the “unnatural,” and everything in between.

Structured as a comprehensive introduction to the play that the Ecocide Project resulted in, the book’s first four chapters touch on all the points necessary to fully understand and experience the script as a work of research theatre. The chapters jump seamlessly from critical theory to environmental concepts to the dramaturgical process to the actors’ experience in performing. The chapters imagine a theatre that subverts our place-based paradigm for nature theatre and art, replacing it with one that embraces human representation of place as an examination of our collective experience of the natural and unnatural world. It further pushes a theatre of “eco-cruelty” that confronts us with our geological humanity.

The book’s fifth part, the script of Carla and Lewis, is a flamboyant, raucous final leg to the book’s tour-de-anthropocene. Accompanied by both photographs from the performance and art by Sunita Prasad, the inclusion of the play provides both a visual and literary manifestation of the manifold ecocritical ideas brewing throughout the first four chapters. The play begins with Elsa, a New York curator, introducing her “Amina Project,” in which she seeks to enlist the help of artists to develop a conversational work with a climate refugee from a developing nation. Elsa’s aim is to solidify the refugee, Amina, as the “face of climate change.” However, Elsa enlists artists Carla and Lewis, the play’s eponymous “punk butterflies,” after which the play’s entire narrative begins to morph into a whirlwind of performed becomings. Elsa ignores the fact that climate has entered her home, with mud and alligators seeping troughout her apartment; Carla and Lewis proclaim their lack of fear of climate change, for they are “the fucking polar ice caps melting”; the actors performing as the landscape go through a variety of states of being while interrogating the audience. Carla and Lewis’ final words in the play are, “You think if you IGNORE IT, it will GO AWAY? Don’t you understand, the MUD IS RIGHT HERE!”

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The absurd, poignant finale of the play speaks to our current philosophical dilemma in environmentalism: is climate change an isolated phenomenon that affects the unfortunate few, and are developed nation guilt trips (a la Amina’s presence as the “face of cimate change”) even useful? With climate change encroaching on all of us, and with the global future looking bleak, the entirety of humanity needs a fundamental shift in perspective in order to live with its current and future self. Humanity is now on the same ontological level as the tectonic plates. Climate change is now equal parts a social, psychological, and physiological crisis. Carla and Lewis examines such theories, and with Chaudhuri, Enelow, and their collaborators’ guidance in ecological art-making, perhaps we can begin to understand – or, at least, question – our place in the geological world.

Words by Patrick Jaojoco. Photo credit: Josh Hoglund, co-director of Carla and Lewis.
Una Chaudhuri is currently presenting a collaborative project, Dear Climate, at the Science Gallery in Dublin.

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