Drop in the Ocean: On walking with water as affective activism
A diminutive, dreadlocked, waterproofed woman walking along a rural footpath carrying two buckets of water with an antique yoke. Me.
A stranger walking towards me from the opposite direction. You.
We take each other in. Scanning and categorising: gender, age, appearance, intent and purpose, dangerous or safe? Then, as the distance between us narrows, I smile, we make eye contact and I ask:
Would you like to make a wish?
Before incredulity has time to form in the air between us, I go on quickly:
All you have to do is take a stone from the water in this bucket (gestures left), and hold it in your hand for at least 30 seconds, while I invite you to think of a six things about water, before you make your wish and place your stone in this bucket (gestures right) ...
Drawn perhaps to the uncanny incongruity of this anachronistic tableau, this surreal offer, the mundane instructions, you find yourself accepting. Peering in to the water of the left bucket, you choose a rounded pebble with a thin band of quartz.
.As you return to standing I notice you shaking the drops of water off your wet hand. I continue:
As you hold the stone in your wet hand, I’m going to invite you to bring into mind these six things ... your first mentor)’ of water ... your favourite memory of water ...
a negative or alarming memory of water, if you have one ... your last encounter with water today (not including the bucket) ... the last time you heard water mentioned on the news ... and the last thing: your favourite sound of water and how it makes you feel...
Between each of these thought-provocations is a pause, a breath. You might remain silent. Or you might nod, speak, or smile to signal that you’ve located each memory before I move on. I continue:
And now, as you hold those thoughts together in your mind, as you hold the stone in your wet hand ... as you let them percolate through, wash over you ... I invite you to make your wish.
And when you’re ready, I invite you to place your stone and your wish into the water of this bucket.
You reach forward, place the stone in the right bucket; perhaps gently and consciously, or perfunctorily thrown in with a small splash.
Thank you very much.
You might offer a comment about the experience, share one of the memories you were thinking of, ask more about the work. We might have a long
FIGURE 2.1 Jess Allen, Drop in the Ocean, SPILL Festival 2018, Ipswich. Photograph by Guido Mencari.
conversation triggered by a reminiscence. Before we part, I offer you a hand- stamped card with an image and a web address on it.
'But,’ I always add, ‘you might prefer to keep this as a mysterious encounter ...’ We thank each other again and walk on.
Described in the opening provocation is an imagined version of a one-to-one encounter from the durational performance work Drop in the Ocean: a six-day walk in six widening, concentric circles around a focal point; the ripples around a drop ((((ft-))))))- I1 l'as been performed four times between 2013 and 2019—in Hereford, Ipswich, Aberystwyth, and Abercych, UK—for over 300 participants.
Drop is part of a small oeuvre of works1 that comprise the (mosdy) rural, relational, eco-activist, pedestrian performance practice that I call tracktivism: walking (along tracks) with activist intent. Tracktivism uniquely combines long-distance walking art with one-to-one performance. It takes the carefully considered mise en scene and cultivated intimacy of the latter, and recreates it repeatedly, in series, with audience-participants randomly recruited along the route of a walk. As the solo artist-performer, I w'alk—often in costume and/or carrying something unusual—along a carefully determined route until I meet someone whose curiosity is sufficiently piqued to engage with me. I then offer them a brief, guided (often sensory) experience, typically based on a familiar cultural ritual.
The moment of (typically) one-to-one encounter—or what I call the intervention—of earlier tracktivist works took the form of conversation on an ecological theme—climate change, renewable energy, food miles—akin to the mode of Wallace Heim’s ‘slow activism’ (Heim, 2003). This is a form of dialogic practice art (Kesler, 2004) in which a slowly unfolding conversation between participant and activist performer, loosely guided by the latter, becomes an ‘indirectly persuasive medium’ that seeks to bring about a particular ecological realisation in the former (Heim, 2003, p. 183). But Drop marked a significant turn in my making methodology towards a more mysterious, sensory encounter; one apparently without activist purpose at all.
The Drop wishing intervention is simply an invitation to attend. It asks the participant to pause and call forth memories relating to their personal engagement with water. Each of these provocations has been carefully drawn from my own experiential learning about and appreciation of water, reframed as questions for others. The brief immersion of the hand is intended to offer a sensory engagement with its materiality, and the wet stone held in the palm as a means, momentarily, to ‘grasp’ it. The thought provocations invite a focus inwards to retrieve memories and sensations, but also outwards through listening and thinking to other places and times. In retrieving such memories, there is a sense of thinking-feeling backwards, while at the same time, the gesture of wishing invites participants to reach their focus forwards. Thus for those participants who are fully engaged by its (poetic) possibilities, the Drop intervention may both open and contain multiple, shifting perceptions of scale, self, sense, place and time. Significantly, the encounter happens unexpectedly, outdoors, amidst everyday routine and at random along the route of my long walk. This gives rise not only to a broad demographic cross-section of participants, but also to a sense in some respondents of our meeting being all the more meaningful or enchanting for so nearly not happening at all.
In the writing that follows, I give an account of my journey as practitioner- performer—and artist-activist—through the devising and realisation of this work, with a specific focus on this moment of one-to-one encounter. I identify the key critical frames through which the work might be theorised and understood as eco-activist performance, with a focus on Jane Bennett’s enchanted materialism in which she makes a beguiling argument for the eco-ethical potential of the ‘affective force’ that arises from enchanting encounters and which may be ‘deployed to propel ethical generosity’ towards the more-than- human world (Bennett, 2001, p. 3). In this way, I arrive at my own formulation ‘affective activism’ to describe how I perceive the Drop intervention to operate; a one-to-one encounter between participant and eco-activist performer that eschews the directional transmission of knowledge about ecological problems in favour of an affective transaction that may (however indirectly) affirm a sense of ecological connection.
Drop in a bucket
‘I couldn’t get you to the ocean,’ she said. ‘But there was nothing stopping me bringing the ocean to you.’
(Caiman 2013, p. 217)
The title Drop in the Ocean has multiple resonances. It is a reference to the walks’ concentric circular aesthetic which are suggestive of the global repercussions that emanate from the thrown stone of our everyday local actions. It also references the idea that small and seemingly banal acts of care, like the offer of a wish to stranger, may have cumulative power to transform. But underlying all this is a contrapuntal pessimism; the undertow of my deeply uneasy relationship with (conventional) eco-activism.
Not long before the devising of this work I experienced a crashing loss of faith in environmentalism which, almost in a single moment, revealed to me that the environmentalist rubric ‘save the planet’ was an astonishingly hubristic human delusion, which omits the qualifier ‘from ourselves, for ourselves’. I realised that my beloved environmentalism had become, as Paul Kingsnorth puts it with eloquent rage, ‘an entirely human-centred piece of politicking, disguised as concern for the planet’ (2017, p. 68). Navigating a disillusionment so like my own, Kingsnorth argues persuasively for some ways in which we lapsed environmentalists might reroute our activist urges into ‘the things that make sense to [us] right now’ that we can still do ‘with some joy and determination’ (p. 147).
I grew up and live in rural mid-Wales. My sense of the world and my place within it, certainly my environmentalism, have been whetted and shaped by significant, sensory encounters with water. Swimming in rivers, walking behind waterfalls, running around reservoirs, daily paddling in the sea as a child, or enveloped by the iodine tang of a creeping sea fog: uncanny, enchanting or (transformative physical encounters with water have been amongst the purest sources of my own ‘joy and determination’ for as long as I can remember. So, when faced with devising a new eco-activist performance work about water at the height of this inconvenient loss of faith in environmentalism, I wondered if I could devise a kind of transitory, haptic, and perhaps enchanting ‘experience’ of water in (a) performance; something akin to some of my own formative experiences of water in ‘nature’.'
Of course, to navigate the logistics of my peripatetic practice as a walking artist, I would also need some portable way of facilitating it, in miniature, consensually and repeatedly on a long-distance walk. In the section epigraph from Gaiman’s 2013 magical realist novel 7he Ocean at the End of the Lane, his character Lettie Hempstock has persuaded a body of water with magical powers—‘the ocean’—into a bucket. She does this in order to carryr it some distance and perform a spell that will release a boy held captive by a malevolent force. So it occurred to me that, by some similar magical-realist logic, I might carry water to participants—the ‘ocean to you’—with a yoke and buckets. This tableaux would form the portable mite en scene of the work; the container within which I could then offer a (literally) immersive encounter. The yoke itself was chosen to present a striking visual image—in contrast to the everyday clothes, waterproofs and walking boots I’d otherwise wear—intended to pique
FIGURE 2.2 Drop in the Ocean, Aberystwyth 2015. Photograph by7 Sara Penrhyn Jones.
curiosity, signalling my presence as a performer and inviting my audience into encounter. (A significant component of tracktivism has always been the importance of participants choosing to approach me and not vice versa.)
The walk as a mobile medium—the vehicle for facilitating encounters in all my work so far—is chosen to tread the contour lines of a randomised demographic of participants; bringing activist performance to an unlikely audience and offering an unexpected encounter amidst the routines of everyday life. And the wish was chosen as the basis for the sensory encounter because it is a recognisable, secular ritual that nonetheless has about it something of the magical; or at the very least, a gesture of hope. By the simple invented rule requiring the participant to fetch a stone from the water in order to make it, the wish would ‘non-coercively’ persuade them to have a momentary tactile engagement with water, but without labouring the point or becoming an off-putting demand. In this way it could remain largely subliminal background to the softly spoken offering that accompanies it. In combination then, I hoped these elements would give rise to an experiential totality that might perform some kind of affective eco-activist alchemy.
I must acknowledge briefly here my initial, intense discomfort—as a former placard-waving activist—that this ambiguous offering could ever be perceived as activism, or even that tricky hybrid activist art. But, as prominent critic of the latter Jacques Ranciere usefully reminds us, while activist art may usefully ‘rework the frame of our perceptions’, there remains ‘no straightforward road from the fact of looking at a spectacle to the fact of understanding the state of the world; [...] from intellectual awareness to political action’ (Ranciere 2009, p. 75). As such, even in the most overt message-driven activism, there can be no guarantee that an unambiguous ‘message’ will be perceived by an audience, let alone acted upon.
I have found partial resolution to this troubling conundrum in Ranciere’s (related) thinking around ‘intellectual emancipation’ (Ranciere, 1991, 2009) that underpins much of his philosophy. Whether applied to pedagogy- or theatrical spectatorship, this notion rejects any kind of intellectual hierarchy such as that traditionally perceived to exist between teacher and ‘ignorant’ pupil, or artist and ‘uninformed’ audience. In his alternative schema, there is no direct transmission of knowledge or message, but rather the emancipating teacher/artist only strives carefully to create the conditions that leave the pupil/audience free to work it out for themselves. More recently, Dee Heddon and Sally Mackey have drawn from this to coin the formulation ‘emancipated environmentalism’: a provocation to activist performance-makers to work in new, more nuanced ways to address ecological crisis, which ‘demand the participation of the spectator’ whilst embracing the inevitable uncertainty of outcome (Heddon & Mackey, 2012, pp. 172-177). This pedagogical schema thus became the critical frame within which the Drop intervention could operate; I could more confidently follow my instincts, relinquishing a sustained rational-linguistic focus on facts or statistics, in favour of a brief sensory encounter that could create a transient affective ‘container’ for participants’ own ecological learning to take place.
In this move toward the sensorial and even mysterious, I had also been inspired not only by my own childhood experiences of ‘nature’ but also by my reading of the extensive literatue on enchantment. Over the last two decades, the term—and its companion ‘re-enchantment’—has appeared with increasing regularity in both critical and popular literature (e.g. see Elkins & Morgan, 2009; Landy & Saler, 2009; Macfarlane, 2015; Monbiot 2013, 2014) and often in the context of reawakening our engagement with, and ethical response to, the more-than-human world. For example, enchantment makes a brief appearance in the conclusion to Monbiot’s critique of the eco-activist tendency to focus on ecological crises and threats. He draws from recent studies in evolutionary psychology which posit that threats trigger an instinctive survival response that strongly ‘promotes extrinsic values (an attraction to power, prestige, image and status) while suppressing intrinsic values (intimacy, kindness, self-acceptance, independent thought and action)’ (Monbiot, 2014, n.p.). Thus, when faced with threat, we are encouraged to suppress concern for others and focus on our own interests, the opposite response to that required for altruistic action. The answer, he argues, lies not in ignoring the threats, but in a more concentrated focus on the affirmatory; ‘on the love and wonder and enchantment that nature inspires’. To me this suggests that it would behove eco-activist performance-makers not only to focus on ‘wonder at nature’ as thematic content for their work, but also to explore the ways in which they might consciously effect enchantment as a feeling stale in their audience.
Perhaps the most robust theorisation of enchantment and its eco-ethical potential is Jane Bennett’s ‘enchanted materialism’ (2001), the compelling precursor to her better known ‘vital materialism’ (2010). In 7be Enchantment of Modem Life (Bennett, 2001) she begins by offering a comprehensive catalogue of the various guises of enchantment as a ‘mood’, ‘condition’, ‘feeling’, ‘comportment’, but also an ‘affect’ or ‘force’ that, throughout, remains determinedly secular. These evocative descriptions coalesce to form a vibrant picture of enchantment as both a state of ‘wonder’ or ‘exhilaration’, but also a force capable of engendering it; something that might both reside in, excite, or exist between material bodies. To be enchanted, she proposes, is to be both ‘struck and shaken’ by the ‘extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and the everyday’ (pp. 4—5). Thus it must be provoked by a surprise; an encounter with the unexpected that gives rise to a pleasant feeling of having been charmed, but at the same time as one experiences the ‘slightly off-putting sense of having [also] been disrupted or tripped (up)’. Despite this apparent conflict, she considers that in enchantment these sensations are present in ‘just the right measure’ to ultimately bring about an ‘energising feeling of fullness or plenitude—a momentary return to childhood joie de vivre’ (p. 104).
Beyond this useful phenomenology' of enchantment, however, is her beguiling argument for its ethical relevance. Her principal thesis is that enchanting encounters with matter or complexity in which we may become momentarily aware of our own complex materiality, give rise to an awareness of shared materiality and complexity, that may be tempered with an uncanny sense that it possesses a vitality and agency of its own that is just beyond our ken. This may in turn give rise to a ‘hyperecological’ (p. 157) sense of our ‘implication’ in a suddenly decentred world, but also she argues, a greater sense of ‘attachment’, her term for a feeling of‘being connected in an affirmatory way to existence’ (p. 156). She proposes that the former might encourage us to consider our receptivity and responsiveness to other material forms, while more radically, the latter propels us to act: to expend our own resources—our time and energy—in service of more-than-human others.
That enchantment should necessarily guide us down this kind of behavioural cascade is, Bennett freely owns, a ‘tenuous and unstable’ proposition (Bennett, 2001, p. 157). But she defends her thesis as a deliberately speculative ‘weak ontology’, that is significant for its foregrounding of the (all too often neglected) ‘affective dimension’ of political and ethical theorising. For ‘ethical commitments must overcome somatic inertia if they are to become ethical acts, and that overcoming requires an organisation of affective intensities’ (p. 154). Enchantment, she believes, is one such intensity that can supply the ‘joy [to] propel ethics’ (p. 4). As such, her narrative is unapologetically—albeit, as she admits, ‘unfa- shionably’—affirmatory; intended as an antidote to the prevailing tendency towards cynicism in the humanities. While it is important to acknowledge that affects—and indeed ecology—can and should equally be discussed in terms of the negative or dark (Morton 2010), Bennett’s focus (and mine, here) is on particular, ‘positive’ affects and how such ‘affective catalysts’ may literally move us (in both senses) and enhance ‘human relational capacities’ for ecological good (Bennett, 2010, p. xii).
Having here introduced Bennett’s theorisation of enchantment as an affective force with eco-ethical potential, I now come on to consider (i) the ways in which she proposes enchantment might be effected; (ii) how I have drawn from this in the construction of the Drop performance encounter; and (iii) how the latter was perceived in practice, drawing from selected participant reflections.
While Bennett is aware that enchantment is a ‘precarious concatenation’ (Bennett, 2001, p. 104), it remains her contention that moments of enchantment comprise an ‘uneasy combination of artifice and spontaneity’, and as such they may be ‘cultivated and intensified by artful means’ (p. 10). These may be summarised as: (i) the timing of the enchanting encounter—or the appearance in time or place of the unexpected—giving rise to a requisite element of surprise; (ii) the juxtaposition of the unfamiliar with the familiar, or a foregrounding of the former against the latter; (iii) the use of techniques for sensoiy stimulation including the potent sonority of the voice for ‘en-chanting’ through sound/listening; and (iv) the grounding of the encounter in the material world through the presence of or allusion to intriguing material things. In short, the enchanter must be able to construct situations in which the senses are enlivened, materiality is evoked, and the familiar is subtly shifted in some way.
Each of these elements coalesce in the Drop wishing intervention: in the unexpectedness of tlte encounter and its offer; (lie uncanny tableau of (lie yoke and buckets and its juxtaposition with the quotidian; the tactile encounter; and the litany of provocations softly spoken by the performer. As such the potential for the intervention to function as both a source of and container for enchantment is clear. Indeed dial this did occur for many participants is evidenced in many of the remarks diey made.3 While some rich reflections about water that inevitably emerged post- wish, it was more usual for participants to offer a meta-commentary about the experience that I had offered. In this sense, the affective experience was seemingly more potent or noteworthy than any thematic content (a point to which I return below).
No participant feedback was ever requested—formally or informally—to preserve the anonymity or ephemerality of the experience for those who desire or perceive it. But in the immediate wake of the wish, most participants spontaneously expressed surprised pleasure or delight: ‘this is wonderful!’; ‘this is neat!’; ‘this is MAD! I’m just standing outside my own back door!’. Some tried to give me money or food, or asked to accompany me and help carry the yoke. Some offered more expansive or emphatic statements: ‘I really needed that, thank you’; 'I’ll never forget this’; 'I’ll cherish this’. Some felt drawn to comment on the sound of my voice as ‘mesmerising’, ‘soothing’, ‘lyrical’. Others described a felt sensation: ‘I was just thinking about jumping into water on a hot day and the stone got colder in my hand!’. Aid sometimes I also received online feedback in the days or even weeks after the event, which offered richer insights.
For example, Jane wrote in an email that ‘there was an element of fair)- tale about the experience that I find difficult to put into words and it is probably better not to try. But there is definitely something buried back in a childhood consciousness ...’. Her comment that it might be ‘best not to try’ to find words to describe the encounter—even as she has chosen to reflect on it—suggests it was something she had experienced outside of language; a felt sense that eludes a more conscious naming but evokes a ‘childhood consciousness’ and which should not be fixed. Another participant Kate reflected that:
in an intense week it was a moment of calm - of reflection and connection... Both to the global issues embodied and expressed by water but also to myself - especially in that intensely personal moment of making a wish and dropping the stone into the bucket of water at Castle Green next to the river - where I happened to meet you. That moment of stopping and being with you and taking a moment to be still and gather myself into a wish was very special.
Here, I am drawn to notice her repeated use of the word ‘moment’—‘of calm’, ‘of making’, ‘of stopping’, ‘to be still’—which renders almost tangible the space (temporal, mental, emotional) that was created and held between us, even in the very public place (a park thoroughfare near the city centre) where we met. In Heim’s theorisation of slow activism—the one-to-one conversational performance form introduced above—she posits that a slow activist performance encounter might be more persuasive for taking place within an ‘occasion of character’. This is her term for a situation subtly constructed from a few carefully chosen aesthetic elements that is sufficiently ‘characterful’ to contextualise and colour the encounter that takes place within it (Heim, 2003, p. 194). Such an occasion is an aesthetic ‘bracketing’ in everyday life which brings activist resonance to that encounter precisely because it is ‘a suspension of the ordinary, more at ease with the playful and emotive and the possibility of change’ (Heim, 2003, p. 197, emphasis added).
The affective (and perhaps also ecological) potency of such encounters that take place unexpectedly within—and invite us to think beyond—the everyday is also suggested in Daisy’s reflection:
Just as I was in a hurry to collect [my daughter] from school there in my path was a very lovely mermaid fairy inviting me to make a wish and imagine places and times with my favourite element—Water. [...] A very beautiful moment on the street outside my house, I think I will never forget it.
Like Kate, who describes thinking about water as a connector between global issues and self in a moment that became ‘very special’, Daisy finds herself invited to recall personal experiences with this element at a remove in space and time from the/our present, in a moment that becomes ‘very beautiful’. And also, like Jane’s reflection, there again is a nod to the magical, mythical or fay.
What these, and other, reflections seem to suggest, is that a significant component of the experience is the spatial bracketing but also the perceptual shift the encounter offers; of slowing down and being invited to reflect on water, amidst the ‘intensity’ or relentlessness of our quotidian commitments as adults. Writing of the affective potential of her own activist work, US street artist Swoon (Caledonia Curry) describes how:
[i]n that moment of surprise [...] it’s almost like you create a little opening into that childlike part of [us] that’s usually ground down by the relentless gruelling details of every day—and if you can break that open then there is that feeling of a lot more possibility, the world is stranger, there’s a lot more going on than you thought five minutes ago.
(In Parry 2011, p. 28)
In other words, the power of an unexpected, enchanting encounter with activist art in public space might be its ability not only able to create a spatio-temporal interstice in everyday life, but also to open a perceptual space in the viewer; and crucially one that might be filled not with activist knowledge but with something difficult-to-name but that could be openness, possibility, connection, a childlike lack of cynicism. Indeed, for Bennett this is at the root of the ethics of enchanted materialism: it is just this pleasurable shock arising from a sudden awareness of ‘the extraordinary that lives amid the familiar and everyday’ (Bennett, 2001, p. 4) that gives rise to a conviction that one is ‘connected in an affirmative way to existence [and] under the momentary impression that the natural and cultural worlds offer gifts [...] reminding] us that it is good to be alive’ (p. 156).
The one-to-one performance form is highly significant to the activist ‘ambition’ and affective potential of this work if affect/enchantment rather than language/ dialogue is its ‘medium’ since, as Bennett (2001, p. 104) reminds us: ‘in enchantment a new circuit of intensities forms between material bodies’. Participant Carol wrote in an email:
I remember being enchanted and engaged with your performance [...] feeling bathed in attention. [...] what you were offering felt very real, a precious gift and I look it very seriously. I was surprised by the strength of this transaction.
FIGURE 2.3 Jess Allen, Drop in the Ocean, SPILL Festival 2018, Ipswich. Photograph by Guido Mencari.
Here I am drawn to her sense of having been ‘bathed in [my] attention’, and that a ‘transaction’ had passed between us that surprised her with its strength. This signals the peculiar and well-documented ability of one-to-one performance to forge an affective connection between performer and audience-participant in a short space of time. As Adrian Howells—the late and much-respected pioneer of the form—put it so well, this is the ability of that form to forge an ‘accelerated friendship between tw'o initial strangers’ (Iball, 2012, p. 41). Howells’s work was often long-durational and explored extremes of intimacy/proximity, touch and sensory experience, verging at times into therapeutic territory. It was expressly- designed to bring about ‘change, transformation or catharsis’ in the participant through a ‘concentrated focus and attention on the individual moment of encounter’, giving rise to the ‘aesthetically controlled incitement or production of emotional intensities’ (Heddon & Johnson, 2016, p. 12). There is a reciprocity to this inter-action too, which also requires of the performer to be present, open and, very often, vulnerable.
For one Drop participant, it was this aspect of the work that was perceived as actively political or ecological in itself. In email feedback Mark, who I had met by the River Wye, observed:
I love that people such as yourself render the self open to all manner of questioning. People or society play it safe and live within parameters that reflect a majority characteristic so as not to risk repulsion. Embarking upon your adventure last week is an example of stripping back the protective layers so as to see, feel and envisage a possible future.
Here he seems to be indicating that there is something in the overarching form and performance of the work itself—in an openness to venture forth and facilitate encounters with strangers, perhaps—that could be, at least for him, legibly contributing to wider activist meaning; in some way prefiguring a positive (social) ecology'. He goes on to conclude that the experience ‘enabled me personally to sense the potential in life through water’.
This last sentence perfectly (and, I admit, gratifyingly) indicates exactly the kind of sense-realisation I was so hoping the work might ultimately effect, precisely by—according to the logic of emancipated environmentalism—leaving space for it to bubble up. In a recent essay Tim Ingold cites a story- that Scottish poet Andrew Greig tells about his mentor Norman MacCaig whose ‘eye and heart were drawn to animals’ at the same time as he was consciously resistant to learning concrete facts about them. He feared that knowledge of things like Latin names, habitats and breeding patterns would ‘obscure their reality’ and believed that ‘sometimes the more you know the less you see. What you encounter is your knowledge, not the thing itself (cited in Ingold, 2016, n.p.). To this, Ingold responds poetically:
I think Greig has touched on something quite profound [...] Does knowledge actually lead to wisdom? Does it open our ears and eyes to the truth of what is there? Or does it hold us captive within a compendium of our own making? [...] Might it be because we know too much that we seem so incapable of [...] responding with care, judgment and sensitivity?
(Ingold, 2016, n.p.)
Through the guided ‘tasks’ of the Drop wish, I am inviting others to attend to our relationship with the more-than-human, but without offering a litany of facts about it, without offering judgments, or foregrounding our implication in ecological crisis. For indeed, as Bennett says ‘how could such sickly subjects inspire the kind of careful attentiveness that ecological living requires?’ (Bennett, 2001, p. 91). In this way, I hoped that participants would simply be moved to ‘encounter the [more-than-human] thing itself within their own remembered, experiential understanding of it, and not simply abstract or activist ‘knowledge’.
What I have been working towards throughout my narrative above—and the practice journey it describes—is that realisations about ‘ecology’ might be effected in others through an affective encounter with an activist performer. That is a care-fully facilitated one-to-one performance event that takes place unexpectedly in an everyday context and which seeks to foreground a joyful sense of possibility which may or may not also engender a momentary awareness of our enmeshment with the more-than-human world. I call this affective activism because, if the medium of conventional eco-activism is knowledge, then the currency of this exchange is affect. If the audience of the former is largely an anonymous multitude, the audience of/for latter is an individual human being who I greet face-to- face. And if the singular intention of the former is to effect the conscious understanding of an ecological problem or a necessary behavioural change, the open- ended hope of the latter is to arouse a felt sense of wonder or possibility.
For any form of activism, the problem will always remain that to achieve tangible results requires the turning of ‘understandings’ or ‘felt senses’ into actions. For Bennett, the affective force she calls enchantment is what she believes is necessary to ‘encourage the finite human animal [...] to give away some of its own time and effort on behalf of other creatures’. She concedes the pervasive problematic that there is no guarantee this will happen given that ‘affective energies are unruly and protean’ and that a certain degree of discipline will always be required to act in service of others. But ‘a sensibility attuned to enchantment [...] does make it more possible’ (Bennett, 2001, p. 156).
As such, the kind of enchantment that can produce any kind of tangible benefits for ‘ecology’ would be part of a practice, rather than a singular event. But, my contention is that in an affective activism, such events might open the possibility for a return to those sensations. In my own practice, the everyday location in which a performance encounter took place might be regularly revisited and hold something of the memory of encounter; functioning as a spatial mnemonic. Atd/or the invitation to attend might itself be read as an ‘offer’—a permission to pause, remember, reflect on ‘ecology’ even in the midst of the everyday grind- that could have resonance beyond our meeting. As participant Carol’s feedback went on to conclude: ‘I was surprised by the strength of this transaction. In your offer you had merely made a suggestion, a granting of permission perhaps but it felt strangely profound’ (Carol, email). Again, Heim usefully offers another poetic coinage ‘slow contagion’ to describe the potential for subsequent efficacy that may arise from slow activist performance. While the encounter itself cannot necessarily be reproduced,
the methods and the ethos bringing the situation into being can be adapted, experimented with in other contexts, not only by the artists but also by the public participants, who have already mutually created the event. It is an
experience which makes further experience possible.
(Heim, 2003, p. 187 emphasis added)
In this way I would argue for the validity of an affective activism that is content to participate in a longer-term process of effecting change—or to effect action that is deferred—precisely because it affectively seeds ideas in such a way that they are better able to ripen and mature.
In making this coinage—marrying something typically so concrete (activism) with something indisputably abstract (affect)—I remain acutely aware that, as Anderson cautions, ‘we must be careful about the exaggerated trust we place in our theorizations of affect’ and instead ‘offer concepts that are equal to the ambiguity of affective and emotive life’ (Anderson, 2009, p. 78). After all, to invest intention in such an ‘unruly’ force is at best ill-advised or at worst ontolo- gically troubling (Shouse 2005). But in an emancipated environmentalism—the framework from which I have taken succour—the very point is to relinquish control over outcomes. As Ranciere puts it, with reassuring nonchalance: ‘whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe’ (Ranciere, 1991, p. 18). This offers a useful critical caveat for a practitioner of affective activism who must focus instead on carefully constructing the conditions in which an affective (possibly enchanting) transaction may take place, and relinquish control of its outcome since, as Bennett similarly maintains:
the ethical value of enchantment resides in its ability to persuade without compelling, to structure experience without insisting that this structure is the one that must be duplicated again and again.
(Bennett, 2001, pp. 27-28, emphasis added)
1 Tilting at Windmills (2010), All in a Day’s Walk (2012-2013), Drop in the Ocean (2013-2019), Trans-missions (2015), Water Treatment Walks (2016); documented at http://jessallen.org. uk. See also Allen and Penrhyn Jones (2012).
- 2 Nature is a problematic term since it is so often used in binary opposition to culture, in doing so reinscribing a mis-perceived separation between (‘cultured’) human and the (‘natural’) non-human. In classical conceptions, nature was reified as transcendent, a position that is inconsistent with contemporary understanding of a decentred, interconnected ecology, as Timothy Morton succinctly argues: ‘to have “ecology” we have to let go of “nature”’ (Morton, 2010, ‘Introduction: Critical Thinking’). Throughout his writing, Morton capitalises ‘Nature’ to draw attention to the very ‘unnaturalness’ of the conception (Morton, 2010, 2013) at the same time as breaking down our deeply ingrained misperceptions by ‘denaturing’ it, ‘as one would do to a protein by cooking it’ (Morton, 2013, ‘Introduction’). Since any compelling alternatives have yet to make their way into language however, ‘nature’ or ‘natural world’ remain convenient descriptors for plant and non-human animal life, typically in the conglomerations and habitat matrices which they have evolved to form. I use the terms here in inverted commas to signal my unease.
- 3 Participant feedback was not formally requested or collated; rather each encounter was recorded by me, from memory, in field notes.
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