Recoil performance group, MASS – bloom explorations
May 1–6, 2018
May 1–6, 2018
Dancing With Worms
In a transparent plastic dome, mealworms surround a woman dressed in a flesh-coloured latex suit. She touches them delicately. She breaks big chunks of Styrofoam into small pieces and feeds them to her companions, some of which are also feasting on chicken thighs.
Two visitors enter the dome and start interacting with the little creatures. I follow them inside, where the crackling sound and the weird smell assail me. The dancer is moving ever so slowly around the fascinating swarm of mealworms.
This is not a science fiction fantasy, nor the future. We are at Overgaden, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Copenhagen, who is presenting MASS – bloom explorations, an immersive and participatory installation by the artistic collective recoil performance group, created by Danish choreographer Tina Tarpgaard. Weaving together biological art, literature, performance-installation, and Slow Art, the piece unfolds over six days in a plastic geodesic dome, where dancer Hilde I. Sandvold interacts with 200,000 yellow mealworms, the larvae of the Darkling beetle (Tenebrio molitor).
This work is the second part of a posthumanist trilogy, The Membrane Project, which “stages encounters between the human and the non-human” through “speculative choreographies at the intersection of art and ecology.”1 1 - http://recoil-performance.org/
Drawing from Haraway’s idea of collaborative survival, MASS – bloom explorations harbours a large amount of Styrofoam waste, which the mealworms feed on, thanks to their recently discovered ability to biodegrade polystyrene by means of bacteria in their gut. The dancer hands them Styrofoam pieces. Occasionally, she starts eating chicken thighs and gives them the rest. The visitors can observe the process from the outside or enter the dome to mingle with the performers. They can also sit on a plastic couch to listen to a short story written by Danish author Ida Marie Hede. Broadcasted over speakers, this poetic, synesthetic, and dark text offers up the tale of a human living with mealworms: “I live at my small farm alongside 600 mealworms, withdrawn for the world and its entire buzz. There is not a lot of room there, but I’m careful and nimble.”
The dancer is indeed moving very slowly, very delicately. Every one of her tiny gestures emerges out of deep attention to the larvae. Her commitment is striking: she spends seven hours per day in the dome, extremely focused and responsive to the mealworms. According to both the text and the choreographer, the choreographic work is shaped by the human protagonist’s empathy and care for her companions: “I quietly count to 100, flex a muscle, it takes me 25 minutes to take a step to the right without harming the mealworms.”
The piece also evokes the becoming-worm of the human protagonist and the appearance of a new symbiotic species. The interaction among matter, movement, voice, and text contributes significantly to the work’s speculative dimension and to the ethical, ecological, and political alternatives that it fosters, notably through the contortions and widening of language2 2 - Filipa Ramos, “Introduction / Art Across Species and Beings,” in Animals, ed. Filipa. Ramos (London, UK: Documents of Contemporary Art. Whitechapel Gallery, 2016), 12–21. that makes it possible to imagine the unthinkable.
MASS – bloom explorations foregrounds mealworms as contenders for ethical consideration. This is manifest in the piece, the explanations of the guide and, more importantly, the fact that Overgaden’s space has been adapted to ensure their welfare. However, the piece raises ethical concerns. The mere fact of using the mealworms as art material is considered objectification and abuse by many. According to curator Victoria Dailey, integrating living beings emphasizes art as taking precedence over non-human lives.3 3 - www.apollo-magazine.com/should-museums-display-artworks-live-animals/ Another problem with many artistic projects soliciting the participation of animals is that they often result in their suffering and death.
Yet, in the case of MASS – bloom explorations, all precautionary measures are taken to avoid harming the mealworms. When they are not performing in Europe, they live in a compost house, which the recoil performance group has built for them in ecological gardens in Copenhagen. Indeed, European regulations allow the transport of mealworms across borders. However, the laws are different in Canada: when the work was presented in Ottawa, the artistic collective had to purchase mealworms from a pet food supplier and incinerated them at an animal cemetery afterwards. A memorial stone for the mealworms was erected.
Giovanni Aloi, a leading researcher in animal studies and contemporary art, underscores that whether or not to include animals in an artistic project should be determined by the meaning of the work and its protagonists’ sense of responsibility.4 4 - Ibid. In MASS – bloom explorations, the mealworms are subjects and only represent themselves; the work offers perspectives on their relationship with humans, contributing to generating shifts in worldviews beyond anthropocentrism and speciesism.
The ethical posture permeating the entire piece clashes with the ways we tend to treat many invertebrates. In the case of mealworms, they are widely used as pet food as well as in animal testing and are generally euthanized after experimentation. Moreover, they are considered pests because they invade stored food. Hence, their killing is not only normalized, but has become institutionalized.5 5 - Giovanni Aloi, Art and Animals (New York: I. B. Taurus, 2012), 99. In that sense, MASS – bloom explorations not only criticizes the human tendency to care less for some beings than for others, but also opposes ideas of hierarchy among species.
This performance makes graspable the abstract notion of non-human agency, which means that the mealworms and the Styrofoam do things independently of human desires and expectations. In particular, the piece dramatizes the constant material agencies and flows of substances between the mealworms, the polystyrene, the dancer, and the visitors, a phenomenon that Stacy Alaimo6 6 - Stacy Alaimo, Exposed Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016). has conceptualized as transcorporeality. This posthumanist mode of feminist new materialism invites us to notice the constant and multiple interchanges (of pollutants, nutrients, energy, genetic material) and the continuous mutual transformations between humans, other animals, and consumer products, drawing our attention to the enmeshment of all beings, including humans, in the material world.7 7 - Ibid.
Getting to grips with our corporeality as the very stuff of the material world allows us to make headway towards a lived environmentalism that is not elective.8 8 - Ibid. According to Alaimo, it requires engaging with scientific knowledge through mapping of interchanges or creative practices that make it possible to visualize or experience transcorporeality. Through its experiential dimensions, its alternative narrative, and its engagement with the science of mealworms and polystyrene, MASS – bloom explorations is one of those practices that educate about the inseparability of human bodies from the world.
Broadening the contours of what counts as dance and who count as dancers, this brilliant, unsettling, and captivating Artivist practice raises questions about our relationship to time, capitalism, environmental degradation, and responsible citizenship. In particular, it provokes us to cultivate attentiveness and relate differently to unloved and undesirable creatures, such as the slimy and swarming mealworms.
When visiting the installation, the multisensory, embodied, and participatory encounter engenders a mixture of feelings: fascination, surprise, fear, disgust, perplexity, delight, joy… These dynamic and mixed affects9 9 - Teresa Lloro-Bidart, “Cultivating Affects: A Feminist Posthumanist Analysis of Invertebrate and Human Performativity in an Urban Community Garden,” Emotion, Space and Society 27 (2018), 23–30. can contribute to transforming our imaginations and narratives in ways that generate ethical practices. Reconfiguring our relationship with the world is not a simple and direct trajectory, but entails messy and disquieting encounters,10 10 - Ibid., 24. which embrace the uncontrollable and manifest through negotiations with contradicting emotions. By engaging attentively with the installation, the visitors join the entanglements of the performers and participate in co-becoming processes: becoming-ethical.11 11 - Rosi Braidotti, “Ethics of Joy,” in Posthuman Glossary, ed. Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova, (Oxford, England: Bloomsbury, 2018), 221–224.