requiem for a forest

A scenic reading
first performed on 07.03.2020 in the
Tieranatomischen Theater
in the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

recordings

Created in April 2020 in the
Späth-Arboretum
of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

Cedar forest / Gilgamesh
kills the king of trees


With 
David Bennent
Antje Boetius

Scenic arrangement
David Bennent
Antje Boetius

Camera
Andreas Deinert

Sound 
Esteve Franquesa Parareda

Music
Kevin Mooney

Cut 
Andreas Deinert

Film location
Späth-Arboretum of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

A production of the Theatre of the Anthropocene in cooperation with Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Alfred-Wegener-Institut. 

Ash Tree / The World Tree in the Edda


With 

Antje Boetius
Ilse Ritter

Scenic arrangement
David Bennent

Camera
Andreas Deinert

Sound 
Esteve Franquesa Parareda

Music
Kevin Mooney

Cut 
Andreas Deinert

Film location
Späth-Arboretum of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

A production of the Theatre of the Anthropocene in cooperation with Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Alfred-Wegener-Institut.

Dream Tree / World Fire


With 

Claudia Burckhardt
Meiting Shi

Scenic arrangement
Vincent Burckhardt
Frank Raddatz

Camera
Andreas Deinert

Sound 
Esteve Franquesa Parareda

Music (intro and credits)
Kevin Mooney

Cut 
Andreas Deinert

Film location
Späth-Arboretum of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

A production of the Theatre of the Anthropocene in cooperation with Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Alfred-Wegener-Institut. 

writings

With his study ‘Forests: The Shadow of Civilization’ the American literary historian Robert P. Harrsion makes it clear that there is no such thing as the forest. Human sight is not neutral, but a way of seeing: what our sight sees and what it does not see are inextricably linked to the orders of the present. But their structures and patterns of perception are in a state of upheaval today, on the threshold of the Anthropocene. The revision of the ecological parameters affects the forest, the lungs of the planet particularly sensitively. Burning forests all over the world, but also insect infestations bear witness to the transformations its habitats are undergoing due to the current global warming. The changed conditions require new maps corresponding to the scenarios, as the old perspectives are less and less suitable for an appropriate, i.e. sustainable, treatment of animals, landscapes, the Earth system and its central organ, the forest.

Apparently we find ourselves in a similar situation to the hunter in Heiner Müller’s Hydra text, who has to experience how the familiar schemata dissolve before his eyes. Even the hero loses the sense of time during this walk through the forest: Perhaps he himself has been on the trail too long, one Earth time too long. After all, this Heracles figure doubts whether what he walks through can still be called a forest. With the loss of orientation, the mystery grows, culminating in the decisive question: who or what guided the movements of these trees, branches? 

Like Müller’s protagonist, our species must currently admit to itself that it has lost its way. While it just resided high-handedly on the throne of evolution and presented itself as the undisputed king of the planet, nature in the Anthropocene by no means proves to be as controllable as man equipped with technology and science long assumed. Under a prehistoric or at least hardly scalable sky, Müller’s text reports on the struggle between forest/animal and Homo Sapiens. Against this horizon, the anthropocene Today reads itself not only as an extension of this seemingly timeless conflict but as its result. In terms of cultural history, the antagonism can be traced back to the beginnings of urban civilization, which is based on the Holocene, i.e. the warm period that began a little over eleven thousand years ago. 

A Sumerian tale, the approximately 4000 year old myth of Gilgamesh, opens the Scenic Reading ‘Requiem for a Forest’. It describes the life and death struggle between an ancient king of Uruk, a Mesopotamian city on the Euphrates, and the tree king Humbaba. The sequence marks one of many beginnings of the Anthropocene, which did not begin with its word creation in 2000, when the atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen introduced the term into the geological debate, nor with the invention of the steam engine. In Müller’s 1972 design, the protagonists are called Hydra and Heracles and come from early Greek antiquity. Apart from this, the underlying motif deciphers itself as the same conflict that accompanied the establishment of the first advanced civilizations. The evening is concluded in this line by another protagonist from the realm of myth, this time from the Nordic Edda. When the world tree Yggdrasil dies, according to the saga, the dawn of the human race sets in. Today a hybrid of mobilized homo and bark beetle does a lot to bring about this end. 

What all three mytho-poetic passages have in common, and here the anthropocene, as an epistemological change of perspective, begins by stating that the forest is an actor and not a passive thing or dead object. Like the names Humbaba or Yggdrasil, Müller’s question about the who or what of the forest also suggests the idea of a personal identity, a subject of nature. In mythical traditions or in the codifications of shamanism, the entities of nature are imagined as animated beings endowed with a will. At present, the physicist Karen Barad or the historians of science Donna Haraway, Michel Serres or Bruno Latour are debating how the traditional subject-object relationship can be dissolved in favour of a relationship in which the non-human inhabitants of the earth can be understood as a bundle of activities instead of under the aspect of things. In this context, we speak of actors and protagonists, of effective powers and quasi-subjects, of effective powers that are definitely alive, since they pursue an intention and have a biography. When Earth system researcher Antje Boetius explains in the course of the performance what indispensable functions the forest has assumed over the course of many hundreds of millions of years with regard to the ecological habitat and the formation of the atmosphere, it can hardly be denied that this is a kind of ‘intra-active becoming’ (Barad), an ‘activity’. When forestry experts explain how anthropogenic climate change is affecting the forest, how higher temperatures not only promote forest fires but also parasite infestations, i.e. how they produce the amalgam of man and beetle that is eating away at the World Tree, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a causal relationship. 

Our evening follows the actor forest and its manifestations by means of different snapshots from the past and present. John Muir, for example, an American pioneer of the ecology movement, who in 1892 founded the Sierra Club, one of the oldest and, with 2.4 million members, one of the largest nature conservation organizations in the United States, cultivated an almost intimate, even educational, relationship with individual tree species, as he notes: Wild and unconventional in adulthood, the sugar pine is a remarkably well-behaved tree in its youth. In the novel ‘The Roots of the World’, for which Richard Powers was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2019, a scientist thanks a sequoia for cooperating so generously with people. The trees seem less noble to those who study accident statistics. Road trees are responsible for a large proportion of road deaths and even when they are processed into pellets, they still rob lives when stored improperly. But forests not only produce wood, they also turn into coal and thus generate the form of energy on which the steam-driven machine age is based. It is the same forests that provide the planet’s oxygen supply, the same forests that release CO2 emissions when burned as coal that drive climate change. From the actor’s point of view, paradoxically, they are not only victims but also perpetrators. 

If anthropocene or ecological reflexivity leads to the front garden of a new epistemology, where objects and things are replaced by actors and causal relationships, the theatre of the Anthropocene seeks to bring together science and art on its stage. In addition to the common intersection of content, the Anthropocene thematic field, art and science approach each other under the premise of Earth system research that everything is connected to everything else. The force fields of art have claimed nothing else since the beginning of modernity (or always). 

An epistemological and/or ontological turnaround is intended to purify the spirit of domination of nature, which is one of the main causes of the acute ecological crisis with planetary dimensions. In the field of art, Harrison’s narrative, presented at the beginning, states that their attitudes and views are also embedded in the fabric of their time. The poetic genius is by no means situated in spaces beyond history and culture. In the poetry ‘Traumwald’ the poet arrives at the frightening finding that in this formation of the fairy tale forest, where the spruces stand in an espalier, he has long since lost the authentic reference to the animals with their empty eyes that no one understands. It is still a long march to the general awareness that the history of mankind can only be separated from the history of animals (plants, stones, machines) at the price of destruction. 

It becomes clear that the Anthropocene not only demands an epistemological-ontological turn, but also the departure from anthropocentrism as a cultural paradigm. Requiem thus also means to part with outdated images. With the resurrection of the natural objects as effective powers, the course that placed man at the centre of evolution is revised. Homo Sapiens can no longer be declared the meaning of the earth (Nietzsche), but our species is moving to the periphery of those processes that are no longer reflected in the tree of life but rather resemble a widely branched bush or a network of roots and thread-like hyphae. On the stage of the Animal Anatomical Theatre the actors also occupied the marginal positions. After the Anthropos withdraws from the centre, the place where animals used to be dissected and scientific lectures held remains empty. Analogous to the paradigm shift in scientific self-understanding of the last centuries, their stage is also making a turn. The boards in the centre remain unplayed, while the theatrical life winds its way up along the wooden railings. The tree, too, is neither flat nor angular, but grows from roots guided by trunks and branches towards the light. The glass dome, the architectural highlight of the building, lets the sunshine, the essential component of photosynthesis, into the theatrical space under the direction of Mark Lammert during the day, and during the performance the night sky embeds the earth cosmically. Claudia Burckhardt and Leopold von Verschuer open the evening musically. A song from the 1970s is ominously charged in view of the anthropocentric time horizon and shows how much the imaginary, the ciphers and metaphors are filled with altered meanings. The final accent is set by “Wandrers Nachtlied”, Franz Schubert’s setting of the Goethe poem “Über allen Wipfels ist Ruh”. Notes of mourning that refer to a world of which we do not know how long it will last in the form we know.   

The reader or spectator must decide whether this has succeeded in writing an instruction manual for the labyrinth without damaging its adventurous character. The actor David Bennent tells how Heiner Müller gave him the stage text >Picture Description< for a reading in the canteen of the Staatstheater Stuttgart several years ago. The manuscript had been cleaned of dot and comma or other traffic signs of punctuation. Syllable by syllable, word by word, sentence by sentence, a text wants to be traversed until the rhythm (s) releases a meaning. Just as it happens again and again to the actor that a verb or other language component unexpectedly crosses and prevents further progress, the audience is also called upon to take new paths if the old ones do not lead on. The thicket of texts invites everyone to take an active part in the montage as co-author, to use their own intellect, associations and dreams to contribute to the event. Instead of actionism, a barely manageable and complex course is offered, which encourages one to readjust one’s attitudes in order to initiate the turnaround that the Anthropocene demands. Now, before I myself stray from the path, I break off. Just one more thing: if you are not prepared to get lost, you cannot make maps.

Frank Raddatz
Berlin, 26 April 2020