The landscape, ambivalent
and relational

by Leila Chakroun

Addressing shared landscapes through a diversity of artistic creations and from multi-sited perspective shed a new light on one of the tensions that is at the heart of the concept of landscape: not all of the landscape is shared or shareable. 

What are the shared and the unshared elements of landscape, and on what condition can landscape be (made) shareable? And, more directly related to the performance Shared Landscapes, what contribution can the living arts give to this dialectic?

To answer these questions, a detour by the history of the concept of landscape seems necessary. To state that the concept has a history is already assuming that certain civilizations did not have or still do not have an equivalent concept, and thus that they do/did not share with us this particular way of understanding, feeling and inhabiting our milieus.

The first occurrence of the term goes back to the 4th-5th century in Chinese painting and refer to pictorial representations featuring natural elements, and in particular, mountains and water. Indeed, the Chinese concept (Shanshui) was created from the prefix shan (mountains) and suffix shui (water). The human presence was never depicted, solely implied by its perspective as a painter. Although landscape was then closely linked to an artistic gesture and representation, Zong Bing (375-443) writes in his treatise on landscape that "the landscape, while having a material existence, leans toward the spiritual realm" (Périgord et Donadieu, 2012, p.8). Far from being anecdotal and outdated, this ambivalence of landscape is, even today, at the heart of the concept, and highlights the multiplicity and complexity of its definition (Bailly et al., 1980).

This ambivalence is similarly found in the history of the Western concept of landscape. The emergence of equivalent concepts in Europe dates from the painting of the Renaissance. 

A break in the history of art occurred at the end of the 15th century, with painters such as Albrecht Dürer, depicting "nature" for itself, whereas the latter had been, until then, used as a simple backdrop to human activities. In fact, it is precisely by removing what was at the heart of the "scene" that the landscape became the "scene". This gesture opens a new understanding of nature, no longer passive or disregarded: landscape paintings represented nature as powerful, sublime, untouchable. The history of art is accompanied by the emergence of a new terminology, with the term paese in Italian (1481), which inspired the term landscape in French (1549), from which the Italian (paesaggio), Spanish (paisaje) and Portuguese (paysagem) concepts then derived. At the same time, the concept of landschap (1481) was created in Dutch, based on an old German term landschaft, which were originally referring not to a representation of a territory but to the territory itself. It is this term that gave rise to the English concept of landscape.

There is thus (at least) a double meaning to landscape: "that of an artistic image […] and that of the visible extent of a territory" (Périgord et al., 2012). In other words, landscape refers alternately to the material environment that can be objectively described and toa view, necessarily subjective and partial, and its beautification through art (Bailly et al., 1980).

Nevertheless, even though this new wave in the history of art showed a new importance given to the non-human realm, it paradoxically reinforced some dualism between human and nature. Rich urban bourgeois were socially compelled to contemplate and adore extraordinary remarkable nature – nature valued and remarked because it is not the nature of their daily lives. This particular vision of landscape became dominant in the Romantic era, in the 19th century, and was typically used to argue in favor of National Parks, such as Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks. Their natural landscapes were publicized to the urban elite living on the East Coast through paintings and photographs. Through the concept of landscape, nature became a wild scenic beauty free of humans. Caspar David Friedrich's painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, is emblematic in this sense, and often used to illustrate this assignment, which is found even in the texts of laws regulating the American national parks: "man is a visitor who does not stay" (Wilderness Act, 1964). In this vision, humans are, by nature, opposed to nature (!). The postulate was that the fewer humans, the better nature. In other words, the less a landscape is shared, the more beautiful it is – and this is not without problems of social justice and accessibility. Friedrich's painting symbolizes this very invitation to face and conquer, alone and with a philosophical detachment, an environment that was long feared and inaccessible. Disinterested contemplation is stated to be possible only when there is no one else to alter this experience.

That is to say that landscape is not necessarily shared or shareable! Captured by the brushes of renowned painters and offered to an elite as an opportunity for recreation, the landscape was a privilege – a privilege of those who had the time and education to contemplate it and the words to capture and magnify it. This elite seemingly denied the existence of living beings, humans and non-humans, busy making these landscapes through their routine for subsistence.  Landscapes were declared "natural" after the violent eviction of their inhabitants – with the infamous case of Native Americans in North America. Later, landscapes were declared “shareable” after the eviction of some of their “great predators”, like bears and wolves, considered too dangerous. Those animals are still at the core of contemporary debates about the challenges of their reintroduction.

This was not possible on the old continent, too densely populated, and not by an ethnic minority. In Europe, their eviction has been more insidious: it has been done by the active denial of the peasant labor in the shaping of landscape – what the geographer Augustin Berque called "the foreclosure of medial work" (Berque, 2005). He highlights that this tension continues to exist today, not between intellectuals and artists on the one hand and the indigenous on the other, but between urbanites and farmers, foresters and other landscape professionals. He also points out that urban people, in the West as in the East, have, through the term landscape, made themselves blind to the work of the peasant, by amalgamating it with that of "nature" (Berque, 2010). Indeed, in contrast to the aesthetics of the city, the countryside was soon described as a "natural landscape". Ignorant of the daily work and events that punctuate the life of the countryside, urbanites began to appreciate the string of wheat or rape fields, orchards, country houses, hedgerows and distant mountains as "nature”. The challenge is therefore to acknowledge that landscapes are not "natural" in this sense, because they are full of human and non-human intentionalities.

The constitutive ambivalence of the landscape is thus related to this schizophrenic capacity of the Moderns to simultaneously adoring landscape contemplation and destruction. This allows us to be critical of the concept of landscape. The latter might have enabled us to qualify, and to grasp, through our senses and through art, "nature" in its otherness, but missed our interdependencies and our responsibilities. Berque highlights that our modern Western societies, although having landscape a major concept and a culturally valued phenomenon, have, paradoxically, deeply disintegrated real landscapes, by hunting or killing the living beings that constituted it and by eroding the dynamics that kept them alive. He claims modern societies develop a “landscape thinking” without being able to develop a “landscaping thought” and a landscaping mode of living.

In landscape thinking, landscape almost become a marketing object in the promotion of exotic travel destinations. Landscaping thought is, on the contrary, characterized by a sense of landscape, that not necessarily require a concept to be performed (Berque, 2016). This is in line with Michel Collot's concept of "pensée-paysage" (thought-landscape) by which he means that landscape is not an object but a way of thinking – a particular mode of grasping the world, from which we should draw inspiration (Collot, 2011). Berque similarly argues that we have culturally lost this landscaping thought, and that we would gain from revitalizing it and adjusting our concept of landscape so that it refers to a process, a phenomenon, or a relation. By this redefinition, landscape becomes, at last, shareable and intrinsically shared: it emerges from intricate relationships between humans, and with non-humans – living and non-living. This relational vision of the landscape is neither purely objective, nor purely subjective, but iterative and evolving – what Berque calls trajective. This characteristic is, moreover, at the heart of what anthropologist Anna Tsing calls "active landscapes" (Tsing, 2015), as a counterpoint to the image of landscape being a passive scene.

How then can we comprehend landscapes in their dynamism and not freeze them by our methods? Several disciplines have been interested in the question of landscape from various angles. Landscape has, in fact, made its place in many other disciplines than the history of art. Among these disciplines, geography, anthropology but also ecology and more particularly landscape ecology.  Geography was the first to address "real" landscapes. Etymologically proposing to describe the ways in which humans write (graphein) on the Earth (gêo), or even are themselves "earthly writers", geography very quickly recognized the heuristic value of landscape as a gateway to its object of study. The landscape became central, typically through the work of Alexander von Humbolt (1769-1859): "Humboldtian geography is qualified as ‘landscaping’ by the importance of the visual it mobilizes. The geographer-spectator transcribes the world through words and graphic and iconographic tools, his goal being to depict nature as it presents itself to the eye" (Péaud, 2015). But, landscape then became more discreet in the discipline, because it lost its “scientificity”, by being reduced to its subjective side. It became a major concept again recently, thanks to the updating of its heuristic capacity to bridge physical and human geography. In anthropology, landscape has adopted a rather phenomenological and less spatial meaning. 
Although less known for its link to landscape, anthropology is still the study, practice and surveying of a certain landscape – understood as a “lived milieu”. Pierre Sansot explicitly emphasizes this connection: "Ethnology, even more than sociology, seems to us to be able to reflect on this notion of landscape, both material reality and lived representation" (cited in Lenclud, 2013). Landscape allows us to think of ethnographic inquiry as a tension between the landscape scenes experienced and described by the anthropologist, and what the people who are part of these scenes and animate them say about them. More recently, landscape ecology emerged as a subdiscipline of ecology and suggested a scientific, in the sense of "objectivist", understanding of landscape. It converges with the conception of the landscape carried by the Germanic languages carried in the 15th century, landschaft, landscap, landscape, by adding however the dynamic relational vision of the ecology. It captures the landscape in its materiality, its structuring relations, its living and non-living entities in interaction, in order to explain the visible mosaic (and its non-visible components). According to Forman and Gordon (1991), the landscape is a heterogeneous portion of territory, composed of interacting ecosystems. Other perspectives focus on organisms, defining the landscape as the heterogeneous distribution of their habitats (Dunning et al., 1992). Landscape ecology has highlighted that the landscape is not (only) a social construct, but is constituted and shaped by interacting living beings. It has also shown to what extent human infrastructures and activities have considerably fragmented landscapes, and reduced the heterogeneity and connectivity between habitats for a series of species. By focusing on natural ecosystems, however, landscape ecology has eluded the cultural and subjective side of landscape.

As mentioned above, Zong Bing points out that landscape is material and spiritual. Berque interprets this quote from by saying that landscape is both imprint and matrix (Berque, 1984). It is also to say that while being natural, the landscape tends towards the cultural. What we see and feel is always influenced by cultural schemes and representations of nature. The latter moreover shape how we act within landscape, and sometimes destroy them. As contemporary thinkers of landscape (Berque et al., 1999; Besse, 2018; Diaz et al., 2017; Donadieu, 2007; Droz et al., 2009; Luginbühl, 2013; Marot, 1995) point out, there is an urgent need to culturally transform our relationships to landscape, and even our definition of landscape. Indeed, the Anthropocene is accompanied by a rapid desolation of our landscapes – the landscapes we inhabit and inhabit us in return (Tsing et al., 2019).

Its heuristic, operational, but also artistic potential lies precisely in its ambivalence and trajectivity – its constitutive tensions between its material (earthly, ecological) side and its "spiritual" (axiological, subjective, cultural, imaginary) side. The landscape is at the core of some projects for "repoliticization" of the relation between human communities and the evolution of their lived environment (Epaud, 2021). It brings together and allows a variety of actors of the territory to meet and share on various subjects, which affect them all, but in a differentiated way according to their profiles and status.

In the same logic, landscape is a source of inspiration in the performing arts, and for the repoliticization of themes. Until now, however, landscape has rather be used in a mostly rhetorical and metaphorical way in the performing arts: "we speak of scenic landscape, choreographic landscape, soundscape, mental landscape of the spectator […] which prompts us to ask what landscape is the name of" (Ferrer, 2017). Indeed, by overusing the term, there is a risk of dilution of its creative and heuristic power. Landscape, understood in its ambivalences, material/spiritual and natural/cultural, can free performing arts from the historical constraints: "the intrusion of the notion of landscape in the theatrical field seems to question the anthropocentric dimension of the scenic composition, challenging the commonplace, once established by Aristotle, according to which the drama is a representation of human actions (Ferrer, 2017). The landscape allows us to reconsider what is "staged" precisely, to think the artistic composition by being inspired by the logics of the landscape composition, even to compose artistically with and in landscape compositions.

The project of Shared Landscapes explicitly proposes to renew these relationships between the stage and the landscape, and thus also between humans and nature, by making the living arts intervene within the landscapes of the Jorat Periurban Natural Park. This project is a source of "disorientation", in this sense, because it proposes a shift by taking the stage, physically and symbolically, outside its walls. Indeed, the Parc du Jorat is commonly associated with a place of nature where families on walks, naturalists and photographers, joggers, cyclists, and foresters, lumberjacks and farmers are more likely to be seen than artists and "their" audience.

The artistic creations that compose Shared Landscapes teach us that staging arts into a landscape is a gesture of humility in relation to the artistic work: the latter cannot, here, occupy all the space and monopolize all the attention. The artistic proposals are only some of the multiple "scenes" that are offered to the spectators. The challenge is to blurr the borders established by modernity between arts and knowledge, and between theater and theories (Aït-Touati, 2021b). While the arts, both landscape painting and theater, understood landscape as a scene in the 17th century, they now reveal themselves strategic in expanding the concept of agency in landscape, to "open the stage to non-humans […] and to break with the illusion of human bubble" (Aït-Touati, 2021a). The director Frédérique Aït-Touati proposed for example to experiment this opening by speaking about "theater of the globe", which would be the "place of setting in play of the various powers of acting of the world, place to question the decor as 'agent', active, actor" (Aït-Touati, 2021b). Shared Landscapes is situated in this lineage. It teaches us that "to see" the landscape is, precisely, not to stop reducing it to the sight, and to comprehend it in its polysensoriality: sound landscapes, haptic landscapes, landscapes felt when one is lying on the ground, hybrid landscapes marring high trees and high tech,... Shared Landscapes also offers a critical and political look at landscapes: for whom are they intended? Which bodies are able to penetrate and appreciate them? For which bodies are they still frightening and inaccessible? What stories, dark and happy, are told to those who know how to read them? What experience can we gain by being all together in a landscape for a long period of time?

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