ANIMATAZINE

JULIE SERMON

WATER

Julie Sermon is Professor of history and aesthetics of contemporary theatre at the Lyon 2 University, Director of the Laboratoire Passages Arts et Littératures (XX-XXI), in which she manages the "Environmental Humanities" axis; author of numerous publications, many of which specific on contemporary puppet theater. Since 2017, she has dedicated her research to the dialogue that artists of the contemporary scene intertwine with ecology.

Since 2017, she has dedicated her research to the dialogue that artists of the contemporary scene intertwine with ecology.

In 2021 her book MORTS OU VIFS, POUR UNE ECOLOGIE DES ARTS VIVANTS comes out for the B42 editions.
 
In this interview Julie Sermon retraces the path that led her to become interested in the links between the performing arts and ecology: how is ecology changing the processes of writing, creating and producing scenic works?
 
What does it mean, for the contemporary scene, to take ecological paradigms into account?
 
In what way, in particular, do the languages of the puppet arts prove to be propitious in creating visions and dramaturgies in resonance with ecological problems and sensitivities?
 

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE IMPACT THAT THE 1992
RIO EARTH SUMMIT HAD ON YOU, THEN A YOUNG SECONDARY SCHOOL CHILD?

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 03:22

It was 1992, I was in middle school; our history and geography teacher asked us that year to give a presentation on the Rio Earth Summit.

I have a rather vague memory of the event as such, but I remember very well what I did to respond to the request: I went with a friend to do a photo shoot.

At the time, I lived in the Landes, a region in southwestern France near the ocean with large pine forests that had been planted in the 19th century to reclaim swamps.

I realized that Rio's Earth Summit was associated with pollution, so this friend and I photographed the beaches and forests to document all the trash that was littering everywhere.
 

I remember the feeling of anger and indignation that I had, how you can feel very strong when you are thirteen, fourteen, and you feel that it is not right, that it is not normal.

So it was a rather naive reaction, but at the same time very decisive.

I don't think I learned the word ecology, its meaning, at that moment.

I don't even remember exactly what our teacher told us about the Summit of the Earth, I just remember the opportunity she created by asking us to work in connection with this event.

As I speak, I also remember that they had made a small sticker, a small logo, which represented the planet Earth with people around, something a bit trivial.

But that image made me realize that it was a global event and I think it made a certain impression on me.

It happens that I belong to the generation of the "European construction", when we were little, there was a real insistence, I would not go so far as to say propaganda, but the idea of European construction was very, very present ...

For example, we had the Panini albums on building Europe ...

This awareness of the construction of an international space has also played a crucial role, I believe.

What I remember from the Rio Earth Summit is not so much the word ecology, but the realization that humans were misbehaving with nature, and that the Summit was a planet-wide event.

Later, I became more and more aware of the importance of these issues in my life, to the point that I recently decided to dedicate my university work to them.

And it was when I wondered when things came together, when my encounter with ecology happened, that I realized it was at the Rio Summit.
 

So it was in retrospect that I realized how important the event was, and at the same time that it was an event that ultimately failed in its objectives.

But I only realized that a few decades later...


Later, I became more and more aware of the importance of these issues in my life, to the point that I recently decided to dedicate my university work to them.

And it was when I wondered when things came together, when my encounter with ecology happened, that I realized it was at the Rio Summit.
 

So it was in retrospect that I realized how important this event was, and at the same time how much it was an event that ultimately failed in its objectives.

But I only realized this a few decades later ...

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Summit della Terra di Rio, collage di Animatazine.

IN 2017 YOU CHOSE TO EXPLORE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CONTEMPORARY PERFORMING ARTS AND ECOLOGY.
CAN YOU EXPLAIN THE REASONS FOR THIS CHOICE?

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 03:19

In 2016 I passed my HDR, the Research Supervision Qualification diploma, for which you need to make a summary of your career.

On this occasion, I realized that regularly, in my work, I had made allusions, connections between the forms I was working on, whether they were texts or performances, and ecological interpretations.

At the same time, ethically and politically, it became increasingly difficult for me to do nothing, not try to act against the catastrophe in progress.

I still love my work enough, I still have enough faith in the University, in the work with students, and also in the work of artists, to say to myself: "Well, where I am from, according to the skills and interests that are mine , how can I act, what can I do that is not totally useless?

I think that as theater artists, as teacher-researchers in the performing arts, our weight in the destruction of the planet is relatively small ...

But I have time to read, write, think, and since at the University you can choose the content of your teaching, I thought: "Why not take advantage of this opportunity? Why not dedicate a certain number of training hours to address these problems with people in their twenties who necessarily have opinions on the matter, and with whom it is possible to share thoughts and references?

It is important to be able to tell ourselves, not that we will change the world, because I don't really believe that the arts can change the world, at least not in a short amount of time, but to be able to ask: "What are the forms, the values that we want to defend? What are the thoughts that can help us?

In the work I do with students, I think it is very important to share with them references that are sometimes quite dated, and that can help us deal with the situation, that can serve as a support. 

It can be quite terrifying, when you are in your twenties, to say to yourself: "The world is going up in flames and we have to change everything, invent all the solutions! 

I find it extremely overwhelming and scary.

It is therefore reassuring to be able to share thoughts with students that sometimes go back quite far into the 20th century, or even into the 19th century, and say to ourselves, "Well, we are not alone, and there are people who have already imagined many things .. .!

Manifestazione
Manifestazione

Environmentalist demonstration.

HOW DOES THE 'SENSITIVE' PARADIGM COME INTO PLAY IN YOUR COURSES?

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 03:19

The sensitive dimension is very important in the relationship with the students, even if it is not something I immediately assumed.
 
I have been teaching on these topics for four years: I started with seminars in the master's program and, for two years, I have been teaching a lesson in the third year.

The first year of the seminar was when I started working on these topics: it was a very general course, in which I was still trying to convince myself that it was relevant to combine the performing arts and ecology; I started working on the eco-critical bibliography, which is mainly a literary and American bibliography; I laid the first foundations, I thought about how thought and analysis could be articulated; I therefore still had a fairly distant approach.

In the second year, we worked more specifically on the theme of 'catastrophe', in relation to the programming of that year's shows in the Lyon theaters.

I started saying to myself: "I don't want to depress the students by making them work on the theme of catastrophe for three months!
 
So, while I was working on the question of the disaster, I began to ask myself the question of registers and how we can talk about very serious things with less serious forms and tones.

And, starting from the third year of the seminar, I have chosen to clearly address the issue of theater and ecology through the prism of affects and emotions.

I begin this seminar with the distribution of a very personal questionnaire, to which I also answer. The first question I ask students is, "Where are you from? There are some fun ways to answer this question, for example," I'm from the next room ... "But most of the time students answer academically, explaining what their background is: "I come from a degree in performing arts, I come from a degree in philosophy ...".

And then there are others who say which place, country, region they come from.
 
This first question remains open, while the following questions are much more oriented: I ask them how the landscapes in which they grew up have marked them; I ask them the first memory they have of ecology, as well as the feelings they link to this memory; finally, I ask them to make a list of four or five words that refer to the thoughts and emotions that go through them when they think about ecological issues today.

Image by Guillaume de Germain

Foto: Guillaume de Germain

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 02:26

I am a daughter of the 20th century, I was born in 1978, I really lived in the "world I used to" - the world before the Internet, the world where the left was still in power...

Crazy things, not seen in France for a long time time!
 
It was also a time when ecology did not yet exist in such a massive and worrying way.

When I talk to students, I realize how immersed they have been in ecology from an early age, but in a very individualistic ecology, made up of very small gestures.

For some of them, ecology is not necessarily politicized and, above all, they do not know that it is a movement with a whole history.
 
When I ask them, for example, to situate the invention of ecology in time, some respond: "I believe in the early 2000s ...".

Those who come from committed families, sensitive to these issues, date back to the 1970s, but it would never occur to them to think that it is a word that has a much longer history, both scientific and political.

For me, entering the ecological question through the very individual medium of personal emotions and memories is precisely a way of posing the ethical and political question.

Emotions are what set us in motion or paralyze us, so they have political implications; and they can become driving forces rather than remain inhibitory forces. 

Ultimately, entering into reflection through the issue of emotions seemed to me the most appropriate way, both as regards the pedagogical relationship with the students, and for what can be expected from this relationship, and it is also a good way to analyze the specific effects of the arts.

Image by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

Foto: Guillaume de Germain

RESEARCH, TEACHING, DRAMATURGICAL COLLABORATIONS.
HOW DO THESE DIFFERENT LOOKS AND AREAS FEED ON EACH OTHER?

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 03:14

When I work at the University or when I work with artists, I don't feel that I am a different person, that I am a scientist who becomes an artist or an artist who becomes a scientist...
 
Rather, they are two very different but very complementary ways of working on an issue.

There is a rather lonely modality, the one I experience as an academic: it is a job where you are alone and where you struggle in solitude with your own words and ideas and with the words and ideas of others, where you are in a very mental and reflective.

While when I work as a playwright on projects with artists, I have a situational approach, more grounded in action and much more collaborative.

Subsequently, if we look at the broader level of ecology, the interchanges between the arts and sciences are constant.

The fact that artists read a number of scientific productions and document themselves on a number of subjects can give them ideas for forms, and a desire to create spectacles; this does not mean that artists have to become mediators of scientific ideas, but it is an approach that can create little sparks for the shows.

And on the contrary, scientists feel that it is perhaps through the arts, through a relationship with the fictional, the imaginary, the sensible, that hearts and minds can be transformed.

We were talking about the Earth Summit in Rio.

Scientists have been screaming in the desert for 30 years.

Even though there is much more talk of these issues today than in 1992, there is something very desperate for climate specialists and scientists, who are wondering: "But what are we to do? We produce irrefutable knowledge, yet nothing changes ... ".
 
Making this observation, it is said that perhaps it is necessary to pass through other registers, other paths than those specific to knowledge, which obviously is not enough. 

The gap between what we know and what we do shows that there is something at stake elsewhere, which takes place in places that are not entirely objective or rational. The way in which our perceptions and representations evolve is not measurable or predictive: we do not know, for example, what a work of art will generate in the life of a viewer ...

Paola Breizh - Rassemblement pour la justice climatique. Paris. 6 novembre 2021.jpg

Paola Breizh  - Rassemblement pour la justice climatique. Paris. November 6, 2021

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 02:05

So artists and scientists feed each other and have experiences to share, but I don't think this can be programmed.

The most obvious forms of programming, like asking artists to mediate, can be interesting, but in my opinion we put some sort of great responsibility on the shoulders of the artists, saying, "Invent new stories, invent new forms!
 
It's like the king says "Enjoy me!", It's not about having fun, but there is an injunction.
 
I feel like saying to artists: "May they leave you alone! Work on what is important to you, read what you want to read", and if the artists want to talk about ecology, tell other stories, bring new thoughts and feelings, it will be great.

But it would be brutal and simplistic to say: "Since the scientists have failed, we will turn to our artists."

Artists obviously have resources, through their sensitivity, their vision, their means, but I believe that a work will only be truly powerful if it is born from a desire, and not from some sort of social and societal injunction to do certain things. .

Also, when we say, "Inventing new narratives", what kind of new narratives are we talking about?
 
We are creating resilience narratives like: “Sorry, it won't be easy, but you will see, we will finally find a connection with non-human worlds, it will be great!

Or are these new narratives narratives of the fall of capitalism, which can be seen as the main destructive power?
 
In other words, talking about the new narratives is a bit vague: are they cosmological, political, collective or individual narratives?
 
Once you say "new," not much is said.

Having said that, it is very important to open narrative horizons, to try to name, tell, represent things - politics works largely like this, it is what allows it to propose a reading, an interpretation of reality; it is therefore very important to have contradictory narratives that coexist.
 
But we must not forget that if politicians' narratives are effective, if they manage to impose their narrative, it is because they have with them a structure to support and implement these narratives; once the artists have invented the most beautiful and new narratives, nothing is said about how they will be implemented: we must therefore not be too naively fooled by the importance of these new narratives.

Image by Chris LeBoutillier

IN YOUR RESEARCH, YOU HAVE APPROACHED PUPPET THEATRE ON MANY OCCASIONS. WHAT CONNECTIONS WITH ECOLOGY? 

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 01:49

I met the marionette during my studies with a thesis on the question of figures , a word that I discovered not in the field of marionette, but in the field of contemporary writing.
 
The authors I worked on were: Philippe Minyana , Noëlle Renaude , Valère Novarina , Jean-Luc Lagarce .

I did my thesis at the University of Paris 3, Sorbonne Nouvelle, at the time there was Brunella Eruli who was holding a seminar  puppet option.

I had noticed that the authors I was working on were often performed by puppeteers.

The very notion of figure , without yet knowing what puppetry was, had links with writing.

It happened so, in a somewhat informal way, then I started seeing puppet shows.
 
I did my thesis in 2004 and 2007, Philippe Minyana, who at the time was an associate author of ESNAM, wrote C'est l'anniversaire de Michelle mais elle a disparu.

Being very happy with the work I had done on his writing, he invited me to give some lessons to the ESNAM students. 
 
Later it was proposed to me to direct an issue of Théâtre Public:  Puppets? Tradition, croisements, décloisonnements .
 

C'EST L'ANNIVERSAIRE DE MICHÈLE MAIS ELLE A DISPARU (02/2008), SPECTACLE DE 3E ANNÉE, 7E P

C'est l'anniversaire de Michelle mais elle a disparu, by Philippe Myniana. Show of the third year of the seventh ESNAM promotion - Charleville-Mézières.

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 03:12

But I'm not going to do the whole story again and focus on your question: how do I connect the puppet to ecological issues.

First of all, I would like to specify that while I can teach courses, write articles and direct books dealing specifically with puppets, it is a field that I integrate more extensively into my teaching and research.

From the moment I decided to work on the relationship between theater and ecology, I naturally included the puppet in my reflection.

For example, when I worked with the students on the representation of animals as part of the Master's seminar we talked about, I invited Émilie Flacher and Agnès Oudot, from the Compagnia Arnica , with whom I collaborate as a playwright.
 
Émilie had launched a cycle of creation on the question of fairy tales about animals, with the desire not to make animals simple allegories of humans, but to really work on their presence, their movement, their animal sensation.

With the students, we then reflected on what puppetry allows, on how it can make presences other than human ones exist, knowing that it is already a presence beyond the human.

It just so happens that the moment I wanted to tackle ecological issues at university was also the moment when Émilie wanted to stage something other than humans, to tell stories that didn't just stage human problems.

As a continuation of the cycle of fairy tales, he commissioned a text from a young author, Julie Aminthe, entitled Notre vallée, which will be produced in 2023.

The challenge is to tell the story of a place, with all the beings that inhabit a valley and all the forces, starting from the wind and water, that make up the history of this valley.

The puppet has a great advantage: it immediately distances us from the purely human.

That said, in the corpus of puppet shows I have been able to work on, I have often found the same prejudices as acting, that is, often very explicit, even militant shows.
 
I understand the intentions of the artists but I am a little skeptical, because I tell myself that the people who go to the theater are largely involved, and because it seems to me that no one today can say that they are not aware of the ecological stakes, no one can say : "Oh, I didn't know, there is a problem ...?".

So I don't have much faith in a show that claims to inform, and often, the shows that want to educate seem naive, boring ... 

Arnica Company, Notre Vallée

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 02:57

The ecopoetic approach for which Emilie Flacher has opted (but it is not the only one) consists, not in giving a speech on ecology, but in seizing the opportunities that puppetry offers: working with matter, we can create all sorts of creatures and beings that are not exclusively confined to the human race, and which, on the contrary, allow to expand the word, nature and number of those who appear on the scene.

In Émilie's work, this work of renewal also takes place through the commissioning of texts that she gives to the authors, telling them, for example, 'I want to write the history of a place and not the history of a person'.

This principle of commissioning is a very strong field of experimentation, and the fact of calling writers seems to me equally important.

When puppeteers or companies work in a documentary way, they can only testify, they can only restore reality.

This may be a way of questioning or criticizing the world, but I have the impression that accumulating examples showing how capitalism leads to ruin, destroys environments and people, actually arouses our anger and has little unifying effect, but it seems to me that we don't necessarily need theater and puppet arts for that - there are newspapers that excel in this field ...

I think it is important to work on things that are less directly militant or overwhelming, to find ways out of the ways that depress us and make us deeply sad; if we do not want to give in to collective suicide, we must allow ourselves to invent things and dream, with all the potential naivety that this can have.
 
This dream is not an escape, an escape, it is rather allowing ourselves to say: "Let's create a world where we look, listen and perceive in a different way".

It can feed our body, our soul and our mind - and it's something of that order that we need to be able to face what we face. 

CIE ARNICA.png

Show Three contemporary animal fables - The acrobats, s encrypted by Julie Aminthe, directed by Emilie Flacher, with Clément Arnaud - February 2020, co-produced by Théâtre Massalia - Marseille, Théâtre de Bourg-en-Bresse. 

Julie Sermon
00:00 / 03:05

The puppet's ability to renew our imagination, to question our hierarchies and our attentions, works on a figurative level: it allows us to give life to all sorts of entities that we hardly see on stage.

But it also operates on a technical level: what does it mean to manipulate or animate an object?

How do you play with feed-black effects?

Every puppeteer knows very well that he must listen to his object before making him do something.
 
This swing between getting something done and letting yourself be guided is a rich learning position.

We should "force" everyone to practice the puppet, to experience this thought: "To do this, I have to go through this and I have to understand the possibilities and limits of the object I am working with ...".
 
This seems to me a beautiful lesson in general philosophy.

From an ecological point of view, the puppet arts have several advantages.

The first is their great freedom of figuration.

The entities involved can be anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, but they can also be a stone or a movement of particles.

The second is their own posture of representation, which is based on the encounter and dialogue between the body of the puppeteer and the body of the animated entity, and which allows to explore a whole series of relationships: superimposition, accompaniment, complicity, dissimulation, total reversal of roles, etc.

Finally, puppet theaters allow us to play with scales of magnitude, perspectives, points of reference : puppeteers are not necessarily in a position of domination, they can even become very small within a device, or even serve from castelletto for puppets.

These are visual or structural effects which, even if they are not explicitly expressed in words, seem to me very interesting to question our place in the world.
 

morts ou vifs.jpeg

BOOK
 
MORTS OU VIFS
FOR AN ECOLOGY OF LIVE PERFORMANCE

by Julie Sermon

Editions B42
publication June 2021
French language
designer deValence
format 140 x 220mm
pages 160 p.
ISBN 9782490077540
social sciences themes


This book is published with the support of the University Lumière Lyon 2 and the Passages XX-XXI workshop.

If ecological issues occupy our thoughts and guide our individual and collective behavior, Julie Sermon analyzes in this essay the resonance of these issues in the performing arts field. 

How do they influence the ways of writing, producing and representing works, but also of receiving and talking about them? What can the performing arts give us, according to their specific ways, to think and in this context?

Through several concrete examples, the author explains to us what the consideration of ecology entails on contemporary stages, focusing on the thematic and aesthetic aspects of the shows as well as on their creative processes.
 
This book imports the tools and reflections of ecocriticism into the context of the Francophone performing arts, a transdisciplinary theoretical approach that emerged in the Anglo-Saxon academic field in the 1980s and which aims to renew the analysis framework of the works produced by problematizing their links with ecology. . 

Morts ou vifs is a starting point to generate a debate, and renews our ways of seeing and thinking about the works produced in the last ten years.

ESSENTIAL LINKOGRAPHY OF JULIE SERMON