Grove is in the Heart. An exploration of human and non-human agency in Post-Anthropocenic rituals.


(originally published in Kunstlicht #42: Spellbound, 11 June 2021,
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This essay analyses Enter the Grove, a performance piece by artist and performer Jasper Griepink, featuring interactive ritual, oral narration, music, dance, and techno. The performance includes a collection of existing and new works, including S T O N E O R G Y (three songs and ritual performances, 2019) and the fictional narrative D E E P S O I L (2020) that can also be performed and/or experienced separately. By holding these works, and particularly the rituals contained within them, in the light of New Materialist theory, I will explore how the notion of the sacred, insofar it is present in the works, relates to the concept of human and non-human agency, and how both the sacred and agency can be seen as embodied, as well as transcendent. Additionally, I will analyse the socio-political dimension of the works and look at how the dichotomy between an understanding of ‘the land as sacred’ and ‘the land as natural resource’ can be compared to the tension between the Anthropocene and the Chthulucene, as proposed by Donna Haraway.



        When visiting ancient sites of rituality, like the Hunnebedden in the Netherlands, artist, writer, and performer Jasper Griepink (they/them) “discovered that the true sacred site is inside of us.” In their anti-capitalist, pro-pagan spoken-word pieces and songs, like the ones featured in Enter the Grove, a collaboration with electronic music producer and singer Giek_1, they connect with the rhythm of the heart (‘an internal sacred space’) through the use of ritual performance and techno.
Enter the Grove, an hour-long performance at IMPAKT Festival 2020, is a collection of artworks by Jasper Griepink, including S T O N E O R G Y (three songs and ritual performances, 2019) and the fictional narrative D E E P S O I L (2020). By holding these works, and particularly the rituals contained within them, in the light of New Materialist theory, I will explore how the notion of the sacred, present in the works, relates to the concept of human and non-human agency, and how both the sacred and agency can be seen as embodied, as well as transcendent. First, I will analyse the socio-political dimension of the works and look at how the dichotomy between an understanding of ‘the land as sacred’ and ‘the land as something to exploit’ can be compared to the tension between the Anthropocene and the Chthulucene, as proposed by Donna Haraway.


        Standing in a dark space sparsely populated with tree branches and lit with the gently flickering, blue-green light of a nature projection, Griepink is wearing a long white skirt and a harness of rope and translucent rings, with dedicated nipple compartments. Their face is painted in metallic streaks with silver lips, head topped with a platinum wig. The sound of nocturnal animals is playing in the background. Giek_1, behind the keyboard, wears a floor-length white dress with long, angelic sleeves and a low neckline exposing her chest tattoos, a chunky silver necklace, and matching metallic make-up.

        The performance begins with the oral story of D E E P S O I L, telling the tale of a planet called AARD, where the people of Kinfolx live. In the old days they cultivated Deep Soil, a subterranean layer of earth, minerals and nutrients said to have a consciousness of its own. They used cyclical, regulated fires to release nutrients and replenished nitrogen. The rhythm of the fires was their clock. They worshipped Bhajita, an entity “synonymous with the fires, the dances, the songs and the long shadows, the silhouettes.” The Kilnfolx spoke with trees and branches, and had a synergetic relation with the natural world.
This was, until “progress” happens on AARD. One of the tribes, a family of glassmakers led by an elder named LUBEA, started the Imperial Company, specialised in turning “sand into transparent matters, thick and solid as brick, but tranquil as a still pond.” This industrial intervention changes AARD, enormously. No longer do the people of Kilnfolx live with the cycles of the land; they now live “by the call of the hot glass.”
Eventually, those in charge of the Imperial Company want to start mining the Deep Soil, leading to conflict among the different lineages on AARD. At a council meeting among elders, the tribe of EINRIHH, whose lineage lives in accordance with nature, is accusing the tribe of LUBEA of “trying to conquer Bhajita in the name of progress” while instead, “we were working with her.”


        This polarity between progress and earthly connection recurs throughout D E E P S O I L. What transpires is a dichotomy between an understanding of the land, the soil, and the trees as sacred and, on the other hand, an understanding of the land as something to extract and exploit. These opposing perspectives bring to mind a tension between the commonly used concept of the Anthropocene and the concept of the Chthulucene, as proposed by Donna Haraway.


        The Anthropocene functioned initially a warning sign. The late meteorologist and atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen used the term around 2000 to bring awareness to human-induced ecological collapse. He proposed the latter part of the eighteenth century as its starting point. This date also coincided with James Watt's design of the steam engine in 1784. Watt's invention and the industrial revolutions that followed, changed the Earth’s ecosystems enormously, analogous to how, in D E E P S O I L, the industrious revolution set in motion by the glass makers of the Imperial Company changed AARD.
In 2009, the historian and postcolonial theorist, Dipesh Chakrabarty, famously described the Anthropocene as a time in which “humans, thanks to our numbers, the burning of fossil fuel, and other related activities—have become a geological agent.” Human agency was from then on connected to the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene, as a term, has proven contagious; it is used widely in the humanities and arts, and acts as a buzzword at conferences. It has also raised some very valid critique by, among others, the feminist sociologist Donna Haraway. In her 2016 book Staying with the Trouble, Haraway argued for a more cautious use of the Anthropocene as, to her, the term is too firmly rooted in human exceptionalism. With its direct link to the invention of the steam engine the term is, according to Haraway, based on a History of Man and Tools. “The infectious industrial revolution of England mattered hugely,” she says “but it is only one player in planet-transforming, historically situated, new-enough, worlding relations.” So, human history runs deeper than the industrial revolution but, most of all, we (humans) are not the only actors at play in changing and building the world. Many humans and non-humans across different temporalities commingle in co-creation, reminding of the ancient conditions on AARD, and the conversations between trees and the people of Kilnfolx.


        Haraway poses additionally that “the Anthropocene is a term most easily meaningful and usable by intellectuals in wealthy classes and regions; it is not an idiomatic term for climate, weather, land, care of country, or much else in great swathes of the world, especially but not only among indigenous peoples.” The Anthropocene as a term is, in short, not very inclusive, as it refers to a subset of humans (the post-industrial Man) and its destructive effect on the planet. Haraway’s playful and provocative alternative is the beautiful but not easy to pronounce Chthulucene, poetically described as “an ongoing temporality that resists figuration and dating and demands myriad names.” The Chthulucene is named after ‘the Chthonic’ deriving from the ancient Greek khthonios, meaning “of the earth.” The name also refers the Pimoa cthulhu, an “eight-legged tentacular arachnid that (…) gets her (…) name [also] from the language of the Goshute people of Utah.” With the Chthulucene, Haraway opens up our thinking about our time and makes it rather tentacular, with focus on the interconnections and entanglements that continuously unfold in a multi-species world. Haraway moves away from linear, teleological thinking towards collapse, and celebrates the flourishing of all human and non-human life. This flourishing and commingling of human and non-human life connects to both the ancient ways of life on AARD, and the future vision embedded in D E E P S O I L, which we will get to later.


        Thinking Chthulucene instead of Anthropocene affects the matter of agency. Whereas the Anthropocene is a term used to recognise humans as a geological and destructive force – which arguably only applies to the Enlightenment-, or post-steam-engine Human, not to the indigenous one – the Chthulucene can help to understand humans as a part of a multi-species assemblage, with multiple actants living across multiple temporalities. This makes agency a much more pluralistic affair. Not something one-directional (Man with Tool affecting Earth), but something conversational, omni-directional, and dynamic. These different notions of agency become apparent not only in the narrative of D E E P S O I L, but also in the ritual elements in Enter the Grove, and the song elements in S T O N E O R G Y.







        The S T O N E O R G Y trilogy was born from the acknowledgement that sacred sites often contain standing stones, and a desire to merge the sacredness of land and rocks with the sacred sites inside the body. “The sacred” is a category with a lengthy history and a multitude of meanings. In the New Materialist approach, which “recognizes publicly performed material manifestations of religion, as understood in worldly dynamics” the sacred is “often spoken about in relation to social, political, and economic forces, removed from the realm of religious experiences and understandings of transcendence.” There are schools of New Materialist thought however, that perceive the material not separate from, but as an incarnation of the transcendent. Griepink speaks of the sacred as “a life force, a choice, an understanding, an agreement” and it is perhaps not too far-fetched to compare their notion of ‘the sacred’ to ‘agency.’ If we, as a thought experiment, would substitute the ‘sacredness’ of external and internal sites with ‘agency’ could we speak of a multi-species assemblage, with unfolding agential entanglements between human beings and stones?


        The entanglements between humans and stones can certainly be found in the ‘orgy' part of S T O N E O R G Y, which was chosen by Griepink as a metaphorical space of merging, and refers in this case more to the etymological root of the word than to its common contemporary use denoting often indiscriminate debauchery. The Greek orgion (ὄργιον) means ‘secret rites or revels’ and in ancient Greek religion an orgion was an ecstatic form of worship characteristic of some mystery cults. Griepink describes the concept of a stoneorgy as “a sacred gathering in the woods where music and eco-spirituality meet as a new form of ancient pagan ritual” and how one of the aims of S T O N E O R G Y is to “bring people together in orgiastic moshpits.”
When Griepink mentions that the true sacred site is within, they specifically mean this not as a psychological metaphor, but in a literal sense, as in materially and physically located inside the body: “it’s in our bones, our vessels, our cavities, our heartbeat.” This appreciation of both rocks and the spaces within, brings to mind a passage from political theorist and New Materialist philosopher Jane Bennett’s book Vibrant Matter, in which she highlights the connection between minerals and human agency by referring to Manuel DeLanda’s account of the process of mineralization.
Until about 500 million years ago, all living entities were made up of merely soft tissue: “At that point, some of the conglomerations of fleshy matter-energy that made up life underwent a sudden mineralization, and a new material for constructing living creatures emerged: bone.” Bennett sees this process of mineralization as the creative agency with which bone was produced, making “new forms of movement control possible among animals, freeing them from many constraints.” Bones as a form of mineral, closely related to rock, appears thus “as the mover and shaker, the active power” in the process of evolution and “the human beings, appear as its product.”


        This observation gives way to a new kind of appreciation: humans, as entities, co-evolved with minerals, and we owe our own agency (be it partly) to this process of mineralization. We would be nowhere without our bones; we would be blobs on a beach. This insight also shines a different light on Griepink’s notion of ‘the sacred rock’ and the ‘sacred site within’. Similar to how Griepink states that the sacred space is within, in our vessels, cavities and heartbeat, the source of our agency, our capacity to have effect, is situated inside, and is connected to this process of mineralization. Both agency and the sacred can be seen as internal, and material, as well as metaphysical. We can perceive both as embodied, and as transcendent.


        When performing S T O N E O R G Y, Griepink uses a combination of electronic sound, spoken word, and participatory ritual to convey their reflections on the sacred, while simultaneously addressing pressing issues of our time, such as human-induced climate change and ecosystem collapse. One of the songs they perform, Dirty, speaks to “a time before dirt was dirty” and invites the audience to “pray to the soil god.” Its message echoes environmental writer and political activist George Monbiot, who headlined in 2015 by stating “we’re treating soil like dirt” and that “it’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it.” Whereas Monbiot speaks about soil neglect in relation to industrial farming and its subsequent food shortages and planetary depletion, Griepink addresses this issue more indirectly by bringing attention to the semiotic confusion of calling dirt dirty, and directing the listener’s gaze to the more positive qualities of soil. Their focus could be compared to what the environmental humanities and feminist scholar, Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, calls soil care. It is the perspective that soil is not dirt, but a multi-species formation; an assemblage of living and non-living actants, including worms, grains of sand, and cultures of bacteria, that depends on human-soil relations of care for its thriving. However, where Puig de la Bellacasa's call to action revolves around care, Griepink urges to pray, marking a significant difference in their approach to the human-soil relationship, and to human and non-human agency. This reflection on soil care, also reminds of the story of D E E P S O I L, and how the people of Kilnfolx related with their land.
Caring is a direct way to have effect (on soil, or otherwise). Praying is more indirect, as it requires a third relationship with, in this case, a soil god, a speculative non-human actant who is possibly placed in between humans and soil, or embodied in the soil. Whereas caring for the non-living confirms a position of human responsibility for, and control over, nature, praying elevates the non-living to a deity of sorts, thus inverting the power balance. Focusing on prayer instead of care, especially when performed rhythmically and repetitively, makes the experience of knowledge transfer in Griepink’s work ritualistic. Ritualistic at least in the classical sense of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, who sees rituals “as essentially life-enhancing ludic experiences, a chance to step outside social structure [and] even to challenge that structure from within a ritually-created community.”







        This is where the transformative quality of Griepink’s work becomes apparent, as thinking and acting with prayer, and with the soil god, allows for an excursion outside of a social structure in which the soil god is generally not recognised. At the same time, it challenges notions inside this social structure, which tends to perceive dirt as dirty. Perhaps more importantly, ritualizing the human-soil relationship in this way allows for a more explicit sense of embodiment. Whereas Puig de la Bellacasa’s suggestions for soil care are predominantly philosophical, pragmatic, or scientific in nature (thinking with, working with, and looking at the soil), Griepink uses dance to amplify the message. As religious studies professor Corinne G. Dempsey suggests, “bodies are instrumental to the process of conveying and receiving knowledge.” How bodies are used in (artistic) ritual is ontologically, and categorically different to their use in academia or in fieldwork, and a main asset of ritual practices, in art or otherwise, is that they help convey and integrate knowledge in ways other than academic, through different modes of embodiment.


        At the end of Dirty – which includes electronic tribal drums and a New Age-y intermezzo – Griepink shifts their attention and speaks directly to ecological concerns: “At a time when every major ecosystem on the planet is under assault, calling nature, rock, stone, and soil sacred, is a radical act.” The ‘assault on ecosystems’ spoken about by Griepink relates directly to the type of Anthropocenic human agency mentioned earlier; a destructive force, putting insurmountable pressure on ecological systems. Griepink’s ‘radical act’ of calling nature sacred is a gesture of rebellion against this human-industrial agency. Their work could in that sense be seen as Anti-Anthropocenic. However, Enter the Grove is too multi-dimensional for such a one-directional denominator. Exemplary of this is the narrative break, when Griepink finds themselves confused in their role as a storyteller. It was never their intention to create such a strong polarity between different perspectives. They ask: “Why does there always need to be a struggle of some evil system that needs to be overthrown?” and, consequently: “How to write stories that are sexual, spiritual, political, ecological, and compassionate?” This last question is answered in the finale of D E E P S O I L, in which Griepink depicts the future they desire, centred around an Orgiastic ritual, in which the Kilnfolx return to, and merge with, the Deep Soil. Their bodies are seen as made of the plants and the soil, and the magic fire of their fertility revives the richness of the forest, as well as their sacred Bhajita. “Naked and Euphoric, post-orgasm and deep in bliss (…) the evening rain would help sink the bliss of Bhajita towards the deepest of the deep – the Sacred Soil below.”


        Griepink’s Enter the Grove highlights the entanglements of human and non-human agency with the use of ritual performance, oral storytelling, and electronic sound. Through its narrative, combined with physical, sensory practices, the collection of works offers a novel mode of knowledge transfer, and strengthens the perspective on agency and the sacred, as both embodied, and transcendent. In terms of its socio-political dimension, Enter the Grove, is not Anti- and not even Post-Anthropocenic. The emphasis on a lively, thriving, and unruly human-soil relationship, makes Enter the Soil a ritual tale of the Chthulucene.


© 2021 N-M