mining landscapes, Milos 2023

I’m here on the Greek island of Milos, in the middle of the Aegean Sea. An island very rich in mineral resources – and therefore also home to numerous huge mines, well hidden from the tourist hustle and bustle on the coast. Perlite and bentonite are extracted from the volcanic landscape through open-pit mining. In the process, millions and millions of cubic meters of earth are moved, creating gigantic pits that reveal pyroclastic flows that once cooled in waves and sediment layers of what are known as lahars. Here, humans are exposing the complexity of the landscape they live in.

The landscape is a formation created by Earth’s history, which undoubtedly includes the Anthropocene as its youngest layer – with the Caterpillars acting as the ballerinas of mining and the indestructible bunker systems of the Germans left over from World War II.

Located on private properties, all of them owned by the Imerys mining company, these bunkers also remain well hidden from tourists..

If we want to try out the idea of a landscape theater, we cannot avoid this company. The Milos branch answers to a management team in Athens, which in turn answers to a management team in Paris. Rejection from there never comes in the form of a “No,” but rather in the guise of a requirement for six full-time security officers from the company to be present at any public event – knowing full well that only two such people are on the company’s payroll on Milos.

The concept of the landscape theater is an idea, and ideas do not need property rights. First and foremost, the idea is based on the question of whether a stage must necessarily be a neutral, windowless place that excludes the landscape.

Or can the stage, modeled on an amphitheater like the Roman example located on Milos, itself be a part of the landscape? Even in ancient times, the echo chamber of a mountain slope, the position of the sun, and the direction of the wind were used, and at that time, the terracing of the slope – much akin to that of an open-pit mine – inspired the idea of allowing the audience to sit. This concept remains the valid definition of theater to this day.

Landscapes are always too big, too expansive, and far too 360° to be viewed from a single vantage point. Indeed, it is precisely this phenomenon that is admired in virtual reality, in the extended realities – for example in the full-dome format used in planetariums, where viewers are moved immersively through fantastic landscapes.


But if the audience were allowed to move, were themselves part of the landscape, and if real reality were possible instead of virtual reality – would that still be theater? Or would it not even be an absolute reality that can no longer be surpassed, a reality that functions even better from a sensory perspective than the best digital sensing machines available?

What appears in a VR landscape is not determined by humans alone. Artificial intelligence, feedback, and lots of digital black-box randomness are also at play. Likewise, what appears in the real reality of the landscape is not determined by humans alone. There are real stones, plants, water, light, colors, real sounds, temperatures, wind, moisture, heat, aridity, a seemingly equal composition of given circumstances – that can be used for the theater if one knows about them.

Fyrop Sonnenaufgang

Animals as well as people appear in a landscape. This happens predominantly in the mornings and evenings, and sometimes at noon. For example, the venomous Milos viper or Vipera lebetina, which happens to be protected on Milos, sometimes emerges around noon.

We are now overlooking Firopotamos amid a landscape called the “trachila.” We meet on the hill before sunrise on June 10, 2023 and return the day after, on June 11, before sunset. The light, dim as it appears right now, changes as soon as the sun’s rays become horizontal, blinding as a streetlight. The plants appear like silhouettes against the light. Unlike with a conventional stage, our gaze here extends over some thirty kilometers.

The first light level, cue 1, the dawn, has a running time of 30 minutes and transitions to cue 2 in 5 seconds when the sun emerges from behind the opposite island.

The light levels change, just like in a theater. Sometimes there are harsh contrasts, sometimes there is a clear view, and sometimes only veiled contours are recognizable only to suddenly be replaced by a romantic play of colors. The shadows are long, then short, then invisible. They wander. The wind plays along or doesn’t. The heat increases and then eventually decreases again. Complete darkness is never created by a black-out, but always gradually.

The small town of Firopotamos slumbers down in the valley. A fishing boat in front of a row of fishermen’s cottages, a church, boat houses, behind them a parking lot. The perfect vacation spot. In fact, the fishing boat is for decorative purposes only. Milos’ charm has long since been discovered by Airbnb and the like. No one from the island lives here; only the tourists sojourn amid the “unspoiled charm of a fishing village.” That, too, is real theater. Feigned idyll. In truth, there is a glaring housing shortage on Milos. Nobody rents to locals, teachers or physicians anymore when tourists pay 200 euros or sometimes much more per night. But you can’t see that.

We use binoculars to see. On the left is a gateway leading to the sea, now a popular backdrop for selfies and once the loading gate for the export of minerals from Milos to destinations all over the world. We use the area in front of the stone gate as a stage. This stage is much too far away from up here, from the hill. The dance down there can only be seen through binoculars.

Red is distinct. No one sees Filio Louvari’s dance as clearly as you see it right now in these rehearsal photos, close up, in deliberately oversized poses, with expansive sweeps. Filio Louvari is a former dancer who worked with choreographer Carolyn Carlson – the only professional dancer among Milos’ population of just over 5,000. Here, she founded her “From the Sea” festival, where we can further our research in the field of (impossible) looks.

Going further up the hill, the mines appear on a bend. The front one is decommissioned, but the rear one still active. The area to the right is blocked off for mining at a later stage. This hill we are standing on will one day be mined in the same way a theater set is taken down – here in search of volcanic glass, or perlite, and black obsidian, from which particularly sharp blades are made. Heavy trucks remove these along the dirt roads.

We frame the mine in the morning light – frame the landscape in the style of a landscape painting. We arrive at the excerpt of a genre that came into the world peppered with Christian motifs, later showed historical battles and bucolic allegories, a landscape that only in the Biedermeier industrial age was depicted as a space of desire as devoid of humans as possible, to feast on the force of nature and later on the impressionist play of light. Do landscape painting and theater have anything in common?

In its heyday, landscape painting invented the hidden object picture – lots of hidden cues, interrelated actions, and symbolic allusions. In the case of landscape theater, it would be obvious – at least experimentally – to take this place as what it otherwise represents for culture: being remote enough to dispose of construction debris, old tires, and other residual waste. Such things can be found at the venue as everywhere – and they are carefully supplemented by an old, still intact megaphone for free use. And by another artifact in the play with the wind on a trail of freshly mined bentonite.

One thing is clear: the landscape is not nature. It always belongs to someone. While it does contain nature, this nature only occasionally peeps through the youngest layers of the Earth, that of the Anthropocene, through its concrete layers, tar layers, even arable layers (which some still want to count as nature). It is on these layers – seen with binoculars from a distance – that the throng of cultures is found:

That Afghan girl in the wheat field is undoubtedly theater. She does not belong here, not in the expected image, not in this culture of mines and tourism. If theater were that which refers to the hidden and asks questions that a culture asks itself, then the landscape would be the place that most closely represents the culture. Because all landscape has already been alienated by culture.

Because it is not nature, the landscape proves to us that it is not too complicated for the theatre, because it is too multifaceted and cannot be reduced to a single focus. Just as the unexpected is the attraction of a hike, landscape theatre allows the almost infinite multiplication of unexpected events:

Up on the hill high above the former fishing village of Fyropotamos, you can feel the breeze of the wind, but down below, in front of the abandoned farmstead, a tent is blowing stormily – as if driven by a much stronger, artificially generated wind.

You wouldn’t miss this scene on stage – it would be neatly embedded in a linear storyline that you would be forced to follow from a certain beginning to a certain end. Back in the 1950s, the famous American author Gertrude Stein suggested that we should finally do away with this sequence and instead keep looking at things anew. She called this “landscape theatre”. What she did not question was the stage space as such. For theatre studies, landscape theatre soon became synonymous with Robert Wilson’s theatre work – because it forces the gaze into detail and at the same time conjures up a duration, as if you were looking at a landscape. What made me wonder and then curious was a sentence by theatre scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann. He said: “Unlike in the theatre, everything in the landscape is always far too close or far too far away.” At least as far away as these two creatures that appear on Plathiena beach to the west as seen from our theatre location.

They are too far away to be able to visualise them exactly. But at the same time, they are in our theatre, among us, very close, perhaps even too close.

Manousos Xidous, looking into the distance here, is the oldest of our performers, who remembers exactly how he grew up on this island without shoes and how German soldiers were taken prisoner of war from the bunker on which he is standing. He sings old songs and we look into the setting sun with the certain feeling that this is a beginning, a reinterpretation of landscape with the means of theatre.

Because landscape is not a backdrop, it cannot be ignored, it does not need mimes, nor does it need amplifiers, wind machines, light stands or sound engineers. It needs interventions. Interventions in what has intervened in the landscape. Some, like Giorgos Petrarkis, an employee of the Imery Group, who accompanied us for a long time, believe in man-made re-naturalisation. He is paid by his company for this cultural achievement.

I, however, believe that landscape always tells of what happens to it. And that it takes a choreography of gazes to recognise how much we can describe precisely this dilemma with the means of art out of fear, romantic longing and the obsessive desire to incorporate a place. Landscape theatre does not naively worship nature, because otherwise it would be nature theatre. Landscape theatre is the cultural form that serves to reflect our own culture.

Research team: Helena Waldmann, Ioanna Valsamidou, Arnd Wesemann

Dancer: Filio Louvari

Organisation: Milos International Dance Theatre Centre

Special thanks to: Stelios Zoulias, Dimitris Tsipras, Manousos Xidous

Photos & videos: Pantelis Kountourakis, Helena Waldmann, Arnd Wesemann

Bureau Ritter