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Nature Park Sculpture
Credits: Bryan Saner

All is material


The material world begins with my body.  

I am matter. I am material. It is a substance that perceives itself.  

This body is how I experience the material world. It’s a magnet for connecting to otherness –  other bodies, thoughts, viruses, experiences, places, and times.  

This body is material for making and grasping other material that I make more world with. The body accumulates other material. It aligns the chemicals, human experiences, and perceptions in order to think a new thought. The thought becomes material for the next project – for  transforming from one way of being to another.  

I’ve spent my whole life making things – sculpture, theater, furniture, architectural dwelling spaces and nature parks. I collect material because they are the ideas and beginning points for future projects. I literally have tons of wood. My material ponders the purpose of itself. I imagine  configurations of objects, people, work, events, actions, movement and infinite possibilities to make something. 

But then it overflows.  

It bursts out of its container and crushes my body.  

I have too many things,  

too many thoughts,  

too many plans.  

So many entanglements.  

I dream of being in an empty room. But the room is ultimately made of things. I know how this room was built – what’s inside the walls: plaster, lath, studs, insulation, nails, screws, siding, the crafted skills of past workers now long gone, their empty cigarette packages, their trials and errors of the day, the labor and material that was joined together a hundred years ago to create the empty room.  

That dream of cleaning out my material and making am empty room is an illusion. Emptiness is also material.  


I saw Oblivia perform Nature Theater of Oblivia at links Hall in Chicago in February of 2019. I resonated with the material of that performance because of the human embodiment of otherness, and the spiritual, shamanistic conjuring of animal and forest nature. I work occasionally with the performance group Every House Has a Door. We had recently begun  rehearsing The Carnival of Animals, where we also perform as animals.  

It is this material that is significant to this essay. The human body’s animal materiality. Performing our animalness represents a mystical consciousness that integrates itself into quotidian life. What kind of animal would you like your body to be? In the Carnival Of Animals, Every House Has A Door is performing near extinct animals. I am performing as a Lesser Electric Ray. (Costume by Essi Kausalainen) 

Photo: Nicholas Lowe. Costume by Essi Kausalainen.

What is the purpose of performing as animals? What does it contribute to theater or culture?  

I relate this practice to the primitive spiritual tradition of shamanistic dancing or the 20th century Dada practice of making non-sense in response to war, brutality, oppression, and social unrest. When the world stops making sense we act like animals. The animal we choose is significant.  

I think of the ancient proverb, Homo Homini Lupis (Man is Wolf to Man). I’m writing from America in the Autumn of 2020. Our leaders over the past few years have performed as wolves. We are suffering and it is as if America and indeed the whole earth is crying out for a better animal.  

We have been collecting and recycling materials while the wolf has been at our door. We have a lot to give away. We perform as animals that can listen, or animals that can wait patiently, or animals that are suffering and dying. We work in tiny theaters, trees, small neighborhood blockorganizations, and coops. We identify with the poor and outcast. Learning to act with kindness and justice is easier at this scale, but change never seems fast enough. Our performance is simple. It is material that has been performed for millennia: acknowledging and being of service to other people, and the earth.  

We have the material of time. Dominant animals come and go through our lifetimes. We are led this way and that. We believe in the capacity of human beings to perform as better animals. We have faith that doing this will help heal our sickness. It is a spiritual performance. Who knows  how this functions?  

Recently, I am remembering this text that I spoke in The Sea and Poison (the work that Goat Island was making and performing between 1995 and 1998.) From the Greek poet Odysseas Elytis, translated by Olga Broumas, with alterations by Matthew Goulish.  

“Everything has abandoned me and a great sorrow has fallen on my soul. I walked across fields without salvation.  

I pulled a branch of some unknown bush.  

I broke it, and brought it to my upper lip.  

I understood immediately that all people are innocent.  

We walk for thousands of years.  

We call the sky “sky” and the sea “sea”.  

All things will change one day and we too with them.”  


Bryan Saner is a creative practitioner and maker focusing on the production of performance, education, neighbourhood activation, and appropriately designed objects and environments. He has made a long-term commitment to collaborate closely with artists and activists in developing  alternative creative, educational and economic communities, both in and outside of existing established systems. Bryan is performing regularly with Matty Davis, 600 Highwaymen and Every House Has a Door. He is an active advisor in the Art of Rehearsal, a rehearsal coaching program he co-founded with Ginger Farley. He is a member of the worker owned coop:  Bluestem Building and Restoration. Bryan worked as a performing artist with the Goat Island Performance Group from 1995 to 2009. 

As part of his commitment to alternative pedagogical practice, Bryan and his wife Teresa Pankratz and their neighbours participated in the development of the Sunflower Community School, a family cooperative alternative elementary school for neighbourhood children (1997-2005). In 2003 he developed and funded an apprenticeship program in conjunction with his thirty-year architectural, sculpture, furniture and design business  and continues to mentor young practitioners in carpentry and architectural restoration. Bryan’s carpentry business evolved into the worker owned coop Bluestem Building and Restoration in 2019.  

He is an instructor in the summer youth arts and carpentry program at the 6018 North gallery in his neighbourhood. He is a board member of Chicago Opportunity for Peace in Action (COPA), which coordinates project based cultural exchange and jobs training  activities for urban youth. He is instructing local residents and youth in Nature Park building through I Grow Chicago in Chicago’s Englewood neighbourhood.