Manuela Infante shares an endless curiosity for the unknown with her astronomer father. The concept ‘horizon’ kept popping up so persistently in their conversations that she decided to create a theatre performance around it. In this article the daughter opens up about her father, herself, and things larger than man. 

Man is not the centre of the universe for Chilean-born, Brussels-based theatre director, (theatre) writer and musician Manuela Infante. “For about a decade now I have been thinking about non-anthropocentric theatre,” she explains. “I am strongly attracted to the idea of distilling non-human theatre from something as supremely human as theatre. And I like to lean on contemporary thinkers in my work.
In her previous work, she homed in on the intelligence and communication within the plant world (Estado Vegetal, 2017), let objects speak (Realismo, 2016), and focused on minerals (How to Turn to Stone, 2021). In Metamorphoses (2021), loosely based on the eponymous epic full of shape-shifting stories by the Roman poet Ovid, she loudly questioned whether the voice only belongs to humans. That creation, as well as her philosophical conversations with her father, inspired her to make ‘Horizon’.
“In Metamorphoses I used the old European narrative as my starting point, but I investigated the bridges between the human and non-human. This was where I started working on the idea of the unknown. In ‘Horizon’, ‘What is the unknown?’ is the central question.”

How do you define ‘the unknown’?

Manuela Infante: You could just as well call it ‘the non-human’. It describes everything that we cannot comprehend, that is illegible to human eyes. I like to believe that there are many domains that we as humans have no access to, physically of cognitively.

Why did you use an interview with you father as your base?

Even when I was a child, I held conversations with my father – an astronomer who studies the Big Bang – about the universe. I have always asked him questions: where does life end, why are we here, what’s beyond the edge of the universe? Questions that children ask, but that are at the same time existential. Isn’t that beautiful? But I had a father who could actually answer those questions! That was and is incredible. That gave me the idea for an interview. I gave myself one hour with my father and set to work with those sixty minutes of text. 
Astrophysicists speak a completely different language to non-astrophysicists when they talk about the horizon. They also talk about different kinds of horizon. Nevertheless, my father and I managed to talk about the cosmological horizon.

What does the horizon mean to you?

The horizon is a symbol for the unknown. It doesn’t refer to the unknown as something that is not yet known, but rather as something we will never know. It is in fact a concept that delineates the edges of human knowledge. Like the horizon, that edge is something you can try to chase, but it will always retreat further, as if it protects something, always leaving an extraordinary darkness that remains out of human reach.

In the play, you speak of the impressive Chilean horizon.

Chile is mostly coastline. If you travel west, you will always see the horizon. The left side blends into the Pacific Ocean. Looking at the horizon in Chile is completely different from, say, Barcelona at the Mediterranean. In Chile, you know that the ocean is immensely vast. My father lives by the water. The sea is an important element in my play, you might even say it’s a separate storyline besides the interview with my father about the horizon and beyond – I always tell multiple stories simultaneously. The power of a story only fully develops when it resonates with another story. You could call it my language. My father and I spoke about how man once believed that the earth is flat. How they believed they would fall beyond the horizon, into a purgatory full of monsters – a fantasy that depicts ‘the unknown’. I found them depicted on gorgeous old maps that made no attempt at objectivity. The sea brought me to the first voyages to South America by the Spaniards. This led me to study the age of Christopher Columbus.

What did the fifteenth century teach you?

When man discovered that earth was spherical, they could not imagine what the other side looked like. The only thing they could think of was a reversal of what they knew: it would be just like here, but upside down. People walked upside down, trees grew upside down, with the roots facing up, rain ‘fell’ upwards. 
This fantasy speaks volumes about the difficulty of man to relate to the unknown without conceptually dominating it, controlling it or making it their own. The Peruvian anthropologist Mariesol de la Cadena talks about access in this regard. How can we access the unknown without immediately wanting to dominate, control, possess? That is really a central theme in this creation.

Whether it’s about the unknown as what’s ‘across the horizon’, about refugees or ‘the others’ …

Exactly. And it’s not just about the unknown, but also about the fear that the unknown elicits. How afraid we are of the unknown, the other, others. 

Were or are you afraid of the unknown, of the dark?

I’m glad you asked. My father, a man of science, is a great proponent of darkness. The Chilean deserts contain plenty of observatories because it’s so dark there, which makes the skies easier to study. My father is the director of one of these important astronomic observatories. I have always lived with his idea of darkness, but I was a child of the city and I was terrified in the dark. The unknown was always a scary place for me. Which explains why I keep trying to approach it (chuckles). I truly believe – and maybe that’s why I’m afraid of it – that there’s a way to approach the unknown without being done with it all too soon, without making it ‘known’. 

Can you elaborate?

Imagine: you are lying in the dark in your bedroom and you see a silhouette on the wall. You think: is that a monster? You have a choice: either turn on the light, and make the monster disappear. Or stay in the dark and let the other universe in. 

How did your father react to your proposal to create a play ‘together’? ‘Leopoldo Infante’ is mentioned in the credits for ‘scientific research’.

To be honest, I can’t remember, but I’ve always known that I would one day create a performance with my father. Because I find his ideas fascinating and because, as a scientist, he is open to conversations with people who aren’t scientists and who have other fields of thought. My father, even as a scientist, is more than willing to admit the breadth of the unknown. And above all: I can push him, play him, ask him questions of all sorts, because he’s my father.

Is your father your most important parent?

Not at all, really. My mother was the one who took me to the theatre and concerts and brought me books. I was always very sensitive to the artful. When I was six, I made little performances for everyone as a birthday gift. No, my father definitely didn’t expect me to follow in his scientific footsteps (laughs).

But maybe you did anyway. You approach complex theoretical questions in a scenic manner. Horizon is a father-daughter creation, right?

They have the lead roles. Father-scientist and daughter-artist are antipodes. At least, it looks like they are opposites. In a sense I felt attracted to standing in the middle of that, on the supposedly clear line that divides male science and female arts. I would be able to see if there really was a boundary.


Well, there isn’t. Horizon was a very interesting journey of discovery for me. I realised along the way that father and daughter also play parts, even if I wouldn’t want them to. The father-scientist represents a world that contains truth. And the role of the daughter-artist? To cast doubt on those truths.
It is definitely the case that I, from my vantage point as a theatre creator, as an artist, come incredibly close to my father’s fields of interest. For both of us, it’s about existential questions like: what is humanity, what is the universe? How did it start? And my father told me that science too starts with creativity and creative thinking.

It can be no coincidence that for the first time you also take part in your own creation.

I even sing live on stage (chuckles). When I started working with the interview materials, I noticed that I started fantasising: I started to fictionalise the interview from the interview! What you see is very autobiographical – we call it autoficción in Spanish – but at the same time the boundaries between the real interview and my real memories on the one hand and the things I started making up gradually because I wanted to expand my universe on the other hand, are very vague. For me those are two interesting sides of the same coin.

What made you want to explore the unknown within yourself?

I always read philosophers, anthropologists and more – I am a lover of theory, as you know – but during the pandemic it felt like all that book wisdom abandoned me. Suddenly I found myself alone with myself and decided to jump. I decided to take myself, at home in Europe but at the same time uprooted, as my subject. What’s more: I decided to put myself on stage as a singer, which is really terrifying.

Really? I thought it would come easy to you. You also perform with your band Bahía Inútil, right?

I used to perform – I love singing and composing – but I had so much trouble performing live that I quit. As a child I actually wanted to be a musician, but I ended up becoming a theatre creator with the perspective of a musician. By improvising with these four truly amazing Belgian actors and creators, I feel up to the task again. It felt organic when I started singing instead of talking to them with the microphone in my hand.

Speaking of singing, can I describe the soundscape of ‘Horizon’ as a delicious mix of known and new languages: (distorted) voices, singing, sounds, songs and drums?

You can. In a way, I try to enter the terrain of the unknown through spoken word: which sounds do we make and how can I extend those sounds musically? Did you know that at times we spent two weeks rehearsing only ‘musically’? It’s not just the play you have to create. A large part of the creation process is thinking about how you create the piece. 
Language is important to me because it sits on the spectrum between sound and meaning, where language is also sound and not only meaning. The performers and I worked very hard together to create a way of speaking. You don’t know if ‘father’ or ‘daughter’ are singing or speaking. If what they are saying is important for its sound or for its meaning. I find those spaces in between incredibly fascinating and I have explored them often, together with my usual sound designer Diego Noguera. Diego composes on modular synthesizers, picking up the voices, elongating them, repeating them, in short: transforming them.
The drums function as a signal: they are an accompaniment, but also a strange, ‘unknown’ creature.
At a certain point, the drum kit becomes a living being, it somehow embodies what I was talking about earlier. The ‘other’ can be: people on the other side of the antipode, aliens, plants, rocks, wolves. All of these ‘other’ beings and creatures, of whom we rarely admit that they have their own perspective. 
Theatre is a very special place to explore: to stay in the presence of the unknown, the dark, the mysterious, no matter how scary that may feel at times.
Martine Cuyt