Introducing Eco Soma
In this book, I embrace a citational politics of foregrounding expressions that teach me about perspectives outside the (somewhat) consolidated field of disability studies, and I try to reach beyond White academic canons. Also if I have engaged with particular writers in my earlier books, I am less likely to cite them here.
The term dérive emerges from the Situationist International, and it is a surrealist technique of de-/refamiliarizing oneself with one’s environment. There is much more to be said about psychogeography, dérive, the Situationists, and disability culture experiencing and writing. For some resources on this, in relation to my community performance practice, see Kuppers 2018 and Heit and Kuppers 2019.
This term has a long history in somatic practice. I encountered it first in Teri Carter’s Continuum/Experiential Anatomy/BodyMindCentering sessions, where we used it to describe our “dives” into the human anatomy: getting into contact with blood cells or organ membranes. It also has roots back to Pilates teacher Gil Hedley and his Integral Anatomy “expeditions of the human form.” British-based dance researcher and practitioner Becca Weber uses the term “Somanaut Dance” as the umbrella for her choreographic and somatic practices. I am citing all these lineages and uses in order to mark how terms travel and how concepts with resonance shift and turn. I also feel an affinity with another “-naut” out of ecopoetic usage: Orchid Tierney’s “petronaut,” as she engages in “oily writing” in petrochemical contexts (2019).
These moments of new orientations and relations are a delicious reminder of Sarah Ensor’s reading of Samuel Delany’s cruising movements in his novel Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. She writes about a passage that contains loitering, lingering, waiting, and sitting as phrases, and she claims that “beyond the fact that all of the actions here are banal, daily, and casual, the verbs themselves are exclusively intransitive; rather than tending directly toward an object that exerts a kind of magnetic pull, they are open-ended, wandering, and persisting indefinitely. The resulting grammar (on the page and of somatic experience) is distinctly non-telic, both insofar as the culmination of these concatenated phrases is simply an acknowledgment of their collective nonspecificity, and insofar as the protraction endemic to their present progressive verbs precludes any sense of immediate utility or identifiable end. It is this capacity for—and predication on—forms of dilation and delay, precisely the way in which ‘contact’ can be understood not as the vector-like relationship between subject and object but rather as the medial dimension in which such relation becomes possible—that makes it, for Delany, such a powerful concept and embodied practice alike” (Ensor 2018, 7). She locates a looser relationality, a lingering, and shapes it into a queer form of environmental practice. With this, she offers a powerful way of employing literary analysis to think about the meanings behind how people orient to space, others, and the world.
1. Social Somatics
The school is described by paggett in the following terms: “The School for the Movement of the Technicolor People is a roaming, large-scale installation and performance platform conceived of by Los Angeles–based artist taisha paggett. This project, which takes the form of a dance school, is shaped by the question, ‘what is a Black dance curriculum today?’ The installations themselves, developed in collaboration with artists Ashley Hunt and Kim Zumpfe, serve as temporary dance schools, and performance spaces. The core of the School for the Movement of the Technicolor People is the dance company WXPT (we are the paper, we are the trees), a temporary, experimental community of queer people of color and allies, dancers and non-dancers alike. WXPT was created by paggett in early 2015 to expand upon the language and methods of modern and contemporary dance practices, to shift the ways dancers of color are positioned within the contemporary field, and to explore questions of queer desire, responsibility, migration, and historical materials that inhabit our cultural imagination. The collaborators involved in the school change with each city it takes place in” (paggett website, accessed September 2019).
This includes monthly ecstatic dance meetings, contact jams, a DanceAbility workshop hosted in collaboration with the newly evolving Disability Power Detroit organization, and more. This isn’t to say that “disability” is a legible category at this workshop: as far as I can see, I am the only one marked by my mobility device and hence clearly legible as disabled (as well as the only fat person in the room). What I mark here is my own perspective, the particular register through which I see the world, and align my dance companions into categories that are resonant for me. I see the world in crip-desirous ways. But as my witnessing of the scene will show as it unfolds, disabling frameworks enter this particular Light Box evening in multiple ways.
In this endnote, I am already using a range of frameworks around “disability,” and I want to guide readers who wish to find out more about different ways of thinking around concepts like “crip,” “disability justice,” “feminist-of-color disability methods,” and more, as well as tensions between identity-based and representational approaches to disability and analyses that track connections between “ableism, heteropatriachy, white supremacy, and capitalist violence, particularly as they assign value or lack thereof to certain bodyminds” (Kim and Schalk, 37–38) to the transformational resources of Jina Kim and Sami Schalk’s overview essay (2020) and the foundational work of Nirmala Erevelles (2011), Mia Mingus (2017), or Sins Invalid (2016, 2019). In these works, “disability” shifts from an identity someone holds, which might or might not be visible, to an analytic grounded in the uneven distribution of resources and the historic and contemporary reverberations of violence.
Haraway uses the word “Chthulucene” but shifted an “h” to denote some freedom from the monster named by racist writer Lovecraft: “Cthulhu (note spelling), luxuriating in the science fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, plays no role for me, although it/he did play a role for Gustave Hormiga, the scientist who named my spider demon familiar. . . . I take the liberty of rescuing my spider from Lovecraft for other stories” (2016, 173). Both Lovecraft and Haraway have linked the different spellings they use to the concept “chthonic” (classical Greek “of the earth”). I am not as allergic to Lovecraftian monster worlds as feminist science scholar Donna Haraway seems to be—but then, I am a creative writer as well as a performance artist and well aware of the many writers of color, queer writers, women writers, and others who shape their worlds in the Lovecraftian mythos universes, recognizing that the racist, misogynist granddaddy seems to have left a lot of desire lines dangling. Some of these Lovecraftian reinventions include Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom, a reinvention of one of Lovecraft’s most racist tales, “The Terror of Red Hook,” or Dan Gildark’s film Cthulhu, a queer Innsmouth scenario. I am going to discuss Cthulhu further in the last chapter of this book. For now: it’s a multitentacled monster.
As a disability culture activist, I use terms like “disabled people” or “people with disabilities,” two widely accepted variations. I also use “crip,” a more recent term of reclamation, with complicatedly different lives in activist and academic worlds. “Disability” allows one access to legal rights language, “crip” leans much further into in-group lingo, into queer tactics, outside of respectability politics. For a rich opening discussion of the term, see Sandahl (2003). We all come to our knowledge practices in different ways, and asking someone how they wish to be referred to is always the best approach when trying to figure out shifting language practices. Here, in this chapter, I mainly use “crip” to connote the contemporary arts and performance field.
#Sayhername is a social media movement to draw attention to and hold memorial space for Black female victims of police brutality and anti-Black violence in general. The movement founded itself on lack of attention given to gender in the analysis of anti-Black violence. One of the supporters is the theorist who coined the term “intersectionality” in the 1980s, and she uses a participatory framework, an embodied marker, to show what she is talking about: “Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw has a trick. She asks everyone to stand up until they hear an unfamiliar name. She then reads the names of unarmed black men and boys whose deaths ignited the Black Lives Matter movement; names such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin. Her audience are informed and interested in civil rights so ‘virtually no one will sit down,’ Crenshaw says approvingly. ‘Then I say the names of Natasha McKenna, Tanisha Anderson, Michelle Cusseaux, Aura Rosser, Maya Hall. By the time I get to the third name, almost everyone has sat down. By the fifth, the only people standing are those working on our campaign’” (Khaleeli 2016).
In the same Guardian interview, Crenshaw also makes a powerful link to another facet of intersectional precarity: disability. “However, unless the way women are killed is taken into account,” says Crenshaw, we can’t “broaden our understanding of vulnerability to state violence and what do we need to do about it.” There are many cases, for instance, where women are killed by police who arrive as first responders to emergency calls for mental health crises. “Disability—emotional, physical and mental—is one of the biggest risk factors for being killed by the police, but it is relatively suppressed in the conversation about police violence” (Khaleeli 2016).
After sharing my writing with taisha paggett, she graciously gave me consent to share and publish about her practice. She asked me to capitalize “Black” as a racial signifier. Journalism professor Lori L. Tharps pointed out in her op-ed “The Case for Black with a Capital B” in the New York Times (2014), “Ironically, The Associated Press also decrees that the proper names of ‘nationalities, peoples, races, tribes’ should be capitalized. What are Black people, then?” Given this logic, I capitalize Black and White here. When the issue is skin color, I leave the signifier lowercase. The very act of contemplating this is instructive and culturally significant in its own right. After writing this footnote, in July 2020, even the New York Times switched their rules, and they are now capitalizing Black but keeping “white” lowercase (as two editors argue, “There is less of a sense that ‘white’ describes a shared culture and history.” Hmm. In the Atlantic, Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued for capitalizing both, arguing that neither present a “fully formed and stable social category” ).
I met my future wife at the naming ceremony of this particular performance space, and this particular futon used to be in my office at the University of Michigan before I donated it to Light Box during one of my moves. I slept many times on this futon, during a time when I was effectively homeless: a misunderstanding with a landlord meant that my apartment was rented out after a return from the summer, and, something so familiar to people who use wheelchairs and usually completely invisible to nonchair users, there were no wheelchair-accessible apartments to be had in Ann Arbor for that particular semester. So for a few months, I dogged security guards, made friends with janitors, found out about late-night cafés in the city center, and showered at the local YMCA.
The ecosomatic as a content field has already a good number of entries, as artists and theorists look around for tools for living in the changing world of the Anthropocene. Foundational entries include David Abram’s work (1996) and many other writers in ecopsychology, ethnography, and beyond. My ecosomatic wayfarers here include literary disability studies scholar Matthew Cella, who writes, “This deep entanglement—the dialectic of embodiment and emplacement—is the central subject of this essay as this dialectic forms the basis for what I call the ecosomatic paradigm. The ecosomatic paradigm assumes contiguity between the mind-body and its social and natural environments; thus, under this scheme, the work of negotiating a ‘habitable body’ and ‘habitable world’ go hand in hand” (2013, 574–75). Cella uses this perspective to engage with novels by Cormac McCarthy and Linda Hogan, as well as the interpenetration of disability and emplacement within them. Other writers in this lineage include disabled dancer and somatic practitioner Bronwyn Preece, who writes about her work as “earthBODYment, an eco-somatic approach to exploring connections between mind, body, and earth” (2015, 2021).
For a more multivocal engagement with ecosomatics, see also the ecosomatics issue of the Center for Sustainable Practices quarterly I edited, with contributions by Aimee Meredith Cox, Brownyn Preece, Megan Milks, Edgar Fabián Frías, and Rania Lee Khalil (2021). There are also many theater and performance books that engage the ecology/performance seam, and I do not specifically play with this rich and deep history in this book, although I do see it in the lineage of what Theresa May calls “ecodramatury,” which is a “theatre praxis that centers ecological relations between nature and culture, human and non-human, individual and community” (2021, 4).
There are a number of contemporary texts that speak to notions of well-being and self- and other care in political and social justice terms, from Naomi Ortiz (2018), who reminds her readers about being rooted, about ancestral support, and Grandmother Moon’s light, to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s engagement with disability justice and care webs (2018), to adrienne maree brown, who cites Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, and Toni Cade Bambara specifically as part of her lineage in Pleasure Activism (2019).
The “participatory” here draws on multiple strands of art practice, and very uneven engagement with this tradition in art criticism. In 2006 Claire Bishop found it necessary to coin the term “social turn” for a set of art practices in contemporary art: participatory work, often outside museums, but usually still with a strong connection to the art market, often in system critique modes. Against the fact of this coinage stands (or creeps, or leans, or shuffles, whatever minoritarian habitus metaphor can work) the long history of community art, socially engaged art, and art for social change by multiple communities, often from people who are part of these communities, often aimed at political change and with concrete social aims. Coinages happened all along: in 1991, Suzanne Lacy used the term “New Genre Public Art” to refer to work that was not (straight) sculptural but in public places. Bishop engages the terrain in biting critique, for instance, in her evaluation of strands of 1970s British Community Art: “By avoiding questions of artistic criteria, the community arts movement unwittingly perpetuated the impression that it was full of good intentions and compassion, but ultimately not talented enough to be of broader interest.” My book, as all my work in the past, mainly engages with work that also seems to have slipped out from under that particular “broader interest”: minor practices, as much concerned with witty survival, cohabitation, and shaping new futures together than with the approving nod of art-world critics.
Eco crip: as disability activists and theorists like Alison Kafer (2013) and Sarah Jaquette Ray (2013, Ray and Sibara, 2017), Eli Clare (1998, 2014), and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2015, 2018) have shown, the environmental movement and the disability movement have been at odds with one another for a while (and the same is true for desired connections between eco-justice and racial justice movements). The hearty healthy eco-warrior and the fragile crippy creep are not easily mapped onto one another. But that has rarely hindered disabled people, with all their baggage of cultural stereotyping, to go out and touch a tree, sing to a flower, or find completion and contemplation in the aliveness of natural and unnatural worlds.
And with this particular orientation, resilience, creativity, engagement in the face of precarity, my argument diverges significantly from Lauren Berlant’s. Berlant engages with weak resistance, an exhausted practical engagement with life and pressure. Berlant critiques notions of sovereignty, and they are interested in sites where agency becomes complex, as in “spreading out activities like sex or eating, oriented toward pleasure or self-abeyance, that do not occupy time, decision, or consequentiality in anything like the registers of autonomous self-assertion” (757). Using people of size’s eating habits as one of their examples, Berlant ends their argument on weak agency: “[The essay] argues that in the scene of slow death, a condition of being worn out by the activity of reproducing life, agency can be an activity of maintenance, not making; fantasy, without grandiosity; sentience, without full intentionality; inconsistency, without shattering; embodying, alongside embodiment” (2007, 759). Berlant’s register of intentionality is very different from mine. I work in community settings and joyfully participate in communal “low” art of all kinds. I meet plenty of folks who are self-aware, critical, bowed by the racist, misogynist, ableist, classist, homophobic, transphobic systems that surround them. Some live with little hope, but they do not seem to see or move their large bodies as living metaphors for slow death. In the registers of affect theory, I am more in line with José Muñoz’s cruising utopia and its investment in an Ernst Blochian hope: with melancholy, even with depression, but not without love.
A term with much currency in art and dance practice, somatics, and therapeutic communities that acknowledge the interconnectedness of body and mind. See, for instance, The Emergence of Somatic Psychology and Bodymind Therapy (Barratt 2010), which creates a lineage that encompasses Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Frantz Fanon, Paolo Freire, and others. I am indebted to the graduate work of Angela Schöpke Gonzalez (2021, unpublished) for a historical investigation of the term’s citational history. She pointed me to John Money, writing about the term in 1956, in the context of challenging Descartes’s body/mind split. More recently, the term has also been taken up in disability studies but often without keeping the older lineage attached: always a complexity with disciplinary coinages. The connection between self-experience and sociocultural frame stay central to this understanding: disability studies scholar Margaret Price shifts the discussion of bodymind to not only refer to the interrelation between processes but to also refer to “a sociopolitically constituted and material entity that emerges through both structural (power- and violence-laden) contexts and also individual (specific) experience” (Price 2015, 271).
Parts of this chapter have been performed and danced in many environments, always inviting audiences to move along with me—in particular, flocking as I am reading the relevant sections. These performance/lectures were part of various performance actions in the California Bay Area and beyond from 2009 onward, including the American Dance Festival/Hollins MFA in Durham, North Carolina, and a keynote for the International Federation for Theatre Studies in Osaka, 2011.
Readers steeped in European critical theory will recognize this as a Spinozan phrase, based on his famous statement that “we do not know what a body can do.” Benedict de Spinoza is a seventeenth-century philosopher whose work stands in opposition to the distinction between mind and body (i.e., what is known as the Cartesian split). He writes, “Nothing can happen in that body which is not perceived by the mind. . . . The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body . . . and nothing else.” (See Spinoza’s Ethics as quoted in Curley 1994, 123).
Particularly influential to many dance practitioners is A Thousand Plateaus ( 2004), see, for instance, Lepecki and Jenn 2009. I use dancerly methods when I discuss ATP with dance graduates: we read the first three pages, and I invite the students to underline and then cut out phrases that interest them. They then dance with these phrases and watch the others with their own phrases. We weave a web. Eventually, we get back to the text itself and discuss how our “movement analysis” shifted our understanding. Lightbulbs go on. Suddenly, some of this makes more sense and is closer to our particular skins. Grounded, and open to layers, memory, process, distributed loci of movement in our body: dancing brings out eco soma nuance, and new reading insights can happen.
One of the most prominent scholars of phenomenology in/as dance studies is Sondra Fraleigh. For a sustained engagement with ecological issues and dance phenomenology, see her edited collection Back to the Dance Itself (2018).
This issue, the economics of somatics, are particularly pronounced in the United States, where funding for somatic approaches as part of a social contract does not exist, and most healing modalities outside biomedicine are not easily covered by insurance (see also Eddy 2016, 236–37). My own training in Laban, Continuum, BodyMindCentering, and other approaches first happened in Europe, where pathways to employment and integration in institutional approaches to healing were at the time more easily imaginable. I had the privilege to encounter Laban movement in school, and my father took me to cheap public Autogenic Training sessions in my early teens: a modality of autonomic nervous system training that still underlies many of my approaches to altered-state somatics and dream journeying.
For an in-depth account of Gandhi critiques, see for instance Lahiri’s (2020) chapter on the issue of “imperfect solidarities.”
Part of this edition is somatic practitioner and autistic Nick Walker, who uses a somatic lens to engage autistic culture. Walker writes about the somatics of stimming and discusses issues like “eye-contact” as a cultural entity, differently weighted in the White and Black environments she grew up in. She writes movingly about the effect of medical intervention in stimming practices: “locking the beauty of our autistic dance away under layers of chronic tension warps our embodiment” (2018, 100). Walker finds her eventual preferred somatic modality when she reads about Aikido in Samuel Delany’s novel Babel 17—touching in with the speculative, world-bending imagination that also drives Eco Soma.
This axis, of the natural/unnatural, also fuels Doran George’s analysis of the oppressive nature of their dance training at the Dutch European Dance Center: “My effeminate movement and pronounced assibiliation of words containing ‘s’ sounds seemed not to be culturally neutral because they challenged prevailing beliefs about natural gender” (2020, 3). Their education “stratified bodies as being more or less authentically connected with nature, and although I (and others) questioned the pedagogy’s premise of neutrality, it was difficult to challenge because it was bolstered by generally accepted scientific metaphors” (2020, 3).
I describe this communal learning and adjustment process in more detail in Kuppers (2003)—and for the last twenty years I have been using this initial exercise, centering ourselves, as an example of disability culture knowledge production in action.
My particular location in the networks of community performance allowed me to find out about this show, and I honor the many connections that made this possible: I was in Australia to collaborate with Australian dance movement therapy researcher and ethnographer Kim Dunphy, then working as an arts administrator. Kim passed away in the last months of finalizing this Eco Soma book project, and our final goodbyes were in Covid times, electronically. She had invited me to be a researcher for the Community Creative Development Bureau of Victoria, leading focus groups with stakeholders in disability arts across the state in order to inform new funding initiatives. Vale Kim, one of the many people whose generosity and vision helped weave the interdependent web that subtends Eco Soma.
I have seen the term “social somatic” increasingly used since, in particular among cultural body workers in the Bay Area, my part-time home for a time. Eddy locates a line of use of the term with Alexander teacher, Hakomi practitioner, and elder Carol Swan (2016, 234). Citational lines and language ownership are complicated by the need for market differentiation, websites are undated, and the academic/practitioner/artist interfaces make for a bewildering terrain of influence and caretaking. Most important, though, we are all on the journey of making movement more accessible, more capacious, and sourced from more roots.
“Staree” is a highly useful term coined by disability theorist Rosemarie Garland Thomson to denote the agency of those who are always being looked at (2005, 7).
In the British social model of disability, accepted to an extent in Australia as well, “impairment” refers to a particular condition, “disability” to the social effects of that condition.
Rosemarie Garland-Thomson introduced the term “normate” to disability studies, and it’s a great term to undermine and defamiliarize the everyday “normal.” The term refers to the “corporeal incarnation of culture’s collective, unmarked, normative characteristics” (1996, 8).
These crip cannibals set up another association for me, less carnivalesque, more sobering in its reminder of racist politics and their effects on shared social lives: the reference field of “welfare queens,” racist images of Black women supposedly accumulating children to drain social security nets, “disabling” (i.e., draining) the financial resources of the body politic (see also Kim and Schalk 2020, 44).
The show had multiple components in a wide-open community ritual. You can sit back and be led through the multiple stations by Eric Kupers himself, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FFBi5aaJpN4.
This technique, “flocking,” was described in one of the books taisha paggett had ready for us in her Light Box workshop in 2019: these little coincidences, energetic linkages, make for momentary crossings and solidarities.
Frank H. Ogawa, after whom this plaza is named, was a civil rights leader, confined in a U.S. internment camp in Utah during World War II, and the first Japanese American on the Oakland City Council, where he served for twenty-eight years.
This same tree also appears in the opening pages of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing (2019), a popular artist’s self-help book that urges people to pay attention and traces the history of this call in European philosophy and contemporary art. Trees continue to be pivot points, axes for human worlds.
The Olimpias is an artists’ collective, founded in 1996 in Wales during work with mental health–system survivors, with artistic director Petra Kuppers. Associates come from around the world, with a current U.S. center. We create collaborative, research-focused environments open to people with physical, emotional, sensory, and cognitive differences and their co-conspirators. In these environments, we can explore pride and pain, attention, and the transformative power of touch. The Olimpias is disability-led, and nondisabled co-conspirators are always welcome. Many of the Olimpias’s performance research working methods are collected in Kuppers (2014). In this artist’s statement language, I replaced the term that’s been there for a long time, “ally,” with “co-conspirator,” in keeping with calls to action, to future-oriented thinking, transformation, speculative life-making centered on Black Lives Matter protest. I acknowledge Black writers and activists like Alicia Garza, cofounder of the BLM movement, as the carriers of this language and knowledge, and I remain conflicted about the politics of using the term for a White-dominated crip-led group. Right now, this is where I am landing . . . and any discomfort will spur me on to reinvent and shift as my own growing understanding develops. This is, after all, a book about movement. This is also a book about being-with: one of the lineages of the “co-conspirators” formulation comes to me from anthropologist Tim Choy (2016) and his call for a conspiracy of breathers: an aspirational politics in which people become aware of con-spiring, that is to breathe together and join forces to fight toxic atmospheres.
Things shift over time. Here is how the memorial has addressed this collapse of disabled embodiment and the imagination of instability. It found a way to move (somewhat) beyond the initial inaccessibility: “Special passages for wheelchair users and people with walking disabilities are marked by the Field of Stelae”: https://www.berlin.de/en/attractions-and-sights/3560249-3104052-memorial-to-the-murdered-jews-of-europe.en.html, accessed June 2021. See also Dekel (2013, 11) on the disability alterations.
This relation between stability and instability has also entered the critical discourse around the monument: historian Mark Godfrey writes that the memorial “replaced the firmness and fixity of the German ground with a fictitious, unpredictable, newly invented topography . . . one that is other than stable” (2007, 246).
For more information on disabled lives in the Holocaust and the uses of the metaphor of stumbling, see Kenny Fries’s Stumbling over History: Disability and the Holocaust (forthcoming). Throughout Germany, stumbling stones—small brass markers—have become a marker of historic memories of atrocity: blocks set into the pavement in front of European and Russian houses witness the deportation and killing of people from those homes during the Holocaust. I remember seeing these blocks first when I went to the University of Cologne: in 1992, artist Gunter Demnig began creating these brass markers as part of an initiative commemorating Roma and Sinti victims of the Holocaust. In February 2019, the Guardian reported that “the 70,000th Stolperstein was laid for Willy Zimmerer, a German man with learning disabilities murdered at Hadamar psychiatric hospital outside of Frankfurt.” The same Guardian article also reports criticism of the project: “For me, stumbling over a piece of metal in the ground is anything but dignified,” writes Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, head of the Jewish community in Munich and Bavaria.
I had to stop myself from writing “like cattle”: that enmeshment of animal discourses and particularly Black fungibility appears on my writing fingertips too easily. Zakihyyah Iman Jackson writes, “Critical black studies must challenge animalization on at least two fronts: animalizing discourse that is directed primarily at people of African descent, and animalizing discourse that reproduces the abject abstraction of ‘the animal’ more generally because such an abstraction is not an empirical reality but a metaphysical technology of bio/necropolitics applied to life arbitrarily” (2020, 15). “Humanity” is a complex field of allocation and judgment, and to use animal metaphors here would elide the violence of dividing lines, the same categorizing instinct that has authorized racialized violence.
In this way of both experiencing and utilizing somatic sensations toward destabilizing knowledge, I am activating a different embodied/critical pathway from Doran George, whose work on particular lineages of somatics identifies the field in its connection to a Western and European concept of the natural. George writes, “Explanations that configure the significance of the body as beyond culture, such as proffered by Somatics, forfeit an understanding of how social forces are embodied through dance” (2020, 9). In contradistinction, my understanding and use of somatics as part of my eco soma methods specifically embraces this activation of felt and moved reflection.
To really know “something” of what went on, performance studies people could try to track down and ask participants at the Performance Studies international Conference/Festival in Utrecht (2011), or others who took part in our circle. This would involve a different methodology from my single-voiced narrative here: interviews, or maybe focus groups (to help jog people’s memory). But would these interviews elicit the somatic thickening of experience that I felt in the room? Would there be words for our sensations in memory’s translation?
This moment links me to geographer Max Liboiron (Métis/Michif), who first thought about plastics as unchosen kin and then offered a deep rethink after being challenged by Indigenous thinkers around the use of “making kin” as a practice of White possessiveness. Researchers should and can change our minds and track who is holding us accountable: seeing this thought process laid out in Liboiron’s work helps me track my own changing thoughts (Liboiron 2021, 110, citing Goenpul tribal member and professor of Indigenous studies Aileen Moreton-Robinson 2015 and Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd 2016).
This way of thinking about the materiality, specificity, and journeys of particular plants, minerals, or “hyperobjects,” to cite Tim Morton’s (2013, 1) phrase about “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” like Styrofoam or plutonium, is grounded in new materialist work by writers like anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and her attention to the multidimensional webs of matsutake mushrooms (2015), or Tiffany King’s (2019) writing on porosity and the indigo-stained hands of Nana Peazant in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, engaging anew Clyde Woods’s “blues epistemology” (1998).
Australian researcher Ashley Frisch and colleagues write that “clove oil solution (10% clove oil, 90% ethanol) is an anaesthetic that is widely used to catch demersal fish on coral reefs.” A 2007 study in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology found that “(1) limited amounts of clove oil solution are unlikely to harm this coral, and (2) clove oil solution may represent an ‘eco-friendly’ alternative to cyanide for use in the live reef-fish trade.” There is a whole spate of similar articles in marine ecology journals, tracking the relative resilience of corals and the toxicity of the anaesthetic over years of discussion. This is strange reading material for a performance studies scholar, and I am leaving this one trace of my short moment of being led by the clove in this text as a mark of interspecies process.
For my dance readers: I was part of Germany’s first Tanz Theatre seminar, led by Hedwig Mueller, a heady time. Not incidentally, a different version of this section has previously appeared with Germany/Japan-based editors Nanako Nakajima and Gabriele Brandstetter’s collection on dance and aging (2017).
In her moving phenomenology of Latisha King’s execution and the resulting court case, Gayle Salamon writes about Maeve Fox, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the White supremacist murder of young trans biracial Latisha King. She writes about Fox enacting a chin flick, a “proverbial f-you” that shows how young Latisha “is through some remarkable alchemy able to transform the transphobic scorn directed her way into something powerful and profound, a sense of confidence and security held at a bodily level” (2018, 85). My stem-up invitation, uttered for many years in different talks, does not have the vibratory charge of allowing us to see a murder victim’s power. But I employ it in a similar strategy: to see strength instead of pity and to feel one’s muscles rather than the harshness of concrete stair exclusion. Also, with this stemming invitation, I am employing a somatic technique that is close to a disability simulation—but you will not “know me” by stemming yourself up a bit, or even by trailing around a campus for an afternoon in a wheelchair. I embrace the creative potential of these seductive simulation scenarios: they are fun ways to break up long talks or reading sessions and are a great alternative to sitting in a classroom. Social practice artist Carmen Papalia is a master of this kind of seductive play with simulation: he leads people in long lines across traffic lanes, feeling his way with his stick (for instance, in his participatory actions Long Time No See and the Blind Field Shuttle Walking Tour).
Elsewhere, I engaged with the work of Raimund Hoghe, longtime dramaturg to Pina Bausch, who has offered a strong body of work on German history, Nazi politics, the disciplining of bodies, and queer longing (Kuppers 2015). See also Johnson (2013); or the work of Gerda Koenig, a Cologne-based wheelchair-using choreographer who has created work that mobilizes her own nude body as a fulcrum of desire and beauty (Kuppers 2006, 2017). In 2018, the Sophiensaele in Berlin began to host foreign disabled dance artists as choreographers, working with the local population, with U.S. gender-queer crip artist Perel as their first guest.
See, for instance, Lilian Karina and Marion Kant’s Tanz unter dem Hakenkreuz (Dance under the swastika) (1996), for one of the many accounts of Laban’s work in relation to the Nazis and the point at which he fled after first collaborating on big dance spectacles.
Fordism and Taylorism are systems of mass production linked to Henry Ford’s auto empire and to a particular form of “scientific management” of workers’ bodies: machine-link cogs interlocking on assembly lines.
This section is adapted from my essay “Occupy the WEFT: Choreographing Factory Affect and Community Performance.”
Shinrin-yoku/forest bathing emerges from Japanese preventative health medicine in the 1980s. Tomohide Akiyama, director general of the Japanese Agency of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries of Japan, coined “shinrin-yoku” in the early 1980s, and both Japanese and South Korean researchers have created bodies of work on the health benefits of walking in forests. The concept arrived in the English-speaking world mainly through Quing Li (2018), an immunologist and teacher at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, Japan.
In the United States, the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy Guides and Programs has developed, and many community centers now offer “forest bathing” as a “class,” decoupling associations of rambling from everyday practices and coupling them with professional expertise. The mycelium network and intertree communications have been popularized in a book by Peter Wohlleben (2015, English trans. 2016), who started his career as a German forester before becoming a survival guide and a caretaker of the forest in his local German community. The book’s reception is an intriguing case study: a petition denouncing the “oversimplifications and emotional explanations” launched in August 2018, and found 4,516 supporters as of July 2020 (OpenPetition: Even in the Forest It’s Facts We Want Not Fairytales, 2018).
2. Edges of Water and Land
I have some Western ethnographic training, as social anthropology was part of my degree program at the University of Cologne. But when I was getting ready for my fieldwork—working with disabled people on Indonesian islands, examining their mobility strategies in water/land environments—the NGO who set up these connections barred me from going because I was a wheelchair user myself. I did not fit the normate idea of an anthropologist, so that was that. Throughout my career, the sense of who “my people” are keeps shifting and twisting, but my interest in how fellow disabled people create rich artful lives is central to my curiosity, practice, and scholarship.
Also note that my naming practice shifts throughout: I use various words, in keeping with dominant Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native uses on respective lands. These protocols change, and I would urge anybody writing to consult with elders and Indigenous scholars of the particular land.
A short literature review might be necessary to historicize and locate cross-cultural engagement in performance. In the categories for cross-cultural theatrical practice developed by Jacqueline Lo and Helen Gilbert (2002), the practices I am looking at would fall into different categories, made complex by the fact that none of them fall solely within a straightforward dramatic mode: the first one emerges from syncretic postcolonial practice within a nation-state framework, the second seems closest to intercultural practice in an international setting (as developed by Bharucha 2000), and the third from Multicultural (capital M) community performance (i.e., from a state, Australia, that practices a top-down integrationist arts policy for community cultural development). The first two, in particular, challenge Western dramatic modes in the way Christopher Balme analyzes them in his discussion of cross-cultural drama (1999). My work is influenced by these taxonomical efforts in relation to cross-cultural theater.
This move into the “virtual age” is not without complex issues for many Indigenous people, and for people who find themselves affected by digital divides, and by the racialized frames of the Internet. See for instance Natives on the Net (2006), a collection by Kyra Landzelius, Lisa Nakamura’s engagement with racialization and representation on/with/in relation to the net (2007), and Grant and Hendriks’s collection on Indigenous people and mobile technologies (2016).
As Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang write, “Solidarity is an uneasy, reserved, and unsettled matter”—grasping theoretical concepts and capturing performances within them is not a method that fosters decolonializing processes (2012, 3).
For a rich history of Indigenous and Black critiques of Deleuzoguattarian thought and its deathliness, see King 2017. King also has a footnote in her text, an aside, but one that offers an important perspective on practices of reading, affect in the classroom, and the need to think about the uses of theory as a tool. I cite the footnote here in full, as it pertains strongly to the placement of theoretical thought apropos one’s ethical deepening: “I would also like to acknowledge the often unnoticed (or noticed and perhaps resented) methods that students, particularly women of color, use in the classroom to refuse the tacit acceptance of violence embedded within the tradition of White critical theory. For example, White male students in my graduate feminist theories class often perform a kind of exuberance and joy when the course finally gets to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. Conversely, many women of color in the class feel a sense of dread. Rather than explain this dread as a response to the difficulty and rigor of the text, I am apt to believe that on an affective level, the resistance to their work could stem from the way death stalks the work. Whether my resistant students know or understand it or not, I imagine that somewhere in the gut they might be wondering, ‘Why must I become attached to something that murders?’ Further, many of my women and queer-of-color students astutely ask how this is useful. This question considers the tenor in which Deleuze wrote and hoped that people would hear and receive his work. In 1972, in a discussion with Foucault, Deleuze urged that theory is ‘always local and related to a limited field.’ Theories are particular things that emerge from specific milieus and circumstances. Further, Deleuze argues that ‘a theory is like a box of tools. It has nothing to do with the signifier. It must be useful. It must function. And not for itself. If no one uses it, beginning with the theoretician himself (who ceases then to be a theoretician), the theory is worthless or the moment is inappropriate. We don’t revise a theory, but construct new ones; we have no choice but to make others.’ (See Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, ‘Intellectuals and Power: A Conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze’ , http://libcom.org/library/intellectuals-power-a-conversation-between-michel-foucault-and-gilles-deleuze.) This is rigorous and worthwhile work that is rarely performed. It often requires that one first ask the question: how is this relevant and helpful to me? Most of the time answering this question will require additional reading that includes biographies of the theorist as well as other kinds of supplemental reading” (King 2017, 184).
One note about images in this chapter: as I want to ensure that people whose work I write about can read the material, and since the latter half of this chapter focuses on collaborations in Queensland, Australia, I made the decision to not have recognizable images of humans in this chapter, in line with Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander protocols around visual representations of (potentially deceased) humans. One video still of the Anishinaabe singers is in the separate color section, but all other images here are of abstract art, shadow puppets, and crowd scenes that make individual identification impossible. This is in line with the protocol adopted by the Australian Broadcasting Association: “Journalists and documentary makers should be aware that images and voices of long-deceased persons—for example, in archival footage and photographs—may cause distress to Indigenous people” (NITV 2017). As always, it’s best to consult with particular Indigenous groups, of course, and not to assume the validity of blanket statements, particularly ones created in the uneven power environment of White/Indigenous collaboration space. As National Indigenous Television Channel Manager Tanya Denning-Orman explains: “Even though we have cultural protocol guidelines we must also remember that every community has their own set of cultural protocols that need to be respected and the best approach is to liaise directly with Indigenous communities members as culture protocols may differ from year to year” (NITV 2017).
The video was carefully approved by all participants, and by Anishinnaabe elders who were also present for the events. Some of these layers of permission and protocol were unusual to me, a non-Indigenous artist and researcher, and I gratefully learned from my Indigenous collaborator Margaret Noodin to allow for the time and space necessary to ensure appropriate relations.
Marcie Rendon (Anishinaabe) is a theater maker and writer-activist who supports and encourages other writers to write in Ojibwe. Among her projects are a writing residency she facilitated on the White Earth reservation as part of a three-phase Project Hoop Residency to create theater projects at a community level.
Heid E. Erdrich is Ojibwe enrolled at Turtle Mountain, and the author of eight books of poetry and prose, and an interdisciplinary artist. She has created poemeos (poem films and videos) in collaboration with Elizabeth Day, Jonathan Thunder, and Trevino Brings Plenty.
Angel Sobotta (Nez Perce) is a language teacher in the tribal Head Start program, local schools, and at the Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. She is also a theater maker with the Lapwai Afterschool Programs, teaching language by adapting legends and directing the youth, including “Niimiipuum Titwaatit—The People’s Stories,” which was an antibullying project (2012).
You can sing this song with us, too. Here is the link to the Ojibwe.net, a resource for Anishinaabemowin language revitalization, where you can find the words and the song. See Miskwaasining Nagamojig (April 2) (Shkaakamikwe: Mother Earth, 2016), http://ojibwe.net/songs/womens-traditional/shkaakaamikwe-mother-earth/. I used to be a bit wary about whether it would be respectful to do this, me as a settler inviting others to sing an Indigenous song, but my collaborators have assured me that this is (one part of) the purpose of the site. When teaching the works in this chapter, I have since used the link to joyfully invite a group of people to participate in an Anishinaabemowin song, as a respectful, alive, and thriving practice.
It’s important to remember that survivance cannot be the only concept with which to grasp Indigenous practice in performance studies—there are many nuances of expression, as Stó:lō Researcher Dylan Robinson points out when he addresses Idle No More gatherings as displays of anger as well as cultural survival (2017).
See, for instance, Huhndorf 2009 and Forte 2009; see also concepts of “visual sovereignty,” following Rickard 1995.
More information about this artwork can be found on Rebecca Belmore’s website: http://www.rebeccabelmore.com/exhibit/Fountain.html (Belmore 2005).
When I stop my writing self here from fabulation, from (certain kinds of) speculation, from writing down what I vaguely heard, I am doing so with the awareness that the concept of “research” has complicated values in decolonially aligned practices. “Evidence” would not help, or even deep footnoting citing informants: the barrier here is that I have not been given explicit permission, since I didn’t ask for it, as I am not in established relation. I am following Aotearoan Indigenous decolonizing scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s call for thoughtful action: “Processes are expected to be respectful, to enable people, to heal and to educate. They are expected to lead one small step further towards self-determination” (2012, 218–19). Many White scholars are recognizing these ethical demands on not just telling stories as if they are ours to share; see, for instance, anthropologist Natasha Myers, who writes in an incantation that is part of her project Rooting into the Planthroposcene: “Refuse to discipline or deride local and Indigenous cosmologies. Push back on every contortion or erasure or reduction of their knowledge that seeks to make such practices legible or commensurable or rational to science. Do not appropriate Indigenous knowledges, but do the work to make yourself receptive and responsive so that you can take these knowledges seriously” (2020).
Water panthers: it feels seductive to me to dive in here, but in my readings about Anishinaabe artists, I see their power mentioned but rarely explained in depth—different from the oft-told and written story of muskrat diving down and grasping the grains of sand that will make up Turtle Island. So here, in this chapter, I also leave them as a mention, a story that is not mine to tell. For a reference and a weaving into a different water story, see Anishinaabe writer Kimberly Blaeser (2020).
For a reading of a range of Indigenous feminist water protest actions, see Choctaw theater researcher Bethany Hughes’s work. She writes that the performances she engages “make clear that Indigenous feminist protest is not positioned against something, but rather for something: for the water; for the future; for each other” (2020).
In 1990, the term Two-Spirit emerged as a pan-Indian and Indigenous-specific term at an Indigenous lesbian and gay gathering in Winnipeg, Ontario, Canada. Two-Spirit activists as water protectors are aware of their importance in moving beyond binary norms. Standing Rock was a protest camp that stood against the North Dakota Access Pipeline, initially called into being in April 2016 by elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard. Candi Brings Plenty, an enrolled citizen of Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe, advocated for the presence of Two-Spirit people, and a Two-Spirit camp was established. Trudie Jackson writes on the queer and trans people of color blog ColorBloq about the importance of the Two-Spirit camp as part of the wider Indigenous-led protest: “The presence of the Two-Spirit camp was crucial, since their presence was important as Water Protectors, Water Carriers, and Leading in Prayers. There was a fluidity of sexuality and gender represented at the Two-Spirit camp which challenged the binary that only cisgender heterosexuals were public in their protests and injustices and especially in support of Native Nations like the Standing Rock Sioux. The Two-Spirit camp challenged the gender norms by representing multiple genders at the NoDAPL camps, thereby also refusing to accept patriarchal domination of what the oil pipeline represents. The Two-Spirit camp showed once again that Native peoples do acknowledge multiple genders among them and accept them as part of their communities.” The acceptance is not automatic: not all elders and communities accept Two-Spirit perspectives (which is not the same as not accepting tribally specific nonbinary gender identities and sexual practices). Language practices are part of this revitalization of nonbinary gender and sexuality frameworks, and here, tribal specificity is central. In a 2016 interview, a Two-Spirit organizer and media arts justice facilitator with the Native Youth Sexual Health Network, Fallon Andy (Anishinaabe) speaks to Anishinaabemowin language and gendering: “Today my grandma just calls me ‘noozhis,’ which means ‘grandkid,’ or by my nation name, which is ‘Waasegiizhigook,’ meaning ‘the light that shines through the clouds.’ She really takes out all the gendered stuff for me, which I really like.” This gesture represents a slight shift in human consciousness, Andy says, as well as signaling a returning to the Anishinaabemowin way of seeing people for who they are as spiritual beings (2016).
Day (2008) identifies publicly as lesbian and also acknowledges the more recently emerging term Two-Spirit.
“Love” is caught in so many normative frames, regulated and used as a tool of colonialization. On how settler sexuality, land, blood quantum discussions, love economies, and relationality go together, see Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate/Dakota)’s blog The Critical Polyamorist.
Neoliberalism: in the context of these community arts projects, an economic creation that flattens difference and shifts attention away from the structural workings of racism and from the effects of extractive settler colonialism (Ahmed 2012; Mohanty 2013).
For many resources from the project, see the wider project website: https://www.ghostnets.com.au.
This video is on YouTube, “The Young Man and the Ghost Net” Moa Island Torres Strait. GhostNets Australia (Ricki Gunn and Corey Austin, Queensland: Ghostnets Australia, 2011), at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnN3t-5nf3g.
This video is part of a DVD, Creative Livelihoods, released by the Art in Health Initiative and the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health, Queensland (Art in Health Initiative 2011).
In my particular lineage as a community performance maker, I trace this term to Brazilian theater maker and activist Augusto Boal (1995).
Fairfield writes about her own experience of chronicity and more-than-human influence by meditating on the Greenland shark (2019), and engages the term “perilous ongoingness” in her PhD thesis (2021).
Slow violence, as discussed by Nixon 2011, is a force with a long history, one that treats people and their land and location as disposable, making them bear the brunt of incremental destructive global capitalism: a long-term emergency. Instead of viewing environmentalism as a political struggle among rich Global North actors, Nixon argues that there is a long history of people of color and actors in the Global South working to resist degradation but that these struggles are often invisibilized. This is one of the friction points between postcolonial and environmental studies.
For more insight into this frightening rise of contemporary eugenics in emergency management, see Barry Levy and Jonathan Patz 2015, 312–13; David Abbott and Sue Porter on disabled vulnerability 2013, 843–44, or multiple discussions of triage and lives worth having a ventilator in the Covid-19 crisis.
For a rare counterexample, see Indra Sinha, Animal’s People, and Jina Kim’s discussion of this work through a crip-of-color critique (2014).
Mia Mingus writes: “Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. . . . Access intimacy is also the intimacy I feel with many other disabled and sick people who have an automatic understanding of access needs out of our shared similar lived experience of the many different ways ableism manifests in our lives. Together, we share a kind of access intimacy that is ground-level, with no need for explanations. Instantly, we can hold the weight, emotion, logistics, isolation, trauma, fear, anxiety and pain of access. I don’t have to justify and we are able to start from a place of steel vulnerability” (2011, blog entry). This formulation resonated with many in disabled and chronically ill communities: this resonance went deep quickly, and much contemporary disability arts writing cites this beautiful concept.
In my writing of this piece of autoethnographic performance witnessing of site/performance, my influences included Kathy Westwater’s performance work at Fresh Kills, Jennifer Scappettone’s work on copper mining (2020), Cecil Giscombe’s work on site and racialization (2020), Judith Hamera’s engagement with political economic history in Detroit (2017), and Sally Ann Ness’s ethnographic work in Yosemite National Park (2016), not to mention engagements with Deidre (Dee) Heddon, Angela Ellsworth, Pauline Oliveros, and more. In more diffuse, not easily citable ways, I also want to honor other lineages, from my European heritage: Dadaists, feminist surrealists, artists using language to create/track/excite the borders of life and death, people interested in edge experiences and trance states.
The origin of the piece was a commission for the Detroit Public Library, for the Show Me Your Selves exhibit.
See entry on Blanc Modern Africa blog, http://www.blancmodernafrica.com/travel-journal/2019/7/detroit-art-week.
My first teacher for this was Yeye (mother) Luisah Teish and her book Jambalaya (1988).
In Flint, a documentary theater piece by José Casas, dramatizing the voices of adversely affected Flint residents and University of Michigan students with ties to the city, an arch made of thousands of discarded plastic water bottles makes up the proscenium of the show.
I am very careful not to ascribe a single meaning here or assign gant a particular identity. I take my cue here from Therí Alyce Pickens’s writing on Blackness and madness. She writes about the character Shoni in Octavia Butler’s novel The Fledgling, elegantly weaving Merleau-Pontian, Deleuzian, and Agambian language into her writerly engagement: “I am hesitant to ascribe to Shoni’s Black madness an agentive quality. . . . Black madness remains a provocation. Even as it forms the locus of the invagination of their history and the fold of their future, it both allows for agency and forecloses it. Black madness remains a wrinkle in the linear progression of history and time before its opposition to their dominant ideology. As a result, it cannot have anything but a vexed agency, nor can it create itself outside the confines of a bare life” (2019, 48–49). In this reading practice, Black madness questions the very notion of progression: the past and present are mired in racist ideology to the extent that “solutions” are not possible without redress. The past needs to be rethought and renegotiated to become a seedbed for futures. Without that labor, Black mad characters remain unclear, on the edges of narrative, unsettling futurities. Pickens writes about a science fiction novel here, but her thoughts resonate deeply with my understanding of Black disability’s political presence in White-dominated space and, of course, with calls for postslavery reparations: the break and the injustice need to be acknowledged and repaired. Black Lives Matter activist Syrus Marcus Ware identifies as Black, mad, and trans, and his Antarctica installation at the 2019 Toronto Biennial is a site for thinking/feeling liberation in the future: the complexities of building a healing future in the grip of old stories (for text from his installation, see Ware 2020).
Also resonating with me here is Tiffany King’s work on The Black Shoals, a book I read after I wrote this chapter. King writes about shoals as not water/not land, as in-between sites, and the Ibo/Ebo landing emerges from the ocean of time again: “The sandbars could also present another opportunity to kill the ship’s crew, seize the vessel, and head back to the sea in the other direction. Or, as in Paule Marshall’s retelling of the story of Ibo Landing, the shoal could have been the place that the Ibo decided they would turn around and walk past the boat back home.” The shoal is “a small uncovered spot of sand, coral, or rock where one must quickly gather, lose oneself, or proceed in a manner and fashion not yet known” (9). The shoal as a site of meeting, of decision, of shifting grounds, as a writerly site of “being with”: I want to call on this way of thinking horizons and meeting sites: writerly labor at the site of injustice, grounded in land/water and in circulations.
The video from the Sins Invalid performance can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TkSG5NKRALs, accessed November 2020. Sins Invalid is a disability justice performance project that centers people of color, queers, and nonbinary and trans people with disabilities. For an overview of the project, its focus on disability justice approaches, and its grounding in the power and resilience of the disabled community, see Shayda Kafai (2021).
Trauma Basics (video), minute 3, accessed September 2019. The videos can be accessed through this free registration portal: https://culturalsomaticsuniversity.thinkific.com/courses/cultural-somatics-free-5-session-ecourse.
For a rich engagement with the contradictions and complexities that arise between the political and aesthetic objects of community engagement and participatory action research on the one hand and the demands of “audit culture” and peer review on the other, see Michelle Stewart, Rebecca Caines, and Andrea Kotlar-Livingston (2020).
And getting real with water has been part of my performance studies friendship circle for a while, too: for instance, my collaborator and colleague Anita Gonzalez publishes about her experiences on cruises working as a destination lecturer for Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruise lines, providing information about Caribbean history and culture (2014) and about her maritime research into African American maritime performance acts and their water journeys (2018).
There are beautiful lineages for disabled people’s artful enjoyment of watery space—German artist Gerda Koenig, DIN A 13 dancer/choreographer, floated in a swimming pool lit by multicolored lights in Colors of Longing (2000; see Kuppers 2003). British artist Sue Austin created an underwater wheelchair as part of a science/art/engineering exploration in 2013. When I give Salamander talks in recent years, I also widen this lineage acknowledgment to highlight other art projects and their embedment in water as hopeful/complex sites of embodiment. In particular, I cite and show Calida Garcia Rawles’s 2019–20 images of Black bodies underwater, illustrations used both for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s novel The Water Dancer, and Jesmyn Ward’s essay “On Witness and Respair: A Personal Tragedy Followed by Pandemic,” about losing her husband to Covid and about the ongoing revolution, Black Lives Matter, and witnessing.
The Salamander project provided creative nourishment for many people and many publications. For earlier, briefer engagements with this material, see Kuppers 2014 and 2018c. A related essay, an offshoot of the project, was “Public Intimacies: Water Work in Play,” hosted by Petra Kuppers, with V. K. Preston, Pam Block, and Kirsty Johnston (2018d).
Salamanders appear in literary culture, too, as creatures in slipstream or magical realism settings as transformative, liminal beings. For salamanders in the fantastical literature and moments of Aztec culture, see Paula M. Bruno (2005); and for salamanders as a site of Jewish and Yiddish culture, see Szeintuch, Tourgeman, and Zigdon 2005.
As you can see from this list, I was able to travel far and wide, supported by academic/artistic/community performance/disability performance networks. I am an artist-scholar, one of only a handful of international jet-setting disabled artists invited to give talks and run workshops worldwide—a moment I am marking, in its environmental and privilege stakes, balanced with the only recent surge in interest and funding for disabled artists. Some White Global North artists like myself, from these first waves, now sense an invitation to step back or step aside. I try to make sure that other disabled people have access to these kinds of resources. Part of my activism now is to program disability culture events in ways that engage the work and demands of disability justice activists (see Sins Invalid 2019) so that we are hearing from a wider field, for all our good: against monocultures.
I am citing in Eco Soma Gumbs’s M Archive, but in the context of this chapter, I also want to point to her book Undrowned (2020), which came out during the last weeks of my copyediting process. Gumbs’s book does powerful work at the site of water, memory, and more-than-human kin. She also takes to water to find life and breath in racial gendered ableist capitalism. “I am saying that those who survived in the underbellies of boats, under each other under unbreathable circumstances are the undrowned, and their breathing is not separate from the drowning of their kin and fellow captives, their breathing is not separate from the breathing of the ocean, their breathing is not separate from the sharp exhale of hunted whales, their kindred also. Their breathing did not make them individual survivors. It made a context.” (2–3). In her book, Gumbs looks toward whales as mentors for living in vulnerability, collaboration, and adaptation, shifting her language through contexts, finding watery connective tissues through time and toward futures, aligned with adrienne maree brown’s influential Emergent Strategy in finding supportive, life-giving ways of living across harm, listening onward.
Here I move away from a politics of enumerating and analyzing how “the figure of the disabled body is the quintessential symbol of humanity’s alienation from nature” (Sarah Jaquette Ray, 2013, 6). In her study, Ray engages in depth a foundational text for ecodisability studies: Eli Clare 1999.
Translation by Xavier Duacastilla Soler.
There are also many other circulations of the Salamander project. In this footnote, I wish to highlight one that places the Salamander in an occupational therapy teaching setting at Stony Brook University. In 2014 Pam Block invited me to visit with her occupational therapy students and run a Salamander workshop with them. In an essay on the use of arts-based disability culture practices, Block and her colleague Pam Karp cite these student writings about what they took away from floating with each other and me in their university pool. They invited the Salamander project “to our campus to challenge ingrained assumptions about society and placing the students in the uncomfortable position of facing their own culturally manufactured biases about the juxtaposition of their roles as healthcare professionals and people with disabilities became a valuable lesson to us as educators. We learned that providing culturally artistic experiences outside of the traditional classroom and clinic offered our students a unique and engaging opportunity to examine with a greater perspective what it means to live life to the fullest, not only for their potential collaborations in future therapeutic partnerships, but for themselves as well. The evidence of our students’ burgeoning occupational consciousness is revealed in their self-reflections. Rich (Farrell) remarked, ‘Being able to understand and accept those around you is a concept we can relate directly to working with those who have a disability.’ Jessica (Hammer) provided insight through self-reflection. ‘While in the water, I experienced support from my partner as well as from the individuals outside of the water. This showed how there can be interdependence and interconnectedness from the disabled and able-bodied population.’ Lauren’s (Jacklitsch) self-reflection highlighted her developing occupational consciousness when she remarked, ‘We need to form a partnership with our clients to attain the greatest results rather than exerting authority over our clients.’ The Salamander workshop experience provided us, as educators, an avenue for further student development in a manner that differs from traditional teaching models” (Block and Karp 2020). I appreciate the new openings and thought-fields that shimmer out from our Salamander experiences and image remnants.
If visual modalities work for you, the silent gallery video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYARFPN9dZU. You can also use this video to create your own access exercise, setting up a communal audio description workshop.
There is rich work done on audio description as an aesthetic practice in its own right: sensorial ekphrastic engagement across forms beyond some kind of “transparent” access provision. For instance, see Georgina Kleege and Scott Wallin (2015).
4. Crip Time, Rhythms, and Slow Rays
The name “Turtle Disco” links crip time signatures of slowness and speed, dance and joy, and Turtle Island, a reference to North America in use since the 1970s, based on a number of Indigenous creation stories.
Again, the process of engaging material brings me in direct contact with my layers of reading, the world material in my brain, the archive of eye movement and kindle, or moistened fingertip: I remember where I was when I read Mel Chen’s Animacies, the chapter on lead toxicity, the penetrating matter in relation to children’s toys and racist discourse fields, and the way Chen writes about their own journey in toxic embodiment.
And thinking of these small invisible fibers links me back to Max Liboiron (Métis/Michif) and my footnote in the first chapter, about their thoughts on plastics as unchosen kin, and then their undoing of that metaphor when addressing challenges by Indigenous researchers.
This is a process I have investigated and tried to make communally experiential in my own eco soma work: see my discussion of Burning, an engagement with toxicity and heavy metals, as a community performance project (Kuppers 2014).
There is so much material on Lovecraftian reclamation and reinvention by writers from nondominant groups that I teach a course on it at the University of Michigan: “Dark Fantasy,” a critical/creative class where we read authors like Victor LaValle, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Bryan Thao Worra, and T. Kingfisher. We learn from their genre-based, recombinant craft to write our own stories (for some more on these recombinant active reader pleasures, see Kuppers 2020). But this is not the same as normalizing Lovecraft, or rehabilitating him and other racist and misogynist authors. And the wider fantasy world is shifting, as the 2014 protest against the World Fantasy Award statuette of Lovecraft shows: after protests initiated by Nnedi Okorafor and a petition led by Daniel José Older, the organization dropped the Lovecraft statuette (“the Howard”) and is now handing out awards designed by Vincent Villafranca.
Swedish literary scholar Van Leavenworth writes about the storyworld of Lovecraft (i.e., the unifying elements of the Mythos stories). These elements are denarrativized, which means they do not rely on a shared and ongoing story or character set (different from, for instance, the Batman or Tolkien universes). Instead, Leavenworth characterizes the unifying elements in this way: “In the Lovecraft storyworld, recurring scenarios feature human characters in realistic settings who discover coexisting cosmic realities and the unspeakably scary beings that inhabit them. These realities appear to rupture natural laws and cannot be conceived of by human minds, and so the encounters produce terror, eternal unease, and/or mental instability in the protagonists” (2014, 332). Leavenworth explores loss of control in later Lovecraftian storyworld entries, tracing experimental narratives, video games, and interactive fictions that enact anxiety and rehearse it in ways that point toward complicated narrative pleasures.
Anne McDonald wrote before the concept was picked up by disability studies as an academic and artistic phenomenon. For different discussions of the term, see Eli Clare’s influential engagements in creative nonfiction (2014). Also see Kafer 2013; Samuels 2017; Kuppers 2008, 2014; and McRuer 2018.
See McDonald, n.d. In informal conversations I have had over the years with activists in Australia it emerged that the mid-1980s was the likely origin point. Here is the first traceable publication data for this Anne McDonald center website page, found via Google’s index feature: it shows that the site was first indexed on August 17, 2005: https://www.annemcdonaldcentre.org.au/crip-time.
There are many writers and researchers who believe this and work actively as culture producers to highlight our star stories. See Allan 2013, Allan and Al-Ayed 2016, Schalk 2018, and also as part of my own creative writing practice (Kuppers 2018a, 2018b).
The video’s trailer is available at http://www.wakingthegreensound.com/.
An interest in disability’s difference is a well-recognized category of the form. See Kochhar-Lindgren 2006, which discusses Butoh as a form aligned with third ear transnational performance practices. Or see Kurihara 2000, on one of Butoh’s early founders, Tatsumi Hijikata, and how disability shaped his dancerly choices.
I am leaving the “mad” in “mad hatter” in this text but with brackets. I embrace the tenets of mad studies, with its suspicion of the easy traffic in madness tropes and its foregrounding of the expressions of people affected directly by mental health difference and its policing. The company creating this mad hatter party (which is explicitly named as such in their publicity materials) is well aware of the bodily and psychical pain of mental health survivordom, and the term is consciously used by them and by me.
Speaking about trans shape-shifting temporalities is complex, and allocating gendered pronouns creates interesting tensions. This particular formulation, designed to both signal the presence of trans, and yet without grounding this in an individual dancer, was vetted by the company.
Empathy is complicated. Here is a potted footnote version of some of the concept’s strands. “Empathy” as a term originates as the German “Einfuehlung” with philosopher Robert Vischer (1873). His work describes the mechanisms by which viewers project themselves into objects they see. Literary theory has its own history of engagement with these terms, too, and critics like (out lesbian) essayist Vernon Lee described empathetic movement, bodily feelings infiltrating reading practices, in her The Beautiful: An Introduction to Psychological Aesthetics (1913). Her collaborator and lover Clementina (Kit) Anstruther-Thomson describes the effects of Greek vase form in its engagement with viewer’s embodied experience: bodies affect knowledge, we see and understand through our bodily forms and its histories (Art and Man: Essays and Fragments, 1924). The history of engagement with affect, prelinguistic feeling states, etc., have shaped an important segment of theoretical engagement in the 1990s and early 2000s (see, for instance, Massumi’s work on autonomic affective reactions). In a different lineage from the proto-queer crossings of Lee and Anstruther-Thomson, the “feeling” aspect to aesthetics, how some bodies make other bodies feel, shapes Tobin Siebers’s Disability Aesthetics (2010). In dance studies, the term “kinesthetic empathy” has currency through two main strands of substantive engagement: one that emerges from critical theory, and one that addresses actual audience studies, linking people watching dance up to sensors. Dance scholar Susan Leigh Foster emphasizes how the new concept of empathy took over from (narrative) sympathy: “‘Empathy’ was neologized, not to express a new capacity for fellow-feeling, but to register a changing experience of physicality that, in turn, influenced how one felt another’s feeling. . . . Instead of casting one’s self into the position of the other, it became necessary to project one’s three-dimensional structure into the energy and action of the other.” (129). Her engagement of empathy’s potential challenges easy utopian understandings of dance critic John Martin’s original coinage of the term “kinesthetic empathy.” She asks: “Empathy is now entwined with the apparatuses, increasingly digitalized, that hurtle images of bodies from one side of the world to the other. In the fleetingness of these images, are we able adequately to exercise empathetic capacities?” (169). In the second strand of dance criticism’s interest in empathy, mirror neuron research features prominently, such as neurological evidence for emotional resonance and sympathy felt while watching movement. Other studies use qualitative methods to find out why and how audiences see dance (Reason and Reynolds, 2010). But even though I do not pursue kinesthetic empathy as an argument line in my book, I want to honor intriguing work done under its label: see, for instance, Rosely Conz and Stephany Slaughter’s use of a screen dance project to think about interventions in anti-immigration narratives with young people in mid-Michigan (2021).
This crip precarity has shifted much more into the foreground at this moment in 2020, as I am revising this manuscript in the Covid-19 age. Many users of oxygen tanks and ventilators are particularly vulnerable to the virus—and also vulnerable to eugenic exploitation, with threats of their ventilators being taken away and given to more “viable” subjects.
In the context of a contemporary U.S. publication, it is important to note that the “race” construct used by him distinguished “Aryans” from “Alpine” and “Mediterranean” races (i.e., using racial distinctions that are no longer dominant in contemporary U.S. racism and its hate theories).
For a primer on the issue of neuroqueer and its roots in multiple discourse fields from queer aversion therapy to antiautistic hate speech, see Yergeau 2018.
The entwinement of tree and limb feels tentacular, enacts the metaphors through which Donna Haraway unfolds her Chthulucene (2016). Making kin, her core request for intersectional interdisciplinary work, involves the literal future-leaning touches of “mixtery” (a term borrowed from African American engagements with hybridity) and the kind of formal experimentations in science writing that lean into science fiction: character, generations/epic storytelling, world building.
Stefanie K. Dunning fruitfully engages this film and its Black fungal-human girl child protagonist in relation to Afro-pessimism: the old colonial order, civil life, must burn and only out of this, out of abolition, new life adaptations can emerge. She reads the film (not the novel on which it is based) through the lens of anticolonial activist and surrealist Suzanne Césaire’s writings on Black diasporic life in Martinique, on plant-humans, on a different order from machine life, and on a liberation that is not dependent on assimilation: “Afro-pessimism’s turn toward abolition is a call to ‘plant-life’” (2021, 147).
Hanging out with moss: this was a delicious movement ritual/moss-protocol for social justice led by andrea haenggi and moss in Brooklyn, as an Environmental Performance Agency summer school in 2020, during the Covid shutdown. We participants from all over the world introduced ourselves and one another to our neighborhood moss, all asynchronously, guided by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s research (2003).
I offer my evidence in the form of a performance studies engagement with music, rhythm, and their political effects. In a review of a performance at a Parisian fashion/musical event, watching step dancers, Morris uses their personal embodiment, their sense of being in different rhythms, as a key to the experience’s rupture: “I keep feeling an exhilarating friction, the uniformity and unison of the choreography and the dancers’ spatial formations somehow just barely containing the unevenness of the beats that these bodies tap and hammer out across the runway and their flesh” (112). Methodologically, Morris consciously refers to their critical acuity as a political act in the times of Black Lives Matter: “I offer a close descriptive reading of Rick Owens’s S/S 2014 collaboration with LeeAnét Noble and Team Vicious, theorize the performativity of fashion as a mechanism for producing what does and does not matter, and ultimately ask how both this performance and our attention to it might participate in the mattering of Black lives. It is a response to an unjust world in which all of us are responsible and none are fully innocent.” The critic’s attention and the rhythms of our gaze and writing partake in the politics of our public sphere. This understanding of a wider field of political rhythm, the push and pull of what matters, also swings under my strategies in this chapter, working on less recognized and alternative works.
The intertextuality of Lee’s work marks it beyond this collection. Brian Reed writes about Lee’s long poem sequence, “Korea,” and explains how it uses this multivocal strategy “to dramatize her struggle, as a diasporic writer, to make her own place in the world both using and abusing the global flows of information that characterize the contemporary digital media ecology” (2015; electronic resource).
From unpaginated endnotes.
In the lineage of, for instance, Janice Radway, and her work on why women read romance novels; Megan Sweeney, on the way imprisoned women engage reading group books; Rebecca Wanzo, who shows how Black graphic novelists engage cultural stereotypes grounded in White supremacy through their use of caricature; or Sami Schalk, who charts how Black writers use the science fiction genre to reimagine new worlds.
Although there is a strong field of science fiction and fantasy poetry out there—but not easily intersected and named in the experimental realm. Lee’s prior publication sites for the poems and sequences collected in Solar Maximum speak more to the circulation of feminist experimental poetics than fan culture and cons. One of her production notes mentions a common interest in speculative ideas about aberrant futures in her feminist poetic circles (for other contemporary experimental approaches to sci-fi poetry, see Cathy Park Hong’s Dance Dance Revolution and its engagement with hybrid future language practices, uneven exchange in imaginary lingua franca, or Vidhu Aggarwal’s The Trouble with Humpadori, which quotes Spock from Star Trek’s “Trouble with Tribbles” episode to approach its central “performing cosmic deformity”).
From unpaginated endnotes.
Reciting the names, using living breath to honor the dead, has become an important ritual for many activists, including Kimberlé Crenshaw and her @sayhername campaign, bringing visibility to Black murdered women. Sadly, I sat in circles reading the names of the Latinx queer dead of the Pulse tragedy in Orlando, Florida, in 2016; I took part in poetry readings where we spoke out loud the name of Black trans women murdered, honoring their own names. And I also remember the deep sorrow that coursed among disability activists internationally that same year when the names of nineteen disabled victims of a stabbing murder in Japan were not released, as many families were reluctant to make the names public due to stigma. Names have power.
For some of these critiques, see for instance a 2017 engagement with a #BankBlack campaign, where Black Lives Matter activists engaged with a Black-owned bank: “There are many ways to show you are down with the Movement without participating in its commodification. In response to the #BankBlack movement, an anti-capitalist solution would be to begin creating not-for-profit people-owned credit unions. While this is still operating under the umbrella of American capitalism, it is an anti-capitalist effort which divests from major banks which historically have been an enemy to the Black community” (Simons 2017). See also this critique, as the Cincinnati chapter of Black Lives Matter untethered themselves from the national organization in 2018, acknowledging the historical moment and impact of Black Lives Matter while distancing themselves from what it had become: “We originally took the name, inspired by a rising movement for Black liberation, manifested through spontaneous actions breaking out after the killings of Mike Brown, Jr., and Trayvon Martin. People chanted ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!’ and ‘Black Lives Matter.’ This was before any serious national structure and unified platform existed . . . But we can no longer use or identify with the name Black Lives Matter—a rally cry that still has meaning, even if perverted by those pushing it as a brand. The depth and scope of betrayal of struggles against police brutality and the families fighting for their loved ones is too great. The continuous shift towards electoral and liberal Democratic Party politics and away from revolutionary ideas is too great” (Black Lives Matter Cincinnati 2018).
A term coined in the late 1980s by Clenora Hudson-Weems as a way of describing a Black feminism developed by women of African descent.
The term “Afrofuturism” was initially coined by Mark Dery in interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose in 1994: “Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future—might, for want of a better term, be called ‘Afro-futurism.’” (180). Important artists in this tradition include Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, and many more. Kodwo Eshun posits that “Afrofuturism may be characterized as a program for recovering the histories of counter-futures created in a century hostile to Afrodiasporic project and as a space within which the critical work of manufacturing tools capable of intervention within the current political dispensation may be undertaken” (2003, 301), and Susana M. Morris posits that “Afrofuturism insists that Blacks fundamentally are the future, and that Afrodiasporic cultural practices are vital to imagining the continuance of human society” (2012, 153).
“I can’t breathe.” One man’s dying words became a slogan for public protests, and then, horrifically, became more dying words again and again. These are also the words that George Floyd, in 2020, repeated nearly thirty times while a police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Other Black people also spoke this phrase as their last one, as they were put into strangleholds by police. I hope that by the time this book comes out, the 2020 revolutionary actions will be helping to reshape community caretaking in the United States and that the deep, long, and ongoing racial injustice in the United States is being addressed systemically.
“Deaf Gain is defined as a reframing of ‘Deaf’ as a form of sensory and cognitive diversity that has the potential to contribute to the greater good of humanity” (2014, 4).
Drugs have been one of the dividing issues of U.S. social relations. The overrepresentation of Black people in prison is linked with White supremacist systems of racial control through carceral logics. Michelle Alexander analyzes how the criminal justice system and the “War on Drugs” target Black men, in particular, in a new Jim Crow era (2010). The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 introduced more severe punishment for distribution of crack (associated with Black users) than powder cocaine (a drug more commonly associated with White use). As a result of civil penalties associated with convictions, such as a lack of access to public housing, many Black men drop out of systems of civil/civic discourse. White supremacy pushes them out of a vision of shared humanity and mutual responsibility. That push out of systems is visible in the streets of San Francisco. Given all this, much is at stake in even mentioning “drugs” in the context of moving bodies of Black men, and I need to be responsible in not pushing my argument too far.
This ritual-based approach is also nourished by a week-long residency with Patrisse Khan-Cullors, at Goddard College’s low-residency MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts, one of the places I teach. Patrisse guided us in altar building and held space for a ceremony of memory in which we each received thanks for remembering our ancestors. This kind of ceremonial activism and ritual of collective care informs the wider politics of Black Lives Matter, as Khan-Cullors and asha bandele write in When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (2018).
Being altered, tranced, or open into other spiritual dimensions is an aspect of somatic inquiry and of multiple performance methods. The conjunction of magic and somatics is not unusual, even in strictly Western frameworks. There are connections between the Cold War ESP technologies like remote viewing and the history of somatic institutional embedment: for instance, the links between Michael Murphy, founder of the Esalen Institute, and the CIA. Ed Hawkins writes that “Murphy was an adviser for the Jedi warrior training programme at West Point Military Academy in New York. Code-named Project Jedi, soldiers in the programme were taught invisibility, seeing into the future and extraordinary intuition, like knowing how many chairs were in a room before walking in—but also stopping the hearts of animals” (2019). For more on the encounter zones of somatics and spirituality, see the collection by Williamson, Batson, Whatley, and Weber (2014), in which multiple somatic practitioners try to capture the numinous. In this book, capturing something like “magic” within language is hard for many writers—Ray Schwartz sums up the elements that get him to call in words like “magic” and “sorcery”: “The depth of sensation, the unearthing of images and memories, the emotional connections, the altered states of consciousness, the involuntary movements that sometimes arise from somatic exploration—all of these can seem like sorcery” (2014, 313).