“your darkness also/rich and beyond fear”: Community Performance, Somatic Poetics and the Vessels of Self and Other





community, performance, post-structuralism, cells, race, cancer

How to Cite

Kuppers, P. (2009). “your darkness also/rich and beyond fear”: Community Performance, Somatic Poetics and the Vessels of Self and Other. M/C Journal, 12(5). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.203
Vol. 12 No. 5 (2009): disclose
Published 2009-12-13

“Communicating deep feeling in linear solid blocks of print felt arcane, a method beyond me” — Audre Lorde in an interview with Adrienne Rich (Lorde 87)

How do you disclose? In writing, in spoken words, in movements, in sounds, in the quiet energetic vibration and its trace in discourse? Is disclosure a narrative account of a self, or a poetic fragment, sent into the world outside the sanction of a story or another recognisable form (see fig. 1)?

These are the questions that guide my exploration in this essay. I meditate on them from the vantage point of my own self-narrative, as a community performance practitioner and writer, a poet whose artistry, in many ways, relies on the willingness of others to disclose, to open themselves, and yet who feels ambivalent about narrative disclosures. What I share with you, reader, are my thoughts on what some may call compassion fatigue, on boredom, on burn-out, on the inability to be moved by someone’s hard-won right to story her life, to tell his narrative, to disclose her pain.

I find it ironic that for as long as I can remember, my attention has often wandered when someone tells me their story—how this cancer was diagnosed, what the doctors did, how she coped, how she garnered support, how she survived, how that person died, how she lived. The story of how addiction took over her life, how she craved, how she hated, how someone sponsored her, listened to her, how she is making amends, how she copes, how she gets on with her life. The story of being born this way, being prodded this way, being paraded in front of doctors just like this, being operated on, being photographed, being inappropriately touched, being neglected, being forgotten, being unloved, being lonely. Listening to these accounts, my attention does wander, even though this is the heart blood of my chosen life—these are the people whose company I seek, with whom I feel comfortable, with whom I make art, with whom I make a life, to whom I disclose my own stories. But somehow, when we rehearse these stories in each others’s company (for rehearsal, polishing, is how I think of storytelling), I drift. In this performance-as-research essay about disclosure, I want to draw attention to what does draw my attention in community art situations, what halts my drift, and allows me to find connection beyond a story that is unique and so special to this individual, but which I feel I have heard so many times.

 What grabs me, again and again, lies beyond the words, beyond the “I did this… and that… and they did this… and that,” beyond the story of hardship and injury, recovery and overcoming. My moment of connection tends to happen in the warmth of this hand in mine. It occurs in the material connection that seems to well up between these gray eyes and my own deep gaze. I can feel the skin change its electric tonus as I am listening to the uncoiling account. There’s a timbre in the voice that I follow, even as I lose the words. In the moment of verbal disclosure, physical intimacy changes the time and space of encounter. And I know that the people I sit with are well aware of this—it is not lost on them that my attention isn’t wholly focused on the story they are telling, that I will have forgotten core details when next we work together. But they are also aware, I believe, of those moments of energetic connect that happen through, beyond and underneath the narrative disclosure. There is a physical opening occurring here, right now, when I tell this account to you, when you sit by my side and I confess that I can’t always keep the stories of my current community participants straight, that I forget names all the time, that I do not really wish to put together a show with lots of testimony, that I’d rather have single power words floating in space.

 Figure 1. Image: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang. Performer: Neil Marcus.”water burns sun”. Burning. 2009.

Figure 1. Image: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang. Performer: Neil Marcus.”water burns sun”. Burning. 2009.

Orientation towards the Frame: A Poetics of Vibration

This essay speaks about how I witness the uncapturable in performance, how the limits of sharing fuel my performance practice. I also look at the artistic processes of community performance projects, and point out traces of this other attention, this poetics of vibration. One of the frames through which I construct this essay is a focus on the formal in practice: on an attention to the shapes of narratives, and on the ways that formal experimentation can open up spaces beyond and beneath the narratives that can sound so familiar.

An attention to the formal in community practice is often confused with an elitist drive towards quality, towards a modern or post-modern play with forms that stands somehow in opposition to how “ordinary people” construct their lives.  But there are other ways to think about “the formal,” ways to question the naturalness with which stories are told, poems are written, the ease of an “I”, the separation between self and those others (who hurt, or love, or persecute, or free), the embedment of the experience of thought in institutions of thinking.

Elizabeth St. Pierre frames her own struggle with burn-out, falling silent, and the need to just keep going even if the ethical issues involved in continuing her research overwhelm her. She charts out her thinking in reference to Michel Foucault’s comments on how to transgress into a realm of knowing that stretches a self, allows it “get free of oneself.”

Getting free of oneself involves an attempt to understand the ‘structures of intelligibility’ (Britzman, 1995, p. 156) that limit thought. Foucault (1984/1985) explaining the urgency of such labor, says, ‘There are times in life when the question of knowing if one can think differently than one thinks, and perceive differently than one sees, is absolutely necessary if one is to go on looking and reflecting at all’ (p. 8). (St. Pierre 204)

Can we think outside the structure of story, outside the habits of thought that make us sense and position ourselves in time and space, in power and knowledge? Is there a way to change the frame, into a different format, to “change our mind”? And even if there is not, if the structures of legibility always contain what we can think, there might be riches in that borderland, the bordercountry towards the intelligible, the places where difference presses close in an uncontained, unstoried way.

To think differently, to get free of oneself: all these concerns resonate deeply with me, and with the ways that I wish to engage in community art practice. Like St. Pierre, I try to embrace Deleuzian, post-structuralist approaches to story and self:

The collective assemblage is always like the murmur from which I take my proper name, the constellation of voices, concordant or not, from which I draw my voice. […] To write is perhaps to bring this assemblage of the unconscious to the light of day, to select the whispering voices, to gather the tribes and secret idioms from which I extract something I call myself (moi). I is an order word. (Deleuze and Guattari 84).

“I” wish to perform and to write at the moment when the chorus of the voices that make up my “I” press against my skin, from the inside and the outside, query the notion of ‘skin’ as barrier. But can “I” stay in that vibrational moment? This essay will not be an exercise in quotation marks, but it is an essay of many I’s, and—imagine you see this essay performed—I invite the vibration of the hand gestures that mark small breaches in the air next to my head as I speak.

Like St. Pierre, I get thrown off those particular theory horses again and again. But curiosity drives me on, and it is a curiosity nourished not by the absence of (language) connection, by isolation, but by the fullness of those movements of touch and density I described above. That materiality of the tearful eye gaze, the electricity of those fine skin hairs, the voice shivering me: these are not essentialist connections that somehow reveal or disclose a person to me, but these matters make the boundaries of “me” and “person” vibrate. Disclose here becomes the density of living itself, the flowing, non-essential process of shaping lives together. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) have called this bordering “deterritorialization,” always already bound to the reterritorialisation that allows the naming of the experience. Breath-touch on the limits of territories.

This is not a shift from verbal to a privileging of non-verbal communication, finding richness and truth in one and less in the other. Non-verbal communication can be just as conventional as spoken language. When someone’s hand reaches out to touch someone who is upset, that gesture can feel ingrained and predictable, and the chain of caretaking that is initiated by the gesture can even hinder the flow of disclosure the crying or upset person might be engaged in. Likewise, I believe the common form of the circle, one I use in nearly every community session I lead, does not really create more community than another format would engender. The repetition of the circle just has something very comforting, it can allow all participants to drop into a certain kind of ease that is different from the everyday, but the rules of that ease are not open—circles territorialise as much as they de-territorialise: here is an inside, here an outside. There is nothing inherently radical in them. But circles might create a radical shift in communication situations when they break open other encrusted forms—an orientation to a leader, a group versus individual arrangement, or the singularity of islands out in space. Circles brings lots of multiples into contact, they “gather the tribes.” What provisional I’s we extract from them in each instance is our ethical challenge.

Bodily Fantasies on the Limit: Burning

Even deeply felt inner experiences do not escape the generic, and there is lift available in the vibration between the shared fantasy and the personal fantasy. I lead an artists’ collective, The Olimpias, and in 2008/2009, we created Burning, a workshop and performance series that investigated cell imagery, cancer imagery, environmental sensitivity and healing journeys through ritual-based happenings infused with poetry, dramatic scenes, Butoh and Contact Improvisation dances, and live drawing (see: http://www.olimpias.org/).

Performance sites included the Subterranean Arthouse, Berkeley, July and October 2009, the Earth Matters on Stage Festival, Eugene, Oregon, May 2009, and Fort Worden, Port Townsend, Washington State, August 2009. Participants for each installation varied, but always included a good percentage of disabled artists.(see fig. 2).

Photographer: Linda Townsend. Performers: Participants in the Burning project. “Burning Action on the Beach”. Burning. 2009.

Figure 2. Image: Linda Townsend. Performers: Participants in the Burning project. “Burning Action on the Beach”. Burning. 2009.

In the last part of these evening-long performance happenings, we use meditation techniques to shift the space and time of participants. We invite people to lie down or otherwise become comfortable (or to observe in quiet). I then begin to lead the part of the evening that most closely dovetails with my personal research exploration. With a slow and reaching voice, I ask people to breathe, to become aware of the movement of breath through their bodies, and of the hollows filled by the luxuriating breath. Once participants are deeply relaxed, I take them on journeys which activate bodily fantasies. I ask them to breathe in colored lights (and leave the specific nature of the colors to them). I invite participants to become cell bodies—heart cells, liver cells, skin cells—and to explore the properties and sensations of these cell environments, through both internal and external movement. “What is the surface, what is deep inside, what does the granular space of the cell feel like? How does the cell membrane move?” When deeply involved in these explorations, I move through the room and give people individual encounters by whispering to them, one by one—letting them respond bodily to the idea that their cell encounters alchemical elements like gold and silver, lead or mercury, or other deeply culturally laden substances like oil or blood. When I am finished with my individual instruction to each participant, all around me, people are moving gently, undulating, contracting and expanding, their eyes closed and their face full of concentration and openness. Some have dropped out of the meditation and are sitting quietly against a wall, observing what is going on around them. Some move more than others, some whisper quietly to themselves.

When people are back in spoken-language-time, in sitting-upright-time, we all talk about the experiences, and about the cultural body knowledges, half-forgotten healing practices, that seem to emerge like Jungian archetypes in these movement journeys. During the meditative/slow movement sequence, some long-standing Olimpias performers in the room had imagined themselves as cancer cells, and gently moved with the physical imagery this brought to them. In my meditation invitations during the participatory performance, I do not invite community participants to move as cancer cells—it seems to me to require a more careful approach, a longer developmental period, to enter this darkly signified state, even though Olimpias performers do by no means all move tragically, darkly, or despairing when entering “cancer movement.” In workshops in the weeks leading up to the participatory performances, Olimpias collaborators entered these experiences of cell movement, different organ parts, and cancerous movement many times, and had time to debrief and reflect on their experiences.

After the immersion exercise of cell movement, we ask people how it felt like to lie and move in a space that also held cancer cells, and if they noticed different movement patterns, different imaginaries of cell movement, around them, and how that felt. This leads to rich discussions, testimonies of poetic embodiment, snippets of disclosures, glimpses of personal stories, but the echo of embodiment seems to keep the full, long stories at bay, and outside of the immediacy of our sharing. As I look around myself while listening, I see some hands intertwined, some gentle touches, as people rock in the memory of their meditations.

your light shines very brightly
but I want you
to know
your darkness also
and beyond fear (Lorde 87)

My research aim with these movement meditation sequences is not to find essential truths about human bodily imagination, but to explore the limits of somatic experience and cultural expression, to make artful life experiential and to hence create new tools for living in the chemically saturated world we all inhabit.

I need to add here that these are my personal aims for Burning—all associated artists have their own journey, their own reasons for being involved, and there is no necessary consensus—just a shared interest in transformation, the cultural images of disease, disability and addiction, the effects of invasion and touch in our lives, and how embodied poetry can help us live. (see fig. 3). For example, a number of collaborators worked together in the participatory Burning performances at the Subterranean Arthouse, a small Butoh performance space in Berkeley, located in an old shop, complete with an open membrane into the urban space—a shop-window and glass door. Lots of things happen with and through us during these evenings, not just my movement meditations.One of my colleagues, Sadie Wilcox, sets up live drawing scenarios, sketching the space between people. Another artist, Harold Burns, engages participants in contact dance, and invites a crossing of boundaries in and through presence. Neil Marcus invites people to move with him, gently, and blindfolded, and to feel his spastic embodiment and his facility with tender touch. Amber diPietra’s poem about cell movement and the journeys from one to another sounds out in the space, set to music by Mindy Dillard. What I am writing about here is my personal account of the actions I engage in, one facet of these evenings—choreographing participants’ inner experiences.

Photographer: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang. Performers: Artists in the Burning project.”water burns sun”. Burning. 2009.

Figure 3. Image: Keira Heu-Jwyn Chang. Performers: Artists in the Burning project. “water burns sun”. Burning. 2009.

My desires echo Lorde’s poem: “I want you”—there’s a sensual desire in me when I set up these movement meditation scenes, a delight in an erotic language and voice touch that is not predicated on sexual contact, but on intimacy, and on the borderlines, the membranes of the ear and the skin; ‘to know’—I continue to be intrigued and obsessed, as an artist and as a critic, by the way people envision what goes on inside them, and find agency, poetic lift, in mobilising these knowledges, in reaching from the images of bodies to the life of bodies in the world. ‘your darkness also’—not just the bright light, no, but also the fears and the strengths that hide in the blood and muscle, in the living pulsing shadow of the heart muscle pumping away, in the dark purple lobe of the liver wrapping itself around my middle and purifying, detoxifying, sifting, whatever sweeps through this body.

These meditative slow practices can destabilise people. Some report that they experience something quite real, quite deep, and that there is transformation to be gained in these dream journeys. But the framing within which the Burning workshops take place question immediately the “authentic” of this experiential disclosure. The shared, the cultural, the heritage and hidden knowledge of being encultured quickly complicate any essence. This is where the element of formal enframing enters into the immediacy of experience, and into the narration of a stable, autonomous “I.” Our deepest cellular experience, the sounds and movements we listen to when we are deeply relaxed, are still cultured, are still shared, come to us in genres and stable image complexes.

This form of presentation also questions practices of self-disclosure that participate in trauma narratives through what Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman has called “impression management” (208). Goffman researched the ways we play ourselves as roles in specific contexts, how we manage acts of disclosure and knowledge, how we deal with stigma and stereotype. Impression management refers to the ways people present themselves to others, using conscious or unconscious techniques to shape their image. In Goffman’s framing of these acts of self-presentation, performance and dramaturgical choices are foregrounded: impression management is an interactive, dynamic process. Disclosure becomes a semiotic act, not a “natural,” unfiltered display of an “authentic” self, but a complex engagement with choices. The naming and claiming of bodily trauma can be part of the repertoire of self-representation, a (stock-)narrative that enables recognition and hence communication. The full traumatic narrative arc (injury, reaction, overcoming) can here be a way to manage the discomfort of others, to navigate potential stigma.

In Burning, by-passing verbal self-disclosure and the recitation of experience, by encountering ourselves in dialogue with our insides and with foreign elements in this experiential way, there is less space for people to speak managed, filtered personal truths. I find that these truths tend to either close down communication if raw and direct, or become told as a story in its complete, polished arc. Either form leaves little space for dialogue. After each journey through bodies, cells, through liver and heart, breath and membrane, audience members need to unfold for themselves what they felt, and how that felt, and how that relates to the stories of cancer, environmental toxins and invasion that they know.

It is not fair. We should be able to have dialogues about “I am poisoned, I live with environmental sensitivities, and they constrict my life,” “I survived cancer,” “I have multiple sclerosis,” “I am autistic,” “I am addicted to certain substances,” “I am injured by certain substances.” But tragedy tugs at these stories, puts their narrators into the realm of the inviolate, as a community quickly feel sorry for these persons, or else feels attacked by them, in particular if one does not know how to help. Yes, we know this story: we can manage her identity for her, and his social role can click into fixity. The cultural weight of these narratives hinders flow, become heavily stigmatised. Many contemporary writers on the subjects of cancer and personhood recognise the (not always negative) aspects of this stigma, and mobilise them in their narratives. As Marisa Acocella Marchetto in the Cancer-Vixen: A True Story puts it: ‘Play the cancer card!’ (107). The cancer card appears in this graphic novel memoir in the form of a full-page spoof advertisement, and the card is presented as a way to get out of unwanted social obligations. The cancer card is perfectly designed to create the communal cringe and the hasty retreat. If you have cancer, you are beyond the pale, and ordinary rules of behavior do no longer apply.

People who experience these life-changing transformational diagnoses often know very well how isolating it can be to name one’s personal story, and many are very careful about how they manage disclosure, and know that if they choose to disclose, they have to manage other people’s discomfort. In Burning, stories of injury and hurt swing in the room with us, all of these stories are mentioned in our performance program, but none of them are specifically given individual voice in our performance (although some participants chose to come out in the sharing circle at the end of the event). No one owns the diagnoses, the identity of “survivor,” and the presence of these disease complexes are instead dispersed, performatively enacted and brought in experiential contact with all members of our temporary group. When you leave our round, you most likely still do not know who has multiple sclerosis, who has substance addiction issues, who is sensitive to environmental toxins.

Communication demands territorialisation, and formal experimentation alone, unanchored in lived experience, easily alienates. So how can disclosure and the storytelling self find some lift, and yet some connection, too? How can the Burning cell imaginary become both deep, emotionally rich and formal, pointing to its constructed nature? That’s the question that each of the Olimpias’ community performance experiments begins with.

How to Host a Past Collective: Setting Up a Circle

Preceding Burning, one of our recent performance investigations was the Anarcha Project. In this multi-year, multi-site project, we revisited gynecological experiments performed on slave women in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1840s, by J. Marion Sims, the “father of American gynecology.” We did so not to revictimise historical women as suffering ciphers, or stand helpless at the site of historical injury. Instead, we used art-based methods to investigate the heritage of slavery medicine in contemporary health care inequalities and women’s health care. As part of the project, thousands of participants in multiple residencies across the U.S. shared their stories with the project leaders—myself, Aimee Meredith Cox, Carrie Sandahl, Anita Gonzalez and Tiye Giraud. We collected about two hundred of these fragments in the Anarcha Anti-Archive, a website that tries, frustratingly, to undo the logic of the ordered archive (Cox et al. n.p).

The project closed in 2008, but I still give presentations with the material we generated. But what formal methods can I select, ethically and responsibly, to present the multivocal nature of the Anarcha Project, given that it is now just me in the conference room, given that the point of the project was the intersection of multiple stories, not the fetishisation of individual ones?

In a number of recent presentations, I used a circle exercise to engage in fragmented, shrouded disclosure, to keep privacies safe, and to find material contact with one another. In these Anarcha rounds, we all take words into our mouths, and try to stay conscious to the nature of this act—taking something into our mouth, rather than acting out words, normalising them into spoken language. Take this into your mouth—transgression, sacrament, ritual, entrainment, from one body to another.

So before an Anarcha presentation, I print out random pages from our Anarcha Anti-Archive. A number of the links in the website pull up material through chance procedures (a process implemented by Olimpias collaborator Jay Steichmann, who is interested in digital literacies). So whenever you click that particular link, you get to a different page in the anti-archive, and you can not retrace your step, or mark you place in an unfolding narrative. What comes up are poems, story fragments, images, all sent in in response to cyber Anarcha prompts. We sent these prompts during residencies to long-distance participants who could not physically be with us, and many people, from Wales to Malaysia, sent in responses.

I pull up a good number of these pages, combined with some of the pages written by the core collaborators of our project. In the sharing that follows, I do not speak about the heart of the project, but I mark that I leave things unsaid. Here is what I do not say in the moment of the presentation—those medical experiments were gynecological operations without anesthesia, executed to close vaginal fistula that were leaking piss and shit, executed without anesthesia not because it was not available, but because the doctor did not believe that black women felt pain.

I can write this down, here, in this essay, as you can now stop for a minute if you need to collect yourself, as you listen to what this narrative does to your inside. You might feel a clench deep down in your torso, like many of us did, a kinesthetic empathy that translates itself across text, time and space, and which became a core choreographic element in our Anarcha poetics.

I do not speak about the medical facts directly in a face-to-face presentation where there is no place to hide, no place to turn away. Instead, I point to a secret at the heart of the Anarcha Project, and explain where all the medical and historical data can be found (in the Anarcha Project essay, “Remembering Anarcha,” in the on-line performance studies journal Liminalities site, free and accessible to all without subscription, now frequently used in bioethics education (see: http://www.liminalities.net/4-2).

 The people in the round, then, have only a vague sense of what the project is about, and I explain why this formal frame appears instead of open disclosure. I ask their permission to proceed. They either give it to me, or else our circle becomes something else, and we speak about performance practices and formal means of speaking about trauma instead.

Having marked the space as one in which we agree on a specific framework or rule, having set up a space apart, we begin. One by one, raw and without preamble, people in the circle read what they have been given. The meaning of what they are reading only comes to them as they are reading—they have had little time to familiarise themselves with the words beforehand. Someone reads a poem about being held as a baby by one’s mother, being accepted, even through the writer’s body is so different. Someone reads about the persistence of shame. Someone reads about how incontinence is so often the borderline for independent living in contemporary cultures—up to here, freedom; past this point, at the point of leakage, the nursing home. Someone reads about her mother’s upset about digging up that awful past again. Someone reads about fibroid tumors in African-American women. Someone reads about the Venus Hottentott. Someone begins to cry (most recently at a Feminisms and Rhetorics conference), crying softly, and there is no knowing about why, but there is companionship, and quiet contemplation, and it is ok.

These presentations start with low-key chatting, setting up the circle, and end the same way—once we have made our way around, once our fragments are read out, we just sit and talk, no “presentation-mode” emerges, and no one gets up into high drama. We’ve all taken strange things into our mouths, talked of piss and shit and blood and race and oppression and love and survival. Did we get free of ourselves, of the inevitability of narrative, in the attention to articulation, elocution, the performance of words, even if just for a moment? Did we taste the words on our tongues, material physical traces of a different form of embodiment?


The poet Anne Carson attended one of our Anarcha presentations, and her comments to us that evening helped to frame our subsequent work for me—she called our work creating a container, a vessel for experience, without sharing the specifics of that experience. I have since explored this image further, thought about amphorae as commemorative vases, thought of earth and clay as materials, thought of the illustrations on ancient vessels, on pattern and form, flow and movement. The vessel as matter: deterritorialising and reterritorialising, familiar and strange, shaping into form, and shaped out of formlessness, fired in the light and baked in the earth’s darkness, hardened only to crumble and crack again with the ages, returning to dust. These disclosures are in time and space—they are not narratives that create an archive or a body of knowledge. They breathe, and vibrate, and press against skin. What can be contained, what leaks, what finds its way through the membrane?

These disclosures are traces of life, and I can touch them. I never get bored by them. Come and sit by my side, and we share in this river flow border vessel cell life.


Britzman, Deborah P. "Is There a Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Reading Straight." Educational Theory 45:2 (1995): 151–165.

Burning. The Olimpias Project. Berkley; Eugene; Fort Worden. May-October, 2009

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Vol. 2. The Use of Pleasure. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1985.

Goffman, Erving. Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor, 1969

Kuppers, Petra. “Remembering Anarcha: Objection in the Medical Archive.” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 4.2 (2006): n.p. 24 July 2009 < http://liminalities.net/4-2 >.

Cox, Aimee Meredith, Tiye Giraud, Anita Gonzales, Petra Kuppers, and Carrie Sandahl. “The Anarcha-Anti-Archive.” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 4.2 (2006): n.p. 24 July 2009 < http://liminalities.net/4-2 >.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley: The Crossing Press, 1984.

Marchetto, Marisa Acocella. Cancer Vixen: A True Story. New York: Knopf, 2006.

St. Pierre, Elizabeth Adams. “Circling the Text: Nomadic Writing Practices.” Qualitative Inquiry 3.4 (1997): 403–18.

Author Biography

Petra Kuppers, University of Michigan

Associate Professor, English Department, University of Michigan and Artistic Director, Olimpias Project.