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Sitting with it: Liveness and embodiment

Anna Hickey-Moody

To know ourselves, we must first see ourselves in others, and know ourselves as the shadow whose prey the hunter becomes. We live with shadows of ourselves, and shadows of others in us, all the time. Lacan explains this dynamic through saying:

psychoanalytic investigation of the ego allows us to identify it with the form of the goatskin bottle [outre], with the outrageousness of the shadow whose prey the hunter becomes, and with the emptiness [vanite] of the visual form. This is the ethical face of what I have articulated, in order to convey it, with the term ‘mirror stage’.

(Lacan, 2013, p. 34)

The mirror stage is the idea that infants learn to recognise themselves at six months of age. Part of this process of self-recognition includes self-alienation. Back to Back Theatre’s1 production called The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes alienates the audience from their sense of self and value in the world, by staging a futuristic intervention in which the audience are positioned as unskilled in comparison to artificially intelligent beings. In this chapter I discuss this alienation through concepts of affect, everydayness and discomfort. This discussion is woven together with an interview with Ingrid Voorendt, a performance maker who works with Back to Back Theatre, and we discuss disability, performance, affect, and the discomfort of sitting with shadows.

IXGRID: ... that’s where I come back to when we we’re talking about failure before, and that thing of well, what about the value in receptiveness and listening and being, and just being able to absorb and lake in, like cultivating

awareness, I guess.

ANNA: I think it is the awareness, but it’s also the sitting with, I think.


ANNA: Because ... if you think about the text that viewing publics consume, nothing is so real and politically challenging as Back to Back, they’re not pretending to be someone that they’re not. They’re not pretending. And they’re also being with and living with really complicated bodies.

INGRID: And histories, experiences. You can sense it, you can see it.

I have written this chapter after collaborating for many years making performance works with Ingrid, and as a result of our dialogue. In coming together now to reflect on the work of Back to Back Theatre, I take my methodological cues from the ensemble (Back to Back), who devise their performance material through conversations. Taking cues from this process, I have developed this exploration of affect, disability, liveness, and the body as history and as text, through conversation.

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes could not happen without emotional investments in working relationships. Because they are so absolutely central to the creation of the work, it seems wrong not to name them and value them. Central to this chapter is also my working relationship with Ingrid, which grew into a friendship while working together for many years at Restless Dance Theatre, and while this is not the subject of this chapter, the trust and love we have in and for each other shapes how we talk. What is possible without love? Nothing of worth, it seems. Let us then value this labour and emotion and work with it. I begin by offering an overview of the Back to Back Theatre show that has inspired this writing. Back to Back Theatre describe themselves as follows:

Over the last 30 years Back to Back Theatre has made a body of work that questions the assumptions of what is possible in theatre, but also the assumptions we hold about ourselves and others. As an ongoing dialogue with our audience, each new project is an investigation seeking answers to questions raised in previous works. Our attention lies with design, light and sound. The stories we pursue weave the personal, the political and the cosmic. We work to curiosity and interest in the live moment, to what sits within and between.

(Back to Back Theatre, n.d.)

The final line about curiosity and interest in the live moment resonates with me, as the liveness and shared space of performance work is profound. The complexity of this affective impact is part of what I try to explore in what is to follow.

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes

The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes (2020) centres around a meeting of disability activists, unpretentiously held in a ‘small community hall in Geelong,

Australia’. As it unfolds, a group of people with intellectual disability inform the ‘audience’ that artificial intelligence is going to lake over the world and, when this occurs, all humans will be positioned as intellectually disabled. The journey taken in leading up to this public announcement intricately weaves together pain and humour and explores quite complex issues: from masturbation to abuse to disability rights.

The performance invites viewers to come back to ourselves—as community members and as individual people—to integrate the shadow: the ignored, unwanted, neglected parts of ourselves. Its asks us to be with the shadow and to let it be. The liveness of the work keeps us connected to vulnerability, to loss, and to the performers. In this context, liveness reminds us that things take the time they take. Silence and everydayness are part of the equilibrium of the work. Performers lake time to do tasks. The company spent two and a half years making the performance through improvisation and conversation and there is a sense of routine, and everydayness that permeates the work.

The show begins with a stage that is empty, save for a mounted digital screen and a black ladder in the right-hand corner of stage. The ladder is edged with yellow plastic. Three performers enter, the one pushing a flat trolley loaded with chairs. Scott, who is tall and bearded, begins discussing rules around masturbation and consent. He says ‘I’m going to explain to you when it’s appropriate to touch someone ... you can’t touch people in the crotch area ... It’s also inappropriate to touch your own crotch in a public space.’ Sarah, the only female performer in the ensemble, states in a rather withering tone that ‘If you’re at work and actually working and someone touches you inappropriately, then that’s sexual harassment.’ Sarah is pushing the trolley as she speaks, giving the impression she is ‘actually working’ more than the other ensemble members. The screen above the stage spells out the dialogue as the actors speak. Their conversation explores a key anxiety surrounding intellectual disability: wanking in public. Scott establishes the fact that it is OK to masturbate in private and masturbation is normal, but of course ‘You never, ever fondle someone else’s genitalia.’

Mark, a performer aged about 50, wearing grey tracksuit pants and a plaid checked shirt, rolls out yellow tape across the floor, marking a line between audience and performers. The sound of the tape echoes across the hall. Two other performers join the trio. Simon meticulously rearranges chairs in a line. Michael welcomes the audience to the meeting, acknowledging that we are watching the performance on lands owned by the Wathaurong people of the Kulin Nation. The Kulin Nation is an alliance of five Indigenous Australian tribes in south central Victoria, Australia. Their collective territory extends around Port Phillip and Western Port, up into the Great Dividing Range and the Loddon and Goulburn River valleys. Mark struggles with the language and Scott snaps ‘Get an education, inform yourself, fucking step up.’

Michael hands over to Simon to start the meeting. Simon panics. Scott turns to his phone for advice: ‘Siri, what to do when an autistic person panics?’

A conversation unfolds about who should ‘philosophically’ lead the group. The performers also discuss empowerment, and how the members of the group wish to identify themselves—as people with intellectual disability, as a group of neurodiverse people, or as disabled people. Sarah points out that ‘you can tell we have disabilities as everything we say is put up on a screen.’ She shouts at the screen ‘you don’t have feelings, you are not real!’

The meeting continues. Scott is persuaded to lake on the role of the speaker. He exits and returns with a large polystyrene lectern. The others help him set it up, Simon moving the ladder behind it. Sarah sits in the audience. Scott gives a speech from behind the lectern: a shocking litany of the many ways people with intellectual disability have been abused and oppressed throughout human history. He talks about a case of exploitation and abuse in Iowa, USA, and about the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, listing the many Hasbro games women with intellectual disabilities assembled when the laundry contracts ended.

ANNA: ... the reference to the history of the Magdalene laundries, and what’s happened to women with intellectual disabilities was really important to have, but also it’s such a distressing history.

INGRID: Yes. And because the Magdalene laundries leads into that list of games that becomes kind of hilarious and really enjoyable, and then finishes with Sarah calling them on it, it makes shame. The next thing that happens is that conversation about shame, ‘I feel shame’.

The group talk about shame, about feeling ashamed to be a person with a disability, and about whether the shame sits with society rather than the individual. Scott has a private conversation with Siri: ‘I have autism and unfortunately for me I also have a thick Australian accent.’ Siri responds ‘It must be very difficult for you.’

Scott returns to the group for further discussions about technology, HAL’s legacy, abuses of power, failure, and what will happen when artificial intelligence overtakes human intelligence. The performers begin to offer the audience advice on what to expect. It becomes evident that this is why the meeting has been called. 'In the future things are going to move fast. It will be impossible to keep up. No matter how hard you try.’

ANNA: I love the lake on artificial intelligence making humans redundant—I think a lot of the dialogues about artificial intelligence are so futuristic in a very hyped way. They are structured around these worlds that are ‘to come’, where everything’s shiny and space age, but then the fact is that some of the implications of that might be that we’d all be positioned in the same way that people who live with an intellectual disability are positioned. This is a really nice comment on the AI debate, which is so often about success, superfast worlds, and progress, progress, progress.

INGRID: And jobs, jobs, jobs.

ANNA: And it’s never ever positioned in relation to intellectual disability ... I’d never seen the two brought together before. So the fact that they did that, and then said ‘And actually when robots take over the world, everyone’s going to say ‘Oh you’ll have to have low expectations, because they’re a human’, I was like yeah, actually that’s such a good call ...

INGRID: And the cast have been positioned as the experts in this area, well, they are, they’re sharing their experience with the audience in a way that’s positioning them in this way that people with disability are not usually positioned. They’re usually forced into either being inspiring figures, or figures of pity.

ANNA: That’s right.

INGRID: There’s something significant—and it’s not tokenistic, like ‘Oh, let’s give so and so the role of the expert because it would be funny and interesting.’ It’s like no, actually, there’s something here to be said that is difficult to hear, if you really hear it, its true.

ANNA: ... it’s saying ‘Actually, the kind of technology that we’re living with at the moment is going to change the way that all humanness is positioned, not just some kinds of humanness.’ So I think that insight is really important.

The staged meeting concludes with Michael telling the audience that in the future they too will he people with an intellectual disability. He invites any audience members with questions or concerns to speak to him in the foyer. Michael and Simon exit. Scott and Sarah stack the chairs back on the trolley. Scott warns Sarah about paedophiles. Sarah responds dryly, ‘I’m a 36-year-old woman. I don’t think paedophile is the right word.’ As they wheel the chairs out, they talk about Michael Jackson and whether it’s okay to listen to his music still. Mark pulls up the line of tape from the stage floor and rolls it into a ball. He exits.

ANNA: ... you were saying that it’s really interesting that we’re both so drawn to situations that rely on having risk and failure as operating principles.

INGRID: Yeah. And that also involve people who were kind of classed by society as being failure.

ANNA: Failure in some way, yeah.

INGRID: Even being genetically, you know, like it’s pretty ...

ANNA: Harsh.

INGRID: ... it’s pretty harsh, the reality of how people with disability have been considered in the past and still are to some extent.

ANNA: And still are. I think that was really brought home in the Back to Back show, where there was the monologue saying ‘expect people to have low expectations, expect to be spoken down to, expect’ ...

INGRID: ‘Expect to have no rights over your body at some point’, Simon says that, there will be times when you have no rights over your own body.

ANNA: That’s so full on, isn’t it?


Human life is the shadow whose prey, artificial intelligence, turns to hunt it. Artificial intelligence designed to make the world a ‘better place’ will make people seem slow and useless. AI will hunt people out.

Methodology and methods

The methodology, or system of methods, for this chapter performs an investment in time, affect, and the agency of liveness of affect, which I explicate below in relation to disability, art, and performance. The methods—both my method for generating this text and the company’s methods for creating the performance text about which I write—are primarily time and conversation. As I noted above, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes was created through two and a half years of conversation within the ensemble. While the working relationship between Ingrid and me spans twenty-one years, this chapter is the result of four meetings in which we recorded and transcribed our conversations, our notes about the live show, and our conversations with the artistic director of Back to Back Theatre, Bruce Gladwin. The entanglement of these times, places, conversations, and relationships creates this text. I read the theatre work for meta-statements about how it creates a broad comment on its modes of performance, its methods, and how it operates affectively, rather than the specific nature of the text around which the work is structured.

INGRID: That thing that we’ve both said, that it feels real to us, it feels like we’re witnessing something real, that we’re watching something real, we’ve been invited to partake of and participate in something real.

ANNA: And that’s what makes it really important.

INGRID: And that’s what we’re craving, that’s what we want. That it’s not just the image of something, it’s the thing itself, isn’t it? The whole thing.

ANNA: And there’s no pretending.

Affect, the language of performance

Back to Back are a professional theatre company with an international audience. Much of the work they make is about disability, specifically intellectual disability. Performance and intellectual disability has generated a notable amount of scholarship within performance studies (Conroy, 2009; Kuppers, 2017; Hadley, 2014; 2017; Hickey-Moody, 2009; Johnston, 2012; 2016) and the work of Back to Back Theatre in Australia has been the subject of sustained academic inquiry (see Grehan & Eckersall, 2013). Rather than investigating the company’s work in terms of the politics and aesthetics of disability, which are embedded and central aspect of their texts, I read the performance of Pile Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes as a means of understanding how performance operates through affect, liveness and embodied entanglement.

The past ten years have seen a burgeoning of scholarly work on affect and increasing entanglements of this work with applied scholarly ideas and practices

(see #Clough & Halley, 2007; Danvers, 2016; Ringrose & Renold, 2014; Todd, Jones & O’Donnell, 2016). In her interview published in New Materialism: Intermews & Cartographies (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012), Braidotli (2000) asserts that the ‘enfleshed Deleuzian subject ... is a folding-in of external influences and, simultaneously, an unfolding outwards of affects’ (p. 159). Human beings are a mobile, enfleshed memory' that repeats (or sometimes contravenes) the economies of value in which their body is immersed. The affected body is, ultimately, a contextually enmeshed, embodied series of memories that are accessed in response to experience. As noted elsewhere (Hickey-Moody, 2009; 2010, 2013a; 2013b; Hickey-Moody & Willcox, 2019), affective scholarly entanglements draw on different intellectual traditions, notably the respective lineages of Silvan Tompkins, Gilles Deleuze, Baruch Spinoza, and the newer interdisciplinary field of ‘affect studies’ (Coleman, 2017; Massumi, 2002; Stewart, 2007). In adopting a philosophy of affect with which to read Back to Back’s work, I now turn to explore Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987; 1996) writing on bodily affect and affect in art as a means of understanding the mechanics of how art works through affect.

As noted above, affect is used in academic work with two different meanings. Affect can be pre-cognitive (before thought), so it can be a change that occurs before we know it has happened, before consciousness. Affect is also a word used to describe emotional responses (a cognitive reading), but for Deleuze and Guat- tari (1987; 1996), affect is pre-cognitive. An affect is an increase or a decrease in the capacity of a given body (or assemblage) to act. Sad affect is a reduction of a body’s capacity. More generally, the idea of being affected denotes a change in capacity. Both Deleuze’s (2003) and Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987; 1996) reading of affect is derived quite directly from Spinoza:

affects ... have therefore certain causes through which they are to be understood and certain properties which are just as worthy of being known as the properties of any other thing in the contemplation of which we delight. I shall, therefore, pursue the same method in considering the nature and strength of the affects and the power of the mind over them which I pursued in our previous discussion of God and the mind, and I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if I were considering lines, planes and bodies.

(Spinoza, 2001, p. 98)

Through affects, human actions and appetites are increased and/or decreased. As bodies are affected they become greater or lesser and also become more or less competent in certain ways. Earlier in Ethics, Spinoza suggests:

All ways in which any body is affected follow at the same time from the nature of the affected body, and from the nature of the affecting body ... therefore the idea of these affections necessarily involves the nature of each body ... the idea of each way in which the human body is affected by an external body involves the nature of the human body and of the external body.

(Spinoza, 2001, p. 63)

Affects are the products of connectedness. They are made through the enmesh- ment of bodies and contexts. Affects are how bodies and contexts act on each other. They are what happens when you sit with it.

Spinoza, and Deleuze and Guattari after him, believed that bodies are constituted in part through their relations with others (Gatens & Lloyd, 1999). In arguing that ‘the idea of each way in which the human body is affected by an external body involves the nature of the human body’ (Spinoza, 2001, p. 63), Spinoza shows us that the project of understanding bodies and actions in thought is an ethical enterprise. What a body might become, how a body is received, already ‘involves the nature of the human body’ (Spinoza, 2001, p. 63). In other words, our understanding of the constitution of the body impacts on how we relate to and ‘deal with’ the body, and shapes the possibilities that are afforded to the body.

Deleuze employs the term ‘affect’ to refer to changing bodies, but he also uses the word to talk about art and the ways art impacts on embodied subjectivities. Deleuze (2003) and Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987; 1996) work on affect and art shows how the methodology of art is an economy of affects. Art is designed to make feelings and change bodies. For Deleuze and Guattari, works of art consist of collections of percepts and affects. ‘Percept’ is the name that Deleuze and Guattari (1996) give to physical fragments of imagined worlds. Through crafting physical fragments of imagined worlds, artworks make new realities possible. For example, works of art can invent a world where artificial intelligence overtakes and rules humans, where machines construct the flesh as ‘disabled’. New realities imagined in art are communicated through kinaesthetic economies of affect, relays of sensation between a performance text and audience members. In this context, affect is meta subjective; it is the sense or feeling that is enmeshed with the materiality of the artwork. Combined together in art, percepts and affects constitute what Deleuze and Guattari (1996) term a ‘bloc of sensations’ (p. 76). They explain:

Art is the language of sensations. Art does not have opinions. Art undoes the triple organisation of perceptions, affections and opinions [doxa: the ‘essence’ of a body] in order to substitute a monument composed of percepts, affects and blocs of sensations that lake the place of language ... A monument does not commemorate or celebrate something that happened but confides to the ear of the future.

(Deleuze & Guattari, 1996, pp. 176-177)

Blocs of sensation are entities that propel the worldviews and knowledges of those for whom they speak. Blocs of sensation create a new sensory landscape for their beholder. These simultaneous acts of presenting a worldview and creating a sensor)’ landscape occur through an artwork’s affect. This is the way a work of art can make its observer feel, the connection^) a work prompts its observer to make. The materiality of the artwork, the blocs of sensation of which it is composed, embody the affect specific to the work.

Each bloc of sensation has its own affective force or quality. In 7he Shadow, blocs of sensation suck the beholder back in time to witness generations of institutionalised abuse of people with intellectual disability and push the viewer forward into a future where all people are outdated. In between these time-space moves, the audience sits and breathes with the performers, watching them lake one. Step. At. A. Time.

Deleuze and Guattari (1996) suggest that the person who experiences the force produced by an affect can ‘retain’ this force and be changed as a result of their experience. As sensation, art as force is ‘immediately conveyed in the flesh through the nervous wave or vital emotion’ (Deleuze, 2003, p. 40). However, the way in which a sensory affect is experienced, and the way(s) a work of art is perceived as having affect at all, are specific to the body in question.

Deleuze and Guattari (1996) contend a work of art ‘is no less independent of the viewer or hearer, who only experience it after, if they have the strength for it’ (p. 164). Percepts and affects must be seen as context-specific and subjective. The forces produced by works of art exist in relation to those who experience them, those who ‘have the strength for it’ (p. 164). A compound of sensations is quite distinct from a general collection of people on stage, an unstructured performance, or the singular bodies, sounds and sensations that are worked together until they pass into a sensation (p. 167). Slowness, togetherness, being outdated, become sensations experienced by performers and audience.

The nature of such a method is always specific to the work in question. Back to Back bring conversation, relationality and embodied histories as methods. Deleuze and Guattari (1996) describe this process as occurring upon a plane of composition, and as such, the task of constructing blocs of sensation is specific to this plane or cultural territory. In theorising the process of making artworks, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that such an endeavour ‘entails a plane of composition that is not abstractly preconceived but constructed as the work progresses, opening, mixing, dismantling, and reassembling increasingly unlimited compounds’ (p. 188). Back to Back’s compounds intersect with the viewer to shift how they experience time. The future, the past and the duration of the present are felt through the connectedness provided by being in a room together.

For Spinoza (2001), substance is the stuff of which life is made. It is expressed in modes, which are changed (affected or ‘modulated’) by affections (‘affectio’). Affeclio are traces of interaction: residues of experience that live on in thought and in the body. They make affects. Aspects of human bodies—molecules, muscles, blood, bones—communicate with each other and exist in relation to each other. In relating, these aspects form an assemblage, mixture, or body. Moving beyond the body, contexts and relations between human bodies are equally as constitutive of corporeal capacity. Viewers will feel, think and act differently after being part of the theatre assemblage that is The Shadow. A Hasbro game will never be seen in the same way again, now that the history of abuse and exploitation the games bring with them have been laid bare. Artificial intelligence will, perhaps, be seen in a less enthusiastic light. Do we want humans to be outlived by machines? Do we want to be too slow for technology? These are questions The Shadow asks us.

Like Spinoza, then, Deleuze (2003) and Deleuze and Guattari (1987; 1996) explore ways of thinking the body as a changeable assemblage that is highly responsive to context. For Deleuze and Guattari, each body’s embodied mind is a performance of difference, the mind is the ‘idea’ of the body, human consciousness a product of corporeality. Our subjectivity is the embodied accumulation of our actions. It is impossible to compare the individuality of each body: every person has ‘the individuality of a day, a season, a year, a life (regardless of its duration) — a climate, a wind, a fog, a swarm, a pack’ (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, p. 262). The relationship between Spinoza’s philosophy and Deleuze and Guat- tari’s idea of the body is evident in their often cited contention that every body is ‘a longitude and latitude, a set of speeds and slownesses between formed particles, a set of non subjectified affects’ (p. 262).

Here, as in the passage from Spinoza’s Ethics quoted by Deleuze (2003) earlier, we are reminded that the body is an extension of substance, a variation of the two universal attributes of thought and extension. Human bodies are consistendy remaking themselves through their actions: relations, interests, the contexts in which they live. Emotions are a barometer of ajfeclus, the change in capacity to act that comes before feeling, and are one of the ways in which bodies speak. Our capacities to affect and be affected are confined by experience. Both forms of affect, the change in capacity and the artistic invention, are central to my reading of The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes. As a viewing body, I was profoundly affected by the percepts and affects created in the work—specifically by the sense of ordinariness and of ‘liveness’ that the work holds and with which audience members are asked to sit.

There are two sequences during the performance in which the actors rearrange the chairs and other objects in the space. They carry out these practical tasks matter-of-factly, taking the time it takes and applying only the minimal effort required. The ordinariness of their movements and energy' contrasts with a soaring soundtrack. The actors are not performing the rearrangement of chairs, they are casually rearranging chairs. The audience are invited to simply sit and watch this activity in real time.

This specificity of liveness is perhaps what Deleuze and Guattari (1987, pp. 262-263) call a ‘haecceily’, a term they glean from medieval scholastic philosophy first coined by Duns Scotus to denote the discrete qualities, properties, or characteristics of a thing. A ‘haecceity’ is the ‘thisness’, or individuality, of a thing (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987).

INGRID: Is that the midpoint if you’ve got super high achieving growth expansion, ‘Look at this big’, the shiny, here’s the shiny side of the circle, and then here is the dark dirty bit, but in here, that’s the space where I integrate those, and I become more and more and more, like to be able to be here in this place, is that the middle path, for that point of going ‘I can hold it all’, but if I’m in that place where I can hold it all, and it’s all there, then I can go down, and I can go in?

ANNA: I keep thinking about this word that Deleuze and Guattari use a lot called the haecceity, which is the ‘thisness’ of something.

INGRID: Thisness.

ANNA: And you know how you might say that someone has a certain feeling, ‘the thisness of them’, or the thisness of like, you know how a particular setting might have a certain atmosphere that’s really, like it’s really your grandma’s house, and that nothing smells quite like your grandma’s house used to smell.

INGRID: And there are people who are quite happy to be in their thisness, who are quite happy to dig into die middle of die shiny and die dirty. And there are also people who are not, you can feel that they’re avoiding that thisness, or diey’re Irv ing very hard to be something else. And to be in the presence of someone who Is absolutely at home in themselves, which I feel like Mark Deans [Back to Back actor] is, and that’s what is such a gift to sit and watch him.

The liveness of this at-home-with-myself is what The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes asks its audience to sit with. In so doing, audiences are pushed to understand and accept the complexity of the lives of people with intellectual disability. In thinking of affect with and as liveness, I also think with the work of Rebecca Coleman, a contemporary British affect theorist. Coleman’s considerations of qualitative research methods and liveness highlight the situational and experiential nature of time. In her article ‘Austerity futures: Debt, temporality and (hopeful) pessimism as an austerity mood’, Coleman2 ‘examines the relationships between austerity, debt and mood through a focus on temporality and the future’ (Coleman, 2016, p. 83). Coleman works to ‘explore the politics of pessimism about the future, focusing especially on the affects and emotions that some women and young people might feel’ (p. 83). This spectral and temporal approach to affective politics provides an opposite orientation for reading The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes as a pedagogical exposition on liveness and live, affective methods. Concepts of affect (Blackman, 2015; Clough & Halley, 2007; Cvetkovich, 2012; Hickey-Moody, 2013a, 2013b) and intra-action (Barad, 2007, 2016) allow us to better understand embodied entanglement.

Liveness and temporality

Les Back and Nirmal Puwar (2012) remind us of the importance of time and the fact that all experiences of liveness are affected by time. Time of life, time spent learning about the knowledge learned, time in preparation, and time spent on reflection are all entangled in the production of affect. Back and Puwar argue:

We need to rethink the relationship between time and scholarship. The governmental regimes of audit and measuring produce a frenzied rhythm ... Fostering alternative ethical and political reasons for being ‘there’ in the context of research offers a counter-weight to the forces of instrumentalism and timidity within academic sociolog)’ ... long-term intellectual future[s are] best served by participating in modes of knowledge that are beyond the instrumentalism of the audit culture ... that is, the need to demonstrate the value of sociological research and writing through providing evidence of its impact on the economy or social policy. Live methods involve immersion, time and 'unpredictable attentiveness’, allowing for a ‘transformation of perspectives that moves slowly over time, between fieldwork sites and the academy’.

(Back & Puwar, 2012, p. 13)

ANNA: I think one of the things I liked about the Back to Back show is with a lot of the performance there’s a strong sense of relationship, and that really comes through. Like you can tell that a lot of them have known each other for quite some time, and I thought that’s clearly part of the fabric of the show, and I thought that was important.

INGRID: And you can see that the conversations that happen in the show, I think you can sense that the (scripted) conversations have come out of real conversations, can’t you?

ANNA: Over time.

INGRID: Over time. And that you cannot, you just can’t get to that place ... ANNA: Quickly.

INGRID: No, you can’t. It takes a long time to get to the place where you can have that, or you can go there I think. So yeah, you can sense the investment and the trust.

Taking time matters. Sitting with what’s happening is an active state and it offers a way to learn, to discover. 7he Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes asks the audience to sit with an array of complex issues that span the history of disability, the institutional abuse of people with a disability, gender politics, reproductive politics, and futures run by artificial intelligence.

From an audience member’s perspective, perhaps what feels most challenging is the very ordinary-ness of the labour of breathing, being, speaking. Staying alive takes so much work. The audience is reminded of this when watching the work of living, when we are face-to-face with a row of performing bodies who breathe as testimony to the transient nature of this mortal coil. One can sense the work has come from the practice of sitting with discomfort. The audience is given time to look, to see the performers as people in their humanness. But at a certain point there is a shift, and the observed bodies start looking back. This intense co- observation makes the most of the liveness that the form offers and holds open a space for uncertainty and the possibility of things going wrong. Somehow we are reminded that at any moment we could die, that our living condition is temporary. Bodies with vulnerabilities make us aware of our own mortality and also make us aware of similarities and differences between performing bodies and audience members.

Waiting time is a very particular form of temporality. It is time not filled with talking. Watching time pass slows time down. Waiting during performances keeps us aware of tense, it keeps us aware of being in the present as we are not being rushed along to the ‘next thing’. The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes has moments that one often needs to sit with for a long time, or what feels like a very long time, as we are reminded that things take as long as they take in life. The fact that time is a major ingredient in the works of Back to Back is made clear through the way they sit in and with time in their performances. Letting things take their time is also a way of giving people power, letting performers take as long as they need to take to make their work. Such an approach to performance is a far cry from methods of creating live works based on being in time, or being ‘on time’. Rather than controlling time and mastering time, Back to Back take time and let time run through their works. They are experts in making the familiar quite strange, by inviting the performer to be with it for so long. The performers in this play are not ‘playing a role’. Rather, they are just people being who they are and speaking from a very everyday place of being a person, in which form and content are not separate things, but are absolutely enmeshed.

This collapse of borders between form and content is partially facilitated through the sharing of space, which is a defining feature of the liveness of performance. Sharing a physical space, bodies together in a room become enmeshed. They are breathing the same air and staring at the same walls, smelling the same smells, hearing the same sounds and silences and sitting together through pauses that are filled with them, you, and being. Embodied entanglements of the audience, performers, the past, and the present are key to constituting the affects of experiences when watching the performance. Lather and St Pierre (2013) explain the importance of this entanglement and liveness, suggesting it entails looking at people and their contexts, and the context of others. They suggest that:

entanglement makes all the categories of humanist qualitative research problematic. For example, how are we to determine the ‘object of our knowledge’—or the ‘problem’ we want to study in assemblage? Can we disconnect ourselves from the mangle somehow (Self) and then carefully disconnect some other small piece of the mangle (Other) long enough to study it? What ontology has enabled us to believe the world is stable so that we can do all that individuating? And at what price? How do we think a ‘research problem’ in the imbrication of an agentic assemblage of diverse elements that are constantly intra-acting, never stable, never the same?

(Lather & St Pierre, 2013, p. 630)

Such enmeshment accurately describes the performance space, in which performers and audience co-habit space and breathe together.

INGRID: Yeah, I think that liveness—liveness can also teach you something about the nature of your life, the very thing that you’re in. I mean, there’s something so beautiful about being able to sit, and Back to Back, again this show does it, you’re given permission to really sit and watch people being themselves and being alive in a room, very close, very well lit, we see their bodies, and see...

ANNA: I know. Them breathing, and ...

INGRID: ... and breathing, and you’re, yeah.

ANNA: ... scratching their nose.

INGRID: And I think that for me that’s part of the realness. You know how we were saying it’s so real ...

ANNA: It feels real and we love that we want more. And if it wasn’t live, it wouldn’t feel real in the same way. Like even if you saw that show on a screen, it wouldn’t have, the breathing body wouldn’t be right there in front of you.


This chapter reads Back to Back’s The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes with the aim of thinking about what the work teaches its audience. The show makes its own time, the affect with which it modulates bodies is one of slowness, and attentiveness. The percept, or the perception which we are shown as the view from the world of the performance is of a future world in which humans have become disused and outdated. The modulation of bodies occurs through asking the audience to breathe with, and sit with the performers. These are the affects and percepts with which the show speaks, and an idea of everydayness as laborious. Life is hard work. Rather than offer a fine grained analysis of the work, I asked what the work says and paid attention to how it speaks through affect, across time, and in entangled times and spaces. The most enduring lesson I experienced in coming away from the show was being asked to sit with it: sit with difficult lives, bodies that break down, bad attitudes, being told you can’t do it. Sit with it. Breathe with it.


  • 1 Back to Back Theatre ( is based in Geelong, Victoria, Australia, and for 28 years has made theatre with, through and informed by notions of the body and dis/ability.
  • 2 She cites Berlant, Deville, Clarke, Newman, Lazzarato, Adams, Murphy, Clarke, Adkins, Gardiner, Anderson, Kristeva.


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