Powerful Encounters and Framed Intimacies


Published in PARtake: The Journal of Performance as Research, vol 1, Issue 2, as part of “Forum on the Art of Participation: A Curated Collection of Reflections, Explorations, and Instructions” curated by Astrid Breel, Hannah Newman, and Robbie Wilson


Powerful Encounters and Framed Intimacies: Reflections following the Forum on the Art of Participation

Participatory performance practices are sometimes deemed relational, in reference to “relational aesthetics” designated by art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud in the late nineteen-nineties. But as recent critiques of participatory and immersive practices have suggested, it may not be enough to say that a piece of theatre or live art creates human relations and is subsequently co-created through those relations. In her critique of Bourriaud’s construction, Claire Bishop proposes that instead of celebrating relationality as such, we should ask: what of relations are produced, for whom and why?1 As an artistic researcher and performer working with participation, I would like to add “How” to these questions. How are relations created in participatory performance, and how are the engaged bodies affected?

When performances or artworks deviate from what are often described as conventionally structured audience arrangements—keeping in mind that relational, immersive, participatory, and socially engaged works create conventions of their own—they engage with power in ways that are formative of the work. They create constraints and affordances that involve the audiences’ agency and/or corporeal presence in their aesthetics and embodied politics, and these, in turn, play a part in molding the experiences and affective-discursive practices that become available for audience members and performers alike. Following Michel Foucault’s analysis of power, one can argue that this is true of all practice. Power is omnipresent, pervasive, and always already situational and relational. However, in order to unpack how relational aesthetic frameworks differ from everyday life, perhaps it would be helpful to conceive of participatory performances as exceptional social spaces in which existing power structures and hierarchies are engaged with under slightly different conditions and altered rules. It may also be helpful to consider the power negotiations they incorporate as artistic and affective propositions and devices. Examining how power relations are worked with and through in participatory performance—how they intersect and entangle with existing social power relations and hierarchies—and how they are experienced by (different) audiences and performers, could offer a more nuanced understanding of the practices and politics of participation and the aesthetic/affective experiences they engender.

By positioning participatory performance practices as creation of exceptional social spaces, I do not mean to imply that these practices are necessarily empowering or positively transformative (even though such claims are sometimes made). I wish rather to suggest that the worlds created through performance are never separate or free from the politics of the everyday world, however much some makers may strive towards “total immersion,” and that the embodied politics of participatory artworks engage with existing power structures and hegemonies in multiple, complex, affective, and aesthetic ways. A similar strain of argument has been put by contemporary theatre scholars: Adam Alston shows how the politics of immersive theatre aesthetics can be complicit in neoliberal value and Jen Harvie examines practices of audience participation in the context of neoliberalized cultural production. In this very short account, I would like to offer a complementary queered reading of the power positions and negotiations implicit in many participatory artworks and point to how the politics of participatory practice may also mold subjectivities, agencies, and affordances of affect on an immediate, embodied, and interpersonal level.

My approach is informed by my own embodied artistic practice as a performer and performance maker. I’m inclined to conceive participatory artworks through perceiving and instigating power positions and practices of power exchange, both when experiencing others’ work, and when creating my own. I’m particularly interested in practices of negotiating and relinquishing control—which may happen through a variety of means, from psycho-physical techniques, to social transactions, to spatial and corporeal arrangements—and their affective reverberations. As seminal artworks like Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 04 have shown, gestures of relinquishing control or power exchange do not necessary imply loss of agency. They can, however, create power polarities that have the potential to illuminate, subvert, and question (as well as ignore and uphold) effective power structures and hierarchies to do with gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, ability, precarity, and other axes of identity, discourse and ideology. They can create affectively impacting conditions that play a part in framing experiences of vulnerability, risk, and intimacy, such as often come to the fore in descriptions of participatory performance. When I refer to a queer reading, I mean a reading that considers the inherent potential erotics of these performative power positions. By this, I don’t mean to reduce performances that play with power polarities to mere hedonistic ventures. Rather, I wish to open up the artistic and subversive potentials, as well as the pitfalls, that come to play through the ambiguous pleasures and intimacies that this kind of participatory practice has the capacity to incite.

I would like to briefly apply this approach to two performances experienced at the Forum on the Art of Participation, as well as the workshop I offered in the same setting. It’s not a symmetrical set up: I experienced these pieces as an audience participant within the constrictions of an academic conference environment; due to the same restrictions, I didn’t collect participant feedback as a workshop facilitator, so I only have my own reflections to build on. However, I hope that these three different examples give a sense of what reading performances and practices of participation through negotiations of power and their affective entanglements may produce. Unfortunately, this account doesn’t serve to highlight how the conditions created by participatory performance affects the performers, a narrative that’s often absent. Luckily, in a subsequent contribution to the journal, performer and performance maker Matt Fletcher writes about his work The Butlers, creating potential for interesting double exposure.

The Butlers

Participatory performance by Artifice Arts. Performed by Matt Fletcher and Thomas Jancis

As participants trickle into the foyer to sign in to the Forum, I’m already aware of the Butlers. Their presence has an effect on the space, standing as they do, straight-backed, by the wall, nonintrusive, yet with a penetrating at-your-service attendance. They’re separate from the uneasy social buzz congregating in the space. I watch them furtively from the side.

I’m given a card. The Butlers offer services, excluding those that involve cost, illegality, or physical or emotional harm. The services are offered for free, but in order to enter the frame, I must ask for something, I must commission a service. Butler Jancis gives me no help in negotiating the rules and boundaries of the game.

-What do people usually ask for?

-Oh, all kinds of things.

He is friendly and noncommittal. The onus is on me–I am required to utter a request, and inevitably expose something of myself. There is expectation in the air, even if it’s just mine. I’m already engaged in an affective relationship that feels strangely intimate.

Encounters framed through performance have a peculiar double nature, as interactions and affective responses are not only experienced and felt but also aesthetically appear as part of the artwork. And of course, the context and the nature of this event endow the situation with its own special flavor. We are all artists, practitioners, and researchers working with participation. This transaction is public, and will create a spectacle for our peers around us. I have performance anxiety!

I ask for a backrub. I’m a bit embarrassed about my choice, or disappointed in myself. How unimaginative of me. We don’t know each other, and this is not a social space meant for touching. I ask to be touched, inviting a new level of intimacy, albeit a socially acceptable one. Is this a transgression, or simply a default solution? I work with bodies, and tend to seek physical contact to relieve social tension. Here we go! I have already revealed something of myself.

Beguilingly simple, The Butlers offers a frame that engages with power in complex and ambiguous ways. As non-British, I’m aware that it will be playing with tensions and signifiers concerning social class in the British context in more sophisticated ways than I can fully appreciate. Also, the gesture of offering oneself as a servant molds a position of intimacy. A servant may have privileged access to social boundary crossing (like performing mundane activities like washing or dressing a master’s body) through being socially invisible.5 A servant is not really there; a servant doesn’t really count. This possibility of invisibility and intimacy plays on my mind, as I wonder what Butler Jancis may have seen and been asked to do while in this role. As a good servant, he of course won’t tell. At the same time, I feel incredibly uncomfortable being asked to occupy such a blatant power position, invoking class distinction, drawing my attention to the more subtle and taken-for-granted positions of service and privilege I inhabit. The performative exchange activates a complex mesh of power relations that give a sense of (potentially mutual) vulnerability and exposure, while gently troubling its social context. I wonder how the performance operates in very different contexts, and what would be the situations or surroundings in which it would collapse, become naturalized or illegible to the extent that it ceases to work as an art piece.

Butler Jancis’ touch feels clumsy and a bit clammy. Or perhaps that’s just me tensing up. My mind floods with better, cleverer requests. We are stuck in a bubble of time that I need to control. Has it been long enough? How much more should I ask for?

The feel of his hands lingers on my skin well into the day.


Participatory performance created and presented by Stephen Donnelly

The setup is simple enough, like a game of “follow the leader.” Divided into groups of approximately seven, we are set to roam around the campus. Leadership rotates around the group, and is transferred to the next-in-line by squeezing someone’s shoulder. According to the rules of the game, we either follow the leader, or whole-heartedly support them in whatever they’re doing with cheers and undivided attention. Nothing is explicitly forbidden, but positive behavior or attitude towards fellow players is encouraged.

“Try not to get arrested or put each other in harm’s way too much,” we are told.

My experience becomes more about following than leading. Of course, there is the stress and worry of having to take command, and the inevitable one-up-man-ship, but for me, the most pleasurable and mesmerizing moments are the ones when I almost forget there is a leader–or even, that I am the leader. I happily jog away, following the group, becoming part of larger organism, accepted as one in many. I relinquish control–not to anybody in particular, not as a personal exchange, but to the whole group. As we jog about, climb trees, lie on our backs under benches, it occurs to me: there’s an element of exclusion to this joy. We are one. We are an entity. We share a secret that bystanders are not part of.

The group exhibits a powerful force; I can feel it when we run past someone, or when attention shifts and there’s a moment of hesitation. What if we start following someone, imitating or intimidating them? The play remains amiable, but the potentiality for it to turn nasty adds a thrill of danger. It occurs to me that we are aptly named a Mob. Would this be as fun if we played in a deserted place, with no potential onlookers? Are we reliant on the presence of an audience? How much are we taking hold of the social space, making it ours, interjecting it with our play, while depending on the outsiders to hold the space for us? How are we negotiating with the outside world, as well as within the group? How is this negotiation informed by the power structures and hierarchies, within which we operate? How are styles of leadership gendered? How are abilities negotiated? For whom is this space meant, this privileged space, this campus area of the University of Canterbury, and how are we occupying it? In what ways is our game interpretable from the outside, and how much is that potential interpretation influenced by perceived social clues like race, class, age etc.? What if these variables were different? What if the game was performed in a different social environment? Would anything change? What are we bringing into the world with this ludic gesture?

How Does Desire Guide Us?

Workshop presented by Outi Condit

Now my voice is different. As a final (self-)reflection I present the studio work that I offered to facilitate at the Forum. It is a workshop on corporal intimacy through power exchange, and it is awkward, and I’m desperately nervous, because this institutional context is very different than the participatory performance piece from which it originates. I try to make sure that everybody understands that it is okay to step to the side during the session, that they can always step back in, and that sometimes it might even be useful to change the point of view.

The session consists of three variations, but for this response I will elaborate only on the first, simple, almost banal version of the exercise–one that rings familiar from performer training and children’s play.

The instructions are as follows: half of the participants place themselves in the studio in whatever position they choose, and close their eyes. The others walk around and choose somebody whom they attempt to approach and touch, using different directions, tempos, and body parts“approachee” (with their eyes closed) feels they are about to be touched they say “No.” The “approacher” stops, and tries with somebody else.

Essentially this is a martial arts exercise, used to sensitize practitioners to 360 degrees sensory awareness. In the working group of the ritual performance Circle,6 we used it to tune the audience in preparation for embodied encounters within the performance. In this workshop, my intention is to direct the participants’ attention towards the sensory, affective space between bodies in order to sense how bodies are experienced and molded through interaction–how they shy away and open towards touch; how desire, defined in the widest possible sense, moves bodies. Some people (myself included) love this exercise. Others find it creepy. In terms of power play, in all its simplicity, I find it fascinating.

This exercise contains a familiar technique so widely used in somatic practices (and occasionally in participatory performances) that it’s almost taken for granted: the closed eyes, the removal of eyesight through blindfolds and darkened rooms. It’s an interesting device, arguably pointing towards value-laden dichotomies like visual/sensual, thinking/feeling, active/passive, representation/experience. In this case, the closed eyes also trigger a power polarity that brings the issue of consent into critical light.

On a surface level, the question of consent appears straightforward enough. Participants are informed. They know it’s possible to step out at any given moment. However, on the inside, as you’re waiting with your eyes closed, not knowing when you might be touched and how, and who may be approaching you, it’s not so simple. Within the container of this exercise, consent is implied, until explicitly revoked. With their eyes closed, the “passive” participants’ bodies become sites of reception and response, exposed to the gaze and agitation of the “active” participants. They become “thingly,” reduced to their bodies, their boundaries under negotiation and transgression. The “approachers,” on the other hand, also become involved in complex negotiations with their own boundaries, implicit context-dependent expectations, and desires; a negotiation that is also influenced by socio-political variables like gender, race, age etc. The power polarity, in this case coupled with uneasy consent, molds the affective landscapes of the exceptional social space framed by this simple exercise, and brings about dynamics of vulnerability, risk, and transgression that may similarly come to play in more complex participatory artworks.


I’ve briefly reflected on three experiences from the Forum on the Art of Participation from the perspective of the entanglement of embodied politics, artistic agency, and affective experience. Each of these pieces warrants a more in-depth consideration, but for the purposes of this short response I hope I have managed to point out something of the complexity of how power positions may work in participatory performance. My approach is connected to my on-going artistic research project in which I am searching for ways to close-read, question, and queer the embodied politics of the stage, both through artistic works and research-minded expositions.