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Ethics, performativity and gender: porous and expansive concepts of selving in the performance work of Gretchen Jude and of Nicole Peisl

Palgrave Communications volume 2, Article number: 16006 (2016) | Download Citation


Situated knowledge theories that focused on processes and contexts for knowing were developed by women in response to finding that what they knew was unspoken or unspeakable not only in various disciplinary fields but also in their lived lives. And it is not surprising that the performativities that sustain knowing rather than knowledge are often the focus of women performers attempting to give form to those not-saids to make living worthwhile. This article discusses the gendered contexts of two women performers for making performative forms and for carrying those forms into performance. Yet the primary focus is on what their work does, and how it generates a felt sense of the somatic complexity of becoming through performative practices and rehearsals. The dancer/choreographer Nicole Peisl and musician/multimedia artist Gretchen Jude are from quite different parts of the Anglo European West yet in practising for non-individual porous and expansive selving, and for collaborative differences that generate emergent form, the work is remarkably similar. In their focus on ethico-poetic politics rather than the politics of social ethics, they offer ways to sustain an engaged situated ethics in the performativity of gender in lived lives as well as in the performance of gender as necessarily multiple. This paper is published as part of a thematic collection dedicated to gender studies.

In retrospect, it was not surprising that situated knowledge theories that focused on processes and contexts for knowing were developed by women in response to finding that what they knew was unspoken or unspeakable not only in various disciplinary fields but also in their lived lives. And it is not surprising that the performativities that sustain knowing rather than knowledge are often the focus of women performers attempting to give form to those not-saids to make living worthwhile. Spinoza suggests that “the endeavour to persist in being” (Gatens and Lloyd, 1999: 8, 26ff) is rooted in embodied reasoning. There are many routes to this embodied reasoning of felt sense, one being performance and the processes of performativity from which it emerges.1 This essay explores the processes of two women performers making those reasons, those ways of valuing, and is based on witnessing some of their practices, workshops and performances, as well as on extensive conversations. The material that follows begins by discussing the gendered contexts for making performative forms and for carrying those forms into performance. Yet the primary focus is on what their work does, and how it generates a felt sense of the somatic complexity of becoming through performative practices and rehearsals, about which they use words such as wholeness, integrated, growing or presencing, at the same time as insisting on the multiple and non-autonomous selving needed by performativity.

As those of us taking part in critical discussions know, power structures in Western liberal states derive most immediately from the interests of the privileged few, and recognized that cultural performance is bound to the felt sense of the somatic complexity of subjectivity often reduced to the “body/mind” binary.2 There are several critical approaches, such as the Anthropocene, that are mainly concerned with understanding and critiquing the thoroughly man-made discursive filter through which sentient beings observe and interact with the world. This is important, because it can have immediate impact on geopolitics, but is also often short term and bound to the grounds of the hegemonic structures it opposes. In contrast, this essay uses feminist situated knowledge theory, developed out of subtle and attentive versions of standpoint theory, which has been addressing the need to look to alternatives and alteriors of these grounds and to the somatic complexities from which they arise, for decades:3 feminist studies in science and technology (see Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1986,1991; Rose, 1994), feminist ethics (see Code, 1995, 2006; Hunter, 1999a; Lennon and Whitford, 1994; Lovibond, 1983,1994), and critical race and gender approaches to positionality and intersectionality (see Ahmed, 2006; Benhabib, 1996; Hartman, 1997; Povinelli, 2006; Woodward, 1999; Young, 1997).

All of these theoretical, historical and critical approaches explore strategies for alterior interactions with the world, what performance studies theory calls “alongside”.4 To work in the alongside indicates that while the discourses of hegemonic structures cannot be left behind, they do not have to provide the main parameters of how we live our lives. There is so much in most of our lives that discourse either does not allow or does not acknowledge, yet is there and often gives us reasons for going on living. Indeed gender is one of the primary locations for thinking through these alternative and sometimes alterior ways of valuing life.

I am aware that some of these approaches would not call themselves “situated knowledge”; however, in my opinion they are part of a coherent cluster of critical methodologies, and while I am not tied to the words “situated knowledge”, I suggest that they are appropriate. Initially one of the drawbacks to situated knowledge criticism was that it did not acknowledge its own performativity (Hunter, 1999a, Chapters 5 and 6). The work of situated knowledge is to become attentive to contexts of knowing, which may lead to alternative areas of knowledge but is most helpful in sustaining the process of knowing in the face of the necessarily limited capacity of sentient beings to “know” anything fully. The only way that situated knowledge can keep on knowing—and retain the more honest sense of situated knowing—is by attending to its textual forms, its modes of communication, its performativity.

Drawing on developments in situated knowing by writers such as Donna Haraway,5 Marilyn Strathern6 and Isabel Stengers,7 and the extension of this thinking into situated textuality and performativity (Hunter, 1999a), I explore here the implications of gendered work on presencing—particularly as it works in the alongside sites of women’s art-making practices and rehearsal. Performativity suggests that situated knowing is an ecology in which people make present rather than represent, and in doing so articulate an ethics and aesthetics that I have found to be inflected by normative gender assumptions but not necessarily in response to them. It is an ecology where people work, having exhausted discursive possibilities, an ecology that locates the changes that happen to the self when we generate what we do not know. This sense of not-knowing has come to the fore in studies of situated knowing because the situated can only remain in process if it continually undermines knowledge and sustains ways of knowing (Hunter, 2014, Chapters 2 and 3).

Women in situated groups work continually on making present the somatic complexities of becoming, knowing and valuing that give form to their sense of lived lives. That making present and giving form addresses how we can open to what we do not know, how we handle the change that happens to our somatic complexity through the process of that opening and how we then presence the difference that has occurred in us. One key to situated work is that it rejects “difference” as something that can be “found”. Instead, difference is either “made” or it “happens” in a particular situation. For example, if I find you “different” to me, this will probably have little impact on you, but a big impact on me. In effect, I will need to change so that I can accommodate something of which I was previously unaware of, that was and still is not-known. This distinction has a significant effect on ethics partly because this continually changing “I” is never stable.

Performativity is the study of how to sustain this process of not-knowing with strategies of making or happening. Performance is often linked to representation and discourse because it requires an audience or a public, but performativity is usually linked to making present or presencing in sites to some degree lying alongside discourse—for example, in rehearsal, workshop, lab or studio.8 Generally for all media, the social structures for making art and performance in rehearsal are by definition not public. They offer a place to work through situated group participation, to focus on the particular areas of practice that have trained the bodies rehearsing into co-labouring rather than unitary selves, to focus on the ethics of those contexts and on how that practice can contribute to making the forms that embody the performance of this process into daily life (Hunter, 2016: 5).

Today, many women performers are generating strategies in performativity that are significant for their capacity to work alongside discourse not in reaction to it, but to find forms for sustaining our awareness of the happening of difference and of its presencing, and of ways to work with others to generate forms that can mediate it in performance.9 If I take the vocabulary of “saying” as analogous to the making-present that all media do when engaged in generating alterior forms, the activity of performativity is bound up with saying what is unsayable, what has not been said, what has not-yet been said, what cannot be said (Hunter, 2014, 16ff). This could be the risky work of precarity, but from the alongside it is the at times subtly and at times wrenchingly difficult work of bringing things into awareness through attention that leads to changes in somatic complexity—or presencing. What follows will focus on the alterior aesthetics of two feminist performance artists with whom I work closely—one choreographer/dancer from Europe, Nicole Piesl, and one musician/visual artist from the United States, Gretchen Jude—and will explore the strategies of practice and ethics of rehearsal that enable them to bring things into sentient awareness that were not there before.

While studies of the sociocultural contexts for women in performance are key to understanding the hegemonic conditions for work, here I will focus on what these two women performers actually do, given those conditions, to presence that felt sense of the somatic complexity of becoming, and to generate forms that are repeatedly performed but not replicated, presenced rather than represented. There are several points of contact between their two practices and their different ways of rehearsing, one of the most pertinent being their distinction between discursive cultural product and the emergent processes of alongside art-making. More pointedly, that alongside art-making is marked not by an individual self but a selving that is porous and expansive. Given that conventional Western ethics is predicated on a sense of individuality and concepts of will and intention, this stance of porous and expansive selving asks for a re-thinking of what happens to ethics when the performance of gender becomes multiple.

I have written elsewhere about some of the distinctions between normative ethics, which assume an individual self and a different “other”, and responsive ethics, which assume a relational self/other that is often set towards the normative to challenge, transcend or transgress it (Hunter, 2001). I have also suggested the strategy of engaged ethics that assumes a co-labouring, situating process in which we other by feeling the change in our self when faced with the not-known (Hunter, 2014). Engaged ethics, because of its roots in the felt sense of somatic complexity, is based in aesthetics and re-focuses on the ethico-poetic politics of an alongside group. To engage is to be open to possible change, and hence potentially vulnerable. Performers learn this stance of openness through the practices—particular to a material such as voice, movement, paint, instrument and so on—in which they train. Every sentient being may take on a stance of opening, but without the guidance of a practice the experience can be overwhelming. If we have no support system we may well not want to change or to recognize that we have changed. Rather than welcoming the difference that occurs, the somatic can shut down in trauma or shock, or surface through nausea, discomfort or the simple need to leave a room.

Performers learn the stance of openness so they can become aware of their somatic complexity in process. They necessarily develop strategies for engaged ethics that begin with a different sense of selving that, potentially paradoxically, only feels “whole” if they remain open to change. A practice is a tried and tested way of valuing lived life by experiencing the change that happens when we morph with a particular material, differentiating out and presencing that felt sense of difference. The engaged ethics of performativity may begin with practice, but it usually also needs a co-labouring group with tried and tested ways of valuing lived life in situated conditions. This is a group with complementary practices that offers or gifts the materials for making-different in rehearsal. It supports each person as a member of a group in the process of changing, recognizes the moments in which forms are generated: forms that can be repeated through performative embodiment and carry the changes to an audience in alongside performance.

Whether it is in practice, or rehearsal, or performance, each of these two performers talks about the need to remain open to a distributed, non-autonomous, expansive selving that enables what happens and the changes that come with that happening. From the point of view of subjectivity and discursive performance, identity is destabilized and precarious. From the positionalities of the alongside, the processes of morphing, changing, presencing are integral to the felt sense of somatic complexity that is living.

The performers

Nicole Peisl and Gretchen Jude each come from different cultural backgrounds and work in different media, yet in thinking about the question “why do you make work?” each recounted an early childhood remembrance of clarity. Gretchen Jude began with the memory of an 11-year-old girl faced with being expected to perform in a specific way, saying “I just clammed up” (90).10 She recalls not wanting to be shaped by what her audience wanted but to do what she wanted to do—at the same time as asking herself why what “I” wanted was so important (90–91). Legitimation in the audience’s eyes involved judgement of her music in their terms. The implied failure to live up to that judgement led her to withdraw from making performed musical work for many years. Nicole Peisl began with the memory of going to a dance class at age 4 and experiencing both the practices of conventional forms, “being ducks and elephants”, and of “freely” dancing with the music (6). Yet by the age of 10 she had already decided that she did not want to be so strongly shaped by a conventional “current” that was not her own and that would close off other “currents” (9). She too left her practice but only for 4 years, coming back to it at age 14 because it was the one place her “messy” teenage body felt potentially integrated (11). By 16 she had experienced a moment, one to be repeated only few times over the following years but one that “was the only way life made sense to me”: an opening moment “where you feel your body but also like you’re everything else at the same time” (12–13).

These insights into “why is what ‘I’ want so important”, and a sense of the body that “also like … everything else at the same time”, become for each performer central to their narrative of performativity as a process—one that is informed by intensive practice in how the individual cedes autonomy. While these narratives are quite distinct, each performer understands both their practice and their rehearsal mode in terms of coextensive selving. Such a positionality troubles conventional performance, and both talk about the “product” that gets co-opted by culture into representation when the performer is pressured into individuality.

Aware of the distinction between dancing someone else’s work and dancing one’s own, Nicole Peisl from the beginning is drawn not only to dance but also to choreography. However, she could see the pressure put on a choreographer, who often has an entire company built around them, to write grants, find finance, do the politics, please the audiences—make product. Commenting that women, if they choose to have children as she has done, have less time and different responsibilities to their male counterparts, she also notes that her close male friends who are choreographers seem to spend the care and concern she reserves for her family on their companies. She clarifies, in reading this essay:

I wanted stay open for the various possibilities between choreography and being a mother, and especially the movement between those elements and possibilities of life – and have them move into the foreground at different phases of life.

There are few countries that support women appropriately so they can become choreographers, and that lack of understanding of what could be appropriate derives from a lack of recognition for what women find valuable and can imagine—which is rarely a “product”. Choreographers are expected to measure up to virtuosic “codes”, and it is rare to find one like William Forsythe, in whose company Peisl danced for many years, who “moves beyond codes” and lets the dancers “ripen” (81). Much of Peisl’s career could be seen as learning not how to make a product that has to “look in a certain way” (56), but how to choreograph emergence, “the feeling that you don’t know what you are going to do until you are in contact with the material”. She describes choreographing her recent Vielfalt as: “when you start then you know—not ‘me’ dictating”, but for the body/me/other people/everything else we are, “it shapes what happens next” (56).

Similarly, Gretchen Jude talks about the Western notated musical score as a “very narrow path” (24). Observing that the classical route is rote until “you leave it behind and enliven the music” (22), she chose instead to take her basic classical training into jazz and experimental improvisation as the place where she wanted to think about “enlivening” music. Nevertheless, she also trained for many years in traditional koto playing in Japan.11 She says that she was loath to “just pick it [the instrument] up … in an appropriative fashion”, but an in-depth traditional training allowed her to loosen up into “much more playful … extended technique”. All of Jude’s work is marked by intensive practice that has readied her for the play of improvisation. With improvisation, she says that although there are “rules”, nobody knows the path, “there’s a direction with no footprints you have to step on” (25) and she has to let go of “what ‘I’ want”. She commented that a woman composer would have to take on a “forefront” stance, a “pushing, kind of aggressive” (47) individuality, to be able to succeed at the conventional cultural expectations of classical music. Even in the experimental music world of the Bay area in San Francisco, there are expectations that pressure you into that individuality. Although Jude mentions that Bay area music is probably weighted one-third women and two-thirds men, it is not so much the proportion as the way the people who get the gigs, the opportunities, have to acquire a authoritative identity to be recognized. She suggests that women find it more difficult to take this kind of identity on, so there are fewer options for women to act in “typical social contexts of music”, and so men tend to run “who gets the energy”.

Jude self-identifies as a working-class woman enculturated in a particular way, and needing to value that way of knowing the world—“even if it doesn’t further my career” (50). One example she offers is a piece called “I Clean the Stage”, which she made while completing an MFA at Mills College on her return from Japan. A new floor had been installed in a Mills performance space but most of the students were treating it badly and leaving it dirty, spilling their coffees on it. Her piece, which is a soundwork, asks the audience to listen to her cleaning parts of the stage floor, to become aware of the relation between sound, labour, to find ways of knowing and valuing the materials of the space. On her Website (, parts of the piece are performed by her, and other parts by a few men in duos and a solo by a trans person, onto whom she set the piece a little later. As this essay will explore, listening to such work asks the audience also to co-create the work. Jude says specifically that she is not making a “product” but “something in another thing” that the co-labourers find energizing and are “just so happy to have it there” (92).

If these are the resonating normative contexts in which these two women make performance, this essay will step back to focus first on the process of practice in Nicole Peisl’s work, and then on the process of rehearsal in Gretchen Jude’s improvisational pieces. The way that each performer speaks about their work is distinctly different, and I have intentionally carried some of the tone of each voice into the two sections that follow.

Nicole Peisl

Nicole Peisl tells about her early work as a movement between other people’s steps and her own, and of her struggle with dance during her twenties. Yet there was at least one significant experience that informed the solo work she produced: she remembers being age 20 and going into the countryside, just standing there, and having this feeling that she was “being moved” (28). She started to move and sensed a 360° awareness:

you become porous and let environment or situation in … like the sea. You come with the waves and the waves move you, you’re not passive. You follow actively, open yourself up to it … you expand yourself toward … what happens, to some thing happening. (28)

The sense of opening to what happens recurs in her description of making work as a dancer and finding herself in “situations where I will make” (3), which generates a “felt sense” about which she is curious. There are also situations where she “actively applies the curiosity” to generate a “moment of working, finding, exploring: to give myself the space to not-know, and find out what the situation will bring up” (4). The process is informed by her training and the skills she has developed to offer a structure that is just enough to “accumulate” connection between people, and the people and the work. The practice is what Peisl calls a “hummingbird’s taste”, a delicate strength that does not “reproduce the feeling but open myself up for it … you cannot control it, you never know which face it will offer up to you” (32–33). From an “eye-opening” workshop she took with Joao Fiadeiro,12 she learned about “not-doing” something but letting it emerge, and the “hummingbird’s” tentative dipping into what is happening is a way to keep aware of the pulse of emergence.

At the age of 24 Peisl went back to study choreography partly because choreography focuses more on what makes you move than on how to make the steps, but partly because solo work “expends” the performer. Even when the dance is in improvisational groups, the difficulty of sustaining a living—reinforced by the difficulty she felt she had in being recognized for her contributions to some creative processes—also expends the performer. In 2000 she was invited to join the Frankfurt Ballett, under the direction of William Forsythe.13 Ready to embark on new structures and methods for approaching dance, she accepted an invitation to join the group which Forsythe himself spoke about as a choreographic ensemble. There is a radical shift from freelance dance that rehearses often for 3 months, culminating with movement on stage for up to an hour, to a company with a clear hierarchy. The dancer beside working with improvisation techniques and task oriented creative processes is also cast in a role of repertory work and may have accordingly limited times on stage, and Peisl learned the “extraordinary expansion when the company works together on the form of the choreography” (15). This experience was interrupted by a serious injury in 2003, post-recuperative improvisational work in Ireland with Michael Klein,14 a return to Frankfurt, followed by the transition of Frankfurt Ballett into the William Forsythe Company in 2006. Over the following eight years, Peisl danced with and choreographed for the company, at the same time she worked with other choreographers, often more collaboratively. The pattern of dancing someone else’s steps, either in solo or in a group, interlaced with dancing or choreographing one’s own steps, again either in solo or with a group, continues to emerge.

Recuperating from injury in 2003 brought Peisl to the biodynamic midline work of sacral cranial practice, which she now recognizes as bringing her closer to the experience she had at age 20. The detail with which Peisl speaks of this practice is helpful in understanding her current sense of a porous self. It is a practice that involves training for skills that bring the body into a “space of in-between” (32)—just enough space and enough not-doing to open up, “Between awake and sleep, your system ‘sighs’ and gets wider”. More technically, she describes midline work as being vertical yet holding yourself in a 360° awareness that yields a felt sense, then another, then another (65–66). “You distribute it into different strata and this opens you up enough space to allow fluidity … the physical manifestations arrive from that, not from me producing a ‘step’ ” (67). Training in the practice and its sequences is vital because in rehearsal, and even more in performance, there is not the same time as one can take when practising, and in rehearsal through that practice she generates the forms that will carry her embodiment of the felt sense into performance.

Translating the practice into her dance work helps to distinguish what it means for her to work on emergence rather than product, and she does so by distinguishing between producing and stepping. She begins by saying that “when I step ‘leg out’ it emerges, I couldn’t do a pre-formed step” (67). When the dancer “steps” they do not copy an image but distribute their attention and then work with the image (68). For example, if she as a dancer does a plié or kneebend, she does not think of “going down and bending my knees” but thinks at least in three or four directions—knees going sideways, back of head going up, spiralling the legs—to gain a fluidity of the entire body. She becomes “aware of my feet, and then another location of my body grows into another spatial direction” (69). She trains to distribute her somatic complexity into “multiple directions”, putting attention and thinking into different points at the same time so that there is a sustained awareness of “movement, aliveness, sensations—slowing down time” (70). Someone who is not trained, she suggests, “tends to think ‘I am here’ ” and misses the articulation, the sensing and the feeling of “felt sense”, and so “movement is missing” (72). To practice the porousness of mimesis one needs to be able to set aside the unitary individual and train in multiple selving.

The training leads not only to felt sense in solo or collaborative work, but also in the work of the corps de ballet. Peisl’s experience of being in a corps with the Frankfurt Ballett released her from having to depend on her own resources. She described her body getting “extended into a bigger body” affected by all the other bodies, the lighting and the music:

70% of me was carried by a bigger force than my own body — yes, in solo work you take yourself beyond your own body, motivated and mobilized by yourself and ideas you work with, but in the corps you do the same steps [as others] but you don’t think about doing the same steps … you have to connect to the other people, extending beyond yourself as a mode of generating movement … like coming to a cadence or rhythm, you swing with it, as a result the steps are generated by more than you (76–77)

Working with the Forsythe Company she carried her bodywork training into a virtuosity that comes “between”, it is “the space between where you touch and I touch, the force that comes from there, and how to translate it in the body” (47). This space between becomes the core element in her piece Vielfalt, where it is manifested into the material relations choreographing the space/time of two bodies, three pieces of rope and two audiences. The issue of choreographing one’s own steps for other people to dance is displaced through the process of making the piece. Peisl speaks of having hinges and references, but also “uncertainty” so that she did not resist producing steps because her practice is to trust them to emerge. At the same time she was also able to choose her dancers and could be confident in their complementary practices that in doing “the same steps” they would not “be the same”.

Referring to an improvised collaboration she had made in 2015, with Kevin O’Connor, Peisl again talked about wanting to participate in a process with others in which her choreography becomes “leading without knowing what we will do—how to start” (4). Underlining that a practice that generates a form is “a good start”, she goes on to note that the impulse of her choreographic curiosity keeps her “open to perception on a physical level to what could logically flow from this group of people” (4). She felt her body lead, and when her body was close to another dancer’s “I let my body move, it shows me what to do … when you feel the body, it’s going to give you impulses you couldn’t think about before” (4–5). Working with someone else generates ambiguities because her partner is approaching the movement from a place her body does not know: “My body doesn’t react quickly but goes like a hummingbird: what is it? what is it?” and this takes her away from the representations of “what it is” (63). Reflecting on her piece Vielfalt, Peisl notes:

the feeling that you don’t know what you are going to do until you are in contact with the material—the dance, the rope or person. When you start then you know. It is not “me” dictating but the body/me/other person/everything else we are: it shapes what happens next. (56)

That is the felt sense of her choreography. It is vielfalt, it is manifold, as much as herself is multiple.

Gretchen Jude

Gretchen Jude works with different media to Nicole Peisl, and while Jude is primarily a vocalist, she is also an experimental music composer, a poet, a visual artist and at times a traditional koto musician. This is significant because in Anglo European culture vocalists, composers, poets and even visual artists are not usually responsible for the day-to-day viability, from financing to creative leadership of a company, of several other people. The concepts of collaboration used by the one are bound to be different to those held by the other. Nevertheless, Gretchen Jude makes similar distinctions between the difficulty of solo work and the benefits of collaboration. In conversation she suggests that above all she seeks for collaborators who will recognize the ways of living and valuing that motivate her. She has a value system and says it is “pleasurable to find people, work with them, and find that valuing respected and understood” (48). The media she uses also lend themselves to particular kinds of collaboration—as a visual artist and poet she is used to working with people who are not there, with materials that cannot speak her language or whose language she does not speak; as a digital artist she is used to working with technologies that have material presence as well as sentient ancestors; as a musician she is used to working with her own body though she says she uses her body more as a dancer would. “Solo” work is also collaboration in an immediate sense for someone working with the technologies of instrumental music whether acoustic or electronic.

For some performers solo work can mean “improvised” rather than stepping in another person’s footsteps, for example, on that “narrow path” of classical Western notation. But solo work is usually more literal: the performer is practising alone, and trying to make whatever it is they are making as the only sentient being in the rehearsal space or workshop. But when the sense of self is distributed, as we heard from Nicole Peisl, the solitariness of practice and rehearsal is complex. To take one example from Gretchen Jude’s work as a multimedia art-maker, her Website “Finding as Making/Singing no Songs” (, in which she combines photography, artwork, graphics, video and stories, layered into musical scores. Put simply the Website has a top page, and three subpages—each of which carries photographs (with commentary) of landscape environments, links to the Yijing, her own music scores, alternative scores in video/Website/text and links to scores not composed or played by her. The Website visitor has few normative conventions for interpreting, and yet any calling on responsive interaction is continually interrupted. One example of such an interruption could be the way that the Yijing is cast as, variously, “your fortune” or “direction” or “oracle”, and at times embedded into the revolving photographs (of which there are two sets of two, and one of one), and at times linked to external sites (two of which are the same, the third different). The visitor makes relational connections only to have them disconnected, and needs to sit with the site for some time to understand the potentials it offers for engaging and accepting what happens. We have to let go of the urge to order that hypertexts usually both invite and satisfy (Hunter, 1999a, Chapter 4).

At the same time, the art-maker is collaborating throughout—with, among others, her mother on a walk in the wilderness about 65 miles north of Boise, Idaho, in the context of a residency in the Chaparral, and with a group of her Asian friends in the page focused on urban waterways. The third collaboration is side by side with a sound collaboration, each narrated in one of two parallel columns of typography ( This third page is devoted to the landscape environment of “metal”, and the left-hand column tells a story about the narrator’s first encounter with a subway—its harsh noise transmuting into a keening search for its earthy metallic home by the time of later encounters. The right-hand column is a record of several of her women “colleagues” “speaking in their native languages. Khmer, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Burmese, Sichuanese and Thai”. Each woman was asked to “say anything she wanted about a place that she loved”, although the narrator does not understand the languages:

Once I had the recorder on and the levels set, once my collaborator was comfortable and caught up in her own telling, then I was free to just … listen. And I was surprised how much warmth and openness I felt, simply sitting quietly absorbed in the surprisingly new voice of an old friend … The care we made evident. Our mutual gifts of time and attention. The kind and generous granting of a request, however meaningless.

Both stories, and indeed the whole page (as the other pages), are overlaid by a piece of music Jude has composed, in this case “Metropolingua”, that begins the moment we travel to the page ( Here she uses her understanding of electronic vocals to break up and expand the possibilities of the voices and of our listening in a collaboration among the recorded voices and the technology. The women’s voices materialize through—among many other elements—rhythm, sound, gasp or breath, a flattening out of tone, laughter, urban soundscapes, insect hums. They generate a murmuring like a blood beat, with the digital medium giving the voices shape and distortion by accentuating tone, sibyllance, density and resonance with parts of the body. The listener, who may also be reading the story with their eyes, or eyes and voice, engages with what the “shape” and the “distortion” do to their own body, particularly in the context of these voices as not-English, potentially alien to the English-language speaker who is likely to visit the Website, and hence foregrounded as not-known material. Jude is collaborating with her materials, and also with us, the audience, as further material in an engaged ethics that underlines the not-known of her, of her materials, of these women and of each of her listeners.

Key to Jude’s music is enlivening and enlarging the sound world beyond generic constraints (22), and using that feeling of not-knowing, that she says is often “irritating”, as a springboard for change. She improvises with words, “makes sounds like songs”, unafraid of the affective component. Yet she notes, with Nicole Peisl, “solo work is hard” (39), and group work is supportive not only for her, but also for the co-performers. More recently she has turned increasingly to group work with many small music, dance and theatre groups in the Bay area. She talks about groups that develop a “common aesthetic” generating an atmosphere, an air or scent that marks out an ecology of feeling. At times her music has been called “cinematic” or atmospheric because it is not moving towards a self-conscious structure, yet she is pleased to be making work that supports other people’s (44). Jude says her music “is more to be there, to change the air for you, give you that smell”. It is “not a product but something in another thing” that the co-labourers find energizing and “just so happy to have it there” (92). She composes not to be “in front” and the centre of attention, but to further others without being centre-stage.

In Jude’s experience this means making pieces in small situated groups, where you can develop complementary practices into something you share with other collaborators—a process, she acknowledges, that might make the music a little more difficult for an audience to “get”. At the same time, for her the performers need an acceptance or willingness to “come in through ‘the other side’ ”, the side of sociocultural expectation, to make the music accessible and gain levels of permeability (58)—noting also that some groups of performers have good reasons for remaining impermeable. But this does not mean producing conventional music that “is like sugar or empty, junk, [that] doesn’t feed you” (56). Making music that people “enjoy listening to” needs her music to make both the performers and the audience feel “joyous, alive, content to be here and now, completely whole” (56).

These modes of rehearsal are reinforced by particular co-labouring strategies that sustain an engaged participation in the work on the part of art-maker, co-labourers and audience participants. For Jude, collaboration has the qualities of situated work that extends out into all the materials that are participating. She needs someone to hear and care about the sound, so the audience “is part of this” work (101). While the performers in some ways make up their own audience, there are people who know the work and the performers know “they will get it”. To explain what “get it” means, Jude begins by talking about the typical audience coming in “off the street” to buy tickets, and asks “how does that relate to what I’m doing?” (103). This kind of audience may not recognize the sound as music and be disappointed, or may have heard previous pieces and want the group to play something like that. A collaborative audience attending to the group performance needs to have a practice that encourages them to be aware of what happens, rather than come in with expectations. For a performing group to be supportive is not a matter of offering products, or drawing on cultural responses that may question those products, but of engaging the practice of the audience into participating in an ecology that changes them and generates the processes of becoming, knowing and valuing that presence that change into their lived lives.

The self in this kind of situated group is not, as she puts it, “look at me, I’m in the middle”. Rather, it is a series of water drops, “You don’t know where it might end up, where the pond is, and you don’t care” (61). Jude speaks of having two selfs, a limited social one and a more expansive sense related to the water drops. The limited self “goes away when I play with people I trust” (63), along with the sociocultural voice that says “I hated that part”, “What am I doing” “that part was hard”. The more expansive self just lets this go, and keeps on playing and energizing. When the playing stops the “I” comes back, feeling “I want to do that forever” (63). The expansive self has a sense of being whole and centred, it has an “outward radiation”, and a sense “of being, of receiving vibrations”, a “vibrational expansiveness”. When she improvises with her expansive self something happens from letting things arise, noticing them without judgement, and, if she gets caught up in them, trying to let them go.

The language of “what happens” is attributed by Jude partly to practice learned by working with Fred Frith15 on taiji, and with Pauline Oliveros16 who has roots in Daoism. Jude speaks of using her practice “to watch my reactions to what is happening, what I’m doing, what others are doing” (81). When she is playing she listens to the sound, observes the sound, and if she starts getting caught up in judging the sound she lets it go. The process is not about gaining “equanimity”, but about keeping on making something “as clear as possible”, something clearly carrying the somatic complexity of the self as it expands into the ecology and bringing that self, necessarily changed from participating in the ecology, back. Jude calls it “an inner and an outer at the same time” that expresses something “I feel physically, and like or don’t like, but feel”. It is a practice that lets the “I” go into what happens (86) and so the co-labouring group can make some form to embody the change. As she says, “it’s practical”, it is about getting something done that makes present the way you feel, the things that are valuable to you (86).

The practice lets the “limited self” go. As it does so it is also making something that is part of and energizing something else, some thing that is used in the co-labouring group in a particular way. Jude comments that “it gets me out of ‘what I want’ and into ‘I just make what I can’ for this particular situation or piece” (92). When you find a group to make pieces with and for whom the practice works, it sets aside the issue of “what I want”. For Jude, the “I” in these settings often refers to an artist who makes product, aims at success, fame, money—the “ego self”, or that limited self (93). She understands the call to recognition in this kind of art-making and says “I don’t need to do this kind of Art”, but “if I do not make art I feel like shit”. Making art (rather than Art) in co-labouring groups is a shorthand for everything besides the product (97). Making art seems to be one way “to feel better about oneself” at the same time as it necessitates losing that self. Making art ditches the limited self and prompts the expanding self. In her career to date, Jude has gone through cycles of productivity, needing to remember to make art as a way to find reasons for going on living—she says “my whole artistic life has been trying to enlarge those periods of remembering” (99–100).

Jude also says that she sometimes finds herself going back to self-consciousness, asking “who is hearing” and overmodulating. Even though she is “better” at not sitting in that limited self, “I still care who is listening”. Recalling the self-doubt of being “judged”, she says she had to work hard on the feeling that “awful as I was” people could still hear her (109). After a while she realized that “if they hear you, they hear you”. In a clear shift from discursive requirements to alongside emergence, this realization requires her “to be in a place where I do not think about who hears me or what they want to hear”, it is more about “what I feel” (111). Recounting a performance she made recently, she foregrounds the processes of letting go into what happens as a key element in her performativity. In this work, she was singing as she walked the perimeter of the performance/audience space, to the counterpoint of her recorded voice speaking from a stationary point in the room. Some of the gifts of the piece were for the audience participants to be made aware that sound comes from all different places, for them to feel the moving body as a sound source and to be attentive to the voice as it moves around the performer’s body (116). The material she was performing for the audience engaged the participants by displacing the single body of the artist into multiple voices forming an ecology for their practice. Some may have been confused about what they “should” be listening to because she was not producing anything expected, she was not setting up a normative ethical performance.

At the same time, the form (of walking/talking/recording) she had made felt appropriate, and indeed was able to carry the embodiment that became present during performance. Jude recalls that she had not had the time to warm up her voice and the vocal break between the chest and head was not going to be smooth. Instead of evading the issue, or normalizing it, “I felt myself jumping over it” and started playing with it. What happened became a dialogue about how she was feeling, and how that is “an ongoing, changing, state, and how that sounds” (112). Thinking about the conventional response other people might have is “a trap that pulls me out of my self, I literally get out of my body … I’m no longer ‘I’ in any way that is useful”. Instead she tried to “absent” that “I”, reinhabit the body, because the body is part of the vocalist’s material for her in a way that is “closer to dancers” (113). Staying with the somatic complexity of the break and “playing with the jump” was, Jude says, not conceptual “it just happened—I just knew at the time ‘that’s happening’—I just sat in it” (114). What Jude is talking about here is the embodiment of the differences that happen through practice, carried by the form made in rehearsal. When performed, that kind of embodiment becomes material that sets up an engaged ethical performance for the audience.

Multiple selving

These two women performers are making pieces that Nicole Peisl talks about a self that “distributes” and in that multiplicity becomes porous to what happens, changes and presences that change in a felt sense. Just so, Gretchen Jude asks whether she can call the vocal sounds of her body “my voice”. In her practice, her rehearsal modes and her performance, she does not think about a “unified self” but about “many voices”. She comments that often a person’s voice is there to give them a certain stability (118)—that stability that she felt would be needed for recognized sociocultural performance and a stability that was not appropriate for making present the values in her life. And it is not that she performs “many voices”, but her performing comes “from that place” where the self is not unitary (119). As for many women, the unitary individual of Western culture cannot speak for the lives of these women. Stepping alongside that culture, the porous or expansive selving these women performers learn through their practices foregrounds the processes of engaging with materials they do not know and never know, but that engaging changes them, makes a place for the not-known in their somatic complexity.

If these women are represented as “known” by hegemonic representations, and if this is the normative ethics—and the basis for responsive ethics—that does not see, hear, recognize or value their lives, then the ethics of engagement that does presence their ways of valuing is also an ethico-poetic positionality taken up so as not to represent. When engaged practice and rehearsal performs it can make a number of choices: it can focus on presencing the not-known in the ways of valuing that are performed—saying the unsayable—and it can position the forms as the presence of those not-known elements and offer ways of saying the not-yet-said. These performance embodiments have ethico-poetic political force that is keenly felt by our somatic complexities, at the least, in the face of hegemonic knowledge that evades or obscures or erases what it does not know. Yet performance can also articulate the forms as cultural presences into saying something previously unsayable so that it fits into society, and potentially, the forms can shift into representations and become simply what is said/not-said. These latter two performance modes have sociopolitical implications that call on normative and responsive ethics. Performers can also use performance to offer material not only to audiences with engaged practices but also to train audiences in practices that are relevant—but that is another story.

Presencing the not-known needs rehearsal modes that will sustain the material as not-known, and hence the energy of engagement as it moves from the performers’ felt sense into a form that can be performed through their embodiments. Those rehearsal modes have much to contribute to how we think about situated knowing, and how people, in this case women, whose ways of valuing are often not even recognized by hegemonic sociocultural representations, can articulate the reasons that make it worthwhile going on living. Those rehearsal modes include elements such as a willingness to train in complementary practices that attend to the changes made by not-known elements, participation that supports the work of others in letting things happen, small group collaboration that trains to become aware of moments where felt sense emerges in material form—all of which work together on making present the changes felt by the somatic complexity of selving.

Women performers such as Nicole Peisl and Gretchen Jude are from quite different parts of the AngoEuropean West and make work that in its detail may be recounted differently. Yet in its practising for non-individual porous and expansive selving, and in its co-labouring gifting (giving/taking) of differences that generates emergent form, the work is remarkably similar. This essay suggests that those details and that work may well be able to contribute to our understanding of how to recognize and be more aware of alongside living. In their focus on ethico-poetic politics rather than the politics of social ethics, they offer ways to sustain an engaged situated ethics in the performativity of gender in lived lives as well as in the performance of gender as necessarily multiple.

Data Availability

Data sharing not applicable to this article as no datasets were generated or analysed during the current study.

Additional Information

How to cite this article: Hunter L (2016). Ethics, performativity and gender: porous and expansive concepts of selving in the performance work of Gretchen Jude and of Nicole Peisl. Palgrave Communications. 2:16006 doi: 10.1057/palcomms.2016.6.


  1. 1.

    “Performativity” is a highly contested word in Performance Studies. For various approaches, see Hunter (2013, fn. 3: 151); in this essay performativity takes the place of the word “textuality” in other studies.

  2. 2.

    On “somatic complexity” as an alterior conceptualization of sentient-being embodiment that does not split between mind and body, even to attempt to relate those concepts (Hunter, 2016: 5).

  3. 3.

    Marx frequently argues for working-class standpoint, and many theorists in the twentieth century, such as Georg Lukacs, develop this strategy.

  4. 4.

    For performance studies commentaries that use “alongside”, see Read (1994: 8), Hunter (1999a, 2001, 2013, 2014, 2016: 9ff), Lepecki et al. (2013: 20); Kosofsky-Sedgwick (2002) uses Foucault’s “beside” 8ff.

  5. 5.

    Donna Haraway, “becoming with” (2007: 3, and throughout).

  6. 6.

    See the concept of “the multiple and partial self” in Strathern (2004). Strathern famously relates this self to the feminist who “is never a complete person” (34). See also her discussion of what can be considered an “intellectual activity” (xix and throughout) and how this makes certain kinds of knowledge legible or illegible.

  7. 7.

    See Stengers (2005) on “practical identities”, 186ff.

  8. 8.

    See Diana Taylor for related commentary on “repertoire”, which this essay finds helpful in expanding the concept of “rehearsal” (Taylor, 2003: 20ff), and which is related to performance outside hegemony.

  9. 9.

    Performers gendered male also undertake this kind of work, but their work is more likely to be co-opted into discursive representation, partly because of the training that leads to their practice and also partly because of the reception of their work in hegemonic society. I am not currently interested in pursuing this hypothesis.

  10. 10.

    Page numbers refer to the transcript of interviews, chronologically arranged, for each performer. Each performer has a different transcript, hence page numbers refer to the transcript relevant to the performer mentioned in the sentence.

  11. 11.

    Jude received a koto certification (with distinction) from the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo.

  12. 12.

    See for information about this choreographer.

  13. 13.

    See for information about this choreographer.

  14. 14.

    See for information about this choreographer.

  15. 15.

    See for information on this composer/musician.

  16. 16.

    See for information on this composer/musician.


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  1. Performance Studies, University of California Davis, Davis, USA

    • Lynette Hunter


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