Intersections between Environmental Justice and Site-Specific Performance

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This post originally appeared on Environmental History Now, a website dedicated to showcasing the work and expertise of graduate students and early career scholars in environmental history who identify as women, trans and non binary people.

One of the fascinating things about site-specific performance in its broadest sense (as in, the exploration of space, bodies, time, movement, ritual, and gesture) is that it helps us to think inclusively about bodies and the environments in which they are embedded. The groups most affected by the need for environmental justice (that is the body that have the marks of injustice on their physical bodies through exposure) are the marginalised: those who, through poverty, substance abuse, or mental health issues, gender, colour are deemed other. One of the strengths of site-specific performance is that those marks of difference that are placed on an individual’s body and how those marks of difference play out as an individual moves through a public space is framed and explored with the intention of capturing and re-enacting a behaviour.

The idea of justice and bodily autonomy is a very contentious topic and we see that played out all too clearly on the bodies that are deemed ungovernable, uncontrollable even, by the nation state. This is one of the core aspects of the almost ritualistic enactment of social behaviour in performance. Carl Lavery points out when he builds on this idea of the networked presence that is a core quality of performance. He builds on Erika Fischer-Licke’s idea of what she calls “autopoetic feedback loops” which is namely this relationship or tension between: “The physical presence and fragility of the performer whose body cannot help but show its mortality, its necessary entanglement in both ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ and ‘the explicit ‘networked quality’ of the stage.”[1]

Performance and, in particular, site-specific performance is about exposure. When you take that performance out into the urban space it helps us to think inclusively about bodies and environment. In “Rambling as Resistance,” Jason Kosnoski challenges Michel de Certeau’s idea of walking in the city by suggesting that in our contemporary modern urban city, the fragmentation of spaces and our inability to transcend them is destructive: “Individuals face more and more observation, control and discipline through both spatial and temporal strategies upon the body, yet the fragmentation of spaces, cities and regions ensures that individuals do not traverse the entirety of their environment with freedom or creativity.”[2] Negotiating the urban space is not always generative and can be suppressive, particularly to those expressing dissident tendencies. I’m suggesting ways that sustainable narratives of urban spaces can be triggered by what Haraway calls a “situated knowledge” of the space.[3] What strikes me about performance is that it is perfectly adapted to the interplay between the internal—emotion, drives, instinct—and the external social and political world in that it exemplifies the idea of a collective (the audience) on the one hand, and the performer on the other. The term that comes to mind is body politics, an idea Nadia Brown and Sarah Allen Gershon argue is more about the “the body itself is politically inscribed and is shaped by practices of containment and control.” They go on to say that: “As active subjects, marginalized bodies can confound the dominant discourse by opposing prevailing ideologies that have marked the body with meaning. To be sure, power relations are dynamic, nuanced, and highly contextual. Power is not manifested in a static form.”[4] And we see this when those individuals reclaim public space for their own agendas—such as with social movements to force political change.

So, examining the marked body is a certainly a fluid, but also potentially powerful figure. The power dynamic between the individual body and body politics is illustrated in the collective aspect of performance and the ramifications of having in a space an organised group perhaps, maybe ideally, with political aspirations and a sense of justice. Our intimate connection with the environment is something that plays out in narratives that foregrounds our bodies and their immersion in their given environments. Ethical issues are woven into the discourse surrounding the environmental justice: how are systems of inequality perpetuated? How and what has been given a voice and how do we share public space? There is an implicit understanding that there is no objective methodical practice that can be untangled from the social and cultural discrepancies that that buffer some while harangue others. These issues of embodiment have also come to the fore in performance and what is just or righteous or equal when it comes to bodily practices particularly at the intersection between the body, environmental studies, and performance.

[1] Carl Lavery, “Introduction: performance and ecology—what can theatre do?” 20 Green Letters (2016): 231.
[2] Jason Kosnoski, “Rambling as Resistance: Frederick Law Olmsted, Michel de Certeau, and the Micropolitics of Walking the City,” 3 Situations: Project of the Radical Imagination (2010): 127-128.
[3] See Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” 14 Feminist Studies (1988): 575-599.
[4] Nadia Brown and Sarah Allen Gershon, “Body Politics,” 5 Politics, Groups, and Identities (2017): 1.
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Lisa FitzGerald

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