IFTR Presentation Belgrade

Presenting research from my book project, Conceptual Theatre, at the International Federation for Theatre Research World Congress in Belgrade, Serbia, July 2018

At the intersection of literary, performance, visual, and digital studies, my research theorizes the political potential of thought experiments and experimental aesthetic forms. My book proposal, “Conceptual Theatre: Race, Gender, and Dematerialization,” was selected for the American Society for Theatre Research José Esteban Muñoz Targeted Research Working Session, “New Research in Minoritarian Performance” 2018 Book Proposal / Grant Writing Workshop. I have presented my research at national and international conferences including Performance Studies International, American Society for Theatre Research, Space Between Society, Performance Philosophy, and International Federation for Theatre Research.

My first book project, Conceptual Theatre: Race, Gender, and Dematerialization, unfolds an alternative mode of political engagement enacted through the formal innovations of African American avant-garde closet drama. I introduce and theorize a new genre: the Conceptual Play. Marita Bonner, Jean Toomer, Amiri Baraka, and Ed Bullins’ Conceptual Plays disrupt a clear translation from textual script to embodied staging, using anti-surveillant tactics of invisibility and fugitivity to resist essentialized embodiments of blackness in the public sphere. Disrupting theatrical conventions of temporal and spatial (en)closure, their plays – in conversation with Wassily Kandinsky, Wyndham Lewis, and Jean Genet – produce invisible, interior performative utterances rather than visible dramatizations. I argue that, building upon and departing from the lineage of closet drama (plays to be read instead of staged), Bonner, Toomer, Baraka, and Bullins transform the “closet” from an elitist private sphere to a politicized space of escape within the mind. With techniques such as second-person address and the grammatical imperative, their Conceptual Theatre texts subvert the traditional function of stage directions, enacting performative commands as sites of contemplative disruption and revision of social scripts. Contemporary approaches to their work have privileged either the page or the stage in the service of critical projects that fail to engage the central dynamic at play: the performative mediation between script and performance. If the modernist closet drama operates at the interstices of diegesis and mimesis, then the black avant-garde Conceptual Play subverts this dichotomy of language and action altogether. Thus, a movement from literary and theatre studies to performance studies more precisely approaches the formal significance of Bonner, Toomer, Baraka, and Bullins’ work. Theorizing the (dis)embodied, (in)visible production of race, gender, and sexuality, I suggest that interiority is a key location of political action.

Extending my archive of dematerialized texts toward contemporary digital forms, I recently presented a multimedia research project as part of the American Society for Theatre Research Working Group, “Digital Defense for Artists, Scholars, & Activists.” My paper, entitled “Conceptual Theatre in Digital Spaces,” situates visual artist William Pope.L’s website project The Black Factory in conversation with playwright Ed Bullins’ script The Theme is Blackness in order to explore theatrical and digital productions of blackness. As an experiment in digital dramaturgy, I staged Bullins’ play in a digital space. Accompanying my textual analysis of the two works, I created a two-channel video animation of Bullins’ and Pope.L’s texts. The project tracks the aesthetic and conceptual convergence between (dis)embodiment and digitality, exploring the possibilities of a black avant-garde Digital Conceptual Theatre.


Chapter: “Biological Plasticity and Performative Possibility in the Work of Catherine Malabou and Curious,” Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations (Performance Philosophy series), ed. J. Elliott, M. Pauker, and A. Street. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Print.

My second book project, American Plasticity, draws upon eco-criticism, queer theory, and neuroscience to theorize synthetic plastic aesthetics in contemporary performance art, visual art, and pop culture. As a material that compels us to rethink the relationship between nature and artifice, subject and object, and surface and depth, plastic is a natural ally to feminist politics. Queer aesthetics, from camp cinema to nonbinary fashion, draw upon plastic materials (glitter, silicone, spandex) and plastic-inflected visuals (neon colors, shimmery surfaces) to craft a plasticized orientation toward the world that denies the naturalness of gender and sexuality as well as nature itself. What happens when we connect environmental critiques of petro-plastics with cultural celebrations of plastic aesthetics? My public essay “The Pleasures of Teaching Plastic” (Edge Effects 2018) discusses the project and the related experimental seminar I developed.

My scholarly essay “Biological Plasticity and Performative Possibility in the work of Catherine Malabou and Curious” is situated in dialogue with a new essay by Malabou in the volume Inter Views in Performance Philosophy: Crossings and Conversations (Palgrave 2017). Reading Malabou’s philosophy of plasticity and Butler’s concept of gender performativity with performance artist duo Leslie Hill and Helen Paris’ practice of “autobiology,” I turn my attention to feminist engagements with biological materiality and propose a consideration of the performative neuroplasticity of the gut. This intervention has significant implications for the performativity of identity in everyday life: the synaptic event revises the code and transforms the program. Moving between material and symbolic orders, contemporary feminist representations of the (in)visible body perform new possibilities for embodied speech acts.


Presenting research on performative plasticity in Malabou and Curious at the University of Paris-Sorbonne

As a performance studies scholar, practice-based research is an essential component of my work. I create site-specific, multimedia, participatory performances that extend my theoretical research on performativity to consider the material production of identity in everyday life. For example, my durational social practice project Performing MMoCA, selected for the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2016 Wisconsin Triennial,  negotiates individual and institutional agency, spectatorship, positionality, and context. See Artwork for more information.

Complementing my scholarly and artistic research agenda is a commitment to collaborative, practice-based research, and I have built energized institutional spaces for interdisciplinary research. As a three-time recipient of the A.W. Mellon Interdisciplinary Workshop Grant at the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities, I co-founded and co-coordinated the Art + Scholarship A.W. Mellon Workshop, a three-year series of public talks, performances, and hands-on “Theory-Practice Collaboratory” workshops exploring topics such as “Speech Acts,” “Conceptual Materialisms,” and “Queering Digitality.” With the support of a grant from the international research network Performance Philosophy, I co-founded the Madison Performance Philosophy Collective and co-organized two interdisciplinary, international symposia featuring experimental lectures, live performances, digital media projects, interactive installations, and participatory workshops. See Curatorial Projects for more information.