Darren O’Donnell and Eva Verity of Mammalian Diving Reflex

January 26, 2018

Founded in 1993, Mammalian Diving Reflex is an award-winning Canadian company that creates social and site-specific performance events, theatre-based productions, participatory gallery installations, as well as runs a long-term youth program, workshops, and an artistic consultancy. Many of their projects involve research and collaborations with everyday citizens to create original encounters that challenge our understanding of social relationships. Mammalian’s project Haircuts by Children, a performance about children’s rights, trust, generosity, and vanity, in which children ran a salon and gave haircuts to adults, was a hit at the 2012 Fusebox Festival. Mammalian will be back in Austin this spring and in residence, collaborating with senior citizens for their project All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, which will culminate in a public performance at the 2018 Festival. The co-directors of the company Darren O’Donnell and Eva Verity talked to us over Skype from Melbourne, Australia, and Toronto, Canada, respectively about their unique way of working, which involves a lot of emailing, socializing, conversation, as well as the occasional prayer.

Anna Gallagher-Ross: Can you talk about Mammalian’s creative methodology, “social acupuncture”?

Darren O’Donnell: We’re trying to look at the social body, the social sphere, using the body as a metaphor for society. In the same way that traditional Chinese medicine believes there are imbalances that are dialectically related—an excess is always connected to a deficiency, poverty does not exist without excessive wealth, neighborhood segregation is not defined by one group but rather, at least two groups of people, and so on—and we’re trying to use our projects as needles that both illustrate these imbalances, and then, hopefully, in the smallest ways, correct them, even if just momentarily.

We don’t expect there to be huge social shifts from this—a project like Haircuts for Children is only going to instantiate children’s rights for two hours and we don’t expect there to be huge social shifts as a result of that—but on the other hand, part of the methodology are the insights that come from our work. We take this idea from the world of science of dynamics which talks about these phase shifts: when a dynamic system goes from one state to another state or tipping point. It sees the occurrence of a tipping point or a revolution as the result of an accumulation of very small scale changes over the course of a longer period. And so in our work, it is these small, the tiny, changes are what we’re trying to make happen. The methodology does not see the artist as a centralized social engineer, nor is the revolution viewed as conceived and coordinated by a cadre of people who are especially enlightened or especially woke, but rather it’s just the idea of the artist fumbling around in the dark trying to create these situations where there’s equity, and where the world is a better place for the moment of the project, and then over the course of who knows how long, there might be social change.

Another idea that’s important in this is performativity, a term which is often misused. It’s often used as a metaphor for performance, but more accurately, it originates in speech act theory, and refers to a statement that makes something happen for real, in the real world. The famous example being, “I now pronounce you wife and wife, or husband and husband…” a statement that suddenly means that husband or that wife has a different relationship to the border, to the tax man. In the case of Haircuts by Children, in the moment, in the act of delivering that project, the children have more rights, they run the salon, they are in charge of the salon, the project is a performative act where, what the piece is about is being enacted in the act of doing it, of making it happen.

We make two assumptions about the world in this work: one, that people are generous, given the right context. We try to develop a context so that people can be comfortable, so that even a virulent neo-Nazi prick Richard Spence douchebag, if he is made comfortable, is going to be generous. Second: we assume that there is an abundance in the world and what’s necessary is the redistribution of that abundance. And the final thing is that we deploy social discomfort as an intentional stressor in order to develop stronger social strength. Just as we use weight as an intentional stressor to develop muscle strength, or a difficult math problem to develop cognitive strength, we bring a minor awkwardness to our projects, such as children cutting your hair, or older people talking about sexuality, and by throwing that in, we create this discomfort intentionally, so that people become more generous to each other and when they’ve opened their hearts to each other, they’ve strengthened the muscles in their hearts.

AGR: How was the collective founded? Could you talk about the structure of the collective? How do you all work?

DOD: I started Mammalian Diving Reflex in 1993 to develop my own, script-based work, and as a way to access public funding. Then in 2000 I started to be influenced by what was happening in the visual arts community, and started to make more performance-related stuff and more social practice, relational aesthetics type stuff, and then in 2008, Eva and another former co-director Jenna Winter came on board as interns. And when our producer at that point decided to fall in love while on one of our projects in Tasmania and decided not to leave, Eva and Jenna took over.

Eva Verity: We have this dual approach. We have the practical aspect which we handle here in Toronto: the administration, grant-writing, the board, and we also do quite a bit to establish the foundation for the performances that get done on tour, whether those are touring shows or new shows. There’s a lot of emailing. I feel like we are on email ninety-nine percent of the time until we are finally in a place making a show; there’s lots of going back and forth, setting up the parameters, getting the participants on board, getting things ready for then we arrive on site. What are the demographics we want to work with? What is the idea we want to work with in that particular place? A lot of that work happens over Skype and email from all corners of where we are working in the world. Darren and I are often in different places; we barely see each other until we arrive to make the show. And when we finally get on site, we have a very process-oriented approach. We are usually in a place for a minimum of ten days and it can go up to six, seven, or eight weeks, depending on what we are doing. And over that time, we work on the project together with the people there, we develop trust with the participants through small-scale activities, and low-level intimacy crackers, and go on to more and more challenging exercises and workshops that open up the group further and further. Especially with All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, it’s this progression over four weeks, where we go from being essentially strangers to talking about some of the most intimate details of our lives, and it’s not just the seniors sharing, it’s all of us, we make sure that everyone in the room and on the team is sharing to the same level. We do a lot of socializing and those activities get deeper and deeper in opening those doors up until we are finally able to get them on stage, revealing and sharing a lot of intimate information.

DOD: Eva’s role, all of these steps that happen before we arrive in a place, are actually the bulk of the work, in terms of time and effort. Or at least it’s a fifty-fifty split. In the more traditional theatre, when you are in the rehearsal hall, its understood that that is where the artists are, and that the producer is not considered part of that. In our work, the work of the “producer” is much of the artistry, because so much of what is happening, being negotiated, being decided upon, it’s like deciding upon the color of paints that one uses, or the material one selects, and since our material is social relations all of these decisions that shape those relations are very much a part of the artistic process; production is very much a site for art. As artists, we’re mostly emailers—that’s what we are mostly doing.

Social specificity is what we are looking for in our work. So site visits are a very important part. All the Sex I’ve Ever Had wouldn’t have come about if we hadn’t done a site visit in a small city in Germany called Oldenburg, where I noted that there were women in their seventies and eighties riding bicycles, which I’d never seen before. It was primarily women because men die younger and also many of that generation were lost in World War II, and for me, it was just a little surprising to see eighty-year-old women zipping around on bicycles, and so the project would not have occurred to me, would not have headed down that road had I not experienced that. Site visits are important so that I can create something derived from that site, and hopefully some of these shows can have a touring life, but others can’t. I did a project in Germany with refugees and at this point we haven’t been able to find a life for it, because the more specific you get, the more difficult it is to transfer it to other areas, and yet, the more specific it is the more interesting the insight.

Betelhem Makonnen: It seems related, to use acupuncture as a metaphor: you can probably do the same procedure with most bodies, but there are some bodies that you have to pay specific attention to, in order for the procedure to work.

EV: With the more formatted work, the evolution of these shows is also incredible. All the Sex that we made in 2012 in Oldenburg is not the same show in 2017 in Austin, it’s a constant evolutionary process of encountering specific issues or challenging, engaging the audience, which changes how we approach it next time. The show has changed so much and adapted every time we do it.

BM: You are dealing with unpredictability which makes it great.

AGR: It makes it so alive. Could you tell us a bit more about this experience in Oldenburg, how the project developed after seeing these women on bicycles?

DOD: The Oldenburg State Theater runs a festival called the Pazz Festival, and the artistic director had commissioned us and so I went there for a site visit and proposed a bunch of things based on what I saw there, including the women on bicycles, and in conversation, he and I we came up with the idea of looking at aging and sexuality, and at the time, came up with the title the “The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had.” And then we decided to embark on the project, and started to do research into older people and sexuality, which involved me getting repeatedly kicked off of Lavalife (which was like the Tinder of 2007) because you can’t do commercial stuff or research on there. I met a bunch of people, put a bunch of posters up, invited people who wanted to talk about the topic. I had a series of workshops in Toronto, and then in Germany, and struggled for two years, and then a month before the premier we had no idea as to how we would stage this thing, or what the content would be. We were fixated on the idea of it being a party where people share their best sex experiences, but it turns out that the best sex is not the most interesting sex that somebodies had—it’s the worst sex that is by far the most interesting. And the linchpin insight was that these participants were born in a world where no one talked about sexuality at all, compared to this world, where it is all people want to talk about. They were the generation who made that possible, who pushed for the acceptance of sexuality, who were the second wave feminists of the 60s, so to occurred to me that the show should be this evolution of their sexuality over a period of time. And one night I was depressed, skipping a party, and I used this prayer that I once used to once save the hard drive on my computer, I am not Christian, but it was a Christian prayer that I happened to find on the subway, and I used this prayer to ask for help with this stupid project and then all at once, the idea, the entire form of the piece, this exploration of decades, chronologically, came to me, The story of their sexuality over the course of the lifetime seemed the best way to go. And I’ve used that prayer since and its always been very effective, in case you are looking for something…

AGR/ BM: Yes, please!

DOD: It’s St. Faustina. She was this artist who had this vision that she had to repeatedly paint this image of Christ with all these beams coming from his heart, and all of her superiors thought she was crazy and eventually, she hired someone to paint this vision, and it was amazing. And I think she died quite young in her 30s….Anyways, after the prayer, it was this long process for me of specifically narrowing down the form and content of the piece. The conversations we have to have with the participants need a certain specificity.

EV: The kinds of questions to ask in our interviews to get the kind of content we are looking for has changed over time. We’ve become better at getting what we need from the start.

DOD: Location was one of the first insights that we had. One of the participants would say: “We used to fight a lot”, and we’d ask “What kinds of fights would you have?” and they’d say “Oh, I don’t know, we’d fight about anything!” and so eventually we’d ask: “Can you remember where you were when you were fighting?’ and that starts to trigger memories, specificity. Another example would be: “Did you have a crush on anybody in the early days?” and they’d say “No” and so we’d say “OK, describe your neighborhood, who lived across the street?” and then they’d go “Oh yeah! There as this kid across the street and I used to ride my bike past his place because he was so cute,” you know, small things like that. Otherwise it can remain at a high level of abstraction, and some want to keep it there because it’s not easy to talk about this kind of stuff. And often they come in with there own agendas about the story they want to tell and we need to negotiate that; it’s not a perfect process.

EV: So far we’ve been pretty fortunate to have people involved that have peaks in their sexuality at different times in their lives, so some people are active when they are young and are having a lot of partners, relationships, or whatever; some people are late bloomers, and so it’s really in their thirties that completely open up; and some are still pretty active in this present moment, actively dating online or in polyamorous relationships, so we have all of these different peaks. And we can only give one piece of the pie of someone’s life, we cannot possibly tell everyone’s life stories because the show cannot be that long, so we end up selecting different relationships to focus on, different through lines, when everyone’s life comes together we have this multidimensional peaks and valleys across five or six lives that are telling this bigger story.

Read more about the theory behind Mammalian Diving Reflex/O’Donnell’s work in O’Donnell’s new book Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract (Coach House Books 2018)

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):

All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, Sydney Festival, Australia, 2016. Credit: Prudence Upton.