“Rip the Script”: Performing/Witnessing Natural History of Hope
Natural History of Hope (NHOH, 2012-16) was an inter-generational project between Rialto Youth Project (Dublin) and artist Fiona Whelan. NHOH explored contemporary equality issues for women and girls living and working in Rialto, Dublin, through the thematic lens’ of social class, death, the liability of men in women’s lives, gendered identity, lack of safe space, struggle for dignity, and the affective domain – all of which emerged from testimonies/personal narratives gathered during the four years of the project. Culminating as a live performance at the Project Arts Centre (with Brokentalkers theatre company), NHOH brought together 200 anonymous stories from women and girls living and working in Rialto, which became a shared experiential history performed by a cast of thirty women over three consecutive nights in May 2016.
It is the relationship(s) encapsulated by the above reference to a ‘shared experiential history’ that Two Fuse examine in this paper: the difference and distance between performing and witnessing a collective (his)story which has been shaped by a constellation of power relations. Can such (his)stories be shared with/experienced by an audience or spectator in the form of a reciprocal exchange? As argued by Elizabeth Spelman in her Fruits of Sorrow (1997), the danger is that the witness may appropriate the suffering of others, thereby using their story to express self-righteous pity, to participate in self-serving gestures of empathy, or to indulge in voyeuristic enjoyment. In Spelman’s own words, ‘Feeling for others in their suffering can simply be a way of asserting authority over them to the extent that such feeling leaves no room for them to have a view about what their suffering means, or what the most appropriate response to it is’ (p. 70). This, we wish to argue, is one of the stakes of practising collaborative/socially engaged art, and NHOH provides important insights as to how (his)stories of unequal power relations can be shared and experienced through reciprocal exchange.