Issue One 2020

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In Issue One, Alex Hedt critically analyses the performative incorporation of Auslan interpretation in Queen Kong Episode II: Queen Kong in Outer Space; Paul Boyé brings together an analysis of Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal The Postmodern Condition text and his exhibition project Les Immatériaux: Art, Science, and Theory, moving toward an understanding of contemporary posthuman theory;  Madeline Taylor discusses the delineated cultures of belonging between technical and creative teams in theatre production; Elizabeth Smith explores how contemporary institutions are collecting, archiving and interpreting the work of German modernist photographer August Sander; and, Chelsea Coon discusses the endurance performance framework of her performances all star and Phases to explore the interrelated roles of space, time and the body as she enacts a series of excessive acts.

Together they represent the broad and interdisciplinary research practices—including theatre, film, visual art, art history and theory—of postgraduate study from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne and the School of Design, University of Western Australia.

Introduction  –  

Jeremy Eaton and Kelly Fliedner 

To cite this contribution;
Eaton, Jeremy, and Kelly Fliedner. ‘Introduction –’ Currents Journal Issue One (2020),

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Naarm/Melbourne and Boorloo/Perth are cities by the ocean, port cities whose residents share a nationality, but whose geographies are distant. We are connected by land just as we are connected by ocean; from Doogalup/Cape Leeuwin to Mendi-Moke/Flinders through southern waters that route and re-route our pathways of possibility, which suggests we might come to rest in places known and unknown.

Currents takes its title from such a sensibility, from the desire to reach out, to connect; to make sense of the spaces between tides and time, between institutions of learning, states and cities that represent and are representative; between orientations of Pacific and Indian, American and Asian. It comes from a saltwater consciousness, a port awareness, a belief in continents that are more than nations; all as a way to share in research and development—to share thoughts and art.

Hosted between the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia, Currents was initiated in 2019 with these sentiments in mind, as an interdisciplinary journal that encompasses art, theatre, dance and music history, theoretical developments, and contemporary cultural practice arising from each of the geographically distant institutions. This was before the prevalence of the pandemic and the ensuing year of lockdowns and the eclipse of our work and education processes by the digital.

As this year advanced, Currents continued to develop in a context whereby our local, national and international movements were limited, and changes to the forms and processes of higher education were implemented. And while we all experienced these unprecedented physical and social restrictions, from an education, research and arts perspective, 2020 could be characterised by a kind of agility, as everyone has repeatedly ‘pivoted’ in response to the ever shifting government edicts dictated by the circumstances of the pandemic.

It is from within this context that Currents has emerged. By necessity and by design, Currents has come to embody elements of the agility and responsiveness required of us in 2020. We have negotiated and renegotiated the shifting circumstances of research and the opportunities afforded by digital publication. As the title Currents suggests, the journal has become defined by a type of movement and responsiveness, from the peer-review process, collaborative exchanges, editorial processes to the style of its serial publication.  

Furthermore, this period has necessitated a change in how we work as well as why. There is certainly more online activity, from classes to seminars to journals like ours. And so, it seems important to consider how we connect across and within and through digital divides, platforms, possibilities—all as a way to think about a new reality, a moment in need of articulation and consideration. We situate our work in light of this, thinking, too, of how we might begin to practice our craft as postgraduate scholars.

As a research journal, Currents was initially established with a relatively conservative understanding of peer-review, which derives from the sciences. We were following a process whereby each paper was anonymously reviewed by two experts in the field against a prescriptive set of criteria. What we found was that the interdisciplinary nature of Currents and the unique research styles and methodologies of each contribution did not necessarily benefit from this traditional approach to review and feedback. While articles methodologically defined by an ethnographic approach to research benefitted from structured reviews, other papers that took a subjective and exegetical route through creative practice benefited from reviews responding to specific prompts that elaborated on aspects of the author’s research.

This flexible approach to different styles of research in conjunction with mentoring and collaborative editorial approaches, has assisted authors—all of whom are at various stages in their research degrees—to sharpen and deepen aspects of their field of interest. As editors, we have become comfortable with this experimental and more collaborative approach to peer-review, and we anticipate that this will develop further as we receive more experimental submissions in the form of creative works, music scores, scripts or the like.

Indicative of the interdisciplinarity of Currents, the first issue includes papers from students in visual art, art history, production, theatre studies and film. It takes to task various critical and social understandings of each of these discrete disciplines. Working through these exciting and various takes on the topics has allowed us to gain feedback from researchers who may be from laterally related fields, providing valuable and, at times, unusual insights into each of the papers.

Issue One, in a broad sense, seems to be characterised by questions that surround performance and institutional structures. There is an analysis of the workplace politics implicit in theatre from Madeline Taylor; Chelsea Coon’s exploration of phenomenology and endurance performance; Alex Hedt’s critical analysis of Auslan interpretation in theatre; Paul Boye’s discussion of feminist post-humanism as it relates to Jean Francois Lyotard’s Les Immaterieux; and, a critical consideration of the ‘feverish’ institutional collecting practices of August Sander’s photography from Elizabeth Smith. These papers strikingly interrogate and critically analyse aspects of their field in a way that is sustained, deep and valuable for the fields under discussion.

We return once again to the open ended possibilities of Currents, of how we maintain, sustain, and go on, in the context of both this health crisis and the digital itself; of how to distribute our work to an emergent field while acknowledging the disparity of possibility itself. This open-ended sensibility means that Currents, as its title suggests, is about the wave that comes after the wave and that comes before the wave that comes again and goes on. It is a praxis, a project, a potential that is open source, open access, and opens itself out to what it can develop into, over time and with different scholars, as their interests change along with the possibilities of institutional collaboration. What we hope to cultivate is a safe, inclusive, rigorous, dynamic and challenging intellectual space that is able to consider and re-consider the arts in its richness, fecundity and depth. That might be the qualities that help keep us current all along.

Currents could not have progressed or developed without the support, guidance and contributions of a range of people. We would like to thank our Advisory Board: Dr Clarissa Ball, Dr Darren Jorgensen, Dr Tessa Laird, Prof Su Baker, Dr Danny Butt and Vikki McInnes for their insights and critical support. We would like to thank our Editorial Committee: Paul Boyé, Emily Collett, Jonathan Graffam, Donna Lyon, Hannah Spracklan-Holl and Emanuel Rodríguez-Chaves for their conversation and support in the formative stages of Currents. In particular, we would like to thank Jonathan Graffam for his crucial contribution and energy; who initiated, directed and informed many of the formative editorial aspects of this journal. We would also like to extend our thanks to the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA), University of Melbourne and, through CoVA, the Dr Harold Schenberg Bequest for support and hosting of this new initiative. We would like to thank all our reviewers for their engaging and sustained feedback throughout the extraordinary circumstances of 2020. And most of all we would like to thank our authors for their ongoing and rigorous engagement with their practices and research throughout the development of these papers.

About the authors:
Jeremy Eaton is an artist and writer based in Melbourne. He is the gallery coordinator of KINGS Artist-Run and the editorial coordinator of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art and an editorial committee member of un Magazine. Jeremy has exhibited throughout Australia participating in exhibitions at Sarah Scout Presents, Dominik Mersch Gallery, West Space, BUS Projects, CAVES, Margaret Lawrence Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Photography. Jeremy has also written extensively for artists, galleries and publications including: the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Art + Australia, un Projects and Gertrude Contemporary.

Kelly Fliedner is a Perth-based writer and curator who is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Western Australia in the School of Design. Her research is, in a broad sense, interested in the discourses of postcolonialism and decolonisation as they manifest in, and are related to, contemporary art of South Asia. She is also the editor of Semaphore, a publication about art from Western Australia and convenes the Perth Festival’s Visual Art Writing Group.  Kelly has worked for a broad range of organisations as a writer, artist, curator and editor  including the Perth Festival, Tura New Music,  Kochi-Muziris Biennale,  Sydney Biennale, Next Wave Festival and West Space. 

Access and Aesthetics: Cultural Considerations in Interpreting Music and Theatre for Australia's d/Deaf Community 

Alex Hedt

To cite this contribution: 

Hedt, Alex. ‘Access and Aesthetics: Cultural Considerations in Interpreting Music and Theatre for Australia's d/Deaf Community’. Currents Journal  Issue One (2020),

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Course of study:
Master of Music (Ethnomusicology), Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne

Access aesthetics; Auslan-interpreted music; Deaf culture; disability arts; spectatorship


Since the 1980s, major musical theatre productions have included one-off Australian Sign Language (Auslan) interpreted shows in their Melbourne runs.1 This practice is now well established, with specialist interpreting agencies such as Auslan Stage Left existing specifically to meet this need. But Sarah Ward and Bec Matthews’s production The Legend of Queen Kong Episode II: Queen Kong in Outer Space, as performed at the Arts Centre Melbourne in January 2019, represents another approach to d/Deaf community access by building Auslan interpretation and captioning into the creative fabric of the work itself.2 Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in theatrical Auslan interpreting, this paper compares these two approaches to interpreting and explores their socio-cultural implications for Deaf performers, audiences and prospective hearing collaborators.

Auslan sign for ‘monarch; queen; king’. Accessed from Auslan Signbank 9 September 2020:

I am ensconced in my cushioned seat, in a darkened theatre in Melbourne’s Arts Centre, as text scrolls up the projector screen in front and the familiar strains of Also sprach Zarathustra blare from the speakers. But this is no sci-fi film screening. Strauss yields to funk, and a silver-clad figure appears on screen. This is Deaf performer Asphyxia, playing the Motherboard, who ‘allows for communication between all systems and life-forms’ by signing the songs in Australian Sign Language (Auslan).1 The screen flashes rhythmically—‘1, 2, 3, 4!’—and a rock band leaps into action below. The Motherboard disappears, and a woman standing amongst the band begins to sign.

As its opening sequence illustrates, The Legend of Queen Kong Episode II: Queen Kong in Outer Space (hereafter, Queen Kong) belongs to a growing body of Australian works in what Bree Hadley calls a ‘disability theatre ecology’, a spectrum of practice which seeks to include d/Deaf and disabled people in a variety of ways.2 Queen Kong moves Auslan interpretation from its historical place side of stage into the spotlight, embedding it into the fabric of the performance. Asphyxia’s role as the conduit of communication, meanwhile, challenges popular conceptions of deafness as a hearing and communication deficit. By communicating in her preferred language, Auslan, she showcases the cultural-linguistic identity of the Deaf community.3 Furthermore, the work as a whole demonstrates how, as Carrie Sandahl explains, the phenomenology of Deafness can be used to inform and create art.4 An absent plot, a half-ape protagonist, nonsensical lyrics, and jumble of musical genres combine to confront hearing audiences with the same confusion that d/Deaf people face daily. The result makes good on the promise of disability arts ‘to wreak havoc, to disrupt and be loud and unruly.’5 But what would a d/Deaf attendee make of it?

In this paper, I examine the interaction between disability arts aesthetics and Deaf spectatorship, using Queen Kong as a case study. This addresses the ‘interesting limitation in the research’ recognised by Hadley: the lack of attention given to d/Deaf and disabled audiences.6 Hadley suggests that this gap is borne out of a tendency in audience research to examine cultural, rather than physical, heterogeneity.7 I propose that Deafness, with its combined sensory, physical and cultural attributes, adds additional challenges. Though the Deaf community’s right to Auslan interpretation is acknowledged in theory and practice, this accessibility measure has particular cultural and aesthetic connotations, which have gone relatively unstudied. Here, I draw on two years of ethnographic and archival research in Melbourne and Geelong—encompassing approximately a century’s worth of historical d/Deaf publications, fieldnotes from eighteen Deaf-led and d/Deaf-accessible events and six semi-structured interviews—on musical engagement among d/Deaf Victorians to articulate these connotations and highlight their implications for disability arts.

This paper begins with a brief survey of the ‘post-therapeutic’ and ‘aesthetically, socially, or politically subversive practices’ to which the aesthetic of Queen Kong nods, examining the concept of access aesthetics and how it is used to facilitate d/Deaf access.8 The following section draws on my participant-observation at several Deaf-led and d/Deaf-accessible events, many across the 2018 and 2019 Melbourne Fringe Festivals, and interviews with three Auslan interpreters who work in mainstage theatre interpreting to demonstrate that for Deaf audiences, utility and comprehension are themselves the most valued aesthetic principles. Informed by these insights, I finally use Queen Kong to highlight where access aesthetics, used indiscriminately, have the potential to alienate Deaf audiences. In doing so, I underscore the importance of recognising the discrete needs of the Deaf community in developing inclusive arts practice and research.

Before I continue, I thank members of the Australian Deaf community for sharing their language and culture. I am hard of hearing, and so have lived experience of deafness, but my Auslan is limited and I am not a member of the Deaf community. I acknowledge that my ability to communicate in English and to pass as hearing has shaped the way I see the world.9 I do not wish to engage in what Oliver calls ‘parasitic research’, but instead to advocate for the Deaf community.10 

Disability Arts and Access Aesthetics

Here in Victoria, the landscape of disability arts practice includes a growing body of organisations which originally provided therapy or respite for people with disabilities but now primarily pursue ‘creative excellence through inclusive arts practices.’11 This concept of ‘excellence’ is not couched in terms of conventional, exclusionary aesthetic values, but instead, positions disability to ‘invigorate performance practice’.12 Julie McNamara, artistic director of United Kingdom disability arts company Vital Xposure, notes that this culture of innovation emerges from the problem-solving required for disabled artists to negotiate an often-inhospitable arts funding, training, policy and logistical landscape, rather than out of any innate desire to be novel or radical.13 One way to counter these barriers in performance practices, spearheaded by United Kingdom companies like Vital Xposure and Graeae, is by incorporating principles of access aesthetics, where accessibility measures are integrated into the fabric of the work from its inception.14

For the Deaf community, access aesthetics alters the experience of a spoken-language performance. Instead of the conventional practice of coming in on the day of a show and interpreting from beside the stage, interpreters—or, indeed, Deaf performers—become part of the rehearsal process and the show itself. As access aesthetics pioneer Jenny Sealey, artistic director of Graeae, explained, ‘As a Deaf person […] it has to be accessible for me, for my Deaf actors on stage; it also has to be accessible for a Deaf audience.’ It is easy to understand the appeal of integrated strategies in achieving this ideal: having the interpreter on stage results in a less ‘tennis-matchy’ experience for Deaf audiences, whilst introducing accessibility at an early stage of development renders it part of the aesthetic landscape instead of an ‘awkward appendage’.15 

But access aesthetics is not merely visual or logistical: sign-language interpreting can be used to challenge the audist expectations of hearing audiences.16 Rawcus’s 2017 production Song for a Weary Throat, for instance, saw the interpreter tasked with the challenge of communicating a largely wordless score without using Auslan, with a result reportedly well-received by Deaf attendees.17 In the 2009 Vital Xposure production Crossings, each scene was preceded by a contextualising monologue in British Sign Language, without English translation. Recounting the process of staging the work, McNamara described the complaints that the lack of translation elicited from hearing audiences, despite the fact that these monologues actually levelled the playing field for Deaf audiences.18 Sign-language interpreting, live captioning, and auditory processing challenges all force communication delays upon d/Deaf people; information provided in advance lightens the load of ‘catching up’.19 Though far from exhaustive, these examples demonstrate how access aesthetics can provide access for Deaf audiences and, simultaneously, interrogate assumed hierarchies of ability.

However, speaking with Auslan interpreters during my fieldwork, I found that many of them were relatively unfamiliar with these practices. Instead, the bulk of their theatre work is Auslan-interpreted mainstage theatre, a practice established in Melbourne in the 1980s. As the following section illustrates, the practices developed in this field offer insight into the values that Australian Deaf audiences attach to theatre interpreting, and can therefore guide the evaluation of emerging practices.

Utility and Understanding: Conventional Auslan Interpreting For Music and Stage

For many Deaf Australians, Auslan interpreters perform essential services with evident utility, such as attending medical appointments and emergency press conferences. However, when this utility is transferred to a musical or theatrical environment, hearing people conceive of it differently, often misconstruing sign-language interpretation of song as a performance art.20 Despite this misconception, the concept of interpreting as utility remains central to Auslan music and theatre interpreters, as revealed in interpreters’ own accounts of their work.

With professional Auslan interpreters in chronically short supply, arts interpreting has often fallen to independent volunteers with relevant specialised knowledge.21 This was the catalyst for not-for-profit agency Auslan Stage Left, founded in Melbourne in 2012. Veteran interpreter Susan Emerson and Deaf theatre professional Medina Sumovic established the organisation to provide interpreting services, training and Deaf cultural consultancy to the arts sector.22 All three interpreters to whom I spoke work with Auslan Stage Left, which is valued within the Deaf community for its reputation of strong Deaf advocacy, its collaborative working model, and the Auslan proficiency of its interpreters.23 

From the outset of the interpreting process, Auslan’s utilitarian function is evident, as when interpreters allocate roles. With only two interpreters for a full cast, continuity cannot always be preserved. When two characters allocated to the same interpreter engage in dialogue, interpreter Sally explained, the ‘spare’ interpreter will fill the gap, just for that scene.24 Interpreters convey only the performance elements that Deaf audiences can’t access any other way: the meaning of the text, and the dialogic nature of the interaction. Instead of playing or imitating characters, interpreters clarify details.

Despite this established distinction between interpreter and performer, the topic of characterisation permeated my conversations. The creative connotations of this term blur the line between the two: what does it mean to characterise whilst interpreting? The defining factor is the degree to which interpreters employ non-manual movements: gestures using body parts other than the hands. Whilst sometimes these movements contribute vital information to signs, as in the sign TIRED, which relies on facial expression, shoulder position, and the presence or absence of a sigh to convey a particular degree of tiredness, issues arise when these movements stray from linguistic meaning.25 For theatre interpreting, characterisation through non-manual movements is only relevant where it directly adds meaning to a Deaf viewer’s experience. Deaf viewers must continuously shift their gaze between actors and interpreters. Consequently, interpreters use subtle non-manual movements to develop a visual shorthand for each character which allows viewers to quickly deduce who is speaking. For instance, interpreter Max used stance to distinguish between characters Tick and Felicia in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert: ‘Like, Tick’s a bit more manly than Felicia, so with Felicia it was all a bit more feminine, legs closed, a bit more dramatic, without doing what he was doing.’26 In doing this, he enhances Deaf viewers’ understanding of the action taking place.

However, excessive gestural characterisation detracts from a Deaf person’s experience. Deaf viewers associate these extraneous movement with the interpreter rather than the character. For instance, Max’s attempt to portray a character as a drug addict by sniffing fell flat, with the audience thinking Max himself had a cold.27 This association further delineates interpreters’ roles in the Deaf cultural hierarchy. If she were to overdo it, Sally thought, she would be told, ‘you’re not a Deafie, you’re up there for us, calm down a little bit.’28 Excessive acting would put her in the limelight, and therefore, draw her away from her utilitarian, service-based role.

In musical theatre interpreting, even the music itself assumes a utilitarian function. Although interpreters note musical material, for them it exists primarily to inform the lyrics’ subtext. Musical elements are not isolated, but considered for their overall effect. Expressive techniques can be connected to musical elements—shifting to an upper register might be matched with a ‘rise onto tippy-toes… or… sign a little bit higher’—but only when they advance the narrative.29 

Auslan Stage Left interpreters collaborate with Deaf consultants, who provide feedback from their perspective as Deaf people who use Auslan as their primary language. Examining the nature of this feedback, we understand that in Auslan, aesthetic appeal is actually measured by linguistic utility. ‘Looking good’ is synonymous with ‘being understood’, with particular signs chosen for both visual balance and linguistic connotations.30 Max described an example from his work on Aladdin, where the consultant suggested changing the translation of a lyric from OPPORTUNITY NOTHING… NOTHING to OPPORTUNITY GONE, OPPORTUNITY GONE.31 When Max explained why the new translation was better, he told me: ‘And so, like that, I just go, that looks so much better, because of that Deaf eye […] and, like, a good understanding of what that song’s trying to say.’32 For Max, a first-language Auslan user as well as an interpreter, this appeal was not just visual: it looked better precisely because the newly-chosen signs better reflected the desired meaning. Although a hearing person might interpret Max’s words as referring only to the visual appeal of Auslan, for Deaf people, ‘looking good’ is not purely an aesthetic construct. As this and the previous examples reveal, aesthetic decisions in Auslan, and by extension, in Deaf arts, are meaningless unless they contribute to a Deaf audience’s understanding. Furthermore, conventional Auslan interpreting is not a performance art. It instead communicates the meaning embedded in performance. Queen Kong, as we see below, takes a different approach. Can it do so and still provide meaningful access to the Deaf community?

‘Don’t worry, nobody else understands what is happening either’: Deaf Access Aesthetics in Queen Kong33

Queen Kong is a theatrical work, described by its creators as a ‘queer, sci-fi, rock concert’, which ‘tells the story of an immortal being, part-rock and part ape, who journeys through time and space to discover what it means to be human’.34 Title character Queen Kong, alter-ego of hearing cabaret artist Sarah Ward, punctuates this journey with songs accompanied by musical director Bec Matthews and onstage band The HOMOsapiens, simultaneously performed in Auslan by Deaf artist Asphyxia. Its January 2019 Midsumma Festival production at Arts Centre Melbourne was Queen Kong’s second iteration. It premiered at Adelaide Fringe without Asphyxia’s role. Keen to include d/Deaf and disabled audiences from the outset, Ward and Matthews sought feedback from Jess Thom, best known as the co-founder of Touretteshero. Thom reportedly noted that the work was broadly inclusive, but did not centre accessibility.35  Enter Asphyxia, a friend of Matthews’s: Ward and Matthews decided that the most culturally sensitive way to ensure Deaf accessibility was to write her into the cast.36 However, despite a Deaf-friendly advertising campaign with Auslan videos, I saw no signing Deaf people at the performance I attended, unlike at other events I have attended during my fieldwork.37 The following discussion examines this absence by critiquing Queen Kong’s access measures as they might be understood in Deaf culture.

Ward and Matthews describe Asphyxia’s character as Queen Kong’s primary Deaf accessibility device.38 However, this description hinges on a conflation of the roles of interpreter and performer. Asphyxia appears not to make sense of the material, instead dancing and engaging more freely with difficult-to-translate nonsensical English wordplay. We see this in songs like Nomo Fomo and I’m a Blancmange, where even the original English lyrics are incoherent. These lyrics call into question Ward and Matthews’s claim that they had rewritten the script to work in Auslan.39 Asphyxia’s signing is more expressive than communicative. In the first version of Nomo Fomo, she interprets the non-lyrical vocalisation ‘do do do’ with rhythmically alternating D and O signs, but in the reprise, she replaces this with a repeat of an earlier verse. Whilst this is a known strategy in artistic song signing, it strays from purely functional interpretation.40 To evaluate the success of Asphyxia’s role, we must first understand whether it was intended primarily as an access measure for a Deaf audience or for her as a Deaf performer. Based on the aesthetic principles explained earlier, its inability to convey meaning—even in a deliberately nonsensical work like this—hinders its utility for a Deaf audience. However, this reading changes somewhat if we understand the Motherboard character as an opportunity for Deaf performance. Reclaiming their native language from hearing discourses, many in the Deaf community agree that Deaf performers are free to take creative license with Auslan in ways that hearing signers, including interpreters, are not.41 Asphyxia’s performance might be positively received within the community on those grounds. That said, esteemed performers of Deaf art forms such as storytelling (described as ‘smooth signers’) are lauded for their ability to bring a story to life, a concept which itself depends on comprehensibility.42 Though I cannot speak definitively for a hypothetical Deaf audience, this brief discussion illuminates complexities and debates that may not be obvious to someone providing Deaf access for the first time, as Ward and Matthews did here.

In making the case for disability arts, Sandahl laments the relative paucity of theatre artists who ‘think about ways to disperse language into space through multiple channels’.43 Queen Kong displays evidence of this thinking, conveying linguistic and musical materials not only through Auslan interpretation but also by visual and textual means. One method is the manipulation of Asphyxia’s image on the projector display, used to represent texture. As different parts enter, her image multiplies, and the screen also pulses to indicate tempo changes. The concept of music for its own sake in Queen Kong is further reinforced through written descriptions of genre and musical terminology in both the program (or ‘zine’) and on-screen captioning. Both employ genre descriptions bordering on the nonsensical, as in the song Truck Stop: ‘Driving surf-pop with a funk groove chorus and Loony Bop B-section.’44 Whilst Hadley suggests that communicating information across multiple modes cultivates awareness of one’s fellow spectators, I question how true this might be for Deaf audiences in this context. The visual elements, though interesting, have no inherent connection with the musical material; furthermore, the written musical terminology excludes by assuming prior musical knowledge beyond even many hearing people. As Queen Kong deliberately fosters a sense of chaos, perhaps nobody is supposed to understand this terminology. Indeed, it could be read as a commentary on Asphyxia’s own inability to understand musical jargon. However, the meta-reflective subtext could easily be lost on a Deaf audience member, who might assume that the hearing people around them do understand. Whilst the use of multiple channels might challenge hearing audiences, it does little to enhance Deaf access.


In Queen Kong, the same attributes that offer ‘provocative, parodic and unconventional representations’ of Deafness and Deaf cultural perspectives run the risk of excluding Deaf audiences.45 Although the work appears to respond to Sandahl’s call-to-arms by communicating across multiple channels, including in Auslan, it reveals the importance of understanding the reasons for doing so. Queen Kong falls short of the access aesthetic ideal championed by companies like Graeae: disability-led, innovative and accessible to both performer and audience. However, this brief case study is not a critique of access aesthetics itself. Instead, it demonstrates the urgent need for critical review and research into Deaf and disability arts practices in a climate where engaging with these practices is increasingly ‘fashionable’ among hearing and able-bodied practitioners.46 Despite Asphyxia’s input, Queen Kong is predominantly a hearing-led work; whilst it includes a Deaf performer, and encourages hearing people to reconsider audist assumptions, it mobilises Deaf sensory perspectives with only a cursory glance at Deaf community interests. Therefore, its shortcomings emphasise the ‘ethical imperative’ of disability-led and Deaf-led approaches.47 These conclusions only become visible when examining the nature of culturally Deaf spectatorship. By foregrounding some of the Deaf cultural values embedded in historical arts interpreting practices—interpreting as utility, the difference between interpreting and performing and the aesthetic of comprehensibility—this preliminary analysis offers some discussion points for further research.


I thank Nicholas Tochka and Anthea Skinner for their guidance and suggestions on early versions of this material, as well as the journal’s anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback.


  1. In 1985, the Victorian State Govermnent provided a grant funding Auslan interpreters for six musical theatre productions over the following year. See Adult Deaf Society of Victoria, Deaf Talkabout, December 1985, 5.

  2. I follow conventions in Deaf scholarship, using lowercase ‘deaf’ to represent the physical condition, capitalised ‘Deaf’ when referring to the cultural-linguistic minority group, and d/Deaf when people who identify in either category are implicated, as first proposed by James Woodward, How You Gonna Get to Heaven if You Can’t Talk With Jesus: On Depathologizing Deafness (Silver Spring, MD: TJ Publishers, Inc., 1982).
  3. Queen Kong and the HOMOsapiens, The Legend of Queen Kong Episode II: Queen Kong in Outer Space. Info. Data. What’s What. Low-Down. (Melbourne: Arts Centre Melbourne, 2019), 14.

  4. Bree Hadley, ‘Disability Theatre in Australia: A Survey and a Sector Ecology’, Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance 22 (2017), 308.

  5. Paddy Ladd, Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 2003).

  6. Carrie Sandahl, ‘Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s Role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space’, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism (2002), 18.

  7. Bree Hadley et al., ‘Conclusion: Practicing Interdependency, Sharing Vulnerability, Celebrating Complexity – the Future of Disability Arts, Culture, and Media Research’, in The Routledge Handbook of Disability Arts, Culture, and Media, ed. Bree Hadley and Donna McDonald (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 370.

  8. Bree Hadley, ‘Participation, Politics and Provocations: People with Disabilities as Non-Conciliatory Audiences’, Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies 12 (2015), 155.

  9. Hadley, ‘Participation, Politics and Provocations’, 155.

  10. Hadley, ‘Disability Theatre in Australia’, 311-13.

  11. Owen Wrigley, The Politics of Deafness (Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press, 1996), 14.

  12. Mike Oliver, ‘Final Accounts and the Parasite People’, in Disability Discourse, ed. Mairian Corker and Sally French (Philadelphia, Open University Press, 1999), 184.

  13. Sarah Austin et al., Beyond Access: The Creative Case for Inclusive Arts (Melbourne: Arts Access Victoria, 2015),, 43.

  14. Sandahl, ‘Considering Disabiilty’, 18.

  15. Sarah Austin et al., ‘The Last Avant Garde?’, in The Routledge Handbook of Disability Arts, Culture, and Media, ed. Bree Hadley and Donna McDonald (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 259.

  16. Kirsty Johnston, ‘Great Reckonings in More Accessible Rooms: The Provocative Reimaginings of Disability Theatre’, The Routledge Handbook of Disability Arts, Culture, and Media, ed. Bree Hadley and Donna McDonald (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 32.
  17. Sandahl, ‘Considering Disability’, 26; Mike, Skype interview with author, 25 June 2019. 

  18. Audism, a term coined by Deaf scholar Tom Humphries, refers to a form of prejudice based on the ability to hear, and the assumption of hearing values. See Tom Humphries, ‘Communicating across Cultures (Deaf/Hearing) and Language Learning’ (Ph.D., Cincinnati, OH, Union Graduate School, 1977). 

  19. Austin et al., ‘The Last Avant Garde?’, 258-9.

  20. Julie McNamara, ‘Cripping It Up! Unruly Bodies and Minds Unleashed’ (University of Melbourne Miegunyah Distinguished Fellow Lecture, Southbank, Australia, 3 April 2019).

  21. McNamara, ‘Cripping It Up!’

  22. This phenomenon has received recent attention in the media, with the viral popularity of American Sign Language interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego’s work with rapper Twista. See Lilit Marcus, ‘Twista ASL Interpreter’s Viral Moment Misses the Point’, CNN, 23 August 2019,

  23. This gap in provision was first recognised by the Victorian Deaf Society, now Expression Australia, in 1976, as they advertised for a list of additional volunteer interpreters in Society magazine Deaf Talkabout, June 1976, 5. 

  24. Auslan Stage Left, ‘About Auslan Stage Left’, Auslan Stage Left, accessed 21 October 2019,

  25. Max, Skype interview with author, 25 June 2019. All participants have been assigned pseudonyms in this paper for privacy.

  26. Sally, phone interview with author, 6 August 2019. 

  27. In keeping with Auslan linguistic convention, English words used to represent signs are fully capitalised, acknowledging that the word does not necessarily correspond with English. This is called glossing. See Trevor Johnston and Adam Schembri, Australian Sign Language (Auslan) : An Introduction to Sign Language Linguistics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), xiv, The nuances of the TIRED sign were explained to me by Sally, phone interview, 6 August 2019. 

  28. Max, Skype interview with author, 25 June 2019. 

  29. Max, Skype interview with author, 25 June 2019. 

  30. Sally, phone interview with author, 6 August 2019.
  31. Sally, phone interview with author, 6 August 2019. 

  32. Max, Skype interview with author, 25 June 2019.
  33. Max, Skype interview with author, 25 June 2019. 

  34. Max, Skype interview with author, 25 June 2019. 

  35. Queen Kong and the HOMOsapiens, The Legend of Queen Kong Episode II: Queen Kong in Outer Space. Info. Data. What’s What. Low-Down (Melbourne: Arts Centre Melbourne, 2019), 3.

  36. Queen Kong and the HOMOsapiens, The Legend of Queen Kong, 3.

  37. Sarah Ward et al., ‘Learnings on Embedded Access’ (Panel discussion at the Kiln Festival, Melbourne, Australia, 17 June 2019).

  38. Ward et al., ‘Learnings on Embedded Access’.

  39. Deaf-friendly marketing for this event extended to YouTube. See Arts Centre Melbourne, January 9, 2019, Asphyxia in The Legend of Queen Kong | 16 - 20 January, YouTube video,

  40. Ward et al., ‘Learnings on Embedded Access’.

  41. Ward et al., ‘Learnings on Embedded Access’.

  42. Personal communication with a music teacher who works with d/Deaf children, 4 June 2019. 

  43. This was a point discussed by Deaf dancer Anna Seymour at the relaunch of her company The Delta Project, where she argued that she, as a Deaf woman, had the creative licence to use Auslan as a visual resource to inform her dance work. The Delta Project relaunch, dance performance, dancers Anna Seymour, Amanda Lever and Kyall Shanks, chor. Stephanie Lake, Chunky Move, Southbank, 15 November 2019.

  44. Ben Bahan, ‘Face-to-Face Tradition in the American Deaf Community: Dynamics of the Teller, the Tale, and the Audience’, in Signing the Body Poetic, ed. H-Dirksen Bauman, Heidi Rose, and Jennifer Nelson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 26.

  45. Sandahl, ‘Considering Disability’, 26.

  46. Queen Kong and the HOMOsapiens, The Legend of Queen Kong, 11.

  47. Bree Hadley and Donna McDonald, ‘Introduction: Disability Arts, Culture, and Media Studies – Mapping a Maturing Field’, in The Routledge Handbook of Disability Arts, Culture, and Media, ed. Bree Hadley and Donna McDonald (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018), 2.

  48. Austin et al., Beyond Access, 44; Hadley, ‘Disability Theatre in Australia’, 317.

  49. Hadley, ‘Disability Theatre in Australia’, 312.

About the author: Alex Hedt is a research assistant at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne, where her Master of Music (Ethnomusicology) thesis is currently under examination. Her thesis presents a history of musical practice in the Victorian Deaf community from 1884 to the present day and an ethnographic exploration of musical engagement amongst d/Deaf Australians. Informed by prior studies in music education, Alex’s broader research interests include disability arts cultures, choral music, diversity and accessibility in music, and the ways in which musical institutions construct and portray musical ability. She is also an active performer, singing with ensembles including the Australian Chamber Choir.

The Inhuman Condition: Jean-François Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux and Technological Sublime

Paul Boyé

To cite this contribution: 
Boyé, Paul. ‘The Inhuman Condition: Jean-François Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux and Technological Sublime’Currents Journal Issue One (2020),

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Course of study:
Doctor of Philosophy, School of Design, Univeristy of Western Australia

Keywords: Lyotard, sublime, postmodern, Les Immatériaux, posthuman, art and technology, curation, relativism and reductionism, nihilism, anti-capitalism.

Jean-François Lyotard engaged with art and technology at several points across his philosophical project. This article will analyse these engagements, playing close attention to how technological development re-oriented how the philosopher’s aesthetic philosophy of the sublime, along with his considerations of anthropocentricism vis-à-vis a concept of the ‘inhuman’. His curatorial effort as a part of Les Immatériaux is a central concern of the essay, as it is taken to be a practical experiment with many of his ideas. The exhibition is argued to be a pre-eminent curatorial experiment that anticipated much of the posthuman discourse advocated by contemporary artists today.

Bracha L. Ettinger , Jean-François Lyotard (2007). Accessed from Wikimedia Commons 28 September 2020:

The task of this essay is to broadly examine the various engagements with art, technology and humanism performed by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. Along with Lyotard’s published philosophical writing, this essay will pay close attention to Les Immatériaux—an exhibition that Lyotard co-curated with designer Thierry Chaput—which will be considered to mark a crucial intersection for the philosopher and his considerations of the technological world as it evolved around him. Two key terms will emerge across this examination: ‘inhuman’ and ‘sublime’. Both terms invoke a clear philosophical tone, but their relationship—arguably analogous to the relationship between art and technology itself—is complex and entangled. While there are many engagements with art and technology contemporary to Lyotard, it is the non-anthropocentric tenor of which Lyotard characterises his engagement that will be emphasised here. The inhuman, as something never quite human but nevertheless surrounding the conceptual categories of what a human is taken to be, offers a resource to radically de-center humanist assumptions. Additionally the sublime—a feeling which overwhelms and suspends the human capacity to imagine and understand, is a distinctly in-human aesthetic category. As such, Lyotard’s various engagements with artists and aesthetics can be understood as philosophical experiments with this analogy of the inhuman and the sublime. It is clear that Lyotard’s work provides several resources that contribute to what is termed ‘posthuman studies’, despite the underuse of Lyotard as a point of reference in this field, as will be argued below. Through a review of literature and Les Immatériaux, this essay will explore the extent of these resources and their relevance to art theoretical discourse that is set on renegotiating the limits and purview of humanism today.

Across Lyotard’s engagements with art, there is a sustained reference to the avant-garde: to specific artists and as a concept in general. The Postmodern Condition observes that the avant-garde signs a contradiction that, at once, demands for a suspension of ‘artistic experimentation’, coupled with ‘an identical call for order, a desire of unity, for identity, for security, or popularity’.1 In other words, under the banner of postmodernism, the notion of an avant-garde artistic community is both embraced and condemned for being without purposeful and/or recognisable reference. Lyotard posits that postmodern art does not affirm earlier standards of realism, often to the point of collapse to kitsch, where ‘art panders to the confusion which reigns in the “taste” of the patrons’.2 Kitsch is postmodern nihilism of taste at its zenith, subverting the conventional pillars of what is beautiful toward an ‘aesthetic of the sublime that modern art (including literature) finds its impetus and the logic of the avant-gardes finds its axiom’.3 The aesthetic category of the sublime—derived by Lyotard from Kant’s third critique—comes to define the character of avant-garde artistic communities, and offers an appeal to enact and witness modernity’s undoing. It is an eminently artistic strategy that ‘allows the unpresentable to be put forward as the missing contents, but the form, because of its recognisable consistency, continues to offer to the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure’.4 To make sense of this contradiction, Lyotard invokes the paradoxical sentiment of post modo—or the future anterior—to explain the sublime feeling conjured by postmodern art as a shock to subjectivity by once-familiar means at a time; a confrontation to the viewer that makes themselves accountable and immanent to contents, themes and materials preceding and exceeding modernity.

Following from this point it is suitable to note how Lyotard’s philosophy is consistent in his effort to emphasise the status of nihilism in modernity, and how nihilism is an irreducible component of capitalism, technological industry, and of the production of knowledge in imperialist institutions in general. In an early essay titled “Dead Letter”, Lyotard draws out the contemporary nihilist separation of existence and meaning, which impoverishes culture (the union of these two terms in Lyotard’s formulation). Invoking the familiar Marxist theme of alienation via mechanisation, Lyotard rhetorically asks ‘what meaning is there in existing?’: ‘a question that resounds for everyone, Monday morning and Saturday night, that reveals the emptiness of “civilization” in all its industrial flashiness’.5 Our daily labour and leisure is devoid of meaning when it is ‘organised by the model of the machine, a model whose purpose lies outside itself, which does not question that purpose’.6 To embrace this void is to reduce down to ‘a technologism that seeks its reason in itself alone’, thereby dividing meaning and existence, denigrating culture and succumbing to bureaucratic and recursive lifestyles without purpose. “Dead Letter” is reflective of Lyotard’s early anti-capitalism sentiment, which would persist despite his developing critical distance from his conventional Marxist peers. However, from 1980 onwards (marked by the publication of The Differend), the nature of Lyotard’s anti-capitalism—in particular its anti-technological sensibilities—would start to shift and complicate, particularly as he began to pay closer attention to aesthetic experience, the avant-garde and the sublime.

Ashley Woodward thematises Lyotard’s writing from 1980 onward as having frequent recourses ‘to the aesthetic of the sublime… which has traditionally been invoked to explain the experience of things which move us, but cannot be explained according to the traditional theories of the beautiful’.7 Despite inconsistencies in how Lyotard presents his analysis of the sublime, Woodward notes that ‘the sublime typically appears with a positive valence in his work, and is posited as offering creative possibilities beyond the impasses of modern thought and the postmodern social conditions’.8 In 1991 Lyotard published his Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, which is a direct reading of the concept of the sublime as presented by Kant’s third critique, and the place that it has occupied in Lyotard’s own philosophical project. ‘Sublime feeling’ is characterised here as having ‘neither moral universality nor aesthetic universalisation, but is, rather, the destruction of the one by the other in the violence of their differend’.9 In other words, a sublime feeling has the capacity to annihilate, to void once immutable relations and fundamental constructs, categories and concepts.

The sublime feeling invokes a novel aesthetic sensibility that Lyotard embraced as the grounds of new experimentation and artistic investigation: ‘The value of the aesthetic of the sublime as a response to nihilism is thus that it opens up the possibility of experimentation within our new cultural conditions’.10 As such, Lyotard’s earlier cut-and-dry anti-capitalism is complicated by a renewed interest in how the sublime is a catalyst for artistic experiments, where it is ‘not aimed at compensating for the meaninglessness of life in a general existential sense, but at artistically transforming the experience of postmodernity’.11 The sublime feeling is an irritant, a dissensus that transforms assumed relations, subjects and practices outward and beyond what is held essential by modernity, turning over the technological engines of capitalism into novel production, firing questions aimed at regime and order. From this point, Lyotard’s post-1980s engagement with art and technology come to overlap and ramify these points, endorsing the comportment of sublime feelings towards the diversification of aesthetic experience and artistic experimentation.

Although The Postmodern Condition was tasked with reporting on ‘the status of science and technology, of technocracy and the control of knowledge and information’, it was not until later in Lyotard’s work that he started to closely investigate how the tenets of modern art and the avant-garde had been prefigured, and continually moderated by the development of new technology.12 However, there are moments where this is conceptually anticipated. For instance, Lyotard dilates the term ‘development’ to presuppose ‘a horizon of nondevelopment, where, it is assumed, the various areas of competence remain enveloped in the unity of a tradition and are not differentiated according to separate qualifications subject to specific innovations, debates and inquiries’, or what could be summarily noted as the scientific/non-scientific divide which traditionally places art in the latter category.13 The idea of scientific development encroaches further across this divide in postmodernity, thereby ‘[l]amenting the “loss of meaning” in postmodernity boils down to mourning the fact that knowledge is no longer principally narrative’.14 This perspective—that scientific development doctrines change the rules of engagement and legitimation beyond its traditionally understood boundary—would test and reshape Lyotard’s early reticence, leading to an eventual embrace of new technology as a valid artistic subject.

If The Postmodern Condition posited that new technologies have transformed knowledge and set the path toward a ‘computerization of society’, bringing about a postmodern condition where aesthetic experience is qualified by the sublime rather than the modern tenets of beauty, it is only after this report that Lyotard starts to analyse the products of this transformation.15 The reminder of the essay will break down and present Lyotard’s engagement with art and technology after The Postmodern Condition, and will do so by preserving and calling to attention the shifts, contradictions and changes of position that Lyotard takes up in this period.

In 1985, Lyotard presented a paper which examined the critical issues with art that engages new technologies of communication.16 The argument is that there are several barriers to the way we can understand the aesthetic experience of art that engages communication technologies. The barriers are established in reference to the logic of Kant’s critical philosophy, which appears to entirely preclude the possibility of art and technology as capable of invoking any kind of genuine aesthetic experience. For Kant, a sensible presentation free from conceptual representation is necessary in order to induce a sublime aesthetic experience that is open to judgement. Lyotard’s argument is that communication technologies foreclose such instances of presentation by being always-already determinate, calculated and programmed. Woodward explains that from Lyotard’s Kantian perspective ‘[w]hen artwork is produced or presented using such technologies, all of its parameters are programmed… it is in principle fully knowable’.17 Communication technologies are characterised by Lyotard as being inherently determinate, particularly when regarding their calculative properties, and this is at conflict with the Kantian parameter of sensation which requires a factor of incalculability or in-determination. In his words, ‘[w]orks produced by the new techne necessarily, and to quite diverse degrees, and in diverse parts of themselves, bear traces of having been determined to be one or more calculations, whether in their constitution and/or their restitution’.18 So if the calculating character of communication technologies preclude aesthetic experience in principle, then a complication of the Kantian framework that Lyotard is working from is required to house the sublime feelings invoked by such technology, thus creating an opening for artists to experiment and investigate.

Lyotard is concerned with how forms conduct and organise aesthetic experience. With respect to Kant’s argument, if forms are the object of what is communicable, sharable amongst subjects and the conceptual condition of beauty, then the sublime is ‘manifested when the presentation of free forms is lacking… when the imagination which presents forms finds itself lacking that such a feeling appears’.19 As such, art that engages any new technologies of communication are possible without form, as a test to our powers of imagination. It is not that new technologies entirely preclude aesthetic experience, but rather it is that such experience must be valued with the feeling of the sublime in full consideration.

But how does Lyotard come to embrace the formlessness of sublime feeling provoked by technological art, given the cold calculability of computers, networks and the industry of communication technology? In part, it is by giving further meaning to formlessness as marking a shift in the way form and matter co-implicate one another. In the Kantian framework, which Lyotard takes to exemplify the modern formula of form and matter, aesthetics is an understanding of form as a common property that organises incoherent data, and matter as ‘what is par excellence diverse, unstable and evanescent’.20 As this formula shifts per the postmodern condition, matter asymmetrically dominates aesthetics within a regime of what Lyotard calls ‘immaterial’: ‘The matter I’m talking about is an-objectable, because it can only ‘take place’ or find its occasion at the price of suspending these active powers of the mind’.21 The regime of the immaterial is an aesthetics after the sublime, and comes to define the parameters of the postmodern vis-à-vis form and matter. It is here that Lyotard starts to embrace the potential of such a regime; sublime formlessness is taken as a ‘complexification in sensibility’, opening up toward ‘new artistic clouds and new clouds of thought’.22

Six years after the publication of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard and designer Thierry Chaput curated the exhibition Les Immatériaux at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Lyotard’s role as a curator was as novel—inasmuch as it was unusual for a philosopher to undertake such tasks at this time—as it was effective; he took this opportunity to put into practice the observations that he had made in his work, with an emphasis on how communication technologies were constantly updating domains across art, philosophy and science. The thrust of the exhibition was to resist inheriting modern norms and to rewrite how materials ought to be considered in and throughout the new technological paradigms of the time. Lyotard derived the term ‘immaterial’ through extending the word ‘material’ and intervening on other lexical proximities: ‘referents’ [matieres], ‘hardware’ [materiels], matrices [matrices] and maternity [maternite].23 The ‘im-’ denotes a negation or an undermining of the face-to-face or the ‘in-the-flesh’ in order to modulate and calculate material orders. The aegis of technoscience, for Lyotard, reinforces this directive, eschewing matter and carrying out ‘an exaggeration almost, of the intimacy between mind and things’.24 The immaterial is not, however, purely negative; it is fundamentally concerned with matter and material things, and the negative syntax is intended as more of a reflective articulation, taking to task the way in which material is set up to be mastered, calculated and controlled by modern industry. In other words, Lyotard was not trying to describe de-materialisation per communication technologies, but rather shift the viewpoint of matter and its conditions as a subject for investigation.

Les Immatériaux worked in reference to the postmodern condition, addressing new forms of thinking and discourse coming out of modernity and its technological objects. The world exhibition format—characterised by an emphasis on wonder and immersion—that dominated venues such as the Centre Pompidou at the time, ‘would find an echo in Les Immatériaux, only now mutated into their opposite: the task is to produce an “unease” (malaise), Lyotard suggests, a loss of security’.25 Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein posit that the exhibition threw the ‘visitor back into his or her own inner sphere’, and what is at stake is ‘neither the absorption of the subject into the community, nor a return to an inner private world, but the subject in the state of coming into being’.26 This type of environment reflects at once the avant-garde shock of future anterior confrontation, and the feeling of sublime catalysed by new technological aesthetic experiences. Amongst the myriad of strategies employed, a stand-out technique of Les Immatériaux was the use of headphones, which via radio signal, transmitted a soundtrack continuously to the visitors. Nathalie Heinich recounts that the ‘voices streaming through the earphones did not provide any direct ‘explanation’ of what the visitor had in sight, but were rather unidentified fragments of discourse indirectly related’.27 For instance, as the viewer reached ‘Zone 4’, the soundtrack played excerpts of Antonin Artaud’s To Have done with God’s Judgement— ‘when I am squeezed/and I am milked/until the departure/of food,/and its milk/out of me’—and Dolores Rogozinski’s The Angel— ‘That your body was already a prosthesis, prostituted to the impossible. That the unknown invokes you’.28 As the soundtrack plays, the viewer stands before Annegret Soltau’s Schwanger—a photographic montage that exaggerates and intensifies documentation of the artist’s own pregnancy—side-by-side to Maria Klonaris and Katharina Thomadaki’s Orlando-Hermaprodite II—a kaleidoscopic collision of self-portraiture and drag persona set a confrontational scale. The soundtrack isolates the viewer into continuous poetic reference, mixing freely and intensely with the visual codes offered by the artworks. Les Immatériaux took the aesthetics of control and modulation offered by modern technology, nested it with art work, computational systems and scientific phenomena, in order to drag out such an aesthetic experience along the excesses of sublime feeling: radical embodiment, isolated intensity and highly-conscious poetic materialisations.

It is with such strategies that Lyotard, as a curator, effectively utilised and immanently critiqued the technoscientific character of modern society. Conceptually the immaterial—far from being a one-sided negation or obsolescing of materiality—comes to form a sublime materialism that would underwrite much of Lyotard’s later writing on aesthetics and technology. Stephen Zepke positions Les Immatériaux as an experimental interface that treated its subject matter as ‘formless and imperceptible elements that were translated into machine languages’, resulting in an ‘immaterialist materialism [that] filled visitors with uncertainty, on one side about the ‘objects’ they were experiencing, and on the other about the subjectivity that has this experience’.29 This anti-essentialist and materialist perspective opens up into Lyotard’s movement from identifying and experimenting with the sublime, into what he would later call the ‘inhuman’: calling into question anthropocentricism and the postmodern redundancy of humanist philosophy. Beyond immaterials, it is Lyotard’s late passage into examining this inhuman condition that survives beyond the extent of his philosophical project, examples of which the second half of this essay will delve into.

At the time of Les Immatériaux, Lyotard had introduced a line of thought that would be developed further in his later writing: the prospective end of the modern anthropos,

that on the occasion of these new technologies, perhaps there is a decline of humanism, of the self-satisfaction of man within the world, of narcissism or anthropocentricism, and that an end of humanism may emerge.30

In the introduction to his late collection of essays—titled The Inhuman—Lyotard theorises two distinct kinds of inhuman condition. Firstly, the situation of an in-humanity that constraints and sets the limits of becoming to its own conditions concomitant with capitalism and the emerging spectre of neoliberalism. The second sort is an inhuman that appeals to humanity through an element that creates ‘a mind haunted by a familiar and unknown guest which is agitating it, sending it delirious but also making it think’.31 This dual-faceted sense of the inhuman is analogous to the way in which, as we have explored above, the postmodern aesthetic experience of the sublime results from modern nihilistic sensibilities, but on the other hand, represents an aesthetic workspace replete with new possibilities. Additionally, Lyotard situates the political as a resistance to the first sort of inhuman, with the second kind providing resources and conditions to carry out such a resistance. The second kind of inhuman is prior to the first, being its condition as well as the key to its renegotiation. Woodward updates Lyotard’s phrase ‘postmodern condition’ and replaces it with the phrase ‘inhuman condition’, insofar as the latter phrase encompasses and reorients the contents of the former phrase, ‘characterised by the persistence of the post-metanarrative of “development”, and all its consequences’.32 The dual sense of the inhuman exposes an entanglement between technology, philosophy, art and politics, particularly in the capacity for discourse and acts within these realms to be effective and realised in the world.

Lyotard’s examination of anthropocentricism puts forward the question of ‘what a human is?’—or in other words, how the human is legitimated—vis-à-vis the inhuman condition. Robin Mackay writes that this questioning of ‘legitimation entails a kind of destabilisation of the human, an admission that we inhabit a material culture that is no longer “ours”, is no longer straightforwardly human’.33 The inhuman condition rewrites how human-centred any given understanding of matter is construed, expressed by a shifting of terms from ‘interaction rather than creation’. Yuk Hui refines Lyotard’s term ‘interaction’ to not be limited to examples of human/machine interaction, but rather that interaction is defined as a ‘transmission of a message without end’.34 The calculative properties of interaction rewrite matter, and represents ‘a liberation from rules and responsibility, and a kind of passing beyond the rules of inscription’.35 With Les Immatériaux, Lyotard showed how postmodern art, computer systems and communication technologies enact this rewriting of matter beyond a human-centred perspective, and toward the possibility of a liberated material world vis-à-vis the inhuman condition. As Francesca Gallo writes, Les Immatériaux is ‘dedicated to identity, and to the transformation which this idea has suffered due to advances in science and technology’.36 Of course, this suffering is exactly the dyadic figure of the inhuman, that contains the germ of a properly material revolution away from the tradition sense of what a human is, but also perpetuates technocratic subjugation, limiting the human within an ever-more constricted definition streamlined for alienation and exploitation.

To conclude, this essay will now consider how the resources offered by Lyotard’s work—the aesthetics of the sublime and the inhuman condition—carries beyond his own project and continues to have relevance in theoretical discourse today. As Woodward notes, there are many examples of connections between Lyotard’s project and the various usages of the term ‘posthumanism’: ‘Lyotard’s work intersects with posthumanism… and his reflections on these issues in the 1980s were prescient of the debates gaining increased urgency and attention today’.37 Posthumanism—or the ‘philosophical critique of anthropocentrism’—is ostensibly made up of theoretical positions catalysed by the rapid development of technology, since this development has come to erode and mutate what was, in modernity, held to be essentially human; in other words, erasing the fundamental common ground that humanism is built on.38 A crucial precedent to posthumanism is the feminist critique of science. Although the following mapping is non-exhaustive, Donna Haraway’s Situated Knowledges is a fundamental essay in this discourse. Published in 1998, the essay complicates the ‘ideological doctrines of disembodied scientific objectivity’: ‘We unmasked the doctrines of objectivity because they threatened our budding sense of collective historical subjectivity and agency and our “embodied” accounts of the truth’.39 Here, humanism is parallel to objective, universalising accounts situated on a whole image of what a human ought to be for science to work, and Haraway’s intervention stages an (posthuman) advocation ‘for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body’.40 It is a radical sense of embodiment—even one that crosses into seemingly disembodied textual, informatic arrangements, as N. Katherine Hayles has illustrated—that obsolesces the (white, chauvinist, colonialist) human of humanism.41 Beyond the initial stages of feminist critiques of science, the posthuman comes to emerge in later highly nuanced studies such as Karan Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway. Barad disengages the humanist doctrines that writes without second thought ‘Man is the sun, the nucleus, the fulcrum, the unifying force’, and instead poses a performative posthuman that embraces ‘technoscientific and other naturalcultural practices that specifically acknowledge and take account of matter’s dynamism’.42 Without reading and implementing such critiques that ratify the posthuman position as, at the very least, non-anthropocentric, it is unfeasible to start weaving sublime feelings and inhuman sensibilities into speculative futures or what David Roden calls ‘posthuman possibility spaces’.43 In other words,  a program of de-anthropocentric philosophy that decolonizes and dismantles patriarchal and white supremist essentialism must be elaborated and experimented with prior to any aesthetic experimentation with the inhuman condition if it is to carry any feasible and practical consequence beyond its experiment.

How does the feminist critiques of science that developed into posthuman studies build from and into Lyotard’s project? Rosi Braidotti posits that while The Postmodern Condition demarcates ‘the alienating and commodifying effect of advanced capitalism on the human’, Lyotard does not,

stop at this technophobic insight, but goes on to identify a deeper kind of inhumanity… that inner core of structural strangeness or productive estrangement is, for Lyotard, the non-rational and non-volitional core of the inhuman.44

Similarly, in regarding Lyotard’s inhuman as the subject of ‘nothing less than the destiny of the human species’, Paul Harris frames The Inhuman as a set of thought experiments that not so much think the post-human in a technologically-literal sense (read ‘transhumanist’), but rather a ‘pleading for the reassertion of the human mind in its contingency and finitude’.45 These critical appraisals of Lyotard’s work are important in clarifying both the limits, and the inherent critiques afforded by the concept of the inhuman. In order for the posthuman to, as put by Hayles, signal ‘the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualise themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice’, there must be certain efforts made beyond philosophy.46 Applying the emphasis above, it is the sublime—that which reaches around and through putative modern philosophical projects, and comes to tear apart conceptions of the human amicable to the individual and its continued power in the world—that should be aesthetically experimented with. As such, reaching back into the rich philosophical workspace offered by Lyotard’s project is one path among many to enact a thoughtful reiteration and return to the aesthetics of the sublime along with a decentring of the human, both of which are non-exhaustive and novel subjects for artistic investigation.


  1. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 73.

  2. Ibid. 76.

  3. Ibid. 77.

  4. Ibid. 81.

  5. Jean-François Lyotard, Political Writings, trans. Bill Readings and Kevin Paul Geiman (London: UCL Press Limited, 1993), 39.

  6. Ibid. 34.

  7. Ashley Woodward, Lyotard and the Inhuman Condition: Reflections on Nihilism, Information and Art (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 114.

  8. Ibid. 115.

  9. Jean-François Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 239.

  10. Woodward, 127.

  11. Ibid. 128.

  12. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, viii.

  13. Ibid. 19.

  14. Ibid. 26.

  15. Ibid. 7.

  16. Jean-François Lyotard, ‘Something like: Communication… without Communication’, in The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 108-119.

  17. Woodard, 141.

  18. Jean-François Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 111.

  19. Ibid. 113.

  20. Ibid. 138.

  21. Ibid. 140.

  22. Jean-François Lyotard, Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 42-43. Quoted in Woodward, 144.

  23. Jean-François Lyotard, ‘After Six Months of Work…’, in 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science and Theory, ed. Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann (Lüneburg: meson press, 2015), 30.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Daniel Birnbaum and Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Spacing Philosophy: Lyotard and the Idea of the Exhibition (Sternberg Press, 2019), 62.

  26. Ibid. 63.

  27. Nathalie Heinrich, ‘Les Immatériaux Revisited: Innovation in Innovations’, Tate Papers, 2009,

  28. These quotes are taken from the English translation of the French soundtrack, a document provided to visitors that is archived here: ‘Les Immatériaux’, Monoskop,

  29. Stephen Zepke, Sublime Art: Towards an Aesthetics of the Future (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), 85.

  30. Lyotard, ‘After Six Months of Work…’, 36.

  31. Lyotard, The Inhuman, 2.

  32. Woodward, 4.

  33. Robin Mackay, ‘Immaterials, Exhibition, Acceleration’, in 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science and Theory, ed. Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann (Lüneburg: meson press, 2015), 221.

  34. Yuk Hui, ‘Anamnesis and Re-Orientation: A Discourse on Matter and Time’, in 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science and Theory, ed. Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann (Lüneburg: meson press, 2015), 182.

  35. Ibid. 186.

  36. Francesca Gallo, ‘Contemporary Art as “Immatériaux”: Yesterday and Today’, in 30 Years after Les Immatériaux: Art, Science and Theory, ed. Yuk Hui and Andreas Broeckmann (Lüneburg: meson press, 2015), 122.

  37. Woodward, 5.

  38. David Roden, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (New York: Routledge Press, 2015), 21.

  39. Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (1988): 578.

  40. Ibid. 589.

  41. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 41.

  42. Karan Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 135.

  43. Roden, 53.

  44. Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013), 108-109.

  45. Paul Harris, “Thinking @ the Speed of Time: Globalization and Its Dis-Contents or, Can Lyotard’s Thought Go on without a Body?”, Yale French Studies, no. 99 (2001): 148.

  46. Hayles, 41.

About the author:
Paul Boyé is a writer working and living on Whadjuk boodja. They are a PhD Candidate at UWA School of Design, a member of the Cool Change Contemporary committee and an editor of Cactus Journal. The fields of research they are currently committed to include art theory, science studies and the history of philosophy. Their PhD research has been presented at several conferences including Quite Frankly: It’s a Monster Conference (2018, Perth) and theInternational Symposium on Electronic Art (2019, Gwangju).

Belonging Backstage: “Us” and “Them” in Production 

Madeline Taylor

To cite this contribution: 
Taylor, Madeline. ‘Belonging Backstage: “Us” and “Them” in Production’. Currents Journal Issue One (2020),

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Course of study:
Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Fine Arts and Music (Theatre), University of Melbourne 

Belonging, collaboration, theatre, technical production, group entitativity, identity

Abstract: Theatre is regularly discussed as a collaborative medium, reliant on multiple people and skillsets to complete a production. Despite this requirement, theatre, and the hierarchies it commonly works within are strongly delineated and often fiercely patrolled.  Potentially in part due to the unstable and often precarious nature of work situation and teams, this process of inclusion and exclusion is used as a shorthand to identify belonging with “us”, an “us” that fluctuates and is always temporary. This article focuses on technical staff, as a critical yet often overlooked workforce in theatre, and explores how technicians use various behaviours to display and negotiate their belonging in the face of precarious employment. It then addresses the sometimes-contentious relationship between the technical and creative teams in theatre production. Employing ideas of sociology, it explores how this othering manifests in language and practices that surround theatre production and is perpetuated by learnt behaviours and attitudes. By drawing attention to the construction of these structures it hopes to address some of the very real issues that can arise from this divisive attitude present in the theatre community.

Ahnaf Saber, Backstage of Vienna State Opera  (2019). Accessed from Wikimedia Commons 26 August 2020: .


This article looks at a few of the ways belonging is negotiated and displayed in the live performance technical team of mainstage theatre, applying sociological theories to current practice. While the twenty first century has seen mounting academic interest in technical production, Gay McAuley’s statement that backstage is ‘the least documented, least analysed, least theorized area of theatre space’ remains accurate.1 However, as theatre historian Christin Essin argues, representation is important, giving ‘technicians a history they can tell about themselves (sometimes to themselves) validates their value in an industry that routinely keeps them in the dark’.2 This representation in both academy and industry is vital, for it validates the efforts of the myriad of people whose self-identity is intrinsically tied to their work. To work in theatre is to be theatre, and for many the job becomes synonymous with their identity. However, this identification is sometimes predicated on a process of inclusion and exclusion, in which divisive lines are drawn between the technical and creative teams. This hierarchy manifests not only in the reporting relationships and responsibilities, but also in aspects like payscales, crediting and social capital, with Ric Knowles positioning technicians as ‘theatre’s working class’.3 This division occurs in spite of the fact that theatre is consistently positioned as inherently collaborative, reliant on multiple people and skillsets.4

It is important to clarify that while I am focused on the way technicians negotiate their roles and relationships in the longstanding structured hierarchies of current mainstage practice, this article is not proposing an erasure of this model. Alternate approaches to theatre that employ a flattened collaborative model can mitigate some of the issues that arise from this negotiation, but presumably raises others, such as the out-grouping of non-collaborators, as well as more practical considerations of viability, scale and funding as identified by Newman and Phillips.5 Instead the article focuses on the benefits and issues that arise in the negotiation within these hierarchies, and what might be done by all working in theatre to resolve these issues. This article employs theories from sociology, which studies groups of people—their behaviour and interactions—to explore how these theories manifest, in both positive and negative ways, in interactions occurring ‘behind the scenes’. Writing from the perspective of a costume technician and sometime designer for theatre, I evidence these manifestations with what Hunt and Melrose term ‘Greenroom Tales’,6 examples taken from my own and others experiences as production technicians in Australia. As such the articles focuses on Western, particularly Australian, theatre practice and practitioners.

Terms and Theory

The language of this arena perpetuates the hierarchy that is negotiated via the performance of backstage labour, and it is important that the normative associations and ‘hidden assumptions’ of these phrases be considered.7 The technician’s role, and their position in the hierarchy of theatre has been increasingly problematised,8 and for Farthing, and Hunt and Melrose this is most evident in the term ‘technical’ which they argue does not convey the complexity, expertise and creativity in the role,9 an argument that is given further weight by the industry standard designation of ‘creative team’ for theatre artists such as directors, choreographers and designers. McAuley charts the increased use of the phrase in Australian theatre, which she suggests is ‘extremely problematic’ in its suggestion of a ‘hierarchy of creativity’,10 a point reiterated by Brennan in regard to UK theatre.11 It is within this divisive binary of terms and teams this article is operating, critiquing, and hopefully, mitigating against. While there have been various suggestions for alternate labels for technicians in both the academy and industry, for example ‘mastercraftsperson’,12 ‘technical artists’,13 or simply ‘artists’,14 technician remains prevalent theatre parlance. As such, it is the term I have used throughout this article. Rather than advocate here for a change in language, I argue for a new understanding of, and recognition for, the contributions—creative and otherwise—of technicians and a more holistic and integrated rethinking of the theatre team by all who work in the field.

It is also important to clarify that the term ‘technical team’, used in this discussion, is not used to specify the crew of a single production, but the wider professional network of interconnected individuals who work behind the scenes in live performance in many venues and festivals. This network is built over time as people move from production-to-production and venue-to-venue, as well as via social events, and often builds on connections established during training. While each production will have a specific technical team culture, there is a remarkably cohesive and stable group identity for this larger network.

This consistent collective identity is established by the technical team’s high level of group entitativity, a term coined by American social scientist Donald Campbell. Entitativity is what establishes a group as a cohesive and perceptible entity to both insiders and outsiders and is on a spectrum. For example, a group of people waiting for a bus is considered low, and a family is considered highly entitative. Further study of group dynamics by sociologists Hamilton & Sherman in 1996 defined the characteristics of entitativity as defined boundaries, internal homogeneity, social interaction, clear internal structure, common goals, and a common fate.15 The technical team typifies these criteria, with its well-defined membership associated with specific roles and tasks and a group focus on specific production outcomes. As the Entertainment Assist research has established, while the antisocial working hours are detrimental to family and external social relationships, this concurrently supports socialising and friendship within the team.16 Social rituals such as opening night parties, and ‘thirsty Thursdays’ build a culture of socialising within the group network, although the value, or otherwise, of this drinking culture within the arts is currently under scrutiny.17 Further, each member of the technical team is reliant on other members to accomplish their work, which creates a sense of commonality, and generally these teams are quite homogenous in both characteristics, often middle class and trained at a small number of institutions, and according to employment researchers Houser-Marko and Barsotti, aptitude.18 These structures and practices ensure a high level of entitativity for the ‘technical team’ as a group.

As a group establishes itself it creates a collective identity, binding people together through a joint sense of belonging to the same social category. Social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner established the vital importance group identity has on self-esteem and perception.19 One of the ways individuals bolster the group’s collective, and thus their individual, self-esteem, is by comparison to others outside the group. In this comparison of us vs them, or what Henri Tajfel termed ingroup vs outgroup, similarities within the group and differences outside the group are emphasised, as for the group, ‘who we are is partly defined by reference to who we are not’.20 For the technical team, one of the outcomes of high group entitativity is the increased likelihood of in-group social bias.21 Further, group entitativity and identification are strengthened by uncertainty, as in uncertain situations humans naturally seek out others for reassurance and support.22 I suggest that the precarious nature of technical employment, as discussed by Farthing,23 and the uncertainty it fosters, encourages identification with the group. Having established the technical team as a highly entitative group susceptible to ingroup bias, I want to now turn to how this manifests backstage as technicians evidence their belonging to the team.

Belonging Negotiated and Displayed

Social anthropologist Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka suggests belonging is an ‘emotionally-charged social location’.24  This nexus of feeling, place and community seems to connect with how we talk about theatre, as both a specific place meant to prompt reaction and reflection, and an amorphous activity entirely reliant on people. Belonging to theatre is individually felt and embodied while collectively negotiated and performed. Thus, each of the practices discussed next are simultaneously negotiating and displaying belonging within the technical team.

One of the first observable commonalities for this group is its uniform. To be a technician is to wear black, and the sense of belonging it confers is evident in the formative experience discussed by a stage manager here,

[A commercial musical production] asked me if I would be interested in going and doing the day’s work experience with them. I … spent a day with the stage management team and just immediately thought this is exactly what I want to do… I was 16. I just felt I associated with the people, with the stage managers… and they just took me in and they introduced me to all the cast on the stage but I was standing with them. Like I was standing with the people dressed in black and I was dressed in black and I felt a little affinity with them and I was like, ‘Wow’... I think that's really when, for me, I found my people.25

Ostensibly born out of practical considerations, this practice ensures that as little as possible of the technician is visible to the audience while they stand in the wings or in the grid. However, the history of this custom, the kinds of black clothes that make up this uniform and the way they are worn are dense with meaning.

One reason for a uniform of black is a literal desire to erase the body, and visible labour, of the technician. Performance theorist Alice Rayner suggests this appropriation of Kabuki’s sign of invisibility26 is due to the belief that the erasure perpetuates a theatrical illusion, or the “magic” of the theatre. While the practice of wearing all black is relatively recent, adherence and prior knowledge of this backstage norm is initial evidence of belonging for any new crew. Conformity not only establishes their understanding of current theatre practice, but also their tactic acceptance of conventions regarding hierarchy, role and professional aspiration.

Quite often, a venue or a production will provide a uniform shirt. This logo-ed black top is prized as a marker of belonging, demonstrating allegiance and a relationship to a performance space or company. If not supplied, a black t-shirt or polo will be worn by most crew, often from a previous gig. Evidence of longstanding belonging, career progress and veteran status can be marked by the repertoire of production t-shirts worn. Extra points are given for long past productions. A previous colleague of mine still owns and wears a very faded crew t-shirt from the 1998 Cats tour. In a world and workplace in which you are employed gig to gig, this manner of establishing your credentials not only exhibits the longevity of your career but also tacitly communicates your industry commitment and professional competence. Alongside production or venue shirts are the rest of the uniform items, which include long black trousers (cargo pants are popular), lanyards, cans or radios, utility belts and comfortable black footwear, usually steel cap boots or trainers, depending on role. These items support the work and physical requirements of the technical team, but also clearly demarcate the wearer as a “non” performer. Prizing utility and comfort over style and fit, these items evidence the group’s valuing of practicality and expedience, as well as their group relationship.

Another explicit way in which “belonging” is controlled and patrolled by the wider team is the policing behaviours that occur around job responsibilities. The concept of ‘slabbing’ is an example of this policing. This custom requires technicians who let the team down or transgress theatre norms in some way to buy a carton (a slab) of beer to be shared among the crew. Personally, I have been slabbed for a ringing mobile phone mid performance. Another large musical I worked on kept a running tally of crew slabs chalked on the side of some equipment backstage. This was clearly displayed in each venue, visible for all to see. Not only did it mark an individual’s history of belonging in that team and on that production, it also demonstrated it to venue staff, highlighting that the entire team was conversant with this wider group practice. This self-policing practice establishes explicit standards of group behaviour that may impact the perception of the technical team’s professional competence, and thus group esteem. It also displays that these are being monitored by the group, and thus do not need to be managed by external parties. This autonomy is an important aspect of the ingroup self-esteem. As discussed by veteran stage builder John Preston, being seen onstage during a performance is a slab-worthy transgression.27 This penalty clearly establishes the perceived locations the technical team do and do not belong, the next subject under focus.

Belonging backstage applies not only to the group, but also to the space. Patrice Pavis suggest that there is a cognitive ‘circle of attention’28 that divides onstage and backstage spaces. I suggest that backstage belonging is most apparent in its obverse—when technical staff are on stage, where they ‘don’t belong’. This is efficiently evidenced by the allowance paid to technical staff if required to be visible on stage. More conceptually many productions use technical staff on stage to experiment and play with theatre conventions. Making the crew part of the action or scenery in this way is considered problematic by Rayner, as it ‘others’ the technician, and all those off stage they represent, reiterating the in-group comparative divide between ‘technicians’ and ‘artists’. The consciousness that the stage is the ‘wrong place’29 for technicians is visible in the practices of dressers and other crew on the Phantom of the Opera, which sees them carefully choregraphing and contorting their bodies behind set pieces to ensure invisibility after scenery and costume changes. This contortion not only evidences the understanding that they do not ‘belong’ on stage, but also an adherence to a collective understanding of expected behaviour.  

Membership of the technical team is performed and negotiated through a variety of processes, just a few of which have been discussed in detail. Another is language, with Zezulka suggesting that intertextual references providing evidence of ingroup belonging,30 while for Essin ‘specialised language’ fulfills a similar function.31 What I want to turn to now is how these practices are important for individual esteem and feeling of belonging, and are both useful and detrimental to the theatrical product.

The Value, Problems and Outcomes of Belonging Backstage

There are multiple results that occur because of these performances of belonging backstage. Some of these are highly valuable, not only to the people involved, but also for the artworks being produced. Others, the negative problems and outcomes of the technical team’s high entitativity on the theatrical work, will be challenging for many to consider.

One important value of this team cohesiveness is the emotional and social connection it facilitates. The language surrounding working backstage is one of intimacy. We talk about the theatre community or family.32 McAuley expands, stating that ‘the experience of … theatre artists in Australia is one of the rapid formation of groups that work together at a level of physical and emotional intimacy shared by few other professions for relatively short periods’.33 While this passion and investment supports high production standards it is also problematic, as it becomes difficult to separate work from your sense of self, an issue identified by The Arts Wellbeing Collective.34 Working as a technician can be an all-encompassing life choice and identity. Therefore, to feel part of this group, even when not working becomes vital to emotional wellbeing. In Entertainment Assists’ research into the mental health of Australian entertainment workers, interviewees expressed that long after people had stopped working backstage, they identified with the people and the industry.35 For these technicians, belonging is not contingent on location and frequency of work, but from previously established and continuing group identification.

Looking first at the positives, part of the reason for the tight knit nature of the technical team is due to the structure of theatre work. Late nights, close quarters, adrenaline, and comradery in extreme situations create conditions of high entitativity. The resulting cohesive team dynamic usefully serves the production and this is evident in both long and short term show specific teams. Firstly, as technical teams for specific events fluctuate and exist for such short periods—often a few days or hours, the existence of a stable wider technical team culture provides a baseline for a relatively consistent understanding of what constitutes ‘professional practice’ or ‘good work’ across venues and sites, or what Banks terms craft worker’s ‘collective consciousness’.36 Further, individual technician’s ability to prove themselves a member of this collective via clothing, behaviour, language and other norms allows the group to quickly build trust and unity within a short timeframe. Secondly, it often would not be physically  possible to create the theatre work without collective ethos.

Backstage of a theatre can be a dangerous place in which heavy machinery and objects are moved around many people, often in strict sequence with exact timing. Manipulating these elements requires a great deal of trust in your team’s precision, coordination, and experience.37 This cohesiveness becomes instrumental in the artistic presentation of the work. One experienced flyman told the story of how he and his flying partner/best friend learned each other’s rhythms and could fly out an object with remarkable smoothness, developing a reputation as a duo which extended beyond the venue. This bodily experience is intellectualised by Essin, who states ‘“stagehands” communication and coordination with one another often exceeds verbalisation; they wordlessly take up slack in a rope, feed cable along a pipe, or adjust their grip to synchronise with a work partner’.38 In this example, social interaction and common goals overlap and what emerges is a technically valuable skill that furthers the artistry of the production. Other examples of the team cohesion and inter-reliance are evident in the choreography required in a quick change involving multiple dressers, or the interplay between a stage manager and all the board staff they cue.

Conversely, there are problems that can arise from group identification and resulting bias and othering. This is one of those conversations that usually happen in the quiet of the auditorium or backstage corridor, or after the third beer at the pub. However, there is value in having the hard conversations in public, as the first step to fixing a problem is acknowledging there is one. Addressing the sometimes-contentious relationship between the technical and creative teams is Jordan Gibbs’ who suggests that ‘technical are as much responsible for perpetuating this relationship as artistic are in failing to realise its qualities’, employing ‘artistic’ as an alternative to what I term creative in this article.39 While these problems are often the product of creative differences, conflicting values and high-pressure situations, I suggest that it is exacerbated by what Castano and others term ‘in-group bias’, which prompts stereotyping, judgement and exclusion of the ‘out-group’.40 The ‘othering’ in this scenario probably best summed up by the exclamation ‘Bloody creative!’. While this might be justified as a way to let off steam in a stressful situation, evidencing belonging by highlighting the otherness of the outgroup, which can be patrons, creatives or performers, often manifest in exclusionary or obstructive practices. This process of inclusion and exclusion is used as a shorthand to identify belonging with “us”, and this attitude is discussed in detail by Alice Rayner, who states that the technician often holds,

at a minimum an ironic view of performance, of actors and directors, of audiences and critics, and especially of academics. That irony can also develop into outright contempt for those others, who may seem to know nothing and care nothing for the reality of the work.41

A recent example of this attitude, related to me by a designer, involved a production manager rudely refuse to offer a designer advice or a perspective on the position of a set item and he discouraged his staff from contributing their point of view, as ‘that was [the designers] responsibility’. This power play made use of the hierarchical relationships in theatre even as it undermined both the power of the designer, and the collaborative ideology that surrounds our industry. Through his discouragement he also further enforced the in-group identity of the technicians as a cohesive cohort, by positioning the designer as an out-group. This abrogation of responsibility for certain types of decisions or aid is something I have seen repeatedly throughout my career, as both a practitioner and as a theatre ethnographer. The undercurrent of this attitude is evident in much of the humour that surrounds the technical culture, visible in memes shared on Facebook or on printed on t-shirts. However, it must be said that not every technician is party to this mindset. Case studies in Zezulka42 and Hunt and Melrose43 demonstrate ways in which empathetic technical lighting staff ‘save’ lighting designers in deteriorating relationships with directors. In these scenarios the designers might be considered incorporated into the ‘in-group’ and the directors the ‘out-group’. In my discussion of the technical community as a homogenous identity, I am focused on the similarities rather than the differences in the humans that make up the group.

In another example UK lighting designer Andrew Bridge suggests that hesitation in responding to a technical design question is seen as weakness and is often tested by technical crews, a point that was supported by other designers I interviewed in Australia. Bridge further argues for a difference between cultures, stating that in the UK, a designer might explain delays in information while in the USA the better way to build confidence with the crew is to offer a firm answer to a question, even if it may change later.44 However, it is often these changes that provide the most frustration for technical staff. Here we can see that this division serves neither group, while absolute answers might provide certainty initially, changes add to the workload and ultimately diminish the trust in the relationship, a point emphasised by Newman and Phillips.45 This ultimately serves nobody.

The first step in resolving this division is talking about it, and the second is understanding that this ingroup bias is a learnt behaviour, and as such it can be changed. One method I suggest to help this change is the common in-group identity model.46 By emphasising the shared goals and values of the wider group, in this case theatre workers as a whole, bias and hostility is reduced. It further prompts recategorising by the in-group of the out-group. This mental shift is supported by the existing structures and aims of any theatre production, which requires teams to work together for the success of the show. Incorporating this idea into theatre practice builds on already existing collaborative concepts practiced by many technicians and creative personnel. I believe that leadership, explicit framing and emphasis on the larger team unity has the potential to improve the dynamic of the entire workforce, and the production experience.


In part, the high group entitativity of the technical team is a natural result of the conditions of work. As discussed this has positive benefits for both the people and the work they make, however the usual human progression to in-group bias is divisive and harmful. While I have outlined a strategy to resolve this tension I am aware that facing up to that darker element will be difficult. The responsibility for this improvement lies with all. I hope by drawing attention this divisive attitude present but unacknowledged in the dark of the theatre to improve the collaborative practices theatre prides itself on.


This paper was written before we had even heard of COVID-19. Since the virus has emerged theatres around Australia and across the world have shut indefinitely. Many, many technicians have lost their livelihoods, and the pandemic has starkly highlighted the problems of casual and contingent employment.

Amid this fear and uncertainty, I have been heartened by the way theatre workers of all types have drawn together. In online forums, across social media platforms and through Senate enquiries people have supported each other and shared knowledge and resources. I have also been encouraged by the fact that some COVID-19 related arts grants and financial assistance has been extended to technical staff.47 That this eligibility was met with some shock or surprise by technicians reaffirms the structural issues underpinning this article, but also points to a possible change in the way these roles are perceived in the industry and broader arts ecology.

My hope is that when we are able to return to work, that this camaraderie is carried forward. Building on the group perception of themselves as unified theatre workers might be one positive thing to be taken from this adversity.

  1. McAuley, Gay. 1999. Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press., 26.

  2. Essin, Christin. 2011. ‘An Aesthetic of Backstage Labor’. Theatre Topics 21 (1): 33–48., 46.

  3. Knowles, Ric. 2004. Reading the Material Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 25.

  4. Outside of the technical team, which in itself can include sound, lighting, stage-management, costume, scenic, props, mechanical, automaton, visual effects and wigs and makeup staff, theatre workers include directors, designers, choreographers, writers, producers and performers such as  actors, musicians, dancers. Each is integral to the collaboration, but unfortunately there isn’t scope here to address their work with technical teams individually. Hammerstein II, Oscar. 1949. Lyrics. New York: Simon & Schuster. 47.Atkinson, Paul. 2010. ‘Making Opera Work: Bricolage and the Management of Dramaturgy’. Music and Arts in Action 3 (1): 3–19.  Collins, Jane, and Andrew Nisbet, eds. 2010. Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography. London; New York: Routledge. 141.Curtis, Stephen. 2014. Staging Ideas: Set and Costume Design for Theatre. Sydney: Currency Press. 18.

  5. Newman, Renée, and Maggi Phillips. 2017. ‘You Are No Longer Creative When You Give up: Technical Theatre’s Creative Sleight of Hand.’ Behind the Scenes: Journal of Theatre Production Practice 1 (1). 11-12.

  6. Hunt, Nick, and Susan Melrose. 2005. ‘Techne, Technology, Technician’. Performance Research 10 (4): 70–82. 70.

  7. Brennan, Clare. 2011. ‘Why Distinguish between “cast” and “Creatives” in Theatre Productions?’ The  Guardian, 21 March 2011, sec. Stage.

  8. Rayner, Alice. 2002. ‘Rude Mechanicals and the Specters of Marx’. Theatre Journal 54 (4): 535–54., 55. Knowles, Reading the Material Theatre, 25. Essin, Christin. 2011. ‘An Aesthetic of Backstage Labor’. Theatre Topics 21 (1): 33–48., 41. Monks, Aoife. 2014. ‘Virtuosity, Craft and Technique in the Work of Costume’. In Costume: Readings in Theatre Practice, edited by Alison Maclaurin and Aoife  Monks. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 74. Zezulka, Kelli. 2019. ‘The Lighting Programmer as Creative Collaborator’. Behind the Scenes: Journal of Theatre Production Practice 2 (1): 15. 

  9. Farthing, Anna. 2012. ‘Mapping Technical Theatre Arts Training’. York, UK: Higher Education Authority, Arts and Humanities, UK., 6. Hunt, Melrose, ‘Techne, Technology, Technician’, 71.

  10. McAuley, Gay. 2012. Not Magic but Work: An Ethnographic Account of a Rehearsal Process. Theatre. Theory, Practice, Performance. Manchester: New York: Manchester University Press, 45.

  11. Brennan, ‘Why Distinguish between “cast” and “Creatives” in Theatre Productions?’.

  12. Hunt, Melrose, ‘Techne, Technology, Technician’, 70.

  13. Moran, Nick. 2016. The Right Light: Interviews with Contemporary Lighting Designers. Palgrave. 99

  14. Huntington, John. 2002. ‘Rethinking Entertainment Technology Education’. Theatre Design and Technology  38 (4): 10, 14.

  15. Hogg, Michael A., David K. Sherman, Joel Dierselhuis, Angela T. Maitner, and Graham Moffitt. 2007.  ‘Uncertainty, Entitativity, and Group Identification’. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 43 (1): 135-42., 136.

  16. van de Eynde, Julie, Adrian Fisher, and Christopher Sonn. 2014. ‘Pride, Passion & Pitfalls: Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry’. Project report. Melbourne: Victoria University and Entertainment Assist., 4.

  17. Watts, Richard. 2017. ‘How Creatives Can Stop Drinking Themselves to Death’. Arts Hub, 24 March 2017.

  18. Houser-Marko, Linda, and Scott Barsotti. 2015. ‘Theatre Artists’ Aptitudes Study: Aptitudes of Theatre Professionals’. STATISTICAL BULLETIN 2015-6. Theatre Artists’ Aptitudes Study. Chicago: Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

  19. Turner, John C., and Henri Tajfel. 1986. ‘The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior’. In Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by Stephan Worchel and William  Austin, 7–24. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

  20. Reicher, Stephen, Russell Spears, and S. Alexander Haslam. 2010. ‘The Social Identity Approach in Social Psychology’. In The SAGE Handbook of Identities, 45–62. 1 Oliver’s  Yard,  55 City Road,  London    EC1Y 1SP  United Kingdom: SAGE Publications Ltd., 54.

  21. Castano, Emanuele, Vincent Yzerbyt, David Bourguignon, and Eléonore Seron. 2002. ‘Who May Enter? The Impact of In-Group Identification on In-Group/Out-Group Categorization’. Journal of Experimental Social  Psychology 38 (3): 315–22. 745.

  22. Hogg, Sherman, Dierselhuis, Maitner, Moffitt, ‘Uncertainty, Entitativity, and Group Identification’, 138.

  23. Farthing, ‘Mapping Technical Theatre Arts Training’, 25.

  24. Pfaff-Czarnecka, Joanna. 2011. ‘From “identity” to “belonging” in Social Research. Plurality, Social Boundaries, and the Politics of the Self’. In Ethnicity, citizenship and belonging: practices, theory and spatial dimensions, edited by Sarah Albiez, Nelly Castro, Lara Jüssen, and Eva Youkhana, 199–219. Madrid:  Iberoamericana., 199.

  25. O’Neill, Carly. 2017. ‘Exit Stage Left: Mid Career Transitions of Female Stage Managers in Australia’. Degree of Master of Arts (Research), Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology, 55-56.

  26. Rayner, ‘Rude Mechanicals and the Specters of Marx’, 537.

  27. Blake, Ellisa. 2017. ‘Sydney Theatre Company Legend John “JP” Preston Calls It Quits after 40 Years’. The  Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 2017, sec. Entertainment - Stage. john-jp-preston-calls-it-quits-after-40-years-20170418-gvmprm.html.

  28. Pavis, Patrice. 2003. ‘Space, Time, Action’. In Analyzing Performance: Theater, Dance, and Film, translated by David Williams, 148–70. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 151.

  29. Rayner, ‘Rude Mechanicals and the Specters of Marx’, 538.

  30. Zezulka, Kelli. 2019. ‘The Lighting Programmer as Creative Collaborator’. Behind the Scenes: Journal of  Theatre Production Practice 2 (1): 15, 22.

  31. Essin ‘An Aesthetic of Backstage Labor’, 45.

  32. Sobb Ah Kin, Camilla. 2010. ‘A Chance Gathering of Strays: The Australian Theatre Family’. Masters, Sydney: University of Sydney. Http://, 7. Ramirez, Luis, and Shari Waterson Ellsworth. 2007. ‘Are We Really Working Ourselves to Death?’ Theatre  Design and Technology 43: 64‒74, 67.

  33. McAuley, Not Magic but Work: 212.

  34. The Arts Wellbeing Collective. 2019. ‘Your Pocket Guide to Post-Show De-Role’. The  Arts Wellbeing Collective (blog). February 2019.

  35. van de Eynde, Fisher, Sonn, ‘Pride, Passion & Pitfalls’, 42.

  36. Banks, Mark. 2010. ‘Craft Labour and Creative Industries’. International Journal of Cultural Policy 16 (3): 305–21., 311.

  37. Essin ‘An Aesthetic of Backstage Labor’, 41.

  38. Ibid, 38.

  39. Gibbs, Jordan. 2016. ‘The Best Friend You Haven’t Noticed’. Arts Hub, 5 October 2016. See also Banks, Mark. 2010. ‘Craft Labour and Creative Industries’. International Journal of Cultural Policy 16 (3): 305–21., 313.

  40. Castano, Yzerbyt, Bourguignon, Seron. ‘Who May Enter?’, 315.

  41. Rayner, ‘Rude Mechanicals and the Specters of Marx’,545.

  42. Zezulka, ‘The Lighting Programmer as Creative Collaborator’, 9.

  43. Hunt, Melrose, ‘Techne, Technology, Technician’, 72.

  44. Pilbrow, Richard. 1997. Stage Lighting Design: The Art, the Craft, the Life / Foreword by Harold Prince ;  with Contributions by Dawn Chiang, John B. Read, and Robert Bryan ; Illustrations by Lucy Gaskell. New  York: By Design Press, 210.

  45. Newman, Phillips, ‘You Are No Longer Creative When You Give up’, 9.

  46. Gaertner, Samuel L, and John F Dovidio. 2014. Reducing Intergroup Bias: The Common Ingroup Identity  Model. Hoboken: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.

  47. For example the Theatre Network Australian 1000x$1000 crisis cash for artists, and the Arts Queensland stART grants.  

About the author:
Madeline Taylor is a creator, researcher and teacher in the creative arts. A lecturer in Fashion at Queensland University of Technology, and a PhD candidate at University of Melbourne, her research focuses on contemporary costume practice, technical theatre’s interpersonal dynamics and fashion performance. During her 15 years’ experience as a practitioner she has worked on over 85 productions in theatre, dance, opera, circus, contemporary performance and film around Australia and the UK. Research career highlights include an internship at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. She is a co-director of The Stitchery Collective, a Brisbane based ARI, and was Australian Editor for the World Scenography Project Vol II – 1990 - 2005.

Currents  is a collaboration between the Centre of Visual Art (CoVA) at the University of Melbourne and the School of Design, University of Western Australia, and is funded through the Schenberg International Arts Collaboration Program. The Advisory Board and Editorial Committee are comprised of staff and graduate students from across the University of Melbourne and the University of Western Australia.
Currents acknowledges the traditional owners and ongoing custodians of the land on which this journal is produced—the Boonwurung and Wurundjeri people of the Eastern Kulin Nation and Whadjuk people. We pay our respects to land, ancestors and Elders, and know that education involves working with their guidance to improve the lives of all.

ISSN 2652-8207