Spectatorship of Other: How Jo Bannon Uses Light to Mark, Unmark and Re-Mark Herself as Other in the Performance Work Alba (2015)
In this essay, I will view the performance of Alba (2015) by artist Jo Bannon through the lens of Peggy Phelan’s seminal writing: Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1993). I will investigate how Bannon unmarks, marks and re-marks herself as other through the usage of light; making visible, and invisible her condition of albinism as other.
Phelan states ‘He is the norm and therefore unremarkable as the Other, It is she whom he marks.’ (Phelan, 1993, 5). Phelan is discussing that if the male is marked with value then the female is therefore is unmarked. Phelan goes onto to describe that cultural reproduction re-marks the female with value. Through the theory of marking, unmarking and re-marking, Phelan is shining a light onto the spectatorship of the female and problematising what happens when what was invisible is made visible.
Alba (2015) is a 40 minute solo, autobiographical performance made for black box theatres; devised and performed by artist Jo Bannon. It utilises an ethereal soundtrack, interviews and stage lighting, to highlight, make visible, and at times make invisible, Bannon’s Albinism. Bannon presents her albinism via a string of autobiographical threads, laid bare in an accompanying programme booklet: Notes on: Alba, Catholic Mass, Albinism, Vision & Visitations, Monica Bannon, Being sent to Coventry, Superstition, Ghosts, Hair, Lady Godiva, Fighting, stories, Eduardo Kac’s Rabbit, Endings. Bannon discusses the condition of albinism and it’s connection to light; ‘People with albinism also usually have a number of eye conditions, such as low vision, nystagmus and increased sensitivity to light’ (Bannon, 2015). Bannon explores this connection with to light; using light to make invisible and unmark, make visible and mark and make spectacular and re-mark herself as other.
Alba begins in complete darkness, the soft felt cover of the programme booklet handed out by an usher being the only item the audience can see and feel in their hands. As the theatre lighting slowly and softly fades in, a figure slowly emerges, covered, hidden by a large sheet; not a human but a ghost. In an interview about the show, Bannon explains how society de-humanises people with albinism:
If looking in the media, for instance, for examples of people with albinism — or depictions of albinism like The Ghost, The Monster, The Alien, The Vampire; we get into The Bullied, The Victim; and we get into The Angel, The Savant, The Mystical. And there’s not room in any of that for the human.
Bannon leans into the notion of Albinism as societally other by first presenting herself draped in a bright white sheet, presenting herself as a ghost. At the same time, Bannon is also using this image to unmark herself; ‘one term of the binary is marked with value, the other is unmarked. The male is marked with value, the female is unmarked, lacking measured value and meaning’ (Phelan, 1993, 5). Bannon is not attempting to display herself as a female, at this point in the performance, but rather present herself as an unmarked figure. She is partly conforming to a view of albinism and by not allowing the audience to see her straight away, she is making herself invisible; her albinism is as invisible as a ghost. She is also not yet marked by the audience as female, she is viewed by the audience as a ghost, a figure, a signifier and not yet a female body. Therefore Bannon is an unmarked figure.
Bannon also uses light and darkness to invite the audience to look at her as other by utilising the myth of Lady Godiva; which tells of Lady Godiva protesting a medieval tax law by ridding naked on a horse through the city of Coventry, Bannon’s home city. The myth extends to ‘Peeping Tom’, a leering male caricature who saw Lady Godiva and became obsessed with looking at her naked body. Paradoxically, the myth of Lady Godiva riding naked ‘only exists because he peeped and saw her. To be seen is to exist it seems’ (Bannon, 2015). In Alba (2015), Bannon is positioning herself as Lady Godiva, pale skinned and white haired and her audience as ‘Peeping Toms’. The audience is gazing at her, viewing her and ultimately marking her as other.
Chaudhuri writes about the notion of ‘Peeping Toms’ while discussing the writing of feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey. Discussing the notion of Scopophilia in cinema, Chaudhuri writes:
It effectively positions its spectators as Peeping Toms: the darkened auditorium gives each spectator the illusion of being a privileged voyeur, peeping in on a private world, separate from the rest of the audience.
(Chaudhuri, 2009, 34)
Although Mulvey and Chaudhuri are discussing a cinema auditorium, the parallel to a black box theatre auditorium, specifically when looking at Alba (2015), is evident. Bannon employs darkness as a strategy, as an operation to invite the audience to look at her, to mark her;
‘He is the norm and therefore unremarkable, as the Other, it is she whom he marks’ (Phelan, 1993, 5). Phelan is suggesting that through patriarchal society, the male gaze has become the norm which has therefore become unremarkable but this male gaze is able to mark the female. In the context of Alba (2015), Bannon is using darkness and the Lady Godiva/Peeping Tom myth to perpetuate the notion of the female marked body. She is actively inviting the audience to mark her as other. She writes in her programme notes that the performance is about paleness, standing out, and blending in. This operation of to-be-looked-at-ness, of standing out is taken further in the performance as Bannon presents a gaze right back at the audience, making eye contact, unflinching in the role of performer looking at the audience looking back at her performing. Bannon is very aware that the audience is marking her with its gaze and invites it, welcomes it. Bannon begins to lure the audience into voyeurism but subverts this by looking straight back at the audience with a knowing intensity. She is here to be seen. As soon as the audience sees this reciprocal gaze the performance shifts from Bannon the unmarked to Bannon the marked.
Another performance which uses the operation of darkness to present a body as other is Moore Bacon! (2016). In Kobe Chielens and Bosse Provoost’s theatre performance, they take the work of artists Henry Moore & Francis Bacon as inspiration and use illusion to display a body that ‘is torn apart and assumes impossible shapes: it stretches, contracts, and bursts apart, only to subsequently present itself to us in a new shape.’ (Toneelhuis, 2016) Moore Bacon! (2016) is actively marking the body as other through using light as illusion and through voyeuristic darkness the audience becomes peeping tom’s of a de-humanised body; the audience never see a face and therefore the audience’s gaze is not reciprocal.
Bannon also uses darkness and light in Alba (2015) as self-representation of other but does this without presenting a body as an illusion but by presenting a body with albinism in plain sight and utilising a reciprocal gaze. When viewed through the lens of Peggy Phelan it could be said that both pieces mark a body; in Moore Bacon! (2016), the body is marked through voyeurism and questions what the body is and how it is doing what it’s doing, in Alba (2015) the marking happens through light, making the female body visible but also making the condition of albinism visible and therefore marking the person with albinism as other. The lack of voice in both performances amplifies voyeurism and the notion of marking, there is no escape from spectatorship, the audience is unable to close their eyes and follow a story, they are forced to watch, to watch an impossible body and therefore an other body in Moore Bacon! (2016) and watch Bannon display their albinism in Alba (2015).
However, the operation of darkness within performance is part of the reason why audiences are drawn into theatrical experiences, writes academic Julia Fawcett; ‘We [the audience][…] strain our eyes trying to glimpse the unseen depths that produce the seen surfaces, trying to grasp the forms that lurk just outside the circle of the spotlight […]’ (Fawcett, 2010, 137). The straining of the audience’s eyes is rife in both Moore Bacon! (2016) and in Alba (2015) as audiences try to work out what is invisible, Bannon in particular makes visible the invisible ghost, then goes onto make visible their Albinism by performing domestic acts, by humanising the dehumanised person with albinism.
Fawcett goes onto to discuss the relationship of the marked, unmarked, re-marked subjects in the Gertrude Stein Play: A Play Called Not and Now. Fawcett is suggesting that the operation of darkness, the mystery, the unknown can draw spectators in and forces them to watch on. Bannon has a similar insight into this theory, but instead of darkness, Bannon frames the lack of vision as blind spots; “The blind spots between the stories we tell of ourselves and the stories told about us’ (Bannon, 2015) Bannon plays with the operation of vision in the performance of Alba both by employing darkness and by weaving her own autobiographical thread of albinism; giving an insight into how she sees the world and how the condition of albinism can be viewed. Bannon is attributing value to what is invisible, what lurks in the blind spot.
The problems that both Stein and Phelan identify in performance stem not, then, from the conventions of performance itself but rather from our refusal to read performance as such – from our tendency to value what is made visible and nominal over what remains invisible, undefinable, unmarked.
(Fawcett, 2010, 146)
Like Stein & Phelan, Bannon has identified that there is value in the invisible, in the unmarked and goes onto to play with this by presenting darkness and herself as an unmarked ghost at the beginning of Alba (2015). As the performance progresses Bannon problematises value in the unmarked by marking albinism and therefore herself as other. Later in the performance Bannon presents a series of domestic images which could be read as re-marking a societal view of albinism through performing gender norms.
The sequence in which Bannon presents a series of domestic images sees her iron a sheet, make a paper papal hat, boil a kettle, wash her hair, make a sandwich and blow-dry her hair. With the use of specific stage lighting highlighting the activities, the ethereal soundtrack and Bannon’s stylised performance, these mundane domestic acts are transformed into a spectacle, a spectacle that Bannon uses to re-mark herself. Take the blow-drying of hair sequence as an example; Bannon is actively perusing the male gaze and performing gender. Bannon swivels the hairdryer around her hair, Beyoncé-like, and drenched in seductive focused white stage lighting, the audience becomes enamoured by the beauty of the image. Bannon is seducing the audience by creating a spectacle through the use of light. This seduction is re-marking her albinism as norm through performing a gendered act; The image of a female blow-drying her hair. Academic Judith Butler discusses the use of such stylised acts that then become our gendered identity:
Gender is in no way a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time – an identity instated through a stylized repetition of acts.
(Butler, 1990, 270)
Through using such gendered clichéd acts, Bannon is presenting herself as a re-marked body. Using tropes that have been culturally reproduced in order to present a clichéd version of femininity; this ‘[…]cultural reproduction takes she who is unmarked and re-marks her, rhetorically and imagistically’ (Phelan, 1993, 5). Bannon, however begins to subvert such acts by framing them explicitly and by making them into spectacles of themselves. Through using a gendered act, she presents her albinism as the norm, however, she then goes onto subvert this norm through the use of spectacle with stage lighting highlighting Bannon otherness, her miraculousness. This re-marking is therefore re-marked again by the use of spectacle, dragging the notion of albinism as the norm, through gendered acts, into the realm of albinism as other, through spectacle. Bannon is playing with tropes of the miraculous and weaving in threads of her own autobiography and catholic upbringing at the same time. Bannon is re-marked through cultural reproduction, through presenting a series of gendered acts as a spectacle of albinism, Bannon is re-marking the re-marking of herself, her albinism has become twice-remarked as other.
Bannon has used light to make visible her self-representation of otherness; unmarking, marking and twice re-marking her albinism within the performance Alba (2015). By weaving together autobiographical threads, Bannon has cast a light on a ghost in order to unmark herself as other. Alba (2015), like the performance Moore Bacon! (2016) then utilises blind spots in vision in order to mark a body as other and thus give it value. A series of gendered domestic acts re-marks Bannon’s albinism as the norm but then re-marks them again by lighting the domestic acts as miraculous spectacles. Alba (2015)’s exquisitely crafted theatrical weave and Phelan’s seminal writing can be used to illuminate ways in which audiences spectate otherness.
Alba. Jo Bannon. (2015). by Jo Bannon. Directed by Jo Bannon [Arnolfini, Bristol. 13th February 2015].
Bannon, J (2015) Alba programme booklet. Bristol: Arnolfini.
Bannon, J. (2017) Interview: Jo Bannon, never a ghost. Realtime. Available from https://www.realtime.org.au/interview-jo-bannon-never-a-ghost/ [accessed 30 October 2021].
Butler, J. (1990). Performative Acts of Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory. In: S-E. Case (ed.) Performing Feminisms: Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. London: John Hopkins. pp.270-282.
Chaudhuri, S. (2009). Feminist film theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. London: Routledge. pp. 31-44.
Fawcett, J. (2010) “Looking for the One Who Looks Like Some One: The Unmarked Subject(s) in Gertrude Stein's a Play Called Not and Now,” Modern Drama, 53(2), pp. 137–158.
Moore Bacon! Chielens, K and Provoost, B (2017) by Kobe Chielens and Bosse Provoost. [Home, Manchester 8th July 2017].
Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Screen, 16(3):6-18 reprinted in Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual and Other Pleasures. London: MacMillan.
Phelan, P. (1993). Unmarked: The politics of performance. London: Routledge. pp. 1-33.
Toneelhuis (2016) Moore Bacon! Kobe Chielens, Bosse Provoost. Toneelhuis. Available from https://www.toneelhuis.be/en/program/moore-bacon/ [accessed 30 October 2021].