Performance and the Maternal

Lead Research Organisation: University of South Wales
Department Name: Faculty of Creative Industries


Maternal performance centralises relationships of care with another person, be they a dependent child or other, and presents this for a live audience in a performance encounter. We use the term 'maternal' as distinct from 'mothers' as we are interested in the condition of being in relation to an other rather than biological motherhood. 'Maternal' recognises inequalities in caring responsibilities but is not intended to exclude those in maternal role on the basis of sex or gender. There has been a significant upsurge in academic interest in the maternal; however, in performance studies the maternal is under-theorised. This project considers the maternal as represented by selected performance artists working in the UK, US and Europe through the medium of English. We will impact on both practice and policy, not only in arts making but also in fields where professionals have a responsibility to support mothers including, but not limited to, health, social care and education. We mobilise art practice, psychoanalysis and feminist theory to calibrate the existing work in the field of maternal studies within the frame of performance studies.
Jacqueline Rose's 'Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty' (2018) demonstrates the currency of maternal research. There has been a proliferation of mother/artist exhibitions, networks and performances internationally (for example 'The Egg the Womb the Head and the Moon' (2013-2014) collaborative blog and exhibition, the 'M/Other Voices' foundation, the AHRC funded 'Mums and Babies Ensemble' (on which the CoI for this application was a partner) and the 'Cultural ReProducers' networks, the 'Artist as Mother as Artist' (2016) exhibition, 'Partus' (2016) performed by Third Angel, and 'Motherland' (2012) by Vincent Dance Theatre etc.). However, academic consideration of 'maternal performance' is still lacking. Everyone, in some way, has a relationship to the maternal; we are all 'Of Woman Born' as Adrienne Rich stated in 1976. Artist/philosopher Bracha L Ettinger notes that we all carry the maternal within us, regardless of whether we have chosen to become mothers or not and regardless of our biological sex, because we all carry the memory of being carried (Ettinger, 2015). Lisa Baraitser encourages us to think of the maternal as an ongoing condition (2017, 2008). Our own research to date has attempted to go some way towards addressing the maternal gap in performance studies; this extended research study will bring to light new understandings of motherhood that can be gained from an in-depth study of maternal performance.
We will undertake textual analysis of the work of contemporary mother/artists working in the field of live art and performance as well as interviewing internationally renowned performance practitioners in the UK, Europe and North America including but not limited to Ukeles (USA), Young (USA), Wynne (USA), McCloskey (UK), Surman (UK), Baker (UK), Loveless (Canada), Epp Buller (USA), Chernick (USA), Lysholt Hansen (Finland) and Kessel (USA). We will produce outputs and events including a co-authored book which will advance scholarship within performance studies, a conference and conference paper targeted to encourage discourse across disciplines, a policy briefing which will be shared with the Welsh Assembly Government and selected political parties in order to inform future maternal policy, a forum designed to engage mother/artists from diverse backgrounds, and a website to ensure the ongoing accessibility of the work and extend out reach both within the UK and internationally.
Our aims in this study are explicitly feminist in that we hope to improve the conditions in which women mother through creating a greater understanding and discourse around the maternal.

Planned Impact

This project will generate impact in three key areas: culture, understanding, and policy and practice. The key groups who will benefit from the research are mother/artists, professionals in health and social care with a responsibility for supporting those who mother, and policy makers whose brief includes arts, health and social care, women and equalities.
Mother/artists who are the subject of this research and beyond will find community and receive greater acknowledgment of their work redressing the maternal gap in existing arts programming. Academic acknowledgment of the work of mother/artists profiled in this research will give visibility to these artists and impact their career and artistic development. Since the research team's publication of the 'Study Room Guide on Live art and the Maternal' and associated events at the Live Art Development Agency several international artists have contacted the PI and CoI to note that it has helped them develop their own maternal practice and find a community of artists. This project will build on this impact.
The Performance and the Maternal project network, which has been informally set up since 2016 through email correspondence, Motherhood & Live Art events at the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, 'Study Room Guide on Live Art and the Maternal' publication and artist interviews, will be strengthened through this new research activity.
During this research we will produce a website, social media and email list, which will have broader reach, and go beyond the initial network participants. Impact will also be measured across a broader artistic community of mothers who are not the specific subjects of the research. We will assess this impact though event feedback and engagement with the website and project social media.
The research will explore how our understanding of maternal experience can be enhanced through an examination of the maternal as represented in performance. In doing this we will develop a deeper understanding of maternal performance and maternal life that will be shared through our website and events. We have had interest for these events expressed from practitioners in health care, in particular the PI has been developing links with the ABM University Health Board in West Wales who are widely acknowledged as sector leading in applied arts and health practice.
Policy and Practice
The PI also has a track record in extending research beyond the academy and convened a session at the Storytelling for Health conference in 2017 that brought together midwives and arts practitioners to explore the benefit of maternal performance for midwifery practice, as a result of this session an ongoing collaboration was established bringing arts practitioners to perform for student midwives. Through the symposium we will create opportunities for cross-disciplinary sharing that will have a direct impact on clinical practice through enhanced understanding. This will also impact on the practice of arts practitioners who are able to develop their own practice in relation to encounters in healthcare settings.
Our policy briefing will directly impact on policy around maternal practice. We have already obtained support from the Welsh Assembly Government cross party group on Arts and Health, the Wales Arts and Health Network and political parties Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party, who have all agreed to share the briefing; we will also seek further opportunities for disseminating the report to other interested policy forums and groups. Political activists will be invited to the symposium to extend the policy impact of the research. Through actively sharing and promoting the findings of the research beyond academy with those who are able to make change at a significant level we will make a tangible difference to the way women are supported to carry out their day-to-day mothering.


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