Eco Soma: Pain and Joy in Speculative Performance Encounters (Petra Kuppers)

Reviewed by Rebecca R. Ribeiro

I came to this book as a novice to the subject of ecosomatics and performance art and I honestly could not tell you a thing about dance theory. I am not an academic nor am I in the habit of writing anything except documentation in medical records of people I encounter as a medical social worker. I admit that I wondered what I had gotten myself into in reviewing this complex piece of writing. I hope to do it some justice, as it rightly deserves.

Petra Kuppers introduces the concept of “eco soma” as a “method for working with somatics” in the “production and the reception of somatic-flavored work. She looks to distinguish “eco soma” from “ecosomatics” through a discussion of her own experiences as an observer, participant, and or creator of various performance pieces. She writes, “ecosomatics” is “a term somewhere between exclusion and inclusion, with undertones of neoliberal self-care, of White settler appropriation of Indigenous practices, a bit New Agey, a bit old ritual.” As an outsider, I thought to myself, this all seems “a bit New Agey” and high-falootin’ … these discussions of communing with nature, international travel, art and performance. But I was curious.

After a cursory read of several websites on ecosomatics, I remain unsure if I fully appreciate her general characterization of the subject. But, it’s clear that Kuppers contributes to the conversation, as she communicates her experience as a mindful person living with chronic pain. Indeed, nothing I read dealt with the specificities of engaging the world and its histories through a body that is considered by society to be imperfect, i.e. disabled. Rather, a common message I read on these websites was about bringing the body into a state of perfection as one also connects with nature. The perfecting of the body, Kuppers points out, is a message/goal elaborated under capitalism as it [capitalism] focuses on efficiency in movement and bodily control/controlled bodies. She notes the systemic and physical barriers disabled people face in terms of gaining access to employment and public spaces, and the tendency to internalizing ableist beliefs about themselves and their (lack of) worth.

As a counter to this, Kuppers promotes the idea that, taken together, disabled bodies, in real or virtual spaces, can engage in transformative work that speaks meaning to systems of power. She calls for deliberative performances and/or contemplative viewing to disrupt this normative ideal. She embraces acceptance of her pain and denies the narrative of woe, even when talking about the difficulty she has getting into certain positions or sites. Kuppers also notes and reflects upon systems/entities that have chosen not to make buildings or public monuments universally accessible. She offers the example of the bipedal-centric Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany, Kuppers’s home country, where she may have been targeted by the Nazis.  Eco soma, she says, offers a way conceptualize what one may feel energetically but not register intellectually because violent histories and exclusionary ideologies surround us all differently.

The website for the University of Minnesota, where Kuppers teaches English, Women’s and Gender Studies, Theater and Dance, and Art and Design, describes her as a “disability culture activist and a community performance artist.” Kuppers makes the significant distinction that she is “encultured as disabled.” In defiance of old norms, Kuppers invites displays of bodies in built and natural environments that call attention to the relationships between them, which may not be comfortable. Kuppers holds that the discomfort which can occur when humans and/or non-humans experience a crossing of aims, identities, and abilities, becomes a space with the potential for transformation. The discomfort does not preclude joy. Rather, this uncomfortable parsing and examination of the trajectories geosociopolitical forces took to create the current spaces and humans is a joy. To experience life in and around one’s body is a joy. She teaches us to relish our unique somatic experiences. She also wants us to see others and listen to their stories, told with words, sounds, movement, or a combination of multisensory and spatial offerings. She wants us to connect, each in their own way, to push and push past boundaries, while respecting when humans and non-humans draw theirs.

Kuppers’s work displays a level of attention to the polymorphous connections between people, events, cultures, and landscapes which can feel overwhelming if not familiar with the theories or movements she references. (There’s always something to learn, eh?) Yet, even if reading critical theory is not your “thing,” one is still able to digest her complex discussions and come away from this book with an understanding of performance art and disability culture. Kuppers also provides a model language to describe movement and discuss disability in relation to the built, natural, and sociopolitical worlds we inhabit. She encourages the reader to explore intersections between and across human and non-human subjects, historical events, trends, and somatic movement(s). And, while encouraging that exploration, she demonstrates and reminds us to ask people if and how they wish to be represented and/or labeled (e.g., bipolar, disabled, queer, etc.)

Kuppers is able to keep the reader engaged in the subject of eco soma through her beautifully cadenced language, which gently transports us to the experiences she describes. Her prose is exquisite. She also shares with us her varied experiences in different roles in performances and relationships across countries and over Zoom. Bringing in a discussion of the effects the Covid-19 pandemic has had on notions of connection and space made this book feel even more relevant and grounding. She even incorporates video links into her book, making reading it a multimedia experience. Beyond this, throughout the book, she directly addresses the reader. She asks and encourages them (us) to be aware of their own somatic experience as they/we read. It feels like a real time exchange, energetically, as one imagines her imagining the reader, engaged and engaging. It is an enactment of the practice of eco soma: she is teaching us by example. One of the most effective moments of this practice is when Kuppers asks the reader, if they can, to push themselves up stairs using their arms, as she had to do while at the University of Cologne.

Kuppers writes that the space between the words eco and soma signifies the potentially radical and freeing act of taking pause to reflect upon embodied experience in space and time; a breath that can just as easily bring joy as discomfort, and possibly both. It is the invitation to new connections within and across social, cultural events and signifiers which may evade us if we only key into “narrative certainties.” The environments through which we move are molded by economic and political systems which contain and construct racialized and gendered identities and identifications. Eco Soma is the invitation to take chances and feel change, as artists and engaged spectators weave diverse bodies and worlds together. It is a request for us to pay attention, imagine, and embrace a phenomenology of interconnectedness with all that is around us while focusing on the gravity of our varied and various contexts and place(s).

How we conceive of ourselves, of our bodies and skins, starts early and has lasting effects on our bodymindspirit systems. We internalize norms young. They feel natural. Eco Soma is a challenge to us to question our “normal” way of thought connections — it asks us to unfurl and unleash the tendrils of our bodymind and expand through our discomforts. The performative, in this way, is a revolutionary act of participation in environmental spaces and experiential tethering with other(ed) humans and nonhumans. It is an artist’s way of working to transform the public sphere, remembering that all things are connected in, through, and across space and time.

Title: Eco Soma: Pain and Joy in Speculative Performance Encounters
Author: Petra Kuppers
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Year: 2022

Editor’s Note: This text is available in an Open Access format.

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About the Reviewer

Mental health insider Rebecca R. Ribeiro (she/her/hers; they/them/theirs) is an amateur, part-time misanthrope who saves bugs and washes plastic bags while listening to true crime. Holding a Masters in Visual Studies (UC Irvine) and a Masters in Social Work (Binghamton University), Rebecca currently works as a medical social worker on an inpatient mental health unit.