Testing Our Mettle: Accidental Performance and the Agency of the Non-human Joanne “Bob” Whalley and Lee Miller

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Joanne “Bob” Whalley and Lee Miller

Dogs are curious. Dogs complicate. They sit in an existential hinterland where they seem to be refused access to their own selfhood, unable to be one thing or another, but expected to be all things to all people. Even the word, dog, is a misnomer, indicating as it does a singularity to the biological articulation of the species known formerly as canis lupus familiaris. If you were to close your eyes now and imagine a dog, you may well conjure up images of a generic “mutt”, or you might leap immediately to the specific. But dogs are manifold, dogs are legion. Sometimes, when we are walking the dogs who live in our house, people will come bounding towards us, and grab at these odd creatures that we tether with straps and strings, thus already removed from their preferred loping, curious, erratic engagement with the world. These creatures, already somewhat out of their element, are then descended upon. Ears, tails and legs have all been grabbed, pulled in directions that are not quite biomechanically aligned. As the humans responsible for their welfare and reaction to the built environment, we intercede, explaining that these behaviours are not really welcomed by the dogs. Without fail, we receive bemused responses and usually some version of the following phrase: “Don’t worry. I’m really good with dogs”.

The immediate emotional and visceral response is to push them away, insist on our version of behaviour towards these dogs. But we have learnt to stay that response, and allow the dogs to navigate the moment for themselves. They tend to wriggle, nibble, and lick. They buck and rear and assert their own preferred mode of engagement, depending on the mood of the day. And as they shift the context of the encounter, we are afforded the space to remember that in this moment, they are not dogs, they are merely ciphers. Dog shapes that stand in for the other animals that fill these peoples lives. Dogs are not dogs; they are angels or demons, depending on who is doing the describing. They are the bearers of pathogens and teeth, of joy and unconditional love. As James Serpell notes in his introduction to his 1995 book The Domestic Dog:

[p]eople’s opinions about the domestic dog tend to veer towards extremes. For an increasingly large sector of the population, the dog is now perceived as a dangerous and dirty animal with few redeeming qualities [….] At the other end of the spectrum, an even larger constituency of dog lovers exists for whom this animal has become the archetype of affectionate fidelity and unconditional love (Serpell 1995, 2).

The result is that the dog, conceptually at least, is forced to function as a curious hybrid, a liminal creature that struggles towards self-hood. As Serpell further notes:

[i]n symbolic terms, the domestic dog exists precariously in the no-man’s land between the human and non-human worlds. It is an interstitial creature, neither person nor beast, forever oscillating uncomfortably between the roles of high-status animal and low-status person. As a consequence, the dog is rarely accepted and appreciated purely for what it is: a uniquely varied, carnivorous mammal adapted to a huge range of mutualistic associations with people. Instead, it has become a creature of metaphor, simultaneously embodying or representing a strange mixture of admirable and despicable traits. As a beast that voluntarily allies itself to humans, the dog often seems to lose its right to be regarded as a true animal […] Elsewhere, the dog’s ambiguous or inter-mediate status has endowed it with supernatural powers, and the ability to travel as a spiritual messenger or psychopomp between this world and the next (Serpell, in Williams 2007, 93).

This confusion is positioned similarly, but somewhat more positively by Donna Haraway who suggests that dogs are “creatures of imagined possibility, and creatures of fierce and ordinary reality; the dimensions tangle and require response” (Haraway 2008, 4). This writing hopes to move towards a temporary response to this tangle, by considering how the inclusion of the domesticated non-human animal can open up dialogues around risk, agency, and affect in performance, and perhaps move towards a discussion of the ways which different life forms, in their wide diversity, might enter the scene of performing arts and deconstruct it.

A little something about the authors of this writing: we are 41 years old. In July and August we will turn 42. We met and moved in with one another when we were nineteen years old, and we have been in each other’s lives now for longer than we have not. Last Sunday, we celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. But the formalised and socially sanctioned twinning of our lives is less significant for the purposes of this writing than what that event afforded. As a wedding gift, our parents collaborated and chose to buy us a dog. Perhaps this was an unconscious attempt to give a physicalised form to our spoken commitment to one another, to help cement our union. Or perhaps it was just a dog.

This dog was a Dalmatian. His name was Henry. He moved in with us five days after our wedding. Or if you prefer, he moved in with us nineteen years ago today. Henry lived with us for just over thirteen years. Henry was the start of a nineteen-year project of living with dogs; the beginning of an occasional project of performing with dogs. Henry moved in with us when we were 22 years old, a mere year after we graduated from university, long before we started our master degrees, or moved onto our PhD. We lived with a dog before we started to develop a performance practice, before we became researchers. Our work has developed alongside animals, and given that much of our work has been a negotiation of the everyday and the domestic, it is no great surprise that these animals have found their way into our practice and the processes that support their development, even though we didn’t always realise that this was the case. As early as 2000, Henry was subtly invading our performance practice. As part of our PhD, we began to pick up hitchhikers, looking for some sort of exchange, a narrative from the road. One day we picked up a young man who played the mouth organ. Henry jumped over from his usual seat in the rear of the car to sit next to him. With his eyes closed, Henry leaned against as he played.

Because of the dogs’ ubiquity, we never stopped to think about their relationship to our practice, nor did we consider the ethics of their engagement. It seems that there is something peculiar about the role of a dog that lives in your house with you, something which marks it out from the dogs one might choose to engage with professionally. If we were to compare our engagement with dogs in performance to those in the video work of Angela Bartram, we can see a significant distinction in approaches. For her 2008 piece Licking Dogs she offers the following assurance:

No dog was harmed in the making of Licking Dogs and non were forced to take part. Each dog worked in collaboration with the artist: they were licked as an invitation to take part and it was up to them how they responded (Bartram 2008a).

Her work explores the threshold relationships between animality and humans, and the video performance Licking Dogs shows Bartram licking the mouths of four dog participants, and them licking her back. It seems to us that Bartram’s approach offers a model of best practice for the ethics of working with the non-human animal. The piece we are showing sees Bartram suggesting that “[t]he physical gap between individuals [species] is closed, even if only for a moment, when they touch, and can be important for how we physically and psychologically relate to that which we perceive as other” (Bartram 2012, 105). The physical intimacy between the human and non-human performers in this video projection allows for a consideration of cultural lacuna, the gap between what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do, the confusion between species, and distance between what we recognise as ourselves, and what we see as alien and somehow wrong. Licking Dogs offers an excellent resistance to this othering, inviting the viewer to navigate the haptic through the optic, a process that Donna Haraway might articulate as through “fingery eyes” (Haraway 2008, 5).

Bartram’s dogs are professional, or at least, they are brought into connection with her in the moving images for professional purposes. These are not domestic exchanges. They operate at a different pitch, a different resonance. These may be domestic dogs, but their role, their purpose is of a different order than those creatures that have shared our domestic space for the past nineteen years. Since our marriage in 1996, we have lived alongside three Dalmatians. Whilst Henry joined us in June of 1996, and lived for thirteen years, dying in April of 2009, William arrived in the summer of 2004, and Stephen arriving in the spring of 2014. None of these dogs have been trained in any formal way: no obedience classes, and no tricks taught beyond “sit” and “stay”. They are not performing animals in the sense that they can enact specific actions upon request, unlike, for example the two Dobermans used in the opening scenes of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (2011) as they begin the performance by roaming the stage picking their way through piles of strewn bones. Despite their lack of formal training, Henry, William, and Stephen have all found their way into our performance practice in some way. Unlike the dogs of Abramović or Bartram, Henry, William, and Stephen have never been invited to perform specific actions for an audience or camera. Although there is a huge difference between the actions required of Bartram’s dogs and those employed by Abramović (one artist works to camera and invites the dogs to choose how they engage, the other requires the dogs to remain on stage for 15 minutes in front of a live audience of 1,730), both artists position the dogs within context of intentionality. Stephen, William and Henry have all found themselves before an audience, but their roles were never pre-determined or managed in any way. In this way, we believe that their domesticity was not interrupted, with their performative engagements simply functioning as an extension of their already chaotic home life.

The relationship between dogs that live in the same domestic environment as the artists who collaborate with them, functions differently from what we might describe as the “professional” relationship between the artist and the “performing” dog. While Bartram offers us an interesting model for ethical engagement, our use of dogs, who are given no choice because of our “ownership” of them, immediately requires us to ask questions regarding licence and permissions. A recent study, undertaken by a team led by Olaf Thalmann from the University of Turku in Finland looked at the mitochondrial DNA from 18 fossil canids. These prehistoric samples were compared against the genetic sequences of 49 modern wolves and 77 modern dogs, and the resulting findings allowed a family tree to be developed. Until this study, it was thought that dogs had been domesticated around 10,000 years ago, but the work of Thalmann and his peers would suggest that the domestic dog evolved from a group of wolves that encountered a group of European hominids somewhere between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago. According to Gregor Larson from Durham University in the UK, this discovery “is a sea change from the little bits of fragmentary DNA that have been reported in the past [as] it includes really old material from a wide range of sites” (Larson in Yong 2013, unpaginated). There have been other studies that reinforce the suggestion that the domestication of dogs was a by-product of the Neolithic or “First” Agricultural Revolution, supporting the theory that dogs were domesticated only 10,000 years ago. Apparently, this split of opinion comes from the fact that genetically speaking dogs and wolves diverged comparatively recently (at least in evolutionary terms), making definitive studies of their lineages difficult to undertake, especially as both species have continued to hybridise with one another. Thalmann’s work seems quite certain however that Europe is the cradle of dog civilisation in terms of dog domestication, leading him to comment to The Scientist that “[w]e didn’t expect the ancestry to be so clearly defined” (Thalmann in Yong 2013, unpaginated). Thalmann’s study states that domestication predates the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, which took place millennia after the DNA samples they have been studying date from. This suggests that early dogs first associated with European hunter-gatherers, and potentially assisted them in bringing down large prey, or perhaps they began to socialise with groups of humans to scavenge leftover carcasses. According to Thalmann, whatever the circumstances of their connection, the association with humans grew until they evolved into a separate species: domestic dogs. All this before the formal beginning of the anthropocene era.

The tangle of engagements and the evolving relationship to wolves offers us a further set of questions for the performing dog. If we accept that dogs were domesticated around 10,000 years ago, they can be positioned as part of humankind’s husbandry of the natural, and part of man’s God-given right to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (King James Bible 1814, unpaginated). If, however, the process of dogs’ domesticating themselves happened closer to 30,000 years ago, this opens up different questions about permission and choice. If we are living in a context in which a species made a collective decision several millennia ago, and that the presence of domesticated dogs in the lives of contemporary humanity pre-dates most extant civilisations, are the ethics of this particular human/non-human collaboration different? This is not to suggest that there are no ethical questions to be asked of such relationships, rather they become more complicated than assumed questions of consent and “but what if he doesn’t want to collaborate with you?”. The domestic dog has inherited a relationship with humanity that on an individual level may have not been asked for, but is part of a millennia-old inter-species mutually beneficial contract. Thus, questions of choice are shifted. We did not ask to be born, but that does not rob us of all agency once we take our place in society. Can the same be said for our dogs? No. Their agency is contingent, and no matter the terms of the original contract, it has been skewed in the favour of humanity to a fairly large extent.

Questions of agency become contingent the moment that training enters into the equation, and training opens further questions not only about ethics, but also about cognition versus sensation. However dubious the science of Mabel Stark’s claiming to have inherited “animal sense” (Stark in Tait 2011, 197), in her essay “Animal Performers in Action and Sensory Perception” Peta Tait reminds the reader of the tendency of the human animal to value cognition over a sensorial engagement with the world. None of this should come as a surprise to scholars of performance; this is merely a legacy of value being placed upon the thinking and speaking of the self into being (cogito ergo sum) and the subsequent valorisation of the lexical and linguistic in knowledge generation. However, it is not the embracing of a more sensorial approach that drew us to Stark via Tait, rather it was the account of specific strategies employed in the training of the big cats:

Stark like other trainers, admitted to watching animal performers carefully for small visible changes like a tensed tail or listening for audible signs that might indicate an animal is about to behave in an unexpected way. They watched for small changes in the animal body that indicated unrehearsed, and therefore rebellious, movement (Tait 2011, 200).

It is this that makes us clear that we have been working in a very different way with the dogs we live with and makes us reflect on their position as agentic, if not fully autonomous beings. We definitely watch and listen carefully to the creatures in our house, but to try to engage, not to try and subjugate. Stephen has a wide variety of vocalisations (a habit which has earned him the nick name “Kitty Meow”), each of which indicate specific concerns.

Living with dogs does necessitate a certain level of behavioural readjustment; this seems to happen in both directions. Just as I have come to expect the dogs who live in our house not to defecate where they like, they have come to expect a biscuit whenever they make eye contact with us in the general vicinity of their biscuit box. Unlike Stark’s big cats, the dogs who live with us are primarily unrehearsed, and instead are acculturated, modifying certain behaviours to conform to expected modalities of “civilised” society, much as the human animals that share their home are. In the semi-professional engagements we have entered into with the dogs, the idea of Stark’s rehearsed behaviours is the antithesis of what we hope to achieve, or could even begin to expect. Of course, the idea of unrehearsed behaviours in the context of big cats opens up very different conversations around risk than can be applied to the dogs that live in our house.

This is not to suggest that there are no ethical debates to be had, rather it is the pre-existing nature of the relationship that offers us the pause. In Teresa Brennan’s 2004 book, The Transmission of Affect, she opens up questions around the emergent field of psychoneuroendocrinology. For Brennan, affective states are impacted at a physiological level, with the sharing of moods having not only emotional, but physical drivers. This, she observes is a:

form of transmission whereby people become alike [through] a process whereby one person’s or one group’s nervous and hormonal systems are brought into alignment with another’s. Neurologists call the process “entrainment”, either chemical entrainment or electrical entrainment (Brennan 2004, 9).

The significance for us comes from the years of living cheek by jowl with animals, and their co-habitation with us, and if “[c]hemical entrainment works mainly by smell; that is to say, unconscious olfaction” (Brennan 2004, 9), and as “[i]t has been established now that the pheromonal odours of the one may change the mood of the other” (Brennan 2004, 10), then what of interspecies olfaction? If, as Brennan claims, affective states between humans are transmitted between one another through olfactory processes, then surely this can apply to interspecies collaboration, especially as one nose in this exchange is overwhelmingly suited to sniffing out moods. Perhaps the transmission is two-fold, with both parties being psychoneuroendocrinologically structured to collaborate. Or as Haraway offers when discussing her relationship with her dog:

Ms Cayenne Pepper continues to colonize all my cells—a sure case of what the biologist Lynn Margulis calls symbiogenesis. I bet if you were to check our DNA, you’d find some potent transfections between us. Her saliva must have the viral vectors. Surely, her darter-tongue kisses have been irresistible. Even though we share placement in the phylum of vertebrates, we inhabit not just different genera and divergent families but altogether different orders (Haraway 2008, 15).

It is this transfection that dominates our slow understanding of what performing with dogs has afforded us. Our encounters with these animals have been ongoing, and continue to be so, but there is something of the “flashbulb-moment” of understanding that occurs in performance.

In late 2004 we made a performance entitled Mettle. Shown at just two venues in the UK (Manchester and Northampton), the piece was an exploration of the potential for interruption afforded when the non-human presence of two “untrained” dogs are introduced to a tightly scored piece of devised performance. The “mettle” of the title refers to our being tested by the inclusion of the dogs, and how their presence allowed for the introduction of what Goat Island might refer to as a “floating directive” (as seen in their Lecture in a Stair Shape Diminishing), only in this case, one over which we had little control. Henry quickly left the stage when he discovered there were people in the audience, people “stupid” enough to leave their bags on the floor. He pretty much remained in the auditorium for the duration of the piece, returning only to the stage when there were biscuits or toys given to William. In many respects, Mettle functions in a similar way to the work of Finnish visual artist Johanna Väisänen. She creates video works and installations, photography and sound-based pieces, taking inspiration for her work from the environment, and exploring how small interventions can change the perception of the character of a place. In the video piece Franciscus (Väisänen 2005) four Dalmatians interact with a projection of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–1498). In much the way Henry and William interrupt performance behaviours, these dogs interrupt the framings of fine art and art history through their ignoring of the image, and by becoming canvas they further interrupt how the text can be read.

In Mettle, Henry occupied the role of witness as much as performer, stepping outside of the action to observe, but never comment. It was as a result of these two Mettle performances that we began to work with both dogs in a series of workshops. As an ensemble we collaborated with participants at the following institutions in the UK: The Place, Roehampton University, Dartington College of Arts, Falmouth University, and Plymouth University. Following Henry’s death, William continued to run workshops by himself, often without any support from either of his human counterparts. In workshops we would set up a series of tasks for the participants – these were usually framed by the drinking of tea and the eating of cake. Tables would be set up around the space with invitations/instructions to the workshop participants. Some of these tasks would explicitly reference the dogs, but many would not. We didn’t offer much in the way of guidance, except to explain to participants that dogs can’t bear the weight of others: they are not to be sat on or leaned on, and any transference of weight should be instigated by them. Once that rule was established, all participants, human and non-human, were free to interact and engage however they saw fit. In each of these workshops there would be someone who claimed to be “Good with Dogs”. In each of these workshops this participant would be routinely avoided by the dogs in favour of the person who was more interesting / more likely to share cake / had a bottom which smelt better. The dynamic of watching this entitlement be refused was always interesting, but never the purpose of the exercise.

Recently, explorations of the idea of the domestic as a locale for performance practice, specifically a five-day workshop exploring the significance of the door within site-specific performance contexts, have led to a further consideration of performance interactions with the non-human performer. During this workshop period held within our home, William and Stephen were ever there, and made themselves a part of the exploration simply by their continued presence. Although this was not an intended outcome of the week’s workshops, we found ourselves reflecting upon how the inter-species exchange allowed for a discussion of risk and agency, and led to a consideration of the attendant ethical implications that come from working with non-humans. Of course, as with any project, once it begins the relevance to most situations becomes apparent. Although we had no initial intention of figuring the dogs into the door project, their presence in the house soon made it clear that doors and dogs are connected. On a daily basis, we find ourselves wiping dog snot and bits of food off the front door. Our neighbour, Jill, has a cat called Gracie. Gracie is a fickle creature when it comes to food. She makes decisions on a whim about what she will and won’t eat. The result is that Jill often has left over cat food. Jill hates waste, and she learnt two days after we moved in that dogs like cat food. She learnt this by leaving her door open, only to find two Dalmatians in her kitchen emptying the bowls she had just put down for her cats (there were five living with her at the time). Since this discovery, rather than throw away the food that Gracie refuses, she puts it by our front door. When this happens, Stephen and William push their noses against the crack in between the door and the frame, and do an excited blowing out through their noses. If we don’t wipe the door down, their combined snot and excited spittle forms a distinct patina on the wood. The thing we noticed during the door project is that Jill always leaves the bowl on the hinge side of the door, but the dogs always sniff at the handle side of the door. It reminded us that when we first moved, and Henry was still alive, he couldn’t quite get used to the fact that the front door was hung the wrong way round, or rather the opposite way to the house he had previously lived in. So whenever he wanted to go out, he would stand at the wrong side of the door, staring at the hinges.

As with any writing, there are questions about what should be left in, and what should be left out. The dogs and their standing at doors, remind us that no matter the generosity of spirit, or the kindness of intent, only we have the keys. While our continuing interactions with dogs in performance has offered spaces for radical resistance, it is impossible to ignore that these moments are always temporary, and that the status-quo of the human animal’s superiority, however problematic, seems intent to assert itself.


Bartram, Angela 2008a. Licking Dogs. piece descriptor and stills. [Online] available: www.angelabartram.com/77/licking-dogs-video-stills [accessed 29 September 2015].

Bartram, Angela 2008b. Licking Dogs. Single monitor video installation with four dogs.

Bartram, Angela 2012. “Between Bodies: An Artist’s Account of the Oral Connection Between Human and Dog”. In Maria Chatzichristodoulou and Rachel Zerihan (eds.) Intimacy Across Visceral and Digital Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp 102–113.

Brennan, Teresa 2004. The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Goat Island 2001. Lecture in a Stair Shape Diminishing. Response to invitation from Vienna Festival for premiere showing of theatre performance It’s an Earthquake in my Heart, June. [Online] available: www.goatislandperformance.org/writing_stair.htm [accessed 24 September 2015].

Haraway, J. Donna 2008. When Species Meet. Posthumanities series. volume 3. Minnesota and London: University of Minnesota Press.

King James Bible 1814. Genesis 1:28. Authorised version. Cambridge edition. [Online] available: www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Genesis-1-28 [accessed 20 September 2015].

Serpell, James 1995. The Domestic Dog: Its Revolution, Behaviour and Interactions with People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tait, Peta 2011. “Animal performers in action and sensory perception”. In Jacob Bull (ed.) Animal Movements, Moving Animals: Essays on Direction, Velocity and Agency in Humanimal Encounters. Uppsala: Uppsala University. pp 197–212.

Väisänen, Johanna 2005. Franciscus. Video installation with four dogs. 8 minutes.

Whalley, Joanne “Bob” and Lee Miller 2004. Mettle. Theatre performance with two dogs.

Williams, David 2007. “Inappropriate/d Others or, The Difficulty of Being a Dog”. TDR. 51 {1}. Spring: 92–118.

Wilson, Robert and Marina Abramović 2011. The Life and Death of Marina Abramović. Theatre performance. Premiered at Manchester International Festival 9 July.

Yong, Ed 2013. “Origin of Domestic Dogs”. The Scientist. 14 November. [Online] available: www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/38279/title/Origin-of-Domestic-Dogs [accessed 20 September 2015].

The authors

Lee and Bob are the Fictional Dogshelf Theatre Company. They have been working as research partners for nearly 20 years and gained the UKs first joint practice as research PhD from Manchester Metropolitan University. The practical element of the PhD, in which they were re-married at Sandbach service station, is featured as a case study in Baz Kershaw’s book Research Methods in Theatre and Performance (2010). They also have a listing in the PARIP DVD catalogue Practice as Research in Performance and Screen (Allegue et al, 2009), and chapters in Research Methods in the Social Sciences (Somekh and Lewin, 2011), and Blood, Sweat and Theory: Research through Practice in Performance (Freeman, 2010).

Their research practice has since been widely shown through their performative interventions and writing, with interests investigating, amongst other things, subjects such as non-place, spectatorship, the domestic and companionship. They are currently based in Devon, both working at Plymouth University.


Carpa4 Proceedings

The Non-human and the Inhuman in Performing Arts — Bodies, Organisms and Objects in Conflict