embarrassed of the (w)hole

by panoply performance laboratory

Reviewed by Amanda L. Andrei

Publisher: Ugly Duckling Presse

Page Count: 160

Release date: March 1, 2023


(meta-eotw_userinfo) (User identification, contact, and personal information)



Please describe one location you remember from when you were between the ages of 6 and 8

Please describe where you are right now and some states of your body right now

What do you keep thinking about?

Please list some ways you would like to be(have) (possibly or impossibly)

Welcome to the beginning of Survey 0, one of the many tools / holes / methods of inquiry / portals into Panoply Performance Laboratory’s Embarrassed of the (W)hole. Labeled as an operating manual (a term that humbly understates the plasticity of the text while also emphasizing the technical nature of its methodologies and experiments), this book’s identity continually shifts between playscript, libretto, instruction handbook, and “scores for scores,” while crucially including exercises for “users” and “operators” to help them plan, analyze, and execute their own performance experiments and experimental performances. 

Founded in 2006 by Esther Neff and co-directed with Brian McCorkle through 2018, Panoply Performance Laboratory is a thinktank, organizational entity, and flexible performance collective that has also existed as a physical lab site in Brooklyn, New York. Self-described as an “alternative economic model,” the collective started as an effort to have rehearsal space to support the artists’ own practices, then gradually shifted into a hosting, rehearsal, performance, and curation space for other artists. This book offers a glimpse into their work and play in creating performance that resists the power imbalances and oppression of capitalism and Western thought. 

Survey 0 actually appears towards the end of the book, but the text itself is so cross-referential that it invites the reader to jump around its pages. Pick a page at random and find yourself in a meandering matrix of monologues/poems, diagrams, photos, performance theory, questionnaires, and illustrations of holes (in all sorts of manifestations, from a simple oval to a frosted donut). 

The meandering is purposeful while paradoxically being anti-goals, existing instead as a state of inquiry, questioning, and process. In the introduction, authors Esther Neff, Brian McCorkle, and artist Kaia Gilje explain that they are writing and creating against “Western holism” (which they term ‘Wholism’), an ideology developed by Jan Smuts, a soldier, statesman, and prime minister of South Africa who believed that everything in the universe converged towards an ideal ‘whole.’ Using the homophone ‘hole’ and its visual illustrations further generates new relationships and meanings for the words whole and hole. After all, ‘whole’ tends to have positive, almost noble connotations—a desire for wholeness, or perhaps a wholesome existence. Completion, perfection, unity. A hole, on the other hand, signifies something embarrassing, whether it’s a simple oval, a donut, or a toilet. It can signify the unknown, the mysterious, the vulnerable. Holes are covered, lest you fall into them (or devour them, or use them). A hole could lead to a tunnel. It could lead to another side. 

Neff, McCorkle, and Gilje explain the danger of the (W)holism ideology: “When such wholistic/wholizing views/imaginations are applied to modes of organization, governance, economies/markets, and social orders, they tend historically to instate supremacies as “natural” states.” Through foregrounding embarrassment as a mindset and practice of resistance, the operating manual counters this ideology by:

“pursuing our least valuable and most invisible, “embarrassing” and shameful de-authorized abilities and agencies (such as psychic envisioning and precognition, getting into political arguments, dancing, menstruating, singing, aiming, becoming fascinated, taking online personality quizzes, philosophizing, improvising, sewing, making donuts…).”

In addition to the introduction, the operating manual text is incredibly dense, reminiscent of a computer science/mechanical engineering textbook or the guts of a hyper-imaginative algorithm. Juxtaposed with collages of performance photos, video documentary screenshots, hand-drawn diagrams of systems, and the ever-present donut motifs, the book also has the liveliness, urgency, and DIY feel of zine culture. These two seemingly incongruent tones rub up against each other in a way that might break your brain—in a way that might feel embarrassing. What if I don’t understand this theory? What if my eyes glaze over (pun intended)? I just want to make a thing, where do I start?

Anywhere, this book suggests. Open a page, take out a sentence, and run with it. Take a survey. Ponder a diagram. Or start from the beginning, work through the phases, deviate. Document, record. What’s more, this book feels particularly timely given the current state of affairs over artificial intelligence, angst over ChatGPT replacing writers, and the future of creativity. While it’s possible to read the operating manual as a mechanization of performance or a parody of our techno-obsessions, another interpretation is more intriguing: an invitation to consider technical language through a more anthropomorphized lens, thereby expanding our notions of what it means to create a performance with the language of computer code and engineering. As a writer, sometimes the concepts and conditions of the day feel  overwhelming to write about, but what happens if we use algorithmic language? What happens if we pose the questions:

1. How logical is this operation? (Generating a logical operation)

2. How artificially intelligent is this operation (Generating an artificially operation)

3. How of quality is this operation? (Generating a qualified operation)

These questions are simultaneously analytical and clumsy, to the effect that when applied to an artistic performance, the questions (and hopefully the answers) are rendered silly, endearing, and perhaps even delightfully embarrassing. Such output resists dominant power structures and gives the artist more freedom, making Embarrassed of the (W)hole an operating manual that performance artists and collectives should use with abandon and curiosity as they (re)(un)(dis) cover the (w)hole(s) around them.

Skip to content