- Hear Me Looking at You, written and performed by Dara Culhane
At the beginning of the solo performance piece, Hear Me Looking at You, writer and performer Dara Culhane recounts for the audience the experience of visiting her father, for the last time, in a nursing home for Alzheimer’s patients in Dublin, Ireland, in 1992. During a rare moment of lucidity, her father caught her attention while she stood at his bedside and cautioned her: “Don’t forgive me.” These words, Dara tells us, have haunted her long after he passed away. In Hear Me Looking at You, Culhane sets out to deal with and unravel the effects of her father’s words by re-examining her memories of her past, her parents’ tumultuous marriage and her relationship with her father. This performance might sound at first like a personal indulgence, but it is both broader and subtler than that. By sifting through these memories, Culhane covers a great deal of personal and political territory, all the while painting a portrait of a deeply complex man, questioning an ultimately unknowable past and ruminating on the possibilities and limitations of forgiveness.
Importantly, Hear Me Looking at You was devised precisely to facilitate and encourage the author’s re-sifting and reconstituting of memories; this performance is a form of imaginative ethnography. Culhane’s piece follows the tenets of ethnographic praxis articulated by the Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (CIE), of which Culhane is a founding member, an online gathering space for emergent ethnographic practices, experimental research methodologies and creative and artistic works of expression. The CIE was formed as an answer to Maple Razsa’s call for an affirmative anthropology in the face of neoliberal expansion: “an ethnographic contribution to the reimaging of politics, the affirmation of other social and political arrangements, even the affirmation of the possibility of alternative arrangements” (2012:35). Its founders are a network of pan-Canadian researchers with shared interests and with a connection to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Simon Fraser University: Culhane, Denielle Elliott, Magdalena Kazubowski-Houston and Cristina Moretti. In the CIE, these researchers have formed an online space that celebrates imagination and creativity as key factors in both research and practice, which moves toward an affirmative anthropology by following a “commitment to open-ended inquiry that can embrace risks, challenges to orthodoxy, and unintended outcomes” (Centre 2014). By focusing on the processes, machinations and mediations involved in knowledge production, rather than research results, the CIE works toward the project of what Rasza calls “anthropology at its best: the exploration of ways of being human that are at odds with what appears natural and inevitable from the vantage point of the present” (2012:35). Importantly, performance becomes a frame for thinking about, studying and manifesting an imaginative ethnography. According to the CIE, a performance’s focus on “storytelling and the social and political lives of stories, as central communicative action engaged in by embodied and sentient beings,” renders it an appropriate tool to build connections between arts and ethnography (Centre 2014). Its website and online digital space, at time of writing, remain (perhaps appropriately) a work in progress.
Examining this performance as a piece of imaginative ethnography, I view Hear Me Looking at You as an exemplar of performance as a critically reflexive process of memory-work and storytelling. In an artist talkback, Culhane noted that this performance came about while she was doing archival work on a different subject—her grandmother—while in Ireland. During the course of her research, her father’s words, history and letters kept nagging at her. Hear Me Looking at You became an unexpected detour from her primary research but also a way to come to terms with events that had a profound effect on the course of her life. In this way, this project operates as a form of what Michael Taussig calls back-looping...