Social Acupuncture     
Mammalian utilizes ‘social acupuncture’ to poke at social dynamics that we hypothesize contain latent generosity and abundance, hoping to facilitate energy gradients that, in turn, can drive new ways of being together. Traditional Chinese medicine relies on the concept of yin and yang, which in the body is manifested as a play between what is termed “kyo” (emptiness) and “jitsu” (fullness) in the Japanese version of yin/yang theory. This theory can be applied to physical systems like the body where kyo is a depleted area dialectically related to jistu, a blockage of energy. The two together manifest as holding patterns of weakness and unhealthy tension. Social systems can also be read in this manner, with the wealthiest 1% of the world presenting an extreme case of jitsu, or fullness, while many of the other 99% of us are in a state of extreme kyo, or emptiness. Economic disparity presents an obvious case of kyo/jitsu, but it can also be found in places where the resources are other than money: culture, attention, comfort, representation and so on.

Social acupuncture as a method examines social dynamics, looks for holding patterns characterized by excess and depletion, then steps in and attempts to create new social dynamics through the creation of small, temporary, atypical performances by mobilizing and deploying the company’s resources, as well as marshaling the formidable resources of our various collaborators: the international festivals, galleries, museums and civic administrations who engage our services. These institutions provide the force behind our needles, which we insert into social flows to see if we can disrupt and redirect energy in ways that are temporary, experimental and tentative. We are not social engineers, making large-scale changes through central planning; we are curious nerds sending little shocks into the system to observe what happens, making sure that everyone who participates does so with fully informed consent, and with a conscious intent to always create a good time for the participants and an entertaining time for our audience.

For more, read Darren O’Donnell’s 2006 book Social Acupuncture (published by Coach House Books). Purchase Social Acupuncture.

Our research design is based on two ontological assumptions: social generosity and resource abundance. We believe that people are more or less generous, kind and not at all frightening. We believe people are actually more inclined to extend this generosity and kindness to strangers than to friends and family. We reserve our worst behaviour for those who we know well and love. Within the context of performances occurring at large-scale international arts festivals, there are connections between us as artists, the local individuals who we collaborate with, and the local public who attend our events. These connections are formed between people who are otherwise strangers to each other, triggering a temporary situation characterized by social generosity. The question of how to shift this temporary generosity into something more permanent poses a whole set of questions and challenges that can’t be addressed here, and forms the basis for our work in other contexts.

Our second operating principle is that there is abundance in the world – enough for everyone to have their basic social and material needs easily met. That there are starving, lonely people in the world is just a matter of distribution. The abundance that is locked in social structures, institutions and dynamics creates holding patterns of energetic stagnation and imbalance that result in resource eddies. When tapped and turned into a gradient, these patterns can power new social ontologies, or ways of being together. Social acupuncture pokes at resource eddies with a dual purpose: to disrupt holding patterns, yielding a greater degree of equity and balance within the social system, as well as to dissipate and distribute energy, yielding new and unexpected ways of relating to – and being with – one another.

Working Method       
Methodologically, we are reliant on performativity, a misunderstood concept that is often mistakenly used as a synonym for performance. A performative act, however, is more precisely an act that brings things into being through the stating or performance of these things. The classic example of a performative speech act is the statement “I now pronounce you husband and wife.” In that instance, a set of social relations are triggered that have major material implications for the lives of the couple who just got hitched. These implications range from simple and well-accepted codes of social conduct, to a new relationship with the state in situations like taxation and other benefits. Gender is another obvious and relatively well-understood instance of performativity. You are a man or a woman to the degree that you perform these roles and, more and more, the possibility to switch from one role to the other (and everything in between) is widely accepted. While representing the world in particular ways is sometimes intended to trigger an active response in the audience, artistic social practice can be seen as using social dynamics as material. This use of social dynamics does not merely comment on reality, it remakes it. Haircuts by Children is not a performance about the empowerment of children; for a brief moment, it IS empowerment.

Artistic social practice is a particularly fruitful and productive ground on which to deploy the notion of performativity because the general tolerance of atypical situations and social dynamics in the arts offers a viable testing arena for discussions that are not generally granted much space, therefore yielding new identities and new ways of being together (even if temporarily). Performativity is central to our research design and a central tenet of our work: that which is performed can sometimes become that which is.

Mammalian Protocol       
Mammalian Diving Reflex has developed a rights-based approach to artistic collaborations with children, using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (The Convention), The Implementation Handbook for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (The Handbook), The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and The Declaration of the Childʼs Right to Play as primary resources upon which we base our method. Using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as framework, in particular, Articles 5, 12, 13, 15, 19, 29, 30, 31, 32 and 36, the company has developed specific protocols for dealing with common situations when collaborating with children and the institutions in which children are most commonly engaged, including the family, schools, community, cultural centers and arts organizations.

This protocol is a summary of the childʼs rights relevant to our collaborations with children and the institutions in which they are engaged, both in terms of our desires and expectations with respect to how the children are to be treated while collaborating with us but, also, with respect to the underlying artistic themes of the projects. All of our collaborations with children have, at one level or another, the theme of the full recognition of children as rights-holders who are “not only entitled to receive protection but also have the right to participate in all matters affecting them, a right which can be considered as the symbol for their recognition as rights holders. This implies, in the long term, changes in political, social, institutional and cultural structures;” in effect, “a new social contract.”

This protocol will always be a work in progress, with constant updates and revisions. Download the current version.

Succession Plan       
In 2011, Mammalian Diving Reflex announced an ambitious 25-year succession and mentorship program – The Torontonians – in celebration of our 5 year anniversary of working with the children and youth of Parkdale, Toronto. The Torontonians are a collective of neighbourhood kids who we will spend the next twenty years expanding and mentoring as art makers. The final goal: to start to hand them control of the company in 2025, when they are heading into their 30’s and we have no real teeth.

The Torontonians are driven by their interests and keen to partner with other institutions across Toronto as well as receive learning experiences in all aspects of theatre, performance art and Mammalian’s own brand of social acupuncture: conceiving, directing, producing, performing, lighting design, sound design, fundraising, marketing, audience outreach, criticism and more.

The long-term goal of The Torontonians is to foster the youth’s talents, passions and interests in the arts, cultivating artists, producers, technicians, administrators and, for those youth who choose to follow other career trajectories, positions on arts organizations’ boards of directors. They were the inspiration for Mammalian’s Young Mammals, the company’s official branch of artistic collaboration and mentorship with youth. The Torontonians is a long-term succession plan, not only for Mammalian Diving Reflex, but for the future of Toronto’s arts community. Parkdale gets Mammalian: it’s legacy in action.