by Tamara Attia and Alexia Georgieva
July 30, 2020
An interview with Darren O'Donnell, Artistic director at the Mammalian Diving Reflex

It is all about understanding the social body in terms of excess and deficiency areas, then using the projects as needles to poke at these dynamics, mostly to demonstrate the feasibility of new ways of being together.

Darren O’Donnell is an urban cultural planner, performance director, novelist, filmmaker, essayist, and play writer. His career in the theatre industry started with acting, but he quickly realized that actors do not have much power or creative control. Therefore, he eventually started writing and directing theatre. Inspired by the concept of relational aesthetics presented in the book carrying the same name by Nicolas Bourriaud, he became interested in making things happen in real life between people. In seeing the difference between representational work and performative acts, he went from stage-based work and started to look into bringing people together by using social relations as material to collide people and creating circumstances where they would encounter each other across differences, in ways that they wouldn't typically do. This is what he calls in his own words social acupuncture, a concept that he applies throughout everything he creates with his company the Mammalian Diving Reflex.

We were particularly intrigued by some of his projects mainly revolving around younger and older people (e.g. All The Sex I’ve Ever Had and Haircuts by Children) because of their lack of representation in society. We wanted to know what drove him towards those two marginalized groups, and how they were allowing him to accomplish his mission.

D: Around the early 2000s, this particular urban planner, Richard Florida, noted cities that attract creative people and found a correlation between economic growth and creativity. In that line of thoughts, I tried to use the city and its population as material in an artistic practice in the hopes to change the city and bring in people who weren't part of the creative city initially. I started to do that by focussing on the success I had with Haircuts by Children, a project in collaboration with Parkdale public school that was really fruitful internationally. It is the most interesting project I’ve done. It was all about trying to smash together the artists and kids who were living in West Queen West, Toronto. Those kids were predominantly or almost exclusively immigrants (if not themselves immigrants, they were the children of immigrants and refugees). I then started to reproduce this project with other kids in other places around the world between 2006 and 2010.


I would describe working with kids as volatile because social norms, unspoken things and rules that guide everybody’s behaviour are acute around kids and young people can break those so easily. The thing I like the most about working with children is that you have two options when kids want to behave in ways you don’t want them to: you can either become authoritarian and control their bodies by telling them to sit down, separating them with their friends and banish them to the corner, or you can negotiate with them and level the playing field. You suddenly work in a much less hierarchical way. They force you to either adopt the strategy of an authoritarian or the one of an anarchist and I’m much more of an anarchist in my own beliefs and practices. We, at Mammalian Diving Reflex, are more on small “A” anarchy, which means that we are not interested in hierarchy. We want to make sure that everybody’s input is listened to. If a young person is not focussing on me when I’m trying to get their attention, it is my responsibility to figure out how to be interesting or to take a break and I have to find the middle ground.

We became successful internationally with Haircuts by Children and people thought that this is all we did. Therefore, we wanted to show how complex the company was and we did a complete 180 by deciding to work with older people. It was a strategic move to make sure that people took us seriously because when you work with kids, you are often marginalized with them, even within the fantastic international career that I and the company have. The idea of working with older people in All the Sex I've Ever Had came to me from observing older women in their 70s on bicycles in Germany, something I’d never seen in Canada. I started to think about older people and their vitality. I then came to realize that if I did not know that old people ride bicycles until they’re dead, there must be a lot of other things I did not know about them. At Mammalian Diving Reflex, we are always trying to look at what is behind the scenes, what breaks rules, and what is generally not permitted or unknown. Older people talking about sexuality and being sexual is one of them because it is quite taboo and it freaks people out. I would describe those things as little points of kyo, which is described as a deficiency, a weakness in the Japanese approach to acupuncture. The jitsu, which is the opposite, is the situation of young people and sexuality. There is a lot of attention given to youth and sexuality and not at all to old people and sexuality even though they remain obviously completely sexual beings. We have been doing All The Sex I’ve Ever Had since 2012. We go to different cities and interview different seniors, each one of them for four hours, and they talk about all of their sexual experiences. We are always making sure to include members of the older queer community because they are voices that are not given much space. We also had our first trans performer in Tokyo, which was really amazing. This project also allows us to go back on stage and we are looking to do some more of that work. We now want to focus on how to make it more participatory and break the actor-audience’s usual relationship.

Wassily Chair

By learning about those projects, we wanted to seek more details about what revolved around his concept of social acupuncture and its impact on today’s perception of art, culture and human relations.

D: I wanted to put a theoretical frame that comes from traditional Chinese medicine just around the basics of yin yang theory. Understanding the social body in terms of excess and deficiency areas where there’s too much energy or too many resources and areas where there isn't enough resources, then using the projects as needles to poke at these dynamics, mostly to demonstrate new ways of being together and the feasibility of new ways of being together. A good example of this is our project Eat The Streets where, over the course of two weeks, we take a group of young people to eat at a bunch of restaurants. We invite people to have dinner with this jury of children as they evaluate the food and it is about creating this very odd community dinner where adults and children who don’t know each other go for dinner together to demonstrate that our relationship to children can be very different. There is a changing role of children and in the past 10 years, the Internet has done a lot in terms of allowing marginalized people and voices that have been typically silenced to gain a tremendous amount of power. We can see that with the hashtag #metoo and we see that with #BLM. Kids are not organizing in the same way people are organizing in the #metoo situation or with #BLM, but they are really using those tools in a way to gain a stronger voice. There is incremental change and the ultimate goal is to start to think about younger and older people differently. Relational aesthetics, social engagement or social acupuncture (which is my brand to make it sound fancy) is considered to be more performance art than it is theatre but there are more and more people doing this. It is one tool in many artists’ tool kits to be able to make projects that bring people together and to use social relations as material.

Josef Albers
Darren O’Donnell also personally does a lot of consulting for many other organizations such as the Tate Modern, as well as different types of workshops. In that aspect of his work and expertise, we wanted to know about his approach in guiding these organizations towards active social engagement and a better understanding of valuable principles to better themselves.

D: My goal is to help organizations develop long term youth engagement. I try to teach them to treat young people as if the company is training them to take over the company, which is a concept I call SMYLE (Succession Model of Youth Labour Engagement). The thing that I am doing the most with respect to consulting is helping people design projects in collaboration with young people. When I am evaluating and developing these projects, I am focusing on the effects of youth engagement on the people in the organization themselves. If you look at anybody writing about youth arts engagement, they are always wanting to prove that it has a strong effect on young people because it gives them confidence, but the mentoring goes both ways. There has to be this intergenerational thing where the staff’s view of the world is also changing. The organizations that I am working with are learning without even knowing that they are learning because they are having to adapt to young people using our principles. That is what I call stealth pedagogy. The big thing that I really want to know is how is the staff’s life better and what do they know now that they did not know before. As a staff member, you are providing great opportunities for these young people but at the same time, these young people have their own points of view and you are also learning from them. The ultimate goal is to get your life to be radically different and what I present to them is that if your social circles don’t look different after the intervention, then the intervention was a failure. If we are trying to change the way the world is and if my life as a staff member on these projects is not changed, then the project is probably not changing the world as much as it could be.

There are currently two projects in development by the Mammalian Diving Reflex, one of them being The Last Minutes Before Mars, a project about life and the fear of the future. We decided to end this interview by asking him what to expect from it and the message it will convey to the audience.

D: The Last Minutes Before Mars is a show for the greater generation in collaboration with the greater generation. It is about imagining this team of teens who are going off to Mars and it asks a question around humanity’s aspirations. It is going to be a mixed-reality experience using 360° video where you are entering the lives of these soon-to-be astronauts and seeing the aspects of their lives that they want to take with them to Mars. NASA published a report about the predicted psychological stressors for interplanetary travel and, coincidentally enough with everything that is going on with the COVID-19 situation, the document presents isolation as the primary psychological stressor, so this project takes what we have all been experiencing with COVID-19 but invites these young people to create a “happy imagery index,” which is a little library of their favorite places. As an audience member, you will visit these places and you are also partaking in a training workshop session that invites you to interact with the other audience members as if you were potential astronauts on your way to Mars. It asks the audience to consider the self as an illusion and that you, as an individual self, are completely bound up in this web of causes and relationships between animate and inanimate objects, people and ideas. It also questions the ethics around going to Mars. It is a mixed reality project where you are sometimes in virtual reality, sometimes interacting with other audience members.

Josef Albers
A sociological concern that initially fueled my work was about making this world a better place and working with young people on the role of marginalized populations and society. Within our company itself, I feel like we are on a good track because we have addressed some of these things and we are still continuing to help other organizations and artists sort out this aspect. My interest is now more in the direction of existential questions of humanity like the real likelihood of our extinction and, somewhat related, I am really interested in looking at consciousness, how it works and what neuroscience, Buddhism and religions have to say about the reasons for consciousness. I want to figure out how to create participatory experiences for an audience that really dig into those really difficult questions and that involve some kind of immersive experience. The Last Minutes Before Mars is a step in that direction.

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