Because softness means being careful with one’s self

Jessica Worden

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This sonic meditation on soft approaches to performance-making positions care, compassion, and vulnerability as central to a feminist value system. It grew from a desire to perform softness and to share how diverse feminist practices that slip between cracks, exist in overlooked spaces, and articulate both women’s experiences and the feminist aims within their work. This sound piece explores how we might aid listening to those soft approaches in performance while also enacting this experience for you, the listener. I cite performers, makers, and thinkers who have shared in conversation or in their published writing ideas that relate to how softness performs a feminist ethics within the context of contemporary performance practice. The form that this meditation takes stems from a written score: a mutable piece of writing that transforms with each iteration and in constant relation to the lived experience of the performing body. Within this recording the body is present through the speaking voice, but also in the recorded traces of breath and body noises that gesture towards the absent performing body.

My grandfather used to say, ‘I just don’t hear those higher pitches,’ referring to the softness of my voice and the voices of all of the women in my family. To the implicit emotionality. To our perceived vulnerabilities. Radical softness is a concept coined by Lora Mathis that values emotions and the expression of vulnerabilities in social exchange.1 Mathis’ concept is reflected in contemporary performance practices that identify and seek to address and perform economies of softness through their work. One such artist is Ria Hartley, who performed radical softness in their keynote Spill Symposium 2016.2 Hartley began their performance-lecture by asserting a need to speak in a different voice. Their voice changed as they spoke, becoming softer. Becoming more intimate. Requiring a different kind of listening. It was an approach that I recognised within my own practice and from conversations with other artists. Noa Carvajal describes the participatory aspect in her performance work as ‘sharing a burden’.3 Her approach to her audience references? what Carol Gilligan describes as ‘an ethics of care’, stemming from the premise that people are ‘inherently relational, responsive beings and the human condition is one of connectedness or interdependence.’4 Gilligan describes the importance of each voice being listened to, as well as how this ethics ‘directs our attention to the need for responsiveness in relationships (paying attention, listening, responding) and to the costs of losing connection with oneself or with others.’5 When Hartley? spoke of using a different voice, they simultaneously elicited the re-atunement of their audience.

In my thinking about softness in performance as a feminist practice, Gilligan’s contributions are essential to formulating felt, intuitive, and sensate approaches to making and experiencing performance. The generosity of a relational approach to care creates modes of performance that acknowledge both the labour and autonomy of performers and audiences, without requiring that they adhere to conventional notions of what a performance might consist of or how performance-makers might generate experiences for their audience. Understanding the dynamics of the energetic exchanges that Gilligan and others address in their work is key to formulating the performative textures of softness and how they might be received by an audience. Within the context of this sonic meditation, softness articulates an approach or tonality that facilitates a collective sensing.

My use of terms such as ‘texture’ and ‘sensing’ within this introduction is strategic: they identify how deeply embedded within the body softness is, as well as how such terms can be utilised to bring into language the indistinct, hesitant, or differently-articulate experiences that do not adhere nor appeal to dominant cultural paradigms. (This is similar to feminist performance work that utilises or subverts hyper-masculine behaviours to interrogate cultural hierarchies.) Softness focusses on the spaces that exist between and within bodies where performative exchange comes into being, as in Normi Noel’s description of the ways that emotional vibrations influence our? experiences of spaces.6 Atmospheres come into being in quick – and not so quick – ways. A scream, a wail, or a shout contains within it different but equally potent atmospheric taint as the quiet, suggestive voice. Jen Archer-Martin describes this as ‘…less of a making-sense and more of a feeling – a feeling that can be practiced, honed, refined, to act as a lens or filter or a meter or a tuning fork. Your ear, your body gets attuned to its frequency.’7 Softness demands with equal urgency the attention of the audience, but does so in a way that requires a shift in atunement. It describes a different approach to producing work that aligns with feminist aims while equally performing feminist ethics in the reproduction of performative exchanges between audience and performer.

By atuning the ear to softer tones, less audible voices begin to register and resonate. I write here of the fragile voices, emotional, cracking, and broken sentences rending through an utterance, and their failures to adhere to the norms of articulate oration. And I ask you to listen.


Jessica Worden is an artist and writer. Her research focuses on embodied writing, written scores, and writing-as-performance. Recent publications include ‘Slow veins’ in Syncope in Performing and Visual Arts (2016). She performs and exhibits work in the UK and abroad.


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  1. Meg Zulch, ‘Lora Mathis’, Hooligan Magazine 11 (2015) 16-23.
  2. Ria Hartley, keynote address, SPILL Symposium, University of Suffolk, Ipswich UK, 25 November 2016.
  3. Noa Carvajal, conversation with the author, 18 January 2017.
  4. Carol Gilligan, interview, Ethics of Care, 21 June 2011, (accessed March 15, 2017).
  5. Carol Gilligan, ‘Hearing the Difference: Theorizing Connection’, Hypatia 10, no. 2 (1995), 122.
  6. Normi Noel, personal communication to Carol Gilligan, 1995. Quoted in Gilligan, ‘Hearing the Difference: Theorizing Connection’, 121.
  7. Jen Archer Martin, ‘Note #40’, Taking Notes, (accessed 4 April 2017).

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