Letter to a Making Critter

Letter to a Making Critter


Democratizing Collaboration through the Lens of Donna Haraway’s Multi-Species Engagement

It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with; it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene

Turned away from the camera, a person walks on the beach toward waves as they crash in the background.

Now is a time of beginnings. When I first imagined “On the Importance of Crisis Art” as an independent study, I thought that it would be an attempt to reconcile the capacity of the individual artist and the great needs of this era. Throughout the course of my research, I have found the single word that falsifies the entire attempt: “individual.” Although I intended to develop a new solo performance, I found myself better nurturing my understanding of collaboration.

In the completion of “Every Time I Think of Something I Sneeze,” the creative component of this independent study, I have been able to develop some guiding principles to carry with me moving forward in my art-making practice. The following letter is inspired by Goat Island’s “Letter to a Young Practitioner.” I have titled mine, “Letter to a Making Critter.”

from Jesse McLaughlin

To a Making Critter,

“When I was a kid, I would draft escape plans for all of the statues in the Greek and Roman art wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I heard that sea levels were rising and, in just a few years, Manhattan would be underwater. Instead of thinking of all of the people living in all the five boroughs, I thought of the marble people in the museum.”

The above was a forgotten memory, which later served as a resource for my “solo” performance piece, “Every Time I Think I Have Something I Sneeze.” “Every Time … I Sneeze” is a guided walking score via telephone; its course determined by the long-mysterious life cycle migration of the American Eel. Interest in this particular fish spawns from its physical impermanence as a shapeshifting, gender-bending critter of fresh and saltwater. Their form is slippery and their journey is long and largely unmapped. There is something to be learned from the American Eel. Perhaps it is their transgenerational memory or their wholly intentional living and dying. “Every Time I Think I Have Something I Sneeze” is a meditation on form, memory, transition, and choice. It is also a meditation on collectivity and collaboration. 

There are no performers in “Every Time … I Sneeze,” as it is a prerecorded telephone hotline. There are also no audience members, really. No one rehearsed for this, nor did anyone pay to sit and watch this. I remembered and remembered and found these memories to be special. I talked with women I love and thought what they said was special. I also talked (less literally) with eels and thought what they said was special. I sat with these special things for a long time and crafted them until they felt right. When I crafted them, I shared them. When I shared them, I asked people to begin to walk. They all were asked to walk the same way: to the right, to the left, and in a big curve. They all walked the same way (as far as I know) and they all ended up in different places. Across time and place, many, many people walked in collaboration; building small, interwoven migrations.

Friends, family members, peers, and mentors unfamiliar with all that goes on in my brain ask me what I do, and I tell them: “I use text, but not to tell a standard theatrical narrative or story; and I use movement, though it’s not what you would expect by the term ‘dance.’ And combining those texts and movements creates something beyond those individual components of text and movement, and the best word we have for that is ‘performance.’”1.

My practice often appears like that of a “hermit artist:” hours spent alone, shaping and reshaping something until it is “just right.” Perhaps it is more like the mountain man quietly whittling a stick on his porch. Or the cat licking her outstretched paw. Or the child at the window pushing the matchbox car back and forth and back again. How stifling it is to confine collaboration to shared physical space, especially as shared space (virtual, even) does not make a practice any more democratic. Perhaps collaboration could be much, much more. Carl Lavery says “It’s about standing on the shoulders of giants, and not feeling bad about it. It’s about what John Cage calls ‘writing through’—taking an idea from someone else, in Cage’s case, Allen Ginsburg’s poem ‘Howl,’ and then using that idea to make new work. Postmodern theorists call this intertextuality: generating stories from stories, becoming a bricoleur of forms, an organizer of materials.”2 How might the nature of collaboration stretch and adapt when it binds beyond geography and temporality? “Divisions between individuals, and ideas of authorship are blurred—through this we see that the creative material connects to others, and is completed by them.”3“. May I help you share the load?

Collaboration does not always occur outside the body. Billions upon billions of complex choreographies occur at every moment within us. The amylase breaks down the food as our teeth and tongue chomp and swish. The esophagus muscles mush down, the stomach gurgles and liquifies. The microbiomes in our gut are made up of clever agents in this dance who balance our ecology. Constant creation and breakdown and pushing and pulling and … well … the pushing out. Threads and electrical zaps hold our thoughts in intricate mosaics: “Use your memory as a resource—mental recall, body recall—not as route to nostalgia or therapy, not necessarily to tell your story, but to tell a wider narrative which reveals the extent to which your body already contains a wider narrative.”4. Reach back your hand to the selves who have come before. Collaborate through borrowed words, shared sounds, gentle touch, woven textures, open viewing, “tentacular” thinking. All material is out there. It is ready to be received, processed, transformed. Haraway’s terrapolis is “a chimera of materials, languages, histories … [making] space for unexpected company.”5 Always an ongoing risk of a not-so-terrible infection and a surely-not-terrible-and-likely-quite-promising epidemic of trouble. Once we are infected, however, we must follow our illness to the end. We may not understand the contagion or how to us it was passed: “The work exists in the moment, vital, perhaps not yet even assimilated or understood by the artists who made it. Not analyzing material to find its meaning, but accumulating material, finding unexpected connections.”6 These connections tie the ties and knot the knots that determine which thoughts think thoughts and which stories make our worlds.

This is most certainly not everything I have to say. Here are four thoughts and lessons as they have emerged from my young research.

#1. We become-with each other or not at all.

If we are not becoming-with, we are not becoming at all. We “mortal critters [are] entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings… we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles.”7 It is in collaboration with others that we are rendered capable. We may be rendered capable through breathing the same air or sharing neighboring pixels, but we are also rendered capable through kisses and borrowed words. We are what Haraway calls “littermates.”

As with our more literal littermates, we may love them or hate them. Regardless, they must catch our attention in order for us to emerge from within ourselves. Our own supply is a shallow pool, and “ideas like to be cross fertilized.”8 In this practice of sympoiesis, however, it cannot remain a humanist affair; “no matter how anti-imperialist, antiracist, anticlassist, and pro-woman.”9 We must remain partnered all the way down to the maggots and the microbes. All inhabitants of this world are welcome here, we shout. And they hear us. There was no need to reach out because we had been relaying all along. Passing back and forth the strings and holding and passing in response-ability

#2. Repondez, s’il vous plaît.

Our task as making critters is to be capable, always, of response. Lawrence Halprin, author of The RSVP Cycles, says: “I sit down, work at it, because now I have a convincing feeling about what that place wants to be, you see? And it’s not just me. Me and my talent comes in taking that consensus and then making something wonderful out of it—a work of art.”10

In taking consensus—with the work, the materials, the littermates, the air, the peaceful walk home last night, the atrocities this morning—we must then respond. I don’t mean respond with just anything, like Gmail’s out-of office tool: It is not enough to “address trouble in terms of making an imagined future safe, of stopping something from happening … staying with the trouble does not require such a relationship to times called the future … our task is to make trouble, to stir up potent response to devastating events, as well as to settle troubled waters and rebuild quiet places.”11 Response-ability is about creation and destruction, here and there, holding and passing, and wholly intentional living and dying. It is intentional in each stirring up, each clouding, and each disturbance. This is “the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth.”12

But why must we stay with the trouble, you ask? Because, “we cannot denounce the world in the name of an ideal world.”13 It is not our job to decide what world is deserving of our trouble, our response-ability. When we neglect this world in search of others, we stare into the black expanse of space, looking for our next dot to colonize, and leave our littermates in the lurch. We are not only responsible for our own survival and histories, but the survival and histories of all species. We are not, however, “response-able in the same ways … differences matter—in ecologies, economies, species, lives.”14 If you are, indeed, a making critter, then your task will not be the same as Greta Thunberg’s or the monarch butterfly’s or Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s. Your response-ability is in your making, however big or small.

#3. Make small plans.

It is imperative that you curb your master plan. I ask that you adjust your big dreams. Human critters have a habit of forming “a comic faith in technofixes, whether secular or religious: technology will somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children, or what amounts to the same thing, God will come to the rescue to his disobedient but ever hopeful children.”15 Remember your grand importance in the fabric of our multi-species dream coat, but do not forget that it is only in the passing and the holding that we achieve woven-ness. You are a vital knotted knot and an important tied tie, but you are also one among many, many vital knotted knots and important tied ties. Perfect the knot. Perfect the tie. Perfect the hold and the pass: “This is not a small challenge there are infinite details to perfect in a small venture and the changes force themselves in, expanding the vision. I feel that my eyes have become sharper in seeing small things.”16. You do not need to reach out any further than where your fingers hang at your sides. It’s all there and always has been. 

As you recognize your response-ability, your small tasks will become clearer and develop into small plans. Follow them. No one will swoop in to the rescue, nor is it game over. In fact, “a position that the game is over, it’s too late, there’s no sense trying to make anything any better, or at least no sense having any active trust in each other in working and playing for a resurgent world,” is not response-ability in the slightest.17 It is a forgetting of your hold and your pass. We have no business dooming our imaginings with the future. 

Sympoietic systems are often mistaken as autopoietic, but these worlds cannot make themselves (“no matter how complex and multileveled the systems.”18). These massive systems are made up of interlocking small plans by critters like and unlike you. It is and always has been about the “giving and receiving … dropping … and failing but sometimes finding something that works, something consequential and maybe even beautiful, that wasn’t there before, of relaying connections that matter, of telling stories in hand upon hand, digit upon digit, attachment site upon attachment site, to craft conditions for finite flourishing on terra, on earth.”19 Your makings matter.

#4. Art is not everything.

Your makings matter. They also don’t matter at all. It is your response-ability to decide how exactly to respond. When you assess the consensus of your walk to the bodega, the hissing shop cat, dust particles from the construction site, and daily iced coffee with honey, you must ask whether your knotted knots are needed or not. Are you making to ignore the passing and holding, or is your making precisely the passing and holding itself? The RSVP must by in direct response to the invitation. Do not attend a funeral as if you were attending a baby shower. Do not attend a birthday party as if you were attending a tea party, even. Events call for the specific and the deliberate. Sometimes, they do not call for your art. Sometimes, they just call for your continued living and your close listening. Andrew Russeth’s “Art About Waiting—and What It Takes to Endure” introduces the reader to Tehching Hsieh, the master “durational artist.” His work is a meditation on the passing of time, not necessarily how one passes this time. Hsieh is asked if he misses art in his retirement: “To me, art and life, it’s no difference.”20

Ultimately it is up to you, making critter, to decide when to respond and how: “There is no script, no manual to rely on. This, for me, is where the productive and, ultimately, democratic nature of performance resides.”21 There is only the living and the dying; the passing and the holding.

“You are probably wondering/how does one come to or reach this place of a” making critter?22 I am a making critter, you see. We all are.


  1. Goat Island, CJ Mitchell, Bryan Saner, Karen Christopher, Mark Jeffery, Matthew Goulish, Lin Hixson,  “Letter to a Young Practitioner,” Goat Island Performance Group.
  2. Carl Lavery, “Teaching Performance Studies: 25 Instructions for Performance in Cities,” Studies in Theatre and Performance 25, no 3 (2005),230.
  3. Goat Island,“Letter to a Young Practitioner.
  4. Goat Island, “Letter to a Young Practitioner.
  5. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016),11.
  6. Goat Island, “Letter to a Young Practitioner.
  7. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 4.
  8. Goat Island, “Letter to a Young Practitioner.
  9. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 6.
  10. Lawrence Halprin, The RSVP Cycles: Creative Processes in the Human Environment (George Braziller, 1970).
  11. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 1.
  12. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2.
  13. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 12.
  14. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 29.
  15. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 3.
  16. Goat Island, “Letter to a Young Practitioner.
  17. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 29.
  18. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 33
  19. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 10.
  20. Teching Hsieh quoted in Andrew Russeth, “Art About Waiting—and What It Takes to Endure,” The New York Times, September 17, 2020.
  21. Lavery, “Teaching Performance Studies” 229.
  22. Goat Island,“Letter to a Young Practitioner.
Back to Top