The Botany of Dominance


Gwynn Shanks’s performance art digs deep into colonialism

By Claire Sykes Photography by Gabe Souza
September 28, 2021

Growing up in the small coastal town of North Bend, Ore., “I was a very expressive and dramatic kid,” said Gwyneth Shanks, Colby’s assistant professor of performance studies and curatorial practice. From age seven, she took dance classes and acted in children’s and community theater. Of course she would major in theater. In her senior year at Minnesota’s Macalester College, Shanks was playing a leading role in a main-stage production when everything changed for her.

“I realized that I suddenly felt such discomfort with the dynamic between the viewership and the way I, as a young woman, was onstage,” Shanks said. “That pivotal moment transformed for me how I wanted to be involved in performance. I wanted to challenge ways of being looked at that I found disconcerting, by confronting the act of viewership itself. Instead of reciting lines of a play, I wanted to use my body in more movement-based performance art.”

Eleven years later, in March 2021, the New York City-based MAP Fund—supporter of original live performance that, especially, challenges social and cultural hierarchies—awarded Shanks a $25,000 grant for her in-progress work, a haunted botany. She said, “Winning that is incredibly exciting. I feel honored, proud, and grateful.”

Through bodily movement, spoken or visually projected text, sound, music, and audience participation, the site-specific project digs deep into what’s called colonial botany. Shanks explained: “a haunted botany draws upon histories of European empires that have colonized communities around the world, where they could exploit certain plants by propagation and maritime trade. I’m interested in how performance art can illuminate that past and connect physical traces of it to our present.” Think the nutmeg in your kitchen, once more valuable than gold.

Gwynn Shanks
A $25,000 grant from the MAP Fund will allow Gwynn Shanks, assistant professor of performance studies and curatorial practice, to develop her newest performance-art piece titled a haunted botany, a site-specific project that explores what’s called colonial botany.

Every facet of a haunted botany will peer through a queer lens. And this is where AB Brown, assistant professor of contemporary performance at Colby, comes in as Shanks’s collaborator on the project. Colby hired the two together in 2019 to help revise the Theater and Dance Department’s curricula. A transdisciplinary performance artist, writer, and performance-studies scholar, Brown investigates connections between transness, disability, and colonialism, past and present.

“When you look at something queerly you look at it askew, or non-normatively, making critiques that take you beyond face value. This means seeing colonial botany via people’s emotional, sensory, and material relationships to plants. Doing so helps us understand colonialism as more than a political, economic, and geographic phenomenon,” said Brown.

Brown, Shanks, and others yet to be determined will perform a haunted botany in historically colonized and/or plant-cultivated locations the two artists will choose based on the plants they select. They’ll start in Maine and Manhattan and possibly go all the way to Cape Town and the Caribbean. For each site, the performance’s aesthetic elements, from costumes to movement, will depend on the plant life there, along with the quality of the ground, changing daylight, surrounding architecture, and other features.

AB Brown
AB Brown, assistant professor of contemporary performance, will collaborate with Shanks on a haunted botany, which will examine every facet of the project through a queer lens. “When you look at something queerly you look at it askew, or non-normatively, making critiques that take you beyond face value,” Brown said.

Shanks and Brown currently are researching sites; gathering articles, books, archival documents, and historical accounts; and creating reading lists on colonial botany. “Our ideas right now are unformed and malleable; there are so many directions this project could take,” said Shanks. “Absolutely, though, the performances will be less about narrative and characters and more about the effect on the performers and viewers.”

a haunted botany continues Shanks’s emphasis on movement in nontraditional performance spaces in her art over the years. For example, her last piece (2017-18) dealt with boundaries and histories of exclusion and gentrification. Viewers were led on an hour-long procession with dancer guides and recorded audio past fences in urban and residential spaces in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles.

It’s a city Shanks knows well, having received her Ph.D. in theater and performance studies from UCLA in 2016. January the following year she moved to Minneapolis, where she was a postdoctoral interdisciplinary arts fellow at the Walker Art Center for two years before coming to Colby.

Between classes and while driving, Shanks and Brown talked a lot about their mutual interest in history and colonialism and Brown’s love of gardening, herbs, and plant lore. “At some point, we had an epiphany, bringing it all together,” said Shanks. “a haunted botany is a dream project for us.”

And it’ll be a rich inquiry for others. “AB and I hope the performance project allows people to reflect on how the accumulation of exploitative and violent colonial pasts informs the present,” says Shanks. The two want viewers to ask the same questions that a haunted botany poses: “How might a queer lens on these botanical histories—of the circulation, propagation, and commodification of plants—allow us to understand ideas like power, conquest, or revolt through plants? And how can we shift the way we understand our own relationships to plants?”

We may never look at that nutmeg, or even the flowers and shrubs in our gardens, the same way again.