But how did we end up at such different points on the map? Jacques Lacan (a student of Sigmund Freud) describes the mirror stage as a (metaphoric) moment when a baby notices her reflection in the mirror for the first time and realizes that she is distinct from the world around her.


     Mother is not me 

                                    Blanket is not me

                                                                  You are not me

She is now a subject, sovereign over her actions, and everything external is relegated

to an object.  What is her relationship to that object? How does she interact with,

obey, consume, or destroy that object? She has a hunger to learn these things from

her parents in order to master the world around her. And so, by exploring this

new landscape, she is indoctrinated into the symbolic order, which Lacan

deems the world of the father and the phallus. It is a world of language,

and embedded within it are power relationships and social norms.

Subjects translate their unique lived experiences through

this culturally shared system of signs and symbols, and

this is the basis of all learning.


The baby, viewing itself in the 

mirror,as Laura Mulvey explains

in “Visual Pleasure and

Narrative Cinema”,

is “more complete,

more perfect”

than her


of her own



concept of

I is born, and

with it a lifelong

mismatch between the

experience of self and self-image.

Did I choose the road of opera singing because I simply love singing and performing and find the art form inspiring, or because I have learned that the labels “confident, intelligent, cultured, and artistically talented” are my way to be useful and productive in society? I imagine that in claiming these “empowering” labels, I relinquish the ability to pave my own road. I now travel down the road built for people like me. By becoming a subject, I am subjectified (according to Michel Foucault), and I am now just a passenger in my own life. The landscape might seem interesting, but I have a destination in mind. I’m a very busy person and there’s no time for detours.


Kristeva, J. (2002). The portable kristeva. Columbia University Press.


Lacan, J. (2001). The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. Ecrits: a selection, 146-178.

Mulvey, L. (1989). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. In Visual and other pleasures (pp. 14-26). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Rancière, J. (2021). The emancipated spectator. Verso Books.

Turner, M. (1996). The literary mind: The origins of thought and language. Oxford University Press.

Turner, V. W., & Schechner, R. (1988). The anthropology of performance.

The following exposition is a reflective journal assignment for Body in Performance, a module of the Master of Performance Practices program at ArtEZ University of the Arts in The Netherlands. I discovered the program during a period of frustration with the opera industry; wondering how classical music artists like myself could make my performances more relevant to major issues like climate change. Opera is a gorgeous art form, but (with some really brilliant exceptions) most of it is a great distance from the lived experiences of its audience, and this can often lead to a passive form of spectatorship that has little power to affect life outside the theatre. This class helped me to understand the nature of this distance, and gave me insight into ways I might think about bringing people together as participants and collaborators in my artistic practice.

Being an artist means understanding the danger of never getting off the highway. A world threatened by climate change and nationalism demands of us

that we sculpt an artistic landscape that can serve as a site of exploration and an intersection of many roads. We are, inescapably, members of a

society that performs inequality even as it speaks with good intentions. But I believe that a shared story of an equitable society is possible if the

apart-togetherness that Rancière speaks of is given a creative voice. And If we place that story next to the story of our present, we will all have a

better idea of which direction we should be driving. If nothing else, we have done the important work of trying to get closer to each other, learning

the lessons of an intellectual road trip we would never have gone on if we hadn’t decided to be present and curious instead of just being too busy to

ever question our destination.

Music, images, and text written and performed by Jessica Renfro, 2019

Co-Authoring the Future:

Stories from the Road

Words have power. They don’t just signify objects or actions; they tell stories

that define the world we live in. Signs and symbols become the only way to understand the

world and communicate, and this is not only a mental process, but a memorization of small spatial

stories that we encode into our bodies. Mark Turner, in his book The Literary Mind, discusses the phenomenon

of image schemas, “skeletal patterns that recur in our sensory and motor experience” (p. 16).He notes that small

spatial stories like “the tea pours into the cup”, “he threw the ball”, or “we followed the path”are encoded in the

nervous system in ways that are multi-modal (meaning we can use the same image schema to speak about a story, see it,

feel it, perform an action, or even make a visual or sonic representation of it), and this encoded knowledge can then be

used to understand new stories we might encounter. For example, if we have a conversation about “falling in love”, my experience

of falling—feeling exhilaration and loss of control—comes into play. I am reminded of my experience of forcing my way through an obstacle

when we talk about having a “breakthrough”. My experience of recoveringfrom a cut or scrape is recalled inthe proverb “Time heals all wounds”.

 When I consider creating an artistic landscape for emancipated spectatorship, these shared spatial stories are invaluable tools I can use to sculpt

         the terrain. If I add a steep mountain (let’s say this is a metaphor for struggling to rise above a difficulty in order to gain wisdom),the

                         participant will understand both the sensation of struggle and the feeling of being on top. Of course, everyone who chooses

                                     to climb this mountain will be starting from a different place. The real challenge, in my mind, is telling just

                                               enough of a mountain story to allow many participants to co-create the landscape with me. When the

                                                mountain becomes a site of shared discovery,it becomes not just a spatial story, but a social story.

                                                        In a similar way, image schemas can also be used to create narrative imagining of how humans

                                                             should behave in society: social norms. The labels that we assign ourselves in order to

                                                               show our value to others are often reflections of these norms. Those who display them

                                                                   are considered competent and productive, while those who do not are marginalized.

                                                                             The pressure to conform can be immense, and choosing not to can cause a

                                                                                   breach in society that can only be resolved by either adapting to

                                                                                          reintegrate the marginalized party or by casting them out.

                                                                                               This is Victor Turner’s theory of social drama, which

                                                                                                     he lays out in The Anthropology of Performance.

                                                                    Social norms that marginalize

                                                                people can also be a major hurdle

                                                        to self-discovery. Years ago, I literally

                                                drove through the entire state of Alabama without

                                            getting off the highway. My rationale went like this:


People in Alabama are racist. They hate Yankees. They have very high crime and low education.We do not share the same values. I am not safe here, and I’m not interested in seeing it when I am alone and vulnerable. I will just keep driving until I hit Florida.

That was a shame,

because I will never know

what Alabama could have taught me

about myself or the world at that critical

time in my life. I didn’t give its cultural landscape

a chance to teach me new stories, and because of that I never

shared them with other people who might never visit Alabama. I chose

to wear the label of Yankee for its social power, and even though I was in

the driver’s seat, my social norms had control of the steering wheel that day.



As a lover of new experiences, The idea of traveling through an unexplored landscape is irresistible to me. In the class, we encountered this idea through Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator, a book about the nature of participation in art and theatre. Rancière  speaks of the artist presenting a landscape into which each participant can pave their own intellectual road. And while many roads are paved through that vast landscape, each is arriving from a different point on the map. We, as spectators, will experience a kind of apart-togetherness, and this “shared power of the equality of intelligence links individuals, and makes them exchange their intellectual adventures, insofar as it keeps them separate from one another, equally capable of using the power everyone has to pilot her own path” (The Emancipated Spectator, 17).

Let’s start where all human journeys begin—the body—or, more specifically, the body before we discover

the self. I imagine that we are floating back…back to the “beginning before the Beginning” as Julia

Kristeva, a prominent French-Bulgarian philosopher, said, to a state she would call the semiotic chora.

In the beginning of our lives we existed in an undifferentiated state of connection with our mothers.

In other words, although we had drives like hunger and thirst, we didn’t have any way of knowing where

she ended and we began, and our lives were regulated through her. This sense of complete maternal

connection is something that is lost years before we have the ability to remember or describe it.


The semiotic chora is an experience common to all humans, but it is a purely philosophical

landscape by the time any of us can discuss it. It appeals to me because connection is

a driving force for my artistic work, and I find the concept of such a powerful

shared experience to be fertile ground for creating a performance

to which many participants might build a road.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: "Sicut cervus", Psalm 42:1

Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum,ita desiderat anima mea ad te,Deus.

As a deer longs for the flowing streams,so longs my soul for thee, O God.

I am not even me

How does this mismatch of self and self-image affect the roads I choose to travel? I’ll give you an example. I am an opera singer. Every time someone asks me my profession and I say “I am an opera singer!” My self-image (Mirror Self) and I have an argument:



                             I am confident, intelligent, cultured, and artistically talented. :Mirror Self

Inner Self: Liar. I don’t make enough money singing opera to be an opera singer. 

                      I love the glamor of the stage—the lights, the costumes, the adrenaline— :Mirror Self

Inner Self: —constant rejection, personal and brutal criticism


                                                                         I have a great voice! :Mirror Self

Inner Self: I love singing, but a lot of people don’t like my voice


                                                                     I AM WORTHY OF YOUR LOVE :Mirror Self

(And lest I take myself too seriously,the audio portion of this story is a lighthearted conversation between me and an imaginary and unattainable self-awareness.)


 And so, my fellow travelers,

  I invite you to go on a journey with me

  (or near me, maybe I should say)

to explore the origin of our individual roads,

                           what guides our decisions

               about which direction to travel,

     and where they may ultimately lead us...