Jo Bannon’s show looks at the art of seeing without looking

Jo Bannon's Fringe show Exposure is about vulnerability and the act of looking. Picture: Carl Newland
Jo Bannon's Fringe show Exposure is about vulnerability and the act of looking. Picture: Carl Newland
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There’s more to albinism than pale skin, hair and poor eyesight, and there’s more to Jo Bannon than albinism, writes Susan Mansfield

Jo Bannon has a family photograph taken when she was about three years old. She is standing between her mother and sister, but, while they have dark hair and eyes, Jo is dazzlingly fair, her hair white-blonde, her skin pale. That’s the story your eyes tell you, the simple version.

Things are quite often invisible for me or beyond my range of vision, but I inhabit a body which is highly visible in the world, I stand out

Jo Bannon

Jo has albinism – a congential disorder characterised by the partial or complete absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes – but, as a performance artist who has explored her own experiences in her work, she avoids simple conclusions.

“I was really fascinated by this photograph because, as a family, we didn’t have a camera when I was growing up, so there weren’t many pictures of us. It was taken, I think, as part of a university study, to document how different or distinct I am from the rest of my family. For me it’s not as simple as that. While I say I don’t look like my family in that photograph, I absolutely do, I’ve got my mother’s calves and my sister’s nose and my dad’s temper.” The photograph featured in Exposure, her first autobiographical work, made in 2012 and performed in Edinburgh at Forest Fringe the following year. A ten-minute performance for one audience member at a time which explores the nature of looking, it will be back on the Fringe this year as part of Forest’s 10th anniversary retrospective, and is one of the works highlighted by Wellcome’s The Sick of the Fringe programme.

Exposure looks at the act of looking through the “lenses” of science, philosophy and personal experience: ironically, albinism is associated with various sight defects, and Bannon struggles with poor sight. “Things are quite often invisible for me or beyond my range of vision, but I inhabit a body which is highly visible in the world, I stand out,” she says. “For me there was an interesting friction in those two things.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise, she says with a half-smile, that much of the show takes place in darkness. “I was interested in how identity is formed in the way we look at each other, how much of our senses are controlled by the visual sense. The encounter happens mostly without that visual sensation, exploring different ways of seeing each other, a gradual revealing of identity.

“What I learned when I was looking into the science of how the eye works is that there is too much visual information coming in through the eye for the brain to compute. The brain is continually making shortcuts: if it sees a shape that looks like a table, it doesn’t really look at it, it just says ‘there’s a table there’. I would draw a link there with bodies that are somehow different or distinct. We are making shortcuts all the time, putting what we see into a certain narrative or identity that we’re familiar with.”

Bannon says her albinism has never felt like a problem. “My eyesight was a problem, I had to go for eye tests, I’d like to be able to drive, but the colour of my skin and hair isn’t a problem for me. For some people who are maybe ignorant of it, or intolerant, then it’s a problem for them, but I’m a bit too stubborn for that really!”

Bannon trained in theatre at the innovative – and sadly now closed – Dartington College of Art in Devon ten years ago. Based in Bristol with performance collective Residence, her previous shows have included Deadline, in which a single audience member has a telephone conversation with a professional about death and dying, and Claim to Fame, for which she collected ordinary people’s encounters with stars. After making Exposure, she went on to make a longer work about albinism, Alba.

“I’m really interested in how the form and content of a work come together, so I start with an idea and my job is to find the appropriate form. With Exposure, it became really clear to me that it was about a meeting, an exploration of how two people might meet or look at each other, and so it felt like it had to be a one-to-one show.

“I wanted to explore my relationship to my identity, which is not entirely informed but is significantly informed by having albinism. I was interested in using my identity to open up the wider subject of identity. I’m as interested, in the work, in the person sitting opposite me in the dark and their relationship to identity as I am in my own. I think we all carry around these inner worlds that don’t always match with the outer perception of ourselves.”

She says the work is a “gentle” experience for the viewer, but it does invite him or her to think about what it means to look and be looked at. “I was interested in the vulnerability that we can have as a performer and an audience member when we allow ourselves to be looked at. It asks you to be vulnerable with me in some way because the only way to look at me is to allow me to look at you.

“Near the end of the work when a light comes on, that moment of looking at each other is always unique, I feel like a lot is communicated in that moment with each person. For me as a performer that’s really exciting, built into the structure of the work is this gift of meeting a new person each time.”

• Exposure is at Forest Fringe, 11-14 August