Reports from an Unidentified Space Station: Is participation the ‘big dumb object’ of performance? [1]

In science fiction a ‘big dumb object’ is any unknown entity that has extreme power or unknown properties that becomes a focus of the narrative or the protagonists interest and intent. Similar to Hitchcock’s famous MacGuffin, the ‘big dumb object’ is a plot device that appears to be driving the action and yet deliberately remains ambiguous, undefined or generic. By the end of the story it is ultimately unimportant as the struggle of the characters are played out. Think of the ghost ship in Event Horizon (1997) or Unicron in Transformers: The Movie (1986).

In an informal breakfast discussion at Relation and Participation at Aberystwyth University I presented the provocation that the current trend for a discourse of participation has the risk of becoming our own metaphoric ‘big dumb object’ in the narratives we follow in performance studies and practice. As the discourse around participation grows in power and intoxicating draw, perhaps the thing we seek becomes further away?

From my own experience as a spectator I find that the more I am forcefully asked to participate (depending on the framing of the offer) the less I feel involved in the event itself, which prohibits any co-authored ‘poem being written’ and emancipatory potential being met. When participation becomes the object of our work does it not risk becoming the thing itself? Prehaps we should not be too hasty to constantly seek new formations of participation through our work but continue to explore how the model of theatre, as a space in which things happen in front of people, can be both progressive and also nurture the participatory potential of simply being together.

More detail on the event and discussions can be found here: and here:


[1] J.G.Ballard’s short story Report on an Unidentified Space Station (1982) could be considered an exploration of the big dumb object’ metaphor in which through a series of reports we are introduced to a mysterious artifact that as it gains increasing size and unknown power the inhabitants of the space station get lost within it.


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