Kitchener Market, 300 King Street East, Kitchener.
Sunday September 18, 1 - 6 p.m.
Toronto-based art collective Mammalian Diving Reflex (MDR) oscillates between theatre, art, and life to create socially engaged participatory art.
Mammalian Diving Reflex director, Darren O’Donnell describes their artwork as social acupuncture – quirky social performances that take aim at the “blockages in the social body” and tries to puncture them so new ways of being and thinking can emerge.[1] “It’s all about creating contexts for communities that don’t ordinarily interact,” explains O’Donnell, “so that we can make the world a better place.”[2] For Mammalian Diving Reflex, real change begins with creating meaningful relationships.
Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Faith Exchange took place September 16th 2011 at the Kitchener Market. Eleven faith groups in the Kitchener Waterloo Region came together for one afternoon. The Faith Exchange was set up to resemble a market: booths were set up for the public to browse and each faith provided information about their organization. O’Donnell’s vision was the exchange of ideas, beliefs, values, and morals instead of money and goods. The booths were arranged in a maze-like spiral floor plan to force people to go through the entire “market.”

Preliminary research of Kitchener-Waterloo’s faith organizations revealed over 390 separate and distinct faith groups in the area. Calls, e-mails, letters, canvasing, and individual meetings were initiated to make contact with and invite the area’s enormous and diverse faith groups to participate in the Faith Exchange.

The public and participating faith groups were invited to discuss what faith means and to engage in participatory activities:

“In the centre of the market we would like to explore the idea of creating a non-religious recreational activity, an ‘area of agreement’ that all of the organizations would consent to. Perhaps it’s simple a small tea café for people to meet at and chat, or maybe we all agree that a modest basketball court should be installed. The idea would be to survey all interested organizations, asking for suggestions and then strive toward consensus with all. If no consensus is achieved, no area of agreement is created.”[3]

The biggest challenge was explaining the concept to faith groups and getting their participation. Many faith groups in the area were skeptical. Each faith organization was asked to produce a participatory activity for all participants with the idea being that in the face of many differing and contradicting faiths, beliefs, and values that everyone could at least agree on one activity for a moment.

O’Donnell had very expansive understanding of “faith” and encouraged us to “think outside the box.”[4] We therefore extended invitations to participate in the Faith Exchange to a video-gaming store, cafés, and a comic book store.

For three days we had carried out numerous conversations with the community storeowners, priests, and churchgoers. Upon walking into a bike repair shop in Kitchener, we saw a flyer advertising a unicycling club. We called the number on the card and surprisingly the club leader, Drew, accepted the invitation to meet with us. We met in the park and pitched our project. We had a conversation about faith, religion, and what that they meant to each of us. He gave us a unicycling lesson and we heard about his passion for unicycling. It was the type of exchange that O'Donnell hoped would be fostered on the day of the event.

Unfortunately, Drew’s unicycling club did not participate in the Faith Exchange. But this was one instance where learning through experiential human interaction was made visible. – a part of the process of exchange was on-going through-out the entire project.

O'Donnell envisioned a large market of at least 50 participants, so when our confirmed list included 30 participants we were feeling quite confident. Two weeks before the scheduled Faith Exchange, we provided a list of participating groups to each of the organizations involved. The week before the event was to take place, a number of the original thirty confirmed participants contacted us to let us know they were withdrawing from the event. In the end, eleven faith groups participated: Christian Science Reading Room, Church of Scientology, Cold Mountain Internal Arts, Grand River Interfaith, Mammalian Diving Reflex, Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, Kitchener-Waterloo United Mennonite Church, Muslim Social Society, Church of the Good Shepard, Science of Spirituality, Unity Kitchener and Yog Fellowship Temple.

What was supposed to look like a typical market did not materialize. The original vision of market-goers browsing the literature and engaging in conversation with the representatives of the various faith groups did not occur and the public turnout was quite low.

But what took place that day ended up producing an interesting discourse. Because the event was small scale and intimate the participants sat around in a circle and listened to what members of each organization had to say about their faith. There was little exchange but as the performance unfolded some fascinating conversations transpired.

The day’s events began with a representative from the Muslim Society who divided us into separate groups. We were then asked to discuss with one another questions about the stereotypes and prejudices regarding the Muslim faith and Muslim women. This brought up many interesting judgments and facts about Muslim culture. We learned that more women of colour and of Muslim faith have held presidential positions in the world than women in Western democracies. When the Muslim Society’s time was up, its representatives left. This set the austere tone for the rest of the day.

Most faith groups stuck to a presentation/conference model and shied away from the participatory aspect of the event. Grand River Interfaith educated us on the symbols of various spiritual and faith-based organizations, such as the Pagan and Wiccan Pentacle (five-pointed star). Christian Science Reading Room gave us a Sunday school lesson of the ABC’s of the Bible. The Yog Fellowship gave a presentation on meditation and then guided a group meditation. The Scientologists didn’t say anything, and instead presented high production value videos soliciting us to join their faith.

However, there were moments of engagement. Cold Mountain Internal Arts taught us the foundations of T’ai Chi and everyone including the Scientologists were practicing T’ai Chi. Unity Kitchener gave everyone a percussion instrument and we created music together. So many different types of conversations took place even though there didn’t seem to be any type of exchange of religious ideas; rather, they took form in music, movement, meditation, and listening. Besides the Muslim Society, everyone participated for the whole day. The Scientologists meditated, the Christian Science Reading room watched the Scientology videos, and the yogis listened. For moments, O’Donnell’s vision of a common “agreement” was carried out.

The Faith Exchange was an education in community. At the end of the day, is it not about being open, and listening to one another even though you may disagree? Is that what being in a community means?

The faith groups, who originally came with their own expectations and agenda, slowly let their guard down as the day progressed. Scientologists, Christians, yogis, Unitarians, artists, and members of the public who normally would not interact with one another began to talk amongst themselves, even if it was introducing one another or asking simple questions.

One member of the public, Glenda, reflected on the event: “It brought me back to the core of what it is to be human-community.” And because of the small intimate scale of the project, Mario felt that the event “gave everyone an opportunity to think about religion from very different points of view.” What was created was a democratic forum where everyone could have his or her opinion and beliefs. When another member of the public was asked what he learned from the event, he responded: “I learned that I don’t like Sunday school.” Everyone participated no matter what his or her beliefs were.

As an intern for CAFKA’s SURVIVE. RESIST I became the producer for Faith Exchange. Being on both the production and participant side of the event made me realize how much work is involved in creating meaningful conversations and relationships. With so many different perspectives, faces, and beliefs in one afternoon, it became more apparent that resolution takes time.

Would the project have materialized differently if we had more actively canvased right from the beginning? One-on-one face time with the community was the highlight the project. Perhaps the failed vision of this project rests on time alone. With more small discussions such as the one that Faith Exchange produced, repeated over a period of time, perhaps the promise of exchange, friendship, and change would be attainable.

When creating a community-based relational artwork the aims and goals of the project may be idealistic and romanticized. Rather than a market and exchange of ideas, what took place was a social experiment in social change and meaning making. Faith may not be a topic that all people are comfortable sharing or “exchanging.” Perhaps we’re not ready to have this conversation. Yet, this conundrum of faith is specifically what this project made public.

One of the criticisms of relational art works is the ambiguity of what constitutes a failed or successful “artwork.” However, it may be more useful if we instead ask ourselves, as Shannon Jackson advocates, how do we create meaningful relationships and social efficacy?[5]

Drawing from various social theories such as, Emmanuel Levinas, many critics in support of relational art projects, such as Grant Kester and Shannon Jackson, argue that change stems from relationships. In an era where technology, neo-liberalism, individualism, and capitalism reign as king, the idea of community and basic human relationships seem to be threatened.[6] Faith Exchange highlighted the need for community, in the most active sense.

Being a part of Faith Exchange was a true lesson in adaptability. Perhaps the real challenge and lesson of community-based artwork, like Mammalian Diving Reflex’s, requires one to embrace irresolution, uncertainty, and discomfort.

Natalie Romano, December 2012


[1]  Darren O’Donnell, Social Acupuncture: A Guide to Suicide, Performance and Utopia, (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2006), 47-48.

[2]  Interview with Darren O’Donnell, CAFKA.TV, September 16th, 2011.

[3]  Darren O’Donnell proposal to CAFKA, March 7, 2011.

[4]           “Let’s think outside the box! – Everyone believes in something, right?” Darren O’Donnell in conversation with Natalie Romano, August.

[5]  Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics, (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 44.

[6]  Ibid., p. 46

Founded in 1993, Mammalian Diving Reflex is a research-art atelier dedicated to investigating the social sphere, producing one-off events, theatre-based performances, theoretical texts and community happenings. Mammalian Diving Reflex engages with language, ideas and information; overtly embracing and revealing theatrical conventions; openly acknowledging the audience and embracing the political dimension of life, and recognizing the social responsibility of the arts. Mammalian Diving Reflex creates works that dismantle the barriers between individuals, fostering dialogues between audience members, between the audience and the material and between the performers and the audience.