Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Songwork

Ben Spatz, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, and Agnieszka Mendel


“Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Songwork” was a two-year research project that explored the construction of identity through the act of singing. The heart of the project was a six-month laboratory period in which the three of us worked closely together, on a full-time basis, as skilled performance practitioners investigating the cultural and epistemic potential of songs. In response to critical work in the humanities and social sciences calling for greater recognition of embodied knowledge and practice in emerging research paradigms, the Judaica project implemented a new type of laboratory, in which interactions of technique, identity, and place gave rise to new forms of knowledge. Drawing on critical theories of identity, as well as studies of laboratory research in the sciences, the project offers a model for the post-technoscientific laboratory as a “place of making” in which bodies, songs, actions, objects, and concepts come together in unexpected and generative ways. Among the key discoveries of the project was a new method for sustained, experimental, embodied practice, grounded in critical theories of gender and racial identity, as well as a new approach to the editing and co-authorship of video works generated through this process. These video materials are both data for cultural researchers and research outcomes in their own right.

Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Songwork


October 27, 2020 (480 views *)


Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Songwork © 2020 by Ben Spatz, Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, and Agnieszka Mendel is licensed under CC-BY 4.0

Judaica Lab: An outsider’s perspective (2018) by Garry Cook with Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel, and Ben Spatz. This brief documentary introduces the Judaica project from the perspective of a guest videographer.
Garry Cook with Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel, and Ben Spatz / Copyright (2018) - http://urbanresearchtheater.com/2018/11/29/judaica-lab-garry-cook/


Several decades of critical theory and artistic practice have underscored the essential role of the body and embodiment in constructing identities, cultures, and worlds. Indeed, as recent works on theatre and dance dramaturgy have shown, investigations of performance technique and aesthetics are always also explorations of culture and identity (see Kondo 2018, Profeta 2015). As a result, it now seems plausible to ask: How might one design a full-time, academic laboratory that would take embodied knowledge and the performance of identity as its explicit content?

The Judaica project set out to answer this question through a new audiovisual embodied research method with the capacity to structure and document sustained, experimental, embodied practice. In our case, the foundation of this practice was songs, which we approached as nodes of practice linking technique, identity, and place, and as irreducible to written scores. The project’s idea of “songwork” refers to “what songs can do”: the possibilities they open, the connections they reveal, and their complex entanglement “with the non-songish things around them” (Tomlinson 2007: 51). Songwork incorporates countless elements, including rhythm, melody, genre, language, narrative, vocal quality, social function, cultural status, authorship, and personal association. Any given embodied performance of a song activates connections across history, memory, artistry, and scholarship, while at the same time being an open-ended, emergent, and never entirely predictable event.

Approaching songwork this way gives new meaning to the video materials generated by the Judaica project’s laboratory sessions. Instead of being documents of a performance, or even of a process, these videos are the products of a genuinely experimental method that is not governed by any final authorial power and which never arrives to any final closure regarding the “aboutness” of a given moment of practice. Taking inspiration from social theories of knowledge production in the sciences (see Schatzki et al. 2001), we approach this video material as more or less raw data, which must then be analyzed—first by ourselves as practitioner-researchers—through a process of video editing. The edited video essays produced by the project are therefore both interventions into contemporary theories of embodiment, identity, and performance, and proposals for a new form of audiovisual thought.


Prior to the lab period, Spatz selected eighteen albums from the Smithsonian Folkways record label archive, which served as an ethnomusicological starting point for the research. All of these albums are labeled “Judaica” in the Folkways catalogue, but their content is highly diverse in terms of geographical location, language, genre, time period, social function, and other variables. Likewise, the three individuals who came together in Huddersfield, northern England, to begin the lab work in May 2017 embodied diverse nationalities (United States, Poland, and Turkey) and culturally religious backgrounds (Judaism, Christianity, Islam).

To structure our daily practice, Spatz devised a method to formalize a set of roles and relationships that almost universally structure performing arts practice, but which are rarely made explicit or used as configurable research tools. These are: the relation of a performer or practitioner to embodied material (in our case, songs), the relation of two or more practitioners within a space of practice, the primary external or “directorial” relation, and finally the videographic relation, which is not usually considered part of performance practice. Two specific innovations of the Judaica lab are worth noting: first, these roles and relations were not assigned permanently to individuals, but continually circulated in response to our ongoing discussions about the research process; and second, the videographic relation was present from the first day of lab work and was primarily filled by the three of us (rather than an external videographer). These small but significant changes to conventional performance practice worked to continually shift and overturn power dynamics and to activate a new kind of experimentality in the lab, where no single individual was in control of what happened, how it was audiovisually traced, or what it could be said to mean.

In this way, we took turns sharing three key roles: practitioner, director, and videographer. Soon, we introduced more complexity: multiple practitioners; practitioners also directing; directors also operating the camera; invited guests joining us in specified roles; and ultimately the lab itself traveling to other locations while retaining its internal structure. Every lab session that included the videographer role generated new experimental video data.

Songwork Catalogue

Our first published output, the Songwork Catalogue, is a webpage containing 308 short video clips selected from more than 500 hours of video created during the Judaica project lab. The selections range from our earliest work, with just the three of us working in two studio spaces, to the final phase of the lab, during which we traveled to practice and perform at more than twenty different sites in the United States, United Kingdom, and Poland, including universities, theatre venues, and synagogues both active and ruined. (Selections from the first day’s sessions, described above, can be found at the beginning of the Songwork Catalogue.)

Our approach to video in the Songwork Catalogue differs in form and intention from both performance documentation (see Reason 2006) and documentary filmmaking. This difference is marked especially by the fact that all of the titles in the Songwork Catalogue were chosen after the lab session that generated the video material, rather than before. In comparison to Garry Cook’s short documentary above, which is about the Judaica project as a whole, the video selections in the Songwork Catalogue are about the diversity of topics invoked by their myriad titles. These include, for example: rhythm, character, storytelling, impulse, affect, gesture, pedagogy, tuning, musicality, textuality, deconstruction, play, presence, proximity, history, memory, race, place, training, coloniality, epistemology, ritual, somatics, and ecstasy.

The audiovisual traces in the Songwork Catalogue do not immediately provide clear definitions, categories, or conclusions. Instead, they may be understood as a new kind of data, full of content and meaning yet radically open-ended in significance. The process of selection and titling offers an initial entry point into the Judaica project’s research, which can be used and cited by teachers and researchers working with any of these topics or themes.

Two selections from the Songwork Catalogue, “threading impulses into the song” and “conflicting associations 2,” capture moments of personal and political urgency in which the practitioner-researcher responds with agency to the prompts of the director. To read accompanying textual commentaries, which shed light on the 'aboutness' of these moments from our three distinct but intersecting perspectives, follow the links to the Songwork Catalogue.

threading impulses into the song
Practitioner: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel. Director: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin. Videography: Ben Spatz / Copyright (2017)
conflicting associations 2
Practitioner: Ben Spatz. Director: Agnieszka Mendel. Videography: Nazlıhan Eda Erçin / Copyright (2017) - https://urbanresearchtheater.com/2017/05/11/conflicting-associations-2/

Beyond the Catalogue

While the Songwork Catalogue involved minimal video editing (just selection and titling), the Judaica project team has also developed an ongoing series of video essays, in which editing and textual montage further articulate the meaning of the underlying video data. Each video essay focuses on a theme or perspective that arose from the process and is developed by a lead editor, with varying degrees of input from the rest of the team. In addition to juxtaposing video material from the same or different lab sessions, some video essays use voiceover or onscreen titles to bring in textual content. This text might attempt to explain what is happening in the video, or on the other hand it might add further complexity by layering poetic annotations or scholarly citations onto the video.

As of October 2020, two edited video works have been published in peer-reviewed online journals, with several more in development (sidenote: For a range of approaches to videographic scholarship, see the Journal of Embodied Research, edited by Spatz, and the film studies journal [in]Transition. ) . We are excited to offer the Judaica project’s video archive, Songwork Catalogue, and edited videographic outputs as a model for the kind of data and publications that can be generated by an audiovisually-based embodied research laboratory. Going forward, we hope that they will serve as reference points and digital resources for interdisciplinary thought, discussion, communication, and research design across a range of fields and topics.
This is a complete recording of the Judaica project’s live presentation at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center, The Graduate Center, CUNY, on October 16th, 2017. It includes an improvised performance by the research team (7:05); a demonstration of the underlying research method (38:00); a screening of excerpts from three video essay works in progress (1:11:50); and a Q&A session moderated by G. M. Gianino of the SITI Company (1:36:35)
/ Copyright (2017) - https://thesegalcenter.org/event/the-judaica-project/


  • Allegue, Ludivine, Simon Jones, Baz Kershaw, and Angela Piccini, eds. 2009. Practice-as-Research in Performance and Screen. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Ang, Gey Pin, Massimiliano Balduzzi, Ditte Berkeley, Daniel Alexander Jones, M. Lamar, Samita Sinha, Tatyana Tenenbaum, and Ben Spatz. 2019. “What Is a Song?” Performance Research 24 (1): 20–93. DOI: 10.1080/13528165.2019.1601945
  • Arlander, Annette, Bruce Barton, Melanie Dreyer-Lude, and Ben Spatz, eds. 2017. Performance as Research: Knowledge, Methods, Impact. New York: Routledge.
  • Borgdorff, Henk. 2012. The Conflict of the Faculties: Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia. Leiden University Press.
  • Brown, Bryan Keith. 2019. A History of the Theatre Laboratory. New York: Routledge.
  • Erçin, Nazlıhan Eda. 2018. “From-Ness: The Identity of the Practitioner in the Laboratory.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies 3 (2): 195–202. DOI: 10.1386/jivs.3.2.195_1
  • Erçin, Nazlıhan Eda, Agnieszka Mendel, and Ben Spatz. 2020. The Songwork Catalogue. http://urbanresearchtheater.com/songwork/
  • Gatt, Caroline. 2017. The Voices of the Pages. Aberdeen: Knowing From the Inside.
  • Kondo, Dorinne K. 2018. Worldmaking: Race, Performance, and the Work of Creativity. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Loveless, Natalie. 2019. How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Nascimento, Cláudia Tatinge. 2009. Crossing Cultural Borders through the Actor’s Work: Foreign Bodies of Knowledge. New York: Routledge.
  • Profeta, Katherine. 2015. Dramaturgy in Motion: At Work on Dance and Movement Performance. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Reason, Matthew. 2006. Documentation, Disappearance and the Representation of Live Performance. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Schatzki, Theodore, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny. 2001. The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory. New York: Routledge.
  • Schino, Mirella. 2009. Alchemists of the Stage: Theatre Laboratories in Europe. Translated by Paul Warrington. New York: Icarus Publishing Enterprise and Routledge.
  • Spatz, Ben. 2020. Making a Laboratory: Dynamic Configurations with Transversal Video. New York: Punctum Books.
  • ———. 2020. Blue Sky Body: Thresholds for Embodied Research. New York: Routledge.
  • ———. 2019. “Molecular Identities: Digital Archives and Decolonial Judaism in a Laboratory of Song.” Performance Research 24 (1): 66–79.
  • ———. 2015. What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research. New York: Routledge.
  • Spatz, Ben with Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Caroline Gatt, and Agnieszka Mendel. 2018. “Triptych: Genesis, Kavana, Sabbath.” PARtake: The Journal of Performance as Research 2 (2): 25 minutes. https://www.partakejournal.org/triptych
  • Spatz, Ben with Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Agnieszka Mendel, and Elaine Spatz-Rabinowitz. 2018. “Diaspora (An Illuminated Video Essay).” Global Performance Studies 2 (1): 30 minutes. https://gps.psi-web.org/issue-2-1/gps-2-1-1/
  • Tomlinson, Gary. 2007. The Singing of the New World: Indigenous Voice in the Era of European Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


  1. For a range of approaches to videographic scholarship, see the Journal of Embodied Research, edited by Spatz, and the film studies journal [in]Transition.


“Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Songwork” was made possible by the 2016-2018 Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Leadership Fellow project ‘Judaica: An Embodied Laboratory for Song-Action’ [grant reference AH/ N006879/1].


Between May 2017 and October 2017


Project Site

Sites and Institutes

University of Huddersfield


Embodied Research Practice Research Artistic Research Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Voice Critical Race Theory New Materialism Performer Training Postdramatic Theater Critical Autoethnography Extended Voice Song And Singing Jerzy Grotowski


Performance Studies Psychophysical Performance Critical Race Studies Ethnomusicology Critical Autoethnography Visual Anthropology Transmedia Studies Artistic Research Experimental Theater Dance And Somatics Interdisciplinary Voice Studies Jewish Studies