Esther Neff grew up “unschooled” on an organic farm in the Midwestern USA. They have a BFA in theatre directing from the University of Michigan and are the founder of NYC-based thinktank, performance-making collective, and organizational entity PPL (Panoply Performance Laboratory). Neff+PPL work across a wide range of modes, from body-based performance art, through experimental opera, through cooperative organizing. From 2012-2018, PPL operated as a “theatrical institution/social dramaturgy” hosting hundreds of artists from around the world at a physical lab site for performance in a small garage in Brooklyn (culminating book; Institution is a Verb, The Operating System, 2021). PPL’s performance work cooperatively pursues philosophical, political, and theoretical inquiries. Larger-scale projects or “operas of operations,” have involved month-long tours across the USA, interviews and working groups, a menu-driven diner serving up made-to-order songs (You’re a Big Boy Now OR Rauschenberg Ist Tödlich), an interactive “natural history” museum (NATURE FETISH), a 7-week evolving installation and durational dance-opera (Any Size Mirror is a Dictator, with drearysomebody), a trilogy of temporary self-critical institutions (The Transformational Grammar of the Institutional Glorybowl), and so on. These operas and Neff’s “solo” work have been performed at and through Dixon Place, The Bronx Museum, chashama theatre on 42nd St, LMCC Swing Space, LPAC Lab, The New Museum, Danspace, ISSUE: Project Room, Momenta Art, The Brick Theater, the cell (to name a few in NYC), in Berlin, Dortmund, Copenhagen, Montreal, London (etc) and a wide variety of sites and spaces from public libraries and gas stations through museums and universities. Neff has also organized the platform PERFORMANCY FORUM since 2009, and Brooklyn International Performance Art Foundation (BIPAF), an ongoing performance of an “institution,” since 2013. Discursive performances including the array of thinktanks 9 PROPOSITIONS, and Think We Must, as well as hybrid conference-festivals including as Operations and Participations, JUST SITUATIONS, and Moral (en)Compassings, have supported forms of independent theory+practice. In 2018, Neff co-founded MARSH (Materializing & Activating Radical Social Habitus), a food, labor, and social justice cooperative, with her mother Beth in St. Louis, MO. Neff’s writing has been published in the Routledge Companion to Performance Philosophy (co-written with Yelena Gluzman), the Palgrave Macmillan Handbook of Queer and Trans Feminist Performance, in the Performance Philosophy Journal, and in CAESURA, New Music Yearbook, CONTENT (Bard Meme Lab Journal), through a yearlong column on cultbytes, and across various other art and philosophy journals and blogs. They have received a Fellowship for Utopian Practices from Culture Push (with Yelena Gluzman) and grants from BAC, NYSCA, and FCA. Neff began pursuing a PhD at the Theatre and Performance at CUNY Graduate Center in Fall, 2020.

Research Interests

  • Prefigurative performance, organizational performance, cooperative formations
  • Political philosophy and critical ecology, liberation theology, decolonialization and utopian socialism in the Americas, “environmentalism,” operations of theatre and theatricality in social construction of worldviews and “human natures”
  • Discourse ethics, dialogic and discursive performance, dialectical theatre
  • Performance art (live art, body art, social performance, happenings, insurgent public performance, intervention, conceptual performance, institutional critique)
  • Performance philosophy, theatre and metaphysics, cosmogenics, “theatricality” as a philosophical concept
  • the absence of theatre and transference of theatrical practices into conspiracy theorization (specifically in the Midwestern USA)