In an open space filled with chairs, a group of seven performers start a conversation. They begin by listening. Representing nothing but themselves, their words and actions gradually approach a unison of movement and vocal expression where every decision is a group decision but no one knows what’s going to happen next.
For the performers, uncertainty is both the figure and the ground of their pursuit–to express how things are and how they want them to be different. Asking seriously whether being together is possible, what we are saying illuminates the radical possibility of a leaderless togetherness.
Concept and Instigation by Ame Henderson. Created in collaboration with Frank Cox-O’Connell, Katie Ewald, Mairéad Filgate, Sherri Hay, sandra Henderson, Brendan Jensen, Benjamin Kamino, Alexander McSween, Liz Peterson, Bojana Stancic and Stephen Thompson. Performers: Frank Cox-O’Connell, Ishan Davé, Katie Ewald, Peter Fernandes, Mairéad Filgate, Sherri Hay, Ame Henderson, Brendan Jensen, Liz Peterson, Bojana Stancic, Stephen Thompson and Evan Webber. Scenography: Sherri Hay and Bojana Stancic. Sound Design: Alexander MacSween. Production Management and Rehearsal Direction by sandra Henderson. Lighting Concept by Kim Purtell. Technical Implementation by Nick Rose
Produced by Public Recordings. Co-produced by Dance4 (Nottingham), Festival TransAmériques and Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage in association with The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery. Developed with residency support from Dance4, OBORO and Gallery TPW. Photos by Liam Maloney and Jeremy McCormick.
“Is being together possible?” These are the first words that are spoken in what we are saying, a performance by Public Recordings, that was first presented in 2013 at The Power Plant gallery in Toronto as part of the Harbourfront Centre’s World Stage series. Near the beginning of the performance this question enters the room with a certain disruptive force, an abrupt imposition of language into an initially wordless and ambient sound environment. But the arrival of words also presents a grounding for the situation to come: a language-propelled choreography of sounds, bodies, objects and ideas in a continual reckoning with the imminence of language both as sound and movement. What immediately follows that initial question is a chorus of simultaneous answers spoken from every direction in the room; an omni-directional, improvised conversation in which each performer attempts to continuously listen and respond to one another simultaneously. In this moment “every decision is a group decision”, but what is produced isn’t a certain “ineffectuality” that often is unfairly attributed to such leaderless ambitions (ie occupy), but a dance of utterance and a choreography of listening in which individual voices and perspectives become amplified greater than the whole, and the listener is presented with an opportunity to find new forms of meaning within an abundance of sound.
“Being together is impossible.” This statement follows quickly after the cacophony of responses to the initial question, but rather than being an answer, in the moment it feels like a second question in disguise – an intentional contradiction that sets off the paradox that makes this dance-of-listening audible. Initiated by artist and choreographer Ame Henderson, what we are saying is created and enacted by seven to eight other artists (depending on the cast) which has included a variety of performers over the years including dancers, actors, and visual artists. The work is a non-frontal performance that takes place in an open space filled with chairs facing in every direction. Both audience members and performers occupy this particular perceptual zone together anew (the assumed passive position of sitting), a zone in which the question of who is performer and who is audience often remains ambiguous. As performers emerge throughout the piece they move, carrying microphones, cables, and small portable amplifiers from which their voices and other sounds are heard. Slowly, they construct a rhizomatic and fragile amplification system that crisscrosses the room, which they perform both through their collective manipulation of the loudspeakers, and the act of speaking together in a leaderless choral unison. We hear them speak and sing without knowing the what to say next. We hear curious questions and vulnerable answers. We hear the sounds of orchestras and soft tones of controlled feedback. We hear nonsense and bewilderment, laugher and held silence. We hear a group of people speaking about the world as they see it, and trying to find a way, however tentative, to articulate how things could be different. We hear them speaking about the possibility and impossibility of really being together.
This work is not about a romantic notion of a leaderless-ness– that simple caricature of 20th century utopian socialism that we often project onto the gathering crowd in the streets. what we are saying approaches an idea of togetherness that is different than the common notion that the emergent collective is greater than the sum of its parts. Rather, the work insists that the strength of its particular vision of collectivity lays in a certain fragility, a weakness, of the crowd itself; its adaptability and easeful incorporation of the inputs, the agendas, of each individual is its greatest strength. This particular “weakness” is something that has been often misunderstood about Occupy Wall Street (OWS), a movement that Henderson has said what we are saying is in dialogue with, especially regarding questions of decentralized control, networked spaces, and collective sounding in public space. The constant articulation of a “noisy” space, a space that intentionally disrupts and reconfigures communication in pursuit of new kinds of communicative behaviours, is an interest OWS and what we are saying have in common. Such (non)communication spaces present the possibility of practicing novel forms of togetherness that can eschew hierarchies, produce the unforeseen, and highlight a plurality of voices. What OWS (and other movements like it since) has affirmed is that continually holding an ambiguous networked space, a space that privileges the flow of information above all and has no central organizational structure, offers a real, and (importantly) unstable information infrastructure which lays the stage for new forms of change making to develop, and, in the case of what we are saying, for new sounds to be heard. Such a search for productive instability (within a theatre, a concert, Zuccotti park, an office etc.), is also a search for new models of territory and togetherness. As Henderson pointed out in a recent conversation, it has everything to do with listening:
“What we are working on with this piece, in a way, is to try to expand our perceptive capacity. What I can track, in one’s daily life for example, is a construction that, at best, allows me to feel ok. To survive. And this is fine, but maybe it is possible, and necessary, to override our habitual ways of ordering sensory data; to be in a reckoning with an abundance of information and find new ways of drawing meaning from excess. I think being with excess (the kind of excess that cannot be quantified through habitual modes of assigning value), and trying to find your own way to pay attention, offers a moment to notice different registers of meaning – a moment of not knowing, of saying something that you didn’t know was possible, and hearing something that you may not even have the ability to understand.”
Voicing the unexpected is a regular occurrence throughout what we are saying. For example, at one point groups of three of four people break off from the crowd and begin to speak as one voice attempting to ask a question without knowing what it will be, to which another group responds, and then in turn asks another question. As they do so, they try to find the words together through a hilarious and intuitive verbal stumbling, insisting on making what they have to say heard through a slow aggregating of a sentence, word by word, through consensus. Sonically, these strategies for speaking together bring to mind “the human microphone”, a vocal amplification tactic also used by OWS wherein persons near a public speaker repeat what is said on-mass, thereby “amplifying” the speakers words and circumventing any permits required to use audio amplification systems in public spaces. But what is happening here, in what we are saying, is not a smooth transmission of information from speaker to audience, but a dance of finding what needs to be said together in the moment, and an insistence on disrupting normative semantics at every turn. The effect is oddly musical, as the voices of many sound together in an intuitive rhythmic unison.
The slippage between speaking and singing is another area that develops throughout what we are saying, eventually leading to several moments where the performers sing a strange kind of improvised folk song together. The sound is disarming and humorous, at times recalling American composer Robert Ashley’s well known works which explore the musicality of speech. Music plays a crucial role in what what we are saying, and there are several moments where a non-vocal soundscape disrupts the situation at hand in unexpected ways. Alexander MacSween, who worked as the sound designer on the project, noted in a recent conversation that music is another element in the piece where control becomes complicated. All the performers are responsible for producing and spatializing the audio, playing back pre-recorded sounds, using live microphones, and applying subtle vocal effects to their voices. But there are several moments when music appears in the room seemly from some outside force, which takes the work into an entirely different register that is really exciting. For example, near the beginning of the work a rich multichannel soundscape emerges from all ten loudspeakers that MacSween notes is a collection of tracks each composed in a different genre (techno, orchestral, folk, rock etc.), the indeterminate combination of which he describes as “culturally dislocated”. These tracks play out of sync with one another creating a dense polyphony, but then slowly they begin to harmonically converge into one single note, creating a prolonged moment akin to the experience of listening to an orchestra tune. Later on in the piece there is a moment when a recording of a playful Brazilian lullaby (“Nanderu Rimbàje” by Tenondé Porã) sung by children emerges unexpectedly from the loudspeakers and frames the moment quite happily as an uncanny folk dance. In these moments, music appears as a momentary infiltrator, a sonic body whose presence complicates our perception of inside and outside.
Like the transition from speaking into singing throughout the piece, the arrival of dancing brings a parallel example of language moving into another form. The performers are in a continual state of managing their physical relationships to one and other, negotiating distances and the scale of connections between sounds and bodies. At one moment, they even begin to respond and “ask questions” to one another through physical moments alone. The body is clearly broadcasting a language of connectivity, but as words and semantics begin to fall away we are left with a different kind of experience than speech. But to think of this as a transcending of language is too simple. Rather, what might be happening is a continual spilling of language (a language that is being found in the moment) into other forms of syntax (dance and music), a process that has more the do with imminence (the yet to come) than transcendence. The dancing in what we are saying is both administrating the boundaries and connections of a network of sound/movement/ideas, and articulating the “noise” that continually disrupts the communication paradigm of that network. This is what philosopher Felix Guattari calls “asignifying semiotics”.
“Asignifying signs do not represent or refer to an already constituted dominant reality. Rather, they simulate and pre-produce a reality that is not yet there.” – Deborah Hauptmann and Andrej Radman in their editors note for issue #14 of Footprint Journal “Asignifying Semiotics: Or How to Paint Pink on Pink.”
There is a certain magical presence at work in what we are saying. Watching it, one feels as if they could sit there while the performers simply listen, and something unexpected and meaningful would inevitably make itself heard.
We are here together now, close to the end, and dancing is happening. Some people in the audience change position. They shift perspective, moving to another chair. We hear quiet sounds from somewhere unknown. Someone is crouching precariously on top of a chair. Dancing is happening, all around. Movements are traveling between performers. The effect is intoxicating. There is an expectant feeling in the air; that we might all get up and dance, audience and performers together, and the whole piece will simply disappear. Then just when idea of participation becomes available, a member of the audience does stand up. They are seen by the other performers and begin to dance. Their decision to join in is strong and decisive. Their actions are incorporated by the group with surprising smoothness. And then, another person joins in, again with surprising ease. It is a bit unnerving. There is a feeling that the proximity between audience and performer is collapsing a little further… But somehow, it seems as though these new dancers, these infiltrators, know all the right moves, that they’ve rehearsed this before. That they know the rules of engagement too well. That they know the dance, and the dance knows them. Are they really infiltrators? Or is this just an affectation, an image of participation, a representation of togetherness?
Christopher Willes is an artist based in Toronto and Montreal.
*This article was original published in Music Works Magazine, issue 125, 2016. Reprinted with permission.