Multimedia Performance: Walking in the Shadows of Giants

“We walk in the shadows in giants,” I tell my friend Laila, before realizing that this isn’t the phrase. It’s ‘stand on the shoulders of giants,’ isn’t it? I don’t think they noticed. Either way, the accidental adaptation is a fitting one for what we’ve just witnessed—a multi-media spoken word event in which the two of us found ourselves sitting on beanbags and foam blocks on the floor. There, we were literally at the feet of performers whose breadth of style and power of speech left us, rather ironically, unable to articulate clearly. This phenomenon lasted for the entirety of the journey home to campus (anyone living in Pankow knows this to be a significant distance, even from Wedding and the Uferstudios dance conservatory that hosted Poetry Meets Dance). Though the artists made truly laudable use of language—at times weaving between French, English, and German in the space of two sentences—it must have seemed somehow inadequate to them as well. Indeed, this was perhaps how Poetry Meets Dance was born: through the inadequacy of a singular medium. In response to this predicament, Berlin-based Nigerian artist Jumoke Adeyanju organized an “international, multilingual community event showcasing visual art and film, spoken word, DJs and musicians, and lyrically endowed artists from Berlin and the diaspora.” The event I attended was not spoken word alone, but rather an essentially collaborative performance, one which centered queer artists of color from a variety of places and perspectives. The organizers invited a range of artists whose work operated alongside activist collectives such as Tanasgol Sabbagh’s ‘parallelgesellschaft’ (parallel society), an event series dedicated to exploring the spectrum of the creative and the political beyond the standards of German dominant culture. A band played on a purple-hued stage while the poets read. Laterhe poets could be found in the audience and later, dancing among us. They will do so again as the series continues, as part of the Tanznacht Forum: Feminist School Berlin.

As I sat listening to the quiet between sets, hearing soft voices and seats being shuffled, my mind drifted to a moment earlier that week, standing in my kitchen making tea with a flatmate. “You never tell me any stories about yourself,” she commented. The offhand remark stuck with me and reemerged in that room as I heard the stories of others. Words are simply a difficult medium for conveying emotion without coming across as either cliched or oddly specific – isn’t it strange that there’s such a delicate balance to strike? Indeed, so much specificity is lost in parsing out the relevant from the irrelevant within a story that I find myself frustrated more often than satisfied when I try to convey experiences I’ve had. It’s often exhausting. Perhaps the realization of language as a possible barrier to empathy—a blunt weapon rather than a fine point—requests an exploration of media beyond words, and without searching particularly hard, BCB and the city have seemed to deliver. 

Only a few days after this conversation, my class “German Theories of Vegetable Genius” taught by Ross Shields discussed a book by Jane Bennett—Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. In this book she describes a new philosophy of ‘vital materialism’ in which matter itself is endowed with a vitality which is not willful but still active. Every object, be it plant, animal, rock, or bottle cap, is an actant (that which acts). Yet Bennett struggles with the realization that modern English lacks the language to honor this vitality of matter. She desires the expansion of words, and maybe even a movement beyond them, and writes that in recognizing the “agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operating in nature, in the human body, and in human artifacts)” we can counter the “narcissistic reflex of human language.”

As seen in the language of ecological thinking, wherein recent attempts such as Bennet’s to reintegrate the human with the “natural,” or in the increasing virtuality of life in the 21st century, there exists an urgent need for reimagined media. Dance comes to mind as an obvious contender – a medium of matter, a literal moving beyond or rather into, as I sit on the foam on the floor and the dancer moves off the stage and among us. When we begin to clap, I look behind me. Everyone in the room is leaning in and keeping the beat with their hands, or at least trying to. The rhythm comes and goes, as things tend to do.

It was by accidental attendance that I’d witnessed this performance, after a long day of frustratingly elusive buses which I’d missed and, even more frustrating, the knowledge that the stops I could not find were not so much elusive as unknown. Unknown because I am not a city kid (cue many a tram caught in the opposite direction, many an offhand comment of “I’m headed into town”) nor a person of direction. I mean this in both senses—that of the compass internal and external. I’m easily persuaded, not just by human actants (you’d be proud, Bennett) but by all manner of happenings. I didn’t visit Wedding that day with the intention of seeing a poetry reading, but rather intended to visit a theater performance recommended by a professor. Running embarrassingly late and knowing the event was likely already over, I had started on my way home from the Rathous Pankow. Then a bus passed by and I caught it on a whim, knowing that it led to Wedding and to what I all but knew to be a disappointment. The theater event was indeed done, and I was wicked tired and ready to leave. Then a purple light across a vast parking lot caught my eye, pulled me over. These non-human actants brought me to Poetry Meets Dance more than any will of my own did. I’m grateful, and slightly concerned about my lack of conviction.

This is partly why later, when the usual metaphor for giants escaped me, walking in the shadows seemed like the right way to put it. It connotes following something, almost blindly, and squinting up ahead at a murky idea of a more fully grown human being. As I sit listening to one poem by Tanasgol, a line strikes me. It goes something like this: Or you could call your limbs God, and fall over your heels. In the gestalt shift of the phrase to fall over one’s heels, I recognized a success story in the struggle that Bennett describes over the difficulty of expressing the power of physical matter through language. It is this ability to take the often used, even the overused, and make it new that I so admire in the performers. Such a shift requires a clarity of vision that I and many others struggle with, and from which we must learn if we are to reimagine language in the way Bennett desires, and in those ways we wish for. In this sense we walk in the shadows of poetic giants, who use the same tools—the same languages—as we do, but with an eye for the forest rather than the trees.

What kind of giant is it whose shadow we stand in? Is the image we see one we want thrown on our walls, expanded to more-than-human proportion? If it is, maybe it would look like 6-foot tall multimedia performer Mandhla, whose angelic voice is echoed by recorded audio which synchronizes with the lights and smoke machine. All this before a flashing projection screen telling the stories of black-trans youth killed in a world which did not recognize their beauty. Or maybe it would look like Jumoke performing hypnotic poetry in four languages as the drummer keeps the beat in the back. Or like Poetra Asantewa from Ghana listing the pains of being female in a masculine world, and then breaking into song. Bear with me—I want to make a case for a new media of education via performance and ask—What would happen if we applied the lessons of multimedia performance to our educations? What would it look like if children learned to speak their minds in time to a live band, and dancing was a core component of any curriculum? What if we danced physics, and spoke ecology? It would be many things, but one of them would be embodied, in the sense that the bodies we use to explore the world would be part of the subjects we conceptualize it with. A kid learning about gravity would connect their daily experience of jumping, walking, and falling to the forces which move planets. Or on an even more elemental scale, it might look like teaching the alphabet using physical representation for each symbol. Think “YMCA” meets kindergarten (Silly? Yes, but also practical). In each case, this type of learning would make more clear the basic truth that we are part of the world around us, and bound to the same limitations—and maybe most importantly, that we have an effect in the way we use space and the words we speak.

Media today calls to mind television and newspapers, video games and the Internet. This is part of media, but only a fraction. In Ramona Mosse’s class Performing Water, I was introduced to theorist Joanna Zylinska and her work on ‘hydromedia,’ defined as “a mode of understanding water as a dynamic process that temporarily stabilizes into various forms: tears, clouds, rain drops, rivers, oceans, but also, less obviously perhaps, devices, machines, systems, networks and infrastructures – in other words, media.” Water itself as media – what an odd idea. I was a little critical of this concept at first, finding it too esoteric and slightly slippery in terms of applicable content. But Poetry Meets Dance made perfect sense, and with it, so did the expansion of media to include something more akin to Zylinska’s embrace of “other forms of communication and linkage between a variety of human and non-human agents.” The body acted as a media in each of the performers’ work. In many pieces the body was explicitly referenced as a site for contending with colonial, gender, and sexual violences. For Zylinski, this use would be a case study in taking the lessons of environmental media theory—fluidity of form, intermedia engagement, audience participation–and applying it to postcolonial narratives. The new media this encounter produces looks not only like a change in content but also a change in form. Performers walk off-stage, MCs put down the mic to dance, a woman walks through the audience with a jar of poems for audience members to read, and the same one is twice chosen after being performed by its progenitor onstage. The repetition makes new meanings even as the language stays the same.

At the start of that night, before anybody had performed, a video played in which a pair of people crawled from washing machines, ricocheted down hallways in slow-motion, unfurled from warehouse columns with faces wrapped in gauze. They danced the space by doing exactly what one shouldn’t do with it. A person should not crawl into—let alone from—washing machine. A person should be able to walk down a hallway without too much difficulty. And yet there is difficulty. There are parameters of space and how it should be used, and when broken, the spacial offender (here, dancer) challenges the surrounding architecture.

The next time I find myself wanting to tell a story and grappling with the language as it stands in ordinary use, I hope I take a page from the person in the washing machine, or the dancer off the stage, or the poem read thrice. May I remember to stand up and make a challenging use of space. May I not be afraid to start gesticulating, and meander with an unconventional timeline, and repeat myself. May I dance and even sing (even though I’m awful at it). May I walk in the shadows of giants without knowing where I’m going. These things happen, and they may not be the mistakes we make them out to be, but rather instances of a new, more free media. What this media of spoken word may have to say is To-Be-Announced: by Mandhla, Jumoke, and the background of jazz and hopefully, too, by you and me.

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