YOU and ME—Where and How Do We Meet
Electa Behrens* and Øystein Elle**
YOU and ME—Where and How Do We Meet is a 40 minute film presenting our research focused on the intersectional materiality of the voice and the potentialities of aural diversity and audience agency. Within the larger framework of new materialism, aurality studies and critical race theory, we situate our work between Nancy, Kendrick, Eidsheim, Behar, DiAngelo, Gordon-Cook, Bonefant and Oliveros. This film examines how the video article format:
1. exposes and implicates the researcher’s own embodied positionality. We are trying to queer and appropriate whiteness: to take different faces and voices of whiteness and tweak, tear and intensify them—so that they are no longer invisible or appear harmonious. We attempt to disturb the normalcy of the white frame of listening and thinking.
2. allows for a wider range of language and non-language use, which might communicate the material more effectively and disturb normalized relationships between text, song and sound as meaning carriers.
3. complexifies the theoretical aspect of the work by the very fact of embodying the messiness of the space between “clean” theory and embodied action (Spatz, Campbell and Farrier).
This format offers a way to, as Donna Haraway writes, “stay with the trouble.” This video is nothing if you do not have a conversation afterwards. Dramaturgically, it is a “score for audience.” The performance is really happening in your head. As you watch we ask you: when do you feel most comfortable, or uncomfortable? You and me, as vocal material, where and how do we meet?
Keywords: Aural diversity, vocal material, critical whiteness, intersectionality, new materialism, object-oriented feminism, ethics
The following section is an excerpt from our You and Me series performance lecture at the online Alliances and Commonalities conference hosted by Stockholm University of the Arts. The material was first developed for a seminar at Vega Scene in Oslo as part of the Material Strategies research project (2019). Here we began to identify and explore some of our methodologies which this video article develops further.
Katherine Behar’s Object Oriented Feminism, offered some important grounding ideas. They are the principles of PEE (abbreviation coined by Electa): politics, ethics and erotics. Behar writes of “three significant aspects of feminist thinking in the philosophy of things: politics, engaging with histories of treating certain humans (women, people of color, and the poor) as objects; erotics, employing humor to foment unseemly entanglements between things; and ethics, refusing to make grand philosophical truth claims, instead staking a modest ethical position that arrives at being “in the right” by being “wrong” (back page summary, 2016).
Dramaturgically we have experimented with, among other things: separation of the body and voice, no one speaking their own words, manipulation of the voice especially in relation to gender norms, mixing, tweaking or queering written and musical formats, costume which explores body as hybrid object, density of sound/image which provokes an audience to be aware of their aural diversity and aural agency and humor. In approaching our own whiteness as a topic, we were looking to both resist and embrace white fragility through creating situations of durational discomfort with our own multiple positionalities.
Katy Waldman writes in her article “A Sociologist Examines the ‘White Fragility’ That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism”:
Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged—and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy. Why, she wondered, did her feedback prompt such resistance, as if the mention of racism were more offensive than the fact or practice of it? . . . And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.
The song is a traditional Norwegian lullaby with no known author. The breastpump was given to Electa by her friend who said: I never want to see one of these again.
Øystein’s listening corner in his living room.
Saul Garcia Lopez is our colleague at the Norwegian Theatre Academy who agreed to help us out with this video. He speaks here in his own self-created language and then in English. We told him about the project and the vision for this scene. From there he created the text and together we agreed on the staging. You can read more about his own practice and research here and here.
As has been written about by many, the positionality of non-white researchers within academic institutions is difficult. There is a long history of underrepresentation, and navigating academia once they have gained entrance is a complex negotiation which includes many double binds. In relation to the complex positionality of indigenous practitioners within the context of academic research Tuhiwai Smith writes: “Indigenous peoples have been, in many ways, oppressed by theory” (38). And
The Western academy . . . claims theory as thoroughly Western . . . has constructed all the rules by which the indigenous world has been theorized, indigenous voices have been overwhelmingly silenced. The act, let alone the art and science, of theorizing our own existence and realities is not something which many indigenous people assume is possible. Frantz Fanon’s call for the indigenous intellectual and artist to create a new literature, to work in the cause of constructing a national culture after liberation still stands as a challenge . . . many indigenous scholars who work in the social and other sciences struggle to write, theorize and research as indigenous scholars.29
Note: This last paragraph speaks to our own process of education on this subject, not Saul’s standpoint.
“The Cold song” is originally from the semi-opera King Arthur by Henry Purcell and John Dryden, first performed in 1691. In 1981, the iconic new wave- artist Klaus Nomi performed this aria one octave higher than the original, bringing it into the range for countertenors. Øystein has a long history with this song, as he incorporated it in two of his theatre productions, Klaus Nomi—Angel of Suburbia (2011) and Klaus Nomi—The Loner (2017). These performances ask how free we are to stage ourselves, about difference and exclusion, about love, fear of death and the need for attention. In these productions, Øystein stages and performs the song as a homage to the last performance Klaus Nomi did when suffering from AIDS, shortly before he died, in August 1983.
The next sung section is a short excerpt from Øystein’s visual performance-concert, Territorium, a score partly constructed around memories of voices in his head as a child. He uses his voice for sonic recollection of this auditory memory. Giving voice to his multiple selves, expressing fear, longing, hope and confusion.
The text that Electa says is taken from an interview of Tori Amos speaking about her many miscarriages. This text was part of the performance One By One, a one person show which Electa devised in 2011 around this topic, personal responsibility, the butterfly effect and climate change. When Øystein says, “I don’t believe you, those are not your words,” this was a paraphrase taken from a feedback session we had after our performance lecture at the Material Strategies seminar at Vega Scene 2019.
Our methodology for creating this session was to do a three-hour uninterrupted session without a script. Our aim was “to try to have the conversation that needs to be had” without hiding behind the comfort of well articulated theory, coded speech or token allyship. As Tuhiwai Smith writes: “imperialism cannot be struggled over only at the level of text and literature” (19). We here try to transgress what DiAngelo calls the “Good/Bad Binary,” a narrative which suggests that if one is “good,” one cannot be racist. She calls this the “most effective adaptation of racism in recent history” because it effectively stops white people who have the image of themselves as progressive, from examining their behaviour which contributes to systemic racism (71). Jan Hajdelak Husták, our video editor, made the cuts without any direction from us, choosing how to edit this section down to a few minutes. Giving away this power of choosing how our voices were edited was a strategy to further expose our own thinking and blindspots.
The voices you hear are the participants of the online Commonalities and Alliances Conference, Stockholm University of the Arts. They were asked to type comments into the zoom chat after the performance lecture and then Øystein, Electa, Durga and Nicolaj read off the comments. They were then processed via a looper and mixed with drums and synth lines. This was a live improvisation that was recorded.
Øystein and Electa here speak their own texts, naming their own material reality, making their privilege as visible and palpable as possible. DiAngelo writes about meritocracy, the idea that hard work will bring you rewards, regardless of background. She acknowledges her own unconsciously held assumption when growing up that “upward mobility would take me to whiter spaces” (66).
It may be useful to conceptualize research on White emotions as falling somewhere on a bipolar continuum anchored by the following: (a) emotions associated with prejudice and discrimination and (b) emotions associated with antiracism, White allies, and social justice. The construct White guilt has been central to much of this emotion-focused work, as psychologists have explored the degree to which feeling remorseful about racism and racial inequality may facilitate or inhibit antiracist attitudes and behavior (Iyer, Leach, and Crosby; Swim and Miller). Our goal was to refine the theoretical conceptualization and measurement of White guilt1, and to distinguish White guilt from other emotions, namely White shame, that may obscure the consequences of White racial emotions for combating racism and promoting social justice (Grzanka et al. 49).
This is Electa’s son Raven who sings Jingle Bells. Kyna Hamill researched the origin of this song and found that it had roots in minstrelsy. She received a lot of press for her findings, including a lot of hate mail. When reflecting on the response she received, she commented that she was often misquoted and misinterpreted, that she had never meant to tell people not to sing the song, just to make its origins known. She said, “So I think people just want to be heard and nobody seems to be listening any more” (qtd. in Kassam).
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*Electa Behrens (PhD) is program-responsible for the BA Acting at Norwegian Theatre Academy. She has performed with companies/artists throughout Europe/USA including Odin Teatret, Richard Schechner, Marina Abramovic and the CPR, and published in journals such as Theatre, Dance and Performance Training and Performance Research. Research areas: intercultural training, sonic and listening led dramaturgies, voice, darkness and performer agency in training.
**Øystein Elle (PhD), associate professor at Østfold University College, is a multidisciplinary artist, singer and composer. Elle is a classically trained countertenor with a further specialization in extended vocal techniques. His research and performance spans, baroque, Dadaism, western avant-garde traditions and intercultural and transdisciplinary projects. He has toured over 30 productions to Europe, Asia and the Americas. In addition to art productions for a general audience, he has for the past 12 years been active as a creator, performer and researcher in art experiences and performances for the youngest children’s audience on which he is recently co-edited an anthology.
Copyright © 2021 Electa Behrens and Øystein Elle
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411
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