11 months ago
The third day and second day of in-person deliberations focused on Voice and Silence, reflecting on two performances.
Voice and silence help make up an actor’s theatrical performance. Enunciation, intonations and inflections enrich characters for audiences. But today, the Global Cultural Fellows explored how voice and silence not only appear and disappear in performances, but also in our everyday lives.
Using last night’s performances of Pike Street and Lal Batti Express as references for today’s discussions, the five fellows comprising the Voice/Silence group facilitated open, small-group discussions on a variety of aspects of the topic. Asif Majid led a talk on power and rawness; Xenia Hanusiak explored the ‘echo chamber’ and the voice of theater in the outside world; Jane Saren provoked questions about the art of persuasion; Jenna Ashton asked her group to analyze ways gender is performed; and Eona Craig helped her fellow participants think about authenticity and advocacy.
It became clear as the Fellows re-grouped in large circle – synthesizing the small-group discussions – that tensions transcend the multiple ways voice and silence are used and given for theatrical effect and political movements. Jenna initiated an exchange on the question of who has the right to communicate stories to audiences. This provocation facilitated discussion between multiple fellows on their discomfort over the context of Lal Batti Express, a performance staged by teenage girls from India relaying their own experiences with sexual abuse and exposure to prostitution. A contingent of Fellows worried that the NGO that sponsored the girls’ performances were exploiting their stories for their own purposes, potentially undermining the performers’ agency and ownership of their own experiences. Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a medical doctor, referenced his profession’s ethics guidelines to propose the need for a similar set of rules in the art community to protect performers from being used for the power of their message.
In these conversations, the Fellows also made sure to clarify that silence is not an empty process. Luis Felipe Ferra equated silence to ‘hearing from yourself,’ noting that a person does not clap aloud for finishing a book. He described silence as a key for depth of thought, which is crucial to the processes of listening and contemplation.
The power of silence was further elaborated on by Michael Anyanwu, who deconstructed the opening scene of Pike Street, a one-woman play about a family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which depicts a mute adolescent girl on dialysis.
Among the characters in Pike Street was a celebrated Navy Seal veteran coping with PTSD. Mahtab Farid used the female actor’s portrayal of this character to examine the balance between stereotypes and giving voice to marginalized groups. She stated that in this case, the actor needed to take on this group’s voice in order to give them ability to be seen by publics. Her comments demonstrated that the matters of power, agency and visibility are not black and white issues.
Faisal Abu Alhayjaa reiterated this nuance to voice. Speaking on the Fellows’ reservations over Lal Batti Express, Faisal stated that audiences need to ask what kind voice is being heard. Relating his own experience and motivations as a performer, Faisal argued that the presence of noise is not necessarily a good thing in every theatrical context. Likewise, Puneeta Roy reminded the group that the play was conceived as a ‘street play’ for younger Indian audiences; she voiced disagreement over the other Fellows’ assessment of the production as a ‘stage play’ that used the voice of underprivileged minors.
The realities of Lal Batti Express’ performers inspired the Fellows to pivot to the conditions of their work as artists and arts practitioners. Invoking Abdulkarim’s call for standardization of practices in the arts, Caitlin Nasema Cassidy argued for coordinated advocacy in the arts and cultural sectors. Her comments provoked a thoughtful discussion between several fellows on how artists use their voice to affect social change.
Happening at the close of today’s session, this dialogue successfully bookended the Voice/Silence’s group stated goal to analyze how voice and silence are used in theater and the outside world.
Jane Saren's reflections
Which questions did you discuss in more detail? The art of persuasion: can we learn from art how to create a more mature and consensual public discourse about political matters?
Reflection: Recognising that we live at a time of political polarisation and adversial political debate and policy discussion, can art help us create open conversations and better connecting of people holding different perspectives and convictions? We reflected that there are crucial differences between art and political messaging e.g. the pressure to create a cohesive message is political; whilst in art there is no expectation of immediate results and rather a recognition that it is over time that the stories are made. Art can create the space in which transformational change can begin. It is more powerful when subtle, ambiguous, learning space fort he individual audience member to create their own meaning. We need to let art have the complexity that makes it art.
Xenia Hanusiak's reflections
Which questions did you discuss in more detail? The concept of voice and silence
Reflection: The topic raises aesthetic, political and sociological questions, bringing awareness to the concepts of silence as equally powerful, and equally detonating values in action. From an aesthetic point of view every creative act is governed by the chocies of how silence and voice are enacted in acts of theatre, music, dance and visual arts – in terms of sociological and political questions the topic offers the opportunity to examine whose voices are being heard and represented in society and whose are being silenced. This question then leads us to consider who is delivering the message, is the message delivered on behalf of a silenced voice and if so is the destilled voice an authentic representation of the voice – "other" leading us to consider questions of censorship, media control and erasure.
Eona Craig's reflections
Our group took part in a knowledgeable and passionate discourse about giving, taking, hearing, using, losing, empowering and manipulating voice.
We discussed how authenticity must come from a position of truthfulness, honesty and integrity to have a legitimate place in our cultural practice. We recognised the dilemmas and tensions around the motivations and context affecting the authentic voice as a tool for advocacy and positive change. We considered the parallels with medical malpractice after the Second World War and wondered about the potential for a set of ethics, values and principles to support the conditions within which the authentic voice in participatory and socially engaged practice might survive and thrive globally.
We explored the boundaries and intersections between art for art sake, art as an instrument for cultural activism and the ramifications for 'artivism', while also considering systems and theories of change that highlight and prioritise agency and the amplification of voice at their centre.
The group was thoughtful and generous with their deliberations and the conversation, though exploratory, resulted in two key themes for further consideration by the larger group.