Andrea Pagnes & Verena Stenke:
Speak That I Can See You
From Art and Multiplicity / Mediul Virtual by Dana Altman. New York/Bucharest 2008
A man lies down on a pile of stones, naked from the waist up, and a woman dressed in white is ritually preparing him. At first, it appears hard to figure out what he is being prepared for, since the posture and the created environment, a circle of light, faintly remind of a sacrificial site. The unknown man is being prepared to become a living canvas for each member of the audience to express their thoughts visually. One at the time, they will be invited to take advantage of the performer’s generosity and convey their intimate personal memory stream in writing or images. The mesmerising soundtrack consists of readings by both performers in German, English, Italian, and the result is a repetitive, trance-inducing sound. The words don’t sound as words anymore, as linguistic sings, carriers of meaning, composed of a signifier and a signified, but like the carefully controlled, magic yogic sounds that stir unknown cosmic vibrations. As the verbal seems to abandon all meaning to become more instinctual, more visceral, the visual aspect takes predominance, and the performer becomes thus a living page, a vehicle of communication and a passive receiver while in the same time a performer, and the woman in the white dress can be seen as a facilitator of the catharctic ritualistic experience. The audience cannot be passive, on the contrary, each person should abandon control for the duration of the event and intervene, forget about the fears of alienation and about the daily mediated communication, take a deep breath and begin altering the narrative and visual aspects of the scripted performance. It is another way of following a personal itinerary, of exploring oneself, of exorcising fears we are not even conscious of and in the same time an attempt to relate to the other(s) without the fear of rejection. The script prescribes only the basic actions, and provides the needed tools, and the viewer / participant has to write his or her own version in order to participate in the narrative which is being created and re-written, both metaphorically and literally.
Speak That I Can See You examines, among others, the hollow actions, performed by millions with no identity just for the sake of comfort, and tells us that communication has become another one of them which needs to be reevaluated with a fresh eye. We cannot just perform it on a daily basis, without giving a second thought to its deeper sense, to the fact that it is supposed to convey meaning and not exist just as an empty exchange. We are not allowed to delude ourselves with a feeling of control that has a null value, since the controlled object, the surrounding world, with its inherent chatter, like a radio picking up stations or static, evolves independently of our daily movements in space and is not subdued by actions with superficial coherence and no underlying value. We have to be able to see the hidden meaning which exists either outside of us or inside us, and how it affects our everyday decisions. And we have to break ourselves from the comforting value of rituals which numb us.
Rituals lead to the belief that humans can actually build a structure enabling them to take the universe under personal control, tame it and create from unknown data a personal vision, more comforting because of its non-threatening familiarity. Even though the initial meaning of the word is related to religious worship, in time it has become a mere synonym for a detailed method or procedure that is regularly observed and faithfully followed at certain intervals of time. Just like religious rituals of ancient cults have lost the connection to the primordial source and have become just lip service, modern rituals seem to be following the same path, and our society evolves towards being "orthopraxic" (where more emphasis is placed on proper performance of ritual obligations) instead of "orthodoxic" (where more emphasis is put on proper doctrinal beliefs). Traveling has thus become a modern pilgrimage, an attempt to regain access to the source by a self-induced trance ("elevator" music, X-ray checks of luggage, metal detectors and the initiatic passage through the gate to a tax-free no man’s land, hypnotic preparations for take off, etc.). Birth has become a sterilised event in an antiseptic hospital, the spiritual leader having been replaced by a well-paid, certified practitioner. Lovemaking is just a source of instant gratification, having lost its mystical, fecundating value ages ago. Communication, instead of being a meaningful exchange of ideas, a dialogue in the real sense of the word, has become a way to reassure ourselves that we are not alone, that someone cares or pretends to care because they utter the right phrase when it is required, that at the other end of the line there is someone listening to us, or that the one we are flirting with online exists and is not only a crook having a hidden agenda. Generally, humanity spins the year according to election days or national holidays, when everybody is compelled to do something special, overeat or worship Santa Claus, visit family whether they want to or not and pretend relationships still exist, frozen in a time bubble to be reanimated at the right time. Do all these rituals have indeed a meaning, instead of being just simply faithfully repeated actions, unrelated to the real issues? And does repetition connect the practitioner to the source? Do we say "How are you?" because we care? Did we ever?
Ancient people guided their lives based on the calendar changes: spring, summer, autumn, winter, birth, marriage, and death. The modern man has incorporated these timeless rituals in the contemporary pattern of thought, sometimes reinventing them or, more often than not, substituting them with small balancing rites and creating a new and different set of values, enabling him or her to experience more control over the surrounding universe. The more confusing this open labyrinth becomes, the more it is necessary to support personal options by means of rituals, which provide an unsurpassed compensatory value. A confusing and uncharted universe can be thus apparently rebuilt based on personal perception and structures, which enable the individual to derive an illusory strength from the anonymity of the masses. The best way to attempt control over the world is actually by describing it, by mediating the real experience with words. By with the advent of the mass media, mediation has taken totally different paths, and reached a level of subtlety never encountered before. We read a book and decide we don’t trust the information, we see a visual and wonder if it is digitally altered, and we watch a video thinking how many times it was edited before we downloaded it. The new communication methods, which were supposed to turn the world into some sort of global village, are indeed shrinking geographical distances, but in the same time have led to an increasingly solitary existence, one where the best friend is thousands of miles away and where physical contact is scarce. Thus, performing the ritual of communication became more reassuring then ever, because solitude in the epoch of mega-communication is probably the capital sin of the modern person, and a performance focused on the intentional lack of mediation represents a statement in itself.
The title Speak That I Can See You associates two important aspects, the speech as a vehicle of communication and the materialisation of the speech in order to bring it closer to home. What is expected from the participants is not only to speak in the higher sense of "to communicate," but to speak in the universal language which everybody can understand, namely to materialise it in such a way that others can perceive it. Also, it is not accidental that the verb ‘to see’ appears in the title phrase: being a performance, namely something that has a pre-defined beginning and end, "to see" during the performance implies a reduction of the distance and implicitly of the mediation. Thus, communication takes place in a different way, it is direct and does not involve layers of mediation that could be deceiving and distort the message. The reality that exists during the time bubble created in the circle of light is, at one level, the reality of the performers, and at another level, reality itself re-created so that can be experienced again and again, ritualistically.
Speak That I Can See You is a metaphor which refers to the permanent ritualistic coding we each have to decipher on a daily basis, but also offers the gateways to exorcise alienation by means of physical contact and programmatic lack of mediation. In the universe of uniformity and of five-minute celebrity, reality shows and fast downloading, there is a ubiquitous need for identification and belonging, for communicating with the other and ultimately, for ritualistic attempts to regain control over oneself and the universe in the process. But in this permanent search for the new, for the shocking and the different, even though behavioural patterns are ultimately the ones which help us maintain an apparent balance because they reconnect personal experience to the previous structures which have proven valid and functional until now and they help us re-chart memory streams, there are moments when one has to be willing to go beyond them, to the root of things. Andrea Pagnes and Verena Stenke are here to tell us that real communication cannot be replaced by mechanical, mediated actions which have no relevance because they do not convey anything, and the need to exist as individual willing to open up and exorcise all fears is more acute than ever in the twenty-first century, in spite of all the cultivated illusion of the cocooned global village.