“Pulling sound”: Zoë Binetti on collective sensorial theatre
In April 2022, Swiss performance artist Zoë Binetti spent time in Kumasi and other areas of Ghana on a research trip to develop her interest in sensorial performance practices and host performance art drawing workshops with local school students. In this interview, Zoë reflects on this experience and insights emerging from the process that she is currently exploring in her practice.
Following her research trip, Zoë has been invited to participate in CritLab, a combined residency and professional development programme that aims to build a network of art professionals who desire to push the boundaries of global art thought, production, criticism, and exhibition making. CritLab is organised by Exit Frame Collective and will take place in Tamale in partnership with Savannah Centre for Contemporary Art (SCCA Tamale), Foundation for Contemporary Art – Ghana (FCA Ghana), and blaxTARLINES KUMASI from 1-15 November 2022.
Please tell us about your work and how you incorporate sensory experimentation into your practice.
In the past, the duality of being a performance artist and also a musician has been a dilemma. I often felt caught in an either/or: giving a concert with performative elements or doing a performance piece with musical elements. Whereas I felt my actual interest lay in the murky swamps in between, the intersections, the crossroads.
The experiments around synaesthesia as a practice are an attempt at living at the crossroads. These help me free myself from one-way singularities by continuously translating from one sense (movement, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, seeing, thinking, feeling…) to another, thus linking and polyphonically orchestrating them. Things that previously existed in allegedly separate spaces become kin, living in a reciprocal relationship with one-another.
This approach brings with it a critique of visually dominated culture, where all other sensorial experience is verified and validated through the eyes. On a theoretical level I’m researching into why and how we’ve come to this place as a culture and how the dominance of the visual sense can be taken as an allegory for other forms of hierarchy in a globalized capitalist system. On a practical level I develop contexts in which to experiment with these sensorial relationships, one of them being the workshop series in Ghana Synesthesia in the Arts/ Experimental Documentation. Another example is the peer-to-peer exploratory series Thinking from a Moving Body that I launched this summer in my studio in Bern, bringing together movement-based artists to think about a specific question through a moving body.
We do this through proposing physical experiments to each other. For the first four-day edition we explored the question What Is Dance If Not For The Eyes? And examined alternate ways that dance can communicate with self and audience. We ended up using blindfolds a lot, which is interesting because the performative space around a blindfolded audience becomes 360°, thus opening up the potential of spatially placing each audience member at the centre of the performance. This makes me think of ways of storytelling that make each person in the audience the protagonist. This question What Is Dance If Not For The Eyes came to me in Ghana during a short, blindfolded exploration of an abandoned tyre factory, together with the artists Megborna and Original Bigwig. We were starting to develop the idea for an audio theatre in that space. My part will be composing dance that is experienced through its distance, its proximity, its sound, the ambiance it emits, the way it wraps itself around and in between the audience. But the dance will not be seen.
Your practice engages with the notion of the body in space. In what ways did the Ghanaian context impact this approach?
My time in Ghana made me very curious about how the context we live in demands different ways of using our bodies which then produce different sensorial orchestrations and therefore epistemologies.
I became fascinated with the physicality of trotro mates. Trotros are the main public transportation system in Ghana, consisting of minibuses privately operated by a driver and a mate. The mate shouts out the window to attract passengers, often half hanging out the car in a spectacular way. The mate collects fares, loads luggage and children on and off and taps the roof of the trotro in order to communicate with the driver. The mate will often forgo a seat in the car in order to get in one more paying passenger, contorting his body to fit into the available space; making use of the above, the between and the outside. When the car slows down, the mate will often jump out before it fully stops, likewise when the car starts moving; always making the most of available time and space. These moments make me feel a sort of symbiosis between the trotro and the mate, their bodies so accustomed to each other that they become seamless.
As a dancer taking an animist perspective on relationships with space and material, the physical and sensorial collaboration some of the trotro mates have with the trotro is highly fascinating to me. It is a form of physical knowledge very specific to that body and that car and the relationship evolves through the function they both are serving, fully taking into account any limitations at hand. For example, a malfunctioning door, half hanging off its hinges or a slight right-drift of the car, which you can feel the driver managing constantly. The whole situation is a moving body consisting of various players in collaboration: the driver, the trotro, the passengers, the mate and the road, most of them in some state of precariousness.
To my understanding the kind of knowledge a trotro mate acquires trough this practice is entirely useless to the capitalist system. It is local and physical, yet in motion. In that sense I understand it as rebellious, creative, defiant. There is a certain beauty to it that touches me.
Please tell us more about your concept and intention for the “Experimental Documentation/Synaesthesia in the Arts” workshops you hosted with students.
The idea was to promote the possibilities of Performance Art (Art as an Action) to students thus far mostly engaging with visual arts. We used an experimental approach in order to creatively work with the body’s sensorial relationship to space in a way that opens up new perspectives, regardless of the artistic medium chosen.
In order to establish this bridge we started the workshops with the following exercise: after setting up pens and paper in front of you, close your eyes, close your mouth, listen to the sounds around you. Paying attention to the spatiality, 360° of soundscape, putting you at the centre of your own perception. Noticing the movements and textures of the sounds. When you feel ready, allow your hand to start simply moving the pen on the paper guided by what you are hearing.
We did this for about 20 minutes, and then reflected together on the experience. Michael Babanawoo, the organizer of the workshop at Asamankese Secondary School, contextualized the exercise by pointing out how “drawing sound” also means “pulling sound”, pulling down the sound from our ears all the way into the hand and onto the paper. This to me is practices of synaesthesia.
I noticed that when the workshop participants closed their eyes and went into a deep listening state, the atmosphere in the room transformed. It became very intriguing to watch people in this state, there is something expansive and deep about it, something trancelike. Translated into a performance setting, it becomes an interesting question: who is performing for whom? It becomes a kind of reciprocal situation.
Some of the students later gave very specific reports on the dynamics and qualities of sound. Some spoke of healing, others of feeling refreshed. The exercise became the anchor of the workshops, a kind of reference point we kept returning to. This helped us track our progress and development over the days. After that first exercise we went into other exercises, always relating different sensorial perceptions/expression with each other. From my perspective as a performance artist, I am interested in what these kinds of experimentations have to offer in terms of documentation. I found that some of the sketches the students made of my performances spoke a more meaningful language than that of a video recording.
Being open to spontaneity and flexible with your plans seemed to be a theme that emerged during your trip. In what ways did this challenge become a creative stimulus for you?
Since some of the circumstances of the workshops where things I had no prior experience with, like working with such large numbers of students (up to 150 at a time) as well as the Ghanaian education system and what kind of knowledge and skill background the students would bring with them, combined with an impromptu planning from the side of the schools about the times and spaces where the workshops took place, I needed to sometimes adapt my propositions very quickly.
For example, I developed the exercise drawing sound described above after failing at trying to battle the scattered noisy atmosphere of a school room of 70 first year students at Sunyani Technical University, trying to create a concentrated, focused and at the same time relaxed atmosphere. A kind of safe space for the collective nervous system, which I feel is the basis for sensorial experimentation.
Also, I not once felt physically well prepared to do a performance piece for the students. This was mostly due to a recent Covid infection before the research trip, leaving me in a physically bad shape for several months. Performing anyway, even if really not living up to my own expectations, led me to an understanding of myself and my practice which is maybe more fluid, more about contextual aspects, whereas before I was predominantly focusing on the actual physicality of my practice. I’m now getting to a place where I start to look at the setting up of structures for experimentation as an artistic practice in itself, rather than focussing only on what is produced within a setting.
Back home in Switzerland, what remains with you from your trip and how is this finding form in your work?
First my residency at pIAR Kumasi in 2021 and then the Synaesthesia in the Arts/ Experimental Documentation workshop series in 2022 have jumpstarted an intensification of the thought processes around my work, which is leading to the formulation of a research project around Sensorial Theatre, consisting of a set of formats for practical experimentation as well as the participation in more theory-based residencies such as the CritLab at SCCA in Tamale later this year.
I have also become part of a research team developing a workshop format for teaching dance without language, aiming to network deaf- and non-deaf dancers. At the same time I’m continuing to produce events with the title Synaesthetic Experiments, creating performances and audio pieces both in Ghana and Switzerland and planning a residency focusing on my archive of over 200 site specific performances. All of this is aimed at establishing fluid intersections between the “theory“ and the “practice“ of the Sensorial Theatre cosmology. Structurally this research project is also creating relationships between an experimental dance and music scene in Europe and a contemporary art scene in Ghana.
All photos by Martin Toloku