When Okwui Enwezor became the first African curator of the International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale in 2015, he tasked himself with framing an exhibition as “a kind of thinking machine.” Exhibitions, in this framework, have the potential to not only present ideas expressed by artists, but to create and mobilize new ideas through action and spatial composition.
In his opening address at Creative Time Summit, Enwezor described how the Venice Biennale provided him the opportunity to make visual his thinking on the current “state of things.” As the sociopolitical climate reached (what seemed to be) a boiling point in 2015, the exhibition took on a somber tone and was ruthlessly hailed as “the most morose, joyless, and ugly biennale in living memory.” Visually and conceptually, the artworks in Enwezor’s Biennale (titled All the World’s Futures) were not tightly woven. The common threads between many of the artworks were loose, and Sonia Boyce’s Exquisite Cacophony in particular didn’t bear a clear likeness to its neighbours.
I can’t remember another artwork at the Biennale that year that made me laugh. This surprises me because I’m quicker to remember a laugh than a thought—hopefully this speaks to the quality of my jokes—and I’m sure I laughed elsewhere over the course of my time visiting the Biennale. Maybe I remembered Exquisite Cacophony because I really needed a laugh, or because it felt nice to watch a poetry slam with the pages of Canadian poet Sue Goyette weighing down my bag. Regardless, I visited Sonia Boyce’s video almost every week, each time delving deeper into the rapid fire banter of hip hop artist Astronautalis and classically-trained vocalist Elaine Mitchener.
The thirty-five minute video shows an improvisational performance staged in the golden atrium of the Victoria & Albert Museum, before an audience of onlookers who laugh and egg on the performers. As Mitchener contributes melodic squeals and percussive stutters to Astronautalis’ rhymes, the thresholds between music, poetry, and performance art begin to lose their firm footing. Sonia Boyce speaks openly about the work in an interview with BBC, expressing her interest in “when language becomes nonsense an back into something that’s decipherable.”
Having put her career as an established figurative painter behind her, Boyce’s current body of research looks at the borders between comprehensible and incomprehensible language. She interrogates the condition of sound by applying principles of jazz to sound art, and identifying harmonies and rhythms in visual and environmental phenomena. In a lecture at Middlesex University, she attributes vocal practices in contemporary performance art and pop music to the legacy of scat, drawing a connection “between scat music and early modernist use of the voice and noise.” In her collaboration with Ain Bailey titled Oh Adelaide! she elaborates on the connection between nonsensical scat music and noise art, blurring the lines between music and sound art, performance art and theatre, poetry and language.
In 2015, I was able to enjoy Exquisite Cacophony for what it said about language, and for how it declared the necessity for non-analytic, nonsensical discourse in a time of sociopolitical nonsense. It’s likely that Jan Zwicky’s essay in A Ragged Pen accompanied Sue Goyette’s Ocean in my bag; I imagine their pulpy, handprinted jackets pressed against one another. Zwicky declares the necessity of lyric thought, saying, “Lyric resists the accommodation of events to story, as it rejects the identification of clarity with analysis. It knows the order of the world is asyntactic.”¹ In the midst of an exhibition focusing on the chaotic “state of things,” it seemed appropriate that Enwezor debuted a work that deteriorates language to the point where it is asyntactic – contrary to conventional syntax.
Today however, it has become difficult for me to simply appreciate the vocal mannerisms of Astronautalis and Mitchener, and to tune out their individual words. Rather than finding comfort his rhythmic, improvisational approach to storytelling, I find myself cringing as Astronautalis recounts his experiences on Tinder, describes “his” America, and pities Mitchener for having to wear stilettos. His comments are an annoying itch – minor but nagging. But the giggling crowd of British onlookers in the filmed performance remind me of my stone cold North American sense of humour when it comes to gender stereotypes and issues of ethnocentrism. It seems very North American of me to only offer laughter when my conscience deems it appropriate (it is certainly not very British of me).
I live in a time when Twitter is a minefield, and the online Left clamps down upon hateful language with increasing vigour. In Trump’s America, online speech that falls anywhere on the spectrum between naive to violent is often met with a one-size-fits-all reaction of outrage. As a hateful Right continues to gain power, it is clear that the strategic mob-mentality behind the take-down of harmful speech is ineffective. Today, listening to Astronautalis, my tongue fights the urge to laugh at him, and the instinct to yell back at him (an impulse too close to the surface). His performance reminds me that there is a sliding scale between words that are violent, and words that are uncomfortable, and that baring my teeth is not always necessary.
Onstage with Astronautalis (a white American rapper) is Elaine Mitchener (a black British performance artist) who interrupts his ramblings with colourful bird calls and full-belly laughter. She plays along, recalling Luce Irigaray’s subtle strategy for deflating her oppressor. Irigaray, when pushed out of the patriarchal house of the philosophy, opts “to have a fling with the philosophers,” using mimicry to engage with her counterpart quietly and critically.² Similarly, Mitchener plays along and responds to Astronautalis with a knowing glance and a salty British sense of humour.
¹ Jan Zwicky, “Lyric, Narrative, Memory,” A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2006), 98.
² Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1985), 150. Referenced in Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts: A Memoir (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2015), 38. See also Elizabeth Grosz, “Luce Irigaray and sexual difference,” Sexual Subversions: Three French Feminists (St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1989), 137.