I recently popped into Bristol’s Arnolfini to immerse myself in the brilliant Table of Contents: ‘a durational movement installation co-created by Siobhan Davies, Andrea Buckley, Helka Kaski, Rachel Krische, and Matthias Sperling, each using their own history as a choreographer and performer to question how dance is archived.’
This was a wonderful series of pieces performed interactively with the public; each dancer taking it in turns to lead or direct a work. Amongst these glittering gems a very simple piece caught my imagination.
The dancers each invited a member of the audience to work in partnership with them. Each dancer then laid down on the floor. Their partner simply had to instruct their dancer to stand up, movement by movement. The dancers were very reasonable, but very disciplined in following their instructions precisely.
The difficulty of this simple task quickly became clear, with dancers contorted into all sorts of unsustainable shapes.
The piece succinctly demonstrated the limits of spoken language, of logos.
Yet I couldn’t help musing that if the partners had been able to give instruction through any natural sign language, the task would have been achieved quickly and efficiently.
Australian scholar Dorothea Cogill-Koez has argued that the elements of sign languages known as ‘classifier predicates’ are remarkably similar to ‘typical systems of visual representation’, such that sign languages use ‘two equally important channels for conveying explicit propositional information, the linguistic and the visual’. Although I disagree with some of the further detail of her argument, that sign languages do not always have to rely on the linguistic to communicate information was a premise of my own doctoral study.
Because sign languages can visually represent the physical acts involved in standing up, the communication would have been conveyed much more easily, the dancers spared their agonies.
But more than that sign languages are languages that are inscribed through the body; they are body-conscious languages operating through, around and in relation to the body. Sign language helps me to locate emotions and sensations in my body, to read them in others, and it provides a physically-centred orientation in the world. What was so striking about the struggling speakers at the Arnolfini was how very dis-embodied their speech was.
So why did we ever adopt it as a form of communication? What were the evolutionary advantages to the urge to speak?
Although deaf people are often very noisy signing can be a remarkably quiet form of communication (good for hunting), and is much more efficient across distance. It is very useful in noisy environments, too. The only advantage speech offers, as far as I can see, is that it can be used in the dark (although in one’s humble opinion using sign to communicate on the body of another in intimate situations is far preferable).
So did humans find a sudden need to hunt only at night? When did all the lights go out?
Isn’t it time we switched them back on so we could all see each other more clearly?