Antonia Baehr My Dog is My Piano performed as part of Arika, Episode 5 – Hidden In Plain Sight. At Tramway, Glasgow, 24th – 26th May 2013.
by Amy Bromley
At a round-table discussion on Saturday morning, questions were posed which resonated across the weekend: “What is the sound of freedom? Have you heard it? Where do you hear it?” Answers and objections were raised: ‘Freedom’ is inherently tied to ‘oppression’, it is only the other side of the coin; the two are unthinkable without each other, and therefore freedom is always already compromised by, or complicit with, the very forces whose task is supposedly liberation; every war of the last century, or possibly ever, has been fought in the name of something called ‘freedom’ – whose freedom, and to do what? And yet the material reality of oppression means that freedom is also a necessary goal.
Why were we asked about the sense of hearing freedom rather than seeing, feeling, tasting it? This was in some way a call to rethink our understanding of how we hear, and what we listen for – to extend the ear to the body as a whole. Can we think of the body as an auditory vessel, which receives, mediates and produces sound; not only through the ears and vocal chords, but in its totality and its movements? With this in mind, the events of the weekend seemed to suggest that one of the things “hidden in plain sight” is sound itself. It permeates our environment, and yet we don’t see it or touch it. Its intangibility gives it freedom in a way, and yet it is at the same time produced and received by material bodies and objects. How do we listen for the sounds of freedom, and can we make their voices visible – not in the sense of looking for their sources, but of creating a visual depiction of the sound of freedom? In the rapid movements of the lip sync performance, the strobe light in boychild’s mouth seemed to detach from the body, and suggested such an image. The performances and discussions crossed between and blurred the boundaries of sight, sound, movement and gender. If one understanding of freedom is the act of crossing of borders, troubling the clearly demarcated lines that one is forbidden to cross; if it is a challenging of binaries and the restrictions of even the body itself, then the sound of freedom might have been heard in these performances. Antonia Baehr’s My Dog Is My Piano on Sunday night extended these challenges to the line between the human and animal, but at the same time highlighted the mediations of performance and artistic authority involved in shaping the sounds and images used as material. The other side of the coin of ‘freedom’ might not be ‘oppression’, then, but ‘materiality’, especially that of the body.
Described in the programme as “an acoustic portrait”, Baehr’s performance was tripartite. She successively got behind the decks, in front of the projector and behind the music stand in a performance during which she mixed the machine and natural sound, the auditory and the visual, the human and animal. In the first part, she performed as DJ, mixing pre-recorded sounds of the everyday lives of her mother, Bettina, and Bettina’s dog, Tocki. From the vinyl on the left, she played the sound of her mother’s sewing machine, a rhythmic – – – – – – – – – – – . Then from the right the sound of Tocki scratching: _ -_- _- _- _- _. Mixing the two together, she made a musical bass-line to which she threw her hands in the air, and pulsed her body in time to the beat. Next she played the sound of drinking water; her mother’s a smooth sound with the occasional *glug*; Tocki’s a persistent *glug*glug*glug*, splashing all over the floor. “I am shaping,” said Baehr, “a sentence:” Mother (*glug*). “A paragraph:” Tocki (*glug*glug*glug*). “A word:” Mother (*glug*). “A song:” Tocki (*glug*glug*glug*glug*glug*glug*glug*).
She was performing (in the sense of ‘doing’, or bringing into being) the affinities of two lives in a queer linguistic and musical form. The resemblance of the sounds, their rhythms and her arrangements of them sounded like a simultaneously primitive and high-tech music – as well as the natural sounds, the recording machine itself was heard, as were the scratchings of the vinyl and the manipulations of pitch by speed. Playing the sound of Bettina and Tocki running up the stairs, she talked about the etymology of ‘patois’ – “patoiser: to speak with one’s paws”. In French, ‘patois’ is a derogatory term for a non-standard speech. Baehr appropriates it in order to advocate a linguistic companion species: “an impure, cross-bred, self-made, queer, bastard, bricolé” language, expressing (and expressed in) a choreography of co-habitation.
One of the questions that she is working out is: “Can the house they [human and dog] share be read as a musical score?” In the second part of the performance, then, with the help of a projector and a screen, Baehr showed us how the surface of the house becomes the site of music, written in its visual form; crotchets in the scratch marks on the doors and treble-clefs in the tangles of hair on the furniture and floor. Baehr shows images of a house, overlaid with music and voices in conversation. They talk about the traces that an animal leaves, and how they mingle with those of humans. One thing that struck me as strange and slightly problematic here was the lack of barking in this conversation – the dog is absent; I worry that one of the dangers of this piece is a privileging of the human, as the one who interprets and arranges this music. In this section, where is Tocki? Does the animal become an object, its otherness and individuality appropriated and subsumed in the act of queering the human? Adding another layer to these voices and the images on the screen, over-writing it in the now of the performance, Baehr illustrates the conversation in black pen on projector slides. She traces over an image of a gate, and transposes its bars into the image of a musical note.
The everyday duet between woman and dog becomes, in performance, a quartet (at least): the machine plays its part – the decks, the projector – as does Baehr as conductor, DJ, arranger. In the third part of the performance, however, Baehr herself becomes the mediator, bringing together human and animal in her own body and through her own voice. She arranges the paper on the music stand. She sings, hums, recites, barks, snorts, coughs, sneezes, howls, cries, grumbles. The word oui is repeated over and over and over, with lowering pitch until it becomes an ‘ou’ ‘ou’ ‘ou’; a convincing, echoing bark. In this auditory and visual performance, we are both ‘audience’ (from Latin audentia, “a hearing, listening”) and spectator. Through evocations of sound and image as concepts, we are prompted to think about the body as mediator and material – in the sense of its tangible physicality and of its capacity to function as raw material for creative acts. Baehr’s use of technology draws attention to the limits of the body at the same time as it extends them, and in the final section (which to my mind resembled Kurt Schwitters’s “Ursonate”) the fusions of human and animal sound previously achieved through recordings and projections are channelled and performed by the body itself. As the penultimate performance of the weekend, Baehr asked us to think about how we listen and how we see. In plain sight, what is hidden are the mechanisms by which we see; faced with an image, we don’t see the processes that bring that image into being, nor the mediations of our own physical, optical encounter with and interpretations of it. Baehr, in constructing this affinity between woman and dog in musical form, before our eyes in the now of the performance space, brought those mediations to our attention. It made me think about my own bodily encounter with these performances – the way in which the vibrations from the speakers and the thud of the bass in boychild’s performance connected all the bodies in the room to that of the performer and to each other; the discomfort of the seating arrangements in Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz’s films, where the positioning of the three screens meant that if you could see one, your back was to the other, forcing you to twist or move to see each one. As audience, our own bodies are involved in the event, as Michael Roberson Garçon told us in his opening words on Saturday morning. Aside from my own interest and curiosity as someone who lives with a dog, My Dog Is My Piano staged one of the most important ideas of the event, which ran through every piece and indeed the experience of the weekend as a whole – the idea of living together as a choreography of affinities; between sounds and visuals, nature and technology, and between bodies.