The Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, in partnership with the UGA Graduate School, UGA Arts Council, Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, and Flagpole magazine, has awarded 34 micro-fellowships in its Shelter Projects program. The $500 fellowships support graduate students and community-based artists and practitioners in the creation of shareable reflections on their experience of the current pandemic through the arts and humanities.
Statement: How can the story of the pandemic be told when it never seems to end? Listen is an investigation into memory, senses and absence. An attempt to carve out structure in chaos, a search for a point of reference. Listen imagines a machine and procedure able to connect the brain to language and image for a patient who, due to a virus, has lost her senses, including her sense of self, that her humanity re-emerge. This is also my attempt to creatively locate my lost tuxedo cat, Ender (pictured), gone since the first day of the pandemic. This is an attempt to bury my cat whose body I’ve never found. In conversation with: Fluxus, Georges Perec, Ana Mendieta, Len Lye. Music by Podington Bear (“Tumbler,” “Forces”), Welcome Wizard (“Tweedle Dee”) and Silent Strangers (“Crawl”). Includes found footage (Retro Vision Archives). Features my kids and our other cat, Zelda.
Flagpole: Tell us a little bit about yourself! What is the focus of your research as a PhD student in theatre and performance studies at UGA?
Gabrielle Sinclair Compton: My focus is on avant-garde theatre and installation practices post-1960. I’m originally from South Carolina, and I’m also a playwright and deviser.
Flagpole: How has the pandemic impacted your experience as a student? How about as a mother?
GSC: I think like a lot of families, when the pandemic hit we were at a point where everything is totally fine as long as literally nothing whatsoever goes wrong. Those first surreal months of the shutdown (the time I was trying to make this short film) felt like a waking dream—time was equal parts dilated and fractured. There were no points of reference. And like a dream, it’s now pretty impossible for me to physically recall exactly how it felt to be in it. This project attempted to, through a fictional story, serve as a way to encounter that time in March, April and May when the air was thick with fear, the unknown and the song of cicadas. My thoughts were shallow and fractured. And our brilliant four-year-old son was struggling to not get swallowed up in depression and anxiety. Like I said in my description, I realized I don’t know how to tell a story when it never seems to end. How can you reflect? Put it into context? My attempt at imposing a genre (sci-fi) and its arbitrary structure was an experiment to see if it would stick. I was starving for something that could be completed. Something I could reflect on. Something whole.
Flagpole: Listen follows two main stories: an imagined scenario of a woman attempting to regain her senses after contracting a virus, and a real-life search for your missing cat, Ender. What were some of the ideas you wanted to explore as you went into creating Listen?
GSC: I wanted to do performance as research into the 1960s avant-garde group Fluxus, and to have a better understanding of how Fluxus scores—which were these very short texts that would launch happenings—operate. If I’m being honest, I think the child part of me knew that if I made it a story and got a grant, my cat would have to come home for there to be an ending. I also wanted to better understand Georges Perec’s urge to exhaust places and concepts, so I took the common COVID-19 symptom of losing taste and sound and imaginatively asked what would happen if all the senses were to leave?
Two texts spilled out: First, a recording of someone who begins to lose all her senses the day she loses her cat, and just wants her experience of loss on record. Second, a numbered list of “scores.” I used a text2speech program to see if I could keep the performance of these texts and the conveying of these scores but erase myself from it. I found footage online of a 1950s Wisconsin family, which had been recovered in a landfill. I paired up the audio and the footage just to see what would happen. I was surprised to find no matter where I started the audio, connections between the text and the images would emerge.
Over time, a clearer sci-fi story emerged, in which not only did she lose her sense, but her associated memories, and finally, her sense of self. My goal for the project then became a problem-solving mission: How can she ever regain a sense of self? (And how could I?) The technology became not one for recording, but for a procedure to try and spark their most basic impulses of their humanity. For this woman, I think the smallest movement of empathy was her way to see, and be “found” by whoever it is that leads her out.
I discovered blocks with my performance and real life. For instance, I couldn’t simultaneously search for Ender and perform searching for Ender. I couldn’t even type his name onto the screen. My other cat Zelda thus performed the role of missing cat. I used Ender as the cover image for this, so that his absence is present in the process and in the product, and so as not to completely erase him through narrativizing. And, also, because wouldn’t it be amazing if someone saw his picture and had found him?
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