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The power of speech

09:12 24/11/2011

Spoken World, a two-week festival in Brussels examining the politics of language and the language of politics, speech, attracts celebrated writers, directors and performers from around the corner and across the world

Plato was among the first to raise the alarm about the word. The terms of his attack on sophistry would form the kernel of a now-familiar trope: empty rhetoric employed by silver-tongued cynics for worldly gain.

The modern world surpassed the Classical and founded an entire system on the bankruptcy of language. Ever in the forefront, artists began by dismantling the word:  first the Symbolists with their experiments in form, then the Dadaists with their... dada, and finally the Surrealists, with their automatic writing. Modern art was henceforth free to conceive its own ‘languages’, with varying results.

The scientists and philosophers took note of all this smashing of icons and downgraded the literal word from AAA to inessential. Language became a phase in human development, important in some ways but ultimately arbitrary, a mere novelty screen behind which lay infinitely more interesting truths. For Freud, Lacan and long before them, even Nietzsche (a philologist by training), words were so many obstacles to understanding.

At length, as the 20th century prepared its bed, these millennia of abuse culminated in song, namely Depeche Mode’s:

Words are very unnecessary. They can only do harm.

But the word didn’t die. It is allowed its vulgar uses so long as there remains a sphere which requires the lowest common denominator. This is an unflattering view of politics—for that is precisely where this is going—but it is shared by many. The spectre of sophistry haunts even the respectable politician.

Kaaitheater’s Spoken World festival annually encourages performers to sally into this last redoubt of the word in all its ambivalent glory. (Actually, one of its last two redoubts. For in pursuit of bankable copy, the journalist too may resort to rhetorical embroidery. You have been warned.) For two weeks, theatre, dance, installation, and of course spoken words converge at Kaaitheater and its satellite laboratory, Kaaistudio’s, to explore the powers of speech.

In its opening weekend, Spoken World hosts a double feature with Eleanor Bauer and Tim Etchells, who take opposite approaches to the subject. Bauer’s Parliament without Words divorces the political process from the word altogether, while Etchells’ Although We Fell Short piles up layer upon layer of political speech.

Parliament without Words actually begins a week before the debut, with a seminar at which US choreographer and dancer Bauer, wearing her research director hat, assigns readings on political and communication theory to a group of students from her alma mater, P.A.R.T.S. (Performing Arts Research and Training Studios), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s  prestigious dance school in Brussels. The students will assimilate the material and help develop the performance in the days leading up to its presentation, following one fast rule, established in the title: no words allowed.

“Instead of communicating through words, syntax and logic, I want to use a different medium,” Bauer says. “I want us to form direct, affective relationships with the things that politicians just talk about—roads, bridges, money and weapons—and to try out alternative political relationships between individuals. Things and people need to be reconsidered in a non-utilitarian way.”

We shouldn’t confuse this with the partisan’s wholesale rejection of language. Bauer’s Parliament may be mute, but it’s not abstract. “This isn’t Jackson Pollock,” Bauer explains. “My work is still thoughtful and rational. Words are still part of my artistic practice. I think you can appreciate and explore words without using words.”

If Bauer banishes the word from the political process (and the stage), it returns with a vengeance in Etchells’ Although We Fell Short. Indeed, Etchells overloads the political process with words. He drowns the meaning of political speech in plagiarism, juxtaposition and cliché. The cut-up speech at the heart of the performance is a Frankenstein in its way, assembled à la William Burroughs—to wit, with minimal regard for coherence—from a cross-section of British, American, Indian and Cambodian sources. New Zealand-born, Brussels-based dancer Kate McIntosh will perform Etchells’ schizophrenic text solo.

A British novelist and essayist and the co-founder and artistic director of Sheffield’s celebrated theatre troupe Forced Entertainment, Etchells has an abiding interest in language and considers his theatre work an extenstion of it. “Certainly words are secondary to the body in modern theatre,” he told me recently, “but words complicate performance in interesting ways. We are produced by language, trapped by it, and yet we can also use it to escape.”

Political rhetoric, especially his source material for Although We Fell Short, brings with it the element of immediacy. “What's interesting to me about these texts is that they focus on the idea of contact, of community with the audience,” he explains. “I wanted to study their strategies and transpose them to the stage. They are important to understand in these volatile times, when political theatrics have become more effective and more obscene.”

There is a devil’s dozen of pieces in the Spoken World programme, representing more than just the European experience. The South American delegation, comprised of Bogotá surrealists Mapa Teatro, are debuting Discurso de un Hombre Decente, a theatre production inspired by the figure of Pablo Escobar. Vilified internationally, the brutal gangster was nonetheless lauded locally as a benefactor of Medellín’s poor. He even presented himself as political aspirant who hoped to rescue Colombia from increasing debt and dependence. His ambitions may have been cynical or simply quixotic. In any event, they were thwarted, precipitating a confrontation with the authorities which Escobar was famously to lose. Mapa Teatro stage the cocaine kingpin’s apocryphal inaugural address as president of Colombia. His platform is the legalisation of drugs.

Discurso’s première is preceded by a three-way debate on that very subject. De Morgen’s Latin America specialist Lode Delputte referees a panel of three: an academic, an activist and an artist.

In It’s a Rhetorical Question, Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom creates a fictional South African politician, a young firebrand who filters his country’s recent history through passionate and controversial speechifying.

Spoken World also tips its hat to an earlier moment of widespread political agitation, the American Spring of the 1960s, a season when  speeches—those mere words—clarified and dramatised injustice, galvanised the public and made real differences for struggling people. Martin Luther King, Jr’s signature refrain “I have a dream” is the titular inspiration and thematic point of departure for Spoken World’s youth colloquium. Nine Brussels students, aged 15 to 25, working under the guidance of director Dirk Verstockt, will each write and deliver their own ‘I have a dream’ speech.

In Black Power Speech, the garrulous 1960s is revisited once more, this time by two generations of African-American spoken word artists: Amiri Baraka—the controversial beat-poet-turned-black-nationalist formerly known as LeRoi Jones—and his Gen X counterpart, the slam poet Saul Williams.

The Benelux delegation to Spoken World features Kris Verdonck’s installation/lecture, Talk, Joost Vandecasteele’s Speech, poet Geert Buelens and actress Elsie de Brauw’s reading I’ve Seen the Future and It Works, and Nicoline van Harskamp’s take on political biography, Character Witness.

Berlin-based British  artist Satch Hoyt’s signature sculpture installation Say It Loud! is being customised for  its journey to Belgium. Kaaitheater put out an early call for donations of second-hand books on Belgian colonial history to serve as the physical raw material for this podium built of books. The symbol of this year’s edition of Spoken World, Say It Loud! is equipped with a public address system and will stand for the duration of the festival as an open forum for anyone wishing to make a statement.

Spoken World

Kaaitheater, 20 Place Sainctelette, Kaaistudio’s, 81 Rue Notre-Dame du Sommeil, November 25 to December 10, tel,

Tim Etchells’ monologue Although We Fell Short is by perfomed by Kate McIntosh at Kaaistudio’s, November 26, 20.30, and November 27, 19.00.

Eleanor Bauer’s Parliament without Words plays at Kaaistudios on November 26, 22.00, and November 27, 20.30.


Written by Georgio Valentino