For this third post on the ATD Lectorate blog, teacher-researchers Aster Arribas and Antje Nestel invited a participant in their shy*play project - Anna Arov - to write a reflection on the workshops they held at puntWG in May-June 2023. You can read more about the shy*play here.
When I was asked to write this piece, over a month had passed after participating in the shy* play workshop, so this account is from memory and has evolved in my mind into a map tracing the slipstream of the interaction. The experience has shifted in the frame of my mind away from the chronological or linear, and some interactions may not have even existed in real time. My impressions of the day somehow fit with the grief I’ve been feeling of losing people close to me. The texture and composition of the cloth used as the base material in the workshop brought back the shroud my father and grandmother were enveloped in. The draping architecture we were constructing together felt protective, a container for grief. The experience reverberates in me still as a reminder to slow down and to respond in a more tempered way.
We assembled in an empty gallery space of puntWG, nestled in Amsterdam West. Upon entering the gallery, introducing ourselves was offered as a choice, and we all chose away from this polite performance. Aside from already knowing Angelo, I left with only aster’s name. There wasn’t much instruction, only that we could take our time and stay as long as we needed, yet there were clear shifts in the motion of the day through suggestion and gentle signalling. Angelo, nested at the top of the gallery, inconspicuously infusing the room with sound—birds, real and imagined. Then aster’s voice murmuring through the space with text fragments. And later the magical appearance of books and garments.
I began twisting the corner from a bolt of blue netted cloth through one of the cords suspended from the walls and ceiling. The spot I chose revealed itself to be a space of shelter for someone and thus, in unison we were creating a space to separate from each other, becoming together and apart in a margin of the room. We all manoeuvred tirelessly to unravel the bolts of fabric and suspend them from the cords available to us. The textures on my hands felt like method, like time, limbs, branches, threads, becoming movement, becoming arachnid and fugacious. The cloth slowly pervaded and transformed the space into trace lines of our movements and thought processes, as if the gallery was a hole we were mending collaboratively.
With the space transformed, we began familiarising ourselves with this new habitat, sometimes crawling or sliding across the obstructions of suspended fabric, navigating, maybe encountering a person swaddled in cloth on the floor, another, balancing on one leg between pockets of space. These gestures were further amplified with costumes, extending the transformation to our bodies. At the time, my arm was in a cast, the artefact of a fall following a river through the mountains. It restricted my movements and paired with the costume, it was hard to determine if I had less or extra limbs, which were moving independently to shift my awareness and balance. Eventually we all settled, some in clusters but most of us alone.
Books (an age old accessory of the shy) appeared, cradled in the folds of the fabric. Lifting a book sent vibrations through the textile web, signalling that most of us were anchored in place. I read a zine by Rajni Shah, where they write about the complexity between silence and speech. Silence can exist adjacent to sound, contributing to discord in a meaningful way. I slowly read the handwritten pages in meditation, breathing deep into my lungs. After turning the last page, I went back to some of the references like Sontag and Trinh, proposing silence as active and subversive. My silence tuned me to my breath moving through my lungs, through the fabric, the humans near me, the sun pressing on my back, the trilling of the birds. Silence and breathing was affecting the workings of inner and outer worlds to the point that it became overwhelming. Breath intensified in my ears. Silence and listening became automatic, like my body knew what was needed and all I had to do is trust its workings. My head dropped consenting to sleep, the zine still cradled on my lap.
When I opened my eyes again, the points of reference were gone, there was cloth interrupting my field of vision, and somehow directional markers, like up and down, lost meaning. As I was trying to find the centre of gravity, it was the voices that ground me.
coo coo coo coooo
lalalala la lalilalila lala
Very quickly a quiet space became sonic, like something was lifted, our shyness? we desired contact with each other. Our voices became avian, and like birds’ song, which can penetrate through branches and over great distances, our chatter was transmitted through the soft architecture of the room. Dialogue ensued through slurping, giggling, blowing, cawing, moaning, tapping on the body and walls. I was tempted to refer to it as babble, but it wasn’t that—we understood each other, the dialogue was meaningful, vulnerable, and reciprocated.
In the piece, “The Desire for Neurodivergence” by shy* play, they describe, “Neurotypicality is the absence of shadow knowledge, but I say shadow is where “fugitivity” takes place.” Perhaps, what was emerging in the space, was a reservoir of shadow knowledge, of shadow communication—a place of fugitivity. Hamja Ahsan in “Shy Radicals” introduces a “new lexicon of democracy”, a pictogram of gestures as an alternative to speech, with only an explanation of what the gestures are not what they mean, with the understanding that if we use them we know their meaning, thus creating an oasis where we understand each other. Here was a similar experience, except instead of visual language we used sound, turning our conversation into a melodic grammar of resonance.
The last few years have been full of grief for the dead, for endings, and transitions. The most effortless way for me to express that grief has been through sound, quietly whimpering and moaning. The sounds are confabulation in the vestiges of the dead, emerging with uncontrolled intensity and at times echoing interpretations of prayer. More and more I find comfort in the company of animals, talking to my dog using an amalgam of sounds. There is no need for semantics or sentences with an animal—the intonation of the utterance manifests soothing, enthusiasm, love, etc. There is no judgement from the dog, they comprehend this way of communication. For me, the space we created in the gallery became a refuge to shamelessly celebrate grief in concert with others.
There was sound coming from all directions, but then I tuned into one recurrent response to my clatter, modulating our voices and tempo to each other through empathy—we were in conversation. The person I was communicating with was bundled up in a swathe of cloth, their human form concealed. Our exchange was a cadence of consonants and vowels, whooshing, clicking, and trilling of tongues, at times obstructed by placing a hand front of the mouth for inflection. This was an involved discussion with questions and answers, with anecdotes, and much laughter. At times we were not aligned and the responses became a hurling of discontent, but we were both open to resolution. This resolution may not have happened in the normative word of speech, the interaction would have been ridden with anxiety or would not have continued at all because we would disengage from each other. Yet, the process of modifying the architecture of the space created a communal consensus of trust and vulnerability.
For me, the experience was many things, but one was of a grief capsule. The way the space transformed into a loose cocoon providing insulation from the outside world, allowing space for inner utterances to come to the surface. The suspended cloth became an arial map of our murmuration—a place of resonance and birdsong.