Tinnitus was a full-length dance work that I choreographed and performed in collaboration with Sara Naegelin and Leah Wilmoth. The work premiered in 2010 at a semi-industrial warehouse known as “The Plant,” which is located in inner southeast Portland.
Tinnitus began in 2009 with a ringing in my ear. The ringing made me anxious at first. I wondered whether I had experienced irreversible hearing loss, and I worried that the buzz would never cease. Eventually, though, as I learned to observe the sound’s waxing and waning — its cyclical passing into and out of consciousness — I grew increasingly intrigued by the ephemerality of the experience. I became fascinated by the elusiveness of the sound itself, which seemed simultaneously to ring out the full range of audible tones and never rest on a single note. It delighted and perturbed me that I couldn’t harmonize with the music of my nervous system. There was not way to “sing along” with my own tinnitus.
[L. tinnītus, f. tinnīre to ring, tinkle] A sensation of ringing in the ears.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s description of tinnitus reflects the experience of tinnitus succinctly enough. However, to my mind it fails to capture the most conceptually evocative characteristics of this illusory affliction. A more suggestive rendering might be: the perception of sound that has no external referent; sound that has an internal presence only, but which no one else can hear—indeed it is the ghost of sound.
Bizarrely, the specular notion of tinnitus as a ghost may be more in line with the western medical perspective, which does not recognize any single cause for tinnitus. There exist a multiplicity of causes, which can range from excess fluid and/or wax buildup in the ear to noise-induced hearing loss to mere aging. As such, tinnitus manifests itself differently in each sufferer. The American Tinnitus Association comments that although often referred to as a ringing in the ear, “some people hear hissing, roaring, whistling, chirping, or clicking. Tinnitus can be intermittent or constant — with single or multiple tones — and its perceived volume can range from subtle to shattering.” It is also, as ATA goes on to say, “a symptom and not a disease.”
These reflections on tinnitus led my collaborators and I to distill the guiding sonic, spatial, and kinetic themes of our choreographic exploration.
There is a sense of temporal displacement involved the experience of tinnitus, which is the effect of hearing damage rather its cause. The persistent sonic resonance serves as a constant reminder of something lost, an ever-present ghost to remind one of now-absent experiences. Tinnitus therefore focused on the “phenomenology” of the experience rather than its cause. For this reason the soundscape explored living, breathing sonic textures instead of the kind of noisy sound collage often found in contemporary dance work.
We designed Tinnitus to be installed in a deep, narrow space. By stepping away from the wide, flat canvas of the traditional proscenium stage, we hoped to focus on the temporal characteristics of space more than the composition of spatial relations. As the performers move deeper into space, the continuum of time begins to warp and fragment. This is another way of figuring the temporal displacement characterized by the ephemerality of tinnitus. If tinnitus can be characterized by contradictory physical properties (it inhabits a space between silence and sound, line and wave), then the long, narrow line of the performance space serves as a reminder of the reality of silence. . . .
. . . At the same time, the performers’ movements through this solid line of space manifest the phantom wave. In an abstract sense, the actual performance of the Tinnitus choreography attempted to realize — that is, make real, if only for 45 minutes — the ephemerality of tinnitus itself. Although ephemerality belongs to all dance and performance as a constitutive element, we attempted to amplify the audience’s sense of this inherent ephemerality by capitalizing on the sheer depth of the performance space.
Our choreographic methods sought to explore the nuances of tinnitus’s strange effects on the body and the mind. Our movement practice for Tinnitus found us investigating the line/wave dichotomy (as instigation for both “local” choreographic material and more broad-ranging choreographic structure), the interweaving of vocalization and movement, and the fracturing/fragmenting of choreographic material across time and space.
Ever since reading Nick Kaye’s outstanding book Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation, I’ve wanted to take special care in thinking about how to document both Tinnitus and future performance projects. Kaye’s book investigates alternative modes of documenting performance work, with a particular emphasis on site-specific performance.
My own take on Kaye’s main thesis is that performance documentation can and should go beyond posterity-driven videography. Though videography plays an important role, among other things, in grant applications and remounting past work, any performance artist can tell you that video flattens the dynamic richness and intensity of live performance. In other words, it tends to kill the very thing that makes performance performance.
Kaye therefore investigates how a number of experimental theater companies and individual artists (including performers, sculptors, and architects) explore alternative documentary modes in which the documentation itself enables a “primary” engagement. Whether through some form of transmutation via manipulated video, text, or visual art, creative documentation can enable viewers to experience in a meaningful way the conceptual apparatus that undergirds the performance — even if they never experience the first instantiation of the work.
Inspired by Kaye, I've attempted to produce documentation of Tinnitus through a manipulated video that cycles through the entire performance of the work three times, each at a faster rate. Speeding the video up at an exponential rate of increase (4x, 8x, 32x) helps reveal what the human eye in "real" time cannot effectively witness. Each of the three parts of the documentation video unveils a different phenomenological "secret," allowing all viewers to experience the work for the first time — whether or not they saw the live performance.