“All of us, you see, have two senses of sight, just as we have two senses of smell and taste and hearing. There is the outer sense, the highly developed one which we all use, and there is the inner one also. If only we could develop these inner senses of ours, then we could smell without our noses, taste without our tongues, hear without our ears and see without our eyes.”Imhrat Khan in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl
Written By: Caitlind Brown
WITHOUT EYES was a collaborative performance conceived by Lane Shordee, Nikki Martens, and Caitlind r.c. Brown for M:ST Performance Art Festival in Calgary. 8 Readers sat in a 30’ diameter circle in Riley Park, Calgary. Each performer read The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (by Roald Dahl) aloud into a large, low-fi megaphone, crafted from re-appropriated civic materials, a performance lasting 3.5 hours in duration.
Listeners were blindfolded in white cloth, and led into the circle of sound. As these viewers moved blindly through the space, voices of Readers moved in and out of unison, focus, and clarity, creating a strange new combination of sounds and meanings. Their voices, though uniquely their own, created a chorus, a wash, a landscape of sound best heard from the inner space between megaphones. Listeners, deprived of their dominant sense, explored the space and the narrative through sound and other inner senses, heightening their imagination.
Moving from individual vocal range to acoustic wash, the voice of each Reader swam in and out of focus depending on the vantage point of the Listener, creating various verbal combinations (for reference, see Janet Cardiff & George Miller’s Forty Part Motet).
The text itself recounts the adventures of a young gentleman gambler, slowly learning to see without his eyes. Like most Roald Dahl stories, this process transforms him absolutely – from a greedy, opportunistic youth, to a benevolent, generous adult. As the reading progressed, however, the narrative itself became secondary, almost completely lost except snippets here and there. Thus freed from its original connotations, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar became a vehicle for other explorations.
What does it mean to see without our eyes? For many children, before learning to read, isn’t storytelling the equivalent? How can we summon back this early, unencumbered imagination? When we move beyond literal vision, what new potentials become visible?
To onlookers, this grouping of people and megaphones was intentionally odd, curious, comical, and enticing. Internally, both Readers and Listeners participated in a multisensory experience. For the Readers, the act of speaking in unison created a fascinating (and exhausting) shared identity and a dissonant connection not unlike a chaotic choir or chorus.
The Readers’ words did not sync, but through the combination of their voices, the meaning of what they said was abstractly communicated.
For the Listeners, the deprivation of their dominant sense (vision) enforced exploration of the space and the narrative through sound and other inner senses.
Within the rings of narrative offered by The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, we proposed WITHOUT EYES as the outermost, inter-performative ring, asking Listeners and Readers alike to re-see, re-think, and re-feel the world around them. Similarly, through working via an artform that is transient, temporary, and living in nature, we as artists were able to re-examine certain parts of our own practice, allowing renewed space for performative experimentation.
Many thanks to our performers, the good folks at M:ST (especially Desiree Nault and Tomas Jonsson), and other supporters along the way.