Dadaism at Athen’s Flicker Bar

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting down at Flicker Bar and being transported one hundred years back in time to Switzerland, to the Cabaret Voltaire. It was part of ICE’s (Ideas for Creative Exploration) commemoration for the centennial of Dada, which had its start in 1916 in Zurich. It featured a collection of bizarre performances, all trying to recapture the idea of Dada, which is no easy task.

The night opened up with composer Luciano Chessa reading “futuristic noise poetry” through a loud speaker, all in Italian. I looked around the room to find everyone just as confused as me, and I began to realize that that might be the point of the whole thing. So I settled in for a ride I knew would be strange. Following Chessa’s reading was a Dada performance of the nativity, in which the actors from the theatre department made strange noises and played with flashlights from behind a tarp that stretched completely across the stage. It featured a Joseph and Mary that spoke entirely in gibberish, and three wise men, who spoke entirely in French. All of the action could only be seen in the shadows reflected on the tarp. Later in the night a man read, and then ate, his completely incompressible poem before throwing the spit wads at another man doing interpretative dance next to him on stage.  Also of note was a piano performance composed entirely by pulling out the same number of notes from a hat as there are letters in the definition of ‘academic.’ If that doesn’t make much sense to you, it really shouldn’t, but trust me, it was surprisingly good.

Despite not being truly Dada, the highlight of the night came with a performance by a traditional Balalaika orchestra out of Atlanta (a similar one once preformed at the original Cabaret Voltaire). The three peace set was comprised of a tiny guitar, a gigantic bass (the musician’s pick was the size of his hand), and an absolutely beautiful accordion. The sound was beautiful and hard to describe, and I’d recommend giving it a listen.

What I realized as the night unfolded was the importance of the Dada movement, which sprung up in New York and Switzerland around the same time as a response to the chaos of World War I. As the poetry editor for this year’s issue, I appreciated just how unstructured the whole concept of Dada is and how it pushed artistic expression further than it had ever gone before. It created a landscape in which structure did not have to be apparent, or even there at all. The influence of the movement can be seen wide and far in more avant-garde artists like Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Boroughs, to more popular names like the Beatles and Monty Python. Dada allowed art to become something completely different than it had been before, and I for one am glad of that.

(For those interested more in Dadaism, I’d recommend reading the book Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century by Jed Rasula, who helped put on the show at Flicker Bar)

Dada Centennial (part 3) will be on February 25th at the Flicker Bar at 8pm. The event is free. This is the last installation.

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Janet Mock: “Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More”

Overall, I enjoyed reading Janet Mock’s memoir Redefining Realness. The title is interesting because the phrase, “redefining realness,” is the focal point of many controversial issues including race and gender identity, if you really think about it. Society likes to determine what is considered the “real” version of something in order to categorize it more efficiently. The book’s title is not negative though; in fact, it made me think about what the “realness” that Mock refers to. The term “realness” is being used here to talk specifically about what constitutes a “real woman,” since Janet Mock is a transwoman. Obviously Janet Mock is a real person, gender aside, but what makes someone value one type of woman over another? Generally in society, a woman’s value is determined by her biological gender, however, this leads to a lack of recognition among the trans community, which can be overt of more covertly hidden within our own subconscious prejudices.

The most interesting part about the memoir, besides the varying horrible events Mock encountered has a child, were the Hawaiian cultural elements that were interspersed throughout the book. Mock’s first real encounter with another transwomen was her friend Wendi. One day, Wendi come up to her at school and asked if she was mahu. As a native to Hawaii, Mock explains that mahu is a Hawaiian term for “people who embody both male and female spirit. In fact, Mock’s Hawaiian upbringing and supportive family contributed greatly to her smooth transition, but it was not without many trials and tribulations.

My only qualm with the book was Mock’s somewhat judgemental perception of other trans women who physically appear to be “female” and those who do not, since it may not be as easy for others in transition to physically appear “female.” Mock explains the privilege that comes with being able to “pass,” even if that privilege seems a bit ironic. I highly recommend the book. Mock’s experience shows that creating your own passage in life can come with detours, distractions and hurdles. Still, Mock overcame a lot in her life and should be admired. Furthermore, a her passage is not only travelled by herself, but other trans teenagers, male and female. “Redefining Realness” is Mock’s story, however, it serves as an experience to be shared with everyone in hopes of producing action and change.

-Kara Ogilvie

“Other People Situate Us”: Abderrahmane Sissako in Atlanta

A gazelle darts across the wall. Then a child’s face, running, panting, sing-praying. Then a scattering of armed jihadists across the desert landscape. Gazelle. Child. Men with guns. Gazelle. Child.

Then darkness.

And then, slowly, muted light. We are in the theater again.

Abderrahmane Sissako, arguably the most famous contemporary film director from the African continent, takes the stage with deliberation, stretching out the silence.

“To talk after a film like that,” he says in French, “is a form of violence.”

He pauses. Half the audience grimaces, the other half waits for the English translation.

“But I am here to meet you and I want to meet you, and so.” He exhales. “I will talk.”

I have come to Atlanta for the rare opportunity to view Mr. Sissako’s films Waiting for Happiness (Heremakono) and Timbuktu alongside the director, whose works have played at the Cannes Film Festival, won multiple César Awards, and received an Academy Award nomination.

The two films this weekend display the breadth of Sissako’s interest and skill. Waiting for Happiness, set in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, explores life in a liminal space between technology and tradition, home and away. Timbuktu depicts the arrival of jihad to the title Malian city in its range of human appearances, dividing attention between the powerful and the powerless.

Now, onstage, Sissako stares straight forward, and the space around his mouth crinkles – a smile, perhaps. His mannerisms are either minutely calculated or utterly idiosyncratic. I sense that we observers are not supposed to know.

In his films as in his person, precision and possibility coexist.

“Film needs to capture chance,” Sissako tells us. In practice, he blurs the line between “acting” and ordinary life. He sources actors on location, often using their own names as character names. Sometimes, he provides only slight structure for improvised movements and words.

Call it a radical approach, but to Sissako it reveals a basic humanity. “When you manage to trust people,” he says of his quasi-improvisational style, “Magical things can happen.”

This focus on a transcendent human “ordinariness” is a function of Sissako’s self-identified universalism. I’m skeptical of universalism in general for its ability to avoid essential conversations about the realities of power and privilege, but Sissako almost convinces me, using the poetic sentiment of the universal in the service of a political message.

The media only makes noise about people who resemble its audience, Sissako reminds us. His films, in their attempts to show the world that people in Mali and Mauritania look and act like they do, demand equal media attention.

It sounds like a noble goal, but doesn’t this approach still cater to the system that Western media has put in place? Is this attempt to highlight cross-cultural similarities a compromise of identity to win attention? What would it look like for a film to demand the interest of Western media in spite of difference?

These screenings take place as part of the 2015 France-Atlanta celebration of cooperation between (you guessed it) France and the American Southeast. The French consulate, represented by a man who looks like he stepped into the room off a Paris fashion runway, proudly announces its financial support, in a gesture both generous and neocolonial – France claims ownership over the art of its former colonies in the same breath it selects it to promote “French culture” abroad.

One has to assume that Sissako, who has folded himself into a half-cushion of the onstage sofa, is aware of these forces at play. When asked whether he situates himself as an African filmmaker, he keeps his gaze straight ahead. “Filmmakers don’t situate themselves,” he says, his tone flat. “Other people situate us.”

Critics and viewers treat the African filmmaker with “intellectual laziness,” he continues, assigning him a “continental identity.”

If I’m not careful, I think, I could be one of those “other people.” It’s easy for me to criticize others without problematizing my own viewing. When I acknowledge the sympathy I feel in response to the images onscreen, I think of Susan Sontag’s cautionary words in Regarding the Pain of Others:

“To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering…is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

What she’s saying, it seems, is that films don’t have to end – shouldn’t, in fact. If images spark, we viewers kindle vital flames of introspection and critical conversation.

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[If you’d like to start that conversation now, leave a comment! I appreciate thoughtful critique and honesty.]

-Hannah Fenster