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Creating Within the Carceral Surveillance State

Creating Within the Carceral Surveillance State

Review by Brendan McCall

Language Reversal: Move Past What We Know

Co-created by Aaron Landsman, Clarinda Mac Low, and Ogemdi Ude

With Natalia Tikhonova

12 April 2021

Online performance & discussion

Abrons Arts Center

Earlier this month on the 58-year-anniversary of Cosmonautics Day, Abrons Arts Center presented the third and final instalment of Language Reversal: Move Past What We Know, an online collaborative project that seems to fuse performance, discussion, and social activism. Co-created by Aaron Landsman, Clarinda Mac Low, and Ogemdi Ude, this latest episode also featured the contributions of multidisciplinary artist Natalia Tikhonova from St. Petersburg, Russia.

(To read my reviews of this creative team´s earlier Language Reversal performances, please go here for their collaboration with Milan Vračar; and here, featuring Amrita Hepi).

Like its two predecessors, Language Reversal opens with each contributing artist posing a series of questions, framing the piece as both a dialogue and an art work. In response to how her community is policed in Russia, Tikhonova asks what is needed, distinguishing what can be expected from the government versus what must come from a local community. Mac Low then follows with a recitation of a letter written in code to Tikhonova, speculating if any form of communication is truly safe and secure anymore. Landsman recalls his communication with Nicolai Khalezin of Belarus Free Theatre from a decade earlier, and how initially naive or idealistic he was about solutions to their politicized theater in Minsk. And Ude quoted a letter from June 2020 written to her alma mater at Princeton, regarding her earlier graduate thesis, and how she would write it differently today.

These articulate and humble offerings segway into the first pre-recorded video segment. Featuring excerpted conversations between Tihonova and Mac Low during the beginning of 2021, when different insurrections were running near simultaneously in both countries. The two discuss the high proportion of police to citizens in Russia and the United States, and wonder what are effective means to create mutual aid for incarcerated protestors when institutional resources fail us. Images of protests from both countries intertwine, becoming nearly indistinguishable. The the dense black helmets of police in riot gear evoke the lightness of the black balloons which Mac Low tosses in slow motion.

Maps of the two countries emphasize the daunting scale of the problem: how to create mutual aid for local communities when each country, especially Russia, are so huge? Tikhonova´s hand diagrams some possibilities, her vertical and horizontal lines appearing elemental, or like atoms, or perhaps snowflakes. “My practice is just drawing dots, and looking for the connections,” Tikhonova says at one point. “How can we make an impact, to change the situation?”

From the outset with this series, Landsman, Mac Low, and Ude have described Language Reversal as a means to examine oligarchy and translation. Collectively, these pieces are a toolkit, a kind of connective tissue between art, activism, and inquiry. Each of iteration of these succinct online works merits repeat viewings, as their questions and provocations can only be answered off of our screens.


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