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At The Believer: Miranda Mellis on Protest, Aesthetics, and Silence

By Harriet Staff

We’re keen on this brief talk with writer and co-editor of the astounding Encyclopedia Project, Miranda Mellis, over at The Believer’s Tumblr. Mellis, as they mention, has two books coming out this year: a collection of stories, called None of This Is Real, and The Spokes, a novella. The conversation here, with editor Andrew Leland, follows her silent video recording of an Occupy Oakland rally.

A Silent Film from The Believer on Vimeo.

Fascinatingly, Mellis’s old camera happens to be unable to record sound; and she came upon a sign-language interpreter near the rally’s speaker. The speaker was “from the Oakland activist group Labor Black and Brown, [and] was talking about solidarity from the Occupy movement with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 21 against union-busting by EGT (the corporation that owns the port).” More on this intersection:

Do you think the interpreter had a particular hearing-impaired audience in mind? Were there hearing-impaired people at the rally?

Over the years I’ve noticed that political events in the Bay Area usually have sign-language interpreters, and also make efforts at wheelchair accessibility. People who work on bringing about social justice are often alert to the fact that there are differently-abled people in the world, and want to make social spaces accessible and inclusive. At the recent march from Oscar Grant Plaza to Fruitvale, to commemorate the three-year anniversary of the murder of Oscar Grant by BART policeman Johannes Mehserle at the Fruitvale BART station, small children and older people and disabled people all participated. It was a long walk, about three miles, and the organizers kept the crowd together, reminding marchers to move at a pace appropriate for a range of kinds of bodies.

What happens when you start filming at a rally? How does it change your engagement with the other protesters?

When I started filming at this rally I became enraptured by the beauty of the interpreter’s hand gestures, and I lost track a little of what was going on around me. When I’m filming or taking pictures at a march or a rally, I start thinking about framing, about the poetics of what’s happening.

What’s the relationship between aesthetics and protest?

Perhaps the silence in the film allows us to see and feel the sincerity of the people in it, and to consider what it means to speak and listen at the same time. (This is Oaklander Gertrude Stein’s definition of genius, by the way). The etymology of aesthetics has to do with making sense—making meaning, making feeling. Insofar as protest is working towards such makings, perhaps aesthetics is protest and protest is aesthetics?

The radio and audio artist E.E. Miller talks about meetings—working groups, general assemblies, and so forth—as “social sculpture”; with the call-and-response/echo mechanism of the human microphone, there is an element of sonic sculpture that people take such pleasure in. Part of that pleasure is aesthetic, in the most somatic, bodily, sensory sense of aesthetics as heightened communicativeness. Silence can suggest oppression, trauma, violence—“silence = death”—but in this clip, silence isn’t traumatic. For people fluent in ASL, the film is not “silent”—it speaks—while for non-ASL readers, there are all sorts of other signs and inferences to read.

Also cool: Miranda’s favorite things of 2011, over at The Disinhibitor.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, February 10th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.