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  • Who Vibrates?
  • Christopher Swithinbank (bio)

There are things you shake. You shake apple trees to ask for fruit. Climbing trees, to see how much they can hold. Presents, bags of treasure, boxes of cereal, jars of coins—you shake to know what is inside, how much is left, how much is there to go still.

You shake the hands of people you don't know, the shoulders of people you thought you knew, maybe also to find out what is inside them. You listen, carefully, to the sound of the person being shaken, try to hear—what is inside—how much is left—how much can they hold?

—Carolyn Chen, Threads

Carolyn Chen's Threads, "for American Sign Language interpreter strung to wind chimes at a distance and a story on tape," is a performance piece lasting around a quarter of an hour in which we hear the composer speaking to us on a recorded track, while the performer on stage is instructed to interpret Chen's words for us in American Sign Language (ASL) (2014a; 2014b). [End Page 141] Chimes made from paper, leaves, wood, and glass tremble over the audience in response to the movements of the ASL interpreter on stage. At times, the narrator's voice trembles as it spins strands of folkloric simplicity and pop-cultural fantasy into a dream haze of tip-of-the-tongue allegory.

Chen's recorded voice evokes the telling of folktales or stories for children in its bold but simple language. Indeed, its opening address—"You told me a story once…"—evokes the archetypal "Once upon a time…," situating us in the past tense of the fairytale (2014a, 4). The naturalistic setting of fairytale or myth resonates in the text's sea, fish, birds, or "my body… pulled, into the body, of a tree" but is expanded upon by contemporary comic-book counterparts with "superpowers," legs that can stretch "like chewing gum," and the ability to "travel at super speed" (2014a, 4–7). To a certain extent, Chen's choice of language provides readymade syntax and pathos, which support cohesion even as the story itself swerves, fractures, and ultimately escapes any unified teleological reading. The bubble of safety provided by the fantastical, which expands physics and circumscribes the impact of even extreme violence, provides a space for images whose cumulative effect is a meditation on communication and the corporeality of language.

In a preface to the performance score, Chen notes:

Living abroad at the time of writing, issues around communication—who you are able to communicate with, what you have the ability to express, what is able to be heard or understood—were particularly foregrounded. The writing moves between different voices, sometimes matter-of-fact, sometimes wrapped-in-a-dream. The feeling is of coming at English from Chinese, or writing sentences as music.

(2014a, 2)

Threads layers moments of communicative passage across a surprisingly wide range of linguistic, narrative, and material junctions. As Chen notes, the question of linguistic expression and comprehension was at the forefront of her mind during the work's conception. On the recorded track, the narrator describes how "voices became water, dissolved into points, and floated, flew out, and away." The stories the narrator tells and those the narrator tells us she is told continually return to "issues around communication," but the way [End Page 142] they do so suggests that the problem is not necessarily one of linguistics or semantics. Rather, in the universe Chen brings to life, these issues become fleshy: the narrator's "tongue was a fish, it swam away," while she addresses another storyteller whose "mouth was full of water, water you couldn't hold." It seems tongues themselves take on a life of their own, while voices are physically prevented from leaving their bodies. Joseph Jonghyun Jeon finds similar mouths—which are either recalcitrant or hyperactive depending on your perspective—in the poetry of Myung Mi Kim, some of whose attempts to find poetic expression for the experience of learning English he describes as requiring "an exercise of the mouth, a veritable workout of the tongue." For Jeon, Kim's poetry captures the physicality of a foreign language as...


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