Beyond Language

This text is an account of the first workshop led by Jeffrey Mansfield for Infinite Ear in 2013. Mansfield explores how gestures replicate the sensation of sound, concluding that gesture replicates sensation in a visual format and allows us to 'listen' through a performance of 'pure' sign language.


On a Thursday afternoon, Bachar Al-Azzeh, an unassuming young man and a student at the Al Amal School for the Deaf, took the floor before around 30 classmates, teachers, artists, and curators gathered in a large room within Sharjah’s Calligraphy Square. He proceeded to describe a situation -- perhaps real or speculative, otherwise a plausible hybrid of reality and speculation -- in which he found himself particularly sensitized to sound.

A student at the Al Amal School for the Deaf took the floor before 30-odd classmates, teachers, artists, and curators gathered in a large room within Sharjah’s Calligraphy Square, to perform this story.

Walking across a barren landscape under an unrelenting sun, as cars rhythmically pass on the horizon, he wipes beads of sweat trickling down his forehead. Suddenly, the loud spit of machine gunfire and heavy artillery precedes the deafening, awesome explosions that litter an otherwise innocuous stroll. Feeling an intensifying vibration in the ground, he quickly swivels his neck and looks up to see two fighter jets roaring through the sky, sending tremors throughout the atmosphere and leaving two pairs of streaking contrails. Around his path, a lifeless body lay to waste in warm puddles of blood that have begun to permeate into the soil. A frenetic panic sets in, and his walk turns into a run for his life. Meanwhile, cars continue to pass on the horizon, a bit quicker this time.


For two days, as part of the 11th Sharjah Biennial, participants from the Al Amal School for the Deaf explored their relationship to sound in a series of workshops. In the first introductory workshop, we projected a series of video recordings (with sound played through a subwoofer) of various drummers playing during the first section of sound artist Tarek Atoui’s Within programme, and asked participants to place their hands on the table or the cone of the subwoofer in order to feel the vibrations produced by the bass. After a few seconds, we asked the participants to describe the sound they had just felt. The catch: participants could not employ any extant sign or word to describe the sound.

The students are shown a video of a drumming performance and then invited to touch the speakers to 'feel' the sound. The loud and fast percussion generates distinguishable vibrations for the deaf students to feel.

Instead, they had to create a novel interpretation based on their sensual relationship with the sound, rather than what they already knew about the sound. After all, attributing a particular sound to object describes nothing of its sensation. We wanted to challenge the notion that sound is inaccessible to deaf people and question an epistemological model of sound which considers primarily the aural dimension of sound. In this respect, imagining a deaf person’s relationship to sound is challenging not only because deafness implies a diminished capacity to aurally process sounds, but doing so would upset our predictable, if not delicate, understanding of sound.

To communicate their sensation of a sound in this workshop, participants devised imaginative gestures that conveyed something of the rhythm, texture, direction, intensity, and even the spatial position of the sound. An open palm coming back and forth to a fist might portray a sound that is repeatedly expanding and contracting, perhaps in various speeds and intensities. Shaking a hand or wiggling the fingers may indicate that a certain sound had a tingling or pattering sensation. If this sensation had a direction, participants could move their hands along an imaginary vector.

However, we also found that participants frequently began to replicate the actions they could see on the video to create their descriptions of the sound, which we wanted to avoid. Another difficulty arose when we realized that the vibrations produced by the subwoofer failed to register nuanced differences between each sound, and several distinct sounds produced the same general sensation. In a subsequent workshop the following day, we asked participants to describe their own sensation of various sound vibrations transmitted through a transducer placed onto a weather balloon -- provided by participating artist Wendy Jacob. Due to its higher surface tension, the weather balloon could register very small changes in vibration in a distinguishable way that most surfaces -- a table or even the cone of a subwoofer -- cannot.


As each participant took turns physically “listening” to the vibrations on the weather balloons and describing the sounds, other participants attempted to identify the source of a sound based on the listener’s description of the sound. The participants were given four sources of sounds from which to guess, recorded around Sharjah during Wendy Jacob’s aural mapping workshop. The recorded sounds included a car, a bus, an air conditioner, or a shopping cart, among others. Incorrect guesses exposed the participants’ various listening abilities and preconceptions about how something sounded.

Although it is not difficult to understand that something sounds like a police siren, it is another matter to assume the sensation of a police siren is absolutely a shared experience between two people. Depending on country and the type of police force or the urgency of the emergency, police sirens can take one of many possible tunes, each connoting a different physical and emotional response. According to the autophilia weblog Jalopink, the siren of the German Polizei is “a little bit deeper, a little bit more authoritative, and a little less passionate” than the French.

To compensate for increased crowd noise, a NYPD siren in Times Square may have a different tune than one in an obscure back alley. Additionally, the same siren may even have a different effect on two people. One may perceive a thumping sensation, while another experiences a hair-raising sensation. Misunderstandings also occur when a person is more attuned to a specific sound. A car might sound like a car to the average person, but an experienced mechanic doesn’t merely hear a car, but perceives its constituent parts -- the engine, radiator, alternator, and muffler -- working in concert. Like the parable of the blind men and the elephant 1, in which six blind men each felt a different part of the animal and proceeded to describe the animal differently from the next man, the diversity of the participants’ descriptions also reveal their varied sensual experience of the sound.


These misunderstandings are emblematic of both the failure and triumph of language. At the beginning of any dialogue, the speaker and the listener’s conception of something do not align absolutely. An idea, word, or phrase can only carry so much definition and clarity. But by continuing to speak, by continuing to describe something in live conversation, the presence of both speaker and listener instills, for the listener, a kind of confidence in the meaningfulness of what the speaker is trying to say, and for the speaker, that the listener comprehends what it is that the speaker is trying to say. The related actions of speaking and listening requires the speaker and the listener to each submit to the other for purpose of the pleasure and enjoyment intrinsic to human interaction, constituting an act that is inherently sexual. In this intercourse, our desire for gratification is fulfilled when speaker and listener reach a satisfactory level of mutual conception. At this point, one can have a very good idea of what the other is trying to convey. Language is both barrier and solution.


Once the speaker’s object, thought, or sensation is satisfactorily described, i.e. a chair, there is nothing left to say or listen to -- if only temporarily. For the moment, the act of communication is consummated. However, insofar as our desire to convey and understand precisely what we mean inevitably and constantly rekindles its flame, this moment of equilibrium between speaker and listener is always at verge of being destabilized and thrown once again into disorder and chaos. An added word, phrase, or thought, i.e. a wooden chair, modifies the idea or object being communicated, and by eliminating what it does not mean, i.e. a metal chair or a plastic chair, re-situates the object in relation to our perception of it. While we are speaking, we constantly re-adjust our actions in communicating and imagining a thing. Such is the entropic functioning of language, constantly moving in and out of equilibrium.


Perhaps the point, then, is not to fulfill the desire for that elusive mutual comprehension, but to constantly drive towards it. Less about finding the perfect delivery, the aim is to take pleasure in the activity of production itself. More than merely rambling on and on in an attempt to describe an object, it becomes attempt after attempt to describe some perceptual sensation of an object or idea that always falls short. It is a pleasurable yet painful act in which the speaker drives closer and closer to conveying the object of his desire, the impenetrable Real of his sensory experience, but never quite capturing this sensation so completely, instead eclipsing it.

Although the Real remains just out of reach, what can be grasped in the speaker’s desire drive is something altogether more extraordinary. In failing to describe the elusive object, the drive instead invites the listener’s imagination to develop a personal, symptomatic connection to the sensation that the speaker is trying to communicate, and to take pleasure in this carnal relationship between language and the senses. With time and the driving force of the speaker’s attempts at visually describing a sound, the participants’ initial trepidations in guessing a sound turned into confident guesses informed by a visual sensation of the speaker’s perception of the sound.

Sensing Language

In the initial workshops in Sharjah, despite instructions to steer clear of representational signs or gestures, participants repeatedly fell into the trap of identifying the source of a sound and representing the action that produced the sound. For instance, a participant wishing to describe the sounds produced by a drummer might begin “air drumming,” or a participant attempting to communicate the sound of an airplane might use the sign for an airplane, indicating symbolic association but not sensation.

Alternatively, participants may find it convenient to relate a sound to another, more familiar sound. A particular drum tune might sound like the beating of the heart or the siren of a police car, but just what is the affect of these sounds? These lapses, whether symbolic or analogic, reveal the ease with which participants revert to familiar, ready-made meaning, and fail to communicate the speaker’s distinctive and non-transferable experience of a particular sound. For a whole host of reasons, ranging from simple physics such as auditory ability, neurological response, and sensitivity of nerve receptors, to more complex causes, including the listener’s auditory or physical exposure to sound, past trauma, or some inscribed memory of a sound, one person’s perception of a sound is rarely, if ever, duplicate that of another listener, so while two different listeners may retain enough shared knowledge to broadly perceive a ready-made symbolic or analogic description of a sound, these descriptions come short in expressing specific sound sensations.

Alternatively, when participants successfully eschewed such ready-made descriptions of a particular sound, they devised unique, idiosyncratic gestures that attempted to reproduce their sensation of the sound, and provide a sensation in which a listener could partake. A thumping sound, possibly from a siren, might result in a participant banging an imaginary floor or table in a particular pattern, as if the sound was causing the floor or the table to shake. Gesturing a growing sphere indicates an expanding sound, almost visualizing sound waves expanding through air.

These gestures represent a third way of describing sound, in addition to symbolic and analogic descriptions. Instead of pointing to what we already know about a sound, these gestures actively index sound’s phenomenal effects on our environment. These gestures may relate directly to the body, such as the vibrations that we feel on the floor on which we are standing, or point to an effect outside our bodies, yet visible to us, such as the visible cracking of a glass caused by a high pitched sound, but in either case, these gestures produce a sensation that has little to do with the aural properties of sound and everything with its physical properties.

These gestures, with their representational ambiguity and visual clarity, move beyond prepackaged meaning and crystallize something of the speaker’s sensation of sound, or the speaker’s perception of sound’s effect on its environment. The listener can now internalize the speaker’s perception of sound without hearing or feeling sound at all, but by experiencing a visual sensation of it. Therefore, if we suspend our preconceptions about language, we might propose that language is not something to be read nor heard but perceived and experienced in a material way. Like speech, gesture renders a tangible experience of language by conflating a representational layer (words) with a sensual stain (prosody, facial expressions, and body language). The listener doesn’t so much perceive words, but senses the sheer materiality of their transmission. Even if the speaker struggles to find words or clearly articulate an object, idea, or sensation, sensual information remain so clearly inscribed in the speaker’s prosody, facial expression, and body language that we can still say, “I understand you.”


Subsequently, we asked participants, in a third workshop, to describe a sound experience of their choosing by staining the more representational aspects of sign language with elements of the idiosyncratic, indexical gestures developed in the first two workshops. The resulting gestures are what sign language linguists term “classifier constructions,” which conflate conceptually-correct hand shapes -- classifiers -- with an physical action or movement that further modifies what the speaker is saying.

Grouping objects and subjects that share similar qualities, classifiers are visual traces of something, rather than direct representations. To illustrate, an open palm that is bent at the fingers -- known as the C-Claw classifier -- may indicate the claw or the paw of a bear, wolf, or any multitude of animals or creatures, whose identity only becomes clear if the speaker identifies it directly, or through a series of classifier constructions that more completely describe its visage. In Eric Malzkuhn’s seminal sign language translation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”, as performed by Joe Velez in 1969, the Jabberwock is indicated not by name but by classifier constructions that visually depicted the creature’s spindly spine, bloodshot eyes, scaly skin, oversized fangs that open and close in four directions, vigorous wings, and the creature’s proclivity to abruptly leap and bite down on anything that moves.

By moving classifiers in a particular way, and punctuating the classifiers with very small or very large variations in prosody, facial expression, hand location, orientation intensity, speed, rhythm, or body language, complex classifier constructions emphasize certain aspects of the object or subject being described, and gives it additional clarity. Classifier constructions allow the speaker to richly describe, for instance, the specific gait of an animal, without going into a lengthy verbal declamation. In the third workshop, participants utilized classifiers to devise unique descriptions, non-transferable and unrepeatable, of various sounds, producing visual sensations that augmented or altogether bypassed the more ordinary, representational signs of conventional sign language.


By not defaulting to the regimental structure of conventional language, the orchestration of these gestural movements infuses a different kind of dynamism to the listener’s experience of the spatial, temporal, and representational constructions of language. Instead of listening to streams of words, signs, and ready-made meanings expressed within the ordered space of language, the listener can perceive the speaker’s intended message as quickly or as slowly as the choreography of speaker’s gestural and morphological movements dictates.

In describing the claws of a pouncing creature, the speaker may move slowly or stop moving altogether to heighten the inevitably and futility one may feel by being on the wrong end of the attack. The speaker can also move suddenly and rapidly as to duplicate the instantaneous finality of the pouncing act. As the space and time of language are theatrically molded, stretched, or compressed in sign language (as in music and cinema), the listener moves to the speaker’s rhythm, transforming listening into an embodied and pleasurable activity unfolding in space and time.


Al-Azzeh continues his narration of a sound experience in a war-torn environment.

Across the landscape, heavy artillery sends bodies flying backwards. Scattered explosions send shrapnel flying and bouncing everywhere, including a piece that slices through his forearm with a silent effectiveness. Blood seeps out, but he stunts the flow of the blood by applying pressure on the wound with his hand and keeps running into the city.

Buildings collapse, one after another, though they do not strike fear but inspire awe in its immediate and total destruction. The crashing sound of collapsing buildings takes only an instant before it turns into terrible silent clouds of dust. As he continues down the road, anti-aircraft munitions abruptly flare through the sky. Turning the corner, he meets a member of the militia who points a machine gun between his eyes. In the next few seconds, which feels like an eternity, he opens his mouth, clasps his hands, and pleads for his life, though no sound comes out. At this very moment, gunfire fades in the background, dust settles amongst the rubble and dead children, his heart seizes then relaxes, and everything is silent.

With each expression, Al-Azzeh grows more specific without being exact. His gestural movements carry no absolute symbolic meaning but poetically drive toward capturing the sensation of his own experiences and establish a personal relationship with the sound and the context of these experiences, which resonates with the listeners by inviting them to do the same. These gestures, traces of a sound sensation that occurred at a not-present time, at some time in the past or the future, preserve and replicate the sensation in a visual format that allows us to listen -- not to words, not to language, not to preconceptions about sounds, but to the actual sensations of sound, visually performed through “pure” sign language.


  • Jeffrey Mansfield
1. Hanabusa Itchō
Blind monks examining an elephant
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