Your reality is broken
AN INTERVIEW WITH NWANDO BY ANNA PIGOTT
Throughout February ‘Your Reality is Broken’ takes over Guest Projects in Hackney, a space founded by artist Yinka Shonibare to provide a place for different artists’ projects to evolve. Running from 2-26 February 2017, the ‘Festival of Abstracted, Ritualized and Embodied Live Art’ promises to bring ‘happenings, workshops, performances, live music and films’, exploring ‘perception: altered states, visual illusions and hallucinations, dogmatic thinking…’ HYSTERIA spoke to co-curator Nwando Ebizie ahead of the ritualistic Opening Ceremony.
Nwando explains the origin of the festival’s curatorial concept – the neurophenomological proposition that 90% of what we ‘see’ is an internal simulation of the external world, only very selectively drawing data from our senses. The inspiration for this line of enquiry came, in part, from the fact that Nwando herself has a rare neurological syndrome known as ‘visual snow’.
“It means that the way I see the world is overlayed with static,” she explains, “almost like TV static, but it’s very pink and blue rather than black and white. I also see after-images of people – again very translucent, they almost look like auras around people – and not just people, everything…I seem to have a very mild case of it, and as far as I know I was born with it.” Nwando didn’t realise, however, that what she was seeing was any different to anyone else until about three years ago when she was talking to her mum one night about the way the lights looked – “she said ‘Oh no there’s something wrong with your eyes! Get them checked out…” Realising what had been happening was a starting point for Nwando – if she was seeing the world differently from what is ‘normal’, how many other people were?
As well as her own experiences, Nwando draws from her interest in popular science books and podcasts – one podcast featuring a neuroscientist named Beau Lotto, whose work focuses on perception, prompted her to further explore the idea that what we are ‘seeing’ is largely a fiction or simulation. “We think we see the world like we’re looking through our eyes like a camera, but it’s not like that at all,” Nwando explains, “our senses relay information to our brains, but our brains basically go ‘sample a small part of that data into a model of reality” She uses the example of a well-known ‘awareness test’ video which asks viewers to count the number of passes in a basketball game, distracting them from a person in a bear costume running across the screen. “It’s quite a famous example of how easy it is for people to miss things. So something like 45% of people didn’t see a man in a bear costume running across a basketball game. And so if you’re missing obvious crazy things like that, imagine how much you’re not seeing...”
She is collaborating with sensory neuroscientist Edward Bracey on the festival, as well as on longer term projects around visual illusions and hallucinations. “He said this great thing – ‘all our brains are broken’ – we all have something ‘wrong’ with our brains, but it’s really important … There needs to be a diversity of brains, evolutionary speaking. And I love that, because it really ties into my belief of what diversity really means. It’s a functional, practical idea that the more diversity you have, the better for everyone.”
This interdisciplinary approach – drawing on seemingly divergent areas, like art and science – seems to be intrinsic to Nwando’s practice. Her last major project (also a collaboration with Jonathan Grieve, who co-curated the festival and runs theatre company MAS Productions with Nwando) was The Passion of Lady Vendredi. This experiential mythopoetic ritualistic gig, mashed up references as diverse as vodou ritual, superheroes and Blaxploitation movies. Does Nwando deliberately seek to break down boundaries between genres, to subvert things? “ I don’t think I ever really want to subvert things. I wish that everyone did things the same as me, because then I’d be normal!” she laughs.
Nwando’s own multifaceted art is a thread running through the festival programme, manifesting in different ways. Alter-ego Lady Vendredi makes an appearance at the Opening Ceremony, alongside Deep Throat Choir and Vogue DJ Jay Jay Revlon. She is also presenting a new performance, 20 Minutes of Action.
The title of this work is drawn from the testimony of the father of rapist Brock Turner, convicted in 2016. Nwando spoke about how the coverage of the trial affected her, prompting her to make the piece: “What was interesting for me, was really the people around the trial, who denied the act of rape, and the phrase ‘20 minutes of action’ really summed this up for me. It was so strange, the case, because we, the public, got to read all these character statements for the accused.
His female friend blaming college campus drinking culture, his old guidance counsellor assuming that the rapist and the victim must somehow be equally culpable - ‘kids being kids’.
“I feel the weight of these diminishings almost as a physical thing. Around the victim and around what happened to her I feel this absence, this empty space, and there’s a circle around her of these people saying ‘it was nothing’, ‘it was as much her fault as it was his’, ‘they were drunk, what can you do’. This empty space, where I feel anger should be, and what there is this frozen empty space. Which is very much related to things that have happened to me personally. So 20 Minutes of Action started out, maybe as a therapeutic idea for myself, to create a piece where I could experience rage, and play with rage and anger. And as things do when you are creating something, it’s grown beyond that, but very much still at the centre of it is that idea.”
The work also connects with Nwando’s ongoing research into Haitian Vodou and other Afro-diasporic religions. Through this research she discovered the Petwo rhythm. While many syncretic features from rhythms to shared Orishas or Lwas connect Afro-diasporic religions, the Petwo seems to be unique to Haiti, which fascinates Nwando, along with the fact that one of the Petwo spirits - Ezili Dantor is associated with the Haitian revolution. “As far as I know” she says “as well as this strong female spirit being associated with the Haitian revolution, she is also a protector of women who have been sexually assaulted. I mean where else do you get that in any kind of religious or spiritual system?”
While the festival as a whole seems to be rooted in a huge range of different genres and traditions, it simultaneously feels very connected to its own time – the title ‘Your Reality is Broken’, in fact, seems chillingly prescient at the time of writing. Does Nwando feel the festival belongs to a particular cultural moment? “It’s totally of it’s time – everyone’s freaking out! I open my laptop and the first thing I see on Google or Twitter is Trump – what has he done today? The Brexit thing… And that’s quite trivial in a way when you are looking at Syria and Yemen... It can all get a bit much.”
“It’s really funny because we came up with this quite a while ago but it’s very much of this moment. We are in this moment where up is down and black is white, there’s fake news, ‘alternative facts’. This is straight out of Stalinist Russia. It’s kind of scary. Kind of exciting. I think if we could just think like scientists, with a rational scientific process, everything would be better!” So can the idea that people literally see the world differently be a political one, as well as a purely scientific one? “It’s a political thing…It’s a humanist thing. It’s also a strategic thing. That person over there who says that abortion is murder - aborting a clump of cells is the same as killing a human. What can be your strategy? Maybe you are never going to understand what they think, but maybe you can understand that they think differently for an intrinsic neurological reason, and not just because ‘they’re a terrible person’. We are going to have to aren’t we? I don’t know what the other way out is.”
Your Reality is Broken runs from 2-26 February 2017 at Guest Projects, Sunbury House, 1 Andrews Road, London E8 4QL, UK.
Visit mas-productions.org to view full programme and ticket information.
PHOTO: Dimitri Djuric