There are Deaf Mansplainers Too: Thoughts on Sylvanie Tendron
Yes, there are deaf mansplainers too. Like their hearing counterparts, these self-assured fools think they’re all-knowing, but have a psyche arrested at the sovereign state of his-majesty-the-baby. Some must just think women have nothing to contribute. I imagine the deaf mansplainer’s hands moving assuredly, unstoppably. He has perfected the art of losing eye contact with his reluctant one-woman audience in order to proceed with the monologue. In Sylvanie Tendron’s short video, Youhouuu..!! (2019), we do not see him. (I don’t know it is a mansplainer, it could be a chatty woman, loquacious with nervous energy. But I think not.) The camera is trained on the oppressed listener, played by the artist, who repeatedly tries to respond, to interject, to nurture a conversation out of this unseen monologue, and finally, she resorts to waving (hence the title), only to be ignored. Youhouuu..! is a small one-act play performed with a camera. It’s a kind of feminist Beckettian drama focused on the microaggressions of women’s everyday lifeworld (deaf and hearing both).
Like all of Tendron’s video works shown here, the camera is impersonally static. Sometimes it is treated as an interlocutor, a character that remains unseen and unheard. This is the format of Youhouuuu..!! A similar approach is taken in the wonderful film Est-ce que ça te dire..? (2020) in which Tendron simply says “non,” taking the fullest possible range of emotional registers including, politely, reluctantly, laughingly, with disgust, in fear, pain, desperation, confusion, and in screaming fury.
Still from Vampire domestique (2018)
In other films, the camera is a tool for demonstration, for showing something. Vampire domestique (2018) is an example of Tendron’s presentational mode, and it is probably the most difficult film to watch. The artist performs a series of everyday domestic tasks—eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing her teeth, and applying make-up—while her arms are continuously agitated by two men. These hangers-on (the vampires of the title, I assume) falsely produce the effect of severe, uncontrollable tremors, like the advanced stages of MS or Parkinson's disease. Throughout this demonstration film, we do not see the faces of these men so they can easily become generic, a kind of everyman, that is, men in general, or better still, heteronormative white patriarchy. The arm shakers or, as I think of them, the hangers-on (which is both a literalization of their actions and a suggestion of the parasitic existence of the vampire) are not the artist’s friends. There is no social interaction between the figures, no relationships are established. They are impersonal tricksters. The men continue with the gentle, but persistent shaking as Tendron slowly struggles through her routine tasks. She spills food but manages to eat something; everything takes longer, and her facial expressions move between the effort of focused concentration to resigned disappointment. Applying mascara is clearly going to be a hot mess. And it is.
Vampire domestique is an uncomfortable film to watch, not just because of what it shows, but because this is a simulated experience of living with debility. After a massive stroke, my mother lost some control over certain types of movements. Holding a pen or cutlery became more difficult. She would doggedly struggle with some things (like Tendron throughout the film). For example, make-up was important to her and she figured out how to put it on well (mascara was no longer essential), but with certain tasks, she’d let others help. Cutting up food wasn’t really something she cared to labor at. She liked to eat, so why not let someone assist her in getting to the good part? When we went to restaurants, she always explained to wait staff and anyone she caught staring, in halting speech, why my father was cutting up her food. But mainly people’s eyes slid away, they pretended not to see. In Vampire domestique, Tendron makes us watch what we otherwise would try not to look at. She demonstrates for us, which in itself is awkward, uncomfortable. But there is no room for pity since Tendron’s debility is a self-imposed game. We see a deaf artist trying out another kind of physical frailty. The setup demonstrates that she isn’t acting, but rather she has found herself (well, placed herself) in a situation in order to stage an experience for viewers. The strangeness of this scenario opens onto a range of other kinds of psychical debility that women, in particular, might experience as a result of living in a world organized around male privilege. For example, we now have a term to describe the persistent condition of uncertainty that women are often made to feel, gaslighting. In this film, Tendron shows us something like the physical equivalent of female self-doubt.
Tendron’s use of the demonstration mode of videography, together with her self-staging of task-based works of performance for (and sometimes with) the camera, connects her practice to early strategies in feminist video art. I’m thinking of examples by Marina Abramovic, Linda Benglis, Eleanor Antin, Joan Jonas, Linda Montana, and others, but Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), has a particular resonance. In this well-known video work, Rosler faces the camera and takes us through the ABC's of kitchen accoutrements (apron, bowl, chopper, etc.) in a low-rent parody of a TV cooking show. Gesture is important (Rosler’s mainly reveal aggression) as is the relationship between the feminine every day and larger linguistic structures that determine communication and knowledge. In Tendron’s work, this notion of communication is complicated by her deafness. That is, she puts pressure on the relationship between assumptions about speech, the body, and understanding and she does so with a good dose of humor. For example, in Répète?! (2014), she uses a split screen to stage a hearing test. Here the artist’s mishearing leads to small moments of comedy, but the work also illustrates the necessity of seeing speech and the visuality of gesture.
Still from Le phonocentricism, vous dites??? (2017)
The larger philosophical significance of the relationship between speech and written language is taken up in Le phonocentricism, vous dites??? (2017). The camera is trained on the page of a notebook as the artist writes a short text about the philosophical belief that speech is superior to writing. Throughout there is a voice-over of farting sounds and cursing (ah shit, merde, bâtard, etc.). The soundtrack demonstrates the body speaking in ways that might challenge the philosophical superiority of the voice. This is done using body humor in order to raise really important questions. Deafness is not referenced in this work, yet its absence from the theoretical debate speaks volumes as the film raises issues of the status of language when speech is brought closer (comically so) to the body. Thus, we might end up thinking about the significance of gesture-as-speech, that is, the bodily language of signing.
Undoubtedly deaf audiences will see many more nuances in this work than I have been able to draw out here. Yet Tendron’s videography does not only address the deaf or the hearing about deafness, but it also contributes to the feminist tradition of the presentational video providing important contemporary elaborations of the relationship between the body, gesture, femininity, and women’s everyday struggles to be heard.
Get tickets for Sylvanie Tendron: Everyday Obstacles here. Available on-demand 3/23-3/31.
Siona Wilson teaches at the College of Staten Island as well as the Graduate Center. Author of Art Labor, Sex Politics: Feminist Effects in 1970s British Art and Performance (Minnesota, 2014), she has published on photography, experimental film, video, sound and performance art, in Art History, October, Oxford Art Journal and Third Text, and others.