Daniel Kotowski is a Deaf person who uses Polish Sign Language rather than speech in his daily interactions. In the video “SIGNING/SINGING”, he addresses the appropriation of sign language by contemporary visual culture. The “hearing” art milieu often approaches sign language exclusively as an aesthetic activity. Kotowski explores that fetishization – which also involves the Deaf themselves – using the video to show how various excluded groups reclaim visibility.
The artist usually prefers not to include sign language in his works, but this performance sees him break this rule for the first time as he combines choreographic gestures with sign language. Kotowski puts on the black outfit which the interpreters are expected to wear so as to cover their skin. However, the performer “queers” the outfit which usually obscures the body by exposing his own. All this is situated in the historic spaces of the Castle, which in itself is juxtaposed with synthetic, pop culture crocs.
The choreography is built around a hip movement which resembles the rocking motion that accompanies sign language interpretation of songs. This is a reference to the title, in which the similarity between SIGNING and SINGING conveys the artist’s dissent to having his daily language treated as an ornamental dance. For most of the performance, Kotowski embodies a smug speaker who skilfully manipulates the audience. He mocks himself, laying bare the cynicism of his manipulation. At one point, however, he clearly transforms into a person affected by powerlessness and then growing anger. Finally, shouting “word”, the artist makes use of his own voice. It is a poignant moment of desperate recourse to spoken communication, which predominates in our reality. The performer imitates the sign language signs ridiculed in memes. Ultimately, he transforms yet again, this time into a strong person and emancipates himself. He achieves agency by borrowing the tools of power that rely on violence. He comes to the conclusion that there is no other way – this is the sole path to attaining the visibility one is due.
Introducing the colour pink into the space of the Castle, the artist plays with the décor of a room branded with traces of erstwhile power. Through the satin drapery, the meanings and senses in the video-installation spill outwards, appropriating space. In consequence, this poignant manifestation of overlooked communities resonates with an even greater potency. What we experience here is a choreography of the struggle for equality and visibility. In addition, the modality of display highlights the universality of the problem, as we encounter the figure of the performer face to face, enabling us to identify with him.
The performance does not end, and neither does the struggle to be noticed and respected. We see the repeating loop of striving in a reality pervaded by norms and exclusions – the process of becoming agential.
Text by the curatorial team Jagna Domżalska, Kamil Mizgala.
video: Krystian Daszkowski
choreographic consultant: Katarzyna Leszek
hairstylist: Jakub Domański
production: Jagna Domżalska, Kamil Mizgala
Realised as part of the artistic residency programme organised by ZAMEK Culture Centre in Poznań.
photo credit Krystian Daszkowski