Bhavisha Panchia & Leyya Mona Tawil – ‘Noise and Nation’ – A Blue Skies Conversation

Through a series of conversations between Johannesburg, South Africa and Detroit, United States, Bhavisha & Leyya exchange of ideas around the potentials of sonic disruption and noise as response to nationhood and displacement, and migration. 

Leyya Mona Tawil is a creative force whose work includes choreography, composition, sonic scoring, performance, and dance. Over two weeks I spoke to Leyya about her work as an artist, dancer, performer, organizer and as Lime Rickey International, her superconsciousness who forges connections between fiction, performance and sound that attend to the resonance of diaspora, displacement and homeland. Working through different registers, from dance, movement, and noise, Leyya and Lime slip between codes and signifiers to traverse and distort how we read and listen to signals, both visual and auditory. Lime takes noise as a compositional material and an emancipatory gesture to exceed prescribed limits, boundaries and borders. Her lamentations for a lost homeland resonate from a temporal plane outside of the one we occupy. Below is an edited script of our exchanges over Zoom that was infused with intermittent laughter and wild hand gestures.

Bhavisha Panchia: Sounds propagate, they occupy space and defy borders and boundaries, which is one of the reasons I wanted to speak with you about your work. We met briefly in Helsinki, though I had unfortunately missed Lime Rickey International’s performance, which sucks, seeing that I’m not sure when I will be able to travel again.

Leyya: Coming from a music performance stance, I think of sound as an energy field, so when I talk of sound, I think about it spatially. Sound is borderless but can take up space simultaneously. The first Lime Rickey International dance/music performance started in August 2016. Leading up to that there was a different angle to my work that was oriented around dance, music, and performance. I was schooled in choreography at Mills College, which has a strong musical tradition with composers like Pauline Oliveros. My technical training in dance shifted into more conceptual-based performance using dance and conceptual scores.


Land and limits

Leyya: Structures were delivered to us. Here is a system you can play. What we’re going to offer you is a game to play. All the rules are ours and all the structures are ours. And all the tokens are ours. But you can play it.

Bhavisha: I think the term decolonization has proliferated in so many adjectival ways that it has been stripped of its core meaning and is now performatively/flippantly thrown around.

Leyya: You know Eve Tuck twisted everyone’s brain with her text ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor’, where she really deconstructs the term decolonization in such a way that took it to its technical core. So, if we are actually going to decolonize then we actually have to give the land back to undo colonization not just in a metaphoric way. The whole article argued for not using the word as a metaphor. So, if you’re actually working towards decolonization, you’re talking about land reparation. We need more words really; we need more language so that these now trendy catch phrases don’t become catchalls for complex ideas.

I’ve also heard this interview where they discussed decolonization practices and offered the perspective of taking back the land as having a basic capitalist response to a capitalist system, that in fact decolonization is actually a recolonizing approach. The idea proposed is that we belong to the land instead of ‘the land is yours and we want it back’ – it’s actually that the land belongs to itself and we want to be able to belong to it.

So instead of it being a land transfer it’s actually power seeping down into the land itself. It’s a little tricky when you think about it in relation to Palestine because we need our land protected and I think there needs to be some language of ownership to conquer the apartheid that’s happening. And then you have a nation that doesn’t require a landmass, where that nation is carried with you; that nation is borderless. One could argue that ‘I am the land and hopefully the land owns me’, which offers a much more symbiotic relationship to the earth.

Bhavisha: In your biography you identify as Syrian Palestinian American.

Leyya: Not hyphenated – like not a Palestinian version of an American or an American version of a Syrian. I’m Syrian. Palestinian. American (I have to acknowledge the country and culture that I was raised in).

Far flung

Bhavisha: Lime Rickey International came into being around 2016 and 2015, which was around the time there was a mass migration from West Africa, North Africa, and Syria to Europe. Did these diasporic events influence the emergence of Lime Rickey International? I also think back to an exhibition/record I curated what is left of what has left that was oriented around the African diaspora. Researching that project led me to musical, and fictional responses to the historical migrations of the Atlantic slave trade and recent ones, as refugees and migrants fled to Europe. Drexciya from Detroit, where you’re sheltering in place now, conceptualised the ‘Drexciyan race’ of underwater descendants from enslaved pregnant women who were thrown overboard during the Atlantic slave trade. They considered their music as a ‘dimensional jump hole’ between Africa and the United States. The floating temporality of Lime Rickey as sitting outside of time as you described makes me think of her occupying a space of liminality, but also reminds me of this ‘dimensional jump hole’ that Drexciya imagined.

Leyya: I don’t want to say it was a direct response but a felt response to global migration in the birth of Lime Rickey. So, I didn’t have a singing practice or a song writing practice until Lime Rickey, and the first song that came out of me was just singing the words ‘go home’ over and over again. That was the first line of a Lime Rickey song. And Lime Rickey’s whole narrative, mythology, genesis, or where she came from was kind of born in this moment where all I could do, over and over again, was sing ‘go home.’ And I kind of just cried in the studio… ‘Go home’ resonates here as two different things: I want to go home, and all these people really want to go home. And then also being told, ‘go home’…So the meaning shifts. Singing ‘go home’ was also a way of crying. Singing is a way of screaming or moaning, a mantra or prayer…all of that just unfolded. During this period all these thoughts in my head and in my subconscious reading and experiencing, and living the world as it was, came through me as a song or sonic experience of crying and singing. Lime Rickey International is stuck in a time continuum. She’s shipwrecked in the present from a future or unknown space. She doesn’t exist in the same time plane that we talk about her in. She appears in the present from a shipwrecked place in time, not a different space. She exists in a time-swirl or time warp.

And I knew it wasn’t Leyya who was going to sing that song. I knew it had to be from someone from a place I didn’t know yet. That’s when the mythology of Lime started to take shape. Leyya doesn’t sing. Leyya doesn’t know how to sing, but Lime can do whatever she wants. You could say there’s a masking involved, because what I talk about through Lime is so exposed, in that it’s a very personal politics that I’m dealing with as Lime, which I deal with differently as Leyya. As Leyya I deal with that in a deep political and cultural sense as a curator, as a programmer, in my activist work, in my choreographies and compositions, and in how I treat the world. So, there’s masking done in order for Lime to go as deep as she does.

Bhavisha: This also raises the question of vulnerability, of being present, and open. I would describe the ethos or attitude of Lime, from the video documentation I’ve watched online, as disarming.

Leyya: Lime is laid bare and she uses her voice. The voice is more than dance for me, more than body movement. The movement of your voice exposes your insides. Movement is read through this (Leyya gestures to her arms), but your voice gives you the landscape of all the parts inside, and I find it more terrifying than moving your body around. So, Lime is not only dancing these future folk dances but also using her voice to try and communicate.

There is rhythmic repetition in Lime’s dabke, and I also refer to tarab because it has that transcendental portal implied in it, but also more on a technical, elemental level, there’s repetition with micro-variation, both lyrically and rhythmically, and I feel these are the realms that Lime is operating in. In a lot of her songs there are just one or two lines that are repeated over and over again. Each time they repeatedly change, and they change meaning too…so there is a lot of repetition that opens up into a new landscape, which is sonically immersive and enveloping. You kind of get pulled in, but then lost and disoriented at the same time.

Bhavisha: I’m curious about the relationship between improvisation and choreography in your work, and how they feed into each other.

Leyya: Sonically there’s nothing pre-programmed, so I’m building the score gradually. The score is totally composed, but I have to build it from scratch during the performance. There are no pre-sets, or samples or anything. I’m doing everything live, there’s nothing sort of dialled in beforehand. So that demands some improvisational mind, because when I’m performing live, any number of things are not in my control, like the PA in the room, the resonance of the floor – every room you’re in has a different resonance and acoustics. Any number of technical things can go wrong. So even though I have a completely mapped out intention, within that intention the composition demands so much room for change, and room for response and responsiveness. And in that same way, that’s how I approach the choreography.

Atlas

Bhavisha: I recently watched Atlas which you performed with musician Mike Khoury.

Leyya: Literally the score for Atlas is that I roll across the floor…It was created in the wake of the massacres in Gaza at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015. I’m rolling on the ground, until I can’t roll anymore, which can last from anywhere between 12 minutes to 17 minutes.

Bhavisha: Watching you roll repeatedly led me to think about exhaustion, and the physical and psychological impact of this action, which also reminds me of a Sisyphean act of repetition.

Leyya: That’s the score: roll until your body stops, until you can’t anymore. I don’t cognitively stop myself; my body just stops rolling. After which I stand up and begin a dance that’s choreographed from A to Z, but because I’ve been rolling for 12 or 15 minutes, I have very compromised control over my nervous system at that point, and in attempting that choreography, different choreography happens. Lime attempts choreography but allows all the other information in the room to change that choreography in a wilful way.

Queering sound

Leyya: You used a good word to describe Lime, disarming. She’s talking about massacre, she’s talking about displacement, she’s talking about mass migration, forced migration, violence. She’s dealing with loss and grief, and she’s crying all the time, she spiritually cries while she’s screaming, but she’s wearing green sequins and she has a green wig on. She’s a club girl, has a bit of a ravey vibe. So, in that way it gives an entrée to those who don’t want to deal with the deeper layers of it. She sings about Babylon and Haqq Al Awda, the right of return, and then all of a sudden, she’s doing these protest dances, so I feel that there’s a bit of bait and switch.

Bhavisha: Following on that, I also think there are certain signifiers that come to represent particular histories and events of war and migration. The sound, imagery and representation of these events are presented in media and contemporary art in particular aesthetic registers, whereas Lime with all her sound and visual signifiers dislocates that. For me it raises the question of what or how should things sound and look like. I think Lime confronts the significations we are offered and subverts that. This extends to the sounds that we associate with people, culture and traditions. I was reading this tome, ‘Sound as a Medium of Art,’ and read this short note by Edgard Varese: ‘Noise is a rebellion against representation.’ It makes me think of the potential for noise to abstract and make opaque.

Leyya: That’s a huge part of what I’m trying to do with Lime, is about queering what loss is supposed to look like or what migration is supposed to look like or what culture is supposed to look like. And I love saying, “This is an active Arab futurism. This is work that speaks to the loss of Syria,” which leaves some people very confused. I think because I have such queer intentions about what she’s all about.

Bhavisha: The text ‘All Sound is Queer’ that you shared with me reminded me that sound and noise can’t necessarily be categorised, dissected or be a fixed signifier of identity. Here Drew Daniel writes, “Sound –not music but sound –can let us hear what is not yet locatable on the available maps of identity.”

Leyya: It’s the un-nameable, and later in the text they refer to sound, which I translate to noise as an indifference. I think indifference is an interesting word, and I would go as far as to say impervious. Noise demands space, it demands its own territory, or in a way it pervades and there’s aggression in it, but there’s also imperviousness…I’m going to sound anyway I want, whether you name it or not. And with relation to Lime, “I’m going to look and sound this way, whether you get it, agree with it, or don’t.”

Crossing thresholds

Bhavisha: How do you read the relationship of noise and violence in relation to that? Or the ungovernability of sound that propels against a system or body?

Leyya: We can also talk about the noise as low frequency sounds where it’s not even audible, but it’s physical. So, you actually feel like a physical barrier is being crossed through the noise, and it can happen on a high frequency sound, which feels actually more violent. But there is a sort of trespassing that happens with noise that is physical that goes beyond our ear holes. I don’t mind using the word violent. I don’t mind my work being felt as violent or acts of noise being felt as violent. I’m a ‘need to raise arms’ kind of girl. That’s my weapon of choice.

Bhavisha: I read the vibration of low frequency and bass as a way for sound to create space of linking, that connects bodies through these vibratory forces. So, in that sense it becomes a kind of connecting device. So sound is a maker of space that has the capacity to forge affinities…But it also requires space to exert those freedoms…

Leyya: Yea, if we’re all being rocked by the same throb.

Bhavisha: That’s why clubs are such important spaces where publics congregate.

Leyya: I feel like that one of the biggest threats we are facing during this pandemic right now, is the breakdown of the club, and the breakdown of the community that can be experienced through sound and sweat.

Proximity

Bhavisha: Can you feel the energy of the audience while you’re performing, and how does the audience figure in your performances?

Leyya: For Lime, she isn’t there for them. Lime just happens to be there, she just appears in the present. She never addresses the audience or tries to pull them into the performance, which invokes a natural voyeurism. You’re voyeuristically watching Lime unless you fall into her world, unless you go into the tarab, then we’re all in it together. When that happens, I feel people in the audience, whereas in other shows it’s more voyeuristic. Lime needs to create her own room. For the performance in Kaiku as part of Today is Our Tomorrow, the floor was awesome, the sound system was insane and that the audience didn’t have a prescribed boundary. I could very much feel that the room came with me. In those situations, I can take people into the portal with me.

Anti-noise

Leyya: Zoom, the app we’re on now, if you don’t uncheck a bunch of options, it will basically normalise noise, compress and cancel it. Don’t cancel ambient noise. The default is very anti-noise. So, if you go to Audio Settings on the bottom and click the arrow on the right. Even under Microphone, where it says ‘Automatically Adjust Microphone Volume,’ you can click or unclick that. So, unclick that. And go to Advanced Settings. Under Advanced it says ‘Suppress Persistent Background Noise’, and you can disable that, or make it moderate or aggressive. 

Bhavisha Panchia is a curator and researcher of visual and audio culture, currently based in Johannesburg. Her work engages with artistic and cultural practices under shifting global conditions, focusing on anti/postcolonial discourses, imperial histories and networks of production and circulation of (digital) media. A significant part of her practice centres on auditory media’s relationship to geopolitical paradigms, particularly with respect to the social and ideological significance of sound and music in contemporary culture.

Lime Rickey International is the superconsciousness of Leyya Mona Tawil, an artist working with dance, sound and performance practices. Tawil is Syrian Palestinian American, engaged in the world as such. She has a 23-year record of performance scores that have been presented throughout the US, Europe and the Arab world. Tawil was named the ISSUE Project Room Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow for 2020 for her project “Nomadic Signals”. She was also a 2018 Saari Fellow (Finland).

Lime Rickey International’s Future Faith, commissioned by Abrons Arts Center and the KONE Foundation, was nominated for a 2019 Bessie Award in Music, and also acclaimed in Artforum International’s Performance Review of 2019. Tawil has received commissions from Target Margin Theater’s LAB 2019, Pieter Performance Space Residency 2020, Gibney Dance-in-Process 2020 and Kenneth Rainin Foundation NEW Program. She is the founder and director of Arab.AMP, a platform for experimental work and ideas from the SWANA diaspora. She also directs TAC: Temescal Art Center in Oakland-CA.

The Blue Skies Conversation Series is produced by International Curators Forum and made possible with support from Art Fund