On Marco Donnarumma’s »Ex Silens«

Marco Donnarumma has the image a ribcage tattooed on his chest because his body is the representation of a body. He hammers this point home for roughly 70 minutes in what ranks in my top three CTM Festival experiences right next to Thomas Ankersmit fucking with everyone’s ears at HAU1 that one time and Kevin Richard Martin premiering »Sirens« in Berghain a year or two later. »Ex Silens« is distinct from those two because it is not primarily about sound and our own or another mode of perception of it, but how we perceive the perception of the Other. What I’m trying to say with this is that never in my life have I felt such an intense urge to become included in a performance by being touched by a performer, that rarely in my life have I felt such a need to bawl my eyes out after a performance (which I then didn’t do).

Marco Donnarumma seems, much like his tattoos, to be an on-the-nose kind of artist. He’s wearing only a speedo in the colour of his skin and something on his head that I can only describe as a thing which looks like a squid made out of melted caramel. He has some, I think they are called transducers, glued to his chest and arms to link up his movements, that are just movements, with the sound and vice versa, as I understand it. He is also fucking around with cochlear implants, the press release mentions something something »Artificial Intelligence,« and of course he drags some cables after him as a representation of his or rather a nervous system. So yeah, we’re about to venture into post-human territory along with him, this much I understand.

Marco Donnarumma’s »Ex Silens,« and the title spells this out ambiguously, is a piece about becoming, about becoming deaf but also about becoming something more than human. Especially in the latter sense, I think he might have outdone himself, if only by doing something to me. He does it by moving around the room like Nosferatu, hunched over and with the awkward angular slowness of someone who wants to represent an abject. He’s starting off the performance on a platform on one side of the room on something that looks like a wooden suitcase, doing these slow Gargoyle kind of twists with his extremities while the lights from behind him are blinding me. This is on the nose, too, but my intense sensitivity to bright lights makes it feel like a threat to my well-being, so obviously I’m hooked.

Marco Donnarumma at some point finally starts to traverse the room. He starts his journey through all those people seated motionlessly around him on the floor, and it takes him maybe 30 minutes to reach the other end. All of this unfolds in a painfully slow and repetitive, painfully slow and repetitive, painfully slow and repetitive way. He’s of course doing the thing where he hugs himself, where he makes every single one of his movements seem jerky even though his movements are painfully slow, and all of these repetitive movements of his, which are the representation of moving and being moved, trigger and/or respond to sounds that are neither concrete nor abstract. They remind me of Aube, who often has re-presented his body as sound before falling forever silent, leaving only loud records behind.

Marco Donnarumma’s body triggers and/or responds to the sounds of someone finding out that the world gradually stops resonating with him. His performance represents the loss of self and the world around him brought about by the loss of hearing. He does, in other words, precisely what many people would expect from a performance that deals with the subject of disability, and he turns it into—the title spells this out, too—a hero’s journey. In the third part, he has reached the platform on the other side of the room. While the most intense bass frequencies I have ever experienced—both acoustically and physically, because that’s not the same, especially not in this context—wash over me with a force that makes me concerned I might shit myself and leaves me physically disoriented when it just stops from one second to the next, he fondles what looks like the representation of a human spine that is glued to a metal sheet.

Marco Donnarumma, whose body is the representation of a body, is working with the representation of a body without organs here, organs he then adds by sticking cochlear implants onto the sheet. This represents the post-human dream and its drive and is both the endgame as well as the starting point of this performance—or so I think, because this is not an Aristotelian or dialectical three-act show. What we’re bearing witness to instead is not the conclusion of the representation of a story that consists of setup, confrontation, and the final resolution, but one that is different and more than that: He returns to the centre for another round of confrontation. He had reached out to people on his way to the second platform, caressing them, making them feel him and letting them feel themselves, and to hear a re-presentation of how that sounds or could sound like. But now, something different takes place. He’s doing things to people, including me.

Marco Donnarumma, in the fourth part of this performance, is indeed becoming post-human; he is becoming the re-presentation of a Messiah. I’m sitting there, tense and hyperfocused like I haven’t been in years, watching people reach out to him, to the representation of a body that after these past 50 minutes or so has transcended them. I see swathes of people inching closer to him because they want to be felt and feel themselves so badly through him that they lose control over their bodies, which are just bodies, and their movements. Even from the back of the room, I can sympathise, no, emphasise with that because I feel the same desire, and empathy might actually be the desired effect. However, I also can’t help but think that this dynamic unfolding before my very eyes and within my own mind can only be described as an act of collective fetishisation of his body that is a body that represents a theme and that theme is disability.

Marco Donnarumma performs for an audience comprising mostly so-called able-bodied people like me at a festival that for me started a week ago with someone touching my arms and shoulders repeatedly, asking me things like are you alright, are you okay, are you s i c k? because I was wearing a mask to a concert. Paul-Henri Campbell has coined the term salutonormativity to describe how this world has been constructed, which base assumptions went into its design, and which thoughts it produces in turn. Festivals like these of course strive to be inclusive and thus non-normative, but they will never be not exclusive because they are (not) Other-places. This is why their optimism is cruel and the majority of their audiences healthy and capable in all the normative ways. This is the problem, this is the question that resonates through »Ex Silens.«

Marco Donnarumma performs in the midst of an audience for whom actively thinking about disability and its implications plays no role in everyday life; for whom it doesn’t appear to be a normal, everyday thing that people make use of certain tools, aids, and devices to navigate a world in which their bodies and minds are considered obstacles. (The German word for disability, Behinderung, can just as well mean that it is the world that hinders people; people for whom cruel optimism isn’t so much a state of mind but a mode of being that they have not chosen.) That is ironic in many ways, and it is especially so because this is precisely what we are here to see, to listen to, to emphasise with while we end up fetishising it. Is this not a mirror effect of salutonormativity?

Marco Donnarumma might not have intended his audience to react in this way, or rather out of these reasons, though it is a perfectly normal reaction for people who never had to bury their dead after a lifetime of suffering or felt the second-hand hostility of a world that hinders people resonate within them. That however is precisely what is so emotionally stirring to me: It is the opposite of what I experienced at Pop-Kultur a few years back when a noise rap band from Belgium whose two MCs have Down syndrome played to a room full of normal festival visitors who just wanted to check out the music; people who had not come to see the Other but a normal performance. When it was over, I sat down in a quiet corner to cry over how unremarkable all of it had been.

Marco Donnarumma and his performance however have the reverse effect on the audience and also me, feeling like I should bawl my eyes out but not doing that in the end. By being so on the nose about what his body as a body, what his hero’s journey of becoming both deaf and something more than human represents, he has turned our presence into the ultimate abject. »Ex Silens« is about—and no, I’m of course not entirely sure whether the performance was meant to represent this, but I felt like that was what has been re-presented to me for roughly 70 minutes—how we perceive the perception of the Other, realising that the Other is us in the most painfully slow way. It simply is not possible to cry over that.