tl;dr Audibility is partner to visibility which allows us to understand what is heard as opposed to what is perceived. This gives us a framework for understanding the violence of silencing and grants various pathways into artistic creation.
All right folks, this is the final theory about my installation, Under Construction. I might even shut up about it afterwards! Wouldn’t that be exciting? This is the theory I’m most proud of because it provides a tangible model for understanding invisible identities, visibility and silencing.
The interplay between what is seen and what is heard is an important facet of nonbinary performance and identity. Usually, the trans community focuses on visibility: being seen in society as our genders. It not only is a form of validation, it provides the practical benefit of being able to campaign for legal recognition and presents those who know nothing about trans people with sympathetic narratives. However, as it is impossible to perform nonbinary gender, it is impossible for nonbinary gender to be visible.
Cis identities are similarly invisible, as they are considered default in society. However, cis invisibility comes from dominance while nonbinary invisibility comes from ignorance. Seeing cis identities happens when we challenge the assumed status quo that privileges cis identities. Seeing nonbinary identities happens when we listen and inform ourselves about what to look for.
But, even armed with information, society denies us a framework with which we can communicate nonbinary identities through visual presentation. There’s no real way to completely remove nonbinary invisibility without forming a new society (I’m all for that, but it, sadly, might take some time).
In response to this inevitable invisibility, I would like to propose the concept of audibility. A nonbinary person may not be their gender visibly, but they can express their gender through the use of explanations and be their gender audibly. Even if we can’t be seen, we can be heard. That is important. I stopped caring as much about what I looked like when I realized there were other ways I could be perceived and accepted.
Silencing in terms of audibility
This then brings us to a major issue that I’ve experienced quite a lot: silencing. In order to maintain hegemony, privileged classes must control the way the oppressed express themselves which means actively stopping a trans person’s audibility.
Invisibility is about lack of visibility and erasure is about rendering someone invisible. Similarly, inaudibility occurs when someone is not heard or listened to and silencing is the actively rendering someone inaudible. Some really good examples of this are the numerous documentaries about trans people created by cis people. While trans people are visible in these, their personal words and experiences are often silenced in favor of cis fascination and fetishizing of the trans body. Even with the visibility, this can cause huge harm for trans people, because we are only being seen, not heard. I can’t help but wonder if visibility at the loss of audibility is worth it.
For a nonbinary person, silencing can be particularly painful, because we don’t have access to the validation that comes from visibility. When we are silenced, it tells us that only the visible aspects of our identity are important. It tells us that we have less value because we are less visible. And it continues to perpetuate this idea that trans people only need visibility.
Fun fact: I kind of think we need both. But, since nonbinary people can’t be visible, it would be super great if we could at least get some audibility!
Bringing audibility and silencing into art
In case you’re not a regular follower of my whinings, here’s a brief context for this project I keep going on about: I was studying on a one year dance program and ended up submitting a formal complaint about a transphobic guest speaker. My words were twisted and misrepresented, staff chose to listen to my cis peers more than they chose to listen to me, and my identity was called into question and disrespected at a scope much broader than the actual complaint. Basically, I was silenced from a lot of different directions and this installation was a direct response to that.
To increase visibility, I situated the installation in two central, glass-walled rooms in the building. This meant that many people, not just those who entered the rooms, saw and experienced the installation. In an environment and culture that had actively silenced me, I wanted to make my audibility unavoidable. However, the clarity of the installation was distorted for anyone looking at it from above, instead of from inside. The conversation was not always understandable, similar to conversations around trans inclusion in places like my school that are facing a situation like mine for the first time.
I worked without audio or speaking to draw attention to silencing. While a room full of people is never going to be completely silent, I still was. My audibility came through written texts. My audience could choose whether or not to read them and whether or not to then allow that information to impact the way they gendered me, thus being in absolute control of my audibility.
On the back of my texts, visible only to those outside of the space through the glass, I wrote out generalized versions of phrases that had been used to silence me throughout the year. Out of context, many of these appeared harmless, showing how necessary it is to look beyond the surface to see how words are weaponized to silence trans audibility. It was a direct representation of and challenge to the act of silencing.
I also tried to challenge the default invisibility of cis identities. As I knew that the majority of my audience was cis, I ask them to display their responses to the final question to encourage the audibility of my audience’s gender, making their identity more audible as well.
Since delving into audibility as a theory, I have found myself less occupied with struggles around visibility. While I used to believe that visibility was a goal for all trans people, I have come to realize that my personal goal is audibility. This particularly forms my artistic practice because it brings back the age-old English class question of show versus tell. How do you create art, especially something as visual as dance, when you can’t show? I’ve been exploring new ways to make the act of telling more visible and tangible.
Another artistic pathway I have been recently following is audibility and silence in percussive dance. My training is in dance that makes noise. For productions such as Stomp!, companies like Barbatuques , dancers like Sandy Silva, and yes, even Riverdance, the sound and visual are interlinked and inseparable. I have struggled to find the relationship between my traditional and percussive dancing and my transness, and I think this may be a direction I start going in.
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Mock, J. (2015, February 16). A Note on visibility in the wake of 6 trans women’s murders in
- [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://janetmock.com/2015/02/16/six-trans-women-killed-this-year/