SPILL STINGS 14: Diamanda Galás

Thu 01 Jan 1970

Theron Schmidt responds to Schrei 27 by Diamanda Galás and Davide Pepe, 22-23 April 2011.
‘If you want to see the externalization of torture,’ says Diamanda Galás in conversation with Robert Pacitti, ‘you can watch any Manson – I mean, Bronson – film.’  Her slip between the two Charles who deal in violence may have been accidental, but it provides a concise critique of the spectacularisation of brutality.  She describes her film collaboration with Davide Pepe, in contrast, as addressing the internalization of torture.  She uses her extraordinary voice and Pepe’s quickshot editing to try to get under the skin, to probe the experience from the perspective of the tortured, and to take her audience with her into some inner experience of helplessness and pain.

The film’s tile, Schrei 27, invokes the legacy of German Expressionist theatre, that early twentieth century movement that wanted to create a theatre that did more than merely imitate reality but was itself real.  The Schrei approach to acting required a new kind of performer, one who could become a kind of medium for essential truths and states of being.  One whose body and voice were honed, broken down, and transformed in order to become something more than human – or maybe something less, something more animal.  One who would be capable of uttering the great shriek, the scream, the wail, the ecstatic howl: the Schrei.  In her discussion with Pacitti, Galás describes this as the kind of sound one might produce when encountering the dead body of one’s own brother; it’s a noise that rises not from the lungs, but from the back of the skull, she says.  And then, without a thought, she makes such a noise.  My skin crawls.  For just three seconds.  And then she stops and laughs.  We all have that feeling, she says.  You think things are fine.  And then one day you get that call.

This was just a taste.  The 27 minutes of the film is the main course.  Through amplified speakers, her voice gurgles, cackles, laughs, grates, rasps, screeches, wails.  There are pauses and silences.  There are whispers and moans.  And there are long, sustained screams.  We see the jittery close-up of a wandering eye.  We see wet tissue opening and closing, the view from an endoscopic camera inside her larynx.  We see a polygraph waveform gone crazy.  We see flesh and electrodes strapped to another body.  We see lungs swelling and pushing the ribs tight against the skin.  We see x-rays and white teeth and clingfilm stretched across her face.  We see the camera at work: double-exposures, time slowed and quickened, flickerings of grainy light.  We get small breaks: interspersed animations of grotesque figures, like line-drawings or charcoal, glowing in neon.  We get a sputtering blackness, an image like the backs of our eyelids.  And then we are back out in the world.  Blinking.  Ears ringing.

Expressionism was a counter-movement to Naturalism, eschewing an imitation of everyday reality in favour of something more sublime.  But walking away from Schrei 27, I find myself thinking about the continuities between the two, rather than the differences.  At the end of the nineteenth century, Naturalism was a radical form, disrupting the tidy fictions of melodrama with portrayals of class, gender, and religious struggle.  Though fourth-wall realism now reeks of artifice, it began in a quest for something more real.  And there is no less artifice at work in Schrei 27: I know that no one is really being tortured, no one is really screaming under duress, no one is really suffocating under the clingfilm.  Galás’s voice is an extraordinary instrument, but it is an instrument, one that she can wield at will – as demonstrated by the quickness with which she produced that shriek in the conversation with Pacitti, in the absence of any dead brothers.  But does recognising the artifice of the work invalidate any ethical claim it may have on the subject of torture and brutality? I don’t think so. Yes, it is not the same as the dilemma one might face in proximity to ‘real’ suffering.  Instead, what is real is my own response, the feeling within my own body.  The unnameable not in her voice but in my ears.  Not in her throat but at the back of mine.  And it is that to which I have an ethical duty.