Music Clips: Redefining Listening

     |    Sunday December 23rd, 2012

Music videos for the deaf – in the early 1980’s the concept might have been the basis of a particularly irreverent Saturday Night Live sketch. The idea is also reminiscent of a not-so politically correct jab at the art world in John Waters’ film “Pecker” in which a blind photographer is hyped as the newest rage. “Pecker” is cited in an essay by the late music critic Martin Büsser about “Music in Sign Language” (1998) by West Berlin avantgardists Die Tödliche Doris. The project is just what the title says – a rendition of the group’s 1981 debut album in German sign language. But it was more than the latest in a series of playful conceptual gestures Die Tödliche Doris had become famous for. The piece was created together with deaf artists and working sign language interpreters and really redefined what “music”, “listening” and the inclusion of non-hearing and hearing people in cultural production and reception can be.

Büsser’s text and “Music In Sign Language” are currently part of the exhibition and accompanying catalogue “Gesture Sign Art -Deaf Culture/Hearing Culture” which explore sign language as communication, culture and art. Other featured artists and contributors include visual artists Roman Signer and Ming Wong, American Sign Language (ASL) poet Peter Cook, composer John Cage, performance and multimedia artist Christine Kim Sun, choreographer-artist Valeska Gert, performance artist-activist Gunter Trube and Die Tödliche Doris co-founder Wolfgang Müller (who co-curated the exhibition with Belgian art critic/educator An Paenhuysen). I was amused, inspired and touched by all the works, but naturally one exhibit in particular excited me – three totally inclusive music clips by Finnish rappers Signmark. The band consists of Signmark, the moniker of Marko Vuoriheimo, a deaf MC and Brandon, a hearing rapper. Using low frequencies which can be “felt” as well as “heard”, Signmark perform their texts in English and in American Sign Language for a truly multi-lingual and inclusive experience. This approach is further underlined in their videos, which make expert use of spoken and written text, sign language, music, movement in the frame and by the camera, editing and imagery – inclusive in the use of all elements the music clip has to offer as well as being accessible for the deaf and hearing alike. Here are the three clips presented in the exhibition:

Smells Like Victory

Speakerbox (feat. Osmo Ikonen)

Our Life (Deaf Rap)

Some parting words from Andreas Costrau, founder of the sign language service agency and educational institution Gebaerdenservice: “In the past people used to say ‘non-hearing culture’; nowadays it’s mainly ‘deaf culture’. I’d like to think that in the future we’ll be talking in terms of ‘visual culture'”. The music clip is one artform that can promote this idea.


“Gesture Sign Art” is on view at Kunstraum Kreuzberg in Berlin until January 13, 2013.

Signmark will perform in Berlin on January 10, 8:00 p.m., at S.O.36. More information here.

On January 13, the Berlin finals of “Deaf Slam”, a poetry slam workshop with non-hearing and hearing contestants, will take place at the Podewil at 7:00 p.m. More information here (in German).

“Deaf Jam”, a documentary about joint ASL and spoken English slams in New York featuring Peter Cook along with ASL poetess Aneta Brodski and her performing partner, hearing poetess Tahani Salah, is being screened throughout Germany as part of the touring film festival “überall dabei” organized by welfare organization Aktion Mensch.