REVIEW: Numbers Increase As We Count… Courts Imperceptibility to Great Effect
“One thousand, one hundred, and seventy-seven. One thousand, one hundred, and seventy-eight.”
“We are not even close.”
In Numbers Increase As We Count…, a resonant and thoughtful new work by creator and director Ülfet Sevdi, the numbers themselves slip in and out of our perception. Through the performances of Itir Arditi, Burcu Emeç, and Sevdi, and immersive sound work of Nicolas Royer-Artuso, the audience is witness to and participant in a multidisciplinary questioning of the role that we play in holding onto ongoing injustices—injustices that can only be conceived of by ever-increasing statistics.
“I don’t want any release” says Sevdi, describing the relationship between performance and audience in a roundtable interview with Arditi, Emeç, Royer-Artuso. “It’s a performance, but I say it’s a protest.” Created over the course of roughly three years of collaboration, the performance is an ongoing effort to count and carry the names of women who have been and continue to be commodified and trafficked in post-Western occupation Iraq, after decades of United Nations legislations, military interventions, and resource exploitation. Flowing between poetic sequences of movement and fact-based sections of video and readings that provide historical context, Numbers Increase As We Count… opens with the audience reading aloud an introduction to the experience of witnessing war; read in French or English by audience members, Sevdi translates these experiences into Turkish. Already, we are complicit as storytellers. In conversation, Sevdi, Royer-Artuso, Arditi, and Burcu discuss the weight of weaving politics into theatrical work, and their aim of inciting the audience to consider their positions in the face of the oppressions. “I don’t put distance between “they” and “me”… I am part of [it]” explains Sevdi. Indeed, the most powerful moments in Numbers Increase As We Count… come through in the synthesis between Sevdi, Arditi, and Emeç’s movements in relation to projected stills and videos behind them, while Royer-Artuso’s composition and design engulf the space. With gentle pulls and graceful repositions, Arditi and Emeç pose through a series of tableaux that mimic images of women in situations of increasing violence. Throughout the performance and videos of rehearsals, they count upwards in an ongoing tally. There is an pointed intimacy between the performers as we hear Sevdi warn them to be careful in their counting, rendering the numbers both incomprehensible in scope and deeply personal.
What is the effect of these heavy numbers on the body? It is a challenging translation to turn numbers, statistics, and stacks of images into affect. Numbers Increase As We Count… never quite settles on where it wants the audience to land in this translation, oscillating between an appeal for us to be informed, to be empathetic, and to risk being overwhelmed by the impotence of the roles of audience and performer in the face of tragedy. Despite the volume of information in written descriptions, video interviews, and participatory readings of official reports, the specificity of the tragedy remains out of reach as we never hear directly from the subjects of the count. The language of trafficking and prostitution is not interrogated as it could be. The logistics of passing microphones, shifting between movements, and having the performance shift from lobby to theatre and back interrupt the emotive momentum that gathers in the more overtly theatrical sections of the work. These shifts feel purposeful, however, continually re-positioning an audience who might otherwise slide into passive empathy, looking on as Sevdi, Arditi, and Emeç move gently through trauma.
As the performers leave the stage at the play’s conclusion the silence extends, before audience members begin the rustling of gathering their things and moving back into the lobby. There, a video installation on three screens has already started, featuring interviews with women who were invited to join the count. There is no applause at the end of a protest, no laudatory toast in the middle of rehearsal. We are not so much watching a performance or a protest—which might imply a known outcome—as we are watching an ongoing practice of refusal, refusal to allow numbers to drift upwards without the weight of names and histories that keep them close and bind them together.
Megan Gnanasihamany is an artist and writer based on Tioh’tia:ke/Montreal island. They have performed as a feminist Tennis star on a pan-Albertan tour, presented on the impossibility of presenting performance, and filmed an exploration of the question, “how can I get plants to like me back?” Megan is interested in ecological criticisms, interrogating cultural concepts of labour, and the thoughts of their cat, Handpig.