Q&A: Alison Crocetta on Bear in Mind (The Bill of Rights)

Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio Curator

Jul 22, 2020

Bear in Mind (The Bill of Rights) a video by Alison Crocetta, 2006. This work was performed by American Sign Language Interpreter, Charlene McCarthy with production photo by Bradley Olson.

With Bear in Mind (Bill of Rights) streaming Out of the Box through July 31, I took the opportunity to speak with filmmaker and Ohio State Associate Professor Alison Crocetta and Charlene McCarthy, who collaborated with Crocetta on the 2006 work. They reflect on the work and discuss some of the details of their collaborative process. The following exchange unfolded over a series of conversations and email exchanges. 

The move online for the Box program has turned out to be a really great opportunity to revisit works from the Film/Video Studio’s 25-plus year archive and to reconsider them in a new context. I wanted to show your video precisely because it felt, after 15 or so years, that it still resonates. However, what interested me as a viewer in 2020 were deeper and perhaps more challenging questions that the piece highlights. It’s become crystal clear that our rights as citizens (the first 10 constitutional amendments) are under constant attack and that they do not apply—and have never historically applied—to everyone in this country for reasons that are totally interdependent. You clearly were thinking through these issues in 2006 but, looking back at the work from this particular social and political moment, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by the police and the subsequent protests around the world, how are you thinking about these rights now? 

Alison Crocetta: I am aware that United States citizens, and many people living peaceful and productive lives in our country, have not been afforded these basic human rights throughout our history. Like most journeys, my knowledge, insight and understanding has grown over time and through my lived experience. For instance, when I made this work, I was deeply troubled by the horrific treatment of prisoners in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. At that time, I was aware of the habitual offender laws in the United States that are commonly referred to as the three-strike laws. However, it is only in recent years that I have truly started to understand how these laws, and the deeply problematic and biased ways they are enforced, have resulted in mass incarceration and continued the legacy of slavery and structural racism that America is built on. 

In recent months, I have been reflecting, once again, on the significance of our First Amendment rights of free speech and the right to assemble as our country protests systematic injustices that have been exemplified by ongoing police brutality towards the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities. This has been particularly on my mind in the wake of recent developments in places like Hong Kong as they navigate China’s newly implemented national security law. These situations underscore the sad truth that human rights, however hard-won, can be erased in an instant. 

Tell me more about your interest in the body and the ways it might hold our differences but also its potential to make connections between us? 

AC: My consistent engagement with the body in my work is tied to my interest in the experiences that connect all bodies. I want to explore the broad range of psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects of existing within our unique physical forms. For example, I have done a lot of work that uses my breath as both material and performed action. These works are always connected to the fragility of this mostly unconscious cycle that reflects our moment to moment experience and bookends our lives. 

Ultimately, I have come to recognize that each of our bodies has a story to tell. These stories are written into our physicality and inform our body language. They may even be knitted, through trauma, into our nervous system. The stressors of lived intersectionality are recorded in our individual and collective body stories. For instance, it is well documented that the current COVID-19 pandemic is resulting in a markedly higher mortality rate from the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 within BIPOC communities. The reasons for this are layered and tied to a range of issues such as implicit bias, prior health conditions, and the impact of long-term stress on immunity as Mental Health America has succinctly outlined here. As a woman who has lived through my own experience of sexual assault, as well as its post-traumatic aftermath and recovery, I am for a world where all bodies are treated with equal dignity, care and respect. 

"Ultimately, I have come to recognize that each of our bodies has a story to tell. These stories are written into our physicality and inform our body language. They may even be knitted, through trauma, into our nervous system."
Alison Crocetta

You mention the physicality of language, which I see as the core of this work. Can you elaborate on how you explore the gestural nature of language and, specifically its physical embodiment as performed through American Sign Language (ASL)?

AC: Before starting to make films in 2002, I was primarily making durational performances that took place within immersive installations of my own making and required fairly intense physical endurance. These works, and my early films, were often focused on the ability of the body to communicate without language because I am acutely aware that most of our communication as humans is nonverbal. So, when I was looking for a way to translate the Bill of Rights, for as broad an audience as possible, I immediately thought of ASL. It was really important, to me, that this work come through the body in a grounded and empowered manner. 

Songs for My Sisters, a durational performance by Alison Crocetta for the Curitiba International Biennial in Curitiba, Brazil, 2015. Photo credit: Lauro Borges

Songs for My Sisters, a durational performance by Alison Crocetta for the Curitiba International Biennial in Curitiba, Brazil, 2015. Photo credit: Lauro Borges

You usually perform the actions in your durational performances and films but here you collaborated with Charlene McCarthy, who performs onscreen. Can you tell me more about this choice to work with Charlene?

AC: Although I have collaborated with other performers over the years, this was the only time that I was unable to perform in my work because I lacked the requisite skill of ASL. I needed to work with a performer who was capable of embodying the text of the Bill of Rights via ASL. I chose to work with Charlene McCarthy on this project because I felt that she really understood my intentions and could honor the heart of the work. Charlene’s performance, as recorded in this video, was a real tour de force and complete celebration of the body’s capacity to communicate.

The sound is such a critical part of the piece, conceptually and physically. How did the idea of using the gloss as a spoken, audio element develop?

AC: Initially, I had intended to use a recording of the Bill of Rights as it was written as the soundtrack for the video. In fact, I have a beautiful recording in my archive of Charlene reading the Bill of Rights that I might like to show in conjunction with this work in a future exhibition. However, when Charlene shared the first draft of her ASL gloss with me, I knew that this would become the sonic center of the work. I found the gloss to be very clear, direct and moving in its economy and, for me, the shift in syntax creates a poetry that amplifies the meaning of her physical gestures. It was also a central practical and conceptual priority of the work that a person who is blind could listen to this video and understand the heart of the message. The ASL gloss breaks the Bill of Rights down for us in a manner that aligns with the urgency of my desire to communicate these intended rights to all viewers and listeners at any time in our country’s unfolding. 

Charlene, your contributions to this project were significant in terms of how the Bill of Rights was both translated and interpreted via ASL. How is glossing traditionally used in the ASL community and what are the differences in syntax?  Also, Alison mentioned that this piece was recorded in a single take. What was that experience like and did your preparation for either the gloss or your performance differ in any way from the work you do as an ASL interpreter?

Charlene McCarthy: Glossing is not ever used in the ASL community amongst Deaf/HOH sign language users. If you were to ask a Deaf person (who is not a linguist or ASL teacher) what gloss means, they would have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Gloss is not a language. There is no written form of ASL, since it is a visual gestural language. Glossing is more or less a tool used by hearing people when trying to learn ASL or when using English to explain or describe something signed in ASL. In other words, if a Deaf person was to sign something and a hearing person was to write down words for what was signed, that would be a gloss. For example, a hearing person might say “I’m going to buy a new house next year.” If a Deaf person expressed the same concept in ASL, and if you were to write down word for word what was signed, the written version might look something like this: “Next year, house new, me buy.” (Books that are used for educational purposes exhibit a far more complex version of glossing that includes notation for non-manual markers, or facial expressions, where much of the grammar is presented.) Historically, when linguistic oppression was rampant, many ignorant hearing people thought of ASL as broken English. But decades ago, linguists proved that ASL is simply a different language, much like any other spoken language. ASL is a visual gestural language that has unique grammatical, lexical and linguistic features distinct from English. 

Glossing is also used as a way to remember how to sign something. In general, glossing is not used by interpreters when working in the field day-to-day. Glossing is used rarely and typically only used when dealing with “frozen text.” For example, when learning how to sign the “Pledge of Allegiance,” an ASL student or Sign Language Interpreter may draft a gloss, so one can rehearse, memorize and repeat. An interpreter might gloss when preparing for an assignment that includes frozen text. For example, if a song is going to be sung, an interpreter would need to analyze the text and process that information on a linguistic level in order to come up with the best way to convey the same message in ASL. One might accomplish this by glossing. 

Regarding the work I did with Alison, analyzing the text was absolutely essential. What do those amendments mean and how are they to be interpreted? And then, how are they to be interpreted in a different language? Therein lies the challenge. The reason I chose to draft a gloss was twofold—I was dealing with a frozen text AND, more importantly, it was to be video recorded in hopefully one take. I chose to actually listen to my gloss while being video recorded, instead of listening to the spoken English version, because I wanted to sign exactly what I had glossed. As far as I know, this has never been done. Ordinarily, glossing is only used as a method to prepare, rehearse and/or possibly memorize. And normally no one would ever hear the gloss. It was Alison’s genius idea to include the audio of the gloss. 

Top of page: Video stills from Bear in Mind (The Bill of Rights) by Alison Crocetta, 2006. This work was performed by American Sign Language Interpreter, M. Charlene McCarthy

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