Francisca Benitez trained as an architect at the Universidad de Chile, and when she moved to New York City in the late 1990s, most of her artwork focused on the design and use of space. These themes evolved into looking at how people perceive space, and her work was often video-based with strong sound elements. Four years ago, when she began taking classes in American Sign Language (ASL), her creative output took a turn. “What happened is that my whole art practice started to support my goal of learning ASL,” Benitez told Pasatiempo in advance of her participatory performance, Moebius Path, on Friday, Sept. 30, as part of SITE Santa Fe’s biennial, much wider than a line. “I had never been to New Mexico before, so after I was asked to participate in the biennial, the first thing I did was look at a map of Santa Fe. I saw that SITE and the New Mexico School for the Deaf are neighbors, separated by a five-minute walk.”
When Benitez found out the two organizations had never worked together, she wanted to help them forge a connection. In Moebius Path, this takes the form of a group walk from SITE to NMSD — from one side of the Santa Fe Railyard to the other. NMSD high-school students will interpret exhibits at the campus’s Kenneth E. Brasel Centennial Museum, tracing the history of deaf education in New Mexico and the United States. The audience and students then walk back to SITE, where Benitez’s collaborator, Douglas Ridloff, leads an ASL poetry slam.
“Walking together is a concept that’s been present in my work before. I like the relationships that arise between people when they walk together, because it’s unforced,” Benitez said. “You can be quiet or you can interact with others. You can find your level of engagement.”
Benitez, the oldest of six children, was born in Santiago but grew up in the Chilean countryside. Her father, who was deaf, had been an active member of the urban deaf community when he lived in the city, even representing Chile at the World Congress of the World Federation for the Deaf in 1975. His wife and children were hearing and did not learn sign language, so Benitez saw a different side of her father whenever his friends visited or the family took a trip to Santiago, and he would sign with other deaf people. “It required years of training with private tutors for him to develop his speaking and lip-reading abilities, and he was very good at it for someone who was profoundly deaf and who didn’t even wear hearing aids,” she said. “I was always very inspired by how he could move between the hearing world and the deaf world.”
ASL poetry has become a primary area of interest for Benitez and is a natural outgrowth of her former focus on architectural space, because a significant characteristic of this poetry is its physicality. ASL poetry is an oral form experienced by the audience as visual. The literary genre relies on sign language, miming, facial expression, and other elements of dramatic interpretation that allow the poet to draw attention to specific movements to convey meaning and emphasis. It necessitates a different sort of concentration than most hearing people are used to giving when listening to poetry, which is generally received on two levels: the literal meaning of the words being read aloud, and the way the words sound together as the poet has written them. The latter level includes rhymes, repeated vowel and consonant sounds, rhythm, and pacing, and it is often referred to as the music of the language. In ASL poetry, where the words are silent, that music is visual.
“Rhymes are based on hand shape or movement,” Benitez said. “In English the words might not rhyme at all, and the words can be things that are diametrically opposed. For example, the hand shape to make the word ‘bee’ is the same as the hand shape you use to make the words ‘important’ and ‘curious’ and the phrase ‘smoke a joint.’ ”
Benitez’s work has appeared in galleries, museums, and alternative-art spaces internationally, including in Portugal, Sweden, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, France, Guatemala, Italy, and Thailand. In the summer of 2015, she presented As you lean on me and I lean on you, we move forward at the High Line in New York City. The High Line, a 1.45-mile stretch of an abandoned elevated railroad route, formerly known as the West Side Line, runs through the Chelsea neighborhood in Manhattan and was renovated as a public open space over the past decade. Benitez issued a call for deaf collaborators who were interested in poetry, literature, and performance, and then choreographed aspects of a three-part poetry jam that moved through different spaces of the overhead park. Much of the performance was improvised and free-form, up to individual artists to determine, an aesthetic Benitez embraced again for Moebius Path. “When we walk through the Kenneth Brasel Museum, students from the school will present the collection, but not in an official narrative, because that’s already there,” she said. “What I’m interested in are the students’ voices and perspectives, and they have total freedom. It can be a story or a poem using voice or sound; it could be signed, with or without interpretation. It will be a surprise to all of us.”
Poetry performed later in the evening at SITE Santa Fe moves through the biennial exhibit, with pieces offered in response to the artwork displayed in the different rooms. Though some of the poems will be interpreted for a hearing audience, some will not. Poetry, audible or silent, is not always readily accessible the first time someone encounters it. Often listeners pick up only snippets that resonate in some personal way. In this, ASL poetry is no different. “All the hearing people, if we make a little effort, we get it,” Benitez said.
Joanne LeFrak, the director of education and outreach at SITE Santa Fe, recommended thinking about it as a dance performance, where the story being told is visual and spatial. For the past several months LeFrak has been learning about deaf culture and meeting with the administration at NMSD to find ways for the two organizations to work together in the future. Over the summer, she and other members of the SITE staff joined Benitez at a weeklong ASL immersion program at NMSD, where they were encouraged to use only sign language for communication inside and outside of official class settings. “I felt like my brain was working differently to use language using only my eyes and hands,” she said.
SITE will soon begin training interested NMSD students to give tours in the gallery space, opening up job opportunities for students and the means for SITE to offer ASL tours to the public. Going forward, SITE will also provide ASL interpreters at more of its public programs. “As I understand more about authentic accessibility for these students, I’m learning that this is something we have to offer all the time, not just for one-off projects or special occasions,” LeFrak said. “This is such a wonderful example of what can come about when an artist comes to town and wants to work with a local organization. Meaningful and lasting relationships, and change, can develop out of that.” ◀