Stutter as Story

stern.jpg About the presenter: nathaniel stern (NYC / Johannesburg) is an internationally exhibited installation artist, net.artist and performance poet, producing solo and collaborative theatre and art objects. He currently works as an adjunct distance faculty member of the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, external lecturer and supervisor at the Wits School of Arts' Digital Arts MA (South Africa), and freelance lecturer at Newtown's Anti-Retroviral Theatre program and The South African School Of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance. His homepage is

stutter as story

by nathaniel stern
from South Africa

My own experience with stuttering is limited - like most people, I occasionally stutter (infrequently, and usually by repeating anything from the first syllable, to the first few words, of a sentence), but it has never led me to seek help or support.

As an artist, I've been working on projects that explore the relationship between the body and text in general, and have always had an interest in the unspoken communication inherent to any dialogue. I often perform poetry, install exhibitions and act in videos as several different characters in order to accent the potentials of difference, perception and possibility.

When I began trying to "perform" one character (who I call odys, taken from The Odyssey) he stuttered. Or rather, I, without initial intent, stuttered when playing him.

My research then led me from storytelling and utterances in the theoretical realm, to the etymology of the word stuttering and interviewing of stutterers in Johannesburg, South Africa.

I found that the origins of the word were placed mostly in famous stutterers, and it was used to describe their ways of communicating as something to awe -- as characteristic to both who they were in the world, and how one was expected to interact with them.

In literature, the first appearances of the word were as evocative descriptions; we always already have connotations to this effect: a light stutter could be fanciful and fun, whilst a hard one might portray anger juxtaposed with indecision.

When I began interviewing stutterers, I wasn't too surprised to find that it was within certain situations, not with specific words, that most people would stutter. In this same light, someone who generally stutters will most likely not do so when they are acting, when they are singing, or when they are alone.

More or less, I found many people who believed that unlearning to stutter was difficult because it was part of them, part of how they communicated in their natural state, in their native tongue; a stutter is a storytelling device -- a natural form of dialogue. What this means that we all may stutter in the everyday, in some way, shape or form. Without stutters, we mightn't be able to say certain kinds of things. We speak not only with words, but how we say such words. Sometimes, we have to perform, rather than simply speak, our emotions or thoughts.

This led me to my artwork -- stuttering -- described in brief below:

According George Lakoff, author of Philosophy In The Flesh, human communication is always already mediated. Our emotions, our past and the memories it carries, cannot be separated from it. Because of our flesh -- the ways in which our bodies and senses speak to each other, whether or not we are aware - our communications convey much more than transparent information. We speak beyond the surface.

stuttering proposes a space which accents how we effect, and are affected by, conversation and comprehension. It suggests that stillness and stumbling play a role in the un/realized potentials of memory and storytelling.

Newsprint is scattered about the floor, containing quotes and passages about stutterers, situations in which stuttering, in its broadest sense, is common, and suggestions of when and where we should "make stutters," in order to break "seamless" communication. Each viewer in the space triggers a large-scale interactive art object projected on the wall in front them. This projection is broken into a Mondrian-like mirror, where each sub-section, initialized by body-tracking software, animates one of the floor-found quotes; every animation is accompanied by an audio recitation of its text.

stuttering thus creates a tense environment through its inescapable barrage of stuttering sound and visual stuttering: noise. Only by lessening their participation will the information explosion slow into an understandable text for the viewer. The piece asks them not to interact, but merely to listen. Their minimal movements, and the phrases they trigger, literally create new meaning.

This might be a good time for you look at the linked video, so you get an idea of how the piece works. Then you'll see that, in a sense, I was asking people to listen to a stutterer, with their bodies instead of their ears. Rather than creating a fun interactive piece that asked people to jump about, I made a situation that asked them to slow down. It provoked them to work through each box and its phrase gently, to massage a poem into existence by gathering up the text in the space around them. (You will need a Quicktime Player installed to view the movies).

From a technological perspective, the piece "saw" viewers in the space, and triggered phrases based on where they moved to -- the more quickly they moved, the more real-time responses -- making what it said, or rather what a viewer said with it, unintelligible.

So people who began by playing with a toy, learned how to listen through concentrated, physical efforts. In doing so, by framing their bodies in a way that allowed stuttering to speak, they also changed themselves. Their own bodies began to stutter past the little boxes, in order to make sense of the space. The stutter became essential to a communication between body and text.

In all, this piece was about exploring the complex negotiations that happen between speaker and listener -- even when we are playing both roles at the same time. What I, and my engaging participants, learned, is that communication comes to and from us in ways that even we do not fully comprehend.

stuttering was selected as an exhibiting finalist in the Brett Kebble Art Awards, October 2003, Cape Town, South Africa, where it won a merit award in the New Media category. It was also exhibited at the launch of the new Wits School of the Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, October 2003, as a solo installation in the substation, with a followup feature in THISDAY, a national South African daily paper. Additional information about this project is available at

August 2004