On Being Human as Praxis

“Human beings are magical. Bios and Logos. Words made flesh, muscle and bone animated by hope and desire, belief materialized in deeds, deeds which crystallize our actualities […] And the maps of spring always have to be redrawn again, in undared forms.” (Wynter 1995: 35, drawing on Aimé Césaire)


Elaine Mitchener, voice/ concept
Ieva Navickaite & Tommaso Petrolo, dancers
Dam Van Huynh, director/choreography
Antony Hateley, lighting designer

MAM. Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik
Richard Haynes, clarinet
Paul Hübner, trumpet
Sabrina Ma, percussion
Sarah Saviet, violin
Caleb Salgado, double bass

On Being Human as Praxis is taken from the title of a critical genealogy of works of Jamaican feminist writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter and edited by Katherine McKittrick. Inspired by Wynter’s insights on how race, location, and time together inform what it means to be human, vocal-movement artist Elaine Mitchener has invited five composers to creatively respond to Wynter’s startling reconceptualization of the human and her attempts to rehistoricize humanness as praxis. For this journey Mitchener’s long-term collaborator, Vietnamese American choreographer Dam Van Huynh, directs her with members of his dance company and the ensemble MAM. Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik.

Jason Yarde
THE PROBLEM WITH HUMANS Volume 1 – An Overview From Under für Stimme und Ensemble (2020) WP
Matana Roberts
“Gasping for air considering your purpose Dissolving …” für Stimme und Ensemble (2020) WP
Laure M. Hiendl
White Radiance (the brand name) für Stimme und Ensemble (2020) WP
Tansy Davies
The rule is love für Stimme und Ensemble (2020) WP
George Lewis
H. narrans für Stimme und Ensemble (2020) WP

Commissioned by Donaueschinger Musiktage
Premiered (online) on 16 October 2020
Realschule, große Sporthalle – Donaueschingen, Germany

Live Premiere on 19 March 2023
Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Main Stage – Berlin, Germany
As part of MaerzMusik


Artist Reflection
The concept behind this project comes from the title of critical genealogy of works edited by Katherine McKittrick of Jamaican feminist writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter and I found her deep and critical insights on how race, location and time together informs what it means to be human completely inspirational.
Following conversations with Bjoern Gottstein in 2017, I felt this would be a wonderful opportunity to build on the kernel of ideas which had been sown earlier by Wynter and to present these at Donaueschingen in 2020. My work is centred around encounter/ engagement and enactment be it physical/ emotional/ political / spiritual and to attempt ways to synthesise this experience for performer/observer (audience members). It was also vitally important for me to present a work that reflected the broad church that is contemporary new music in the 21st Century and invited five composers from African-Diasporic and European backgrounds to compose works inspired by Wynter’s texts and ideas for me and Ensemble Manufaktur für Aktuelle Musik. Each work poses questions on what it means to be human. The struggle between western ideas of ‘Man’ versus Human and that this struggle is fundamental to patterns of injustice throughout the world. The composers have responded by composing works on multiple levels encompassing numerous creative and intellectual modes of expression: hope, pain joy…
In order to construct an hour-long performance where both I and the ensemble would be physically working the space, I called on my long-term collaborator, the Vietnamese-American choreographer/director Dam Van Huynh. He (along with two members of his dance company) would help craft and shape space – what I viewed as the working mechanisms of the piece – and he has constructed a way to fuse the very different pieces together to create a coherent whole.
Our group creatively responded to Wynter’s startling reconceptualization of the human and her attempts to re-historicise humanness as praxis. This musical exploration of what it means to be human can also be experienced as an excavation of the self. Removing our masks (existential and real in our Covid-19 world) and exposing the vulnerabilities and strengths to reset, restore, renew, rebalance. Elaine Mitchener

Director’s Note
As a long time collaborator of the incredible vocal and movement artist Elaine Mitchener, I felt it was vital to approach this work and the theme with sensitive attention to her activist role as a female British artist of Afro-Carribean heritage. My directorial and choreographic approach to this work was to be reflective towards each of the five invited composers and their creative response to the cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter’s reconceptualisation of the human and her attempts to rehistoricise humanness as praxis.
I presented to Elaine – the central figure embodying the totality of the eclectic ideas depicted by each composer – a series of comments and questions both physical and metaphorical pertaining to her cultural history. We explored social impacts upon her as a black female British artist, her personal sense of discovery and the ideas that drive her within the performing space. In collaboration with ensemble Manufaktur für aktuelle Musik and dance artists from Van Huynh Company, each artist along with the space is churned and whipped with a sense of urgency and a need for a response. A depiction of a shared conversation that is heard, sense, felt, touched and embodied.
With the added challenge of social distancing rules for performers within the performance area, there was no longer the possibility of realising the original idea of melding vocal artist, musicians and dancers through the space. However, resulting from the creative process, I felt the restrictions on space and distance imposed between each artist became a further comment on our continual attempt at getting closer and an ever shifting balance in our relationship with others. Dam Van Huynh


Photo credit – Camille Blake, MaerzMusik 2023