“2080: Who Killed Sign Language?” — A conversation with Edyta Kozub and Erwan Cirfa.

"2080: Who Killed Sign Language?" — A conversation with Edyta Kozub and Erwan Cirfa. The conversation is hosted by Nikola Śliwa.

[Nikola]: Today, I have two special guests with me – Edyta Kozub, her sign language looks like this, and Erwan Cifra, his sign language looks like this. I’m glad we were able to connect. First, I would like to ask you to tell us about yourselves. Also, an additional question for you, Erwan, do you know Polish Sign Language? How did that happen? Can you tell us?

[Erwan]: Yes, yes, Edyta, will you start?

[Edyta]: Me? Okay. I’ve actually been working in sign language for 12 years now, and some time ago, I also started working in VV (Visual Vernacular) in this art form. That’s some information about me.

[Erwan]: I’ve also been fascinated by sign language for many years, including sign languages in different countries. In France, I also worked as a teacher of French Sign Language – LSF. Over time, I felt the need for a change, so I started working in VV. I had 8 years of experience. I came to Poland for the first time, because I was curious about PJM (Polish Sign Language), and that’s how it all unfolded. I sign in PJM now, not fully, not 100%, but about 90%.

What is VV — Visual Vernacular?

[Nikola]: Wow, that’s cool. Why are we meeting? Soon, there will be a play entitled “2080: Who Killed Sign Language?” We’ll be able to watch it this coming Friday, Saturday, Sunday at the Teatr 21 in Warsaw. But before we talk about the play, I’d like to ask about what you were just discussing – “VV.” Could you explain what VV is? And also, why did you start working in it, how did it begin? Can you tell us?

[Edyta]: VV, in short, stands for Visual Vernacular, part of it is also pantomime – it’s not about movement on stage, but about our bodies. Also, importantly, we select signs from sign language that are visual in nature, and we discard non-visual signs. That’s what VV is all about. It’s part of Deaf culture, there’s nothing like it in hearing culture. It’s characteristic of Deaf culture: story, film, art, movement, we see it all in images.

[Nikola]: Interesting. Why did you start working in VV?

[Edyta]: Are you asking about VV as a theater, or when I first learned about VV? Because I didn’t understand.

[Nikola]: In general, just in general, why are you in VV, why do you want to work in it?

[Edyta]: I believe VV is important, because VV is a part of Deaf culture, without it, it would be impossible. For example, hearing people don’t have it, it’s unique to Deaf people, it’s original, we can’t try to compare it, for example, music – Deaf people have it, hearing people have it, poetry – Deaf people have it, hearing people have it. But VV, Deaf people have it, but hearing people don’t. That’s why I think it’s important to take care of it, it’s a richness, there are no barriers or limitations in the signs here, we can create, be creative, tell stories. It’s enjoyable, simple, clear, something wow.

[Erwan]: That’s important too. Why? I love language. Every language has literature, books, but in sign language, what’s the “equivalent” of literature? Well, that’s VV, it’s artistic signing, I have nothing more to add, it’s just that it’s artistry. 

[Edyta]: Yes, yes. I also believe that sign language is not just about communication, but it’s important to showcase the artistic side of sign language, like VV. It’s not ordinary; it’s beautiful. It’s not just about communication, but there are many possibilities in sign language.

“2080: Who Killed Sign Language?”

[Nikola]: What you both said is really cool. Now let’s focus on the play. Erwan, you’re the creator of this play. Where did the idea for it come from? Can you tell us?

[Erwan]: I’ll try to keep it brief. The title of the play is “2080.” In 2012, on International Deaf Day, I was in France. I wasn’t very interested in history, it was hard for me to understand, so I put it aside. Later, in Russia, there was an artistic festival in 2019. I decided to go there with a different topic and with a friend, but he suddenly changed his mind and didn’t go. I was disoriented, but the organizers told me to go alone. There was no one I could go with, so I decided to revisit the topic I had put aside earlier – VV. At first, I made mistakes because it had been 6 or 7 years since then, I hadn’t had any contact with VV before, only with sign language, so the title remained – it was important and interesting, and I removed the rest. I worked hard on it for two to three weeks in total, and then I went to the competition in Russia. I received a lot of praise at the time, so I was happy.

[Nikola]: Ah, yes, the play is in Poland. Why? How did it happen that you started working in Poland? And second, an additional question: how did you prepare for this play in Poland? Can you tell us?

The Deaf Festival Clin d’oeil in France and Collaboration with Theater 21

[Edyta]: Okay. the Clin d’oeil festival takes place with representatives
coming from various countries. I really liked it; Erwan was performing there too. I watched it 3 or 4 times. I think it’s an important topic for the Deaf community, so I liked it and invited it to Poland. I’ve been to the show many times in France, it’s really rich in terms of performances, Deaf people also perform, Deaf people are also directors, everyone involved is Deaf – it was a wow for me! I thought that Poland lacked this, often in theaters there are hearing people, but there, all the people are pure Deaf. That was a wow.

So I decided that I would like to show what it’s like in France. If someone can’t go to France, I made it so that France came to us, so that we could come to this play in Poland, it’s an opportunity. I contacted Erwan, he agreed to come to Poland. I searched for a venue for a long time, it was very hard to find a venue, a theater, I searched for nearly two years, a long time – partly because of the pandemic, events couldn’t be organized then, so we had to wait. We also looked for a cheaper venue, I asked various people, the venue was very expensive, tickets wouldn’t have been cost-effective. Plus, there were travel costs, accommodation, work. I heard about Theater 21, they agreed, they provided the venue, it was a great cooperation, and now we can meet.

[Nikola]: So there were difficulties, but it worked out.

Deaf Culture and History

[Erwan]: I would also like to add why I agreed? Theater, for me, is not just play, it’s about raising awareness. My experience as a teacher shows me that there are many stories about Deaf people, many interesting things – we selected things and put them into art, we give that history in art.

[Edyta]: History is very important.

[Erwan]: Sometimes we are not aware of our history, hearing people also don’t know, for example, about discrimination against Deaf people. There are many things we don’t know, so it’s important to me. That’s why I agreed to come to Poland, to raise awareness, and the same with other countries. It’s important to me.

[Edyta]: Yes, here the basis is VV, there’s a bit of signing, Erwan knows PJM, so after analyzing the topic, we concluded that it could be done in Poland. There was an opportunity to invite Erwan.

Sign Language in Performance

[Nikola]: You were just talking about PJM, visual elements. Will there be French Sign Language in the play? PJM? You were just talking about PJM, visual elements. Will there be French Sign Language in the play? PJM? Or will it be based solely on visualization? 

[Edyta and Erwan]: No. PJM + VV.

[Nikola]: Ah, PJM+VV. What about someone who can’t sign, can they come to the play? What do you think?

[Edyta]: My goal was for the play to be accessible to everyone, there will be a spoken language interpreter, so if someone doesn’t know sign language, they can come, thanks to the spoken language interpretation, they can understand what’s happening. VV is a bit more advanced, if someone doesn’t know any sign language, it might be a bit challenging for them. If VV were simple, on an easy topic, it would be easy to understand, but this topic is difficult, complex. Those who know sign language can easily understand it, but I prefer to have a spoken language interpreter. Good to know, we’ll remember that.

A Future without Deaf People and Sign Language?

[Nikola]: Now, one last question. The title of the play is quite powerful: “2080: Who Killed Sign Language?” It turns out that in the play in 2080, there are no Deaf people, due to the advancement of technology and medicine, deafness has disappeared. What do you think, if there are no Deaf people, there is no sign language – do you think this is how it will really be for the Deaf community? What does their future look like? How do you feel about it?

[Edyta]: Erwan, would you like to respond?

[Erwan]: It’s hard to say. That’s why this artistic performance exists, to stimulate everyone’s thinking. Personally, I think, yes, that’s how the future will be, there’s a risk that Deaf people won’t exist anymore – due to technological advancements. I used to be fascinated by technology, computers, I read about it, it’s modern, it’s good, but the goal is for deafness to be “cured.” I think so, but it’s not official. This is what I think and what I’m conveying to you. What we do now – our decisions – will impact our future. For example, if we ignore this issue now, the future will look different than if we take action. We are responsible for it now. Will it be exactly as in the play? I don’t know, but I think so.

[Edyta]: I’d like to add: watching the play, taking it in, I thought that sign language is a precious treasure. It’s important that we – people – want to preserve this sign language, that we take care of it. If we give up on this language, for example, there are people with implants, and spoken language is enough for them, I understand that and I don’t have anything against it, speech is important, but we should also take care of sign language.

For example, in schools, there’s only oralism, no sign language, or we don’t teach children sign language as their first language, it’s put on the back burner, speech is more important. The result is that sign language is pushed aside. Technology also affects this. I’m not against implants, that’s okay, if someone wants to hear, that’s okay, but I also think that doctors should provide access to sign language, instead of pushing it away, then sign language will disappear. That’s what worries me, and it makes me sad, because I want to take care of sign language. I hope this will make people think and make decisions about what we will do next.

[Nikola]: Thank you very much for this conversation. I really feel inspired, and I hope that many people will want to experience this play. Edyta, Erwan, thank you for both sharing information about this performance, how it looks, and other details. I warmly invite everyone: on September 29, 30, and October 1 in Warsaw to watch the play. I think it’s worth it. I also invite you to Teatr 21, check out their website, it’s worth seeing how it operates. And a link to the event will be added to the video. So, thank you very much.

[Erwan]: Thank you.

[Edyta]: Thank you very much for inviting us to the interview.

You can find more information about the performance on the Theater 21 website. Link: WHO KILLED SIGN LANGUAGE / DIRECTED BY ERWAN CIFRA (click).

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