Navigating Our Place in the World with Kaneza Schaal

The company of CARTOGRAPHY (L-R) includes Janice Amaya, Noor Hamdi, Malaika Uwamahoro, Vuyo Sotashe, and Victoria Nassif.

CARTOGRAPHY is a “stunning” (The New York Times) and timely theatrical work that follows five young refugees searching for a new place to call home. Created in collaboration with Artist-in-Residence Kaneza Schaal and writer and illustrator Christopher Myers, CARTOGRAPHY draws on their work with refugee youth from around the world. The interactive performance combines visual arts, storytelling, filmmaking, sound sensor technology, and even audience cell phones to represent all of our collective journeys.

Kaneza Schaal will be on-hand at Mason for the week before the performance, engaging with Mason students and the greater community as part of her residency. Kaneza sat down with the Center for the Arts to talk about CARTOGRAPHY, her residency, and her interests in integrating technology into performance.

When did you begin CARTOGRAPHY, and what inspired your writing journey?

Kaneza: CARTOGRAPHY grew out of our work in Munich 2016 with young people who came to the city on their own from around the world.

Earlier that year, The New York Times had reported 30,000 people were arriving in Munich each day. We asked ourselves what we had to offer, as artists to this moment. We worked with kids from Mali, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Eretria, Nigeria, and Syria. They had crossed oceans in inflatable rafts, walked through forests, hidden themselves in the holds of cargo trucks. At the end of our work together, when we asked the group what should we do next, what do they want from us, they said we want a place to be seen. They said that after spending so long having to hide, where invisibility was part of survival, being seen was the most valuable part of our time together. They said we should create places for kids like them to be seen.

CARTOGRAPHY is our answer to this request. The piece creates a platform for audiences to consider their own histories of movement, how we all place ourselves in the continuum that led to this historical moment of the largest mass migration in human history.

For us, the most powerful part of the work in Munich was creating a context for young people to think together about these questions. There was a group of girls working with us who all lived in the same residence. We did a mapping exercise where each participant drew their journey. A girl from Nigeria and a girl from Syria who had been living together for three months realized for the first time that they had both been on inflatable rafts in the Mediterranean. The girl from Nigeria turned to the girl from Syria and said, “We must go home to tell our sisters not to get on these boats.”

CARTOGRAPHY is a platform to centralize young audiences to think together about this historical moment. 

CARTOGRAPHY combines conventional storytelling with interactive video and sound technology. Can you share more about your interests in technology and its place/uses/purposes in performance?

Kaneza: For the children and families who have migrated, especially those crisscrossing the Mediterranean, the sea itself functions as a mystical, untethered character like the unpredictable gods of Greek tragedy. How do we interpret its motions, allowances, and punishments with any degree of rationality as ancient tales of Mediterranean migration have? There figures like Scylla and Charybdis stood in for the dangers of the sea. We understand the ocean itself as a character and embody it on stage. Through custom-designed technology we can project an image of an ocean and have actors on stage control the intensity of the waves and wind with the timbre of their voices and movements, thus inverting the experience of most migrants who find themselves tossed about by the sea.

Co-creator of CARTOGRAPHY and Artist-in-Residence Kaneza Schaal. 

When did you decide on integrating interactive video technology into CARTOGRAPHY, or had this idea always been a part of your thinking for this piece?

Kaneza: The work is rooted in the commonalities of migration and the concrete and metaphorical mapping at the center of worlds in motion. The performance integrates multiple mediums to reflect the technological hybridity of our everyday lives. Visual tools such as map-making and inventory meet performance tools like filmmaking, dancing; sculptures create a catalogue of both interior and exterior journeys; sound sensor technology responds to the timbre of actors’ voices and a virtual storm is activated; cellphones are used to mark memories, the distances we have traveled. CARTOGRAPHY invites viewers to consider their own personal histories of movement and the maps we all have yet to draw.

Cell phones have become increasingly integrated with the fabric of everyday life, from mapping to financial institutions, from being in constant contact with loved ones to finding resources in resource-poor environments. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lives of contemporary migrants who may do without food or water but need their cellphones as a resource before all others. In the theater, so often, the cell phone is asked to be shut off. In CARTOGRAPHY, we utilize this tool of travel in our storytelling. Through a residency with the Interactive Media Laboratory at the AbuDhabi Arts Center, we built an interactive mapping platform that allows the live audience to map their own personal histories of movement onto our stage through a closed network server. Thus, every member in the audience is invited to consider their own family’s history of movement, whether recent or generations removed, in the ongoing continuum of migration.

I understand that you have worked with Mason’s Game Design Program and Virginia Serious Game Institute (VSGI) to develop technology for a new performance piece. Can you share more about that project and what you have learned working with them? 

Kaneza: In this moment of social distance, we are rethinking the process of sharing theatrical works and looking toward new technologies as sites of engagement with live performance. I am interested in pursuing two kinds of interventions. The first uses augmented reality to envision a hidden world onstage during a live performance. The second brings a recorded performance into the intimacy, architecture, and kinetic life of people’s homes. 

My research with Mason’s Game Design Program will be used in my upcoming work KLII, which will premiere at the Walker Arts Center in January.

What do you hope that people take away from the performance of CARTOGRAPHY?

Keneza: Whether recent or many generations passed, we are all part of the history of human migration which has brought us to this historical moment.

CARTOGRAPHY: Saturday, October 2, 2021 at 7 p.m. at the Center for the Arts.
Tickets are available