The Migrating Sound Scape: Dipna Horra’s Avaaz

** Image Caption: Dipna Horra, Avaaz, 2010. Courtesy: OAG
Photo: Ken Campbell **

The Migrating Sound Scape: Dipna Horra’s Avaaz
Ottawa Art Gallery
13 August – 24 October 2010
Curated by Andrea Fatona

review by Jenny McMaster

Sound artist Dipna Horra uses field and voice recordings to create aural environments that simultaneously present a sense of location and dislocation. With Avaaz, Horra recounts a narrative of migration from India to Africa and then Canada, a narrative that undergoes translation and transposition. Horra’s sound installation consists of a central table set for tea, a wheeled tea trolley in the corner, a suspended window pane on the left of the gallery space and an unobtrusive air vent at our feet. Simple furniture, understated architectural features and fine china are the conduits through which the sound artefacts, that tell the artist’s story are emitted. Horra’s kitchen installation is a theatrical space in which the continuity of ancestral memory both reassures and unsettles.

Each of the sounds Horra uses adds to the installation’s atmosphere, but also subtly personalizes it. The recordings were collected with a binaural microphone, a device designed to mimic the receptors of human ears. Dipna’s Ears, fashioned by hand in silicone, are stationed outside the installation for the viewer to appraise before entering the room. They are the artist’s particular sound filters, which implicate her body’s “sensorial geography” in each recording. Like shards of double sided mirror, the voices and atmospheric noise she recorded reflect both subject and environment.

As we enter the dimly lit room of the OGA, we notice the table is set for tea. The vacant chairs invite visitors to sit down and become implicated in the family ritual. Horra’s father’s voice issues from the teapot as he tells the story of his father’s journey from Punjab down the coast of Africa to build a railway. He also recounts her granduncle’s founding of the news daily Colonial Times. The sugar bowl emits a recording of the artist as child, as she teaches herself songs in English and French. From an air vent by our feet we hear the clanking of steel and the clatter of kitchenware, along with the voices of Horra’s family and Croatian friends singing the Swahili song “Malaika.”

The effort to balance the maintenance of one’s mother tongue with the necessity of acquiring a new language is a story common to most immigrants. Linguistic adaptation is urgent, the artist explains: “Language is integral to allowing us to immediately feel placed or misplaced in an environment.” Just as the artist was able to construct a setting with little more than sound, the use of language calls a social reality into being. The use of an immigrant’s mother tongue in the home bespeaks both the need to maintain connections with a distant territory and the desire to build a space that incorporates both old and new cultural traditions.

As moments pass in the dim room one is struck by the tension between the warmth of the familial setting and the disconcerting effect of hearing voices without bodies. The sound of environmental disturbances within the domestic space is unsettling. The cups and saucers on the tea trolley in the corner periodically rattle with the reverberation of thunder and rain but also the whisper of human breath. Before we are able to locate the source of the storm, we are left to guess at the unseen disturbances at play. Perhaps it is the rumble of a train on the very track laid by the artist’s grandfather in the early part of the last century. While fine china bespeaks creature comforts and the yearning for prosperity and security, the truth of the long transitional periods of Horra’s family’s history could very well disturb these emblems of hearth and home.

This sense of the uncanny is also caused by the rift between conventional and self-written nationalist narratives. Inhabitants of any country are both objects of a reified nationalist story, sanctioned by central authorities, and active subjects in their own tale. Articles published in the Colonial Times, a paper that gave voice to critics of British rule in Kenya, are examples of minority discourses that rattled colonial renditions of national identity. A storm is brewing along with the tea.

This being said, the artist states that teatime, a ritual that is both British and Indian, is an opportunity for discussion and reconciliation. But the participant must be willing to really listen. In a similar manner, one must spend some time with Avaaz in order to take in the multiple voices emerging from multiple channels. During the opening, chatty visitors crowded out the sound installation, filling the kitchen table with their own conversations and failing to recognize those installed by the artist. While Avaaz brings immigrant stories to the forefront, it’s possible for them to be overlooked, rather than overheard.

Horra uses conceptual and physical responses to the dislocation of sound as experiential metaphors for exile, migration and “deterritorialization.” During her efforts to copy and recreate the dislocated cultural landscapes where such events unfold, Horra identified two languages. The first is “Societal pattern language,” which describes speech in its conventional sense, as well as auditory artefacts of cultural and social contexts. The second is “Personal language,” which encompasses the physical terrain of Horra’s own aural receptors, but also the autobiographical details she has brought to the work. Linguist Charles Taylor describes language as a “way of being in the world.” Horra asks what happens when that “way of being” is transposed onto a new setting. An uncanny doubling occurs as the past and present, the domestic and political reverberate within the same space.

Jenny McMaster is a freelance curator and writer based in Ottawa. She is fascinated with subjects such as language, ritual, custom and the phenomenology of space.

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