nichola feldman-kiss
NICHOLA FELDMAN-KISS AND DIPNA HORRA IN CONVERSATION

Dhunia: Octet (2014-15). Installation view, wood and glass windows

Dipna Horra, Dhunia: Octet (2014-15). Installation view, wood and glass windows, suspension cables, electronics, 8 channel audio composition, 23:18 minute loop, room dimensions variable. At the Art Gallery of Mississauga, Canada. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist.

nichola feldman-kiss
NICHOLA FELDMAN-KISS AND DIPNA HORRA IN CONVERSATION

Home
Colonized
Fathers
Autobiography
Memory
Process
Narrative
Assimilating
Practice
 
 
 
Hybridity
Becoming
Proof
Body
 
Witness
Nation
Being (with)
Contradiction
Mother
 
 
 
Belonging
Space
Orality
In-between
Dislocation
Time
Language
Home

Dhunia: Octet (2018)—A delicate chatter of female voices fills the room. An array of eight storm windows floats without walls, foundation, structure. The cast off fenestrations are single pane with many layers of age-old paint. A closer look reveals the most discrete, metal, cable suspension system. The floor is bare but for the deep shadows cast by the architectural objects.

The space is visually austere yet sonically thick. Like magic, each gently vibrating pane tells its own story. I need to work a little to hear her words. I stand close the frame—a little too close. I’m listening in. I am an intruder in the conversation. I am on the outside looking inside. I move to the next window. I am offered another story. Do I hear the voice of the artist, an elder, a matriarch perhaps? I do this eight times. Your technology is beguiling. I look for signs of the sound system driving the minimalist intervention. My curiosity uncovers a simply wired device, only the most discrete contact connecting the pane to the suspension system.

The windows function as loud-speakers. But the sound is not so loud. The suspension cables carry the signal to an embedded magnetic coil concealed within the window frame. The audio signal is converted into mechanical energy to drive the glass pane-as-speaker diaphragm. You told me that the vernacular architectural symbols come from old farm houses in the Ottawa Valley and that as sound sculptures they stand as borders between the exterior world and the private space of the home.

The windows you use to tell this story of family passage are symbols of domestic life here—unlike Dhunia, the installation title, that references away. I share your nostalgia for the old storm window. These recall my childhood family home in a 1950s Ottawa suburb. I have fond memories assisting my father to control the seasonal elements with the annual installation and removal of period windows just like these.

We have known each other for what seems like a long time but it is probably not that long really. I have known you for common roots in our Ottawa art community. We have other histories in common. Both of our fathers are engineers. We are of immigrant families from equatorial colonies. Our ancestors had several passages before settling in Canada— Ottawa. Mine came from Europe and Africa through the Caribbean. Yours came from India through Africa. While I was born in Ottawa, you came to Ottawa as a small child. As artists we both explore media technologies and experiment with narrative forms in space.

Dhunia – Windows of the World is a series of sculptural, audio installations that you began creating in 2010. I saw Dhunia in 2014. It was a resonant artwork with plenty of breathing room to wander among the details or to stand back and take in the installation’s complete vista. A central vocabulary that repeats throughout your body of work is elegantly synthesized in Dhunia. You reference family history and the extraordinariness of the sonic environment. You work with soundscape and oral story. The artwork reveals themes of presence and absence, home and away, here, now, and back then. I enter the installation through an architecture of home. It’s a work that reveals you as a woman, a daughter, an artist, and an architect.

Installation view of Dhunia: Octet

Dipna Horra, Dhunia: Octet (2014-15). Installation view, wood and glass windows, suspension cables, electronics, eight-channel audio composition, 23:18 minute loop, room dimensions variable at the Art Gallery of Mississauga, Canada. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid, courtesy of the artist.

Dipna, will you share your origin story here? Who is the family contained in Dhunia?

Dipna Horra as a child at Niagara Falls, Canada 1977.

We arrived in Montreal, Canada on April 23, 1976 and from there we settled in Ottawa, where my father had been offered a job as a broadcast engineer with CFRA-CFMO commercial radio. Engineers were needed in Australia, Germany and Canada and Ottawa picked us. I was not yet two years old when we left the warm equator to travel from Nairobi, Kenya to colder Canadian climates. I have not returned to Africa since then, yet it resonates within my stories and my thoughts.

My parents’ stories about Africa give voice to the perspective of an immigrant of the Indian diaspora; their story is embedded in my own psyche and is a part of my being. They have told tales of the political upheaval that occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s in Nairobi. During these years there was a shift from British rule to independence in 1963, when the Kenya African National Union obtained political power. Violence was a part of these movements and freedom of speech was suppressed. My family experienced segregation and fear in the pre-independence years, and a lack of job opportunities and possibilities for career advancement in the post- independence period: they could not see a future for us in Nairobi. I often work with autobiographical ideas and everyday gestures. I was raised Hindu, Punjabi and I moved to the suburbs of Ottawa at the age of two. I have lived in Canada for most of my life. My interest in storytelling is combined with a background in architecture and media installations. My primary investigation has been space, time, and migration, as they relate to cultural identity. I am particularly drawn to the way that architectural elements can be used in an installation to speak of deeper cultural and social contexts.

‘Dhunia’ is the Punjabi word for the material world in contrast with the spiritual realm. The spaces of Dhunia expressed forgetting and loss of my mother tongue, Punjabi, paralleling the construction of a present space that investigated translations in my first language, English. Dhunia became a site for oral storytelling and a study of speaking boundary conditions. This study of a lyrical space through autobiography opened an enquiry into the disruption that occurs when languages and traditions are dislocated and relocated in Canadian vernacular forms. The Dhunia project was inspired by the oral traditions of my family. These works are reflections on storytelling and translations based on parables recounted in Punjabi by my grandmother. In this work she is heard telling tales of the goddess Parvati’s futile quest for material wealth. The rhythms of ancestral voice are combined with field recordings of birds, trains, streets and subways. Century old windows from the Ottawa region are transformed into loud speakers that perform orchestrally. The windows reverberate with age-old sayings and sounds of the everyday.

Stories by and about mothers, daughters, granddaughters, and ancestors appear in our respective works around questions of place and identity. In some cases, these stories create

Dipna Horra, Dhunia: Part Two / Dhunia (Zweiter Teil) (2011). Detail of the artist’s transcription/translation of her grandmother’s story from Punjabi to English, ink text on vellum paper.

Dipna Horra, Dhunia: Part Two / Dhunia (Zweiter Teil) (2011). Detail of the artist’s transcription/translation of her grandmother’s story from Punjabi to English, ink text on vellum paper, 20.32 x 25.40 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

markers of memories of childhood experiences. I recall a three channel audio and video installation entitled after Africa (2011–14). I saw the first channel of this triptych in progress during an informal artist talk in Ottawa in 2011. Initially it struck me for its poetic and symbolic imagery, and sonic landscape, as well as for its use of parabolic speakers to offer an immersive listening experience with each of the three soundtracks, one speaker for each video of the installation. It is a work that reverberated in the vocabulary of my own practice.

I remember one channel of the triptych more vividly than its other parts, because of the images of childhood and the familiar summer sounds of crickets. In this video, the camera travels around and around the circumference of a 360° dolly track in the middle of a rural meadow. The scene takes place in an abundant boreal cattle farm in Western Quebec. The circular dolly rails are echoed by the uninterrupted tree line that contains the field and again by the horizon that contains the tree line. The track encircles a young girl who performs in rounds at a 19th century square piano. The girl is dressed in colonial school uniform— pleated plaid skirt, white shirt, patent shoes. I envisioned that you were the young girl, since her curly hair reminded me of yours. She seemed displaced with her piano in a landscape quite typical of our rural Ottawa surroundings yet at the same time she was in command of her surreal situation. The piano maker’s insignia reads “Made in Leipzig,” the birthplace of your father. This is the same city from which your father’s family fled Nazism. The left and right videos are captured in a continuous-take in which the camera explores the girl, the piano and the field as the dolly travels continuously counter-clockwise for the duration of the sunset. On the left channel the girl plays Rogers and Hammerstein’s 1959 WWII musical The Sound of Music (1965), “So long Farewell.” And on the right channel, clockwise for the

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012). Installation view at the Ottawa Art Gallery.

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012). Installation view at the Ottawa Art Gallery. Photo by David Barbour.

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012). Photo of set crew.

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012). Photo of set crew. Courtesy of the artist.

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012).  Still of a durational performance.

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012). Three-channel video of a durational performance. Courtesy of the artist.

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012).  Still of a durational performance.

nichola feldman-kiss, after, Africa \ “So long, Farewell” (sunset) / a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) / “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!” (sunrise) (2012). Three-channel video of a durational performance. Courtesy of the artist.

sunrise, she plays Irving Berlin’s 1918 WWI anthem, “Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning!”. The child’s disciplined recital is supported by a chorus of field crickets and attended by a herd of well-nourished cattle. With each round of the tune the child’s performance becomes more confident.

Music and sound are key in this work and as I take it in I reflect on reverberant qualities of our practices, both physical and metaphysical. Reverberation exists due to boundary conditions. Sound waves travel until they encounter forms and surfaces, reaching the limits of a container. Architecturally speaking, these conditions can be constructed as walls, floors, ceilings and facades of buildings. In the landscape, these conditions may be in the forms of cliffs, caves and forests. The act of reverberant sound in a space is a sensory experience; a transitory event that indicates a dynamic and reciprocal relationship between buildings, landscapes and their inhabitants. Sound energy, traveling in time and space, can contain audio portraits, and poetic symbols. In the pieces that we have discussed, sound creates physical and metaphoric reverberation that contributes to transmitting ephemeral spaces. These conditions have capacities for engaging multi-dimensional and multi-directional sounds that tell transcultural and trans-historic stories. Nichola, will you share the story of after Africa here?

after Africa followed my 2011 tour of the United Nations mission in Sudan where I would perform peacekeeper amongst six international teams of military observers and research the rhetoric of protection, displacement and trauma associated with contests of people, resources, and territory. I travelled under the most privileged of circumstances. The Canadian Forces facilitated fifteen months of research, planning, training and preparing for the deployment. Among my motives was to witness a failed colonial project and to gain insight into the embodied story of my ancestors. The script for my performance of witness duty was crafted through a trans-historic lens. They say history is a foreign land. I wanted to bridge an empathic divide with my ancestors through contemporary cultural analogues and gain experiential perspectives on common colonial narratives associated with the displacement of people by conflict—stories of endurance and also of trauma. The artworks after Africa endeavor to make sense of witness duty through the filter of my Canadian entitlements within familial echoes that bind Diaspora peoples settled in this country.

My family descended from colonials and Afro-Caribbeans of the transatlantic slave trade and refugees of Nazi Germany. We are a cast of plundering European aventures and indigenous Xamayca survivors, terrorist colonizers of Africa and the merchant marines who made trans-Atlantic trade of captured humans as livestock. We have enslaved. We have been enslaved. We have emancipated and we have reconciled. We are the new diversity set in motion by ease of mobility among the dominions of the British Commonwealth and the

Still from nichola feldman-kiss, childish objects \ the camera eye (aka Witness) (1972, 2017)

nichola feldman-kiss, childish objects \ the camera eye (aka Witness) (1972, 2017). Durational performance, CAD/CAM object (plastics and metals), 3D Rendering (camera housing). Installation view at the Ottawa Art Gallery 2015. Photo by David Barbour, courtesy of the Ottawa Art Gallery.

mass migrations of Germany’s 20th century eugenics movement run amok. My interest in mechanisms of domination—of person, of way, of culture—arises from this lineage.

The experience of the UN mission in Sudan helped me to recognize the determination of my foreparents who weathered their journeys and my own dumb luck of being born into Canadian entitlements such as the belief that I will be alive tomorrow. after Africa was conceptually completed during the preparatory phase of the project and prior to experiencing witness duty. The video triptych was intended to bridge the theoretical and autobiographical bodies of work I had created before the journey with the more direct critique of contemporary conflict culture that would follow. I had been working for some years on a suite of artworks under the title childish objects (1966– ongoing), for which I excavate my childhood memory for early evidence of artistic practice. The signature artwork of this series is the camera eye (aka Witness) (1972, 2006-2017). This is an installation about looking and seeing and documents my study of vision and anatomy of sight. childish objects became a critical framework whereby I could cultivate curiosity and wonder in observation of worldly affairs.

I entered the military humanitarian context with an open mind. Both pre-deployment training
and deployment were intense, dislocating, and disorienting. I knew I would return changed from the exposure to human violence. That upon my return, I would discover that I had left a part of me behind. In hindsight, the utility of the training was its very disorientation –one prepares best for the indescribable who does not pretend to a capacity or readiness to understand.

Still from nichola feldman-kiss, childish objects \ the camera eye (aka Witness) (1972, 2017)

nichola feldman-kiss, childish objects \ the camera eye (aka Witness) (1972, 2017). Durational performance, CAD/CAM object (plastics and metals), 3D Rendering (camera housing). Installation view at the Ottawa Art Gallery 2015. Photo by David Barbour, courtesy of the Ottawa Art Gallery.

I attenuated my elegant defenses. I touched a small part of the body of Africa. I breathed her air into my body, I let her eyes see me and looked into her own, and I returned. My journey was intense, at times harrowing. My footing was disturbed. More than anything, the experience was awakening. after Africa is the story of that difficult gift, and the vision that pursues me because of it.

You went to Africa and I came from Kenya. I have often thought about the experience of a possible return to my birthplace. I have not known the kind of instability that my family faced during their time living in Nairobi. In my lifetime of relative ease in Canada my own narration reveals a personal uncertainty surrounding mixed cultural identities and the combination of these stories to create boundary crossing situations. In some of our works

nichola feldman-kiss, United Nations mission in Sudan guest peacekeeper, 2011

nichola feldman-kiss, United Nations mission in Sudan guest peacekeeper, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

Still from nichola feldman-kiss, after Africa \ a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) (2012)

nichola feldman-kiss, after Africa \ a yard of ashes (continuous cross dissolve) (2012)

there are uncanny moments that relate traumatic ambivalences and disjunctions between personal, psychic stories and diasporic political existences.

This takes me back to after Africa. The video of the young girl in the field alone is powerful in its representation of youth, memory, dislocation and finding place. However this video is not alone and it is part of a triptych which is centered by another equally strong video piece. Your description follows:

…a blue helmeted military humanitarian outfitted for every hazard labours over a wide red broom and a yard of ashes in a multi-layered continuous cross-dissolving loop. the breath is laboured, the gesture is determined. sounds of approaching Antonov engines signal danger. sudden violence erupts outside the frame. the sweeper keeps sweeping. the last cry is abruptly silenced. the breath is laboured. the broom is heavy. we are returned to the sweeper’s fatigued, but no less determined gesture. futility leaks through the cracks between the aural and visual elements.

childish objects \ Undo. Unravel. Go back, and further back, still. Go home. (Are you my Mother?) for Boty Goodwin (1936–2013).

childish objects \ Undo. Unravel. Go back, and further back, still. Go home. (Are you my Mother?) for Boty Goodwin (1936–2013). Durational performance, 4 passports. Image courtesy of the artist.

The three pieces of the triptych together illuminate conflicting circumstances around subjects of home, belonging and forgetting. This triptych seems to be a reflection and meditation on the necessity of creative and destructive cycles while referencing identity, or perhaps multiple identities that you discovered ‘after Africa’. Could you talk more about home and how multiple identities figure into your projects?

1957 my Bajan father and Jamaican mother arrived in Canada—Toronto. Both were British subjects. He was a postgraduate student of chemistry, she a young wife. They were an idealistic young couple—fueled by the energetic West Indies pre-independence movement. The newlyweds were unpreoccupied with the so-called mixed heritage identities of their union. At the time of their arrival Canada was negotiating human rights in the context of the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights (which later became the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that we aspire to today). Upon completion of his studies they moved to Ottawa where he pursued a career in the material sciences with the National Research Council of Canada. 1962 Jamaica became independent of Colonial rule, Barbados in 1966. By 1967, my parents had established family, home ownership and Canadian citizenship. Over time the parents shed their accented English and the family embraced new and adjusted identities in keeping with political trends. Identity itself can be capricious.

Although I was born and raised in Ottawa, my first home was the back home of my parents. In early childhood I came to understand back home as an ideal romantic elsewhere of unfamiliar familiarity, of abundant extended family with special love and affections of grandparents, elders and cousins for all; with equatorial weather, mango trees and beaches, low tides and sea play, predictable food and spice traditions, pets galore, bugs that came inside and with lizards who left their tail in the hand. This home was paradise—an annual return to the womb of the earth where everybody fit. A feeling of free to belong consumed me during family visits to the islands, and set me apart from the culture of my childhood community amongst whom it was uncommon to travel as a family by air to the tropics.

My Barbados family looked like they came from Europe. My Jamaica family looked like they came from everywhere. But my father was not born a Bajan. He was first a German,then a refugee to England, then a British subject settled in Barbados, then a student in Jamaica, then a British subject settled in Canada, finally a citizen of Canada. My mother’s was a typically extended Jamaican family true to the island motto, “Out of Many One People.” My maternal identity is complicated too, gathering indigenous Taino peoples and settler groups of Jamaica—Colonials of the sugar industry, merchant marines of southern Portugal, folks stolen from Africa made slaves who then freed themselves and on it goes. Where my father’s multiplicity is concentrated in a lifetime, my mother’s multiplicity spans generations since conquest.

Like a call to pilgrimage, the pull to the African continent began in my youth. I had naïve ideas that returning from the diaspora could reveal truths about categorical gaps amongst black and white. As a teenager, I dreamed to visit apartheid era South Africa—a culture of dissonance with lessons to teach about so-called race. Irrespective of Ottawa’s Liberal communications rhetoric of multiculturalism, bills and charters, rights and freedoms, the times of my raising did not facilitate comfort with individual multiplicity. In 2018, we have become much more accommodating of how identity can be fluid.

In Undo. Unravel. Go back, and further back still. Go home. (Are you my Mother?) (1936–2013) you address the complexity of multiple national identities through the collection of citizenships. You have three passports, and my ancestors have gone through that many nationalities, as Indians under British rule in India and then in East Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries and as citizens in the New World. In the 1970s most of my maternal family immigrated to England, however two sisters, my aunt and my mother, traveled to their respective new homes in Australia and Canada where their husbands had secured jobs. I was born with a British passport that was quickly replaced by a Canadian passport when I arrived as an infant in Canada. Although my passport declares that I am Canadian, the place of birth on my passport, Nairobi, has always declared that I am not. Standard lines of customs questions in my international travels may include the subject of Kenya, safaris, Swahili and how familiar I am with these. I will often say to the immigration official that I only know of these places through the stories that have been told to me by my parents and by the few sing song words in Swahili that I have asked to learn. Most of this storytelling has occurred while sitting with my parents at our family’s kitchen table.

In a performative act examining migration, surplus identity, forgiveness, and ethical responsibility in global citizenship, I have become tri-citizen—Canada, Germany and Jamaica. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 included the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour, which forbade marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans; and the Reich Citizenship Law, that declared only those of German blood eligible for citizenship. The others would be classed state subjects, without citizen rights. I tell you this story as a reminder of how easily polarization can creep into our political systems.

We must be vigilant of slippery slopes and practice daily reconciliations.
1936 my father’s German family of Lutheran mother and Jewish father, elder daughter and younger son left the Nazi state marking the beginning of a long trek out of Europe. The little family’s flight from home was precipitated by the criminalization of their love blind to race construction and faith boundaries.

1941 London, England, the stateless father was granted British subjecthood to facilitate passage to the Colonies. The family boarded an unnamed Dutch merchant ship to journey in convoy across the Atlantic to Halifax. The rejected vessel continued to British Guyana where the family boarded the Canadian steamship, Lady Drake, destined to Barbados tropical paradise. Subsequent to the family’s safe arrival the Lady Drake was torpedoed by a German Uboat off the coast of Bermuda. The parents never again spoke of war nor passed their German language to their children.

1999 reparations to the citizenship policies of the reunified Germany, granted right of return to those identities lost to Third Reich anti-miscegenation policy. The lost citizens were invited to repatriate. Descendants could take up residence and participate in German society by way of naturalization. In 2000, I began the eleven year process to demonstrate my lineage. Eventually I was naturalized and granted a prized Reisepass. I first used this identity May 3rd, 2011 to transit Frankfurt enroute to the UN Mission in Sudan. I was excited that day as if I were going home in time. The immigrations officer welcomed me and inquired how it was that I did not speak German. He stamped my new passport. I awaited my connecting flight to Khartoum.

2008 I initiated application for Jamaica citizenship by descent. The navigation of the Jamaican bureaucracy benefited from my experience with Germany. 2012 I became citizen. 2013 I was granted Jamaica travel documents. Jamaica identity does little to facilitate efficiencies of the global flight network. My mother reminds me citizenship is more than safe passage. “All bloodlines and every history pass through you. You are the oppressor and the oppressed. “Reconciliation is an inside job.” She says. The passport remains unstamped.

I am indebted to Boty Goodwin who lived 1966 to 1996. Following her death, I came into possession of her Jeep Cherokee. The British passport in this artwork belonged to her. I found it in her car. How I came to own the car is its own strange story. The representation of British subjecthood was a necessary piece in the retelling of my parent’s journey. Boty’s own tragic story both inspired and completed this search for belonging.

Avaaz (2010) features four sound sculptures. Colonial Times (2010) is a Victorian style bone china tea service set on a square table, surrounded by four kitchen chairs. The space is dimly lit and the scene seems to float out of context. The polished birch surface is set with a Victorian style teapot, sugar bowl, milk jug, a diminutive silver spoon, and two tea cups filled with chai on saucers. To the left of the ‘room’ is Storm Window (2010), a suspended period 1960 domestic storm window. Avaaz introduces the storm window that you developed for Dhunia. Your use of the single storm window is a simple and sparse reference to domestic architecture. It demarcates a boundary between the outside world and a secure domestic space where familial languages such as Punjabi are spoken. It invites us and encourages us know we are in a familiar space.

To the right of the table set for tea, is an air vent in a baseboard and a handmade Colonial style tea trolley wheeled awkwardly into a corner. These household objects are transformed into loud speakers that transmit sounds through their various materials—bone china, wood, glass, and metal. The audio composition relates the historic narrative of your family’s migration that was put in motion by the British Empire. At times the teacups and saucers clink due to the low frequencies of the audio transmissions. The effect of rattling objects contributes to the production of an agitated atmosphere.

Dipna Horra, still from Avaaz (2010)

Dipna Horra, Avaaz (2010). Wood table and chairs, bone china tea set, silver spoon, chai, window, electronics, 12-channel audio composition, 8:27 minute loop, room dimensions variable. Installation at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Canada. Photograph by David Barbour, courtesy of the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Dipna Horra, still from Avaaz (2010)

Dipna Horra, Avaaz (2010). Wood table and chairs, bone china tea set, silver spoon, chai, window, electronics, 12-channel audio composition, 8:27 minute loop, room dimensions variable. Installation at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Canada. Photograph by David Barbour, courtesy of the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Dipna Horra, still from Avaaz (2010)

Dipna Horra, Avaaz (2010). Wood table and chairs, bone china tea set, silver spoon, chai, window, electronics, twelve-channel audio composition, 8:27 minute loop, room dimensions variable, installation view at the Ottawa Art Gallery, Canada. Photo by David Barbour, courtesy of the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Avaaz is a multi-channel audio installation set in the intimate social space of the kitchen to stage a conversation about migrations within colonial networks. In Punjabi, avaaz is the word for voice. Avaaz channels the domestic space of our family’s kitchen table with teatime rituals common to many cultures, especially British and Indian. At the Colonial Times table, an audio loop plays with pre-recorded sounds of my father’s voice, heard in conversation with me as he answered questions about our family history. My father tells of my great grandfather’s migrations from India to Africa in 1889 and our eventual immigration to Ottawa, Canada in 1976. These sound segments were produced in 2009 with my father at our family kitchen table. His narrations are interjected with recordings of my own voice as a child singing. Avaaz is a transcultural space containing traces of colonial legacy. While nostalgia for a homeland does feature in this work, the principle narrative reflects on the forces that shape the production of a cultural space and identity.

Repetition is key to storytelling and to oral culture in general. Repetition ensures the continuation of traditions and cultures. Avaaz enlivens the histories of my father’s family that I believe to be significant lessons in human adaptability and intercultural relations. The sculpture vibrates with recordings of human voices and environment sounds. Through the voice of my father speaking and my voice singing, I examine the clash of different languages and rituals. For this artwork, I wanted to use sound vibrations to contribute to the creation of an uncanny atmosphere. In addition to my father’s and my own voice, physical vibrations in household objects were created with low frequency sounds. The storm brewing (2010) speaks of resistance to the colonial imperative contained in my father’s accounts. The disjunction and dislocation emphasized in Avaaz bring forth conditions of isolation under British rule. The domestic space in Avaaz addressed the ambivalences voiced in my father’s view of British colonialism and related these uncertainties to my personal voicing of experiences of disconnectedness from a so-called postcolonial Canadian system. My difference was categorized under the label of being part of a visible minority in society.

From Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects, Chapter Four, “Willfullness as a Style of Politics,” page 150:

Things appear fluid if you are going the way things are going. If you are not going that way you might need to become willful to keep going. A flow is also an effect of bodies that are going the same way. To go is to gather. A flow can be an effect of gatherings of all kinds: gatherings of tables, for instance, as kinship objects that support human gatherings. We can pause here to note the willful part can also be a limb, a table, a jug: any bits of matter can be attributed as willful if they do allow the completion of an action for which they are assumed to be intended.1

“Bread and circuses” (“panem et circenses,” Juvenal; 2nd century Rome) describes the generation of public approval through palliative diversion; distraction; or the mere satisfaction of the most immediate and shallow requirements of a populace.

In Bread and Circuses (2015), one of your more recent installations, you work more directly with sound and with ideas of interrupting the flow. Bread and Circuses exploits the uncanny quality of sound isolating audio spots (highly directional loudspeakers) to disrupt our understanding of place within an immersive auditory space. Three wall-mounted, tablet computers suggest a community newspaper board while seven-ceiling mounted audio spots project a localized immersive soundscape.

Each of three tablets shows a continuous scrolling script. The green digital ticker-tape style text is comprised of live network news headlines collected from worldwide sources. The tablets are discretely labeled “NATO,” “BRIC” and “contested territory”. Words are captured in real time as they are delivered by synthesized newscast orators. Other speakers project a synthesized recital of world-wide conflict related death tolls amid a wash of nature sounds that suggest landscape such as vultures barking and locusts buzzing. The reading of a redacted report on a brutal calamity stands out for its vulnerability as the unique human voice within the immersive digital soundscape.

The live news content references a view into global messaging, a kind of listening and peeping in on world media narratives. It also disrupts the fabrication of these stories and myths. The constant scroll provides ephemeral views of present moments and events. As you explain the artwork “presents global story as gladiatorial games while revealing the weight of info product synthesized in day-to-day endeavour to keep up with the news.”

Bread and Circuses is like Dhunia in its formal exploration of immersive soundscape. Both installations story-tell spatially and invite the viewer to listen with the whole body as they move about the installation. Both installations combine voice and environment sounds to stage immersive narrative. The Bread and Circuses world-wide live network news aggregator serves the installation with a relentless flow of current event headlines. A novel set of sound projection devices create a contained listening space. As the viewer enters the sound projection the installation increases in density but not volume. The sound experience is an internal one. The sound more than envelopes, it enters the body—demanding a kind of kinesthetic listening. The boundary between body and sound is dissolved as are the boundary conditions that simultaneously separate and entangle us in the story of everywhere.

Bread and Circuses headlines are of global stories that conflate the here with the far away. I wanted to reveal the interconnected structure of network narrative in a globalized media environment and how contemporary news story-telling functions within the traditions of repetition found in oral culture. The artwork evolved from my own efforts to make sense of the cacophonic narrative issued by the global news industry. Within the contemporary media paradigm, user specific scripts are widely disseminated across the world at high speed. Internet media narrative is an excellent tool to hook, inform, mislead, entertain, incite, divide, and recruit the polity. Fact bleeds fiction, or maybe it’s the other way around. (Dis)belief can be easily suspended—or appended. Shock, awe, and stupefaction are composed and strategically orchestrated. In our media saturation, the image through the viewfinder has become more real than real-life on the other side. Now, enabled by the gritty smelly residues left on my senses by the warring Sudans, I resist stupefaction. With ever greater critical distance, I comb the network searching sense in Babel.

nichola feldman-kiss, still from Bread and Circuses (2015). Installation view at InterAccess.

nichola feldman-kiss, Bread and Circuses (2015). Installation view at InterAccess. Photo by Nathalie Logan.

Before that journey with the UN, I would wish to make sense of body, identity and of citizen, of world events and intervention, of beauty and the violent order that it interrupted. From the safety of here, of our skins, our institutions and the shoulders of our dead, I could imagine understanding, and even grope for explanations. If before I believed the world was amenable to being explained, to making sense, it was from my comfortable seat in the theatre of institutions, resources, entitlements and entertainments. It is a belief arising from walled-off, supervised and patrolled ignorance. It is a belief sustained by the very agents of information that bring us news of elsewhere—network, wire and page. As I am informed about the world and its unfortunates from the privileges of safety, so I am distanced from them. The impossibility of language, and its ornaments—photos, reports, documentaries, clips—to convey experience so far beyond its own context is unimaginable.

NOTES

  1. Ahmed, Sara. Willful Subjects. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), 150.