Wednesday, July 16, 2008

(Re)Searching for the Unheard: Cherie Moses's Archive of Lesser Heard Voices*

In Cherie Moses’ 2005 sound installation, “Songs of the Mothers,” gallery audiences stepped into an intimate interchange between three generations of Chilean immigrant women speaking tenderly and openly about the everyday matters affecting their lives. Flowing seamlessly between English and Spanish, the women were instructed to speak as if they were speaking to their children for the last time. The result created an experience akin to being inside somebody else’s deepest thoughts, listening in surround acoustics to a never ending chain of overlapping histories echoing in a dark and seemingly timeless space.

As a visual artist, Moses specifically chose to create an architecture of sound instead of presenting a visual, insisting on an aural-based experience that reverberates the cadence of lives lived. At the time of the recording, Ida, Llanca, and Paz, who are real-life mothers and daughters, were 97, 69, and 37 years old, respectively. Their stories, told in weaving waves of reserved resonance, crest and fall like the heave of an impassioned musical composition. Their unscripted interviews touch upon wide ranging topics such as as Chile, love, danger, and Canada--exposing multigenerational differences and sameness that are then edited with and against each other. The fluidity between Chilean and English melds new thoughts with harboured memories, leaping across cultures, space, and time in a contemporary transnational reality. Observing the growing influx of immigration in Alberta, Canada, a province whose history remains strongly attached to the settler and pioneer history, Moses identified a need to preserve these stories by non-dominant communities that would otherwise be lost.

Moses’ pieces open up the realm between the subjective and the factual. Relying on the subjective nature of memories, from her interviewed subjects to her own memory as both editor and interviewer, the presence of the artist as archivist comes into light. Of her role as a facilitator and an artist, she says, “When I edit, I gravitate to those bits that resonate beyond the personal experience to a larger universal idea as much as possible. I look for thoughts that I cannot only hear, but also see. I am after all a visual artist, listening and constructing images as I listen.” Recognizing that all history and archives are intimated and manipulated, Moses approaches her work no differently in its finely tuned intonations and rhythmic tempos, openly affecting how these women's’ histories will be remembered.

Using the archive system as both an artistic procedure and practice, but creating alternate routes of access, Moses’ work challenges the dominant structure of how and who uses technology. Working with technology as an artist and a visual arts teacher, she is very aware of the power dynamic inherent to technology and technological interventions based on who is privileged to use and access it. As a professional artist, Moses has access to both the resources and equipment to edit down 150 tracks using the latest forms of ProTools HD in her creation of a 5.1 surround sound DVD on a 3 speaker channel. Three distinct speakers are layered over one another for a lulling chiming affect--at once reminiscent of oral storytelling and yet highly digitized in execution.

Acknowledging the use of technology, in archives as well as institutions such as art galleries, tends to perpetuate a privileged voice, Moses inverts the archival process to not only preserve these lesser heard voices, but do archive their histories with a artistically tailored framework that consequently mythologizes those speakers into larger-than-life characters. Although the works with their corresponding notes, scripts, instructions on types of amplification and speaker installations currently remain with Moses, she intends them to eventually be accessible for continued research. Due to its very nature, the question arises whether this belongs more in a public archive or an art archive, but the artist also remains open to the idea of private and public collections.

Currently, Moses and collaborator Brenda Jones are exploring the preservation and creation of archives between an intrinsically technological method of editing and an Aboriginal tradition of oral storytelling. Reflecting Jones’s bicultural European and Ojibwa heritage, her role as a mother, a community leader, and her long and losing battle with severe health issues, the project “Otterwoman Breathing” aims to archive the breathe of Jones, Otterwoman. Seeing herself as a bicultural woman living in a postmodern world, Jones’ heavy, raspy timbre lends itself to the weighty thoughts and emotions spoken. The voice of Jones, in both sound and in message, becomes the desired archived object.

Acknowledging that the project is a method for Jones to let it all out to the universe and to leave a message for her children, Moses also notes that it is an archive of their personal history together spanning the past twenty years. “As long as I’ve known Brenda, she’s been a personality who has always had something to say, with an honesty that is authentic,” says Moses, as she shares excerpts of the work in its unfinished form. “She says what she means, with no fear that her life is fragile.”

Editing down hours of digitized recordings from three different interviewees, one of Jones/Otterwoman, one of her elder, and one in Ojibwa, Moses has been entrenched in whittling down audio clips that resonate of memory and narrative. Noting that all archives begin with the presupposition of what you want future generations to remember, including a natural disposition to edit down life into a manageable and categorizable history, “Otterwoman Breathing” has been in the making for two years and remains deep in process. Part of the process has also been the difficulty in finding a suitable Ojibwa speaker and translator as the traditionally oral culture has greatly deteriorated, but the major hurdle of the project has been the emotional endurance required of Moses to edit through Jones’ personal message. “I can honestly say this is the most difficult project I’ve ever done, because I have to get it right,” says Moses emphatically. “When I first started doing this, her elder, Geeseesoukqua (who is the second voice and tells of Otterwoman’s history and namesake before Jones’ life) asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ And I replied, ‘I’m doing this so her story does not get lost.’ Because otherwise, her story will go when she goes. This is her story, and it wouldn’t be the same if she wrote it down, because you need to hear her and you need to hear her breathe.”

Spinning the archive system through her artistic practice, Moses is doing so precisely because a public archive would never do it this way. Recognizing how an archive is constructed directly affects how the archive is read and understood, her nonlinear intimacy begins where a personal story may end, and in so doing places the audience into the role of the researcher. “We are inherently biased. There is no absolute empirical truth in what I do. The truth becomes a collection of ideas, emotions and judgments in the listener,” Moses says. On memory in the traditional structure of archives, she shares her uncertainty, “I imagine one thinks those archives are more factual, yet I find the truth to lie between the cracks somewhere between fact and feeling. When I view archival photos and letters I find them to leave a good deal unsaid. They are also chosen from the subjective view of the researcher who is also constructing an idea of that person's life and work. I have no desire to push for objectivity as I do not believe it exists in this endeavor. The context is as varied as the sensibilities and the memories are fallible. The position of the subject is variable and so too the perception, but this would never stop me from recording what people choose to remember and how, because this is the heart and soul of life as I know it.”

*First published on, Issue 12. Guest Edited by Lianne McTavish.


dead joe said...

This is much better, Amy. Thank you. Sorry if I came off as a douche. It's amazing what some editing will do.

MC said...

Can I apply to be a "guest editor"?