Listening to “Indigenous Voices” in Berlin

An email-interview with Jacqueline Shea Murphy

You visited “Indigenous Voices”, a sound installation from 17 artists that was part of the festival “Projecto Brasil – The Sky Is Already Falling” at HAU Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. The installation, which had been created for the Latin American pavilion of the Venice Biennale 2015 before it toured South America, is dealing with the endangered linguistic diversity on the Latin-American continent. What were your expectations when visiting the installation?

I was so happy to see the title, “Indigenous Voices,” and to see that Indigenous issues and particularly those around Indigenous languages were being addressed here in Berlin. In the year I’ve spent here as an IRC-Fellow, I haven’t seen much discussion of either Indigenous issues or Indigenous languages, so I was excited to see this exhibit.

How would you describe your first impression?

At first I thought I couldn’t find the exhibit, as the sound installations were tucked into corners of the HAU2 stairwell – I’d walked right passed them going up to a performance one night. When I returned and had a chance to look and listen, I was torn about this. In some ways, I thought this was compelling in the ways it gave the sense that Indigenous languages are present even in spaces we may not think to look for them. They are there all around us even if we don’t notice them. I liked this idea – that there were actually something like 15 sound installations, speakers mounted on tripods, each with a small plaque in front, that were everywhere in corners of that space – one I’d walked through many times before the exhibit was up – and that I hadn’t seen or heard them at first. That seemed important – that we all start to notice the Indigenous knowledge that is there, even when it’s not that obvious in the spaces we are used to being in. I also really liked the list of languages running up the bottoms of the stairwells. There were so many, and it gave a real sense of the abundance of Indigenous languages.

In other ways, though, I worried that the project reinforced familiar ideas about Indigenous peoples being absent and disappearing (lamenting the “Vanishing Indian” is a very common trope in discourse about Native peoples – and often serves to reinforce colonizing ideas about Indigenous peoples being successfully killed off – and ignoring the vibrant Indigenous peoples, practices, and languages that do exist, and their futures). Therefore, part of me wished the sound installations were less hidden in the corners, and more visually and aurally present – more prominent.

As a professor in the University of California, Riverside’s dance department your research focus is on Indigenous dance history and contemporary choreography. Could you describe what you mean when talking about “indigeneity”? And in what way the installation maybe did challenge your own notion of “the Indigenous”?

The book I am currently working on is about different dance artists, making work today as contemporary artists, who identify as Native American, First Nations, or Indigenous, and who make dance work in relation to Indigenous knowledges and stories, and to their personal, family, and tribal histories and futures. I am writing about some of the different ways these dance artists use tools of contemporary choreography to address, and function within, ongoing structures of coloniality – and also to articulate ways of being that are outside of the ideologies and ongoing structures of coloniality. There is a lot written on “Indigeneity” that is really helpful in thinking about the complexities of the term and how it is used including a section in the recently published Native Studies Keywords (University of Arizona Press, 2015). I find Maile Arvin’s entry in that collection, on ‘Indigeneity” as an analytic, particularly astute.

I am interested not so much in what “Indigeneity” is, but rather in how these Indigenous dance artists are engaging Indigenous knowledges in their contemporary dance making. I am not interested in a notion of “the Indigenous” (the definite article the in English would indicate that Indigenous is one thing, and connotes an object to be observed and studied). Some of the text in the “Indigenous Voices” exhibit resonated with ideas the artists I work with also have articulated. The entry on Peru, for example, talks about “inhabitants of the Andean-Amazonian region, as active, communicational subjects” who “develop their own capacity of dialogue through technical audio-visual media, discovering the image of the other by means of image and sound.”, and the entry on Miskito in Nicaragua quotes women who note “we are proud to talk about life in our villages, for example, the fishing, the logging problems (from transnational logging companies), and the spirits who live within us.”

Others seemed more troublesome in their focus on “nearly extinct,” “isolated” Indigenous groups, and include statements that many Indigenous peoples refute (the entry on Venezuela, for example, states that “most of the continent’s Indigenous peoples emigrated possibly some 15,000 years across the Bering Straits” – which is widely contested in many Indigenous world views and creation histories).

Did you envisage any problems while visiting the installation?

Having researchers and artists “collect” information and knowledge from Indigenous peoples – or choose what they have an “affinity with” from what others have collected – and present them on placards in Europe, raises a number of questions and potential problems, I think. It feels like a fairly familiar, and troublesome, dynamic of “salvage ethnography,” where researchers capture “authentic culture thought to be rapidly and inevitably disappearing,” (as Philip Deloria has written; Playing Indian, 2004) – and so marked as part of a past that cannot have a future. As I walked through and read and listened, I worried that the project was reproducing this dynamic more than intervening in it. I wondered: who are the people – the researchers and artists – studying these Indigenous languages, and collecting the stories and information, and deciding what to record and include in the sound loops, and to write on the displays? What relationship do they have to the peoples they are speaking with? Are they just (again) taking and using for their own benefit, or is something else happening in this exchange? In what ways is this practice different from those that resulted in ethnographic displays about the tragedy of “disappearing” Indians from other eras? I wanted the intervention into longtime, familiar, practices of collection of Indigenous knowledge thought to be (albeit tragically) disappearing, and display of it to European audiences, to be clearer.

I also hoped to learn more about Indigenous language revitalization projects in South America. There are fantastic programs on this happening in other parts of the globe — for example, in the kohanga reo (or Māori language nest) programs in Aotearoa (New Zealand). I’ve also been learning about other language reclamation approaches, including those with languages scholars had labeled “extinct.” What is happening in South America? I know there are many Maya and Zapotec language projects. There must be exciting language reclamation projects with other Indigenous languages happening in many places in South America.

But this exhibit only seemed to focus on familiar narratives underscoring Indigenous scarcity and disappearance – “the last six speakers of the language” – type approach – rather than on possibility and futurity, and the work happening now around Indigenous language reclamation. I see this as a problem.

In the introductory text by curator Alfons Hug it was said that the radical reduction of the installation to sound demands intense concentration on the part of the visitor? Do you agree? How would you describe the position of the visitor?

I didn’t have that experience, really. I listened to the sound installations, but because I didn’t have much context for how the recordings were collected and designed – or for the knowledge being presented in the languages – I found listening to the recordings not that compelling. They felt detached and excised. It was interesting to listen to the variety and diversity of languages – and I appreciated that – but I didn’t get a sense of the exciting relevance and import of these languages today, and of the world views in them – but rather more of a distanced sense of them.

In the text you mention, Hug writes, “the more the listeners are willing to immerse themselves in the cosmos of rare languages, the more visual elements can be dispensed with.” This seems troublesome to me. It presents these Indigenous languages as exotifying and titillating and rare – though also as something anyone can have a part of if we are willing and open enough. It thus focuses on the listener who (if willing? i.e., if mystically attuned enough? I think this rings of that connotation) can “immerse themselves in the cosmos of rare languages.” It doesn’t address the actual intelligence, knowledge and worldviews in the languages, but focuses on the experience that visitors can have listening to a short recording in an art installation. Hug writes of the “genuine perspective of the world and environment” in each Indigenous language – which is great, and crucial to point out – but because he attaches it to extinction and disappearance, not to continuity, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in what these perspectives actually are (“With every extinct language not only disappears a valuable linguistic heritage, but also a genuine perspective of the world and environment.” Hug writes.).
So – the visitor is still positioned as a voyeur (or perhaps écouteur) of something distanced and disappearing and rare- but still available to us if we are willing and open to it – rather than as a witness to the ongoing vitality of abundant Indigenous languages with crucial perspectives for Indigenous peoples and lives. Hug’s explanation of how the exhibit was designed – which I read after visiting it – reinforce these problems. He writes, “the main factors in the choice of the 17 languages are not only the historical and cultural importance of the language and ethnic group, but also how close to the brink of extinction they are, and how much esthetic appeal they have. The artists will also determine the subject and the type of texts used (e.g. fiction, fable, prayer, scientific work).”
Again, this reinforces the “brink of extinction” (rather than vibrancy and futurity) of Indigenous languages. And it presumes so much. Esthetic appeal to whom? What esthetic? Whose esthetic? What (again) is the relation of the artists who “determine the subject and the type of text used” and those being represented? How is this different from long-term practices of artists and scholars taking and using Indigenous materials for their own benefit?

It’s great to have this focus on Indigenous languages part of this exhibit in Berlin – and I can see that it would make some initial interventions in exposing European (and other) artists and publics to the abundance and diversity of Indigenous languages, which they might not know much about. But it feels to me very initial in terms of the dialogues that have been happening around “Indigenous Voices” and languages.

The installation is pointing to scientific methods of collecting, archiving, and classifying – approaches that also every researcher is dealing with and, in the best way, is reflecting on. What methodological challenges do you face in your own research practice, for example by choosing, analyzing and engaging with Indigenous choreographies?

I disagree that every scholar (or artist) approaches Indigenous subjects through “scientific methods of collecting, archiving and classifying.” I see these approaches as tied to European colonizing histories and practices, and to the anthropological and ethnographic practices that developed in relation to the structures and ideologies of this coloniality. These “scientific methods” are not the artistic or research approaches engaged with by the Indigenous artists, teachers, and scholars I have worked with, and whose lead I am trying to follow. So – the very premise of this question (which I see comes too from Hugs’ text: “art is increasingly incorporating scientific methods of collecting, archiving and classifying”) is tied to this particular worldview, and signals the disjunction in some of the radically different ways of understanding woven into Indigenous and non-Indigenous art and research practices. There are so many issues in the assumptions embedded in a (colonizing) worldview that assumes (artists’, scientists’, explorers’) right to take and use whatever (land, story, material, DNA) they can access and feel an affinity with, without consequence or engaged relation, and to collect, archive, and classify it for their own art and for European readers and audiences. This is not a research method I aspire to.
The challenges I face are tied into how not to do this, even when writing within colonial (university, academic publishing, knowledge, methodological) structures that so often require and validate them. A challenge I face is how to work and write – how to notice, uncover, gather, come to levels of understanding – in a more relational and inter-relational way with the dance artists and dance works with which I have become engaged.

Thank you for answering these questions.

Interview led by Stefan Donath, July 2016.

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