Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

‘Their voices stay with us but they are absent’

A new sound art installation uses real-life stories to highlight the affect the emigrant voice has on the space and people they leave behind

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 01:00


Ciara Kenny

Despite their absence, through emails, phone calls, and snippets of remembered conversations, the voices of emigrants stay with those who remain at home, often heightening the sense of physical distance between us and them.

A new interactive sound installation by Dublin-based artist La Cosa Preziosa, aka Susanna Caprara, attempts to capture the affect the emigrant voice has on the spaces and people they leave behind.

Combining recordings of Irish people abroad telling their own stories with soundcapes of Dublin Airport and other places around the city, the Italian-born artist, who has been living in Ireland for 10 years, is hoping to challenge an audience to think about the nature of presence and absence in the context of present-day migration from Ireland.

“Being an immigrant myself, I am really drawn to themes of identity and being between places,” she explains. “A lot of my friends have moved abroad recently, and it touched me that I was an immigrant here in Ireland while so many Irish people were having to emigrate.”

Over the past year, Caprara has recorded the stories of more than 40 friends, former colleagues and Generation Emigration contributors now living abroad for the project, including an actor, an anthropologist, a shopkeeper and a journalist, scattered from Paris to Adelaide, London to San Francisco.

The installation, currently on exhibition at the Centre for Creative Practices, replicates a sitting room in a Georgian house, empty except for a table and chair and a set of luggage in the middle of the floor. As the visitor moves through the room, interactive motion sensors trigger different soundscapes, offering the listener a different selection of stories and perspectives depending on where they are standing.

One of the “listening areas” is beside a window, so as the visitor looks out, they hear voices describe “gum trees, dry earth, and land needing much rain”, “a river, totally frozen over”, or “people just walking to and from work” – vistas visible from emigrants’ windows around the world.

Some stories were recorded by the subjects themselves using digital sound devices, laptop microphones or smartphones, while others were recorded by Caprara as they talked on Skype, highlighting the sense of distance between the listener in Ireland and the emigrant abroad.

Each interview was recorded separately, but as Caprara edited them together, the voices began to intertwine as if talking to one another.

“I hadn’t planned for that to happen, but it worked. They emerged not only as a dialogue, but almost as a collective voice,” she says.

“When I first started the project I thought there would be a lot of sadness or anger as a result of people feeling forced to leave, but generally people were very upbeat and positive. They are looking on the bright side, focusing on the lifestyle where they live or the professional connections they are making.”

On the table is a pair of headphones, playing a binaural (3D) recording of Irish journalist in London JP O’Malley reading his poem The Leaving. The text of the poem is also written on the inside of an Irish passport.

Just two people are allowed to enter the room at any one time, which Caprara hopes will give visitors the opportunity to reflect without distraction on those they know who have moved away. “I wanted the space to echo the sense of loneliness that people feel when someone has just left,” she says.

“I wanted to create an interplay between the space which is empty and the voices which are real, but not physically there. I sometimes think of emigrants like ghosts, their voices are still here with us but they are absent at the same time.”

‘_liminal State’, which is funded by Dublin City Council, runs at the Centre for Creative Practices on Lower Pembroke Street in Dublin until April 25th. It forms part of the Migrant Artists on Ireland project, a series of exhibitions by 12 artists who have migrated to or emigrated from Ireland. The works focus particularly on how the act of moving from one home to another has shaped the artists’ perspectives and influenced their art. See for more details.