American multidisciplinary, conceptual artist and photographer Lena Herzog launched Last Whispers. Oratorio for Vanishing Voices, Collapsing Universes and a Falling Tree, an experiential, immersive project dedicated to language mass extinction.
A silent extinction, for silence is the form it eventually takes. Herzog gives voice to what has been silenced via a choral work that is, at once, deeply modern and traditional.
Every two weeks, a language dies. Extinct and soon-to-be- extinct languages represent identity and diversity; they should be protected and safeguarded. To lose these languages means to lose a piece of memory. What is the power of art and the duties of an artist?
Many volumes of art history have not properly answered what is the power of art and what the duties an artist must have. Answering such a broad question requires more space than is available in a magazine, I am afraid. Thus, I shall answer only to point out a direction for myself and as I hoped it would apply to my recent project Last Whispers: and that is, to transport people in the most convincing way, to allow them experience worlds of others, to feel affinity with those people and these worlds (various ways of thinking, of understanding, of being). As to the duties… I think, the primary duty of an artist is to not be too easy on oneself, avoid self-serving paths, keep your eye on what is at the very heart of each project.
Like many of your projects, your current one qualifies as a scientific/academic study, too. Where did you find your inspiration for Last Whispers and how did you develop your work? What feelings did this ‘travel’ inspire in you?
It sometimes seems to me that I was fascinated by language from my childhood, from the beginning of my own memory. I learned several languages early on. I wanted to be a writer but became linguistically homeless myself after leaving The Soviet Union a year before it collapsed. A political collapse, that was accompanied by a personal cultural one. And so, from Russian,
to English, to Spanish, to French, I became familiar with other ways of thinking but, somewhere, on route, I lost grasp of any one of them. However, I do not create work as self-therapy. I just felt I under- stood the feeling of language loss although it could never compare with an entire community of speakers ceasing to speak a language. The fact that it is a mass extinction, that every two weeks (at least) another language dies, is a shattering realization. Because the nature of this particular mass extinction is silence, it occurs in silence—intrinsically. Silence—is how this extinction happens. People stop speaking, writing, singing, thinking in a language. A world vanishes. How does one address it in an art work? — You sound what has gone silent. But how? —in such a way that the existence of these voices cannot, will not be denied. They existed. It must be noted. It must be felt. Thus, I chose the medium of immersive art, building a world to house these worlds, a world, a space, that can make room for them, that will be filled with these voices, in fact, it will have only them, and you, a silent visitor, will fly through it, listening only to them, for a change. These voices, knowing they exist, inspired me most. First and foremost, it is about them. Philosophers, music, cosmos and forests, all that was inspiration as well and somehow, my take about language and thought, my love for ideas, my poli- tics, it all made its way into the work. How could it not? I cannot extract myself from myself. But the beating heart of the project is the vanishing worlds of other languages, meaning—cultures. And a culture is a way of being.
I collaborated with world language archives from all over the world, with language activists and, of course, last speakers themselves. I combined a giant library of voices, and created imagery that would take each visitor through these worlds. I worked with my brilliant team: composers and sound engineers Marco Capalbo and Mark Mangini; extraordinary VR engineer Jonathan Yomayuza, animator Amanda Tasse, graphic designer Maggie Morris and my producers Meghan McWilliams and Cedric Gamelin. We received a grant from the Marilyn and Jim Simons Foundation which allowed us to work for two years and build it exactly as envisioned.
It became one of my major projects and it freed me ever more than any other work. I feel I can author worlds, that I can address ideas, no matter how complex. It was a tough one, but I feel I can fly now.