Resisting Oblivion: Lena Herzog Interviewed by Kellylouise Delaney

Documenting disappearing languages.

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Lena Herzog, Last Whispers, 2016. Screen still.

By 2050, half of the roughly seven thousand languages spoken around the world will fall silent—thanks in large part to globalization. As the language of a people dies, an integral piece of the culture it once helped to construct goes along with it, diluting the world’s understanding of itself. Hoping to call awareness to the tragedy of our world’s quietly diminishing identity, multimedia artist Lena Herzog has composed Last Whispers (2016). The forty-five-minute immersive oratorio with a seven-minute virtual-reality component catalogs a melancholic sampling of the voices behind endangered and extinct languages.

With understated visuals of natural landscapes accompanying an audio composition that seamlessly weaves song and story together as the piece visits various territories around the world, the installation invites viewers to understand language by feeling it. Herzog worked alongside the Endangered Languages Archive, the SOAS World Languages Institute, and UNESCO to gather recordings of indigenous voices, but scrolling through audio libraries to curate her piece didn’t appeal to her. Instead, she incorporated the voices into her other creative work, listening to thousands of recordings as she developed photos in the dark room and marking the ones that stood out.

Her fascination with language is intrinsic to her identity, with conspicuous roots in her early childhood, when she began teaching herself English; she read Sherlock Holmes in both her native Russian and English along with a grammar book, translating line for line. In her later travels around the world she encountered native indigenous speakers in places like Japan and Amazonia, whom she recorded. Last Whispers is the summation of decades of research and thought into the meaning and impact of linguistic diversity.

—Kellylouise Delaney

Last Whispers / Trailer from Lena Herzog on Vimeo.

Kellylouise Delaney What are the larger implications of the extinction of the world’s languages? What is the effect?

Lena Herzog We will be monochromatic. We will be monolingual. We will have twenty to thirty languages that this entire world speaks. The variousness of the human mind, the knowledge embedded in the languages and cultures that are going extinct at a staggering level will go. It has implications not just for those languages, those cultures, and those people that are experiencing profound marginalization. It has also deep implications for “us,” the dominant cultures. We become provincial, because obliviousness to the world is essentially the definition of provinciality. Culturally, we become provincial while our financial capital, military, and ways of communication in our dominant culture pervade the world. We become oblivious to everyone else because we’re just so successful in permeating ourselves. And in some ways, we lose the abilities to listen and to hear ourselves in this process. 

KD Beyond us becoming provincial and the native speakers being marginalized, why would you say that the preservation of these languages is important to you, and in general?

LH I don’t want to live in a world where there’s just one type of apple to eat. It’s a far graver situation for me when there’s just one all-permeating culture to experience. I just stopped myself from using the verb “consume,” because I don’t like that verb as a way of experience, since consumerism is very much part of the flattening, of this erasure of the diversity of the world. Even the word “diversity” has been inflated and is losing its meaning because it’s been used in a way that doesn’t have implications for changing our minds, our policy. It’s frequently used in a way that has no implications for power.

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Lena Herzog, Last Whispers, 2016. Screen still.

KD I was curious how you chose each recording and where to include song or speaking.

LH Some of these choices were intuitive. I created the initial library from the libraries of world archives of endangered and extinct languages, with their permission of course. While I work in the dark room I listen to novels and music. I kept listening to these languages for a year and a half. Some of these recordings would strike me as mysterious and beautiful. All of them were mysterious to me, because by definition we don’t know the language. Some of them were just so human, it almost felt like I could understand them, the emotion in them, the tone—just the voice would catch, and I would mark it. I would interrupt my work and mark it in my audio library. And then from the marked recordings, I created a narrower library from which I knew I would compose with my team. Then I started to clear permissions from the archives, the linguists, and, wherever I could, from the communities of indigenous people who claim or might claim heritage. By definition, it was difficult. Not only are they far and not reachable most of the time; much of the time they have dissolved into dominant cultures.

When I cleared the recordings, that made the library even more narrow. That defined the library. There was a conceptual idea, a libretto in a way. I presented to my team when we started to work on it that it was going to be an oratorio. It’s a choral piece. Like a good oratorio, it should have arias, and for that we will use the singing voices: Ingrian, Batari, Ombata, Koyakon—all these beautiful, striking songs. And we will also have the spoken word and chorus. And the second half is actually illuminating what happens to the languages, which is this dislocation and interruption. The second part is a highly postmodern piece. It uses the recordings to illuminate the true picture of the dislocation and interruption. In the finale, which is sound-designed by Mark Mangini, we pick up what has been lovingly scattered. And we again hold onto them compositionally. The idea with the finale was that the voices need to wrap around us. We need to be completely absorbed, and the room needs to be filled with them. And then end on an exhale. I must stress that we were guided from the inception by the voices, even the visual footage. I would send the voice recordings to the drone operator, Tomas Van Houtyryve, and he would listen to the voices while flying the drone. So when you see the drone flight, it’s not a coincidence that it feels so organic to the oratorio because he is guided by the voices.

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Lena Herzog, Last Whispers, 2016. Screen still.

KD What gave you the idea from the beginning to focus on natural scenery for the project? Was it that nature tied all of the languages together?

LH I jot down notes of what images come to me when I’m listening to them, and again some of them were very deliberate and conceptual. The image of a forest goes with the undertitle: “oratorio for vanished voices, collapsing universes, and a falling tree,” which I decided to change to “vanishing languages, collapsing universes, and a falling tree” because I wanted to leave space for the idea of revitalization. I don’t want it to feel so final. In relation to the images is the old philosophical trope that when a tree falls in a forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? It’s a basic philosophical exercise and an epistemological challenge. Does something exist if we don’t know it existed, or if it fell or stood? But I began to think that that’s also an empathetic exercise. If something falls, does it matter? Why would it matter? I’m not saying everything matters. I’m saying we need to think about that. It’s a fight against solipsism. If a tree falls in a forest, and no one hears it, does it make a sound? My answer is a resounding yes. It made a sound even if I didn’t hear it. And I want to know about this and think about this. And it matters to me.

Lena Herzog’s Last Whispers will be on view at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, on February 24.

Kellylouise Delaney is a journalist from New York. She writes for office magazine, and her work has appeared in ARTnews, Dazed Digital, V Magazine, and elsewhere.

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