Tania Candiani: Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies at the Contemporary Arts Center

December 23rd, 2020  |  Published in *, December 2020

Installation view: Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies. Contemporary Arts Center, July 1, 2020 – January 17, 2021. Photo: Prince Lang.

I walked into the second floor gallery just as the choir began imitating the sound of pigs being slaughtered. “Four Industries,” the mesmerizing centerpiece of Mexico City-based artist Tania Candiani’s exhibition Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies at the Contemporary Arts Center, is a three-channel video installation in which an a cappella women’s choir mimics the sounds of manual labor and industrial machinery that would have been commonly heard in Cincinnati circa the end of the 19th century. With only human voices, the piece evokes forgotten sounds of ironwork, woodworking, printing, and, yes, meatpacking. The score, produced in collaboration with Mexican composer Rogelio Sosa, was brilliantly inhabited by Cincinnati’s MUSE Women’s Choir: Kerchunks, hisses, screeches, and squeals blast the viewer in immersive surround sound while the camera pans the singers’ faces, simulating the movements of machines. I sat through it no less than three times on my first visit, and left with a permanently-altered understanding of Cincinnati’s former name “Porkopolis.”

Tania Candiani’s artistic practice, spanning sound, sculpture, video, and large-scale performance interventions, is concerned with reacting to local histories and teasing out forgotten narratives, especially those of the disenfranchised. In this exhibition she holds up Cincinnati’s industrial past in a mirror and asks us to pay closer attention to the experiences of workers who have been displaced—and outright erased—from conventional narratives. Although Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies is concerned with labor and industry, it isn’t interested in critiquing labor or industry as such, but rather it serves as a counterbalance to the dominant stories that are told about those who labored and who gets to be the protagonists of those stories. There’s a generic image of an “old fashioned Cincinnati worker” that crops up in marketing campaigns. The truth is this generic image is not a neutral portrait but is the result of propaganda. Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies investigates that propaganda.

Her interest in Cincinnati’s industrial history was sparked by Over-the-Rhine’s architecture, which she encountered during a visit to DAAP several years ago. Using a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship grant, she began to research the story of how the buildings and neighborhood had been repurposed from their industrial origins to their present-day use. That research led her to a Report of the Board of Commissioners in the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition from 1879. There she found transcripts of speeches and descriptions of objects on display at the Exposition, along with depictions of then-newly-built Music Hall. Together with a trove of lithograph posters, these documents told a story of Cincinnati at a particular moment in time and became the primary source of inspiration for the body of work in Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies. Throughout the exhibition, we see how the utopian language vocalized by 19th century industry leaders encoded a vision of the future that benefit the wealthy, white, and male.

This is most directly evident in “Procession,” where the artist has unfolded an extensive panorama (Roma: Panorama of the Procession of the Order of Cincinnatus at the Opening of the Eleventh Cincinnati Exposition September 1883) depicting scenes from history as a series of parade floats. The panorama includes many harmful representations of women, Black, and indigenous people, who are shown only as symbols or as markers of an exotic “other.” Above, Candiani shows many of the floats re-imagined as stark black and white cutouts depicting racist monuments toppling. Placed in the middle of the exhibition, “Procession” plays an important role in bridging past and present and, in doing so, acts as a key to unlock what Candiani is showing us about history. The past persists not only as an active part of the present, but is also continually reshaped by the present.

“The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption,” Walter Benjamin wrote. “Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones?”[1] Candiani’s work often explores this secret index refracted through the human voice. In 2018’s “Syreny,” for instance, she directed a choir to replicate the sound of passing ships at a former port in Gdansk, Poland. Even without understanding the specific local history to which the work responds (the absence of the sound of docking ships being metonymic for the town’s economic decline), watching the ship pass while the choir sings the sound of its absence evokes a strong sense of Benjamin’s “echo of now silent voices.”

Installation view: Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies. Contemporary Arts Center, July 1, 2020 – January 17, 2021. Photo: Prince Lang.

In both “Four Industries” and “Syreny,” we are presented with human voices mimicking the sound of machines. I’m reminded of Henri Bergson’s essay Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic in which the philosopher describes laughter as a response to “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.”[2] The camera pans across the singers who appear to be a machine. The camera zooms in on a pipe fixture of the building, paint peeling like skin. The building breathes. The singers clank and rattle.

“Four Industries” recalls Charlie Chaplin’s trip through the machine in Modern Times (1936). Bergson describes this sort of physical comedy as “a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.”[3] For Chaplin, humor was a medium for transmitting social critique. This tracks with Bergson, for whom laughter is an ultimately a social phenomenon which creates “elasticity and sociability.” Modern Times worked as social critique in part because laughter made the audience more open, or elastic, to its serious political message. It expanded the political imagination of its audience. Through a “choreography of labor,” Candiani’s work seems interested in expanding our sense of possibility by restoring agency to our understanding of the past. This, too, is deeply Bergsonian. In a later essay (“The Possible and the Real”), Bergson writes: “If we put the possible back in its proper place,” viewing history as an act of creative becoming rather than a static entity, then “the gates of the future open wide; freedom is offered an unlimited field.” He concludes: “Above all we shall have shall have greater strength, for we shall feel we are participating, creators of ourselves.”[4] This language feels strongly related to what Candiani strives to accomplish here.

Yet this exhibition is keen to remind us that restorative representation is only half the equation of retrieving a sense of possibility. It must accompany opposition to conditions that are intolerable. Accordingly, threads of both redemption and damnation can be found in Candiani’s work, and they are often intertwined. We see a restoration of portrayal of women and people of color in places from which they have been erased (such as a panel from Winold Reiss’s Union Terminal mosaic mural), and we also hear a visceral simulation of slaughtering—as good a stand in as any for the ontological violences elsewhere brought to light. But I believe the works here could have been more direct. Here is this exhibition’s missed opportunity: Candiani was specifically interested in the history of re-purposing formerly-industrial spaces in Over-the-Rhine and the historic portrayal of marginalized inhabitants of Cincinnati, who are left out of dominant narratives. Yet the exhibition is silent on the displacement that continues today, such as recent and ongoing gentrification in Over-the-Rhine and elsewhere. Her earlier work “Pulso” (2016-2018) created a direct performance-intervention, involving 195 women playing pre-Columbian drums in Mexico City’s subway. This work not only evoked a forgotten history (the sound of pre-Columbian Mexico city) and restored women to a place where they had been previously excluded (drums were forbidden for women to play because they resembled a female body part), but it was also an act of rebellion against violence commonly experienced by women in Mexico City’s subway terminals. I can only imagine how Candiani might have approached in this manner the damning parallels between the discourse of Industrial Exposition leaders speeches at Music Hall in 1879 and the dismissive rhetoric of proponents of the FC Cincinnati Stadium, which is currently displacing mostly Black and low-income residents from the West End neighborhood.

But this isn’t to say the exhibition lacks either teeth or poignancy. The single-channel video “Speech for an Empty Theater” shows a woman standing before an empty hall on the stage of Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium. As a camera slowly rotates around her, she reads fragments from the opening addresses of Cincinnati’s Industrial Expositions, which were issued from the same stage more than a century ago. As I settled into the rhythm of the reader’s voice, I braced myself for the dehumanizing language. But it did not come, because there is no dehumanizing language. Candiani pieced together fragments of different historic addresses to create a new address. Instead of highlighting the ugliness of Cincinnati’s history, it points to the possibility of a brighter, fuller, and more just and inclusive future.

Tania Candiani: Sounding Labor, Silent Bodies was curated by Kate Bonansinga, Director, School of Art in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning in collaboration with Amara Antilla, Senior Curator at the Contemporary Arts Center. The exhibition runs through January 17th, 2021.

–Steve Kemple

[1] Walter Benjamin. “On the Concept of History” in Selected Writings Volume 4: 1938-1940. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003). p 390

[2] Henri Bergson. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell. (New York: MacMillan Company, 1921). p 36

[3] Ibid p 10

[4] Henri Bergson. “The Possible and the Real” in The Creative Mind. Trans. by Mabelle L. Andison (New York: Philosophical Library). p 123.

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