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The Secret Language of Elizabeth Tolbert, 2015

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The Secret Language of Elizabeth Tolbert is an installation composed of four scenographic spoken-word audio projections, four blood-stained embroidered handkerchiefs and a mass of dirt and hair spun across two domestic chairs.


The work visits the scenes and materials that the American ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Tolbert travelled to and used, in order to undertake research for her 1988 book The Musical Means of Sorrow: The Karelian Lament Tradition. The archives of the Finnish Literature Society in Helsinki and the University of Turku library became sites where the evocative act of ‘crying with words’, central to these Finnish folk songs was sought out in audio, photographic, textual and social form.


In order to generate audio recordings, some of the ritualistic structures of the Karelian Lament song performance were mobilised, such as telling a sad story in order to set the mood in the room. In other recordings, archival lament songs were edited in order to emphasise structural elements, such as crying, breathing, sobbing and gasping. The protagonist in another recordering whispers to microphone during a night shift of waged work in Goldsmiths library, University of London – his voice recounting the circumstances of finding Tolbert’s book.


Through correspondence with the author, recalling deaths over phone calls with family members and reconstructions of Tolbert’s graphic diagrams, the installation staged a meta-lament ritual based on the impossibility of access to Tolbert’s experience. 


The Secret Language of Elizabeth Tolbert was performed, exhibited and aired in Heretics 12, Broken Diorama, 2017, Radio Quantica, Portugal; On Curating Histories, 2015, National College of Art and Design, Dublin; Something To Be Scared Of, 2015, AM London, London; Recording at the North Wall, Recording, 2015, North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford. 

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