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Clarissa Tossin at EMPAC—Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center

September 9, 2022

Mojo’q che b’ixan ri ixkanulab’ by Clarissa Tossin, commissioned by EMPAC, is titled Before the Volcanoes. Sing travels across architectural locations that are both imagined and actual, cosmic and colonized, taking the audience on a fully sensory trip through many times, languages, and musical genres. The focus of the moving picture piece is on the ability of Maya cultural artifacts, and particularly wind instruments, to give voice to Indigenous knowledge systems. By employing 3D-printed reproductions of Maya wind instruments kept behind glass in Pre-Columbian museum collections, the video attempts to reconstruct these absent sounds while grappling with the history of Western architects appropriating Indigenous themes without much reference to or engagement with their source.

Rosa Chávez, a poet of the K’iche ‘Kaqchiquel language, guides us through the indigenous architectures of her Guatemalan town while narrating the personal histories of its Maya characters. She explores a complex web of behaviors that have long expressed and perpetuated cosmological, linguistic, and temporal systematic understandings through poetry and discourse. These include everything from traditional temazcal thermal rooms to ancient temples, healing systems, and weaving techniques whose patterns convey intricate information. The movie follows Ixil Maya artist Tohil Fidel Brito Bernal as he works on his meticulously researched sketches of ancient Maya glyphs and calendars inside the “Mayan Revival” Sowden House in Los Angeles, surrounded by sculptures of the same motifs plundered by the architect Lloyd Wright (Jr.).

Mexican flautist Alethia Lozano Birrueta weaves impassioned performances of the replica instruments into the lyrics and artwork of Chávez and Brito Bernal. Each breath activates layers of music that expand the shaky temporalities of the film’s themes, which are further heightened by striking visual effects. These instruments range from tiny bird ocarinas to flutes that are sculpturally modeled after monkey, jaguar, and other deities from Maya mythology. Before the Volcanoes Sing, which had its world premiere in EMPAC’s concert hall where numerous of Birrueta’s performances were filmed, aims to reclaim space for contemporary Indigenous traditions. Michelle gnes Magalhes’s score and sound design for the movie are dramatized by an immersive Ambisonic array of 64 loudspeakers that encircle the audience and are projected in front of the acoustically decorated curtain wall.

Curated by Vic Brooks, Associate Director of Arts and Senior Curator of Time-Based Visual Art with Mariana Fernández, Curatorial Fellow (2021). 

EMPAC—Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
110 8th St.
Troy, New York 12180
United States
Hours: Monday–Friday 10am–2pm

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