“Angelica Mesiti’s remarkable cinematic work brings us into the lives of communities who still communicate through ancient whistling languages that are versions of their local spoken language. In scenes shot in remote parts of Turkey, Greece and Spain’s Canary Islands, we are mesmerised by the very possibility of this form of language and its ability to connect people across mountainous terrain, sometimes within sight of modern technologies.” — Michele Helmrich, Associate Director (Curatorial)
About the artwork
Angelica Mesiti works primarily with video and installation, often focussing on performed cultural traditions that are being transformed or are at risk due to the changes that surround them. In December 2012, Mesiti won the Inaugural Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, giving her the time and resources to make a major three-channel video installation work, The Calling 2013–2014. The Calling centres on the whistling languages that are still in being used in remote parts of Europe, but which are threatened due to the introduction of modern communications. Over a year, Mesiti conducted research, shot film and recorded sound in the village of Kuşköy on the Black Sea coast of northern Turkey, the island of La Gomera in The Canary Islands, and the village of Antia on the island of Evia in Greece.
The whistling languages that allowed people to communicate with each other across considerable distances in difficult terrain are today becoming curiosities for tourists, and are seen as fragile instances of Intangible Cultural Heritage. For instance, the whistled language of the island of La Gomera in The Canary Islands, called the Silbo Gomero, was recognised by UNESCO and inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009. Silbo Gomero replicates the islanders’ language of Castilian Spanish, and is widely practiced by over 22,000 of the island’s inhabitants. It has been taught in schools since 1999.1 In comparison, in the village of Antia on the Greek island of Evia, the whistling language of σφυριά (sfiria) is in decline due to an elderly population and the introduction of modern communications.2 The whistled language in Kuşköy, on the Black Sea Coast in northern Turkey, called kuş dili or ‘bird language’ – whistled Turkish – was also favoured in times past due to the difficulties posed by the mountainous terrain and deep valleys. Since 1997, a Bird Language Competition has been held as part of a Bird Language Festival in Kuşköy, with primary school children being trained in whistled language since 2014.3 Turkey’s whistled language is currently under consideration for UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, to be determined in late 2017.4
Mesiti describes how the introduction of the telephone in the 1950s and 1960s marked a decline in whistling languages, with the three locations featured in the work offering points of difference:
…that’s why [the work] has the progression from the traditional rural context of Kuskoy, where the whistling exists as a functioning language that is used in everyday life, through the Greek island of [Evia and its village of] Antia, where technological changes to the environment as well as an aging population are influencing the language’s decline, and finally to La Gomera, where the economics of conservation are in full force and the tourism industry and the educational system are working hand-in-hand to save the local whistling language. This shows how a part of culture, which was once alive and functioning in everyday life, has since died and been resurrected as an artefact.5
In making The Calling, Mesiti has explored the boundary between documentary and a more cinematic experience that has been of increasing interest to contemporary artists. Writing of this work, Fiona Trigg and Emma McRae argue that it ‘perfectly reflects the current intimate dialogue between cinema and video art, and the freedom that filmmakers, artists, curators and festival directors feel to “crossover” between the two traditions.’6 The work provides a sensual visual and aural experience, the artist working with cinematographer Bonnie Elliott and sound recordist Aryn Dyer. Visual imagery and sound (whistling and sounds from the local environment), articulated through pacing, rhythm, silence, as well as the interaction between the images across the three screens, provide a mesmerising experience for the viewer. While on location, Mesiti was ‘thinking about how to film sound – the visual rhythms within silence, sound and space’, while also acknowledging that ‘the overall environmental soundscape of each location was integral to communicating how that community lived, where it lived and why this language developed the way it did.’7 While aesthetically enthralling as we are drawn into moments of life in villages and on hillsides, the work also causes us to reflect on how modes of communication have developed and continued.
(Adapted from text by Michele Helmrich, Associate Director, Curatorial)
- UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, Fourth Session, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 28 September to 2 October 2009, Decisions: Decision 4.com 13.71, 83–84, at http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/4com/.
- “Whistled languages: A disappearing relic from Antia, Greece,” at http://alphaomegatranslations.com/2013/10/14/whistled-languages-a-disappearing-relic-from-antia-greece-2; See also Maria Kouneli, Julien Meyer, and Andrew Nevins, “Whistled languages, including Greek in the continuum of endangerment situations and revitalization strategies,” Keeping languages alive: Documentation, pedagogy and revitalization, Mari C. Jones and Sarah Ogilvie (eds.), (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 198–209.
- Michelle Nijhuis, “The whistled language of northern Turkey,” The New Yorker, 17 August 2015, at http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-whistled-language-of-northern-turkey; Julien Meyer, “The Turkish population of Kuşköy in the valleys from the high plateau to the Black Sea,” in Whistled languages: A worldwide inquiry on human whistled speech (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2015), 33–35.
- UNESCO Files 2017 under process, http://www.unesco.org/culture/ich/en/files-2017-under-process-00859.
- Angelica Mesiti, “Interview with Angelica Mesiti by Amita Kirpalani and Emma McRae,” Ian Potter Moving Image Commission: Angelica Mesiti: The Calling (exhibition catalogue) (Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Moving Image and The Ian Potter Cultural Trust, 2016), 6–7.
- Fiona Trigg and Emma McRae, “The Calling,” Ian Potter Moving Image Commission: Angelica Mesiti: The Calling, 3.
- Angelica Mesiti, “Interview with Angelica Mesiti by Amita Kirpalani and Emma McRae,” 4–5.
Cinematographer: Bonnie Elliott
Sound Recordist: Aron Dyer
Editor: Angelica Mesiti
Post Production: David Gross
Sound Designer & Mix: Liam Egan
Colourist: Billy Wychgel
Bridget Ikin; Jodie Passmore
Translator: Fatih Bağcı
Community Liaison: Şeref Köçek
Translator: Nikos Lagonikos
Community Liaison: Panagiotis Tzanavaris
La Gomera, Canary Islands
Translator: Mechthild Schildhorn
Community Liaison: Francisco Correa
Commissioned by the Ian Potter Moving Image Commission, inaugural presentation at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image)
Produced by Felix Media