Taoli Havini, Answer to the Call, 2021, wooden platform, carpet, felt hangings, scaffolding, twenty-two speakers, sound. Installation view. Photo: gerdastudio.

Taoli Havini, Answer to the Call, 2021, wooden platform, carpet, felt hangings, scaffolding, twenty-two speakers, sound. Installation view. Photo: gerdastudio.

Taloi Havini

For centuries, the epistemic culture of Western civilization sought reliable knowledge through such concepts as objectivity, systematic method, and empirical data. This credo has been increasingly eroded in recent decades, as postcolonial and feminist studies have considered other methodologies and practices of knowledge. Taloi Havini offers us one such alternative—derived from her homeland, the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea—through Answer to the Call, 2021, a site-specific sound installation. Commissioned by TBA21-Academy, a nonprofit organization that promotes a deeper relationship with the ocean through art, the work came about following the artist’s three-week residency aboard the Falkor, a research vessel that is mapping the ocean floor through a method of bathymetry that involves the sonic measurement of space. (The installation is the first part of a two-year curatorial cycle, “The Soul-Expanding Ocean,” organized by Chus Martínez.)

In this case, mapping is used to protect and preserve the ocean floor, but in other contexts cartography has been synonymous with dividing and conquering. Floating above the object of their research, the scientists on the Falkor utilize sound to collect and organize information systematically. In Answer to the Call, Havini uses sound to transmit indigenous knowledge of her native land and to immerse visitors in an unusual mental state. In the former Church of San Lorenzo, a site of choral listening par excellence, visitors are raised up at the center of the installation, where they can sit on an aquamarine-colored platform (or altar?) that has the same shape as the island of Buka and is surrounded by twenty-two speakers. Emanating from these is a sound composition Havini created in collaboration with Ben Hakalitz, a composer and musician from Bougainville, utilizing an indigenous method of call-and-response similar to that of jazz. Sometimes in alternation from distant speakers, sounds follow one another, creating a dialogue that requires active and metabolic listening. The melodic portions are complemented by silence and repetitive hypnotic mantric moments. The cumulative effect is one of infinite facets of colors, odors, moods, landscapes, and beats in a cyclical sequence that traverses seasons and continents, dawns and dusks, the atmosphere of the earth and its center, submerged and emerged land, instinct and information. A drum responds to another drum in a rhythmic conversation. Flutes—solemn, sweet, heartrending—call for attention or indicate a direction, mixing with birdsong. Recordings captured with hydrophones from the Falkor are superimposed on the sound of the wind and flowing water.

The heart of the composition seems to pulsate in the artist’s recordings of fragments of the songs that the village elders of Buka used to chant to enter into a collective trancelike meditative state, and that in times past they sang when rowing together during long journeys from one Pacific island to another. Calling on this precious sound document, Havini shares her privilege of experiencing in person the power of oral tradition and the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation in a way now forgotten in the West. However, the ability of places to “speak” is strongly rooted in the social interactive capacity of an actively perceived environment, which comes alive through communication among individuals who share the same physical and cultural space.

The sun that filters into the church adds pools of light to Havini’s installation; noises coming from the Venetian lagoon mix with those emanating from the speakers. One inevitably thinks of the acqua alta, or high water, that periodically floods Venice, but also of the rising sea levels due to climate change that threaten both Europe and Oceania. The call is one no one can escape answering, because the sea has no boundaries. “We don’t live on these small islands; we live on the ocean,” the artist asserts. The sea is a single entity, not only a physical but a cultural connector.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.