A woman in the Turkish village of Kuskoy whistling - The Calling - Angelica Mesiti - Hero image.jpg
Stories & Ideas

Mon 23 Nov 2020

The real Whistlers: Angelica Mesiti on 'The Calling'

Art Commission Exhibition Interview
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The artist behind 'The Calling' (2014) talks about her 3-channel video art installation and learning more about the ancient whistling languages of La Gomera (Canary Islands), Kuşköy (Turkey), Antioch (Greece).

For these communities, whistling languages are in a process of transformation from their traditional use as tools for communication across vast lands into tourist attractions and cultural artefacts and are being taught to local school children. The Calling was a poignant exploration of ancient human traditions evolving and adapting to the modern world. Mesiti's work spoke to the tenacity and creativity of traditional cultures in the face of technical progress and environmental flux.

Angelica Mesiti is represented by Anna Schwartz Gallery. Produced by Felix Media. The inaugural Ian Potter Moving Image Commission was a collaboration between ACMI and The Ian Potter Cultural Trust.

This interview was conducted in 2014. Read the transcript

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Angelica Mesiti: The Calling is a three-channel video installation. So, it's three simultaneous projections with sound. It's a work that considers three communities that practice a form of whistled language. That's I guess the main ... what gives the work its structure, but it also considers what are the factors that contribute to that language? How is it used in the environment? How does the environment affect the evolution, and demise of the language? What are the ways of life, of the people who are using these languages? And yeah, considering this whistling language, I guess, as a culture that's living, adapting, and perhaps in a demise.

ACMI: Can you tell me where you shot the work?

AM: The work was shot in three locations in Northern Turkey, in the Black Sea region, in a very small village called Kuşköy. The second location is in Greece, on the Island of Evia, and the villages called Antioch. And, the third location is in the Canary Islands on the Island of La Gomera, which is part of Spain and it's West of Morocco. There's kind of a loose structure to the work. You can enter the work and experience it at any point, and it cycles around. And, the overall structure of the work, is the idea of cycles, is actually quite an element within the work. So, I guess you can come in, and experience it at any stage.

But yeah, within each community, there's three parts to the work. Each community is a chapter of the work. It begins with a prologue, which is shot in Istanbul. And then, we visit Kuşköy, where the language is probably at its most functional, and still being used in a very traditional way. And then, we moved to Greece where we watch the language experience a decline, and the effects of environmental change, ageing population, these kinds of things that are affecting how the language will survive or not. And, the final chapter focuses on La Gomera, where they're implementing that the language is part of the education system. So, children are learning it at school, and it's also part of the tourism on the Island.

So yeah, there is kind of an arc that looks at... I think of three chapters in terms of like maybe a living, death, and a rebirth, that's how I've imagined the structure.

I thought a lot about the documentary form in the making of this work. And of course, that's not my background at all. And, I was quite wary that dealing with the subject matter that has in the past been subject to a sort of sociological gaze, or an anthropological perspective on the way languages work. I really didn't want to do that. I wanted to create an installation where a viewer could experience a more abstracted impression of these places, and people, and this tradition. And also, using the elements within video, moving image installations that are strongest parts of its form is the spacial features of sound within a gallery space. The ability to work across multiple screens, and not be confined to a single screen presentation of ideas. These are all things that I'm interested in, as an artist working with the moving image. The way that, yeah, you can present images outside of the conventions of cinema, or documentary. That's why this form interests me.

When I was thinking about the development of the format of the work, the idea of the panorama was something that I wanted to present from very early on, felt to me, like this was a way of communicating a sense of distance and space. So, the panoramas that appear within the work where we have one scene that appears across the three screens; these for me, were actors punctuation points for the work.

I wanted them to be able to communicate where we are, that perhaps we've changed a location. They're also moments to take a breath, and maybe just step back, and reconsider where we are for a moment, as like a momentary change between ideas within scenes. So yeah, in terms of the grammar of the work, they have quite an important function, but they're also aesthetically there to create just this breadth, this idea of breadth, which is so integral to how the people live in these communities, and the landscape they live within. And, I felt like within the confines of a black box that was of a gallery space, that's perhaps one way that I could have communicated that idea.

ACMI: Do you have a favourite scene?

AM: I have favourite scenes, because they remind me of what happened when we were shooting on that particular day. Every time I watched the scene in Greece with the two men who were shouting across the valley to each, Lefteris and Panayotis, that always puts a smile on my face, because they were so cheeky, and they just didn't really want to behave. But really, got a kick out of not doing what they were told. And they were so, yeah, warm, lovely people.

We finished every day of shooting with a little short of some clear, strong alcohol homemade, and biscuits that were fresh out of the oven. And, we were treated like family. So, that is a really warm memory. We also had some really interesting discussions about the crisis in Greece as well, which was really fascinating. And, the first time we got to Greece, when we were leaving, one of the families said to us, "We're really happy that you're coming here to film something that is positive about Greece, because we're really tired of the film crews coming here just to film the misery of Greece. And so, that was very rewarding, I guess.

I saw the whistling language as having the potential to talk about something larger that interests me, and that's the way that cultures adapt, and change, and survive or die. And, I thought that the whistling language was actually a really good metaphor to be able to explore that idea, which I find to be an important idea in my broader interests, and in my practice. Early on, I decided that I wanted the work to have a very spacial focus, because the language itself has been developed to communicate across vast tracts of land. So, the idea of distance and sound in space, I felt was very integral idea in the work.

So, the installation structure that I settled on with these three images that are stitched together at times to create full panoramic images, and other times we're seeing different elements within a scene simultaneously. This for me was a way of being able to communicate that idea of distance of space, and of being in an environment where multiple things are happening; where also, maybe communicating the aural environment out of that place. So, we might see the wind moving through trees, while someone is whistling across the valley, because clearly a whistle travels through wind much more effectively, than a shout. So these ideas, I was trying to communicate with images to explain, and maybe present why this languages is developed, and how it functioned.

ACMI: And, thinking about those people that you filmed. Do you have any kind of stories about any in particular, and what did you love about these people, or where you spent most of time in that, is there kind of story around that, that you want to be able to tell us?

AM: Yeah. We did a research trip early last year, because I really wanted to meet with each of the communities, and see where they lived, so that I could be informed when I was developing the ideas for the shoot. And, when we visited Kuşköy in Turkey, which is probably the most traditional rural village I've ever been to. We had this really fascinating afternoon, where we went to meet some people who in the family, there was a very well known, good whistler in the family. And, they were actually just stopping for lunch. And so, like every place we visited in Turkey, we were offered tea, and food, and fresh bread that had been made out of the oven. And, we were treated with such hospitality. And then, we were offered if we would like to come inside their home and see what the house was like, they were really open to us.

And so, I said, "Yeah, I'd love to see inside." And so, I was shown into very small home with a traditional stove where the bread was being cooked, and the tea was being made. And then, I looked over to the part just past the couch, and there was their wireless internet connection, and a laptop with Facebook on it for the 19-year-old son, who just been shopping wood outside, was on Facebook. So, we had a few moments like that, where we felt like we're in another world completely. But at the same time it was, our world followed us there. And, there was these two simultaneous kind of realities of, this kind of primitive communication, and our 21st century kind of hyper communication present at the same time. So, that was really interesting.

All about urban ideas about sustainable living, and like urban farms, and recycling, and sustainability, and the efforts that we go to, to try and kind of, I guess, reduce our impact. These people are doing as part of their life. They live in the most reduced, sustainable way I've ever encountered. They use everything. They generate their own energy from, whether it's a stone mill, or... They had electricity in the town, but they are so resourceful, and so little waste in everything that they do. Their life is incredibly hard. I don't want to romanticise it.

And, I don't think that we're adapted to be able to live like that anymore. But, it was actually really inspiring to see this community living very simply, and the incredible amount of skills that they have, survival skills to be able to live in kind of harsh conditions, and also the quality of life that they have. Although, they don't have a lot of comforts and luxuries, they have very low levels of stress, and cancer. They live very long lives. And, that was something that was an amazing kind of experience to have. And in each of these communities, mostly in Greece and Turkey, we saw that; because they're living in the mountain, so their whole life is up walking up and down hills, and collecting wood. They have these incredible robust way of living. And that was, yeah, really quite inspiring just to see how it's possible to live, and how different it is to how we live.