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When Gardens Are Graves: Listening Through Soil For Stories From Syria

In Syria, gardens have been transformed into graveyards where protesters killed during the uprising against the Assad regime are buried. Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury imagined that "if we press our ear to the ground, we are able to hear these stories." 

That's exactly what audiences in Miami Beach will do this week -- hear stories of protestors killed during the early years of the uprising. Digging through soil at the base of a tombstone in a simulated graveyard uncovers the device that plays the story, pieced together from interviews with surviving friends and family. 

Credit Courtesy of MDC Live Arts
Courtesy of MDC Live Arts
In a simulated graveyard, the audience for Tania El Khoury's "Garden Speak," listens to stories of protesters killed in the Syrian uprising.

"Gardens Speak," presented as part of MDC Live Arts season of works from the Muslim world,  accommodates just 10 people at a time; each person will hear a different story. The installation, El Khoury says, is "activated by the audience. The audience brings it alive, makes it happen." 

Her other installation running this week, "As Far As My Fingertips Take Me," is presented to just one person at a time, listening on headphones to the story of a refugee, while an artist paints a journey on your arm. The experience merges the tenderness of touch with the ragged pain of the refugee experience. Both installations run through Saturday, Dec. 9 as part of Miami Art Week.

Here are some excerpts of  WLRN's Alicia Zuckerman's conversation with Tania El Khoury on Sundial:

WLRN: How did you find the 10 stories of the people who died?

EL KHOURY: We were very particular about not thinking that this was a priority for people who were going through mourning, so it had to be a very careful way of collecting the stories, of building trust, with certain people who are willing to tell stories, who had time, who felt that they want to share stories. 

You've said you're more concerned with the experience itself than with large numbers of people experiencing the installation. How do you reconcile that and the need to get your message into the world, and survive as an artist?

I've always done work that is more concerned with the encounter between the audience and the work or encounter between the audience and the artist. "As Far As My Fingertips Take Me" is just a 10-minute show, but I've actually done full pieces for 40 minutes where it's only for one person at a time, and I was more interested in that. 

Credit Felipe Rivas / WLRN News
Artist Tania El Khoury (right) during her conversation with Alicia Zuckerman. Zuckerman's arm bears a depiction of a refugee journey, drawn on her arm during El Khoury's "As Far As My Fingertips Take Me."


I think it's more about creating a space where audience and artist can share who they are as people. They share their politics, they share their ethics. I was interested in that more than interested in a space where the audience are [sic] sitting comfortably and other people are entertaining them ... This has been the case since I was in the theater school actually. I was doing theater, but I never liked the relationship of the audience and artist in [a] theater context. 

What do you want the audience to understand after experiencing either of these two installations?

Well, the audience can understand whatever they like (laughs). I try not to focus very much on how I want people to feel, how I want people to think. Because what I like about interactive work is that each experience is totally different than other people's experience. So I try not to pre-determine what they think or feel. 

WLRN takes you on a brief tour of Gardens Speak in the video below: 

Alicia Zuckerman has loved audio since she was a kid listening to comedy albums and call-in radio advice shows she probably shouldn't have been listening to. She is Editorial Director at WLRN where she edits narrative and investigative audio journalism. She routinely reminds reporters to find and make moments of joy, which is how she learned you can grow mangoes on a balcony, and about the popularity of Manischewitz in the Caribbean. In 2020, she was named Editor of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter.