In fall 2017, I was invited by Tonspur Kunstverein Wien to make an eight-channel sound installation in a public passageway at Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier. I wanted to make a sound piece about the apartment in Vienna on Novaragasse where three generations of my Jewish family lived until 1939. My great-grandmother, a family matriarch, lived in this apartment along with my grandfather and his siblings and later my grandmother, my uncle, and my mother in utero. Several of these family members were later deported to concentration camps.
My surviving family members were prohibited from reclaiming or entering this home when they returned to Vienna post-war. During my fall 2017 art residency, I unexpectedly gained access to the house and to my family’s apartment through a friend of a friend who lives in the building. With the help of archivists, I learned that Nazis forcibly removed Jewish inhabitants from this and other buildings and then used this building as a deportation house. The records showed the names of people crammed into my family’s apartment, #20, until these temporary residents were transported to Theresienstadt and killed.
I had done prior radio work in Vienna connected to the idea of Holocaust postmemory, the intergenerational transmission of war, trauma, and displacement (Hirsh, 2012). My radio pieces became increasingly experimental as I engaged with this theme of postmemory. I wandered the city of Vienna, telling stories I had not personally experienced but which informed me physically and emotionally. I drew on the methodology of evocative autoethnography (Bochner, 2017) to frame this intangible experience of violence, loss, and the transmission of anxiety and psychological defenses.
Before my residency in fall 2017, I consulted a medium to get input about doing a radio piece about this family house. The medium said there were wandering spirits stuck in the house who could use some help. I would make the MuseumsQuartier sound installation to help the ghosts find peace, but first I wanted to better understand what is a ghost?
Scholars, among them Jacques Derrida and sociologist Avery Gordon, have brought interdisciplinary perspectives to the study of ghosts. Gordon’s work compellingly frames haunting in the context of systemic oppression: Haunting “is the price paid for violence, for genocide...Erasure and defacement concoct ghosts” (Gordon, 2008, 5). Gordon posits that an arduous bodily transformation is required to address a haunting, a process that is not only intellectual but requires an individual encounter: “[I]f you think you can fight and eliminate the systems’ complicated ‘nastiness’ without [an encounter], you will not get very far because it will return to haunt you” (Gordon, 2008, 203).
To learn about Jewish practices for assisting ghosts, I consulted a rabbi and a Jewish community leader in Vienna. They both pointed me towards soul letters, a Kabbalistic practice of reciting psalms associated with the letters of the deceased person’s name. 220 people were deported from the Novaragasse house, so the safest bet was to recite psalms that covered every letter. To this end, I recorded the Jewish community leader and his mother reciting Psalms 34 and 121, and this recording is part of Covenant of the Tongue.
Soul letters brought me to the very rich world of Kabbalah. I was especially drawn to Abraham Abulafia (Idel, 1987), a 13th century Jewish mystic from Spain who created vocalized meditations based on the ancient Sefer Yetzirah, or Book of Creation, a stunning text that resonates with contemporary speech act and performativity of language theories (Butler, 1997; Law and Urry, 2004). Sefer Yetzirah is about the power of the breath, letter, and word to form the world. Through permutations of sounded letters, one chisels and engraves the air (Kaplan, 1990). The utterance is a sensual, profoundly creative act through the portal of the mouth.
Abulafia’s engagement with the Sefer Yetzirah provided me with a language for encountering the Novaragasse house’s past and present. In particular, I wanted to define myself and my family members not in terms of the acts of annihilation and violence done in the house but on my own creative terms. This is not easy to do in Vienna as a Jewish person, where Holocaust ghosts and history are still palpable, and there are now very few Jews in Vienna. Abulafia’s meditations enabled me to acknowledge history while simultaneously asserting and enacting my living presence and creative power.
Most of the vocalizations chanted by me throughout Covenant of the Tongue are permutations of the three “mother” letters, aleph, mem, and shin, which birth the other letters, twenty-two in total. (Kaplan, 1990). I let myself be rearranged through the vocalizations, which I did many nights while making this piece, often chanting them at two in the morning at top volume. I felt pulled to use my body “to eliminate the system’s nastiness,” borrowing Gordon’s phrase. I felt the vibrations in various cavities of my body --my head, my torso, my legs-- as I permuted the three mothers and other letters. Day by day, amidst the pressure of an art opening, an offering was birthed. Things emerged in the sound piece that I had not controlled or intended. The various encounters and strange late nights helped my self get out of the way.
My originally imagined audience of Covenant of the Tongue was a mix of ghosts from the Novaragasse house; the living Viennese walking through the public passageway in the MuseumsQuartier, many of whom were disconnected from this recent history; and, as strange as it sounds, the particles of air and matter affected by vibration, invited to be formed anew. I also imagined friends and other humans as listeners creating the resonant container that makes sound come alive, the sonic equivalent of bearing witness.
Covenant of the Tongue opened in December 2017 and was composed specifically for eight channels in the above-mentioned passageway at the MuseumsQuartier. I had observed how people moved through the passage, often walking quickly in the cold weather on their way somewhere. I worked with the acoustics of the passage’s vaulted ceiling that sustain a singing voice and the encompassing sound of eight channels in the space. The passageway version was an eighteen-minute loop and included seven images mounted on the wall, photos of the Novaragasse house’s hallways and interior staircase with text from the Sefer Yetzirah superimposed. For [In]transition, which presents a different listening space than a Viennese passageway, some of the repeating elements of the piece have been removed. I also shortened and thinned other sections.
Blanco, M. & Peeren, E. (Eds.). (2013). The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory. London: Bloomsbury.
Bochner, A. (2017). Heart of the Matter: A Mini-Manifesto for Autoethnography. International Review of Qualitative Research. 10(1): 67-80.
Butler, J. (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1994). Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, The Work of Mourning and The New International. New York: Routledge.
Hirsch, M. (2012). The Generation of Post-Memory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gordon, A. (1997/2008). Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Idel, M. (1987). The Mystical Experience in Abraham Abulafia. Albany: SUNY Press.
Kaplan, A. (1990.) Sefer Yetzirah. The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice. York Beach, Maine: S. Weiser.
Law, J., & Urry, J. (2004). Enacting the Social. Economy and Society 33(3): 390-410.
Karen Werner, Ph.D. is a radio producer & sociologist based in western Massachusetts. Recently, she has been an artist-in-residence in Finland at the Saari Residence and in Vienna, Austria, at the MuseumsQuartier/Tonspur and studio das weisse haus. Werner is a 2017-2018 Fellow of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and received a Tending Space Fellowship from the Hemera Foundation from 2014-2016 for artists with a Buddhist practice. In 2016, Werner’s radio documentary Laws of Lost and Found Objects won the Grand Prix Marulić. Werner’s writings about radio, autoethnography, and the performativity of language have been published in a range of academic journals. She is on the faculty of Goddard College in Vermont.
 Maria del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren provide a helpful compilation in their 2013 The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory.