John Wynne

Sound & photography installation

Artist Statement

Anspayaxw (Kispiox) is a small reserve in northern British Columbia where I worked with linguist Tyler Peterson and visual artist Denise Hawrysio to record and photograph members of the Gitxsan community. Their native language, Gitxsanimaax, is one of many seriously endangered languages on the west coast of Canada, an area of remarkable but dwindling linguistic diversity. There are roughly 400 ‘competent’ speakers of Gitxsanimaax, but most of these are middle-aged or older and their average age is rising.

Several of the people featured in this installation managed to learn Gitxsanimaax as children despite attending residential schools where its use was forbidden. Such suppression of language by colonizing powers is far from rare: during the 18th and 19th centuries, children caught speaking their native tongue in Welsh schools were forced to wear a block of wood called the Welsh Not, which the wearer would pass on to the nextpupil heard speaking the language until, at the end of the day or week, the unfortunate child in possession of it would be struck with it.

Language is a primary repository of culture and history, and once a language is no longer spoken, the rich knowledge it carries is gone forever. The linguistic diversity of the world is under threat: there are currently about 6,000 languages spoken now but it is variously estimated that between 50 and 90% of these will be gone by the end of this century.

The word Anspayaxw ends with a ‘voiceless fricative’, a breathy sound characteristic of the language which influenced the way I have worked with the environmental sounds. All the sounds in the piece are derived from the participants’ voices and recordings I made in and around Kispiox. Sometimes, these sounds arefiltered, stretched and resonated, but no other sounds have been added.

~John Wynne

Anspayaxw is an immersive 12-channel sound and photography installation based on recordings made in and around the Native reserve of Kispiox, in northern British Columbia.  John Wynne worked with artist Denise Hawrysio and linguist Tyler Peterson to record and photograph speakers of the endangered language, Gitxsanimaax, gathering materials for this installation and for a new community archive housed at the ‘Ksan Museum in Gitxsan territory.

The images and sounds of Wynne’s Anspayaxw hang in the border zones between anthropology and art, drawing attention to the subjective nature of language documentation and photography, and the multiple layers of translation that are central to the documentation and interpretation process. It is Wynne’s navigation of this border space between disciplinary practices that is most unsettling about the work. The sounds and images, the products of ethnographic and linguistic research, are edited and remixed to resist easy interpretation. Reality, Wynne suggests, is never symmetrical. This is a quality that the doubled images are intended to reflect. The imperfect reflections counter the viewer’s desire for symmetry; they disrupt the sense that what is seen and heard can be simply understood. Relations of power are rarely symmetrical either, but there are spaces of negotiation in between.

Kate Hennessy
(excerpt from ‘Asymmetrical Translations: John Wynne’s Anspayaxw‘)


John Wynne is a Canadian artist based in London (UK) whose practice includes large-scale multi-channel sound installations for galleries and public spaces, delicate sound sculptures, flying radios and award-winning ‘composed documentaries’ for radio which hover on the boundary between documentation and abstraction. His massive installation for 300 speakers, player piano and vacuum cleaner became the first work of sound art in the Saatchi collection in London and won him the 2010 British Composer Award for Sonic Art. His work with endangered languages includes a project with click languages in the Kalahari Desert and another with one of Canada’s indigenous languages, Gitxsanimaax. After his year-long residency with photographer Tim Wainwright at one of the world’s leading centres for heart and lung transplantation, the Transplant project led to a book, an installation and a half-hour commission for BBC Radio. John is a Reader in Sound Arts at the University of the Arts London and has a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

The production and exhibition of Anspayaxw has been made possible through generous support from QSC Audio Products, ‘Ksan Museum, University of the Arts London, Canada Council for the Arts and Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project