Enlightenment is an interactive installation designed after the interview of Casimir Simplice Senouvo, a migrant from Togo who has settled in Denmark 20 years ago after escaping his country due to political persecution. The material used for the design of the installation is a one-hour long interview of him about his life led by Eric Komlavi and recorded by Fernando Palacios.
A biographical interview. The interview has two facets. On the one side, it can be seen as a story which consists of facts, events, encounters, and experience that has shaped his life from his early adulthood in Togo to his current status of a soon retired electrician and father in Denmark. On the other side, it can be experienced as “confessions”, a frank and sincere presentation of his life with his successes, failures, and victories… and, above all, a very personal and touching approach to life. It is this second aspect of Casimir’s autobiographical tale that has focused my attention for the design of Enlightenment. After describing my own experience and analysis of his interview, I will focus on the features of the installation and their motivation to convey some of the striking features of his migration, his previous African and his current Danish lives.
About the language. Casimir and I share the same native language, French, and this has certainly allowed me to perceive, in his way of speaking, some emotional traces or subtleties of meaning that a non-native French speaker might not have deciphered. On the other hand, one should keep in mind that his French language, due to his Togolese upbringing, is not the same as mine, particularly with respect to some fine differences about intonation, word choice and meaning, etc. I have certainly either missed some of the messages that were conveyed by his interview, or misinterpreted some of his thoughts. Having lived one year long in Senegal, and having regular contacts with French people originating from Africa, I hope that I have however captured most of the essence of his words.
Hesitations and second person point of view. Two aspects of Casimir’s way of speaking have interested me, because they could reveal traits of his personality. I will not draw any foregone conclusion from these, but however use them as means for my artistic expression about his interview. Casimir is a very clear speaking person. Despite his modesty and his humility, he has strong and deep thoughts about his life and expresses them very clearly and straightforwardly. However, in some situations, about some topics, he hesitates on words, giving the impression that he is avoiding to utter something that he might have difficulties to formulate. These unsaid facts could concern memories that are too painful to be expressed, confusing topics that are not formulated due to their delicate and personal issues… I have noticed these hesitations, certainly because of their contrast to his otherwise very direct and clear expressions.
Another facet that has struck me is his way of telling stories which have a direct relationship with some personal feelings. In such situations, other speakers might have simply given their own perception of the situation, while Casimir uses another person either familiar like a friend or his mother, or occasional like a work colleague, as a witness of the scene who gives her.his own thoughts about it. Casimir thus avoids judging people and their way of acting. Instead, he offers us an outside perspective on the scene through which we can make our own judgement rather than receiving his own. I often react negatively to a predefined judgement about a situation, particularly if the person who formulates it presents her.himself as a victim of the case. The staging of the witness has thus the virtue of letting the listener better make his own idea. It also shows Casimir’s interest for a third party conversation partner who can support him in delicate situations, particularly in those which might involve judgemental or disrespectful attitudes from others.
The red thread. Casimir’s education as an electricitan and his professional life play a major role in his developments. Of course his African youth and political activity is also an important characteristic of his life, but he does not portray himself as a strong activist with echoes in his current life. This period of his life appears as a past story from which he has now become more distant. On the contrary, his relationship to electricity and his lifelong commitment as an electrician for frigorist and light activities, is described by him as a constant and strong interest in life. It is the activity that has boosted his successful professional settlement in Togo as a young adult. It has also been the entry door into his migrant professional activity in Denmark (even if it has been more complicated than what he had wished for, due to the lack of acknowledgement of his former electrician skills in his new country).
Artistic intention. Enlightenment is intended to convey the Genius Loci of Casimir’s life… It is neither a storytelling, nor a sociological analysis of his migration ordeal. I wish to act as a medium, echoing the features in Casimir’s story, and translating them into an artwork that can, in turn, elicit feelings in the visitors’ experience.
When entering the installation, the room is dark and lamps flicker while speech hesitations are heard. As if someone would be present, but could succeed to utter full sentences. Thoughts are not expressed. The atmosphere is troubling. There is a presence, without comfort, without communication.
In the room some metallic objects shine in the dark and the visitors are invited to interact with them. When approaching them and touching them, these objects can trigger both the turning on of a lamp and the utterance of an excerpt of the interview that correspond to reflections of Casimir about his life. The more objects are approached, the brighter the room becomes and the longer the sentences are pronounced. In the brightness, a red electric wire connecting the lamps is visible, as a metaphor of a red thread that connects the epochs in Casimir’s life. Each epoch is witnessed by a lamp and an associated electrical appliance. Like old books in shelves or photographs in an album, these electrical objects are traces, snapshots of a life, both personal and shared memories with relatives, friends and families, who are often present into Casimir’s oral accounts.
The dark atmosphere when entering the installation invites the visitors to consider the difficulty of expressing painful or deep personal thoughts about an ordeal by someone who has experienced hard situations. The interactive transformation of the installation when touching familiar electrical objects, which have an emotional value for Casimir, highlights the role of social contact and communication for bringing memories back to surface.
The artwork does not explain, it presents neither a theory, nor an analysis of migration through the report of a migrant on his own life. It immerses the visitor into an emotional environment, and calls for her.his own sensitivity through emphatic interactions with personal objects. It lets him.her act as an archaeologist of a life, extracting objects (the electrical appliances) from their layers of ground (the words), and constructing his.her own thoughts about the autobiographical story from these pieces and the atmosphere of the installation. It is an invitation to a sensitive and empathic discovery of someone's life story.
EMIDEKS project. This project aims at disseminetaing scientific knowledge with an innovative methodology for experiencing knowledge through interactive installations. A key aspect of the project is to take into account the emotional content and impact on knowledge. Emotional design is a field of study within interaction design that recognises that emotions play a central role in the human ability to understand and learn about the world. Art offers forms of communication mobilizing all the senses and reaching levels of knowledge beyond words, concepts and theories.
The EMIDEKS project is funded by Roskilde University and headed by Eric Hahonou