Echoes in the Dust is an installation at Columbia College Chicago’s Glass Curtain Gallery and an ongoing site-specific exhibit at the Will County Historical Museum Heritage Village in Lockport, IL, consisting of a series of hand-made artist books, large-scale prints, archival documents, and an accompanying sound composition.
Drawn to questioning my sense of identity as an immigrant, my artwork examines attitudes of expendability held toward immigrants both past and present, highlighting the fading legacy, inequities, and neglected achievements of immigrants attempting to forge a new home in a new country and culture while toiling on the Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal. Today, the I&M Canal is a National Heritage Corridor along which I have been conducting archival research in local museums and creating artworks for the past three years. My body of work challenges the adequacy of the archives and history surrounding the Canal and the implications stemming from the larger story of how immigrants have been perceived historically. Through this process, I will provide context to the circumstances within which immigrants existed and continue to exist, and their place in the American Dream.
Six handmade artist books will be located in the Glass Curtain installation. These books comprise text and images that document and explore the environment surrounding the I&M Canal, my connection to those spaces, my struggles as an immigrant in a new country and culture, and attitudes toward immigrants both past and present as expendable.
To create a sense of immersion and the passage of time, the installation will include a sound composition. Composed from audio recordings taken at the canal site, such as digging with a shovel, footsteps, and the tolling of an old iron bridge, will echo the labor force as they toiled constructing the Canal. In addition, sounds will include nature (birds, wind, and forest sounds) and water sounds recorded from different locations along the Canal.
The sound composition is an evolving soundscape fusing Irish folk music on traditional instruments, including the bodhran, Celtic harp, and Irish whistle, with the sounds of work and toil that conceptually emulates the distant past sounds of immigrant laborers in the space.
The 15-plus minute piece begins with the sense that these brave souls traveled from their homeland into the unknown, representing an emotional and atmospheric journey. The piece ends with a somber tolling bell representing a death knell and is representative of the immigrants’ and the Canal’s demise.
While the belief in the purported American Dream that anyone can build a better life has drawn a continual stream of immigrants throughout the history of the United States, many immigrants have worked, and continue to work in the shadows, with limited rights and security. The immigrant experience for many has historically been contrary to the notion of a better life in America and particularly for those immigrant labors of the I&M Canal. Many laborers were exploited through back breaking work and substandard living conditions and were “used by various political demagogues who were anxious to promise them anything so that the laborers could be used for the demagogues own political gain”. (Lamb 64)
Through analysis of the lives of immigrant laborers of the 1800s during the construction of the Canal, I draw parallels between my life—the internal and external struggles as an immigrant to make a home within this new environment and culture—and the struggles that other immigrants have faced.
In this project, I am incorporating historical archives from the Will County Historic Society and Research Center that are related to the I&M Canal (spanning from the 1800s to the 1900s) to uncover the untold history of the immigrant laborers and their social status in the United States. These archives include a selection of photographs, oral interviews, official communications, maps, newspaper articles, land sales, presidential signatures, documentation on the Irish Rebellion, and additional correspondence. The incorporation of the archival material in my work will be used to convey the lack of voice that immigrants had while working on the I&M Canal, mirroring the voiceless, faceless, and unrepresented mass of humanity that still comprises the immigrant workforce today.