Culture  An ear to the past

“Text in Textile” weaves a holistic portrait of the immigrant experience

You probably have a lonely VHS cassette dwelling in your dresser drawer, abandoned along with other artifacts of the past. Once the mightiest transmitter of entertainment, the cassette tape now seems all but obsolete. But in her most recent exhibition, “Text in Textile,” on display at Montréal arts interculturels (MAI), artist Anna Biró creates a new use for old audio and video tape. She has woven the material into several large-scale textile pieces, and then embedded sensors into the fabric. As viewers move through the exhibition space, different sensors will activate the playing of small audio clips taken from a series of interviews with recent immigrants to Quebec.

On entering the gallery, one can immediately see a gleaming carpet of audio tape and copper wire that lines the floor, welcoming those willing to tread on its surface. As one walks atop it, a girl’s voice emanates from within, startling the listener as she asks in Hungarian, “És melyik ajtót?”, or “Which door are you going to open?” The voices of various immigrants emerge from different parts of the gallery, including that of the Hungarian girl, who also happens to be Biró’s daughter. “My pieces have a very personal, but clear message,” says Biró. “I try to counter popular misconceptions and put immigration in a positive light.” By using audio tape, which Biró described as “having obsidian-like qualities,” and placing lights beneath the carpet, the tapestry appears illuminated from within, and expresses a multi-faceted view of immigration through light and voice.

The utterances projected within the piece were borrowed from an anthropologist friend’s field work, but held meaning in Biró’s own thoughts as well. “I try to translate from existential stories to inspirational art,” she noted. Although the immigrant experience may seem bleak to some, Biró has sought to incite feelings of joy in immigrants’ stories, and also to “give a voice back to textile.”

Due to her own experiences as an immigrant, Biró possesses a wealth of memories and emotions to pour into her work. Upon immigrating to Montreal in 1988, she began a new life with her family, but fondly preserved her memories of her homeland. “I still feel like an immigrant,” Biró added, “but I consider that a good thing.” Above one of her works, Web, a spider-like creation of wire and tape, the description reads “Our lives and energies are intricately inter-woven in life’s innumerable webs,” implying that our present selves cannot be extricated from our pasts and futures. Nothing retains its singularity, according to Biró, as everyone and everything is connected through the communication and experiences exhibited daily.

Through an exploration of immigration, the power of reminiscence emerges as the defining concept of “Text in Textile.” Biró describes her work as a “metaphorical triggering of memory.” Shone through a positive light, using materials themselves forgotten, the pieces subject viewers to recollections of their own.

Struggling through the hardships of life in a new environment, a new immigrant may feel isolated. Starting one’s life in a new locale requires a rare fortitude. But what seems unique to immigrants from afar is in fact present in humanity as a whole. Quoting a taxi driver she once conversed with in Montreal, Biró told me, “Everyone’s an immigrant on this planet; they just don’t know it yet.”

“Text in Textile” is on display at MAI (3680 Jeanne-Mance) through May 1.