Submitted on Friday, 1/6/2012, at 2:43 PM

Wendy Woodson, the Roger C. Holden 1919 Professor of Theater and Dance—in collaboration with designer Kathy Couch ’95 and sound designer Myles Mumford—has created a video installation titled Belonging: Reflections on Place, which will run in the Immigration Museum in Melbourne, Australia, until Jan. 22, 2012. The installation incorporates ambient music and street sounds, projected footage of movement and travel, and video interviews in which dozens of people from around the world reflect on their experiences as immigrants and refugees to Australia.

Wendy Woodson

The project began to take shape in 2006 and 2007, while Woodson was an artist in residence as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts. When medical anthropologist Lenore Manderson asked Woodson to do creative work for a Monash University conference on “Transitions, Health and Mobility in Southeast Asia,” Woodson drew inspiration from the communities around her, which included numerous immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia and elsewhere. “Melbourne is an extremely multicultural city,” she says. “I didn’t have a car; I was in the street all the time, riding on public transportation, so I was much more aware of the multiculturalism in the place. I hardly ever heard English on any public transportation.”

Woodson began collecting video footage of migrating crowds, moving vehicles and landscapes in Melbourne and in other parts of the country. She also conducted face-to-face interviews with many refugees and immigrants from locales as far-flung as India, England and Bosnia. Using a handheld video camera, she recorded their responses to questions such as “What is the first thing that comes into your mind when you hear the word place?,” “What helps you feel a sense of belonging to a particular place?,” and “What’s the place where you want to die?”

The original installation at Monash involved huge projections of the travel footage on the walls and six video monitors playing excerpts from the various interviews. “I put [the monitors] on stands, so that they would mimic the height of human bodies,” explains Woodson. “There were two sets of headphones on each monitor. My idea was that if I was listening to one of the people talking and you were listening to one of the people talking, we’re making a little community around that monitor.” Woodson later brought the installation to the A.P.E. Ltd. Gallery in Northampton, Mass. and asked Couch to collaborate on refining the design. Another, more localized, version of the project was then exhibited at the Brick + Mortar International Video Art Festival in Greenfield, Mass.

Then Manderson brought the installation to the attention of the Immigration Museum in Melbourne—one of Australia’s major national museums, which Woodson compares to this country’s Smithsonian. With funding from Amherst’s Faculty Research Award Program and other sources, and after more than a year of negotiation and preparation, as well as new interviews with a different cohort of immigrants, Woodson, Couch and Mumford opened Belonging in the Immigration Museum in July 2011.

The museum’s financial and technological resources allowed for “a much more elegant version of the installation.” Couch designed the plinths in which the video monitors are embedded (“Her role is crucial. I could have never done this without Kathy,” Woodson says), and the audio and video content plays on a continuous loop. “We wanted it to be a fluid, improvisational experience, like a virtual neighborhood, where you wander—you hear a fragment of something over here; you see that person maybe five minutes later on another monitor; you get a little bit more of their story. ... To see everything, you’d have to spend about nine and a half hours.”

Watch some of Woodson’s video footage from the Belongings installation:

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Woodson and Couch were fascinated to observe the wide range of ways that visitors, including the interview subjects themselves, interacted with the installation. “When we were all in the space together, it was like this community had been created through this project, which I really enjoyed,” the professor says. “And now we have a prototype, and I’m hoping to do it in other locations. ... I feel like I could spend the rest of my life, really, going to other places and interviewing people in those communities and gathering landscape travel footage.” She expresses particular interest in doing a version of the installation involving the immigrant populations of nearby Holyoke, Mass.   

Woodson relates her interest in this subject matter back to her own youth, during which her family moved all around the United States and to Brazil and Portugal. “My father was in the Navy,” she says. “The longest I ever lived in a place when I was growing up was three years. … It’s hard—you’re constantly the new person in a place; you constantly have to adapt to very different cultures ... I always had questions about, ‘Where do I belong?,’ ‘Where am I from?,’ ‘What does it mean to belong to a place?’ ... The sense of loss, of longing, nostalgia for a past place, has always just infused my thinking and my work.”

“I make projects so that I do feel more related to a place,” she adds. “That's how I make my home, I think.”

Though Belongings is one of Woodson’s first forays into an installation format, she has touched upon similar topics in several documentary videos and in her fictional theater and dance work. She Turned On the Light—a one-woman show starring Marina Libel ’91, first staged at La MaMa theater in New York in 2009 and staged again at La Mama in Melbourne in summer 2011—explores movements between lands and between generations and was also inspired by Woodson’s encounters with immigrants in Melbourne. Her current fictional theater project-in-progress, tentatively titled Dora, is “another kind of refugee story” about memory and ecology, inspired by the landscapes of Australia.

Woodson is excited about the professional and artistic links that her projects have created between Amherst and Australia, and she hopes to facilitate more such connections. “Australians now know about Amherst,” she says. “I'm really enjoying [connecting] the Australia-Amherst dots on the map.”

She adds, “I'm also very grateful to Amherst for supporting these projects. I think that's an amazing part of our institution.”