Foreign Sounds

Notes on Caroline Bergvall’s performance Drift (2013, Penned in the Margins, Shorelines/ Southend Production).



Caroline Bergvall’s 2013 performance Drift can be viewed as a sound installation, one that uses body, space, image and light. Performed in Southend on the 9th November 2013 the work is inspired by The Seafarer, an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem.[1] The Seafarer tells of the dangers and hardships of seafaring and voices ‘the suffering of exile’.[2] The Seafarer is the sound of yearning. For the sea has enticed the sailor to escape the ‘dead, transitory life’ of the land only as a consequence to be condemning him to a life of exile.[3]

Using Anglo-Saxon words mixed in with modern English Bergvall’s Drift takes this ancient tale of exile and relates it to the 2011 Lampedusa Tragedy when seventy -two African migrants attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Tripoli to the Italian island of Lampedusa in a dingy. How for sixteen days they drifted, observed by European boats and helicopters but not aided. By the time they washed up back in Libya where they started there were only eleven remaining. Two more died on shore.[4]



Caroline Bergvall, Drift, Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, 8th November 2013,

The performance takes place with Caroline Bergvall and the percussionist Ingar Zach lit up on stage and dressed in black. It is a paired down image, a simple raw staging suggesting mourning. Behind them is a wide screen canvas where visual artist Thomas Koppel projects a 3D mass of text that continuously moves and pulsates and drifts over the landscape form. The effect is hypnotic. The words are in a white, sometimes blue text, blurring and shuddering in and out of focus in dance with her voice. At times the text can look like a galaxy field of stars and this provides an air of infinity, of being confronted with something much bigger than this world at play. It creates a sense of space travel, the ultimate voyage and heightens the sense of loss of humanity here on earth. Stars are global, something to reach for but with different meaning and consequences depending on what part of the world you first enter. It also suggests this is what the seventy –two African migrants could of been looking up at, perhaps for a brief moment finding solace in, whilst lost in sea.

‘During the night we would see the lights of other big boats in the distance, we could not see them but the reflection of their lights looked like a city in the distance.’

Bergvall recalls these words of the migrants in a straight voice with no gesture, as if delivering a roll call in an evacuation.

We are watching them

They are watching us

We are showing them the dead bodies

We drink water from the sea to show them we are thirsty

The people on the boats took pictures. Nothing else.[5]

At times the text on the screen becomes an abstract shape or simply forms of light. It can also appear as small white text on black in straight lines. Yet most of the time the mass of projected text is moving in a continuous wave of drift, creating a sense of treading water whilst pulling further out. The eye catches certain words from the mass. Recognisable, everyday words like ‘Charing Cross’, ‘Captain’ and ‘nation land’. The display operates like a painting made up of washes and layers of word imagery to form ‘outlines like edges, silhouettes, phasms, ghostings, X-rays’.[6] Sometimes it transforms into the appearance of a bird, a bird’s feathers, a swarm of birds, hopping and skittling from one side of the canvas to the other. Ultimately it is a drifting language mass, always moving and escaping, suggesting the endless changes undergone by the English language, re emphasized by Bergvall’s use of ipad as a prompt which raises issues of language evolving within a digital culture.



Caroline Bergvall, Drift, Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, 8th November 2013,

However, it is her voice that commands the stage and our ultimate attention. It leads our ear in with a recognizable sound but twists into something new and strange.

It’s a fine day. Dust crowds pay my mouth mound a visit.

Open my moup

Open my map

At times stuttering and pausing it breaks into quick bursts of repetition and then a release into silence.

Let me

Let me

Let me

Let me

Let me freeze ok

At other times the stuttering of words takes over into ‘articulated vibrations’.[7]

To go off course

To go a  to go to go to go

To go off course

To be lost

To be loved

To be loved

To be loved

To go off to go off

To go go go [8]

Its as if Bergvall is possessed not only with the spirits of those lost at sea but all those who suffer the ache of exile. The words surge through Bergvall whilst dancing across the projection, the sound is of words being pulled out of her body like an extracting of teeth. Her vocabulary is canabilising and copulating with the shrieks and squalls of Zach’s percussion beats, forcing her voice to call above the noise as if she is calling out in sea, herself a sailor lost in a wash of unwanted language.

Show me the way

Show me Fly me Show me Fly me [9]

The performance can be described as a wake, the sounds emanating from her body a type of gypsy lament, honouring a call out to the dead and missing. It is what Bergvall describes as ‘a clearing of the throat’ and therefore hers is a performance full of risk. She attacks English with Norwegian, with French and Anglo-Saxon. By doing so she spits out a peculiar language sound translated through the mouth, the tongue and the teeth. One that is primal and expressive. This is especially so when she delivers and repeats the line ‘Ssh ssh  OK OK’ which she does whilst beckoning her hand and body in gesture to the high sound of OK. She is performing with a cat in her throat, speaking with claws and scratching, spitting out hiss and hair.[10] Siding with the immigrant, Bergvall is ‘taking the risk of spitting it out, and of being spat out’.[11] This chorus of dead voices make Bergvall’s own birdsong.




Caroline Bergvall, Drift, Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, 8th November 2013,

[1] Drift will be performed again on the 3rd May at the Text Festival, Bury. Drift is to be published on the 6th May 2014 by Nightboat Books.
[2] The Seafarer, Ed.Ida Gordon (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979), p.3
[3] Ibid., p.6
[4] Jonathan Catherall, Flotsam/Jetsam: Caroline Bergvall’s Drift at Shorelines,
[5] Caroline Bergvall, Drift, Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, 8th November 2013,
[6] Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English (New York: Nightboat Books, 2011) p.5
[7] Caroline Bergvall, A cat in the throat, Jacket Magazine 37 (2009),
[8] Caroline Bergvall, Drift, Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, 8th November 2013,

[9] Caroline Bergvall, Drift, Shorelines Festival in Leigh-on-Sea, 8th November 2013,
[10] Caroline Bergvall, Meddle English (New York: Nightboat Books, 2011), p.157
[11] Ibid., p.18

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