Artist focuses on amplifying protest voices through musical instruments
By Bridgette M. Redman
Elana Mann breaks expectations and defies norms with her chosen artistic media.
Coming from a faith with rules against visual representations, she became a visual artist.
Mann has no musical background whatsoever, but she creates musical instruments.
Her work is being displayed now through July 2 at 18th Street Arts Center in an exhibition called “Years of Wonders, redux” and features sonic sculptures, a video and works on paper – all have to do with listening and learning to connect with people. They also have to do with amplifying voices of protest.
Mann began creating sono-sculptures in 2014, delving into works related to the time period in which they are made. For this production, Mann was focused on politics, the pandemic and passionate social movements.
“The body of work that is at 18th Street really comes out of the past year of the rise in protest movements, BLM, and getting involved in anti-racism work locally in my hometown of South Pasadena,” Mann said.
Developing an artistic persona
Mann said her work began with the act of listening, a theme that is infused in everything that she makes. It started with a deep immersion in oral traditions as a Jew.
“I grew up in a very observant household and Judaism is an oral culture,” Mann said. “The most important prayer starts with the word ‘listen.’ There’s even rules against visual representation, so much of my childhood was sonically oriented, not visual.”
Even when Mann began to develop her skills as a young artist, she was mixing ideas of performance into what she did. There followed a natural evolution that incorporated her background and her interests. As she began to make sculptures about the art of listening, she started to come across a lot of antique listening objects and old school megaphones that cheerleaders use.
“They are also listening devices,” Mann said. “You can receive sound through them. Before there were electronic hearing devices, there were ear horns that were megaphone shaped. I was researching that and making art about that, and then I realized these can also amplify sound if I speak through them, so I started making these modified megaphones and then just branching out to other kinds of instruments that could be used. It was a many year evolution.”
The instruments Mann created have been used in original operas and by nationally and internationally recognized musicians. However, she also makes sure they are simple enough that anyone can use them even if they are not a trained musician.
“I’m not going to make something that I can’t play myself,” Mann said. “They’re all very easy to use, but a musician can use them in a different way than say I could use them. Just like a trained singer could use the megaphone in a way that I could never do, but I can bring my instruments to a street protest or a demonstration and use them and they’re really effective in that way.”
As Mann created these works, she started to be shown in museums, galleries and public spaces around the country and abroad. During 2020 she was a City of Los Angeles Individual Artist Fellow, and in the fall, she was a 2020 International Artist-in-Residence at Artpace San Antonio.
Preparing the exhibition
The sculptures in the exhibition were finished while Mann was in residence in Texas.
“I was there leading up to the presidential election,” Mann said. “It was a really intense time to be in Texas as a Californian.”
She was inspired by Geraldine Brooks’ book “Year of Wonders” for the title of the exhibition. It was written in 2002 about the Black Plague, following one woman’s journey in a small English town. It is a fiction novel based on a true story about a small town that quarantined itself from the surrounding community because it had the plague. The novel is a story of one woman’s resiliency in facing many hardships and the sacrifices the town had to make. Mann said it really resonated with this time.
Huge horn stresses communal speech
Dominating the exhibition are the sculptural folk instruments. They include “Our work is never done (unfinished business)” which is modeled on the “Mega-kazoo-horn” that legendary folk music figure Charles Chase used to take to local protests in Claremont during the 1970s.
“I was inspired and made this six-person protest horn that amplifies six different voices,” Mann said. “It’s in two parts so it is easy to transport, it is very light, made of fiberglass. It could be brought very easily to a protest space and six people have to agree on what they’re going to say and what their message is going to be — or if they’re all going to be shouting at the same time and not be heard.”
Maracas fill protest spaces with sound
Surrounding the horn on the walls are rattles or maracas, titled “Unidentified Bright Object 11-59.” They are part of an ongoing series of Mann’s. There are 49 of them displayed out of a collection of 60 to 70. With individually turned wood handles and heads made of cast ceramic, she finds different things to fill the hollow tops including glass, metal, wood and plastic.
Each rattle has a different saying on it such as “Truth”, “Say His Name”, “Say Her Name”, “Stop”, “Rage”, “Justice” or “Equity.” Because they are so lightweight they are designed to be used at protests. They also have the advantage of being COVID-friendly.
“For COVID times, the maracas are great because you don’t have to worry about using your voice or breathing in other people’s air,” Mann said. “You can just use touch and wash your hands afterward.”
They serve the purpose of creating a diversity of sound at protest and encouraging those who are at a gathering.
“I’m a mom with two kids, if I’m going to a protest, I don’t have time to make a custom sign, so I can just stick these in my bag and they’re really loud,” Mann said. “They create another kind of sound and space in a protest arena, where sometimes the sounds are people wanting to be louder to make their voice heard, sometimes they’re trying to drown out sounds — sometimes there are oppressive noises of helicopters or police. This is supposed to bring celebration and joy to the protest space. People really respond. It adds play and pleasure to these kind of spaces. Also, if you don’t want to shout or you don’t know what to say, you can shake the maraca.”
One of the special events associated with the exhibition had a musician, Corey Fogel, playing the full set of maracas. While they are designed for anyone to use, Mann said that Fogel, who has toured internationally, has a unique take on them. The video of his performance can be viewed on the exhibition web page.
Filling out the exhibit
While in Texas, Mann met Emily Æyer, whose music is incorporated into a video that Mann created with her partner, Jean-Paul Leonard. Æyer composed the song and her husband created a 3D model of the protest horn, and they imagine how the object could be used symbolically.
Adding to the exhibition are a series of works on paper that expand the breadth of the sculptural works, exploring listening, vibrations and the human voice. They range from things such as a self-portrait with her head merged into a giant bell to reimagined pop posters. All of the art works are focused on inspiring people to be better listeners.
“I really focus on the act of listening, encouraging people to be listeners more and the power of listening in society,” Mann said. “That doesn’t mean you have to be passive or silent, but it just means that you can be open to other people’s voices and other people’s perspectives and have a chance to develop empathy, have a chance to argue in a respectful way.”