Digital Arts and New Media: MFA: Collaboration, Innovation, Social Impact

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Forest Reid: The Last Galician Switchboard

Forest Reid "The Last Galician Switchboard"

The Last Galician Switchboard is an interactive multi-screen video installation that follows a switchboard operator haunted by family left behind in Eastern Europe. The piece incorporates familial letters and excerpts from Yiddish theatre, literature, and folklore. The work continues the lineage of the authors, playwrights, and poets of a once vibrant “Yiddishland” that were exploring their own struggles with spirituality, assimilation, and ancestral haunting.

The Last Galician Switchboard uses switchboards to patch the dead into the living, to answer unanswered letters of desperation, and to connect the present with the past that haunts it. Haunting is a theme that permeates many popular pieces of Jewish media from the classic case of spiritual possession seen in Ansky’s The Dybbuk to Tevye’s nightmare sequence in Fiddler on the Roof, where his ancestors communicate with him from beyond the grave. Though prevalent, haunting is not a uniquely Jewish phenomenon, in the essay “Before Dispossession, or Surviving It,” the Super Futures Haunt Qollective presents haunting as a response by dispossessed people. They define dispossession not only as the act of being forced from one’s lands but “how human lives and bodies matter and don’t matter—through settler colonialism, chattel slavery, apartheid, making (bodies) extra legal, immoral,(and) alienated.”

The Last Galician Switchboard is set in a small town outside of Detroit in the 1930s. The main character Sore, is a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who has recently started working as a switchboard operator. Her evening starts off normal with calls from lovers in turmoil and with a call from an older family friend who recounts the Yiddish folktale of a cantor possessed by a dybbuk. The night takes a turn when a fireman from Detroit calls in to tell Sore that a fire is approaching her town and she has to call the lines and tell people to gather their valuables and evacuate. At this point the production becomes interactive and the is able to choose where to patch into. As they begin patching into various lines, it will become clear they are no longer in a small-town in Michigan but rather patched into the other side.

The inspiration for this production initially came from a set of familial letters from Eastern Europe from 1915 to 1920 that I came across last year. The letters depict my relatives’ personal anguish and pleas for help as the continent is ravaged by war, famine, and disease and my family is forced to continually migrate and wander. My great aunt Marcia had collected and translated the letters for a family newsletter she made in the 90s (The Indianer Mishpokhe). The letters are primarily in Yiddish, though due to some restrictions they are later forced to be in Polish. It is unclear from the letters whether my family in America had been unable to respond/send money or if their letters had just never reached my family in Europe.The time and place that my family’s letters are from inspired many Yiddish works. It is documented thoroughly in S. Ansky’s ethnographic work and diaries including The Destruction of Galicia and is the direct inspiration for Sholem Asch’s play דער טויטער מענטש (The Dead Man).