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The Swamp – JG Thirlwell

For Safina Radio Project, I took both the context of displacement and also, borders – crossing borders, escape, and how these could symbolise freedom from oppressors and a move towards the creation of new hybrid societies – particularly when considering the border as the edge of the swamp, of natural safety. Historically and anthropologically, the swamp in the context of America has a very interesting history – housing run away slaves, the little known history of Filipino boat workers who went to live there (1700s), Cajuns (people of a combined Native American, African American and Scottish origin from the impoverished Virginia Appalachian Mountains) and the Acadian French outcasts from the British-French war in Canada with their fiddle music.

This created a kind of ‘new world’, sub-societies merged and hybridised carrying their traditions in and merging them with other traditions and it is evident in the culture today, in particular the music. In essence, people created Utopias in the swamps, but out of necessity.


Musical score for The Swamp 

Anne K Senstad, 2014

Composed and performed by JG Thirlwell

Previously shown in the exhibition ‘The Nature of Now’, Prospect 3 Satellite, New Orleans Biennial 2014-15, in conjunction with Senstad’s immersive video and agriculture installation The Sugarcane Labyrinth.

The Swamp is an homage to and a lyrical meditation on the culture, history, nature and anthropological complexities of the American south, where the swamp itself is the symbolic protagonist. Filmed in the swamps outside Baton Rouge in Louisiana, the video for which this soundtrack was created, evokes the mystique, beauty and darkness of the swamps and the Mississippi delta. The swamp undermines the boundaries between death and life by asserting their tandem—and sometimes weirdly beautiful—coexistence, and opens up an unsettling space for a contemplation of lively death. Historically and psychologically the swamps of Louisiana represent a place of freedom. Slaves who managed to escape cotton and sugarcane plantations would hide and later establish communities, people known as Maroons; – the white colonial man feared enter. The Acadians displaced from French Canada would create settlements in the swamps, as did Native Americans such as the Choctaw, mixing blood with the Acadians and former slaves. A creation of new cultures developed which became the French creole and the Cajun. The sound of the swamp is coloured by amalgamation of blood and culture and the stories of death and hardship found in the Mississippi delta blues, old slave songs that carried on to be sung in prisons of the south, early Gospel, spirituals and the Cajun Zydeco music. The Mississippi Delta blues sound narrates the slow moving water, the heat and insects played on a haunting guitar with vocals of suffering, love, hate, freedom, religion and poverty.

Ecologically, swamps are transitional areas. They are neither land nor water. Swamps are actually among the most valuable ecosystems on Earth. They act like large sponges and reservoirs. As heavy rains cause flooding, swamps and other wetlands absorb excess water, moderating the effects of flooding. Swamps also protect coastal areas from storm surges that can wash away fragile coastline like the fast eroding coast and wetlands of Louisiana. Saltwater swamps and tidal salt marshes help anchor coastal soil and sand. In the United States, draining swamps was an accepted practice for agriculture and industrial development. Almost half of U.S. wetlands were destroyed before environmental protections were enacted during the 1970s. Europe lost at least 50 % of its wetlands and New Zealand has lost 90 percent over the past 150 years. It is now understood that swamps provide valuable ecological services including flood control, fish production, water purification, carbon storage, and vast wildlife habitat.

The love for the ecology of the swamp and it’s representation of freedom can be found in Henry David Thoreau’s writing; “When I would recreate myself, I seek the darkest woods, the thickest and most interminable and, to the citizen, most dismal, swamp. I enter a swamp as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature”.

In Emily Dickinson’s poetry on swamps is represented by the love for flowers; “swamps pink with June”, and the symbol of nature as sensuality and the feminine; “Betrothed to Righteousness might be / An Ecstasy discreet”. She doubts the pleasures of virtuous ecstasy, and pious sensual pleasures experienced by a feminine “Nature” devouring feminine pink wildflowers; freedom of the feminine.

The Swamp is on show during the Venice Biennale at:


DORSODURO 1375 (next to Squero di San Trovaso)

30123 VENICE

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