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September 9th, 2022

The Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center - EMPAC - Troy, NY

Clarissa Tossin’s Mojo’q che b’ixan ri ixkanulab’ / Antes de que los volcanes canten / Before the Volcanoes Sing undertakes a richly sensory journey across moments, languages, and music, roaming through architectural spaces that are variously imagined and real, cosmological, and colonized. Commissioned by EMPAC in 2019 and developed through a series of on-site and remote residencies, the moving image work centers on the capacity of Maya cultural belongings, and wind instruments in particular, to give voice to Indigenous systems of knowledge. 

Grappling with the history of Western architects using Indigenous motifs without significant reference to or engagement with their source, the film works to restore these absent sounds, utilizing 3D-printed replicas of Maya wind instruments held behind glass in pre-Columbian museum collections. 

Told through the personal histories of its Maya protagonists, the film begins with K’iche’-Kaqchiquel poet Rosa Chávez as she leads us through her Guatemalan community’s vernacular architectures. Through poetry and conversation, she traces a densely interwoven set of practices that have long articulated and preserved systematic understandings of time, language, and cosmology across cultural forms. These range from ancient temples to systems of healing, and from weaving techniques whose patterns encode complex information to the physical structure of the traditional ‘temazcal’ steam room. As if in echo, the film follows Ixil Maya artist Tohil Fidel Brito Bernal inside the "Mayan Revival" Sowden House in Los Angeles, as he works on his rigorously researched drafts of ancient Maya glyphs and calendars while surrounded by sculptural copies of the same motifs appropriated by the architect Lloyd Wright (Jr.).

The poetry and artwork of Chávez and Brito Bernal is interwoven by spirited performances of the replica instruments by Mexican flautist Alethia Lozano Birrueta. Each breath played through tiny bird ocarinas and flutes that sculpturally represent monkey, jaguar, and other deities of Maya mythology, activates layers of music that expand the slippery temporalities of the film’s themes and which are heightened further through the film’s vibrant visual effects. Premiering in EMPAC’s concert hall, where several of Birrueta’s performances were recorded, Before the Volcano Sings seeks to reclaim space for Indigenous traditions in the present. Projected in front of the acoustically ornamented curtain wall, the film’s score and sound design by composer Michelle Agnes Magalhães is dramatized through an immersive Ambisonic* array of 64-loudspeakers that surround the audience.

Mojo’q che b’ixan ri ixkanulab’ / Antes de que los Volcanes Canten / Before the Volcano Sings is commissioned by EMPAC / Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Graham Foundation, New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Vic Brooks I Associate Director, Arts and Senior Curator, Time-Based Visual Art

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