Contemporary Keening Spaces: Power, Protest and Performance

Authors: Michelle Collins*, University of South Eastern Norway
Topics: Women
Keywords: Sound, Power, Protest, female voice
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/10/2021
Start / End Time: 1:30 PM / 2:45 PM
Room: Virtual 32
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


This research considers the practice of keening/caoineadh, an Irish funerary tradition consisting of improvised laments and wailing cries sung by mná caointe/keening women at wakes and funerals from pre-Christian times until circa 1950. In the past 15 years this sound-making practice has re-emerged in Ireland. Contemporary caoineadh presents itself outside of the funeral ceremony, in a number of contexts and in a variety of forms.

Once an essential part of mortuary rituals, the keening woman was considered to be in a state of ‘divine madness’, a liminal phase, her voice traversing between this world and the next. In this state, the keening woman was able to publicly and vehemently express personal and social grievances without fear of punishment. The sounds of keening became synonymous with protest, power and expression of the female voice.

This paper considers the keening voice as an active, affectual agent. It considers what happens to contemporary keening in different spaces – how it is performed, what is produced (what is the impact on participants) and what is constructed/generated by keening in different spaces?
Primarily a practice-based research, incorporating embodied practice and participant observation, this research will develop a sound installation as one of the main methodological tools. Using the installation, I aim to use the process of creating and experimenting with installations, and play-back to audiences, as a methodology tool, deconstructing the practice of keening and transposing to the context of an installation to investigate themes of identity and renewal, power, agency, protest and performance.

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