The eldest son of Badman Uropmabin was born during the laying out of the Atmisibil airstrip
and he was named "Kobarweng" after "the sound of the airplane"

Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter?
Johan Grimonprez
April 1991

Kobarweng's point of departure was Kaiang Tapior's question: "Where is your helicopter?", which puzzled me on the day of 6 July 1987 as I stood in the village of Pepera. Apparently in June 1959 a scientific crew, including anthropologists, had dropped down from the sky in helicopters; much to the terrified surprise of the villagers who watched in awe at these things from out of the sky, the likes of which they had never seen before.1 "All the women pissed in fear, when the helicopter circled from the sky," recalls Kaiang Tapior, who still sharply envisioned the first encounter with these outsiders at the time when he was still a kid.
The video project Kobarweng traces the historical moment of a collision between two different cultures: a remote village set in the highlands of the island of New Guinea, only dimly aware of the larger beyond, is radically disrupted by an encounter with the outside world—a group of western scientists exploring unmapped territory only approachable by air.
The first airplanes caused a shock that threw the New Guineans' worldview upside down, forcing them to redefine their known existence according to that outside world's encapsulation of it. The shock is still visible everywhere: the eldest son of Baman Uropmabin was born during the laying out of the Atmisibil airstrip and was named Kobarweng after "the sound of the airplane". The name became the title of the project Kobarweng. Translated literally, it means language (weng) of the airplane (kobar), or in the Sibil tongue: "the sound of the airplane".2
This touches on a fundamental difference in the Sibil's approach to identifying, representing and experiencing reality. The rainforest is first of all an experience of sound instead of sight. When anthropologist Steven Feld was collecting the names of all the birds as they are given by the Kaluli people from Papua New Guinea, they would respond: "it sounds like", instead of "it looks like". In front of Feld's tape recorder the Kaluli would imitate over a hundred sounds of birds without giving visual description. While western ornithological taxonomies are organized by morphological principles based on sight, the Kaluli use a different and broader set of criteria. Families of birds are categorized according to sound to create a metaphorical human society: those that say their names, those that weep, those that speak the Bosavi language, those that whistle, those that make a lot of noise, those that sing Gisalo song, and those that only make sound.3
It would make sense, then, that the outside world would emerge through sound: the roar of early airplanes prospecting the area, World War II squadrons swooping low during the 1940s on their way to bomb Japanese base camps in the South Pacific, or occasionally a distant B-17 crashing into the forest. These initial signs of a different reality from beyond the peripheries of their known world were perceived in a way similar to how the Kaluli approach their daily environment.

The unfamiliar sounds of aircraft were first explained in terms of the indigenous cosmology: "Perhaps it was only the sound of a cassowary? But the noise continued..."4 —"Some said it was a hornbill (sau) flying in the sky, while others believed it to be the ruru frog, from the forest floor"5 —"I thought I heard the voice of one of those marsupials that growl as they go along (kui koklom), we chased the noise through the undergrowth; it kept moving in front of us and we couldn't catch it"6—"[...] we thought it was our own Mokei spirits returning! We started digging [...] We dug everywhere! We didn't realize the sound was coming from above".7 Ancestors and the enigmatic larger political context intermixed. People thought their ancestral dead were returning with their cargo.8
Juxtaposing thirty-year-old documentary footage with the accounts of indigenous people, Kobarweng critically considers the myth of objectivity, the pretence to an epistemic and scientific detachment maintained not just by the anthropologist, but throughout the discourse of western science, where the observer finds himself caught in an alienated position of transcendence over his/her object. This bubble is truly burst by the statement of one of Margaret Mead's informants: "We never tell everything, we always keep something for the next anthropologist!"








First published as: Grimonprez, J., "Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter", in Johan Grimonprez: We must be over the rainbow!, J. Grimonprez (Santiago de Compostela: Centro Galego Arte Contemporanea, 1998), 85–6.