Ferrer Risas

The Laughs of the World (Las risas del mundo, 1999/2018)

The Laughs of the World (Las risas del mundo, 1999/2018)
Installation view
37 audiovisual screens, metal structures, and vinyl material
4 x 12.70 x 6 m
Esther Ferrer Archive
© Esther Ferrer, VEGAP, Bilbao, 2018
Photo: Erika Ede

Some of the installations that Esther Ferrer (Donostia/San Sebastián, 1937) designs never materialize, as they would require complex media or certain kind of spaces. However, the artist sets them down in writings, drawings, or scale models: “If I can’t produce it in a real space, it’s no big deal. What interests me is the process.” [1]

The installation The Laughs of the World (Las risas del mundo) was first realized specifically for this exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. It is a complex audiovisual piece consisting of a large world map on which we see 37 electronic devices (tablets) that play images and sounds of laughter from the mouths of men and women, young and old people, boys and girls from various places around the world.

As the viewer explores the work, a mechanism is activated that causes a mouth to open and start laughing; when the spectator moves away, the mouth closes and falls silent. The reproduction of these audio recordings is contingent on interaction with the audience: they begin to play as soon as a visitor approaches. Here the artist uses laughter as ephemeral audio material that can become an artistic object. Ferrer appropriates an organic, natural sound like laughter and expands it over time through recording; she arranges it in the exhibition space and leaves the rest up to the spectators. When visitors decide how to peruse the work, they consciously or unconsciously determine the order in which each recording is played. [2] The entire installation is based on the use of the sound of laughter as an element in a musical composition that grows out of the spectator’s intervention. The result is what the artist, speaking of this piece, has described as spontaneous “concerts of laughter”.

Ferrer spent decades working closely with musicians, including her colleagues in the Zaj group (Walter Marchetti, Ramón Barce, and Juan Hidalgo), one of the most avant-garde collectives on the Spanish art scene in the 1960s and 70s, and she participated in their concerts, festivals, and gatherings for years. Zaj proposals combined avant-garde music, experimental poetry, and performance. The group’s performances decontextualized actions from everyday life and challenged the limitations on freedom of expression in pre-democratic Spain. Ferrer was also heavily influenced by American artist John Cage and musique concrète. This type of music uses independently recorded sounds to create musical compositions. “Concrete music” originated with the appearance of devices that allowed sounds to be taken out of their original context and recorded on a physical medium. Each sound could then be processed separately and manipulated, cutting, layering, and eventually combining the sounds obtained from these alterations in a complex, definitive structure to create an audible score. [3] Musique concrète designates a compositional approach whereby sound, rather than being played, becomes an external object with its own spatiotemporal reality, its own presence. John Cage’s creative ideas influenced the artistic universe of Esther Ferrer, who understood that any sound in this world, even silence, is music. In this installation, Ferrer induces participants to use laughter almost as a musical instrument, creating a sound composition through the relationship established with the devices.


Take a few minutes to explore the work. The laughs that appear on the screens can only be heard if you approach them. What differences do you notice between them? If you had to classify them in groups, how would you do it? What do the different laughs express? How many types of laughter can you identify? Make a short list.

How do you think the laughs are connected to the world map? Why are the screens situated on the map? Do you think she wants us to explore them in any particular way?

Ferrer mentioned that she would like visitors to be able to create their own “concert of laughter”. If you could, how would yours be? If you had to add other sounds to the concert, which would you choose and why? How would you prefer to go through the installation? Would you try to hear lots of laughs at the same time, only a few, or would you see and hear them one by one? Why?

Ferrer considers humor an inseparable part of her work. Most of her creations seem to radiate a great sense of humor. What do you find humorous about this piece? Why do you think the artist likes working with laughter? What does laughter mean to you? What aspects of your life do you associate with humor or laughter? Have you ever laughed for reasons other than happiness? In what circumstances? What other feelings might you associate with this behavior? Do you think Ferrer wants us to associate her work with happiness or with some other emotion? Explain your answer.