How far does the voice reach?

Issue no6
Dec-Jan 2019/2020 2020
Nieuwe criteria

The Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London is filled with voices. Headphones whisper for attention, opera singers rehearse screams from horror movies and in the bookshop someone makes the most incredible sounds, whilst reading from a book on postmodernism. The corridor behind the entrance is taken over by conversation pieces in sound, text and image that merge with the voices of visitors walking past.

‘I feel, it’s like, yeah yeah.’
‘On several occasions I have dubbed John Malkovich.’
‘What are you doing that for!’
‘Hey John! Yes! Where is Gareth? I don’t know! At the bar? I think so!’
‘Westbourne Grove!’
‘The day is lost again.’

For one month, the ICA hosts the event Talk Show, which brings together over a hundred artists, scientists and performers. Talk Show is -in its own words- ‘an experiment in inter-disciplinary programming’. The manifestation includes an exhibition, artists’ residencies, workshops and a conference, and discusses artistic, political, philosophical and scientific aspects of speech. Yet, the visitor does not feel overwhelmed. In Talk Show loud statements and contemplative works cleverly take turns.

The Autumn 2008 issue of F.R. David, co-edited by Talk Show curator Will Holder, concentrates on the event. The editors argue how although ‘words don’t come easy, silence – the darkness of language- is not the answer.’ The voice then, how far does it reach?

writing voices

Since historic times, philosophers of language have debated the relationship between speech and writing. The voice, with its breathing, pitch and volume is inseparable from a body. Writing lacks those aspects and is - in its reproducibility - possibly more objective. Plato argued that speech is most closely related to a natural, pure experience and that writing is derived from speech.

Talk Show shows how the absent speaking body can be replaced by visual representations of pitch modulation, dialect and timing, making writing and speech blend. In ICA’s new magazine Roland (Issue 1 / May 2009), published alongside Talk Show, Will Holder and Will Bradley experiment with spelling and spacing as a translation of voice and timing. I had to speak Bradley’s text No Ordy No Skullter : ‘We ar filld agayn wiv Inner Vation an all Y Ordys run into Y Hils’, out loud in order to understand what was written. *

Dada poet Hannah Weiner once said about her work: ‘Hear it with three voices or read it in three different typefaces.’ During Talk Show artist Adam Pendleton gives a lecture on Weiner. Pendleton speaks slow [with pauses] and in a nasal New York accent.

(Say it aloud and slowly):
‘After nine months of seein-
disorganised words in small print all over the place
she wen-
on a retreat.’
(Adam Pendleton)

Weiner, troubled by hearing voices and even seeing texts on people’s foreheads, started writing down what those voices had to say. In Pendleton’s lecture three different people - representing the artist, the subconscious and an ironic narrator - speak their voices. They simultaneously have a conversation, command and ignore each other and demonstrate the horrors of a schizophrenic mind. *

It is interesting to compare this work to Samuel Beckett’s impressive Not I monologue with Billie Whitelaw (1977), where different inner voices are performed by nothing more than a mouth, breathing, talking, shouting, spitting out words for minutes on end. *

The exhibition space behind the lecture room is empty except for two loudspeakers, playing Seth Price’s soundtrack to Digital Video Effect: Holes (2003). In this work, speech is stripped bare of information so that only the em’s and um’s remain that normally fill the space between words. What is left is still recognizable as human sound but, emptied of any content, only communicates emotion.

a mouthpiece

‘The rules... I still stick to it ... I’m doing it right now:
a times to listen,
a times to talk.’
(Robert Filliou)

Talk Show presents some of Robert Filliou’s video works of his 1970s performances. From Political to Poetical Economy explores methods of communication and plays with the shifting authority of translation and interpretation. In one of the works, Filliou, his arms spread out like a martyr, calmly repeats the insults that invisible conversation partners shout at him.

In some countries, movies and television programmes are dubbed over by only one actor who speaks for all the characters. A good interpreter is a bodiless mouthpiece, as invisible as possible. A Spanish dubbing artist explains his job in Manual Saiz’ video work Being Luis Porcar (2008): ‘If you hear me saying this in English you’re actually hearing the voice of John Malkovich.’ I close my eyes and yes! The very distinctive voice of Malkovich speaks to me from the face of a Spaniard.

In the Lower Gallery visitors are invited to sit on a carpet and watch Disney’s Junglebook on a large television screen. Something strange has happened in Pierre Bismuth’s version of this familiar cartoon: each character speaks a different language. On the wall Bismuth hung pencil sketches of all the characters, the language in which they speak written underneath. Dutch is also present. Unfortunately, it is spoken by one of the vultures.

Further down, in the Reading Room, clerk-like artist Mark Wilsher performs Martin Luther King’s speech I have a dream (King, 2008). Standing in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral, dryly reading the speech from a book, his words on ‘The red hills of Georgia’ got somewhat lost in the surroundings. I wonder what would have happened if he had performed this speech ‘with more intensity’. Just like Bill Murray is urged to do when advertising Suntory Whisky in Lost in translation. Would impersonating King have made the scene more realistic? Or less?


Talk Show hosted the event Doublespeak in which philosophers, linguists and former London mayor Ken Livingstone discussed linguistic ambiguity. Doublespeak refers to George Orwell’s use of the word Newspeak, and refers to words being used to conceal and manipulate. Examples are political euphemisms such as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ for torture or ‘being made redundant’ when you’re being fired. But also, the use of the phrase ‘ I’m sorry ’, when you are not. The power (and danger) of doublespeak is that it implies the existence of an invisible boss of it all who makes decisions that we cannot dispute or ignore. The discussion focused on whether doublespeak is a conscious intention to mislead, or a necessary concealment, a prerequisite to be able to speak without creating constant disagreement. * In day-to-day conversations, conflict is usually avoided. Particularly in English, where indirectness and politeness are deeply embedded in everyday speech.

Euphemisms and unwritten rules of politeness are brought into play to prevent the discomfort of confrontation. This system of communication is connected to what sociolinguists call face-work: speaker and listener accept the ‘face’ they offer each other. They carry out a performance in which they protect each other.

A striking example of this was a performance – or was it? – I myself took part in. I was walking down the stairs of the ICA when some one approached me:

‘Hi! Sorry, we didn’t really talk earlier, you were chatting to Richard so I thought let’s not interfere but it’s good to see you! Did you manage to get it?’

‘I’m sorry, you’re confusing me with someone else I think.’

'No no, I saw you in the Upper Gallery just now! You came on the Heathrow Express, no? Did you catch your tube all right?’

‘No, that’s not me, we have never spoken before, I was just watching the videos upstairs...’

‘Oh, don’t worry about it, never mind, it’s so busy, I’m just running up and down the stairs all day. But now we have a minute to catch up!’

‘But I...’

‘Listen, I recognized your bag, it’s all right.’

‘Ok. So, what do you do?’

‘Oh, I’m organising these film screenings, it’s all very exciting, we have Lawrence Weiner on the programme and all.’

‘Sounds great!’

‘Yeah. And did you have a good chat with Richard?’

‘No, not with Richard. I listened to Robert.’

‘Robert, Robert... ah, that Robert! There’s so much happening here, I haven’t quite caught up with that. Is it good?’

‘Yeah, it’s good. You can just enter, I mean, you don’t have to listen to the whole thing, it’s quite long, and, but interesting conversations.’

‘Excellent! Did I give you my card?’

‘No, not yet. Or your name. Let me give you mine as well.’

now then, how far does the voice reach?

Falke Pisano’s work for Talk Show is a graphic reconstruction of her text Figures of Speech, which both ‘constructs and solves problems in the field of language’. Pisano articulates her practice as ‘saying is doing’, insisting that ‘what is said in a work has a direct effect on, and therefore changes, the material used and the conditions of her practice.’ Talk Show investigates ‘speech as a tool and a medium to produce and negotiate meaning and value.’ Doing so, it offers a democratic diversity of voices. Whether these voices are objects, mediums or tools, none of them is the boss of it all. In return Talk Show calls upon the audience’s commitment. Not to respond with a social or political voice, but simply to tune in. Then the voice can reach as far as the moon, and all the way back. Talk Show is curated by Will Holder with Richard Birkett and Jennifer Thatcher Exhibiting artists: Robert Ashley / Pierre Bismuth / Paul Elliman / Chris Evans / Robert Filliou / Ryan Gander / Beatrice Gibson with Jamie McCarthy / Adam Pendleton / Falke Pisano / Seth Price / Manuel Saiz / Frances Stark / Mark Wilsher * These events are documented in word and image on the ICA website:
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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 6 — 2020