Performance by Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small

Graduation Shows 2018: Sandberg Institute: The Voice of the Artist 

Issue no5
okt - nov 2022

The performance-based symposium The Voice of the Artist, organised by the Sandberg Institute as part of the graduation programme of the MA Master of Voice, reflects upon the increased orality of artistic practices. Most artists seem to emphasize a fragmented use of the human voice.

What position or voice does the artist have in today’s society? How can the artist use its voice in a socio-political sense? How does one keep artworks, even those that are performative, from becoming commodified and thereby tamed, as happens to almost anything in a neoliberal discourse? These are only some of the questions that were asked during Sunday’s public symposium titled The Voice of the Artist, which was organized as the closing event of the Master of Voice graduation programme. The Master of Voice has been a two-year temporary master’s programme of the Sandberg Institute in which students and tutors have been exploring the use of voice in art and its political agency. During the final event of the graduation programme, artists MPA, Jenna Sutela, Hannah Catherin Jones (aka Foxy Moron), Padraig Robinson, Mathias Ringgenberg (aka PRICE) and Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small, were asked to perform and reflect on their ways of using voice, their social position and responsibility as artists.

Presentation and performance by MPA

Although I am a little tired at the start of the programme, the first presentation by MPA really wakes me up. MPA asks us, her audience, if we ever think about going to Mars, if we ever fantasize about living on Mars. Would we go to Mars? MPA’s sudden exclamation: “Nooooo, don’t go!”, shakes me and the other contemplating listeners up. Slightly but surely, we become aware of MPA’s objections against such a move, or better yet, colonization of Mars. Her presentation is fragmented: MPA seems to be talking from different subject positions. First person accounts that she has written down in a small notebook are interrupted by sudden movements and more traditional presentation formats. The energetic and unexpected changes make it hard to comfortably sit back and get lost in my own thoughts. I am constantly being reactivated and reintroduced to MPA talking. In the more traditional part of the presentation, MPA talks about a work that she performed together with artists Amapola Prada and Elizabeth Marcus-Sonenberg. The three artists lived together for ten days in a corridor of the Whitney to meditate on colonial legacies and the possible future colonization of Mars. They did not so much discuss these topics in a rational sense, but rather tried to explore ways to decolonize inner-space through energetic movements, taking care of each other and ultimately functioning, through each other’s differences, as one organism. This unification through fragmentary differences, I realize while writing this review, is also expressed in the format of MPA’s presentation. Being fragmented and talking in fragmentary ways can very well be seen as a practice that acknowledges the multilayered nature of subjectivity. It acknowledges how a subject is embodied by and embedded in the many different contexts it functions in. In a certain sense, thus, a practice of fragmentary presentation is decolonizing the speaking subject.

Performance by Hannah Catherine Jones (aka Foxy Moron)

Later that day the musical performance of artist and scholar Hannah Catherine Jones introduces me to the theremin: an electronic musical instrument that is controlled without physical contact by its player. Jones’ performances can be seen as a method to form connections with ancestry through sonic ritual. Next to the sounds engendered by the theremin, Jones’ performance incorporates her own singing and speaking voice, sounds that she makes with her violin, and visuals that are screened in the background. Although very different, her performance resonates with MPA’s. Both have a slightly unintelligible start in the form of either a weird instrument or estranging questions about Mars, followed by contrasting instruments or a switch of subject positioning with eventually the entrance of a coherent voice. Jones’ performance’s powerful build-up and strong combination of sounds and words, omit an energy that is hard to describe to someone who has not seen her perform. Her practice is a broad one that is connected by central themes of inclusivity and decolonization. The words spoken during the performance definitely convey some of her ideas about these concepts, but I do think that the performance’s power does not only lie in its coherent part, but rather in how the multiple elements come together.

In the last performance of the day Jamila Johnson-Small dances to a soundtrack composed in collaboration with Phoebe Collings-James, Josh Anio Grigg, Junior XL and Shelley Parker. The soundtrack incorporates voices that give instructions to “step twice” or “perform classical ballet.”

Performance by Last Yearz Interesting Negro/Jamila Johnson-Small

In the information sheet of the symposium Johnson-Small says about the work: “I started this project wanting to make meditation tapes to calm my rampant alienation and to slow my racing thoughts, but what does calm look like when you embody countless contradictions, conflicts and traumas, and language can't stretch to hold you and it was never your language anyway and you look out at the city and it is like your beating heart, complicated, congested and broken. I want to be broken open, like Leeloo in The Fifth Element. Some things need to break and I don't want space or distance but to assume my hybrid form right here. I want to break this space open. Techno-meditations on states of being and coping with being and bodies and other people and all that mad energy i.e. some music, some words, some dancing to encourage, to ignore, to suggest, to convince, to seduce, to say a daily prayer that is a manifesto that is a fuck you that is whatever it needs to be.”

Johnson-Small’s machine-like movements do not seem to be following the instructions of the soundtrack, and when her body does follow the instructions, her movements seem to perform something altogether different than what the instructions were meant to bring about. This dissonance is kind of funny, but also unsettling, as if the performances gives a physical shape to Johnson-Small’s incapability as a black body to become part of the modern dance discourse she was trained in.

Performance by Hannah Catherine Jones (aka Foxy Moron)

I want to end this text by sharing the response of Hannah Catherine Jones to a question posed by Marnie Slater, tutor in the Master of Voice programme. The latter asked Jones how we can “tune up” without following any “regular schemes of tuning up”. Or in other words, how we can be a cause of actual change without performing an already existing model of revolution. I think Jones’ answer is beautiful and that it can also end this text with at least one possible answer to the question of how the voice of the artist can be seen. Jones shares her insight that human beings are different just as instruments are different. This means we cannot tune up in similar ways, but instead have to find ways that work for specific subjects in specific contexts. There is not one way to use one’s voice. Instead, it is a matter of being able to respond (or being response-able) to one’s surroundings.

All photos by Liza Prins

The Voice of the Artist, symposium, Sandberg Institute, Dokzaal, 17.06.2018

Liza Prins
is kunstenaar

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