In the 1977 television adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s monologue Not I (1972), words and sentence fragments are uttered in rapid fire by actress Billie Whitelaw in the role of Mouth. While this mouth fills the entire screen, the voice seems to take possession of the lips that form the words. In component-like chunks, they recount the experiences of a female character: sinister things that happened to her as a child and about which she has since remained silent. Among many other things, Mouth recalls the argument, developed by Luce Irigaray in her 1977 book Ce sexe, qui n’en est pas une (The Sex Which Is Not One, 1985), of women’s exclusion from the patriarchal economy of language.
The film was shown in the group exhibition Acts of Voicing. On the Poetics and Politics of the Voice, which took an inter‑disciplinary look at the active character of the voice with works by 30 artists and a programme of performances, workshops and lectures. The show explored aspects including ‘the voice of the other’ and ‘the power of speech’, to name just two of the five categories used to present the exhibits. The curatorial approach taken in this joint project with Para/Site Space, Hong Kong, and Total Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, was fittingly polyphonic.
In one work, the voice stood for a profession: Bani Abidi’s flip-book The Speech Writer (2011) recounts a day in the life of its retired protagonist via metaphorical references to his former occupation. Elsewhere, the voice stood in for identities and states of being: Ines Doujak’s collaborative poster project Webschiffe, Kriegspfade (Weaver’s Shuttles, Warpaths, 2011–3) rewrites ethnic belonging as a ‘voice of the others’. The posters – based on years of research into Andean textile production by Doujak and interpretations submitted by invited experts – feature unexpected combinations of indigenous fabrics and colours, an interpretative text and various important revolutionary dates. A delicate Cinchona lanceifolia stands out against an orange background, under the heading ‘Negro Cloth’, its stem wrapped in red and blue fabric, topped off by a naked white figure, one hand raised in greeting. Below this image, in large numbers, appears a decisive year in the French Revolution, 1795. Colonial and revolution motifs are assembled here – like an exquisite corpse – in such a way as to turn common patterns of representation on their heads. Katarina Zdjelar’s video The Perfect Sound (2009) shows how language and pronunciation point to a speaker’s social status as an immigrant, supervised by a speech therapist, tries to correctly pronounce the English ‘th’.
In other installation-based works, sound remains a phono-physical experiment, as in Gary Hill’s Tale Enclosure (1985), a real-time recording of vocal exercises and hand gestures. In David Riff and Dmitry Gutov’s The Need for Money (2012) – a wall and sound installation based on their project The Karl Marx School of the English Language (2005) – focuses on a Russian speaker learning English from a translation of _Das Kapital _(1867), yet the meaning of the sentences becomes unintelligible as he fails to reproduce the words accurately.
The exhibition design – with its ramps, podiums and booths arranged around a central stage – also seemed to be attempts to expose visitors to many contradictory voices. One pitfall of this ‘experiential space’ (as the curators called it) lay in the attempts to problematize the relationship between the authentic immediacy of the voice and its reproduction. But the show’s overall approach did make sense – especially since the voice as event has been dealt with by theorists (e.g. Doris Kolesch or Sybille Krämer) but rarely in art exhibitions. The least convincing category of the show was that of ‘the unutterable’, as exemplified by Yang Zhenzhong’s video I will die (2000–05): people speaking in different places and languages recite the titular phrase in front of the camera. In the context of the exhibition, the film highlighted the opposite of the unutterable as little more than a platitude. In the end, one is tempted to give this show the subtitle ‘How To Do Things with Voices’. But this would probably emphasize the very intentionality called into question by Mouth in the 1960s with her repeated ‘Not I’.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell