At one point in Spike Jonze’s recent film, Her (2013), Joaquin Pheonix’s character, Theodore, asks his ‘girlfriend’, a piece of software known as Samantha (voiced by a breathy Scarlett Johansson), ‘Why do you do that?’ referring to the way she sighs during speech. ‘It’s not like you need oxygen or anything […] People need oxygen. You’re not a person. I don’t think we should pretend to be what we’re not.’ Samantha concedes that this is an affectation to make her performance as a human more convincing. The oddness of their technophilic love affair aside, this exchange describes a paranoia that afflicts most human-to-human relationships: we want to believe what people say to us, but we also know that the voice can dissemble or deceive. We are suspicious of the written word, abstract and toneless, but we look for meaning in the spoken statement backed up by gesture, intonation and eye contact. (It’s more difficult to lie to someone’s face.) But what happens when there is no body to act as meaning’s guarantor (as in Her)? Or, conversely, when the body overacts (as in the contorted postures of Jean-Martin Charcot’s famous hysterics) and can’t be trusted?
In ‘La Voix Humaine’ (The Human Voice), curators Bart van der Heide and Saim Demircan staged a timely and intelligently focused look at words, affect and affectation(s), and the ways in which advances in technology are redefining the relationships between them. The exhibition took its name from Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play or, more specifically, Francis Poulenc’s later operatic adaptation (1958). A film version of the opera starring Denise Duval, the French soprano for whom the part was written, and directed by Dominique Delouche, played on loop in its 111-minute entirety on a small monitor in one of Kunstverein Munich’s partitioned gallery spaces. The script of this one-act domestic tragedy consists of the final telephone conversation between a woman (known only as elle, or her) and a former lover. We never hear the lover’s voice – he’s represented only as a series of pauses in the woman’s increasingly hysterical monologue. The telephone becomes a prop in a psychological drama of delusional self-absorption; we might wonder if there is anyone else on the line at all.
Projected on the opposite wall was Frances Stark’s film Nothing is enough (2012), a typed Skype exchange between the artist and an anonymous male. Searching for personality in the simple fonts – hers a cursive, ‘handwritten’ style; his a clean sans serif – and the flat ‘umms’ and ‘hahahas’ made a neat counterpoint to Duval’s choral histrionics, highlighting what is lost between voice and screen.
In Cally Spooner’s Damning Evidence Illicit Behaviour Seemingly Insurmountable Great Sadness Terminated In Any Manner (2014), a series of librettos compiled from outraged YouTube comments about celebrities ‘faking it’ (Beyoncé lip-synching to the Star-Spangled Banner; Lance Armstrong’s confession on Oprah) were performed by one of two opera singers every Sunday. During the remaining time, they flicked across an elevated LED display, like operatic surtitles. Adding an important live dimension to a show so much about performance and the staging of self, Spooner’s work (discussed by Alice Butler in ‘Said & Done’ in this issue), with its hammy, overblown theatricality, plays on the complications of taking someone at their word in today’s mediatized society, where regret has become a question of not having pretended convincingly enough. Overdo things, like Kalup Linzy’s Julietta does, in hysterical sobs, as she breaks up over the phone with her boyfriend, in his short film Julietta Calls Ramone (2002), and interest wanes, sympathy falters.
‘La Voix Humaine’ explored technology as a conduit for our self-involvement, but in At the Cool Table (2012–13), a suite of annotated drawings lining the walls of the central gallery (and collected in an accompanying publication) Amelie von Wulffen reappropriated the confessional mode using a more lo-fi medium. A comic-strip parody of autobiographical outpouring, these seemingly dashed-off sketches offer glimpses – by turns glib, self-deprecating, erotic and neurotic – of the pleasures and pains of being a female, mid-career and middle-aged artist in the contemporary art world.
In a final room, Tyler Coburn’s Naturally Speaking (2013–14) suggests an inverse sci-fi scenario to Samantha’s sighs in Her – one in which humans become increasingly mechanistic in order to better relate to their technological devices. A script adapted from a training exercise to make users’ enunciation more easily identifiable by voice recognition programmes is transcribed by MacSpeech Dictate on one monitor, while another shows a melting ice sculpture of Pantagruel’s ship. The background in each case is an unctuous, shimmering liquid gold that seems to ask: What happens when sensuality is no longer a function of speech, when language becomes, literally, senseless? Does it lose its sparkle? There is no technology yet that could decipher Poulenc’s trilling arias. The gilded backdrop also raises questions about the value of new technologies and their costs. Coburn, and the show overall, respond ambivalently: like Duval’s performance or Johansson’s voice, technology is presented as something that, despite our scepticism, we can’t help but be seduced by.