in Frieze | 05 NOV 93
Featured in
Issue 13


Georgina Starr

in Frieze | 05 NOV 93

In order to convey the full auditory range of her work, Georgina Starr will often have to sing, whistle, whisper or even do a quick impression of two people talking on the bus. Once in the middle of describing a sound installation, she started to whistle a well-known Beatles' song. She told me how she recorded herself whistling 'Yesterday', placed speakers all over the building so the sound became inescapable and then observed passers-by walking away whistling the same tune. But by then, I was a million miles away. Just hearing a few bars of 'Yesterday' had sent me reeling into that endless cycle of internal record playing. I was lost, somewhere in the middle of the second verse.

It can happen to anyone: a tune will go in one ear and refuse to come out, inducing spontaneous bursts of infectious singing, whistling and humming throughout the day, driving everyone around you, including yourself, nuts. In some cases this becomes an extreme form of neurosis whereby loud music is continually heard, only by you.

One day, Mrs O'M., recounted, while she was grating parsnips in the kitchen, a song started playing. It was Easter Parade and was followed in quick succession by Glory, Glory, Hallelujah and Good Night, Sweet Jesus. Like Mrs O'C., she assumed that a radio had been left on, but quickly cam to realise that all the radios were off. Mrs O'C. recovered in a few weeks, but Mrs O'M.'s music continued and got worse and worse.

'Do you like these particular songs?' I asked, psychiatrically. 'Do they have some special meaning for you?'
'No', she answered promptly. 'I never specially liked them, and I don't think that they have any special meaning for me.'
'And how did you feel when they kept going on?'
'I came to hate them,' she replied with great force. 'It was like some crazy neighbour continually putting on the same record.'

If we can generalise from such individual case-studies, then the recurring song imprints itself on an individual cell in the cerebral cortex. Later, when the same song is overheard in the real world, it makes a direct link with our cerebral record collection where we can proudly boast or deny, we possess it. Such were the findings of the neurologist Wilder Penfield. When he applied gentle electric stimulation to cells in a particular part of the cerebral cortex, his patients would experience a variety of [what was then] familiar music; White Christmas, Hush-a-bye Baby, music from 'Guys and Dolls', and so on. Familiar sounds were also heard, such as 'feet walking', 'voices' and 'dog barking', all of which, without warning, could either become insufferably loud or induce a blissful moment of reminiscence.

In each case the music was fixed and stereotyped. The same tune (or tunes) were heard again and again, whether in the course of spontaneous seizures, or with electrical stimulation of the seizure prone cortex. Thus these tunes are not only popular on the radio, but equally popular as hallucinatory seizures: they are, so to speak, the 'Top Ten of the Cortex'

Instantly recognisable to most people on the planet, the Beatles' Yesterday must surely have a place in our collective Top Ten of the cortex. Its familiarity left Starr wondering whether her sound installation depended more upon the Beatles' invention than her own, so she decided to see what happened if she whistled a song which no one had ever heard before; something which involved a completely random way of composing. Starr threw paper arrows into an eddy current on a windswept concourse outside Euston station in central London. As the arrows spiralled up above the surrounding buildings, suspended in a whirlwind of litter, she photographed them in mid-air. Later, Starr marked the position of arrows in several drawings, laid a circular music bar over these plans and where the arrows met the bar, a musical note was registered. This was to be her score. By reading the drawings clockwise, spiralling towards the centre, Starr was able to whistle her new, randomly composed tune. She finished the tune in a recording studio where a slight echo was added to the sound of whistling, making it sad and haunting.

The resulting artwork is Eddy 1/Whistle (1992); an edition of prints from the drawing (Eddy1) and a seven-inch record (Whistle). As a sound installation the record is played on a 70s hi-fi, chosen, above all else, for its ability to automatically go back to the beginning of the record and play again. Inevitably this makes Eddy 1/Whistle even more irritating; the actual sound of the whistling, heard over and over again, grates like nails down a blackboard. The other annoyance is that we don't know this tune but for a moment we think we do; possibly because we assume that if someone is whistling it, then it must be popular. As we strain to listen, it penetrates the mind, gate-crashing the senses and flowing down the same channels as any familiar tune. As the inverse of whistling a song going round and round in your head, Eddy 1/Whistle makes its bid to enter the unconscious and commit itself to long-term memory. Like an empirical psychologist, Starr proved that the actual sound of whistling, regardless of melody, can access the unconscious auditory memory as described by Penfield.

The use of random forces in composing Eddy 1/ Whistle has certain parallels with John Cage's use of the I Ching (an ancient Chinese method of throwing coins or marked sticks) to ensure his compositions were free from individual taste. Likewise, Mozart employed an element of chance when he devised a way of composing country dances by throwing a dice. Like these composers, Starr orders and adapts her findings, placing them within a recognised formal framework in which they perform. To this end, Starr is constantly on the lookout for unpredictable events in everyday life to provide the raw material for her work.

One day Starr, lifting up a sheet of acetate from the floor, noticed how bits of paper underneath began to twitch around due to the effect of static electricity. It was this observation that inspired Static Steps (1992), a book, record and video installation. In making the video, Starr shook an unseen sheet of acetate over two tiny paper figures seated at a miniature table. The duo launch themselves into a manic routine of humanly impossible leaps and revolutions. The soundtrack to this curious activity is a step-by-step guide to ballroom dancing with a commentator in a sturdy British accent, announcing every move as a dance step. The combination of stiff upper lip and wild abandon lends the piece an air of eccentricity that suggests we can all roll back the carpet and try this at home.

A few months later Starr found herself on the tube with microphones strapped to her bag secretly recording people deep in conversation. When she played the tapes back she observed how one woman spoke so quickly that Starr thought she was singing. She worked this random snatch of conversation into a song lyric, while a melody itself was composed over around a few bars of tune whistled by a passenger in the background. Composed and sung by Starr, Mentioning (1993) is sparse and basic, (drums, piano, flute), while the lyric is surprisingly rich.

I've mentioned it to so many people
It's actually quite nice to talk to
I'm going to be honest
I've not been able to talk to anyone

I'd no intention of mentioning
I'm not considering,
Well this is what I am saying
And so this is why -hy -hy

I'm sure that is has been noticed
Which I know which I said
And's not worth saying
But if I'd don't get it
I won't be able to talk to anyone

If he phoned up and said 'look now'
He's reconsidering
Well if it happens, I'll understand
Yeah yeah yeah

In contrast to Mentioning's conventional melody and verse-chorus-reprise structure, its lyric refuses to adhere to the standard story-line arrangement of most pop songs. The formal framework of the tune plays against the unusual nature of the words, arousing enough suspicion for us to recognise the lyric as one person talking to another. Accordingly, we end up listening to the song in much the same way as we would listen in on a nearby conversation.

In a more recent piece, Starr herself was the randomly-found object of her work. While making a video in her studio, she suddenly burst into tears. Turning the camera on herself she was able to make a record of her misery, naming the work Crying (1993). The simple video shows Starr in tears wearing a black shirt, pressed into the corner of a white space. As a video installation, when the monitor is placed in the same position as Starr - in the corner of the room - its presence is profound. More than any other peice of her work, it enters the psyche, stealing nothing but leaving behind an air of intrusion. In this way Crying (1993) is the perfect crime: a cerebral break-in on several levels, all of which have been carefully considered by the artist. (I was slightly alarmed after I saw Crying that Starr was able to tell me exactly what had taken place in her mind.)

The first reaction upon viewing Crying is to consider laughing, or at least to assume this is all some kind of joke. But as we begin to feel that Starr is really crying, and not acting, the work bypasses the concious and goes straight to the lump in the throat. At this point it is very easy to feel sympathetic and the need to know why she is crying becomes overwhelming. We begin to make comparisons with our own experience of what has made us cry in the past, by which point we are high on empathy. For all the concern about why she is crying, this piece can only ever be about us, and why we would cry.

'Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that's why we are so anxious to lose them, don't you think? Remember the Erinyes?'
'The Furies', said Bunny, his eyes dazzled and lost beneath a bang of hair.
'Exactly. And how did they drive people mad? They turned up the volume of the inner monologue, magnified qualities already present to great excess, made people so much themselves that they couldn't stand it.'

This is how Crying works: it becomes part of the inner monologue. We are left very much aware of ourselves while we watch her inner turmoil incarcerated on an endless video loop, studying her emotion like a germ under a microscope.

Starr's latest investigation, Erik , began when she found a scrawled note in the street. She took it back to her studio, where it lay ignored until several people told her that they knew Erik and proceeded to describe him. Starr has re-enacted these descriptions on video and produced audio tapes - only to be played on headphones - where further accounts are whispered, seducing the ear as if someone were leaning over to bitch about a person standing right next to you. Already, there seems to be something irredeemable in Erik's character, which provides acquaintances with an endless source of gossip and Starr with all the raw material she needs. No doubt, Starr is intrigued by the way Erik is defined by other people's descriptions, and by the fact that she has no control until she forms her findings into their final state. While many young artists will merely re-present everyday life, Starr impels what she finds through magical transformations - and this is her real strength. In her brief body of work, she has managed to suspend chance within order like an organic culture resting in a petri dish. In buckling both elements together, she celebrates the absurd ways in which we try to make sense of the world.