Becoming Voice
A two-day program of films and live performances curated by Florian Wüst and Maxa Zoller

26/27 October 2012
South London Gallery, 65-67 Peckham Road, London SE5 8UH


"But if you take away my voice," said the little mermaid, "what will I have left?"
—Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid, 1836

The voice is a concrete space and a concrete time in which body and meaning touch ever so slightly, ever so briefly. The Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar calls the voice a vanishing mediator, in the moment it is emitted, it "evaporates like a brief lightening illuminating the night and it's gone."(1) The human voice has no intrinsic claim to permanence; when it emerges from the body, be it in a humming, an utterance, an entire sentence, or poetry, it "goes up in smoke in the meaning it produces."(2) This fugitive nature of the voice is characterized by an experiential and dynamic relationship to the body of the speaker. "The voice—always unique and recognizable as such—cannot be disguised," (3) claims Italian theorist Adriana Cavarero. In its function to 'make sense' of a voice, language likewise produces an unavoidable feeling of origin and identity. Our mother tongue is the only language we can never learn to forget; it is infectious, it inserts itself in all other languages we acquire, corrupting them, marking them, however infinitely subtle this may turn out. "It is safe to assume, therefore, that we not only speak our language, but are also spoken by it."(4)

Voice and language point to an immediate, unseizable, even mysterious presence as well as to the limits of Cartesian thought and rational control. Dolar argues that the voice never belongs to us entirely; it is "endowed with a prosthetic quality."(5) The individuality of the voice is not broken by, but actually precedes its most common modern form of disembodiment: The capture of the voice through different means of technological reproduction. With ever increasing sophistication, electronic devices not only carry out the possibility of recording the voice—turning the voice into an object of memory—, but also the possibility of its amplification, its transformation and modeling. Sounds are conveyed across vast distances, and synthetically generated without reference to a prior live source.

The authoritative character of the electronically transmitted voice is used effectively as a disciplining method. The voice from the hidden speakers on the underground reminding us to "Please report anything suspicious to a member of staff" seems vague in its content (what is considered 'suspicious'?) and form (who is speaking?). The almost god-like omnipresence of the unlocatable voice is not only pivotal to ancient religious texts, it also is a key moment in early psychoanalysis that sought to suppress or pathologise the (fe)male voice of the subconscious mind. This is the reason why the voice became a contested, central theme for 1970s feminists such as Helene Cixous, whose concept of écriture féminine (feminine writing) celebrated the voice speaking itself. The interpretation of the voice as either threat or ur-communication makes the voice particularly vulnerable to manipulation, and at the same time open to creative processes. The artistic deconstruction of speech and language does not necessarily lead to nihilist acts of non-sense, but can also bring to light a poetic invocation of meaning that undoes the Cartesian mind-body split.

Against the background of this ambivalent relationship between voice and language, body and meaning, Becoming Voice explores the ways in which technological and socio-political pressures shift our means and modes of communication. The live performances and historical and contemporary films—stretching from 1966 to 2012—touch upon a variety of issues related to the nature of the human voice, the fragmentation and migration of language as well as to verbal and non-verbal modes of knowledge production and agency.

26 October 2012, 19:00

Of Violence and Whispers

Critical Mass, Hollis Frampton, 1971

This program presents films that seek to subvert the power relations inherent in systems of communication. When the relationship between speaker and listener goes 'out of synch', speech can become an act of violence. In Of Violence and Whispers the poetics of deconstructed language, accelerated speech, stutter, splits and breaks become modes of emancipation from and resistance to dominant voices, who speak in the name of the father, the law, the logos, etc. The programme combines historical works of avant-garde cinema and contemporary video art, and will be introduced by London-based performance artist Mikhail Karikis.

Word Movie, Paul Sharits, US 1966, 4'
Critical Mass, Hollis Frampton, US 1971, 24'
Troleibuzul 92, Stefan Constantinescu, SE 2009, 8'
Back Inside Herself, Saundra Sharp, US 1983, 4'
Film, Mikhail Karikis, UK 2012, 2'
b-star, untötbar!, Sabine Marte, AT 2009, 7'
Not I, Samuel Beckett, UK 1977, 12'
On the Threshold of Liberty, Heidi Tikka, FI 1992, 11'

26 October 2012, 21:00

Bete & Deise, Wendelien van Oldenborgh, NL/BR 2012, 41'

In Wendelien an Oldenborgh's new film Bete & Deise, two women encounter each other in a building under construction in Rio de Janeiro. Bete Mendes and Deise Tigrona have—each in their own way—given meaning to the idea of a public voice. Bete Mendes (born 1949) has continued to maintain a political career alongside her acting career in popular television since the 1960s. Deise Tigrona (born 1979) is one of the most powerful voices in the Funk Carioca movement today. Growing up in the impoverished community of Cidade de Deus, she rose to international popularity with her music in 2005. Together these women talk about the use of their voice and their positions in the public sphere, allowing for the contradictions they each carry within themselves to surface.

27 October 2012, 19:00

Audition Sample, Performance by Karolin Meunier (Berlin)

Formulaic and mediated conditions of communication are at the heart of the performances, texts and videos of Karolin Meunier. Audition Sample is part of a series of works, which examine the modus operandi of speech and address. In this performance Meunier translates the relationships between speaker, receiver and public space into abstract dimensions and maps them onto the physical gallery space. Meunier then draws these speculative coordinative systems to a point where the abstract models disintegrate leaving the audience with no more than a narrative thread. The performances in which systems of meaning are created only to unravel and eventually become inoperative are key to the artist’s examination of the ephemeral, absurdist nature of communication.

27 October, 20:00

Language of Gesture

The Perfect Sound, Katarina Zdjelar, 2009

The migration of language through different physical and geo-political territories is the central theme of this programme. Language of Gesture presents a selection of contemporary experimental and documentary films that examine the relationship between verbal expression and bodily gesture, (tele)communication and social identity. When language moves from the mouth to elsewhere in the body, for instance into our limbs, arms and hands, the body becomes an extension of the voice. This language of signs, mime and gesture returns and gives birth to meaning that potentially surpasses cultural boundaries or functions as political symbol in a globalized world.

Mapping Journey #5, Bouchra Khalili, FR/MA/IT 2010, 11'
The Perfect Sound, Katarina Zdjelar, NL/UK 2009, 14'
Ägypten, Kathrin Resetarits, AT 1997, 10'
Hold Your Ground, Karen Mirza, Brad Butler, UK 2012, 13'
One Day, Ditte Haarløv Johnsen, DK 2007, 30

(1) Mladen Dolar, What's in a Voice, in: Resonant Bodies, Voices, Memories, Anke Bangma, Deirdre M. Donoghue, Lina Issa, Katarina Zdjelar (eds.), Rotterdam 2008, 207
(2) Mladen Dolar, A Voice and Nothing More, Boston 2006, 15
(3) Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice. Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, Stanford 2005, 24
(4) Katarina Zdjelar, When Language starts, in: Resonant Bodies, Voices, Memories, 148
(5) Dolar, What's in a Voice, 208