Hyoid bone and surrounding muscles, from Henry Gray, Anatomy of the Human Body, 20th ed., ed. Warren H. Lewis (Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1918), 91.
Kaegan Sparks is the Education Department’s R&D spring 2014 Season Fellow. Here she follows several lines of inquiry in researching the season thematic of VOICE, each thread delineating a distinct negotiation between agency and articulation.
Every fall and spring, the New Museum’s Education Department designates a thematic on which to base its R&D (Research & Development) Season over the coming months. Presenting an array of rich, research-based speculations around objects, ideas, and artistic practices, the themes cut across Education’s multiple platforms. These include exhibitions, performances, screenings, artist residencies, online publications, an after-school program for teens, and family day activities, and are intended as an organizing theme by which audiences and artists can engage a cluster of ideas across a variety of program structures and temporalities.
The current R&D VOICE Season launched in spring 2014 and has, to date, included Jeanine Oleson’s exhibition “Hear, Here” along with a number of associated gallery sessions and her experimental opera; the completion of the inaugural Seminars, along with a public symposium and a private seminar with invited guests; a performance series guest curated by dramaturg Cori Ellison; “I am Bleeding All Over the Place,” three parts of a series of studies on directing by theater director Brooke O’Harra; and more. Our R&D Season Fellow Kaegan Sparks has conducted intense research and assisted with the development and production of many of these programs. Sparks, herself a curator of interdisciplinary programs and performances whose research centers around the topics of affect and labor, was invited by Six Degrees to introduce a possible field of inquiry into VOICE, as the first of several Six Degrees commissions on the thematic that complement the collection of interviews that she has been producing on the R&D Season tumblr. Here Sparks reflects on one of the first of this R&D Season’s panel discussions, “Sing, Yell, Tell,” using this as an opportunity to spur an extensive survey of ideas about VOICE, and ultimately crafting an idiosyncratic collection of references on how agency is negotiated through various modes and effects of articulation.
Research & Development Seasons, an initiative recently inaugurated by the Education Department at the New Museum, provides a structure for generating research and activities at a different tempo from the Museum’s other programming. Consistent with the trend of détourning the capitalistic language of public relations toward the cultural sphere and vice versa (as Johanna Burton, Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement, has noted, “activist” is now a type of investor), the framework of this series hijacks the speculative drive of its corporate counterpart. Like a corporate R&D, its mode of production within the Museum is decidedly multilateral, provisional, and contingent, an alternative to “activities which are intended to yield nearly immediate profit…and involve little uncertainty as to the return on investment.”1 Simon Sheikh has written about reciprocal osmosis occurring between vocabularies native to market ideology and to the culture industry, as well as the recent attention to and aesthetization of discursive modalities in artistic and institutional practice. He suggests that educational discourses in both museums and universities should resist commodifying knowledge and instead we should “maintain a notion of unproductive time and space within exhibition venues” in order to “move beyond knowledge production into what we can term spaces for thinking.” This paratext is meant to reflect, in a generous if sweeping manner, on a provisional field of thinking developing from performances, programs, seminar discussions, and research around the current R&D Season thematic of voice, through my participation as R&D Season Fellow.
The final note of the presentations given at “Sing, Yell, Tell,” an interdisciplinary panel on voice organized and moderated by Season artist-in-residence Jeanine Oleson on April 4, 2014, was made by Burton on the philosopher David Hume’s conception of enthusiasm—a condition for him derived from a presumptuous, unmediated flight of fancy. (This concept is as applicable to the voice as to “unproductive” research, perhaps!) The motif of Bernini’s sculpture Ecstasy of St. Teresa was traded between Burton and fellow panelist Gregg Bordowitz; Bordowitz commented on the extra-vocality of rapture, while Burton considered Saint Teresa’s status as a vessel of divinity, voiding herself in order to be inhabited or activated by the divine spirit—an idea that grounds “enthusiasm” etymologically. In terms of voice, Saint Teresa’s ambiguous subject position might be usefully reinterpreted per another concern that arises repeatedly in this Season’s discussions: what Burton detailed as the dialectic of giving or taking voice—of inhabitation versus appropriation.2
An introductory point made by Steve Cosson, another “Sing, Yell, Tell” panelist and Founding Artistic Director of the Civilians, a “center for investigative theater,” was the distinction between speech training and voice training for actors, and the directive to clean their voices of tension so as to better impart the characters they represent. Cosson went on to present his company’s performance in progress, part of a series of plays and musicals based on what he described as a loosely journalistic methodology: on-site interviews with different communities, including inmates at El Buen Pastor Women’s Prison in Bogotá, Christian evangelicals in Colorado Springs, and Brooklynites affected by the Atlantic Yards development—all eventually transformed into scripts performed by professional actors. Cosson shared excerpts of an original interview, a translated script, and a musical performance from “Pretty Filthy,” his company’s current project on porn stars and producers in the San Fernando Valley. His presentation sparked contention among some audience members for its blatant recontextualization of remarks by one porn performer, who in an interview, had anecdotally described both indignation and anxiety at discovering one of her sex tapes freely available on the internet. This was both an affront to the value of her labor (because online viewers did not compensate her) and to her self-representation to her child, who ostensibly could also easily access the video. Extracted and amplified, these concerns had produced a reductive reading of her sexual and identity politics, and her relationship to maternity. A phrase that became the refrain to her character’s song, via the Civilians—“I had a lot of ideals that I wanted to do”—was also troubling. Although more of the original subject’s story was included in the lyrics as well, the line’s sheer repetition emphasized not only her despair in having lost access to her goals, but also a grammatical solecism that marks her speech as uneducated—though it was perhaps, originally, a simple slip of the tongue.3 Cosson defended his projects as not attempts to recuperate the voices of individuals in the communities he worked with, but instead, to tender dialogues with represented subjects through his research and stagings. This kind of ambivalence often marks power relationships established by such dialogues, especially, as here, in the absence of one of the interlocutors—the same, and now canonical, quandary Gayatri Spivak posits on invoking the voice of the subaltern: whether such projects are speaking to or for others.
In the work of poet and critic Divya Victor, issues of co-optation and subjugation in postcolonial and feminist frameworks are aptly allegorized by ventriloquism. She points out the term’s etymological derivation from the Latin venter [belly] and loqui [speak]—where the voice emerges, paradoxically, from the metaphorical locus of sincerity, one’s gut. And yet, she notes, a ventriloquist’s arm perversely invades his dummy via its bowels; his digestive canal thus becomes an avenue to the mouth, where his operator’s presence is manifest. Another anatomical detail operative for Victor’s use of ventriloquy is that the tongue is supported by the body’s only unarticulated bone (the hyoid bone), which is suspended by muscles and separate from the rest of the skeleton. This liminal site of speech articulation redoubles for her in postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha’s conception of the “mimic man”: a reformed model subject in colonial India who concealed his/her own interior identity or animus in order to perform as a proxy or interpreter (a vocal filter) of white British proselytization.4
Processes of racialization through the mechanization of the body, and in particular, its speech organs, feature prominently in an affective condition literary critic Sianne Ngai calls “animatedness,” registering both agitation and propulsion by an outside force. She examines a line from poet John Yau’s poem cycle “Genghis Chan: Private Eye” (1989–96), which inverts an idiom for speechlessness (“A foul lump started making promises in my voice”):
We thus move from a human character who is “all choked
up,” rendered inarticulate by some undischarged feeling, to a situation
in which the “lump” responsible for this rhetorical disempowerment
suddenly individuates into an agent capable of speaking
for the human character—and, more dangerously, in a manner
contractually binding him to others without his volition.5
Elsewhere, Ngai discusses two other vexed instances of ventriloquy: the ebullient black Sambo puppet on a Harlem sidewalk in Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and what she terms “slippery mouth syndrome” in The PJs, a controversial animated Fox Television show that aired from 1998–2001 and depicted minority characters from an inner-city housing project as malleable foam figures. Ngai highlights a disquieting byproduct of the streamlined, time-saving method used to animate them, whereby a variety of molded mouths are interchanged on a single stationary body for speaking close-ups, resulting in the mouth gradually slipping away from a central position on a character’s face. For Ngai, this slippage represents a surplus or feedback agency from the manipulated body that exceeds or counteracts the design of the puppeteer—a friction that exposes the operator’s otherwise invisible hand.6
Alienation and manipulation of the voice in the service of technological efficiency extend, too, to the practice of lip syncing, a phenomenon taken up by poet Christian Hawkey, composer Joe Diebes, and director David Levine in their opera WOW, and also by artist Cally Spooner in her evolving project And You Were Wonderful, On Stage. A 2013 version of Spooner’s performance featured a song-cycle for an a cappella female chorus. Its lyrics emerge from current events demonstrating poignant junctures between political and performative speech, often where some sort of fallacy is revealed, as in Beyoncé’s lip-syncing at Barack Obama’s 2012 inauguration ceremony. These media excerpts are gradually infiltrated with the language of corporate management, becoming (in the artist’s words) “increasingly inscribed by the unyielding metabolism of ‘high performance’ ad speak” to mimic how “cognitive activity is increasingly synced up to networked productivity, and language tied up in economic interests.” Spooner is developing the project iteratively to investigate affective economies and confrontations of technology and liveness in both pop culture and the post-Fordist workplace.7
WOW, Hawkey, Diebes, and Levine’s opera tracing the rise and fall of the pop act Milli Vanilli, stages the exposure of the inauthentic, lip-synced voices of performers Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus as a Faustian tragedy. As the opera’s librettist, Hawkey, explains, the piece “champion[s] the failure of the lip syncing as [a] kind of resistance to totalizing spectacle.” According to Hawkey, Milli Vanilli’s story is partially about the politics of appropriation: “The moment where the CD skips” reveals a disjuncture between voices and bodies, and by extension, the forces that set this illusion, or occlusion, into motion in the first place. Like Spooner, Hawkey is interested in particularly economic sub-forces, especially how corporate structures produce affects of fakery, failure, and shame.
In his podcast interview for the VOICE Registers series I am producing in conjunction with the R&D Season, Hawkey describes a specific instance of disenfranchisement precipitated by early recording technology’s disembodiment of the voice. Soon after the development of the gramophone in the late ninteenth century, George Johnson Washington, an African-American street entertainer, was recruited by multiple companies to make recordings of minstrel tunes in order to market the new, unfamiliar technology to the public. Among his most “infectious” and wildly popular recordings are “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Song”—or their uncensored originals, “The Laughing Coon” and “The Whistling Coon.” In 1906, Music Trades Review reported that Washington “once sung the same song 56 times in one day, and his laugh had as much merriment in it at the conclusion as when it started,”8 diminishing the gravity of his labor in favor of the buoyant affects he produced. Even more disturbingly, as soon as recording technology developed a reproductive faculty, Washington’s labor became truly ephemeral and his own live voice superfluous to the industry. Accruing no royalties for the dissemination of his recordings, the household name was forced to work as a doorman for the rest of his life.
A similar affective rupture at the birth of vocal reproduction manifests in Antonin Artaud’s 1933 article “Les souffrances du ‘dubbing,’” which denounced French actors who sold their voices to Hollywood for dubbing its films for foreign markets. Mikhail Yampolsky underscores Artaud’s revulsion toward the vocal-synchronization technology that precipitated talkies:
The horror experienced by Artaud from the very sight of a dubbed film arises as a reaction against the fundamental contradiction between the external, articulatory nature of the technique of synchronization, the fanatic attention to the micromovements of the mouth divined in the actors’ speech, and a property of the actor’s body such as the ability to assimilate and to swallow up the voice of another.9
Here again is the motif of bodily subsumption via the voice. The violent power dynamic conveyed by acts of swallowing and appropriation—enacted by a dominating individual or demographic, or often, propelled by capital—may recall Artaud’s appeals to the opposite sort of vocal demonstration of violence, projected or expressed from inside the body. Intending to disrupt what he considered artificial, ingrained, and oppressive social behaviors, Artaud proposed a direct interjection of the unconscious in a theater of cruelty: the primal scream.
Here we might curve our consideration of ventriloquy vis-à-vis authentic subjectivity toward the ambiguous internal mediations of glossolalia, hallucinations, and ecstatic speech (thus returning, in some manner, to Saint Teresa). Artaud wrote his controversial last work, a radio play entitled To Have Done With The Judgment Of God, in 1947, after being diagnosed with schizophrenia and spending many years in asylums through World War II. The piece was recorded for French radio, but its debut broadcast was abruptly cancelled due to reactions to its politically charged and violently paratactic language, which Susan Sontag described as “verg[ing] on an incandescent declamatory speech beyond sense.”10 This conflict of Artaud’s guttural vocalizations of trauma filtered through the distancing medium of radio might be essential to understanding its response and censorship, and further gestures to relationships between psychological fragmentation and technological prostheses.
Looming between the disconcerting effects of technological mediation and the primeval, embodied vocality urged by Artaud, are the “speculative telephonics” of Avital Ronell’s 1989 piece The Telephone Book. Ronell argues that the schizophrenic in particular “gives us exemplary access to the fundamental shifts in affectivity and corporeal organization produced and commanded by technology.” Her text traffics in a switchboard economy of distant and mediated voices, mapping “electric speech” onto genealogies of technology and schizophrenia as well as the occult, psychoanalysis, and a broad swathe of philosophy. For Ronell, the telephone is a “mere double and phantom of an organ” whose erratic circuitry has “broken into the body.”11
Media and disability theorist Mara Mills foregrounded telephonic technology in the “capsule history of modulation” she presented for the “Sing, Yell, Tell” panel, charting the evolution of the concept from singing and phonetics to the electronic modulation of radio waves. Beginning with Alexander Graham Bell’s work with deaf students,12 she traced various methods of translating the voice into signal, from a visual iconography of articulatory postures that detailed the positions of tongue, teeth, and throat for the vocal instruction of the deaf, to the ear phonautograph’s inscription of speech curves onto sooted glass, to pulse code modulation for digitizing analog sound waves. Mills mapped a metaphor for the industrialized voice, wherein the generation of current performs as breath, signal processing mirrors vocal cord modulation, signal transmission occurs via sound of the voice, and demodulation or decoding ensues through the ear in the act of hearing—or, listening (this distinction may be crucial).
The deciphering (or distorting) on the receiving end of a transmission can also act as an assertion of power, as demonstrated by artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s work on forensic speech analysis used to validate asylum seekers via their accents,”13 as well as poet Jordan Scott’s critical investigation “The State of Talk, or Forced Drift: Notes Towards Speech Disfluencies and State Interrogation Procedures and Techniques.” In this lecture Scott addresses the systemic exploitation of suspected criminals’ voices, including trained interrogation tactics for “seizing upon” speech disfluencies and essentially, putting words in a suspect’s mouth. Scott’s attention to modes of utterance, particularly the stutter, also heavily informs his “poetics of resistance to a regime of fluency.” As Maurice Blanchot avows in The Infinite Conversation, speech and error are ever-always on intimate terms.14 Blanchot places the generative activity of dialogue within speakers’ interruptions and interstitial detours, while conversely, Scott notes, spaces produced by the stutter’s staccato allow one’s speech plan to be commandeered and rerouted by an impatient or interpolative listener. Freudian parapraxes or slips of the tongue, too, detail a struggle between authentic or meaning-driven speech and unconscious interjections.
Continuing her interest in the voice as a potential locus of violence, part two of Divya Victor’s poetry book Things to Do With Your Mouth, titled “Gags,” exhumes an abject erotica—in Julia Kristeva’s sense, as discharges of mucus, drool, pus, blood, etc., proliferate from bodily orifices—from Freud’s first case study, on a young patient named Dora diagnosed with hysteria and aphonia, or loss of voice.15 A gag marks disgust, a joke (for Freud, a joke is but another sort of slip), or voluntary or involuntary bondage.16 In his text “(untitled performance), a lexicon of false starts and failed advances,” artist and writer Christof Migone careens through an allusive bibliography of things to do with one’s mouth, triggered by Adrian Piper’s 1971 performance Catalysis IV, wherein the artist rode a public bus with a towel shoved into her mouth. This gag Migone presents provocatively alongside the image of a spirit medium ejecting ectoplasm orally during spiritual trance, together suggesting the ambivalent potential of such a blockage, even as they may gesture to voices—particularly women’s voices—stifled or possessed.17 For Migone, the stutter too is a productive discontinuity, a “syntactic squint,” a “somatic interruption,” an “oral arrythmia,” a “surfeit of articulation” (where articulation is atomization, jointedness)—and maybe most significantly, an insurgent tactic, a subterfuge: “the pervasiveness, persistence and proliferation of the performative.”18 For performance studies scholar Alex Pittman, the gag is a trope rendering both a speech obstruction and a radical expression of meaning beyond language:
Out-of-joint gestures mark a curiously manic and erratic, as opposed to smooth and well-executed, quality of performance relative to the temporal and disciplinary demands of the assembly line. These gestures, in short, fall out of sync and, in so doing, often take the form of a gag: as something, that is, that blocks speech, but also as a performance of something just on the edge of articulation.19
The context of both Migone’s and Pittman’s positing stuttering as a form of resistance leads to this survey’s final consideration, in some ways a return to its preface. In his treatise “The Linguistic Nature of Money and Finance,” published by Semiotext(e) on the occasion of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Christian Marazzi posits the performative nature of language in experience economy, highlighting “the entrance of language directly into the processes of production, ‘putting language to work,’ and the transformation of the places of the production of goods and services into ‘loquacious factories.’”20 While Marazzi’s analysis outlines the transactional and structural functions of money as compared with linguistic systems, he also insists on assessing its functional limits, where “the structural contradictions of an economic-financial system in which the performativity itself of the monetary-communicative strategy comes into play.”21 From the semantic convolutions of “Fed speak” (as revealed by 2008 debates about whether to tell the American public that inflation rates had “edged higher,” “went up a smidge,” “risen somewhat,” “risen slightly,” or “risen a little”),22 to the stunning recent collapse of speech and finance in the Supreme Court’s ruling on the McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission case, which considered legal limits to individual campaign contributions a First Amendment offense, now more than ever we might be apprehensive about retaining and raising our voices. If money is now speech, and political discourse reduced to a “marketplace of ideas” (in dissenting Justice Breyer’s terms), perhaps this sketch of the voice should find itself, finally, considering the oral traditions of protest songs and crying in the streets.
From the second lines of New Orleans, an African-American community parade tradition that Matt Sakakeeny calls “a primary forum for ‘sounding back’ to the [city’s] unending economic and political disparity” along racial lines,23 to British women’s keening in protest of Ronald Reagan’s 1982 address to Parliament, to the wailing laments of Warao women in eastern Venezuela, which invert traditionally gendered power structures of public speech,24 embodied voices are repeatedly foregrounded in public displays of dissent. As Claire Tancons comments in her readings of contemporary protest tactics—including Pussy Riot’s punk prayers and OWS human microphones—decrying capitalism through carnivalesque tradition, struggles against the abstracted logics of today’s economic order might do well to channel the vigorous vocalities of Mardi Gras: “One cannot help but hope that…the carnival cosmology will supplant the exchange economy…allowing for a renewal of the senses atrophied by dematerialized financial transactions.”
1 “Research and development,” Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Research_and_development> (accessed April 30, 2014).
2 Thanks to Amalle Dublon for her articulation of this relationship during one of this spring’s R&D Seminar discussions on voice.
3 Frictions emerged around the designations of the pornographic act, too—interracial and anal—which the performer specified per their higher pay scale (thus representing a greater loss to her when freely distributed). Some audience members voiced their offense to the idea that nonreproductive, interracial sex acts were apparently deemed especially inappropriate for the performer’s child.
4 This information is taken from an interview with the author on April 9, 2014, for VOICE Registers. Listen to it here →. Victor also references nineteenth-century British politician and historian Thomas Babington Macaulay’s loaded remark on colonial education: “We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern, a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” Read it here →
5 Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005), 92.
6 Ngai, 2005, 117.
7 Spooner’s project debuted as a musical performance at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam on April 11, 2013; more recent versions were presented as part of Performa 13 in New York on November 8–10, 2013, and at Tate Modern in London on January 21, 2014; an extended film trailer was performed live to camera for BMW Tate Live: Performance Room on February 27, 2014. View it here →
8 Music Trades Review, n.d. (late 1906), quoted in Tim Brooks and Richard Keith Spottswood, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890–1919 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 65.
9 Mikhail Yampolsky, trans. Larry P. Joseph, October 64 (Spring 1993), 57–77.
10 Susan Sontag, introduction to Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), iii.
11 Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, (Lincoln [u.a.]: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 1989), 109–10.
12 This relationship of a white, male technological innovator to the specific capacities of otherwise marginalized individuals may be just as problematic as Thomas Edison’s with George Washington Johnson.
13 Listen to my interview with Hamdan for VOICE Registers here →
14 Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 27.
16 Significantly, the hyoid bone, which Victor cites as the interface between body and speaking tongue (see above), is also an area of focus in forensic investigations of strangulation. Fractures of the hyoid bone are seen in 17–71% of fatalities due to manual strangulation. See P. W. Fineron, J. A. Turnbull, and A. Busuttil, “Fracture of the Hyoid Bone in Survivors of Attempted Manual Strangulation,” Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 2, no. 4 (December 1995), 195–97.
17 At one point, Victor’s Dora also exhibits “a white, grey, and transparent substance resembling chiffon from all of her orifices to suggest her haunting or possession.”
18 Christof Migone, “(untitled performance), a lexicon of false starts and failed advances” in Writing Aloud: The Sonics of Language, eds. Brandon Labelle and Christof Migone, (Los Angeles: Errant Bodies Press, 2001).
19 Alex Pittman, “Dis-Assembly Lines: Gestures, Situations, and Surveillances,” Women & Performance 23, no. 2 (January 14, 2014).
20 Christian Marazzi, The Linguistic Nature of Money and Finance, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and Andrea Casson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 5.
21 Marazzi, 2014, 6, emphasis original.
22 This post chronicles a number of excerpts from the transcripts of the Federal Reserve’s 2008 policy meetings, as discovered by the New York Times reporters when the transcripts were released to the public in February of 2014. One particularly ironic comment was made by Dennis Lockhart of the Atlanta Fed in the aforementioned, convoluted discussion over the semantics of qualifying the rising inflation on March 18, 2008: “Mr. Chairman, if I understand the discussion about this, when you say ‘some indicators have risen somewhat,’ you are getting into territory that seems sort of mealy-mouthed.”
23 Matt Sakakeeny, “Resounding Silence in the Streets of a Musical City,” Space and Culture 9, no. 1 (February 1, 2006), 41–4.
24 For more on the cross cultural tradition of women’s laments, see my R&D Season blog post, “Keening in Parliament Square,” New Museum R&D Seasons: VOICE, February 24, 2014 →
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