In many respects, Marcus Coates’ installation here acts as a miniature emblem of THIS IS A VOICE in its entirety. “Dawn Chorus” is a multi-screen ensemble of individuals in isolated settings: in the bath, at the breakfast table, in a doctor’s waiting room, in a stationary car. By having these people imitate slowed-down birdsong and then speeding up the recordings back up to the original pitch, Coates generates a striking emulation of a full-blown dawn chorus, nonchalantly embedded into the fabric of an ordinary morning in human society. Perhaps their jubilant swoops and chirps are probes in search of eachother, using sound to lunge forth from the source of emission in a manner that the screen image cannot. Or perhaps, like the individual installations that loudly and obliviously converse across the entire Wellcome Collection exhibition space, each voice exists for its own selfish sake; a set of circadian proclamations and existential affirmations, thrown together via the geo-corruptive powers of technology.
The space is loud. Too loud. The works run into eachother and slosh into one, forming a rainforest of infantile raspberries, operatic voices, subdued murmurs and animal chatter. Yet the longer I’m here, the better I become at wading through the noise to focus on each work in turn. Within the murk of displaced sighs and vowels, I fixate on the output of an individual mind; a solitary larynx; a single pair of vocal cords. It takes a good 15 minutes before I feel ready to grant the exhibition my full concentration, recalibrating my background noise threshold to accommodate the fierce sonic commotion of the room.
Amidst such sonic disarray, it’s an absolute pleasure to hear something as structurally elegant as Meredith Monk’s “Dolmen Music”, which is an overlap of open phonemes and absent beginnings, spinning playfully around the anchorage of the cello. And then there are the polyphonic voices of the Bayaka community from the Central African Republic (as recorded by Louis Sarno). Unlike the oblivious collisions of Coates’ Dawn Chorus, these melodies overlap and bounce off eachother with a beautiful, reflexive harmonic awareness, entwining like a multi-strand helix and leaping into bird-like whistles of falsetto.
In a similarly mesmeric vocal feat, Joan La Barbara’s spirals of circular breathing twirl and double-back like a dolphin in play, fragmented by the momentary seam between inhale and exhale. It’s like having a coloured dye introduced to the respiratory process, as I find myself surreally aware of the labour within air intake and expulsion. Even in the case of a solo performance such as this, the voice exists as a collaboration between the elements and processes of a solitary body (in this case, the life-giving synergy of breathing in and out). With Mikhail Karikis, vocal timbre is celebrated as an ensemble of interconnected muscular winches and pulleys – the scrunch of the forehead and wrinkling lips during a forced raspberry, or the raised eyebrows and gaping jaw of strange, drowsy vowels.
But of course, the voice is not simply a product of muscular actions in the present tense, as highlighted by Imogen Stidworthy’s “Castrato”. Her piece is titled after the vocal type of the same name, which was historically achieved through the rigorous training and physical castration of young boys, preventing the pubescent maturation of the larynx. As three vocal types (male treble, countertenor, female soprano) intertwine and slide across eachother in angelic, anti-gravity pirouettes, I’m reminded that the voice is often a signature of physique, age and vocal organ maturity as much as present-tense expression, profoundly shaped by those physical characteristics to which we are helplessly beholden.
Similarly, our ability to hear or not hear – and by extension, our ability to vocally communicate – may be defined by factors beyond our control. “Emily” by Danica Dakić is a short video of a young deaf girl during a singing lesson, as she obeys instructions to adjust her hand gestures and facial expressions in order to perfect the delivery of each phrase. Her eyes are fixed in bold, unbroken concentration as she enacts the ballet of hand movements, while her teacher (off screen, situated behind the lens) corrects the intricacies of finger placement and arm positioning, paralleling the painstaking finessing of vibrato and pitch. In another striking demonstration of the voice adopting an entirely different form, the digital head of Anna Barnham’s “Liquid Consonant” mimics Greek words through computerised phonetics: dehydrated crackles, the buzz of bad electronic connection, the twirl of digital coins of a glass table top. It’s a strange and somewhat alienating sound, yet perhaps due to the supposed mimicry of human vocabulary, I feel compelled to persevere in my listening. Something tells me that the “words” I hear reside just beyond my ability to comprehend them. Perhaps if I strain hard enough?
Deep within the Wellcome Centre’s main exhibition space, I encounter several installations that examine the potential roles of the voice outside of artistry and inter-person communication. In “The Inner Voice” by Asta Grötting, ventriloquists engage their dummies in conversations about the self, mortality and doubt. In this scenario, the dummy is not so much a fabricated personality as an externalisation of those thoughts that fire the very depths of the mind, whose warmth courses through even the inanest gestures and yet is seldom directly confronted in real-world conversation. I watch ventriloquists undertake acts of intimate self-therapy, turning inner conflict into cathartic dialogues with the hidden, quietly orchestrative shape of their inner self. “The Avatar Therapy For Distressing Voices” by Chris Chapman seems to document a similar process, as therapy subjects use a digital avatar to externalise the less desirable, often demoralising aspects of their personality. The therapist controls the avatar from a separate room, allowing the subject to confront the digitalised spectre of their fears and concerns. The fact that the avatars remain digital in nature – possessing eyes, hair, nose and mouth, but undeniably pixelated and inhuman – gives them an air of transience; they are a lesser, non-concrete reflection, whose rationale feels weak and fleeting in contrast to the rich, corporeal tone of the human voice. Here, the voice reveals itself to be a highway of bidirectional travel: outward to project the abstract concepts of the mind and the primal urges of the body, and inward as an affirmation of material being, using vibration to enliven the particles that comprise flesh and self, reassuring the body of its own existence.
THIS IS A VOICE runs until July 31st at Wellcome Collection, London. For more information, go here – wellcomecollection.org/thisisavoice