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Installation view from THIS IS A VOICE with works by Katarina Zdjelar, Lawrence Abu Hamdan and Chris Chapman. Courtesy: Wellcome Collection, London. Photograph: Leon Chew.
A Chorus of Icaros: On ’This is a Voice’ at Wellcome Collection

An icaro is a sacred chant sung or whistled by shamans of Amazonian tribes during ceremonies for imbibing ayahuasca. Though they do contain some words, they have no intelligible meaning as they come from dreams, visions and states of consciousness which are a consequence of the consumption of "master plants". Icaros go much further than their etymology and their power lies in the voice that intones them: what really matters is the intonation, the vibration of the vocal chords, the elasticity and volume of the sounds. In this regard, when voicing an icaro the shaman is able to charge an object or potion with energy, imbuing them with some specific property to be transmitted to the receiver. According to the ritual, the shamans’ voices become instruments through which nature is materialised and imparted to the objects, with the icaro being the conduit for the energy.

The material quality of the voice independently of the word is explored as the driving force and thread running through the latest exhibition held at the Wellcome Collection in London. The show invites visitors to follow an organised, though not necessarily linear walkthrough in which the whole range of the potential of the voice is examined, drawn from the concept of prosody, which is to say, the study of the elements of speech that are not phonetic segments like vowels and consonants, but are higher units such as accent or intonation and which affect the syllable, the word or indeed a whole sentence.

Similarly to what happens in shamanic rituals, the message of this exhibition is not going to be conveyed through words alone. This is a Voice is conceived to be experienced with all the senses—to be heard, to be touched, to be seen— by means of a continuous flow of echoes, of elastic vibrations that emerge from each one of the pieces, shifting the spotlight away from language. The exhibition’s curatorial gesture vouches for a spatial lightness that strikes up a dialogue with the spectator in a number of the different sections punctuating the walkthrough. Besides artworks, these blocks contain various historic-scientific materials like, for instance, anatomical models of the larynx, manuscripts and illustrated texts that talk about the voice, a primitive medical tool to study the phonatory apparatus, or nineteenth century oriental treatises on laryngology. Taken together, they help to show how the question of the voice has been a constant concern throughout the history of thought as an agent independent from the word. One ought to bear in mind that the Wellcome Collection is an institution with a scientific remit that looks on art as yet another form of expanding knowledge, using it as a node to understand phenomena of reality and bringing it under discussion alongside other disciplines.

The spatio-sensorial dialogue is activated from the very moment we cross the threshold of the exhibition hall. We are immediately met by an empty corridor covered with the aseptic-looking insulating material one finds in recording studios. For the most part silent, this kind of place is designed so that the sole focus is on the voice and its rendering. This initial encounter emits the first sensorial warning sign, invoking more than just our sense of sight, as is usually the case with most exhibitions. We haven’t come here just to look.

After this statement of intent, the introduction to the exhibition goes back to the voice as the source of primeval communication. For instance, lullabies are shown to be an initial form of non-verbal correspondence that affects the development of the ego, as demonstrated in an issue of The Skin Ego (1989) by the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu. In it, he gives an account of how the lullaby’s ‘envelop of sounds’ contains the infant’s emerging ego like a kind of protective skin which one could view as a replacement for the mother’s womb. Showing on a screen next to the display case containing the documentation of lullabies are a number of polyphonic choral songs from the Bayaka tribes that reproduce the sounds of the forest with their throats. These historiographic pieces are exhibited alongside a multisensorial display in which works of art introduce the voice as an autonomous instrument. A good example is Circular Song (1974) by Joan La Barbara in which the artist vocalises a series of patterns in inhaling and exhaling exercises inspired by circular breathing techniques. The piece is presented through a kind of speaker-cum-umbrella in which visitors place themselves to receive a sound shower that amplifies their perception. Next we come across Dawn Chorus (2007), an installation by Marcus Coates that marks an interesting moment within the overall exhibition given that it is slap in the middle of the visitor’s path and must be crossed through. Yet far from being perceived as an interruption, this stop along the path activates the following warning sign for the spectator, the following icaro that is impressed on his/her memory. In this work a number of screens show a series of individuals in different urban locations. The people are imitating birdsong with their voices. The sounds confuse the visitor and produce an auditory paradox that comes from a unique digital technique developed by the artist: we see people but we hear—or recognise—birds. The sound, although lacking verbal language, produces a communicative act that helps us to decode, for instance, the time frame involved. We have no idea what the people are saying but we do know that a bird normally sings at dawn.

After this stop on our path and perceiving the first clues, our disposition as spectators has changed; we are now ready to receive other kinds of stimuli. This is when the exhibition opens up through a series of micro-installations that invite us to explore the space with the purpose of presenting different approaches to the non-verbal elements that define communication: coughing, laughing, shouting... all those acts which we think of as being spontaneous are critical within the performative ritual that facilitates communication between individuals. This is illustrated to perfection in Emily (2012), a video by the Bosnian artist Danica Dakic. In it, a young deaf girl is practising the ‘elocution’ of her gestures when speaking sign language with her teacher. The intensity of her gaze and her hand movements become elements in a choreography that curtails spontaneity. Once again, non-verbal communication engages the spectator’s sensuality in order to seep its way into his unconsciousness.

At the same time, the speed of Focus (2012), a video by Sam Belinfante, takes us by surprise within this otherwise unhurried walkthrough for the intensity of the physical demands it depicts. The piece shows the vocalist Ellen Mitchener exercising her voice before a performance: in this workout she uses her whole body and requires such physical preparation that we are led to believe that the singer is warming up her muscles as if she were getting ready for a race. Another example of the extenuated body, though materialised from another optic, is Castrato (2012-16) by Imogen Stidworthy which delves into the world of bel canto, the realm par excellence of vocal pirouettes and manipulation. A circular space brings together the voices of three opera singers which are overlaid in order to reproduce the coloratura of castrati. The sensation of inhabiting a device capable of reproducing a voice that only exists in our imagination—in the stories of Farinelli—makes us aware the extent to which the voice is misleading and able to deceive. Surprise and disbelief are added to the set of clues uncovered by This is a Voice.

The systematised ritual or ceremony involved in every visit to an exhibition is challenged at this point of the route in which we have already become aware of the tricks intrinsic to the voice. This provocation is evoked in situ through a change in the curatorial remit, presenting a spatial overflow reminiscent of a cabinet of curiosities that initially strikes one as overwhelming. This overflow has a generative root in the concept of ‘egophony’, a medical condition that often reveals a lung condition and which is produced when a patient is asked to say the letter ‘e’ but the sound transmitted is a nasal ‘a’, like the bleating of a goat. The confusion caused by this medical condition is used as a metaphor to question our ability to identify the voice and its interconnections with personality and the subject. It is beyond all question that the voice tends to be personified, and is understood as an individual and defining feature of the human being. However, as we can see in the previous exercises, the voice is also a deceptive instrument full of subtle nuances that are much more than just lexical. In this sense, there is one question that hovers over the whole space: What does our voice say about us?

A display case co-curated by the artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan and the exhibition curator Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, presents a group of works, with a special mention for An Unspeakable Act (2012): the story of Mohamad, an undocumented asylum seeker from Palestine living in the UK. In the piece, the artist Abu Hamdan portrays the central figure who is facing deportation as a result of an accent test he was subjected to by the public authorities to verify his origins. According to the people in charge of the test, Mohamad pronounced three words with a suspect accent, and this was sufficient motive to consider the possible solution of deporting him. The voice, inasmuch as an element in communication, exists in function of a system of signifieds that affect our understanding. That system and has to do with the way in which reality is coded over and above language. The internal structure that enables its very construction to be analysed is what Foucault called the episteme. This foucaultian concept is related with the frame of knowledge of each given period and how this is susceptible to power and to a specific notion of truth. This is borne out by the piece about Mohamad, in which we are shown how cultural constructs like accent are able to be used as evidence in a value judgement, becoming mechanisms in themselves and whose particularities are applied when it comes to classifying the individual. But if we consider the voice as an autonomous entity that is removed from the body and language to be used as a tool for analysis and evaluation, can it operate without us? And, can the voice divorce itself from the subject?

Historically, the sources from which the voice emerges have determined its message and its content: the voice of God, the voice of experience, the voice of the people... Nevertheless, today the voice is undergoing a process of delocalisation within the digital era. Any device or machine can speak but, does our way of reacting to this voice remain unchanged? Ideas such as obedience, understanding or communication are disrupted. Now in its final stretch, the exhibition presents a series of material that reveal the currency of this phenomenon: Francis Barraud’s painting His Master’s Voice (1919) in which a dog listens obediently to a speaker that reproduces his master’s voice; the scene from The Wizard of Oz (1939) in which the main characters discover that what they believed to be an all-powerful wizard is no more than an old man with a machine that alters his voice; or, finally, the piece Conversations with Eliza (2011) by the artist Steven Cottingham, a conversation with a machine that emulates a Rogerian psychotherapist who restructures answers into questions in order to stimulate a conversation. Having arrived at this point, the voice is disembodied and exists almost as an autonomous entity in its own right. The voice is separated from the human and somehow it becomes what Donna Haraway defined as a cybernetic organism, a being able to act by itself, that can be fictitious and does not necessarily belong to a body. Haraway uses the example of the cyborg to frame an organism somewhere between man and machine that does not require distinction and does not fit into predefined categories.

This is a Voice announces the past and the future of the voice from a contemporary context, yet it does not incur in the mistake of narrating a discursive score, in other words, it does not construct a reductionist narrative that tries to illustrate a concept in the universal language of art. This exhibition outlines a path full of clues coming from polysemous works that reject a unique code of representation. The inquisitive visitor to This is a Voice has in his/her hand the tools to unravel the particularities of the voice that, in one way or another, appeal to the codes of communication. Chorus (2016) by Matthew Herbert is the piece that brings the circuit to a close and operates as the perfect culmination for the show. Herbert invites the spectator to participate in a simultaneous cacophonic recording that combines all the vocal pitches of the visitors in an exercise that gathers a single note, a sound that is multiplied and amplified ad infinitum and can be experienced in the recording booth at Wellcome Collection, at the stage door of the Royal Opera House, or on the following link. As we said at the beginning of this text, the voices of the Amazonian shamans try to express nature and its material quality through their chants. On this occasion, Chorus becomes an icaro and recalls the sound of a vast waterfall that, similarly to the rest of the works in the exhibition, is transformed into a vehicle for its own energy. I invite the reader to navigate these sounds, to decipher the raw and impetuous experience of a voice without words.

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