Konstnärliga forskarskolan

Janna Holmstedt

Janna Holmstedt

Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, Umeå University


Explorations of Voice and A/Orality from Within a Visual Art Practice

In my work I explore the use of voice and what might be called an a/oral sensibility from within a visual art practice. A/orality is here meant to invoke a performative sense of sound language and it refers to aural aspects of hearing as well as to orality. My main interest is thus not oral performances and speech, but the presence of voice as such, its materiality as well as semantics, and how it structures audiovisual relations in concrete situations. [1]
One entry into this complex field is offered by the acousmatic voice, i.e. a voice without a body, and a special kind of being that composer and film theorist Michel Chion calls acousmêtre, an invisible character that can be heard but not seen. [2] If today acousmatic voices are mostly considered trivial and banal phenomena, they were before the advent of new media (such as telephone, gramophone, radio, and television) regarded as supernatural, divine, or as emanating from the dead. Both pre-recorded and synthetic voices are now increasingly being used in public, semi-public, as well as private contexts. We meet them in aircrafts, shopping malls, and private homes, through websites, smartphones, and consumer electronics. Strikingly often the disembodied voices we encounter – who kindly accompany, inform and domesticate us – are female, and in order to catch our attention they are often presented as characters. The acousmatic beings have thus escaped their usual frames (the cinema, computer game, therapy session, etc.) and entered everyday life. Due to this leakage and porosity, new audiovisual relations are formed.
Another point of entry is offered by the animal “voice”, and attempts to teach animals to speak English. There is a specific instance in the 1950-60s that I constantly tend to gravitate towards, where humanoid sounds were found to emanate from a most unlikely source. There were neither tongue, nor tonsils, nor velum, nor vocal cords, not even a mouth to form words with – still the animal had spoken.
I work with voices and sound compositions in found, or constructed environments, where the position of the audience (spectator, visitor, participant) is not fixed. This doctoral project will involve three performance installations; documentation in the form of photos, scores, transcripts, notes, and video; and writings that I, with Adrian Piper, choose to call meta-art. The aim is not to fix or exhaust the significance of an art work, or control the reception of it, but to examine its sociopolitical context from the first-person perspective, while at the same time reveal from where I speak. Meta-art becomes an ”organic barometer of societal pressure, customs, and assumptions in a broader sense than the art itself can encompass”, as Piper puts it. [3]

[1] The term a/oral is borrowed from Charles Bernstein (ed.), “Introduction”, Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 3-26.

[2] Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999.

[3] Adrian Piper, ”In Support of Meta-Art”, Out of Order, Out of Sight, Volume II: Selected Writings in Art Criticism, 1967-1992, Cambridge, MA and London: MIT Press, 1999, p. 20.


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