Text by Beverley Knowles
In the feature length documentary film centred around Marina Abramovic's 2010 MoMA performance retrospective ‘The Artist Is Present’, Klaus Biesenbach, apparently quoting Marina, tells us that the difference between performance art and theatre is that “when you perform you have a knife and it's your blood, when you are acting it's ketchup and you don't cut yourself.” Even though this is undoubtedly a simplification it feels comforting to have a clear definition, language creating the illusion of safety in separateness.
Answering my probably somewhat banal question along similar lines, “what is the difference between sound art and experimental music?” artist and curator Sam Belinfante generously provides me with an equally well thought through and appealing sound bite. Sound art (I paraphrase) suggests an artist inviting other artists, musicians, etc to assist her or him in the realisation of her or his idea, whereas experimental music implies a group of artists and musicians working together in a collaborative spirit, towards an egalitarian creative goal.
As a starting point at least I found it helpful to keep this definition in mind when thinking about ‘The Voice and the Lens’, a four day festival and exhibition at Ikon Gallery, curated by Sam Belinfante and Ed McKeon, the latter of music production company Third Ear. Neat little boxes can be misleading if taken too literally, but we do so long for them.
For ‘The Voice and the Lens’ the curators have selected five artists with an interest in sound and the voice, paired each with a creative vocalist and asked them, in their sets of two, to explore the voice as both subject and medium. In this way five newly commissioned works have come into being that will occupy the First Floor Galleries at Ikon and will be neither sound art nor experimental music but something in between the two, expanding notions of performance and collaboration into new territory.
Upstairs will be a series of what Belinfante refers to as 'mute images'. The title is, in part, a play on words, images being by definition mute whilst these particular images will imply sound via the imagination of the viewer. Interestingly, everyday language becomes tricky in the sphere of art works whose primary concern is auditory, its subjective nature revealed. Technically speaking can we refer to a 'viewer'? Is this an exhibition we will go to 'see'? These linguistic ructions neatly point towards some of the notions the exhibition is exploring: the fallible and visual-centric nature of language and the role of voice created sound in a space beyond or without language.
Sam Taylor-Wood's ‘Mute’ is the earliest work on show, a six and a half minute video close-up of a man singing opera with the sound removed, from 2001. The work makes the power of sound apparent through its absence. That which evokes such profound emotional activity in the singer, we the viewer (if you will) cannot hear. We have a strong sense of it but it is not available to us. The result is a strange disconnectivity, by turns cartoonish and pathetic. ‘Mute’, Belinfante admits almost by way of confession, is the work that inspired the show and by default much of his work of the last few years concerning music and the language-less voice. Belinfante's own photographic work for this show, ‘Aperture’, is a series of seven stills that visually record the artist performing an ascending scale, the changing shape of the mouth mimicking the camera's aperture widening as it lets in gradually more and more light. Aperture was his response, homage perhaps, to Taylor-Wood's film.
A different trick after similar ends has been employed by artist Kathryn Faulkner. Faulkner has used a CymaScope, a device that generates an image in response to sound vibrations passed through it, to create ‘My Voice, Chanting’ (2009). The syllable the artist has chosen to engage is 'om', the mystical sound of the universe in various Eastern philosophical and religious traditions, believed by some to be the vibration of divine consciousness and all that is. When recorded by the CymaScope however the vibrational quality is lost, its effects preserved visually. In so doing the result, again, is alienation, a sense of absence and loss that perversely highlights the profound nature of sound and at the same time our conscious unawareness of its omnipresent and perhaps even transcendent nature.
Whilst we're speaking - on the telephone ironically, a medium that allows one to hear but neither see nor feel the person with whom one is attempting communication - Belinfante, who is currently working on a PhD in Fine Art at Leeds University, quotes Nietzsche, Derrida and Lacan. My sense is that as well as being an aesthetically interesting show, this will also be heavily theoretical for those wishing to approach it in such a way. Mladen Dolar, in his book first published in 2006, ‘A Voice and Nothing More’, posits the voice as not so much an “anthropomorphic masquerade of thinking” but as “the lever of thought”, the active, that is to say, rather than the passive component in the relationship between the individual and the world. This seems to me to be a profoundly radical notion that necessarily casts its radicalism over Belinfante's exhibition. If the voice controls thought rather than thought controlling the voice then it is surely something we should be paying meaningful attention to.