What is the best way to experience an exhibition? Go on your own? Go with family or friends? How about a visit with a complete stranger? Sounds a little awkward doesn’t it? Well to hell with awkward, I arranged to meet a complete stranger for a late night opening at the Wellcome Collection to see ‘This is a Voice’ as it enters the last few weeks.
When I say a complete stranger, it is true that I have never met my guest, but I have seen him at work at the V&A and a mutual friend confirmed to me he is very nice and not at all weird and probably quite open to the idea of visiting an exhibition with a stranger. So I am very excited and not a little nervous to meet Jason Singh, musician, composer, sound artist and beatboxer. He has agreed to come along and help me enter the world of the ‘voice’.
It was during a family day celebrating Persian New Year, Nowruz, at the V&A that I got to see Jason at work. He spent a residency at the V&A using the Iranian, Afghanistan and Middle Eastern collections as his inspiration. I watched him beatboxing with children, using technology to involve a new generation in a traditional museum/gallery space, and it was infectious and fun. I couldn’t think of a better companion to visit the Wellcome and happily he agreed to come along.
With very little pre-exhibiton warm up talk we decided to go straight into the exhibition. When you walk in you are surrounded by sound insulation, it is a weird feeling. Sound is muffled and close, Jason, stops, speaks and sings a note. He likes it because, as he says, ‘your voice is right here in front of you’. It is true and something I hadn’t really thought of, my voice feels very alive bounced back to me. You are suddenly very aware of sound, not only the sound you make but the sounds you hear too.
When you get past the entrance you are aware of all the noises in the exhibition, I think I have become more aware of ambient noise since my daughter was diagnosed with autism. Her sensitivity to sound has become my sensitivity to sound and I analyse how intrusive the noise is, how it makes me feel and I am always mentally assessing even when she is not with me whether she could cope.
It seems counterintuitive to walk in and read labels in an exhibition all about sound but I can’t help but be drawn to the written word. Tearing myself away from text I quiz Jason on how he became a ‘beatboxer’. We talk about a childhood full of music, where all his peers were breakdancing and beatboxing. But how does that become your ‘thing’. He talks about always listening, being so aware of sound and as a child trying to mimic and copy sounds, growing up with DJs. He talks about hearing the beatboxer Rahzel and experiencing the use of the voice on a completely different level.
We look at an incredibly beautiful Tibetan musical score, I appreciate it as a piece of art but I don’t understand it. Straight away Jason leans over the score, he is tracing the rise and fall with his fingers. Where I want to find the label to understand what I see, he uses his eyes and voice. He sings and follows the lilt up and down to separate what is the voice and what is percussion. I feel I have brought the right interpreter to help guide me in this exhibition.
I read on one of the explanation panels about ‘vocal mobbing’ how early humans would perform together by chorusing and synchronising their voices in order to appear larger in number to predators. I immediately think of the European football championships and the Icelandic football chant , the revelation of the 2016 finals. They may have been the smallest nation to ever qualify for a major final but you wouldn’t have know it from their incredible chanting fans.
I love listening to the Bayaka community, from the Central African Republic, and their ‘yeyi’ song a polyphonic type of yodelling. It reminds me of the Horniman Museum, but here I feel like a watcher or observer, curiously remote, I don’t feel as immersed in sound as I do at the Horniman.
We move on and walk into Marcus Coate’s Dawn Chorus I think Jason and I both feel it is one of the most effective and immersive parts of the exhibition. Large screens show individuals using their own voices to recreate birdsong in everyday locations. Jason has previously collaborated with the National Trust vocally recreating song birds and been on Countryfile discussing bird song so he is right at home. We talk about a Sufi poem – ‘The Conference of the Birds’ and how that has influenced Jason’s work. As I walk around the screens it is eerie, the video doesn’t match the birds song sounds and it is like watching some weird Dr Who episode where birds have replaced humans.
As we are standing there I hear somebody, a visitor, laughing in the background. It cuts through the other sounds in the exhibition clear as a bell and so very alive. It makes me realise how much I am focusing on sound but also how that vibrancy is perhaps missing from what I have seen so far.
Mikhail Karikis’ work is very interesting on how the face can transform the voice, in particular it makes me think about stroke victims and how a loss of muscle control can affect the spoken word. We talk about how music and sound can be so effective as therapy and Jason tells me of working with children and older people using the voice as a unifying force. I come across other work by Karikis on ‘Sounds from beneath’ collaborating with mining communities to recall and vocalise the industrial sounds from a working coal mine. It is fascinating to see sound and voice used in this way.
Sadly the more I see of the exhibition the more I find the text complicated and complex, the exhibition feels very passive, I am invited to make sounds in Emma Smith’s 5HZ (Language School) but I am too self-conscious to do so. The sounds from various different sections of the exhibition begin to feel invasive and overwhelming. I take some time out and slip on some headphones, I listen to Katarina Zdjelar’s – The Perfect Sound, it is an Accent Removal Training Session, the chanting of monosyllables over and over I find soothing and distracting.
There is a section on ‘unlocated voices’ and their role in psychological distress. It was brought up recently by a deaf colleague how profoundly deaf people can sometimes ‘hear voices’ as hands that are signing. I was fascinated by this but I could find nothing in the exhibition that touched on this topic. I have added a link at the end of the blog that explores this point further (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0707/07070303).
The last section felt like many strands being pulled together, but I am not sure if all the objects really made enough of a point, I found myself staring at an ‘amalgamated wireless’ with no real sense of why it was there. There were also displays contributed by young people who experience ‘heard voices’ but there was little explanation on the label just a direction to look at work on another level of the Wellcome Gallery. I felt slightly bemused by the display and felt an opportunity was missed, I have since read a blog on the display which gives more context but I felt this was missing to the visitor in that space at that time.
I caught Jason’s eye and I could see we both the felt the same way, overwhelmed with information and not quite sure how it was all coming together. We sought sanctuary outside in a quiet corner to compare impressions and I left feeling slightly flat and deflated. For Jason the exhibition felt like a very European, academic and socio-anthropological look at the voice. An approach that was so very far removed from his own, experiences, work and practice. He felt there was a distance put in by a view that place ‘these people’ at the end of a long lens in a way that separated the viewer from the voice and the experience of the voice.
For him the voice is a unifying and holistic force, one that unites those with and without words. His work is to take the voice, use complex technology and methods but make that work simply and easily so the viewer can connect. The voice is an emotional state, a body that resonates with sound but he felt neither inspired or intrigued. Sadly I have to agree, the exhibition felt like an academic abstraction not a personal connection.
But that does not mean to say you shouldn’t visit, in fact it means you should try and get to ‘This is a Voice’ before it closes at the end of July. One opinion is simply one voice and not one that will be shared by all.
For me the best part was when Jason looked at the Tibetan script and brought it alive for me right at the start of the exhibition. No need to read the accompanying text, no need for complex language, just someone who lives and breathes sound and music conveying a different culture in a few notes.
My first experiment in taking a stranger to an exhibition has been so enlightening and made such a difference to my experience that I have no doubts I will repeat the performance. So don’t worry if I contact you out of the blue, we may have never met but we have time do so and I have a great idea for an exhibition opening soon…
‘This is a Voice’ runs till 31 July 2016.
For more information on ‘This is a Voice’ at the Wellcome Collection please see the website – https://wellcomecollection.org/thisisavoice
To find out more about Jason and his work please see his website –
Jason Singh – https://thesinghthing.com
Jason’s V&A residency http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/s/jason-singh/
Countryfile and Jason Singh https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCgYvJqAokw
National Trust and Jason Singh – Music to tweet to http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/the-sounds-of-spring—music-to-tweet-to
Further links and resources –
Beatboxer Razhel – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifCwPidxsqA
Icelandic Football chant – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLP6087ETwY
Bayaka women from Central African Republic singing yeyi http://pittrivers-sound.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/stunning-recording-of-bayaka-women.html
Marcus Coates – Dawn Chorus – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCCpnDtgxXk
Exploring how deaf people ‘hear’ voice-hallucinations – UCL – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0707/07070303
Wellcome Collection blog – Voice Hearing Project – https://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/voice-hearing-project