Dr ALLAN HARKNESS
Voicing Statues : The Sound Art of Juha Valkeapää
Isn't it the truth of the voice to be hallucinated, isn't the entire space of the voice an infinite one. Roland Barthes
A name is no proof of the reality of the referent that bears it. Jean-François Lyotard
'Voicing Statues' is an essay (in the sense favoured by Theodor Adorno) which attempts to recognise the textual tensions of particular pieces of sound art, Juha Valkeapää's vocalisations. It does so partly as a reminder of the rhizomatous development of post-Conceptual and post-Minimalist art far beyond the sensitive and sensible eye of the rational subject.
Don Ihde and Michel de Certeau's theoretical frames, in which perceptual multistability, semantic possibility, gestalt awareness and evaluation of auditory experience move alongside a critique of legibility and instrumentality, help both to counter ocularcentrism (one of Marcel Duchamp's targets) and to defend text as an historical condition of our bodies as a whole , not as a form of linguistic domination.
What Valkeapää's vocal pieces release of surprise and joy, their ludic excess, turns upon the forgotten drama of sound within voice within language : they feel at once lyrical and anti-lyrical, creative and destructive in the open moment of their reception. The vocal improvisations stall us on our way, deconstructing the space of enunciation. They offer perspectival variations which open the space of naming and of object relations to something different, an elsewhere, a regenerative metamorphosis of sound-space and our time altered, slowed, interiorised as both particular and expansive experience. Voicing name, object, interior space, city textures, often figure and ground reverse. The vocal piece moves from work to text, art as instrument of a vast otherness : sound within voice within language. Text, following Roland Barthes, can be understood as 'that which goes to the limit of the rules of enunciation (rationality, readability, etc.)' a non-hierarchical, circulating 'space where no language has a hold over any other'(Barthes,1977:157,164).
In Helsinki, Budapest, Kiev, Prague, Zagreb, Reykjavik, Calgary, Valkeapää the neo-situationist has played displacement and condensation(2) for cultural migrants, techno nomads, late modernity's passers-by, challenged severally by carnivalesque bodies, technological cadres of information capital , and all the orders of entertainment. In 'Salomo' (8th June) and in 'Agricola', language and history, respectively, are the bearers of myth's transformatory energies in the performer's voice. 'Salomo' of the Namedays series, 'Agricola' facing the system of writing with the voice, the Calgary 'City Talk' objects, these are our text. Valkeapää has offered us guidance :
I talk about my solos as vocal pieces. They are either free or scripted improvisations. They are almost wordless ; human voice, voicing and singing, plays the star role. The vocal pieces are born into a place. They don't remain neutral to the space, the space becomes an instrument. (www.kolumbus.fi/juha.valkeapaa/aani)
There is a post-Minimalist air to this hybrid practice ; situated, materialist, live, structured for chance discoveries, making strange the familiar building, object, name, street or city. The street actions are the toughest, a stage of togetherness and opposition. The urban field of sound is harsh, obscuring the horizon.
The ground of these vocal pieces is in dramaturgy. Beginnings, middles, ends; faint, broken religious rituals, relics staged in sound. Sometimes they seem unstaged endocepts, a term used by Joseph Beuys in describing his own psychoanalytical and historical actions : modern broken unities. Valkeapää, the figure with the plastic tubes and an old megaphone, a portable amplifier strapped to his back, is classically trained for the hopes and ruins that are the street in 'City Walks' and statue talks.
The universities of Helsinki, Athens and Budapest, along with the human voice, improvisation and rune singing workshops of the Sibelius Academy, Roy Hart Centre and Theatre School of Finland all prepared the ground. A decade of studies in Theatre Science, Hungarian language and culture, plus translation studies all helped form the artist's solo practice. It comes too from the tensions of literary work, Valkeapää the translator of a novel, short stories, plays and anthropological writings from Hungarian to Finnish, poetry, short stories and film dialogue from the Greek to Finnish. As a collaborator on sound installations, radio theatre works and experimental dance choreography, vocal theatre prepared the way for the performance art vocalisations.
Rune singing and a Kalevala(3) live soundscape are signs, too, of a practice partly rooted in folk poetry's elements and structures : forest, trees, birds, winds speak. Phenomenologically, in the street actions, things have voices. The archaic mythopoeic veil of story falls in place through feeling and tempo. The hot running improvisations make a strange, slow surfacing : things are encountered as the unconscious of a culture, this time as language within voice within sound.
The artist's themes fuse questions of gender, territory, age, history, time. Project titles include Getting Old, Boy, Boy's Toys, Spring, Summer, Portraits, Siberia. The thread of connection is separation, the play of 'here-there', the embodied recovery, ritual remembrance. The purest myth was a vocal piece in the Museum of Cultures, Helsinki, 'Song of Two Men Who are Cut in their Navels', based upon an exclamation, kajjajjuujig, used in totemistic Bear rituals of the Hantis and Mansis people. The linguistic and analytic driving force, for a time, was his son's babbling. In each of the two pieces to follow, Namedays, 'Salomo' (8th June) and 'Agricola', Valkeapää sounds culture in a one-word act of poiesis(4).
'Salomo' : a phonetic transcription of this piece would hide the voice of language in it - our primordial being in the world - yet we must acknowledge its formal, material arrangements gathered into a wholeness.
ts/z ä l o m o
These voiced or unvoiced vowels and consonants are exercised, taken far beyond the linguist's distinctive function (in naming) to unlock mood, colour, metaphoric migrations. Timing, voice quality and timbre, modality factors of pitch, durational variety, perspectival depth and fluctuation raise 'the grain of the voice'(5) in the full chamber of head, chest, throat, mouth, nose.
The multidimensional play of frontal consonants and back vowels, from the early jogging-pace repetitions of Zalo - Zalo's tuneful resonance, to slides from vowel to dipthong, to the hovering, aqueous lateral-fricative [l] and its near disappearance, to the imploding voiced nasal [m] sounds toward the end of the piece create an overlay of textures, movements, tensions. Breath, volume, tempo conduct the listener who is near the foregrounded human voice, caught in the dynamics of rough, soft, loud, lax, those sudden releases or intakes of air and resonating, buzzing sounds. When the chance barking and mimicry occurs, with laughter and resumed fricative-plosive play, animal-human, then masculine-feminine orders of low and high, centred assertion or intimacy, seem less anxious questions of the mother tongue's materiality.
Parts run down to breaking point, breathing becomes strained, difficult, then frantic buzzing gives a great sense of movement. The high pitch [mo] [mo], like ma-ma, with the suggestion of reduplication, appears the voice of infancy, but also female. The stretching of the [o] sound, a gutteral and throaty voice playing with the vowel, makes it almost a consonant. Painful, breathy repetition suggestive of labour, birthing, occurs before melody reappears in more variety. As with the animal encounter, there is another moment of imitation and active posturing when 'a rock singer' surfaces through suddenly alternating intonation. The end sounds are those of pathos, questioning, vulnerability, the whole name with the final phoneme stretched faintly.
In 'Salomo', we encounter the voicing of a nameday (8th June), in the manner of a temporal-cultural activation : interpellated, called forth from the sedimented layers of culture, from Biblical stories and legends of the pre-Lutheran saints calendar, to friendship, fame or the everyday name-habitus, to the diurnal theatre of time, Valkeapää's vocalisation performs the mythological energy of name itself. This is where the marvellous meets the domesticated and familiar, where uncanny repetition and doubling faces the singular and unique, where a hazy memory of primordial attachment to the world both troubles the 'Adamic power' (Ihde, 1986 : 27) over things in naming and destroys flat functionalism in the order of information and legibility.
In the essay 'A Phenomenology of Voice', Ihde addresses voice for a culture which has become reductive of the auditory because of the hegemony of visual experience. Each variation of language offers a new metaphor, and that in turn holds open semantic possibility (productive imagination), in his exploration of how we hear, then speak, how we feel our voice's resonance and cadence within our body, how things have voice through material, through shape and dimension, and through spatial bearings. Ihde writes of a multiplicity of voices : animals' expression of others and environment in self-reflexive sound, the voice of things as instruments, the human voice's multidimensionality and artifice, dramaturgical voice from ritual to play-acting, recorded voice, the sound of poetry as opposed to information. His figure-ground gestalt alerts us to how sound involves and distances us, how our senses structure a whole world in perceiving near and far, or particular and vast complexities of texture and of space. In his advocacy of thinking by means of alternations and reversals, through 'multistable possibilities'(1986:40), naming is never neutral.
Valkeapää's vocalisation in the Namedays piece 'Salomo' occupies colourfully the territory of Ihde's thinking on voice. The latter writes: 'Perhaps only for moments do we come face to face with that which is truly other, and then we give it a name, domesticating it into our constant interpretation which centres us in the world'(1986:28). Valkeapää traces this mysterious face to face expectation from within the name, tries to find it - the primordial sense of being in the world - within the phoneme-play of the nameday. Ihde writes : 'Perhaps only rarely do we feel ourselves shaken in our predispositions, such that the other breaks through in the voices of the world'(1986:29). True artists always unnerve our predispositions, helping us to a perception in the folds of metaphor. This breakthrough that reveals is 'centre' for Ihde. Moving 'towards the centre', he writes :
The voices of language [which] are the position from which we experience the world. I have suggested that precisely because this is where we live and breathe and transform breath into more than breath, into voiced speech, that we have difficulty understanding this centre. So given as this centre is, so familiar and taken for granted, and for precisely that reason so opaque, it is not without reason that we humans have turned to often fruitless speculations about the origins of language.(1986:36)
He alerts us here to the danger of binary simplification over the literal and symbolic : literal descriptive naming for some linguists/theorists is origin, metaphoric multiple signification the opposing, competing theory. No doubt there are times when we need the name to mean one thing, yet the field and the horizon of meaning shift like light and colour around that very need. Whilst 'we cannot find, return to, or isolate a first word'(1986:37), in Ihde's view, or a final word, according to the poetic and excavatory principles of deconstruction (the law of the supplement), there is always the live matter of the welcome or right word, as we join 'the already full voices of language and [how] we might find our centre there'(1986:37). For Valkeapää, the word's welcome is in the voicing, a slow activation of a revealing.
Ihde, thinking of how 'expression doubled upon itself'(1986:35) opens possibilities - not least through irony, sarcasm, humour - listens to the force of feeling, necessity and loss (the triadic elements of desire) at the centre, in a manner which seems to connect existential phenomenology to non-anthropocentric ecosophy :
For with animals, as with humans, voice is an active expressing of relations with others and the environment. Voice changes the way we so relate and frees us from the limited territory of the unuttered. There is a kind of auditory migration which begins with voice, even in the kingdom of animals. (1986:36)
Writing, a different, strategic visual embodiment of language, may often hide or obscure the voiced self. Even worse, reduced to a speedy flow of information, writing can make us forget the richness of auditory experience. Unexpected companions, Ihde and Valkeapää, from different directions, the latter sometimes on 'holiday from the brain of reason'(6), both engage us in 'the full richness and range of the auditory'(Ihde,1986:43). Each helps us learn to listen, not just hear.
The impossibility of the latter makes it an equivocal piece with regard to Mikael Agricola (1510-1557), a student of Martin Luther who went on to become a moderate, reforming Bishop of Turku. It was Agricola who first translated the New Testament into Finnish. He is generally regarded by the Finns as the creator of written Finnish as well the first Suomi alphabet : Agricola, the systematiser of a writing code. His statue (unseen) must have a peculiarly dialectical charge of the Word made legible to each in the tongue of the national subject, a modern code which alternates between controlling force and literary self-governance : charged too with a memory of rich, spoken dialects, less regulated sound, forests, lakes, islands of invisible exchanges. This helps us think of Valkeapää walking in spatial-historical urban actions, in this instance on the cusp of modernity : the vocalisation as a spatial practice, one in which 'to walk is to lack a place'(de Certeau,1984:103). The polymorphous intensity of the unsurfaced word in 'Agricola' is that strong.
Michel de Certeau, in The Practice of Everyday Life, offers us a discourse upon values concerned with the stylistic metamorphosis of space. Juha Valkeapää's vocalisations as temporal-spatial practices can be heard to advantage, if we chart de Certeau's own mapping of urban walking rhetorics onto verbal discourse and the power of dreams (displacement and condensation).
Arguing for freedom in opacities which counter 'the totalising eye', de Certeau's city is both the machine and hero of modernity, but it is in decay, part of the order of "places in which one can no longer believe in anything"(1984:106) (7). The product of a technological elite, state or corporate systems of planning and administration, the city is felt as the culmination of 'a scopic and gnostic drive'(1984:92) to control unruly complexities of all kinds. Legibility, the key factor of a carceral concept city, alongside transparency and elevated distance, make it a place of urban reason, collective appropriation, distribution and signification. It has sights on mastering an uncertain future through slavish service and risk management. De Certeau writes : 'the city, like a proper name, thus provides a way of conceiving and constructing space on the basis of a finite number of stable, isolatable and interconnecting properties'(1984:94).
Valkeapää's vocalisations are akin to the opaque mobility which constitutes ordinary resistances to such arenas of legibility. They come from what the Jesuit-Lacanian theorist of resistant opacities of hope calls 'the dark space where crowds move back and forth'(1984:92), from the past, from 'below the threshold of visibility'(1984:93), from the body's movement to some anonymous, mysterious law. They come, de Certeau ventures, from a condition of possession in a 'bewitching world'(1984:92). When we listen with closed eyes, we are blind to readable identity, polluted, lapsed, drifting listeners who 'elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised'(1984:96). Considering the walk-talk vocal pieces in this light, voicing statues and objects creates a space of 'indeterminable and stubborn resistances'(1984:94).
De Certeau, as noted, asserts that 'to walk is to lack a place'. Voicing the name is a rhetorical walk in language such that we can say with Nietzsche : 'I am all the names in History'(8), released from slavish servitude, capable of an act of re-appropriation, re-distribution, re-signification. The proper name or the place, too, in de Certeau, is 'haunted by a nowhere or by dreamed-of places' (1984:103), conjuring up the vastness, the Siberia let us imagine, of one of Valkeapää's recent pieces for the Helsinki Museum of Cultures (9).
De Certeau's stylistic figures or rhetorical tropes are synecdoche and asyndeton, part for whole and gap, cut, disjunctive discontinuity, respectively. Voicing 'Salomo' and 'Agricola', Valkeapää fragments and miniaturises whole worlds, blasts normative speech with omissions which open onto an 'inaccessible beyond'(de Certeau,1984:97). Even in the choice of name , a significant act of re-articulation, he is "the user of a city", who "picks out certain fragments of the statement in order to actualise them in secret"(1984:98) (10). If legibility 'causes a way of being in the world to be forgotten'(1984:97), Valkeapää's vocal pieces contradict such alien reason, refilling what has been emptied-out or worn away in a literal economy with poiesis, making energies, rescued stories, revised legends from the vocal textures of the name. One thinks of 'magical thinking' and even of post-structuralist, writerly Derridean ploys by putting Valkeapää's pieces within de Certeau's practice of space. The latter writes : ' to practise space is thus to repeat the joyful and silent experience of childhood; it is , in a place, to be other and to move towards the other'(1984:110). Of course, the silence has plenitude, and the metaphorical, mobile city which displaces the planned city shakes us by means of elemental sound ; there, we travel the scape-land of alterity, addressing the object in an allocutory manner, disarticulating coded exchanges.
Abstracting from the landmarks of his culture, vocalising fragments of a text of living history, it is useful to ask if Valkeapää's voicing of statues and proper names ridicules the names that 'made their mark', celebrates them, or both?
With 'Siberia' or 'Summer', it is likely that we have immensities of the northern forest released, but 'Agricola' and the rare, Biblical yet ordinary forename 'Salomo' have peculiarities of national history within them for our post-national times of corporate globalisation. Reading Régis Debray on postmodern discursive formations, one encounters the following thoughts concerning statues, beyond a mere condemnation of public figurative sculpture as aesthetically redundant, patriarchal or phallic:
The names that 'made their mark' in one period are a joke in the next…Anyone who wants to look his time in the eyes should not gaze too long into the eyes of statues. Convinced that any human society must erect statues, that nothing is more easily moved, he will use those around him to discover what they reveal about the society in which he lives. It is difficult for a period to watch itself living 'live' - that is the whole point. (Debray,1981:226)
Voicing statues on the city-walk talks, Valkeapää seems to dematerialize the presence of the figure and activates its absence, its unseen: sound can have a source, yet appear to come from all around. In the turbulence of sound, form elements rise and crash : we remember how matter crumbles, how the black wall of names in history glides by, how mind misses its target, how 'live' the singer appears in imaginary space-time. Listeners as lost travellers? Postmodern, post-structuralist subjectivities around the vocal event? Fictional histories even?
Milan Kundera's character Agnes, in the novel Immortality, his extended non-linear lecture on love and death in the age of 'imageology', which Debray identified critically as a time of our flattening incorporation in telematics or media-business, remarks :
We got our names, too, merely by accident…We didn't know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don't understand our name at all, we don't know its history and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity, we merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it as if we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration. A face is like a name. (Kundera,1991:36)
Knowing this much, as 'post-historical' subjects, as migratory territorial beings, at the moment of identification, things disintegrate. Joyful upturn meets catastrophe. This is the problematic of the artist and listener in such sound actions, and it feels consistent with a post-structuralist aesthetic of non-identity.
Given this condition of an aesthetic of non-identity, that of 'post-historical' historical subjects, or migratory territorial beings, it is possible to situate the experience of Valkeapää's vocal pieces affirmatively, as an expansion of our auditory field, an activation in our potential self-Being, a primordial ontological-existential calling forth.
In the context of Martin Heidegger's discourse on Dasein in Being and Time, his meditation on Beings for whom Being is an issue, our core treatise on the false value of presence, names readily conform to what Heidegger describes as presence-to-hand, signifying mere properties of the thing, upon which readiness-to-hand relies in our equipment-like reference through familiar usage. It is in keeping to say that the revealing in the vocalisations is how Being is concealed from us, how certainties can be mistakes, how language always precedes us and exceeds us. Put differently, what is ontically familiar is ontologically made wondrous strange in Valkeapää's voicing.
Heidegger devotes a section to hearing, listening and hearkening. He notes, 'Language can be broken up into word-Things which are present-at-hand'(Heidegger,1995:204). Further , he writes, 'listening to...is Dasein's existential way of Being-open as Being-with for Others'(1995:206), in a discourse shared with Ihde. Generally, Heidegger has a special consideration for hearing :
Indeed, hearing constitutes the primary and authentic way in which Dasein is open for its ownmost potentiality-for-Being -- as in hearing the voice of the friend whom every Dasein carries with it. (1995:206)
He gets even closer when he states, 'Being-with develops in listening to one another'(1995:206). And we hit the way of thinking for Heidegger with the archaic residue of hearkening :
Hearkening is phenomenally still more primordial than what is defined 'in the first instance' as "hearing" in psychology -- the senses of tones and the perception of sounds. Hearkening too has the kind of Being of the hearing which understands. (1995:207)
Derridean deconstruction is part of the wake of instabilities signalled by Heidegger, motivated as it is by the extended critique of self-presence. Speech and writing are 'castled', in Derrida's game-play in language. Valkeapää's vocalisations are, however, consistent with the word under erasure, centred assertion put asunder, art's power of dis-closure.
In Jonathan Rée's study of language, the senses and European philosophy, I See a Voice, he reminds us that after Husserl we perceive the world 'with our bodies as a whole'(Rée,1999:11). Rée argues for the overturning of a 'misleading contrast between vision and writing on the one hand, and hearing and speech on the other'(1999:11). For him, 'the oceanic indeterminacies of the human voice'(1999:11) are a special way of recognising the world, our anxiety and our care, not least because 'we not only hear, but also vocalise, and we hear ourselves vocalizing,too'(1999:9).
If Jacques Derrida claims a 'higher universal validity' (Gadamer,1995:272) for writing in his struggle with western logos and phonocentricity, Hans Georg Gadamer has countered this with the claim that texts 'all refer back to lived life and spoken language'(1995:273), through which -- particularly in dialogue -- we seek to understand each other (1995:273-277). For the hermeneutic philosopher Gadamer, 'phonocentrism is a common condition for all human writing'(1995:273). Gadamer challenges thus :
To me, Derrida appears to be the victim of a curious metaphysical remnant in Husserl's thought. What Derrida means by "phonocentrism" can be found in his debate with Husserl : the assumption that the "voice" is something "material". One can only be amazed. Voice, this fleeting breath of air that passes and which first allows the "written" to be conveyed as meaningful, is itself a text-to-be-understood. Whether as a text recited aloud or as a text read silently to myself, the articulation of meaning first fulfils itself by means of the sound foundation. (1995:273)
Valkeapää unearths different concepts of voice and material Being by extending our auditory experience in art. The vocal pieces happen when and where play and questioning shake spatial-temporal linguistic forms, or what we might refer to as language-objects. It is meaningful art if, in breaking open the word, the significant remainder is affectively uplifting as a revealing of our thrownness in the world.
Benjamin, Andrew (ed) (1989) The Lyotard Reader. Oxford: Blackwell
Debray, Regis (1981) Teachers, Writers, Celebrities; The Intellectuals of Modern France. Translated by David Macey. London: New Left Books
de Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Gadamer, Hans Georg (1995) 'Text Matters', pp262-289 in Richard Kearney (ed), States of Mind: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers on the European Mind. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Heidegger, Martin (1995)  Being and Time. Translated by John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.
Ihde, Don (1986) Consequences of Phenomenology. New York: State University of New York Press.
Krell, D.F. (ed) (1994) Martin Heidegger : Basic Writings. London: Routledge.
Kundera, Milan (1991) Immortality. Translated by Peter Kussi. London: Faber and Faber
Rée, Jonathan (1999) I See a Voice: A Philosophical History of Language, Deafness and the Senses. London: Harper Collins.
DR ALLAN HARKNESS
Formerly a tutor for the Open University's Modern Art & Modernism course, a literary editor and humanities researcher, Dr Allan Harkness was senior lecturer in Art Theory in the Department of Fine Art at the Hull School of Art & Design for over a decade. Last summer, he left higher education (see Art Monthly 263, Feb.2003 'Polemic') for research and writing projects as an independent scholar.
Revised and amended for BS&T 12/11/03