7 October 2011 – 5 February 2012
In the First Circle. A Project by Imogen Stidworthy
How do we read the voice to locate people socially, culturally and geographically? This question has brought us to the borders of language — language as it arises in the encounter between different terms of reference. Here spaces open up for language to rethink itself, sometimes in extremis. We trace the spaces of the voice, from the body, with its cavities and resonating chambers, to the schisms and transitions that produce culture and politics. The border condition is not an edge but a middle of things.
We take our title from a novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1968) in which a group of imprisoned Soviet scientists are set to work under the orders of Stalin to develop two speech-related devices. The production of ‘voice-prints’ will enable the KGB to identify the voices of suspect citizens on any wiretapped conversation, while a ‘voice scrambler’ on Stalin’s personal telephone will lock up his speech in nonsense. The novel is set in a sharashka, slang for the secret research laboratories of the gulag system and meaning a place to dawdle. In this space, transparency carries the assumption of knowledge – of the right and the power to know – but also implies the imposition of one system of thought over every other. Here opacity shrouds a malicious dictator, but also shelters a fragile freedom.
We are interested in the significance of ‘living with’ – the sense that arises from being ‘in the presence of’, by paying attention to the smallest differences. It is with that sense in mind that we have conceived of this exhibition and the works within it.
Paul Domela and Imogen Stidworthy
Commentaries on the works featured in the exhibition:
via (48 Dante Translations), 2000 (10’ 2’’, loop)
In via (48 Dante Translations), Caroline Bergvall performs 47 translations into English of Dante Alighieri’s opening tercet of Inferno, as archived in the British Library up until May 2000. Dante is approaching the first circle of hell with Virgil as his guide. The translations are ordered alphabetically, followed by the name of the translator and date of translation; this simple rule permits a cadence of repetition and variation that thwarts our urge to progress. Every translation is a slice of literary history, revealing the slightest of gaps between each cultural interpretation. The clarity of the words themselves is unsettled by the faint sound of vocal fractals, cannibalised from Bergvall’s voice – the 48th variation.
Duck – Rabbit, 1973
James Coleman reflects upon the nature of perception and the image. The duck-rabbit image of perceptual ambivalence is not ambiguous, but is a so-called ‘bi-stable image’. There is no true or false reality to the image, only a shift in what we see. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously drew a distinction between seeing something and seeing something as; we see the duck or the rabbit, but not both at the same time. To Coleman ‘those are clearly two images, ambiguities are a result of the perception that insists on a resolution of those images’. By projecting the image as a series of slides, he forces us each time to a new act of seeing.
Zašto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom)
(Why I don’t speak Serbian), 2008 (36’, loop)
The work of Phil Collins often considers the question ‘What does it mean to speak?’ How does language form experience and what does it mean if that language becomes taboo or is renounced. This is what happened to Serbo-Croat in the aftermath of the Kosovo war. Collins asks a wide range of people to describe their experiences in the language they have now repressed for several years. His documentary framing echoes cinéma vérité and Yugo-era cinema. We are drawn, in particular, to listen, to hear every nuance of gasp and hesitation. In counterpoint we see footage of the refugee camps of 1999 – the historical moment that the subjects in the film are discussing.
Александр Солженицын, В Круге Первом.
Роман. Москва Наука (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, In The First Circle. Novel. moscow: nauka), 2011
For Jasper Coppes, simulation is a strategy in sculptural interventions to question how we define and relate to objects and spaces. Here he has inserted one page into a book, giving minute attention to precise imitation, in order to camouflage its presence. The insertion of one fiction into another plays on the merging of figure and ground, its presence as an artwork all but undetectable. Coppes is interested not so much in discovery or hiding, as in a way to activate an ontological question.
Thierry De Cordier
Gargantua incorporates human hair, a piece of dinner plate, scraps of leather and cloth, sewn together into a ball. In Rabelais’s La vie très horrifique du grand Gargantua, père de Pantagruel (1534), Gargantua is a grotesque giant who spends his time eating, shitting and having sex. At the time, the novel was infamous for its crude and bawdy humour, but it also gave birth to new language and many of the words Rabelais invented for it have entered everyday speech. De Cordier’s Gargantua restrains this birth of language, returning it to a primordial form compressed to bursting point, a world refusing to be born, or held to silence.
Emily, 2010 (4’ 27’’, loop)
Danica Dakić is interested in the corporeal and political aspects of language and identity. In Emily different forms of language meet in a learning situation. We see a girl during a lesson in signing and hear the voice of her teacher alternating instructions and praise. We hear how the acousmatic instructions refine her spatial grammar and the phonology of the hands, and link facial expression to placement and movement. The image is a close-up, drawing our attention to the focus in her eyes upon the blind spot in our own partial position – between the sonic and the visual.
Fernand Deligny (several authors)
In the early 1960s, French educator Fernand Deligny founded a community for autistic children in the abandoned village of Monoblet (Cevennes, fr). Deligny’s thinking and writing draws on his experience of living with the children, especially their relationship to language (some had no language at all). The village was not a place for treatment or research, but to live, and children and adults perform-ed the tasks of daily life together. Deligny and other adults produced maps of the children’s movements as they carried out their tasks or wandered in the countryside. These were not intended for analysis, but as tools for concentration: a way of being-in-relation, without trying to understand. They were also strategic, used to decide where to place the kitchen table in relation to the sink, or the wood store to the chopping block. Thus the organisation of the village responded to the condition and needs of the children.
Untitled, 2010; Untitled, 2010
Werner Feiersinger’s sculptures go through an intensive process of reduction, refining, mixing and modelling, to achieve a certain economy of form. They resemble everyday objects such as tools, street furniture and architectural details. Feiersinger’s interest in Modernist architecture and design, and Minimal sculpture, deeply informs his formal language, but there is something in its pure clarity that is ironic, even deceptive. He meticulously hand crafts the appearance of an industrial object. The sculpture suggests functionality in the way a noun designates an object – here perhaps, a slide, a locust, or a boot cleaner. Sometimes playful, sometimes threatening, the sculptures are reminiscent of something, but it is not clear what. Feiersinger plumbs our sense of recognition, multiplying associations.
Andrea Fisher addresses the duplicity of the photographic image in representing the horrors of war and genocide. She appropriates documentary images that speak of human suffering and crops them to achieve a viscerality that is unambiguous in its reading. At the same time this is also a rewriting, a reinscription into memory of an indelible body in pain, against the distancing of time and the order of history. The lacerated body echoes in the truncated metal barre that cuts into the room, separating us from the authority of the image and confronting us with the impossibility of translation. Fisher has referred to asymbolia, the loss of language to grasp the significance of signs and symbols and our experiences in the world.
Failed Suprematist Futures, 2010
Dominique Hurth is interested in the framing of objects and events in documents, archives and exhibition displays. In 1987, German aviator Mathias Rust by-passed Soviet air defence and landed in Red Square. His feat was seized upon in the West as an act of political critique, while in the East it irreparably damaged the reputation of the military, helping Gorbachev to push through his reforms. Rust’s alleged intention to build an imaginary bridge had unforeseen consequences. Failed Suprematist Futures takes a newspaper photograph of the landing to question the link between the image and its causality.
Designs and Names, 1980
Christopher Knowles is a poet and artist whose speech is characterised by unusual syntax and rhythm. In his poems and voice works, Knowles often shuffles the order of words to create extended, multiple variations of a theme. His exceptional ability in mathematical organisation is characteristic of autism, with which Knowles was diagnosed as a child. In his ‘Typings’, letters and words are arranged into intricate mathematical patterns, forming geometrical shapes and images.
Concrete and Samples iii Carrara, 2010 (19’ 23’’, loop)
Aglaia Konrad’s photographs of cities and urban agglomerations are concerned with the time, character and infrastructures of the city. Her images of architecture also acquire a sculptural dimension. In Concrete and Samples iii Carrara the forms, spaces and light in the famous marble quarry are scrutinised with almost tender intensity. With its vertiginous cliffs and rocky depths, the place seems hostile, even hellish. Using aerial view and still shots, a form of proto architecture is described, shaped by a combination of natural and human effects. The towers, terraces, facades and openings reflect geology, weathering, two thousand years of quarrying and changing technical, economic and artistic conditions.
Waiting, 2002 (14’ 47’’, loop)
The Palestinian filmmaker was born in the Shati Refugee Camp in 1962. His films often start in a documentary reality that is developed through a fictional story-line, bringing the conditions of Palestinian life into sharp relief. The short film Waiting is shot during the casting call for the feature film Waiting (2005), in which Masharawi is seeking actors for a new National Palestinian Theatre in Gaza, to be built by the European Union. Masharawi travels to refugee camps to ask aspiring actors to act waiting. We experience their frustration as each struggles to perform their everyday life against their wish to tell another story.
Ketchup Sandwich, 1970-2011
In this work Paul McCarthy inverts the cube, the quintessential symbol of Minimalism, from ethereal emptiness to a visceral corpus oozing with consumption. A stack of glass plates leaks ketchup from between its layers. It is his first work with ketchup, a double take on taste. High-minded transparency with the banality of a branded tomato sauce. Ketchup Sandwich is a colloquialism referring to what an American family may eat when there is nothing else in the house. McCarthy is also referring to special effects; we think of blood, but as he has pointed out, this is ketchup and we should be able to tell the difference.
Untitled (Untitled, Kalero), 2009
This configuration of documentary photographs and sculptural elements refers to a moment of misreading in a Basque city park. Following a judicial decision, the police took a modernist sculpture for a memorial to an eta member. The work represents the fragments remaining after its summary destruction, the dumb eloquence of the empty concrete pedestal and pieces of torn steel – the wreckage that ensued in the passage from aesthetic to ideological space.
Old House, 2006 (1’ 15’’, loop)
Rabih Mroué’s performances, theatre and video works address the contentious history of the Lebanese Civil War and the role of fiction and personal memory in the constitution of ‘truth’. In Old House, the demolition of a house jerks forwards and reverses, echoing Mroué’s meditation on the alternation of memory and forgetting. We are reminded of the spatial and relational structure of memory embodied in the urban fabric of a city. Language and memory have an architecture. Against the reconstruction of Beirut stands the irreversible loss of memory in the demolition of the city, and the impossibility of forgetting the dead.
The Høje Gladaxe adventure playground, 1969
The photograph documents an autonomous action by Palle Nielsen with parents and residents in Høje Gladsaxe, Copenhagen, to build a playground in a new neighbourhood where no play facility had been planned. As an artist specialising in playgrounds, he often worked in collectives, and with activists, to shape designs through which he attempted to establish a different mode of comunication, specifically between grown-ups and children. By releasing play from its enclosures, this communication would lead to a qualitatively different, more equal and democratic society.
Babel Blackout, 2003
Willem Oorebeek is interested in printed matter. In his ‘Blackout’ series he withdraws found images from circulation and overprints them with a layer of black ink, both destroying the image and preserving it. In the bibilical story, God punishes man’s audacity and confounds their power by splitting language – from one to many tongues. Babel Blackout takes a reproduction of Breughel’s painting to the verge of invisibility. The blacking out of the print transforms it from a window, offering us a view of the tower, into a nuanced layering of inks, a topology of tiny differences. You have to look closely. Beneath the taut skin of the image we search for traces of figuration, which are revealed in the play of light upon its surface.
Regarding the Towers of Babel: Blackout by Jon Thompson,
2006 (4’46’’, loop)
While documenting his exhibition Bigger, Higher, Leader! (s.m.a.k., Gent, be, 2006), Willem Oorebeek noticed his friend Jon Thompson, the artist and writer, looking at his Towers of Babel: Blackout. The work consists of five copies of Breughel’s painting, overprinted in a similar way with black screen-printing ink. Slight differences in the paper and offset ink in each reproduction effect how the new ink layer is absorbed, creating subtle differences between the images. The camera observes Thompson looking intensely over the surface of each image, before moving on to the next.
Grid ii, 2009; Valley (Jing’an), 2007
Bas Princen observes the new urban landscape. His framing, manipulation and re-composition of the image point to the ambiguity underlying our assumptions of what is given and what is made, what is constructed and what is destroyed. Princen was trained as an architect, and conceptually his photographs are often linked to specific architectural and urban references that make up the corpus of the architectural profession. On the other hand, we can read his photographs as constituting the sites and places held in the image, abstracted from the social, cultural and economic processes that pass through and underpin them.
Documenting Contemporaneity in Art. A Year
Listening to Vibrations, 2011
Alejandra Riera works at the intersection of photography, documentary and art. Her presentations often take the processual and incomplete quality of the gesture as a form, including first-person critiques informed by theory and philosophy. In the text Une année à l’écoute des vibrations, she reflects upon a proposal by a group of artists to produce a radio programme on muteness, attempting to take the medium to its limit. The refusal of this apparent impossibility by the radio station opens up a series of questions for Riera, which probe such contradictions as the sound of signing, the muteness of the screen in cinema and the censorship of silence.
In the First Circle cahier, 2011
Working on aspects of readability, Salome Schmuki investigates aspects of typography which influence reading and its processes, taking into account problems encountered by dyslexic readers. She has applied her ideas in the design and layout of a special cahier for In the First Circle, which contains texts and images related to the exhibition, as well as more information on her dyslexia project. The cahier is available in the bookshop. One of her fonts can also be seen in the exhibition poster and invitation.
Sacha, 2011 (5’, loop)
Sacha reflects on how we are read and positioned within social space, through listening. We see Sacha van Loo, a wiretap analyst for Antwerp Police, deciphering a voice recording. He is fluent in seven languages and recognises hundreds of accents and dialects. His auditory power stems partly from his blindness, which channels his knowledge of the world primarily through sound. Listening is the condition of his being. It is receptive and empathetic, a sensitive immersion into the subtleties of people and places – or, in his surveillance work, a means of control. In the bureaucratic process of ascertaining guilt or innocence, listening penetrates, collapsing the borders between public and private space to identify subjects.
The Work v03, 2011 (4’, loop)
The Work v03 addresses the conveyability of experience. We hear the voices of two war veterans who fought in the Falklands (Las Malvinas) and Iraq and Bosnia, both suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd). We hear the words of the wife of one of the men, whose home life is dominated by the fall-out of remote conflict. Their words are conducted via transducers into physical materials so that the material itself is the resonator: the components for a sheet of anti-blast glass and the unassembled parts for a temporary satellite dish installation. The fragmented state of these tools for protection and communication is echoed in the intermittent words of the speakers who endure our images of conflict.
Topography of a Voice, 2008–9
Topography of a Voice attempts to describe an accent, Scouse, spoken in Liverpool (uk). Twelve recordings of the Scouse phrase ‘Get here!’ are represented through different forms of transcription. Each rendering is partial, shaped by the terms of translation: waterfall plots (digital waveforms charting decibels, wavelength and duration), ipa (International Phonetic Alphabet), comments by the speakers, and the explanations of a professional voice trainer. Between the lines we glimpse the unwritten stereotypes. By contrast, the speakers – locals, actresses and recent immigrants – each shape and inhabit the sound in their own way, challenging assumptions about the relationship between geography, voice and subject.
Skull 376, 1987
Skull 376 has a certain formlessness, caved in as in were under its own weight, pushing cranium into mandible. The number 376 has been stenciled onto it, suggesting a catalogue of those still waiting to be identified. We notice two further marks, a cross placed in a square is scratched into the surface and a hollow penetrates diagonally through the frontal lobe, reminiscent of an execution wound. Tàpies uses allusion in order to trigger our associations and broaden our knowledge. We remember his studies of Buddhism and his frequent use of the cross. The skull channels meditation on death but this skull is also a sign for the dead, reminding us of the excavation of silence, of the many to be counted.
Chiasmus is a rhetorical device in which the order of words is mirrored to create new sense. In Chiasmus, this refers to the symmetry between the positions of four photographic flash units and the geometry of the optic chiasm, the part of the brain where the optic nerves partially cross. The units are connected to a Geiger counter, which triggers a flash when hit by a particle of background radiation, making the invisible visible. The stream of detection occurs absolutely at random, while our desire for order projects sporadic rhythms and, at the right speed, coded messages. Chiasmus creates a chain of events from the reception of the particle by the sensor to its reception in the eye, implicating us as constituting subjects.
Architectural Studies, 2011
Hajra Waheed’s interest in the codes and operations of security and surveillance is informed in part by having been raised in the gated compound of Saudi Aramco. In Architectural Studies, elements of the drawings refer to the U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia on 1 May 1960, combining article numbers with cut-out details of the plane printed on Mylar, and floor plans of 16 important historical mosques on aged paper. We appear to be looking at historical documents, joining the real with the imagined. The U-2s carried out not only visual but also auditory surveillance, during which data was recorded on Mylar tape – drones come to mind, and contemporary global politics resonate through the intricate detail and diagrammatic connections.
Man with No Name, 2009
(97’, starts at 10.15, 12.00, 13.45, 15.30, 17.15)
Documentary filmmaker Wang Bing follows four seasons in the life of a man living in a cave-like dwelling, away from society. No language is spoken. We see him tend a small crop on a patch of land, making a meal, collecting manure; he appears to have constructed a precarious subsistence. A strong sense of earthly time permeates his actions, apparently unperturbed by any kind of sociality. Time turns to matter, and Wang attunes us to this speed, evoking subtle divergences between what we see and what we project.
During In the First Circle. A Project by Imogen Stidworthy, reference bibliography can be consulted at Fundació Antoni Tàpies’ Library. By appointment only.