Hyperrhiz 20

Contextualising “his voice”: Disrupted Utterance in a Digital Material Interface

Mark Leahy
Plymouth University

Citation: Leahy, Mark. “Contextualising “his voice”: Disrupted Utterance in a Digital Material Interface.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 20, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/020.int01

Abstract: Taking a route through voice and utterance and audience, by way of the body, this essay offers a contextualisation of Mark Leahy’s (the Author’s) performance work “his voice” (2015). Following a brief overview of theorisations of “voice” and of “utterance”, the essay draws on discussions across linguistics, music and technology. Into this is folded a consideration of the processes and concerns at work within Mark Leahy’s performance practice. In a series of works since 2012 he has been exploring relations of voice to self, of voice to identity, and of voice to body. He presents these works as performances where the artist is present in the space but the words he utters are split both from him as author and from their sources. In “his voice” the material spoken in the performance is a transposition of a sequence of tweets, harvested live from Twitter. This splitting or splicing of utterance, body and voice, is discussed, and the essay considers how it raises questions for understanding relations of the digital and utterance.

Keywords: voice, performance, utterance, Twitter, body, speech, live.

Taking a route through voice and utterance and audience, by way of the body, this essay offers a contextualisation of my performance work “his voice” which was presented as part of “Other Codes / Cóid Eile: Digital Literatures in Context” at NUIG, Galway in May 2017. Following a brief overview of theorisations of “voice” and of “utterance”, the essay draws on discussions across linguistics, music, and technology. Into this I fold a consideration of the processes and concerns at work within my performance practice. In a series of works since 2012 I have been exploring the relationship of voice to self, of voice to identity, and of voice to body. I present these works as performances where the artist is present in the space but the words he utters are split both from him as an author and from their sources. In “his voice” the material spoken in the performance is a transposition of a sequence of tweets, harvested live from Twitter. I discuss this splitting or splicing of utterance, body and voice, and consider how it raises questions for understanding relations of digital and utterance.

“his voice” began with a body of textual material, the outcome of various online searches with and editing of the phrase “his voice sounded like”. This material was used to develop a series of one hundred and sixteen phrases in eight sets that are sent as live searches to the Internet in the performance event. The search results are treated as text files, and by using text-to-speech software these are converted from text to audio. This audio is delivered to me via headphones and I attempt simultaneously to speak as much as possible of what I hear. A projection screen behind me in the performance space displays the search terms to the audience.

Questions of voice in “his voice” operate across a blurred or folded division between writing and performance, between the conceptual and the physical, between the scripted and the uttered. The generation of the performance material, the particular tweets returned by the search, the manner in which the text is interpreted by the text-to-speech software, the amount or accuracy of my repeating of the sounds link this work to writing and performance that utilises chance as a generative element. Authorial control is given up or the authorial subject steps to one side allowing rules, scripts, algorithms, or aleatory procedures to determine what word or sound comes next. The performance interweaves these different strands while working in overlapping contexts of conceptual writing as anthologised in I’ll Drown My Book (Bergvall et al.) or Against Expression (Dworkin and Goldsmith), chance and constrained procedures as explored by OULIPO and Fluxus (Motte; Friedman et al.), and live digital art and literature (“Electronic Literature Organization”).

Relevant examples of artists using Twitter as a source or arena for generating artwork or other projects online or live include Allison Parrish, whose “Everyword” (2007-14) tweeted every word in an English dictionary in alphabetical order, one word at a time. Parrish’s project used the Twitter platform to publish the work, and once published, each word gathered its own additional material (Parrish). Ranjit Bhatnagar’s “Pentametron” (2012) harvests tweets that obey rules of stress and rhyme to construct rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter which are then published to Twitter via the @pentametron account (Bhatnagar). While both these projects allow for aspects of chance to shape the output, there is also clear authorial shaping of the material, via the rules or script. In another project anthologized in the Electronic Literature Collection, Volume 3, “The Way Bot” (2013) by Eli Brody, the selection of a “starter phrase”, either “the way that” in its initial version, or “I like it when” in the revised version (Brody n.p.), parallels my use of “his voice sounded like” to gather the search terms for the “his voice” project. My decision to sort the search results into groups or categories, such as character name, natural phenomena, animals, etc. was a specific authorial intervention guided by a wish for the audience to recognize thematic shifts within the live event. These groups also draw attention to particular recurring similes used in referring to the male human voice, both positive and negative.

The potential for negative or offensive material to be generated within the live event of “his voice” became apparent in the rehearsal phase of the development of the work. As the material is delivered too quickly at times for full analysis of the content, the option to filter my speech is limited. I might say something before I know what I said. Brody, in his author statement, writes:

The Way Bot speaks with a voice that is not theirs, making them capable of hurtful and insensitive speech. Filters are in place for blatant hate words, but human language can be subtly insidious without triggering automatic detection. An effort is made to reduce these incidents, and offensive speech is removed as it is discovered. However, hate and oppression still slip in (and do exist, in the bot’s archive). The creator wishes to apologize for any oppression, systematic or otherwise, upheld by this bot. (n.p.)

Here the question of voice is partly disambiguated, between the utterances of the bot as autonomously running in the Twitter environment, and the utterance of the creator as author of the work. In the live performance of “his voice”, my body in the room and my speaking presence make such a disambiguation very unstable.

Voice is like water, a material that can be held in hand, but never held fast. In its magical fluidity, voice is inextricably bound up with the condition of language, and yet is something more than language that is impossible to pin down or to control. (Duncan 285n8)

The voice comes from the body. As speaker I sense myself making an effort, producing a sound, and feel that sound resonate in my body. As listener, in the presence of the speaker I sense the noise coming from her direction, I see the adjustments in her body, and understand these words to come from her. She is speaking, those are her words I hear, I know that voice. This description of voice in a live situation seems uncomplicated in terms of the physical aspects of voice and in terms of assigning it to a source, but in theoretical usage the meaning of “voice” is variable and multiple. Michelle Duncan, writing specifically about the context of opera, teases apart these different theoretical models of voice. There is “the first-person singular voice of the subject that often substitutes for identity and subjectivity” (290). There is also the “voice that emanates from outside the subject, the voice that calls the subject into being” (290). Then there is

(…) a third type of voice, a multiplicitous voice that emanates as force. (…) Force, or what one might refer to as simply ‘linguistic efficacy’, is seen as dependent on some kind of context – either social or linguistic – because meaning is not absolute. (Duncan 290)

The concept of “voice” operates across a number of metaphorical sites, tied to questions of identity, of subjectivity, and of effect, and works as combinations of these. The performance “his voice” exploits and plays with these combinations, and adds to this multiplicity the context of the digital utterance and its particular relation to context and subjectivity. In choosing as its base material the results of an online search for the phrase “his voice sounded like”, “his voice” gathers results that scatter across this range of meanings. The simile sets up a series of displacements or translations of voice into something else, standing for or representing something beyond the immediate phenomenal utterance.

The relation of voice to body is complicated by efforts to isolate what the voice is or does, to locate meaning in the vocal utterance, or to determine the effect on an audience. In A Voice and Nothing More (2006), Mladen Dolar describes the voice as something other than the message it conveys. This appears to divest it of any semantic aspect, but to also place it beyond description:

[voice] is what does not contribute to making sense. It is the material element recalcitrant to meaning, and if we speak in order to say something, then the voice is precisely that which cannot be said. (Dolar 15, emphasis original)

Dolar retains the link to the body, the material aspect of the utterance, but blurs the link between meaning and that speaking body. In a situation of live speech, the physical link between voice and body is reinforced by visual and aural, and palpable clues. The term “voice” may refer to those aspects of the utterance that can be sensed, but are not making sense. And among those sensed aspects are particulars and specifics of a person’s speaking, what Dolar refers to as the “fingerprint quality of the voice” (22):

[T]hey are the slight fluctuations and variations which do not violate the norm—rather, the norm itself cannot be implemented without some ‘personal touch,’ the slight trespassing which is the mark of individuality. (22)

When we are with a speaker and can see the source of the voice, we need not make any additional leap to connect source and sound. In mediated situations, this easy connection, this “fingerprint quality” may still function, so if I answer my phone to a number I recognise, I will know that the voice I hear is the voice of my friend. The individuality survives the disruptions of technology, of illness even, as when we say to someone that they do not sound themselves. These variations from the norm operate within a voice, and any particular repetition of an utterance by a speaker will also be very similar, but not identical to another. This “sameness” is one marker of artificial speech. Such endless small variations also link to Freya Jarman-Ivens’s concept of “Voice-Zero”, which she describes in relation to the work of vocal impersonators (50). “Voice-Zero” exists as an aggregation of recollections of a voice, the imagined remembered voice, against which an audience may compare the efforts of an impersonator. It does not consist of any specific or particular utterance, but is a median constructed of recalled past utterances; it may be imagined as the voice we recognise, in Dolar’s sense of “fingerprint”, but in actuality it is displaced from this, sits to one side of it as it approaches a static fixed quality, and the fingerprint remains constantly shifting.

The tweet, in its usual context of the Twitter platform, is encountered as an utterance from a name, an “@” which gives a label to the individual tweet, and links it both to other tweets by that user’s handle, and to other tweets in a thread or a series of replies, and situates it in any particular user’s feed. Originally incorporated as separator in an email address to describe a user and host relationship (Houston), the “@” (“at”) symbol later came to be part of microblogging indicating publicly readable replies. In the performance “his voice”, the removal of tweets from their tagged or identified context, and the conversion of these utterances into speech, both displaces and re-locates them. No longer uttered by the Twitter account owner, they are shifted into the voice of the performer, who makes them all his. The variation of the multiple tweets is transferred to a single voice (a performer’s individual voice inflected by the synthetic voice he hears), but the tweets are not all rendered the same by this process, as they retain their multiplicity, their messy difference. Norie Neumark describes this effect in relation to a number of digital performance works where the effects of voice survive in different ways across installation and live event (96-112). This to some extent contrasts with the Twitter environment (mobile application or desktop browser) that flattens variation, by presenting the distinct utterances as a string of parallel, equivalent and similar units. The interface makes all tweets alike, creating a frame or field through which the stream of tweets flows. The variety is underlined in the performance by the repeated gesture of striking the keypad, hitting “search” each time to generate a new utterance, another example. The modularity of the “tweet” as utterance, the combination of these units in their chance sequence, maintains integrity of the individual tweet while transposing it to a different mode (from text to speech) heard in the “same” voice.

Yet the relation of voice to sense complicates the discussion of voice as an abstract concept. Factors beyond the decoding of the phonetically encoded message come into play when we hear a voice. The matter of the voice may be analysed, broken down to basic particles, organised into a range of phonemes, of differently shaped audio elements, that can be assembled into a new text. Such abstracted elements offer a false sense of how language is spoken or how it is heard, since they ignore the differential basis of sound signals. Sounds as language are heard in relation, are heard both as themselves, and in terms of what is not sounded, what might have been said. The perception of words depends on experience and practice, as the listener understands the elements in a sequence of sounds without physically registering gaps or silences between them. Dolar refers to Ferdinand de Saussure whose research on the differential nature of the sign underlies this thinking:

Linguistic signals are not in essence phonetic. They are not physical in any way. They are constituted solely by differences which distinguish one such sound pattern from another. (…) Speech sounds are first and foremost entities which are contrastive, relative and negative. (Saussure 117)

Dolar argues that this differential negative quality applies only to the phoneme, the sounded element of the spoken utterance, and concludes that these are “the senseless atoms that, in combination, ‘make sense’” (18). What is heard as the sense of an utterance may be considered the meaning of that utterance. Arda Denkel, in an essay considering the “meaning of an utterance”, examines H. P. Grice’s articulation of the relations between speaker, utterance, intention, and belief. Denkel’s interrogation of Grice’s model draws on notions of “objective connections” both natural and conventional, and “contexts of experience” (Denkel 36). Regarding an “objective connection”, Denkel writes, “A speaker’s utterance consists in the display, simulation or other exploitation of such connections” (39n12). Through exploiting connections, the speaker draws an audience toward a desired understanding. Denkel defines a “context of experience” as any context or medium “that can be specified via a covering concept and within which a rational agent can have experiences having some consistency” (36). These contexts can encompass shared sporting or social activities, work, residential or national environments, or other familiar experiences. Contemporary art, stand-up comedy, or Twitter can all be considered “contexts of experience” in this model. Utterances within these various contexts bear particular relation to the performance “his voice”. A consideration of these extended aspects of the utterance leads Denkel to claim that:

(…) a speaker who is said to mean something by the utterance he uses does not thereby give meaning to the utterance; rather he is able to mean by exploiting the already existing connections objectively linking what he uses as utterance with facts the obtaining of which will render what he means true. (38, emphasis original)

The utterance extends beyond the only or merely verbal, to conventional aspects of speech that exceed the phonemic aspect of what is spoken, and it includes utterances that are non-linguistic. Those aspects of an utterance we recognise, or make objective connections to, or identify beyond the verbal content, depend on shared contexts of experience, or familiarity with conventions. This appears to shift the determination of an utterance’s effect, its force, away from words alone, and would seem to undermine J. L. Austin’s focus on linguistic effects, on what words can do in How to Do Things with Words (1962). As Michelle Duncan describes it:

[Austin] suggests the possibility of acting with words, not voice. Nevertheless, voice must be wrapped up in achieving linguistic effect, even if Austin fails to account for its participation in the act of utterance. As a condition of enunciation, the manner in which an utterance is spoken (...) is ultimately part and parcel of what makes an utterance felicitous or infelicitous. (291, emphasis original)

The interrelation of manner with the phonemic content underlines the folding together of voice and body, and may link to enfolding of voice and self, and of positions of speaker and hearer as other bodies become involved. As I hear myself speak, as I come to understand that voice as mine, this sense of separation and conjunction contributes to a complex of proper and improper relations.

The manner of any individual utterance is absent in Twitter as an environment of utterances, and Twitter users devise a range of hashtags, codes and textual frames to indicate aspects of manner or tone. On Twitter a “voice”, as it is understood in Duncan’s first register (290), can emerge over time, accumulatively, on the account page of a user. This “context of experience”, in Denkel’s term, is lost as tweets are searched and re-combined based on search parameters other than “user”. The shift to voicing these tweets in the performance of “his voice” can lend manner to them, though the intervention of the text-to-speech software flattens some of this potential. As the audio is delivered without preparation, immediately, the performer does not have a context for the utterance, or time to prepare a tone or manner in his delivery. The sounds emerging into the performance space are in “his” voice, but his control of the reception, interpretation or meaning of this utterance is compromised.

An artwork considered as an utterance maps onto the metaphoric extension of voice to include a sense of individual style or some unique quality binding the work to its source, to the artist. This voice is theirs, it belongs to them, it stamps their utterances as authentic. In “Hearing Voices”, Charles Bernstein elaborates on the cultural value and normalisation of the poet speaking their own words in the live reading: “timbre is both out of the immediate control of an author and the best picture we have of the poet’s aesthetic signature or acoustic mark” (146). Furthermore, Sean Cubitt, writing of the singer’s voice, notes it is “directly of the body, of its warm and vital interior, and our voices identify us as surely as our physical presence” (211). This authenticity can become a marketable aspect of performance, of the individual artist as brand, as product. The presentation of the popular music star, with their performance of emotion depends on this attachment of voice to person (212). A painting, an installation, a performance, may be the artist’s as it is received, responded to as having its source in the artist. In the same gesture, consideration of the work as utterance introduces a gap between the artist and the work, as it is thrown into the world, and as it requires its receivers to hear or to respond. In Dolar’s terms, “Every emission of the voice is by its very essence ventriloquism” (70, emphasis original). The voice is separate from the body, expelled from it, but can never be completely rid of the body. This gap is evident to the speaker, the maker of the utterance, and to those who receive it. But the existence of a gap between utterance and body does not mean that the body simply gets out of the way. Michelle Duncan writes:

An utterance may be guided by knowledge, meaning and intent, but the body constantly interferes with those registers, inserting its own ‘knowledge’, ‘meaning’ and ‘intent’, and thus tempering and tampering with the speech act. (293)

As Duncan further describes this, utterances and their functioning are not only of the mind, but rather it is “corporeality out of control, awkward bodies that disrupt the priority of thought, and oftentimes when we least expect it” (293). In “his voice” this “out of control”, disruptive body is heard and seen in the specifics and particulars of my body uttering and stuttering in performance. The messiness of the speaking, of how and when the voice trips up or stumbles or stutters, spills into “glossolalia” (Neumark 107). The sounding of the tweet material is not positioned at an ironic distance but inhabits it in its excess. The lack or loss of bodily control is a physical experience of attempting to tell the tweets, of failing to fully articulate them, or succeeding in presenting their messy materiality. With its shifts and slips, with its rejigging and repurposing of material, the performance offers another way of reading utterance, of understanding belonging, property or identity.

In working with displaced utterance in “his voice”, some of the disturbance arises from a sense of anxiety or discomfort with “my own” voice. There is a concern over what is given away, what is told beyond the words spoken, and what in this is outside the speaker’s control. Carrie Noland discusses the performances of sound poet Bernard Heidsieck by considering the work of linguist Iván Fónagy via Julia Kristeva’s work. Fónagy describes the act of communication as involving two “encoding acts” (Noland 114):

The first is the ‘encodage linguistique,’ in which a message or an idea is transformed into a sequence of phonemes. The second is the gestural or articulatory ‘encodage,’ through which the sequence is actualized in the individual throat and mouth. (114)

This gestural encoding involves the body, the mouth, lips, throat, etc., just as the phonemic encoding does, but it modulates the phonemic and adds stress, tone, or expression. These “constitute another order of communication grafted onto the linguistic” (Noland 114). In performing “his voice” both aspects of the “encodage” of my utterance are affected by the audio material I receive. The pace at which the audio is delivered does not give me time to shape intonation to meaning, e.g. to manage the inflection that would indicate a question. Similarly, the rush of phonemic material is heard as a stream, so word shapes within it come to attention after they have passed, and in speaking the material I am playing catch up.

In “his voice” a sequence of displacements complicates the sense that what the performer is saying belongs to him, that the words heard are his. If the listeners recognise the processes at work, if they read the connections between textual and spoken utterances, if they recognise forms of utterance, then gaps will open up as several aspects of the utterance operate simultaneously. Discussing Bernard Heidsieck’s performance work, Carrie Noland considers his verbal material. Heidsieck edits phrases of everyday language, selecting “vocemes” as building blocks for his performances. He “constructs a sequence of utterances”, not to demonstrate expressive versatility, but to bring attention to the sound play within common phrases and expressions. According to Noland, “He makes the body’s vocal apparatus and not the subject speak through, in, and despite the semantic vehicle, which is almost invariably a neutral and singularly unimpressive cliché” (115).

The tweets used as the audio material in “his voice” sometimes operate in this space of the neutral, of the cliché, mixing proper names, banal quotations, and conventional sequences specific to the Twitter environment. By selecting and processing these conventional utterances that have expectations of response, or rules of construction, my utterances present recognisable details. Where a URL is quoted within a tweet the sequence has a familiar pattern, where a link is made to a Facebook account, I hear a recurring sequence of sounds that I attempt to relay to the audience. In presenting the tweets within the performance, enacting them and making them evident, I am also “representing” them. I deliver them over again in a recognizable form, showing them to the listeners who are familiar with the shape of a tweet and the nature of these utterances. The voice embodies the tweet as a sonic event, an action, and in the same gesture points to it (as itself, and as example) through representing it (cf. Neumark 96-7). The multiple aspects of the utterance – as mine in the act of performing it, as borrowed from the Twitter user, as recognized in some way by the audience, as exemplary and particular – are played out and held in suspended relation in the performance event.

Considering Heidsieck’s relation to the text he utters in his performances, Noland writes of his “capacity to reveal the written, inscribed, and thus mechanical nature of even the most intimate and personal utterances” (117). Heidsieck works with layers and fragments of audio material, played back in the live event alongside his act of speaking. Questions of origin and presence are complicated as his voice is heard and his body seen alongside the technology: “Heidsieck stands at his microphone, one hand clutching a sheaf of papers, the other gesticulating in choreographed motions, beside a large amplifier and tape deck” (117). In “his voice” the audience hears my voice, they see me listening, gesturing, and at times using my hand to beat a rhythm to break up the flow of sound. They see a short phrase projected on the screen behind me, and they may recognise a link between the visible text and the audible speech.

The speaking body is present and his voice is audible, it is making sounds, some of which make sense. In the struggle to get something out I may mumble or stutter or blurt, and fail to relay the message. And every now and then a sentence may emerge, clearly spoken and audible: a quote from Mother Teresa, a comment on that day’s weather, what someone had for lunch. Clichéd or intimate, personal or borrowed, all arrive to my ear in one of the voices installed on my Mac, a voice conventionally “gendered” as female, and are then transposed into my speech. All arrive with equal value, the dull, the nasty, the promotional, the specific, and all carry some trace of the conversions and displacements they have gone through. From digital text to search engine, digital audio, and spoken word, the various stages leave a mark on the text, leave a trace on the utterance as conversions and conventions successively disrupt the material. The moment of live spoken utterance within the performance event is one point on this sequence, not a culmination or a conclusion, as the recognition, reception, and recollection of the utterance continues the succession of transpositions; here is an utterance that does not arrive (at), does not conclude, and keeps itself in play.

In “his voice”, the various relationships of the body to voice and to identity are not simply inverted, or merely displayed to generate some new clarity, to reveal some lack, or to invoke surprise at a latent “truth” hiding behind the curtain of the manifest performance. The work does not set out to revise some inside/outside opposition, but to muddle the fastenings, and to redress the situation in spliced and folded recovering. In a recombination of the undone joints, a sense is generated of the complications in the material encounter of audience with performance, of performer with event, of utterance with reception. Actions or events within the work result in an utterance displaced, split from, reattached, reoriented, and made over to other speakers and users. The performance of “his voice” puts on display the codified or formulaic structures of the user-platform relationship as these intersect with uncontrolled aspects of the accidental and the bodily. Utterance and voice are re-presented as untethered to identity, and available to meaning and reception.

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