Rediscovering the Power of the Voice

Hanne Lippard is an artist raised in Norway and based in Berlin. Her works, such as video and performances, are generally text-based or text-related. Her recent book of poems called Nuances of No explores among other things problems of communication. At the 6th Moscow Biennale Hanne performed by reading a poem in the very intimate atmosphere of semi-darkness in the round hall of the central pavilion.

— You are using your voice as a key tool and as a sort of artistic medium in your works. So, how did it all started? How did you come to this?

— Well, I think the most artistic practice is a combination of different things like your personal life and what your interests are, a sort of a very definite version of it. What I work with now was developing when I was studying graphic design and was already interested in language, in text, in communication, in dialogues, etc. I wasn’t really satisfied with print as medium to express those aspects and then, at some point, I started using sound and voice. Actually, when I was younger I was also doing acting, which supported my ideas. I think that the combination of those two ideas — of role play and character development — is what I try to figure out also for writing, but it seems too limited for me to do a novel. It’s kind of funny but working with this method of conveying words with voice, you often find yourself being referred to as a poet. So I am also placed in a poetry sector, but it’s not like something that I consciously chose, or that I specifically wanted to work with poetry. I have for instance never studied literature.

— When I was listening to your voice I was wondering where does it come from, is it the inner voice or is it the voice of a certain abstract narrator? Is it nowhere and everywhere at the same time? So have you ever thought of the subject of this voice?

— It’s not really me. When you put yourself into the awareness of the performance, you lose your identity of whoever you are on the tax paper. It also depends on the work. Some texts have more of a character than others. For example, the film "Beige" is a personal narrative; it sounds very personal, very autobiographical. Surely, there is a fictional character behind the monologue, but it is also partly a true story. I think there is always autobiography behind any writing. When you’re a painter, the remains of your practice are transformed into something very different. When you use your voice, it’s just the matter of switching from one volt to the other, from one degree to another. It changes, and there could be different subjects. But words are words, and using such a matter as words is like using them outside the practise of an artist. And then certain words manifest within myself, which sometimes can get very personal.

— When I was listening to your film Beige, I was thinking of interior monologue, or a stream of consciousness that is a recognizable feature of modernist literature. What do you think makes this manner of narration up-to-date? What is contemporary about it?

— What makes it contemporary? Well, for instance, ‘Beige’ is a sort of a diary practice, which is very contemporary — it’s like publicizing your life through a blog, through social media. You’re being sort of a publicist of your own life, you’re making your life into information, and you’re making it accessible. I am not sure that it was something I was extremely aware of while making the work, but it’s definitely present in the work. Also, the film itself contains Google-search images, not moving images but the slideshow that was given a timeline through the narrative of the voice. Using these images is very contemporary: this low quality, this flicking, this going through certain images' topic and then reflecting it back to your life. So, it takes a very public domain into something very personal and overwhelming. Why “beige”? I speak about it in the end of the film. There is an astronomical term for defining the colour of the universe, which is called Cosmic Latte, developed by an astronomer who was sitting in Starbucks and he thought he wanted to name it after latte, because it’s a universal colour: if you take all the colours, the spectrum of the universe, it becomes a sort of beige matter. This colour is overwhelming both in sound and visuals. But Beige is also like a mantric piece. Orality is a very ancient method: to make a mantra, to repeat something in order to remember — it is also a pre-written, pre-textual form.

— Mantra is a very good description of it. Reading out loud and engaging the audience with the voice is an activity practiced long ago; it made me think of ancient Greeks and oracles. So, how do you work with this pathetic magnetism, if I can say so?

— The interesting factor of my work is that the act of speech is still so relevant to a variety of practises. The active speaking affected everyone at the Saskia Sassen’s talk we were listening to on Tuesday, and I would say that her talk was a performative delivery. The way she uses words, the way she uses her internal voice — everything is very convincing, which gives it a lot of authority. I think that we definitely still live in a text-based society, it’s reoccurring somehow, we gain the status of the oral culture again. It also happens because it’s very direct: you don’t even need a charger or a machine to type. Orality is just about air and voice. It’s a human force. Also, texts can lack persona. Although you can recognize a different style of writing from one person to another when you get an e-mail, there is something about human character of voice, which is very interesting. This sort of authority you get by speaking, giving a room to speak is quite interesting as a performance. I think it’s the directness of it, the fact that the sound simply goes from mouth to ear.

— What about this aspect of authority you mentioned? You probably know that you sound very confident, and I thought that for some people it might sound even bordering on arrogance.

— It’s authoritarian English, I guess.

— Probably. Have you ever thought of this? How do you deal with this disturbing question of power?

— Well, it’s definitely related to the previous answer about the manner of taking space in a room. There is a lot of confidence in my voice because I know what I am going to say. When it comes to having an opinion about something in a discussion, I really need to think the subject through in advance. With voice performances the text is thought-out in advance; it is already written and composed for an oral delivery, it’s not a speech directly from the mind. My English is also somewhat fake; I always had to invent my manner of speaking English, because I grew up in a bilingual family. My father is English, I spoke English at home but in Norway, so I have never lived in an environment where it is the native tongue. If you are learning it perfectly but have no social construction of the language, it’s very hard. Of course, you always hear English in TV series, in the media — it’s a global language, but having it as your home language and growing up with that language is not the same. I know how to speak, and it’s funny that it’s more like a fine English that I speak apparently is given a lot of authority. I can say that my German is good, but I recall that when I contact certain services in Germany I sometimes prefer to speak in English because I have that sort of confidence and a voice which I’d also like to have when I speak German. Because I then know where I belong, I gain authority. When I speak German, I sound like a foreigner and at the same time I don’t sound completely English. Yeah, it’s very interesting how you can work with these levels of confidence in language and speech.

— Getting back to the subject of poetry, where do you see poetry and art overlapping, and what is so special about their intersection?

— Well, it’s very popular right now. For instance, poets who are bridging to art are also often working with social media. When you’re using SMS or Twitter, there is a certain restriction of language; you have to make abbreviations and this is, actually, a poetic mean, a condensation of language, a kind of programming. Digital culture in general is about condensed things, condensed information. And in poetry you also have to condense language to some extent. For me trying to write a longer text is not so easy. I like putting a lot of emphasis into one word instead of creating a whole sentence. This is why poetry is gaining a lot of popularity: it’s structure of language is also very much found in the way we’re communicating through social media.

— I’ve been listening to some of your works where you transform mundane narrative such as an e-mail or an advert into poetry by simply narrating them as a poem. Apart from your enigmatic voice, what is behind this poetic effect? How does this transformation happen? What is the recipe?

— The recipe is basically balance and timing; a composition. It’s a composition of the actual text, but which you also can debate about. One of the things I didn’t like in print is that it’s very fixed. But instead of working in digital media I started doing something more ancient with voice instead of thinking: “I’ll do something non-fixed and use methods such as programming.” Usually, if you do printed matter and even web pages, you fix the text somehow. You can alter it, of course, you can use Google Docs and alter things constantly, but it’s still pretty much there. And with voice, especially if you do a performance with voice, your piece always changes slightly, it’s like working with a very fragile instrument. Using your voice you become dependent on the mood, on the temperature, dependent on the space surrounding you. At the same time, I know what I’m going to say when I say a particular word. Creating a mantra is creating the awareness of the word until it loses its meaning, and this is a really interesting aspect of speech. I think it’s very interesting even though it’s so banal and basic. Speech is very sensory as opposed to text.

— Tell me a couple of words about your current work at the Biennale.

— I am doing a black out. I was interested in the idea of crisis and in what we refer to when using the word crisis as Westerners. Is it quite simple, like “Oh, the Internet doesn’t work and I need to send three business e-mails or communicate with someone” or “Oh, the lights are out, what should I do?” The moment of crisis is a disfunction, and how you deal with it. More and more things are dependent on electricity or charging — you see people charging their phones constantly from any possible outlet, and there is this panic when we’re losing contact with our digital outlets. It’s some sort of disaster-thinking “I don’t have a battery, so I can’t communicate with anyone.” So I was thinking that if energy breaks down, what are we doing with our communication? We get back to the voice, as the voice is this thing that will run without power supply. In the darkness you might not be able to read, but you can still hear the voice. The idea behind the performance is quite apocalyptic.

— This Biennale raises the question “How to gather?”; the question of Eurasia and its borders, and the existence of imaginary borders between me and others. So, how can we talk about these borders today?

— It’s a very urgent topic right now, especially in regards to the refugees in Europe, and at the same time the idea of borders is such an everlasting conflict. My work doesn’t directly address this conflict, although in my performance I’m addressing the idea of crisis, and the crisis we are subject to when we are already in a privileged situation, and how the word crisis itself is used in both a personal and a national context.

— I was also thinking of borders in a broad sense, such as borders within art practices. For example, a border between a poem and a performance.

— Some people do very conscious choices of these things, but it’s not my case — I’m just working with certain tools. It finds itself in art because that’s where you often have more of an open end. If you do a reading at a poetry festival, you basically do a reading standing upright in front of an audience. Within art I find that you can do more, art is a multifaceted area. I guess it’s just a way of thinking. I don’t necessarily call myself a poet. I was formed as a visual artist working with language. And this complexity of how my practices came together suits art very well.

Interview: Marina Simakova