Curated by New York-based critic Christopher Phillips, Voices presents works by Vito Acconci, Judith Barry, Geneviève Cadieux, Jochen Gerz, Gary Hill, Pierre Huyghe and Kristin Oppenheim. New works were created for the exhibition by Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller and Moniek Toebosch.

For centuries the human voice existed outside the proper field of the visual arts, inhabiting a region of experience that lay beyond purely pictorial rendition. In recent decades, however, as artists have come to explore the rich continuum of sounds and sights that now make up the audiovisual environment, the complex relation of voice and visual image has received increasing attention. Against this background, the exhibition Voices sets out to probe the uses of the voice as metaphor and material in contemporary art.

Employing a wide range of mediums – including video, film, photography, and multimedia installation – these pieces pose provocative questions concerning the role of the voice as an instrument of communication and expression in twentieth-century culture.

The works in the exhibition touch upon a variety of themes. These include the “interior voice” as an emblem of the self; the “voice of power” that speaks to us through mass media; the heritage of dada phonetic poetry and post-World War II poésie sonore; the paradoxical pairing of voice and image in cinema; and the experimental combination of vocal and electronically generated sounds. More generally, Voicesencourages us to think in a new way about the subtle transformation of social relations that have been produced by such inventions as the telephone, radio, loudspeaker, tape recorder and computerized voice synthesizer.

Jochen Gerz’s work of the 1960s and early ’70s often reflects his involvement with the international experimental poetry movement of those years. A piece heard through a telephone receiver, Gerz’s Speaking of Her (1972) consists of two short texts recited simultaneously by a pair of Voices – one male and speaking French, the other female and speaking English. Moving in tandem, at every moment both separate and intimately entwined, the two Voices create a startling pattern of sound and meaning in the listener’s mind.

Vito Acconci, in his performances, videotapes, and installations since the late 1960s, has often employed his own low, gravelly voice as an instrument of command, confession, seduction or denunciation. In Three Columns for America (1976), Acconci delivers what he calls a “message from America” Seated before three tall, minimalist panels, we hear the artist speaking in alternate Voices. One is the cliché-filled “interior” voice of an everyday participant in the marathon race of American society; the other is the “exterior” voice of a radio announcer who delivers scandalous headlines concerning the sexual antics of U.S. politicians.

For over two decades, Gary Hill’s videotape works and installations have pioneered new modes of interplay between speech, writing and visual imagery. In a group of short video pieces from 1978-80 – Mouthpiece, Primary, Elements, Mediations, and Around and About – we can follow step by step as Hill moves from formal experiments involving abstract video images and syllabic sound toward combinations of representational images and spoken language. These works prepared the way for Hill’s influential videoworks and installations of the 1980s.

Geneviève Cadieux explores the expressive powers of visual imagery and speech. In two recent diptychs, Elle et lui and Elle et lui (avec main de femme) (1997), Cadieux’s large-scale photographs of a tense-looking man and woman are cropped and paired so that we feel the presence of “off-screen” Voices suggested by the gesturing hands and facial reactions. An archetypal modern tableau is conjured up – a scene of blocked communication and failed dialogue, haunted by hollow words that have fallen short of their goal.

Kristin Oppenheim’s minimalistic installations dispense almost entirely with visual imagery so as to heighten the affective power of her voice. Hey Joe (1996) takes the opening line of a song popularized by Jimi Hendrix during the Vietnam War era: “Hey Joe, where’re you going with that gun in your hand?” As we hear Oppenheim softly singing these words, we see small, electronically guided spotlights moving unpredictably around the otherwise empty room. The result is a mood in which fairytale enchantment becomes increasingly mixed with dread.

In the “fabricated soundscapes” of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, perceptual space and imaginative space become hopelessly entangled. Their new installation, La Tour, pivots on a story of seduction and betrayal and creates a situation that mixes intimacy and voyeurism, reality and fiction, past and present. The piece was inspired by the legendary Marguerite de Bourgogne, a queen of France who was rumored to stage debaucheries in the Tour de Nesle.

The paradoxes of the voice in cinema have figured prominently in Pierre Huyghe’s recent works. His video installation Dubbing (1996) presents us with a group of professional film dubbers who are gathered in a studio and attentively gazing in our direction. In fact they are watching the horror film Poltergeist (which remains invisible to us) and dramatically performing the French dialogue. As we watch the dubbers diligently at work, going in and out of character, another space comes to life – the imaginative space of the story that is being played “before our ears?”.

Employing a range of cinematic devices for presenting the voice – synchronous and nonsynchronous dialogue, off-camera Voices, voice-overs, and so on – Judith Barry dramatizes the way that complex aural and vocal cues have come increasingly to shape our sense of self and our experience of physical space. Barry’s new video-projection work VOICE off explores the ideas of possession and loss, presenting the spectator with two metaphoric narratives that unfold simultaneously on a double-sided screen dividing the gallery space. “Her” side tells the tale of a woman who has lost her voice and is desparately searching for it. “His” side concerns a man who is haunted by Voices whose source he is obsessively trying to track down.

Moniek Toebosch is known not only as an artist but as a performer, a singer and an actress in experimental films. She dedicates her new installation Les douleurs contemporaines V – The Procession to what she calls “the grief of this century”. The Procession is a circuit along one hundred audio speakers, activated by the visitor’s presence, from which groups of lamenting Voices are heard, which Toebosch has gathered from a variety of archival and broadcast sources and for which she made special recordings. They are meant to call to mind the emotional intensity that suffuses the countless scenes of mourning which are played out every day around the planet.

Audio library

In addition to the exhibited works, an audio library of historical and contemporary recordings will be available at a special ‘listening table’. Here the visitor can sample material related to the uses of the voice in sound poetry, avant-garde music, conceptual art and contemporary art.


Voices is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue which includes texts by guest curator Christopher Phillips, on the voice as metaphor and material in recent art; art critic Kate Linker, on the use of the voice in video art, taking the work of Vito Acconci as an example; and the text: “The Voice, between body and language” by French psychoanalytic Guy Rosolato, as well as a section of artists’ pages documenting the works in the exhibition and a bibliography and discography.

Voices is a co-production of Witte de With, center for contemporary art, Rotterdam; the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona; Le Fresnoy – Studio National des Arts Contemporains, Tourcoing

Voices could be realized thanks to the support of IRCAM, Paris; Kaleidoscope Program of the European Economic Community; CRAAV, Lille; KPN Nederland; Mondriaan Stichting, Amsterdam.

—With Thanks To:

IRCAM, Paris; Kaleidoscope Program of the European Economic Community; CRAAV, Lille; KPN Nederland; Mondriaan Stichting, Amsterdam.