Human emotion, algorithmic artwork, and sounds of wildlife come together in ‘Voicing’
By Caroline Ho, Arts Editor
The New Media Gallery’s newest exhibition presents a dazzling display of sound and imagery that challenges conceptions of the human voice and emotion.
Voicing held its opening reception in the gallery on October 20, and the exhibition runs until December 22. It features three enthralling works by three different artists, each of which utilize sounds, space, and technology to create an exquisite multisensory experience.
According to the curatorial text provided by the New Media Gallery, “voicing” refers to the “manipulation of notes and chords in any sound-producing entity; human, bird, or instrument, thus changing the personality of a tone and altering its emotional quality.” Curated by gallery directors Sarah Joyce and Gordon Duggan, the exhibition explores how voices and vocal tracts, both mechanical and natural, transmit sentiment.
American artist Michelle Jaffé’s Wappen Field (2013), the first piece a visitor encounters, features 12 steel helmets suspended from the ceiling. When a visitor places their head into the helmet, they are treated to what Joyce described as a “cornucopia of experimental sounds.”
Joyce, speaking to the Other Press at the gallery opening, explained that this is an algorithmic piece: The sounds played by each helmet change as you place your head inside, progressing through adjacent helmets and affecting the emotional tone of the surrounding ones. Wappen Field makes use of an audio synthesis and algorithmic composition program called SuperCollider to move sound—and emotion—through the display.
what do machines sing of? (2015), by German artist Martin Backes, also makes use of the SuperCollider program. Comprised of what appears to be a screen with a microphone in front of it, the piece is in fact a robot that sings ’90s love songs, and over the course of the exhibition the robot essentially discovers how to impart emotion into its performance.
“What the program is trying to do is learn how to sing with emotional intent,” said Joyce.
The robot has six moving ballads in its repertoire, including hits by Whitney Houston and Bryan Adams. Since it is constantly “learning,” every performance it gives is different in terms of singing tempo and affective quality, raising a compelling question about the capabilities of artificial intelligence.
UK-based Marcus Coates’ Dawn Chorus (2007) delves into the intricacies of human voice from another angle, through a deep-rooted connection to birdsong. The audacious installation is made up of a multitude of screens arranged throughout the room, paired with what sound at first like bird calls emanating from around the space. However, the audio clips are actually recordings of 14 amateur choir members from Bristol, who are shown on the screens.
To create this work, Coates captured recordings of 14 birds singing simultaneously in nature. He then slowed the sounds down to a fraction of their speed, filmed choristers singing the slowed-down segments, then sped the audio and video from the human singers back up. Remarkably, not only do the voices sound just like birdsong—the humans on the screens also look amazingly birdlike, with rapid, fluttery movements. The combination of music and motion in Dawn Chorus creates, as described by the curatorial text, “a fascinating exploration into the origins of human language and voice in bird song.”
According to Joyce, the inspiration for Voicing as an exhibition comes from the artworks themselves, rather than from an effort by the curators, Joyce and Duggan, to select works that fit the concept.
“We don’t set a theme and then illustrate the theme. We always work from pieces, from works of art,” said Joyce.
For Voicing and every other exhibition at the New Media Gallery, the process involves looking at a lot of artwork over many years. Then, she said, “Pieces suddenly come together in a really natural way and you see those kind of synchronicities, or you see synergies.”
The New Media Gallery is a free public art gallery located on the third floor of Anvil Center, just across the street from the New Westminster SkyTrain Station. It is open on Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and to 8 p.m. on Thursdays.