Media @ McGill

Artist voices from the 1980s: vocality, technics, and performativity

Submitted by Media@McGill on
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By Zoe de Luca

My project aims to analyse the critical aesthetics of voice across a diverse range of artistic production including (but not limited to) lecture and multimedia performances; essay films and videos; documentary; and experimental art television from the 1980s. That the social and cultural construction of an engendered voice always intersects with questions of power and authority – who has it, who can speak of it, or through it, and who is spoken for – is at the heart of this research. I seek to be attentive to the socio-techno-cultural factors of voice in contemporary art and will examine practices that engage the rhetoric of authority and authorship as it manifests in art, media culture, and politics.

My research will also address the sensorial and the material by engaging with voice in its live, deferred, amplified, recorded, disassociated, repeated, distorted, processed, manipulated, and transmitted states. I mean to embrace the polyvalent forms and functions of voice and am especially interested in the potential of vocal technologies as technologies of the body and how voice flows across disciplines. Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s inception of a synthesised “voice of authority” from 1979 functions here as a starting point to think about the specific potentialities of the technologically-hybridised voice in relation to Judith Butler’s ideation of performativity in the speech act. The suturing of narratives and interrogation of a colonising voice in video artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien’s 1984 documentary Territories performs another line of enquiry critical to this project: the work done by the voice – its immaterial labour and production as, for example, both a narrative and mnemonic device.

The modes of thinking about art and representation that correlated in the development of postmodernist and feminist discourses in the 1980s, through the translation and dissemination of texts associated with, but not limited to, psychoanalysis and post-structuralism, is central to my return to this moment specifically. For example, the dissolution of the author function, via the influence of texts such as Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author” (1968) and Michel Foucault’s “What is an author?” (1969), within the postmodernist canon effected a shift both in terms of perceiving the authorial voice and questioning the role of the subject in discourse more broadly. I will work on these questions in consultation with media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s Discourse Networks (1985) and his understanding of media as the networks of technologies (and associated institutions) that allow us to process, communicate, and store information. The current influence of theoretical conceptualisations of the “network”, and their limits – as, for example, a brilliant meta-structure for mapping humans and our things and for rethinking subject/object, nature/culture dualisms in the work of sociologist-cum-curator Bruno Latour, or for art historians such as David Joselit in developing sophisticated digital metaphors for relating to contemporary art – informs my consideration of Kittler’s earlier text.