Performance collage

the effect of spoken text...
the audience hears the audience cheers
pleasure is power surge
listening against the grain of understanding
you put it together with yours
the greater good of aurality, the people's
medium = another ersatz
nostalgia myth "remember when we all just
sat around the fire and told stories
and everything was better".
a fantastic fake thesis
there is no natural way to perform a poem
or any way in which the spoken word can
remain as written
speaking and writing the difference is the sun
the sun is shining, the hairs on the back of
your back are bristling
your pants are tight and you're
the words
the average art performance is low level
illusion, turning text into…
more acts

In a spoken word performance, the essential elements are a body, a voice and perhaps an amplification system. I have assembled here some notes on the voice, the female voice in particular, and performance in general by inference and accident.

The voice is the possible the fantastic the ghost. The effect voices have on me, different specific voices with and without words, is a recurring revelation an extreme pleasure. Derrida falls upon an 'image' of the voice when he tries to describe what a world without hierarchical gender would be like:

The relationship (to the other) would not be a-sexual, far from it, but would be sexual otherwise: beyond the binary difference that governs the decorum of all codes, beyond the opposition feminine/masculine, beyond homosexuality and heterosexuality, which come to the same thing. As I dream of saving the chance that this question offers, I would like to believe in the multiplicity of sexually marked voices. I would like to believe in the masses, this indeterminable number of blended voices, this mobile of non-identified sexual marks whose choreography can carry, divide, multiply the body of each 'individual', whether he be classified as 'man' or 'woman' according to the criteria of usage. (Toril Moi uses this quote from Choreographies to end her book on Feminist Literary theory)1

O.K. "Fat Chance" you might say but my point is that Derrida's statement serves as a description of some of the attractive possibilities of a new type of subjectivity/gender possible to imagine/theorize by using the voice as a model of immaterial, imageless, free flowing being remaking itself moment to moment word to word. Definitely too good to be true, but worth considering.

I hope to be constructed not just by my body/image: that which separates me from others, but by my voice, that which is produced within my body flows out and enters the body of another. My fantasy is of a vocal model from which I might construct an 'identity,' even a place from which to 'author' which would be less fixed within normative hierarchies including that of inside/outside. I find in the voice not only a symbolic, but also a real potential.

Karen Findley was here
When a spoken word piece is on, or really happening you could say it's "musical" based on Barthes' meaning of music; that it is a quality of spoken/sung language which can voice the unspeakable. While Barthes sees the "musical" as bringing out, and embedding in the language such subtle qualities as "pleasure, tenderness, delicacy and fulfillment"2 we might also hear the intervention of more political sounds of gender, ethnicity, age, class etc. Perhaps 'choral' is a better term for the sound of a speaker's desire for individual resonance within the social voice of language. This choral effect of voice and text puts language in a context, and can work parallel to the text to subtly change the habitually received meaning of a word. To create the sound of language in process rather than language as monolith.

"Personally Speaking"
The problem with speaking is that it makes you seem as if it is you who is saying these things. If you're convincing it will seem like they just came to you and people will ask, "Was that an improvisation?" What a disaster. Too much personality can ruin a good word. Speech has been thought of as being closer to the truth, farther away from the written word, from the page which loses you. Loses you to find yourself written, not yourself, not your own maker. You mean I was dealt a hand. As if you didn't know. You could feel that you weren't there at the start when they called it strong or weak or exciting or sorrowful. That mine in mother's arms just doesn't look like the word I started with. That's the problem with embodying the words too closely, too convincingly, snuggle up with slut you whore wife, move it over a cunt hair and smile. Speak to confirm, like a Sealy Posturepedic.

It is because; spoken words are thought of as symbolizing ideas 'directly'—without the further passage through a supplementary medium of written signs—that speech can be safely maintained within the zone of a privileged relation to truth.3

Kaja Silverman in her book The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema concurs with Derrida's deconstruction of this notion of speech as truth/authentic interiority/the presence of an authorial 'I'/words of a creator rather than a created/but insists that for women this speech as interiority equation has not provided a privileged position from which to speak. Speech as presence is a construction which masks the loss that coming into language creates. For Silverman the voice is situated in relation to absence as well as presence. "The voice is the site of perhaps the most radical of all subjective divisions—the division between meaning and materiality."4 Materiality the body, the sound of the body in the voice, meaning the bodiless constitution.

The voice is not a transparent medium for language. The voice carries the sound of the speaker's body, in a word it may relate gender, age, regional accent, ethnic background, class, mood and many other less classifiable nuances. All voices are not received as equal. The perception of someone with a thick (non western European) accent as less intelligent is just one example. In the case of gender, the way the female voice is positioned in media such as film is quite different from the way a male voice is situated. If the 'mirror stage' occupies a pivotal moment in the infant's life, the television and video stage enjoys a lifelong incarnation in most North American lives. We see, hear and are constituted by the people who are not quite us. The voice in film has an influence on the voice in live situations.

Synchronized Swimming
Dominant cinema's use of the synchronized sound track to power hierarchies remains uninterrupted. In Classic Cinema the male voice sometimes floats above as a voice over, elevated to a more powerful, bodiless, immaterial, status like the Wizard of Oz, The Director, or God. The female voice is kept on the material plane, inhabiting the body through strict synchronization. Synchronization works in combination with other narrative and visual strategies for controlling and containing the female subject. Likewise, in the medium of spoken word, what I'll call 'synchronization', can be limiting. Synchronization ties to body. Synchronization masks the apparatus of language creating the illusion of unproblematic speech. A flimsy illusion for many speakers operating within this language, imbued as it is with a patriarchal and racist history. Or, when words fall out of your mouth like hot muffins from a tin I suddenly notice you've got Florence Henderson's eyes. But who am I to talk. What forms could 'nonsynchronous' spoken word take?

Further, the being present to oneself, through hearing yourself speak, the mark of interiority that is an assuring authorship, a stamp of authenticity, this interiority has never really been a privileged site for women, but has been constructed as a confining interiority which equates meaning with materiality, body with identity, where women are concerned.

Hollywood's soundtrack is engendered through a complex system of displacements which locate the male voice at the point of apparent textual origin, while establishing the diegetic containment of the female voice...interiority has a very different status in classic cinema from the one that it enjoys in the literary and philosophical tradition which Derrida critiques. Far from being a privileged condition, synonymous with soul, spirit, or consciousness, interiority in Hollywood films implies linguistic constraint and physical confinements—confinement to the body, to claustral spaces, and to inner narratives.5

Often the body which is 'spoken' is unintelligible—a cry or a scream.

But must these confines remain
Speech, Speech, Speech, Olson implies public, masculine organ of oration. The voice suggests a physiological configuration. Potentially destabilizing. To speak and to hear yourself speak, simultaneously, is not always reassuring. Not always a pat on the back jack. Uncanny that hat or is it your hair brain. Tangled mind. Your voice comes back to you out and in, always changing slightly or dramatically with the acoustics of the room. An echo, you become strange to yourself. A recording, you recoil. This double organization of the auditory system, which makes the speaker a listener at the same time, is what Rosolato terms the "Acoustic Mirror," and Silverman interprets him as hinting "at its potentially destabilizing consequences for subjectivity since the voice is capable of being internalized at the same time it is externalized; it can spill over from subject to object and object to subject violating the bodily limits upon which classic subjectivity depends and so smoothing the way for projection and introjection."6 You become an ouroboros 69ing yourself. A confusion where no one rules and possibility is present as identity floats.

Diamanda Galas eats broken glass
So to the end. What about the fact that the body, which I hear in the voice and think of as a potentially liberating freeflowing gendered but disruptive sound indicating a discomfort a subversive remarking of language can also be seen as a recurrence of the perception woman as body, materiality over meaning. Is the voice the point where gender disrupts language power or is it the point where the material body is brought into discredit, to interiorize in the negative sense, the dialogue of women.

When I see the cover and read the notes to a book I just bought called Out From Under: Texts by Women Performance Artists I wonder if that isn't exactly the case, that the general perception of a spoken text, especially if it is read 'dramatically' is that it comes from within, that it is immediate, primal, primary communication even if that is not what the performer intends. The cover illustration which the author praises for "so vividly expressing the mood of this collection" is a chalk drawing in white and red on black, of a woman's head, you know it's a woman because of the red lips and the boat neck of her red dress. Out of her mouth comes a fiery strip of words; sex, death power, love, passion." I can't say these words - they don't mean anything. Sex? There is no sex. It's not necessarily emancipatory for women to talk about these things. They are buzzwords, validated topics. And they're pouring out this woman's mouth right from her gut. Bah, humbug, phooey, language isn't from the gut, it is a system, a social, ideological, structuring system encoded with hierarchical patriarchal values and all sorts of other great and gruesome biases. It doesn't mean that nothing can come from a gal's gut but let's be realistic.

Accepted Sound of Freedom
Is it necessarily radical for women to talk about sex death or power or is it what they say and how they say it that matters. "These women are fighters in red dresses." Tied to the body through clothing reference. Could be read as, 'they're so elemental they like to wear menstrual coloured clothes'. "Like Carolee Schneemann's Interior Scroll (which she produced out of her vagina), the writing by these women comes from a deep, dark place." (my parentheses)7 The vagina equated with a deep dark place, gee where have I heard that before...puh, puh, puh, patriarchy (FogHorn LegHorn accent). Woman, unknowable even to herself, externalizing texts, barfing them up, bleeding them out, but isn't this bio-logical the same thing that marginalizes women's texts—puts them beyond interpretation because they come from that "deep dark place." The texts themselves are variously interesting but claustrophobically enclosed within their description as catharsis, as unknown. Analysis is discouraged by positing that these words come from some dark unknown place rather than from the social arena of language. Perhaps it is the voice (rather than the text) that adds residual traces of some unspeakable though not unknown tensions or desires.

The Real Question (a classic)
Is it because these texts are spoken/performed that they are so tied to the body 'they came out of?' Their content is visceral but it is made to seem more 'authentic' by its vocalization. I started this piece off with a critique of this concept of voice as truth, speech as closer to textual origin. I think the problem then is not an innate problem of the voice but the persistence of an old model of "speech." Contemporary writing practices are striving to bring ideologies and materiality of language to the forefront, to make writing "speak" the unspeakable. A related project for the spoken word is also desirable. An attention to voice and text that takes neither for granted nor for granite. Forgetting language the way it forgets you isn't a strategy.

Footnotes and Endnotes

  1. Jacques Derrida from Choreographies p. 76.
    Quoted by Toril Moi in Sexual/Textual Politics, London: Routledge, 1988, p. 173. back

  2. Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard. Berkley, California: California University Press, 1991, p. 284. back

  3. Christopher Norris, Derrida. London: Fontana Press, 1987, p. 65. back

  4. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1988, p.44. back

  5. Ibid. p. 45 back

  6. Out From Under, ed. Lenora Champagne. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1990, p. x. back

  7. Ibid. p. xiii. back

Judy Radul

Judy Radul lives and works in Vancouver. Her interdisciplinary practice has recently focused on video installation but also includes sculpture, photography, performance and mixed media installations. She has exhibited her work nationally and internationally including Mechelen, Belgium; Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, Antwerp; Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, The Vancouver Art Gallery, Oboro, Montreal, Presentation House Gallery, North Vancouver, and The Power Plant, Toronto. Her creative writing and essays have appeared in a variety of publications since 1991. Her large scale-media installation World Rehearsal Court was first exhibited as a solo exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Gallery at U.B.C. in 2009 (on line catalog at This work draws on Radul's research into the role of theatricality and new technologies in the court of law and it questions the distinctions between experience, testimony, truth, and fiction that the law attempts to make distinct. The work has travelled to the Generali Foundation, Vienna, Media City Seoul, Korea and will be mounted in a solo exhibition at the Henie Onstad Art Center in Oslo, Norway in 2011. Radul was born in Lillooet, B.C., grew up in Haney, B.C., received her B.A in Fine and Performing Arts from S.F.U. In 2000 she received a Master of Visual and Media Arts from Bard College, New York.