Samuel Beckett, Not I, 1977, video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes 6 seconds. From “Acts of Voicing.”

Samuel Beckett, Not I, 1977, video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes 6 seconds. From “Acts of Voicing.”

“Acts of Voicing”

Samuel Beckett, Not I, 1977, video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes 6 seconds. From “Acts of Voicing.”

The voice has been a major theme in contemporary political theory, especially since Judith Butler began directing attention to the potential violence of speech, for instance in her 1997 book Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. The great value of the deeply thought-out exhibition “Acts of Voicing: Über die Poetiken und Politiken der Stimme” (On the Poetics and Politics of the Voice) was its demonstration of how the voice has been a theme for art as well. At the center of the exhibition was a projection showing a disembodied mouth: lips, teeth, oral cavity. It was moving fast—too fast. A female voice could be heard describing the fate of a nearly mute woman, but no, she herself is not this woman, though one could hardly understand the voice, which speaks too fast: It is reciting Samuel Beckett’s play Not I, filmed by the BBC in 1977. Only shreds of it can be understood, but that isn’t the point. Rather, at stake here is the sensual act of speech—the mouth attracts the eyes like a vagina. The mouth seems to be possessed by the voice, and by the fact that it is a female voice speaking, not a discourse-dominating male one.

The exhibition extended from this mouth in every direction, with an architecture of stages and recesses one could sink into with headphones. To allow for the work of more than thirty artists as well as events including performances, lectures, and workshops, the installation was constantly changing. The voice is no static thing; its observation requires space and time.

Who speaks and who listens? In John Baldessari’s video Teaching a Plant the Alphabet, 1972, a houseplant “listens” to a pedantic voice. Unerhörter Bericht über die deutschen Verbrechen in den kolonisierten Gebieten und über das fortwährende Wirken der Gewalt bis in die Gegenwart (Unheard Account of German Crimes Committed in the Colonized Territories and of the Ongoing Impact of Violence to the Present Day), 2012, a documentary by Anette Hoffmann, Matei Bellu, and Regina Sarreiter, shows, in contrast, that one can be rendered mute even while speaking. In 1931, Hans Lichtnecker from the University of Munich measured and recorded not only the ears and noses of the inhabitants of German colonies in southwest Africa but also their voices. For him these were abstract sounds without content, essentially dumb. Only now has it been discovered that these recordings contain reports of shocking crimes committed by Germans in those colonies.

One of the most striking works here was a 1976 video by Raša Todosijević, who lives in Belgrade. We see a Madonna-like face caressed, squeezed, hit, and caressed again while a male voice asks the question that gives the work its title: Was ist Kunst? (What Is Art?). The face stares into the distance without answering. In an installation by Ingrid Wildi Merino in collaboration with the Decolonial Group Berlin, six voices read from Santiago Castro-Gómez’s 2005 book La Hybris del Punto Cero (Zero Point Hubris), which, in the tradition of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, examines the supposedly neutral speech of the European Enlightenment. Six microphones hang from the ceiling, surrounded by ninety-three portraits of figures central to postcolonial thought. Here, too, silence reigns—it’s as though their voices were trapped in the microphones. This evocation of the unheard hints at what the artist and writer Hito Steyerl so beautifully describes in her introduction to the German edition of Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”: that Spivak’s legacy does not consist in giving voice to previously unheard voices, “but rather in hearing their shared silence.”

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Anne Posten.