#eye #eye

Wen Pei Low

“To pursue the voice as heard in art is to approach a field of danger, for as sonic media the voice aims for language as its target.”, Brandon LaBelle argues in the second edition of his book Background Noise (LaBelle, 2015, p.106). Yet there are artists who embrace and navigate this “danger” in their works for it to produce communal affects. An example of this is Lin Chih-Wei’s much-known and traveled work Tape Music (2004). This essay will discuss the ways in which Tape Music explores the medium of orality, and the affects of collective vocalization. First, it will define the voice and discuss its politics and paradoxes. Next, it will investigate concepts of chorality and its presence in Tape Music. Finally, it will argue for the capacity of such participatory sound works to reveal the circuitry of communities and the environment it is performed in.

The Voice in Tape Music

Voice can be understood as an activation or articulation that leaves one to reveal the existence of the ‘speaking subject’ (Kristeva, 1984, p.103). In Tape Music, the voice is used when participants decide to vocally participate in the improvised work. Tape Music is a social art and sound piece that has been performed in various countries and communities over the last 9 years. In the work, participants position themselves in a spiral formation and pass a ribbon-score from hand to hand, generating a ‘human tape machine’ and sound reel (Liquid Architecture, n.d). The ribbon-score ranges between 50 to 150 meters in length, and is embroidered with traditional Chinese characters and their romanisation, without pitch indications. Sets of characters are repeated throughout the score. There are also versions of the score embroidered with simplified Chinese characters, and European languages. It is a rule that no instructions are given as to how participants should respond to the score (Lee, 2016 and Noble, n.d.). Lin notes that most often, participants vocalize in response to the score and ‘surprising, polyphonic echoes and delays emerge’, giving life to musical consonances (Bosetti, 2018). Undoubtedly, the specific responses to each Tape Music session differs due to its improvisational nature, and they transform in relation to the space the work is performed in as well.

In thinking about the use of the voice in Tape Music, we can consider LaBelle’s writing on the voice’s politics and paradoxes. One, to vocalize is to make oneself known. The voice forms traces of its owner’s becoming (Kristeva, 1984). When language is introduced in the use of one’s voice, the voice then acts as a vehicle for negotiation between personal, cultural and social identity as language puts forth the speaker’s signifying attributes such as race, class and gender, while remaining situated in the field of linguistics as a semiotic and syntactical domain. Next, as Steven Connor (2000) identifies, the voice is a vehicle that draws one into coincidence with themselves beyond mere belonging, association or utility, but this can only occur when the voice ‘parts or passes’ from its owner ’into the world’. In the instant sounds are vocalized, the voice is also simultaneously inside and outside and concurrently revealing and dissolving agency. This is achieved through the very act of sounding or through words that have been spoken, if words are spoken at all (LaBelle, 2015). The voice can thus be understood as a vehicle for enacting identity and power. As Connor argues, when one employs their voice, one confirms the capacity of their voice to ‘make the world in sound’ (Connor, 2015, p.7). The voice is thus a physical and embodied affirmation that one can bring about effects in their life and surroundings. However, it is worth noting that the source of personal and political agency in one’s voice does not come entirely from within an individual but also in and through cultural exchanges amongst bodies that are similarly ever-shifting in terms of identity (Kim-Cohen, 2009).

Indeed, this sentiment is echoed in Tape Music due to its nature of being an improvised and socially engaged work. Through engaging various communities, a dynamic field of cultural and social relations are formed. Participants thus enact varying degrees and forms of agency through their responses. For example, some choose to harmonize with other participants while some remain silent, or create dissonance and further sonic segregation. Furthermore, as participants are seated in extremely close proximity to one another, the sensitivity to enact agency through the use of one’s voice is heightened. The moments in between decision-making can thus be read as reflections of power dynamics present within the space. As Connor writes, if the single voice already has the capacity to go beyond the individual, the choral or collective voice undoubtedly goes beyond itself and the group subject (Connor, 2015). It swells and grows into a hyper-body that asserts its power through taking up a second space. This is further affirmed through the definition of the Greek word choros, from which the term chorality is defined from. Choros refers to dance or the study of spatial distribution and limit (Connor, 2015). Joint acts of vocalization thus pursue more complex associations and relations of solidarity and power in response to what is heard, which can also be argued to be conditioned with agency and identity if discussed through the framework of Stoever’s ‘listening ear’ (Stoever, 2016).

Looking through the ’Listening Ear’

The listening ear refers to the normalization of ‘aural tastes and standards’ of the white elite masculine as a single way to interpret what is heard. It is this which furthers the process of racializing sound, otherwise known as the sonic color line (Stoever, 2016, p.13). It is no surprise that the sonic color line has manifested itself in Tape Music sessions though not explicitly as a result of racial difference as the listening ear is also shaped by the intersections of gender, class, regional, national and linguistic identities (Stoever, 2016). This is exemplified through Lin’s recount of a Tape Music session where all its participants remained silent. In a factory run by the Tomiyama Group in Shenzhen, China, laborers, who were the participants, did not vocally respond to the score for a duration of 15 minutes as they passed it the embroidered ribbon to one another. Lin writes that their response was possibly a reflection of their identity as musician-laborers and the environment the performance took place in - their workplace (Packham, 2021). Even though the laborers were part of a folk music group, they spent most of their days working and were not familiar with the concepts of performance or sound art. Working in a factory production line, the laborers were also conditioned to respond to rigid instructions and familiar structures in order to increase profit. With the lack of instruction provided before the commencement of the unfamiliar situation, that being the performance of Tape Music, the participants thus remained silent (Bosetti, 2018). Their response can thus be linked to the serialization of labor as well (Packham, 2021). Whether this response is read as one of the loudest statements of solidarity or a result of hesitation, it draws parallels to Harriet Jacobs’ writing in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Jacobs notes that the white sonic color line and listening ear has encouraged slaves to turn the listening ear against themselves by policing their own movements and repressing bodily functions, resulting in their loss of autonomy to speak. While the occurrence of silence in the aforementioned performance may not have been a direct reflection of race, this still suggests that social and political factors are at play when voicing and listening is involved. Leung, Harris & Rampton (1997) further affirm this, arguing that language use and notions of ethnicity and social identity are inextricably linked. It can thus be said that the power dynamics within the intersections of the listening ear play a role in politicizing the experience of collective vocalization, or in this case, silence, as well. Lin furthers this sentiment by expressing that while he saw Tape Music’s debut in 2004 as a demonstration of being present in the ‘here and now’, he now sees its capacity in revealing society’s ‘inner circuits’ (Noble, n.d). He refers to this as the ways in which communities choose to organize and function. As exemplified through the previous example, he notes that this is especially significant in environments where participants are not familiar with the concepts of contemporary art. It is for this reason that Lin does not wish to label Tape Music as a sound work as well, for he understands its communal affects extend beyond its identity as a ‘sound work’. For example, in a Tape Music session in 2007 at a local community in Stockholm, Lin writes that participants created a harmony naturally as if they were in an improvised choir. Throughout this process, a girl made sounds that resembled a cat’s meow. Despite this, Lin noted that it was the most harmonic performance that he had ever witnessed. He mentioned this to the participants and they responded by discussing how the performance was a reflection of lagom, which refers to ‘just the right amount’ in Swedish, or a harmonic forming that is also reflected in their social values (Noble, n.d). It can thus be said that Tape Music has become effective in not just enacting personal identity and agency, but also in making audible the functioning of communities and regions where the performances take place. As Parkson writes, the performances of Tape Music can be thought of as ‘one of sonification: the “voicing” of an “everyday politic”’ (Packham, 2021).

Less becomes More

It is worth noting that for Tape Music to achieve such affects, language has been utilized in a space that is partially removed from the circuitry of its explicit symbolisms and cultural contexts. Similar to the intentions behind the text in Alvin Lucier’s work I am sitting in a room, that also involves the voice and language, the score is kept simple and not ‘overly aestheticized’ so listeners can engage in the sounds instead of the language itself (Kelly, 2017). Lin further applies strategies such as removing pitch indications, repeating characters that have the same pronunciations for an extended duration of time, and performing Tape Music in a wide variety of spaces regardless of participant’s language proficiency. Through this, it is evident that Lin has also embraced the understanding that the very sound of language carries its own inherent meanings even if one does not understand the language (Wishart, & Emmerson, 1996). Lin’s Tape Music thus continues to serve as a meaningful and relevant work for its participants and audiences regardless of their background as it introduces and develops intersections of awareness that might not have been made present or audible before, all while cultivating a presence and solidarity, be it through voice or voicelessness.

Wen Pei Low is a third year BFA (Art Theory) student. @ _wenpeii

Reference list 

Bosetti, A. (2018). The Scroll Begins Unfolding: Lin Chi-Wei in conversation with Alessandro Bosetti, Disclaimer https://disclaimer.org.au/contents/the-scroll-begins-unfolding-lin-chi-wei-in-conversation-with-ale ssandro-bosetti

Connor, S. (2000). Dumbstruck: a cultural history of ventriloquism. Oxford University Press

Connor, S. (2015). Choralities, Steven Connor https://stevenconnor.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/choralities.pdf

Hiršenfelder, I. (2020). Body archive/the body as the archive. Maska, 35(200), 74–83. https://doi.org/10.1386/maska_00031_1

Kelly, C. (2017). Gallery sound, Bloomsbury Academic, New York.

Kristeva, J. (1984). Revolution in poetic language. Columbia University Press

Kim-Cohen, S. (2009). In the blink of an ear:toward a non-cochlear sonic art. Continuum.

LaBelle, B. (2015). Background noise: perspectives on sound art (Second edition.) Bloomsbury.

Leung, C., Harris, R., & Rampton, B. (1997). The Idealised Native Speaker, Reified Ethnicities, and Classroom Realities. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 543–560. https://doi.org/10.2307/3587837

Liquid Architecture (n.d.) Lin Chih-Wei Tape Music https://liquidarchitecture.org.au/events/lin-chi-wei

Noble, A. (n.d) Reawakening the Killing Tone: Sound Art of Lin Chih-Wei White Fungus https://www.whitefungus.com/lin-chi-wei-reawakening-killing-tone

Packham, J. (2021). Scoring the Social Voice: Lin Chi-Wei’s Tape Music Theatrum Mundi https://theatrum-mundi.org/library/scoring-the-social-voice/

Stoever, J. L. (2016). The sonic color line: race and the cultural politics of listening. New York University Press.

Wishart, T., & Emmerson, S. (1996). On sonic art: a new and revised edition. Routledge.