Poetics of the voice

In an essay titled “Der Erzhäler,” translated into English as “The Storyteller,” philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) offers a stunning proposal concerning experience and wisdom. Taking a work by Russian storyteller Nicolai Leskov (1831–1895) as an example, Benjamin makes the following hypothesis: “The art of storytelling is coming to an end.” This is so, he suggests, because the “the ability to exchange experiences,” to transmit wisdom through the voice, is less and less transferable. In Benjamin’s view, what keeps art from telling stories and stifles oral tradition is the “progress” of information. Limited to describing the most immediate realities, information turns away from the marvellous, from “noteworthy stories.” Benjamin was writing in Germany at the dawn of the Second World War, when use of the voice, amplified through microphones, was becoming an incredible instrument for galvanizing huge crowds, and he knew that storytelling, an “artisan form of communication,” needed new energy within modernity.

Written in 1935, one year before “The Storyteller,” Benjamin’s celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is a reminder of the importance of avant-garde artists in their wish to resist the value-based system of art production. Benjamin discusses the Dadaists and their desire to challenge the inoffensive reception of an artwork by producing, among other things, poems consisting of “every imaginable waste product of language.” Some of these artists, such as Kurt Schwitters, were interested in shouting, noise, and “sound poetry,” and explored the materiality of the voice, bypassing phonocentrism. This deconstruction of the voice would then resonate as a sort of ritual to the rhythm of consonants and vowels. If we were to look for instances of such language-related provocation in Québec literature, we might think of the poems of Claude Gauvreau (1925–1971). Many of his poetic texts break entirely with the world of emotions and resonate, rather, as confrontation. Listening to them, we are far from the oral tradition associated, as Benjamin would say, with the world of “the mariners or the peasants.” However, this quest for pure poetry also indicates the need to become detached from informational discourse in order to approach orality as the origin of human communication.

In her book Parler en Amérique. Oralité, colonialisme, territoire (Montréal: Mémoire d’encrier, 2019), political philosopher and University of Ottawa professor Dalie Giroux writes that vernacular languages, far removed from scholarly culture, create an “underground cartography.” In fact, the homegrown oral French of North America has always coexisted with other subordinate languages, such as Indigenous ones and Créole. It was the first language of Jack Kerouac, the Franco-American poet who wrote On the Road (New York: Viking Press, 1957), whose linguistic experience in childhood was “blended with English and archaic expressions,” and of the filmmaker and poet Pierre Perreault, many of whose documentaries give life to “regional ways of speaking” harmonized with the people and their ways of life on the land. This is what Perreault wanted to bring to light in Pour la suite du monde (NFB, 1963) when he captured, through his camera, snippets of the living language of men and women who perpetuated know-how threatened by “imperial writing.”

The thematic section in this issue of ESPACE explores recent art practices in which voice – spoken, declaimed, sung – is key to the aesthetic experience. We feature various works in which the poetics of voices are transmitted through exhibition mechanisms inherent to contemporary art. Although use of the voice is omnipresent in telecommunications, this section underlines, through various ethno-cultural perspectives, the important artistic dimension of vocality. In her essay “The Art of Giving Voice,” Véronique Hudon analyzes a two-part project by the interdisciplinary company PME-Art, one of which is composed of roundtables in which each guest artist’s voice “bears the identity and sensibility of the one speaking.” From diverse cultural communities – Black, Indigenous, racialized, and/or LGBTQ+ – these artists express themselves within the bounds of an ethics of care, contributing to a collective reflection on the approach of self-to-self and of self-to-other. Artist jake moore’s essay presents the works of Susan Philipsz and Sharon Hayes, for whom the voice is used as sound material. Philipsz’s Lowlands (2010) is a sung work, sourced from an old Scottish lament, played on loudspeakers under bridges, and Hayes’s Everything Else Has Failed! Don’t You Think It’s Time For Love? (2007) is a spoken poem performed in the heart of Manhattan’s business district. Both works stress loss, mourning, absence. Performed in public spaces, they cast a spell on their surroundings with an unexpected song, far from the usual stereotypes.

The dimension of suffering that the voice transmits is also emphasized in Paul Grace’s essay “Testimony, Silence and Song.” Grace examines three films in which the voice tries to make itself heard through the horror genre. The films, directed by Werner Herzog, Joshua Oppenheimer, and Juan Manuel Echavaria, reveal painful experiences, particularly those marked by war. Put into images, they present challenges to viewers confronted with their portrayal. The communicational potential of such experiences is at play in artist Jérémie Nicolas’s sound installation, Haraka (2021). In his interview with critic and art historian Florian Gaité, he discusses the transposition of this fear within a sound work in which the testimonials of Harki fighters are interrupted with silences. Like Haraka, the creations by the artists Sanaz Sohrabi, Fanny Latreille, and Simon Belleau, discussed by Emmanuelle Choquette in her essay, present testimonials that have become central to the composition of archives. However, these testimonials are replayed as re-enactments, and the works, “rooted in documentary and archival research,” count on our having a fresh perception of certain historical events.

Indigenous artists, in particular, wishing to reaffirm the epistemological and artistic relevance of tradition, propose the use of oral tradition to pass down ancestral wisdom. In her essay, art historian Joëlle Dubé analyzes a work by Navajo composer Raven Chacon featuring a Navajo creation story about the collective nature of water. This legend highlights a vision of the world far from the rationalism that an anthropocentric vision generates. For this section, I have written an essay in which the conceptions of the artists Moridja Kitenge Banza, Kader Attia, and the duos of Chloé Lum and Yannick Desranleau and Geneviève and Matthieu address various ways that vocal art is performed. Their works involve legends and musical culture, but also the most farfetched aspects of opera. Finally, we have asked the artist Alexandre St-Onge to present his thoughts about the function of voice in his performative projects, particularly his A.A.G.G.’s HALLUCINATION de A.A.G.G.

In parallel with the thematic essays, the “Events” section features Didier Morelli’s article about the first edition of Af-Flux: biennale transnationale noire (Montréal), and Joan Grandjean’s piece on the 17th edition of the Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement (Geneva). The “Exhibition Reviews” in this issue includes eleven articles about recent shows presented in Québec, Canada, and Europe. Finally, in the “Books” and “Selected Titles” sections, ESPACE is always pleased to report on recent publications that have drawn our attention.

 

Translated by Käthe Roth

André-Louis Paré


1 Walter Benjamin, “The Storyteller,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Boston and New York Mariner Books and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), 26–55.
2 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (Boston and New York Mariner Books and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019), 166–95.