In this survey, members of Interventions and the wider Contemporary Theatre Review editorial team have identified a digital or analogue project that offers insight into the relationship between the voice and a common body, illustrating some version of the vox populi, ‘the voice of the people’. As this curated feature attests, the staging of the vox populi can function as an instrument for influencing the way social, cultural and political decisions are made and shared practice is shaped. These entries also place focus on how the voice itself expresses relationships between private and public desire.
To give voice to an experience is to be part of a wider network of relations. The projection of voice, sound scholar Brandon LaBelle explains in his book the Lexicon of the Mouth, amplifies the relation between ‘an inside and an outside’, ‘between language, as an abstract socializing system, and our embodied, sensual experiences’.1 Not merely a potential expression of some private unencumbered interiority, nor exclusively the construction of political and social authority, the voice is an articulation of the self in and of the world.
The four examples that follow in this survey combine scholarly and creative perspectives, pairing introductions from a member of the CTR team with personal or creative responses from those involved in the project. Linked across time and space via hashtags or collective storytelling, re-inscribed through an interlocutor, mediated through a game or catalogued by digital and analogue databases, the performance of speaking up and being heard is central to understandings of how we live, how we hope to, and how we might talk about it together.
– Elyssa Livergant
Archiving and Vocalising Publics
The digital archive, no longer bound to a physical depository for public and private memory, functions as a kind of broadcast, a form of social communication and production. The proliferation of data sources in our networked culture that capture the present stir reflection on the kinds of private and public performances people are engaged in, for whom and for how long.
Online audio projects, and in particular the proliferation of podcasts and oral history projects, point to the ways listening and voicing are key components of these aural networks, sounding out a material and imagined shared scene of ‘the commons’. For example, the recent British Library and BBCR4 Listening Project (2012-present) offers a repository of intimate conversations between people in Britain about their everyday relations. David Lynch’s Interview Project (2009-10), which includes video and audio, captures the voices of Americans across the country that wouldn’t normally be heard on mainstream media. The current popularity of serialized verbatim documentaries, like the podcast Serial and the TV documentary Making a Murderer, also offer an archive of ‘the people’, bringing national and international ears and eyes to otherwise unheard voices. These archives stage listening, itself always a participatory act, as a performance of the vox populi.
UK performance artist Rhiannon Armstrong’s online version of her project The International Archive of Things Left Unsaid stages a transmission of the vox populi that gives voice to things previously experienced but not spoken in the moment. Armstrong’s archive collects anonymous testimonies from members of the public of occasions when they wanted to say something but could not bring themselves to. Originally produced in 2006 as a live performance, participants are invited to share what had gone unsaid. Both in the live and online version Armstrong, operating in the role of custodian, collects, categorizes and gives voice to all of these testimonies.
In Armstrong’s archive the sounding of things left unsaid occupies a position between the present, the not past and the not not-past. It makes present a felt absence, staging the voicing of an affective attachment to a moment that was part of a history that failed to make an appearance at the time. The digital archive, produced by Battersea Arts Centre and co-commissioned by the Space, is programmed so that listeners are only able to access one testimony every 48 hours per device. This mechanism is accompanied by instructions ensuring there is the time and space for the listener to direct her attention to the archive entry of choice and the measured breathing and pacing of Armstrong’s voice. All are in aid of slowing down the aural encounter with another’s public revelation of a personal moment.
Through headphones Armstrong’s voice carries the words of participants deep into the listener’s head. The Archive quietly amplifies the rules that govern private and shared experiences, rules that determine what should and should not be voiced at particular times and places. Cataloguing the ways people are disciplined not to give voice to their experience, the website facilitates a momentary exchange and activates an acute ear, tuned towards what is often not spoken in and by the public.
Below is a letter received by the Custodian at the International Archive of Things Left Unsaid:
To whom it may concern,
We declare that:
We did not disclose our age.
We did not disclose our whereabouts.
We did not disclose our income bracket.
We did not tell you what we are wearing, who is with us, whether we are inside or outside, how much alcohol we have had today, who spoke to us last, or what we ate for lunch.
We did not allocate ourselves a category from which to tick your shareholder, survey, or fucking diversity boxes.
We did not disclose any saleable assets.
We did not reveal the location of the moment in question.
We did not tell you who “you” is to us.
We did not tell you why we didn’t tell “you” at the time.
We did not reveal how long we have been weighty with these words.
We did not explain ourselves.
We did not share our reservations about your sponsors.
We did not share our suspicions regarding your motives.
We did not share anything with you in particular, we were just getting it off our chests.
Public scribes and private encounters
Similar to The International Archive of Things Left Unsaid, the project Scribe, led by Australian artist and curator Leisa Shelton, collects anonymous experiences from public contributors. But there are two significant differences. The first of these is that the collections take place not by audio-recording, but in a face-to-face, time-delimited session with a designated ‘scribe’ who listens, converses, and records the experience in writing. The writing session is framed by carefully aestheticised details: the session takes place over a customized, hand-crafted, portable writing desk; the contributor is anonymized and his or her designated number is recorded inside a bureaucratic stamp; and the scribe is identified by some kind of self-nominated archetype — e.g. The Maker, The Academic, The Researcher, The Drawer, The Evaluator, The Writer, The Cynic. In this way, the act of transcription is foregrounded as also a transformation: not the transparent capture of thoughts and experiences, but a transaction, a service, an act of labour that is shaped by the properties of the room and the roles being played. Conversing, listening, writing, testifying… even where the technology is analogue, not digital, this is a mediated encounter in which the media being used is crucial (and visible) in shaping what is voiced and what is written down.
The second distinguishing feature is that Scribe is situated within the context of an art festival—in its first iteration, at Melbourne’s Artshouse as part of the city-wide Festival of Live Art. So, at first glance, it seems to function similarly to an audience-feedback or evaluation framework, in that the subject matter at-hand is the other artistic work on display. But unlike the forms that these evaluations typically take, there are not pre-determined questions or criteria; and the experience is held by the attendant scribe, opening a space for wandering associations and reflections that may include details of the respondent’s personal life, thoughts about the building or the part of town, and other curiosities that might arise. In this way, it collects what might be described as an ‘affective archive’, to borrow the concept from the Performance Studies International Regional Cluster organized in 2010 by Marco Pustianaz, Giulia Palladini, and Annalisa Sacchi, in which, as those organizers would later reflect, ‘What gets remembered will mostly be unmemorable.’2
In the Melbourne iteration of Scribe, I was invited to observe and participate as writer-in-residence. One of the conditions of participation (for both contributor and scribe) is that the anonymous texts are freely available for re-use and circulation, and in my discussion with the Scribe artists we became interested in extending these private exchanges into public space: selecting short excerpts and chalking them onto walls and pavements, making visible both the content and also the act of writing itself. In this way, the walls and sidewalks became animated with anonymous voices, identified only by number, speaking back to the events contained within them. There were also other acts of translation: into Braille, and through the production of limited-edition handmade books. As my final gesture as writer-in-residence, I sifted through the collected documents (now carefully stored in archival boxes), selecting and collating fragments of experience to form this polyvocal accumulation:
I am writing this because I volunteered myself. I am writing this because it felt important to me that these words be written down. Because it felt important to me that some words were written down. Because these may not be all the words but because these are the words that I was able to write down in the time and space that was designated.
I am writing this because I have a friend who’s in town for the weekend (#044). Because there was a lot going on in the moment. Because it wasn’t entirely easy to focus on the artwork itself (#026). Because it’s impossible to re-create the internal feeling that caused that moment in me that was captured (#005). Because you asked me what I thought and this is what I was able to say. Because sometimes I get lost in the lighting (#056). Because you can smell green when you walk in (#015). Because the world was so large (#003). Because of that sense of shocked tingling of dizziness (#028). Because it felt like a rope punctuated by knots I could hold (#012). Because these words are now the knots of what is left over, and as I pass the rope, the knots move between my hands and yours. Because this is the kind of experience I want (#008).
I am writing this because the experience is never mine alone. Because I kept having flashbacks to something, like you have to learn how to approach people (#031). Because I’m not good at speaking with strangers. Because I tend not to join in but rather listen (#053). Because you asked me to, and I accepted, and somewhere in-between it became less clear whether this was my idea or yours. Because my question is, what is the object that is created? Because if the work is a democratic gesture, what does your vote mean? (#001) Because I can just say a thought and then it will become words; it’s like magic (#015). Because
but without being face to face (#038).
I am writing this because I feel strongly about this. Because I’ve been left with an overwhelming experience of women being better at making live art than men (#004). Because I felt really beautiful in that space and I haven’t been feeling that way for a while (#032). Because I’ve kind of quit art (#037). Because I couldn’t help but see super-imposed histories placed upon images that happen in the present (#048). Because I don’t know if that is quintessentially Australian (#056). Because I was wondering whether the girls in the audience were looking at his penis. Because I was (#061). Because I feel the weight of my
H I S T O R Y (#039).
I am writing this because I wanted to be included (#043). Because I wanted to mix my thoughts with yours. Because I wanted to be up-close (#043). Because I wanted to be intimate (#043). Because I wanted you to carry away a little piece of me. Because I wanted to be able to see the dance (#043). Because I wanted to touch your skin.
I am writing this because I wanted to leave an inscription.
Alternate reality games, ecology and the popular voice
1. methodological practice deployed in broadcast media. Appears to defer authority to Average Joe, but only appears.
2. dissimulating subject of opinion polls.
3. Siren. Prone to co-optation (see also ‘hard working families’).
4. collective body or ‘multitude’, sometimes called upon to imagine alternative futures (see below).
As this curated feature begins to set out, the vox populi – or people’s voice – has become a core subject of and contributor to a number of online and networked performances and artworks since the global telecommunications boom in the 1990s. Alternate reality games (ARGs) are an especially clear example. ARGs do not produce virtual environments; they are grounded in the real world. ARGs look to augment reality by imagining and in some form or another enacting different configurations of ‘the real’ through the participation of a collective body of players, some of whom might live in very different parts of the world.
The kind of collective bodies that ARGs foster are usually rooted in some kind of shared ideal or purpose that each of the participants interprets in their own way through their participatory engagement with the game, and through the discourse that might evolve and circulate around the game – such as on news reports, online blogs and social media. They create common worlds, or enable their participants to see the world as common much along the lines that Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri hope for in their book Commonwealth: ‘a world that, for better or worse, we all share, a world that has no “outside”’, and that might feasibly be transformed by reclaiming common ownership of the means of production in knowledge economies.3
As a form of social production, ARGs facilitate an evolving social interaction among publics who might not otherwise interact with one another, and draw connections among a multitudinous population that are grounded in a sense of shared purpose, interpreted diversely. Good examples can be found in the work of Ken Eklund, particularly his cli-fi (climate fiction) ARGs, a couple of which are gathered below. In both of these projects, Eklund convenes platforms that stage the vox populi as a borderless and disparate collective glued by responsiveness to a playful framing of ecological issues. It is this emphasis on response, alongside a respect for diversity (of identity, opinion and values), that helps to foster a political progressiveness that charges notions of the ‘vox pop’ with an appealing edge as a tool for transformation ‘from the inside’.
In the early years of the 21st century, enabled by the Internet, we saw major collaborative works begin to emerge, seemingly ad hoc: Wikipedia, fandoms, and so on. One of these was the Alternate Reality Game, which secretly positions its game elements in our real-world augmented reality and then challenges players to find and manipulate them. Game characters might be on Facebook, for example, and a player may make a move in the game by taking an online “Which Type of Zombie Are You?” quiz.
One of the seductions of the ARG for players is known as TINAG – This Is Not A Game – the gameplay convention that the game itself is unaware it is a game / regards itself as real. This rewards players who focus on the game story rather than its rules. Another key seduction of the ARG is that it openly relies on its audience to continue.
For my work, I seek to add a third seduction: the power to drive the narrative. By crafting a storyworld instead of a storyline, I open a narrative vacuum that invites players to contribute their own in-game ideas to the self-assembling, multithreaded story weave. As a fourth seduction, I make the storyworld relevant to today – enabling players to immerse themselves in something useful to their real-world lives. The game elements they find and manipulate are the real world itself.
When you aggregate this immersive play, another aspect of the vox populi emerges: a kind of truth. For certain questions, the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is very real. For my games to be open to these truths, I strive to ask questions that are best answered with multiple voices: If a global oil crisis started today, what would it be like for the people on the street? What messages will people be leaving for each other, ten or twenty or thirty years from now? Will climate change have affected our children’s lives?
The wonderful paradox is that, although the stories these games evoke from players are fictional, they are simultaneously very real. In a word, they are authentic, in ways we have only begun to parse. I believe these games tap into an underappreciated aspect of our social cognitive surplus: our vernacular instinct to shape our individual narrative threads to fit a graspable whole, coherent at the level of mythology.
#WakingTheFeminists – Giving Voice to the People in Irish Theatre
Speaking in public has always been a gendered business. It’s no coincidence, that Ancient Greek tragedies so often feature female characters speaking in doorways, on the front steps of houses, or in courtyards – for a woman to speak in public is to transgress the fragile boundaries between the claims of the private and domestic sphere and the masculine abstract concepts of justice, citizenship and the very idea of the public itself. The gendered nature of public speech may be the reason why the ambiguous status of the ‘public’ spaces made available by new technologies like Twitter and Facebook, while often inhospitable to women, have re-gendered the very notion of the vox populi.
In 2015, the Irish designer and arts manager, Lian Bell, wrote a Facebook post in which she expressed her astonishment at the Abbey Theatre’s newly launched artistic programme, Waking the Nation, commemorating the centenary of the 1916 Rising. One out of the ten plays featured in this programme was written by a woman, while three out of ten were to be directed by women. Bell initiated the Waking the Feminists movement, deliberately compressed into the provocative hashtag WTF, and awoke a feminist critique within the public space of social media, provoking an outpouring of testimonies about the systemic gender inequalities of the Irish theatre system.
This debate moved from social media to the actual stage, when a public meeting was held on the Abbey stage on November 12, 2015 to challenge gender discrimination in Irish theatre.
How can a marginalised group be encouraged to voice the distinct discriminations they face in their professional lives, to find solidarity, and then to effect change within their own sector? #WakingTheFeminists has been answering this question in Ireland since November 2015. It is a grassroots movement that has articulated the experiences of women working in a variety of roles in Irish theatre, consolidated a call for change, and is now working towards achieving gender parity through a number of diverse approaches. When Lian Bell, a freelance designer and project manager, first posted her anger on Facebook at our National Theatre’s programming of a series of 1916 commemoration events that failed to include women’s voices, experiences, and points of view in any meaningful way, it was the first drop in what rapidly became a roaring cascade.
The posts that followed recounted gendered professional encounters, criticisms, and anxieties. Each account shared a dread of speaking of such things. But, nevertheless here we were, artists, designers, technicians, producers, writers, directors, facilitators, academics, all voicing our experiences of discrimination on Facebook, on Twitter, and on the #WTF website. The social media platforms were effective in facilitating the discussion, but also acted as a catalyst for the growth of the movement. By peppering our days with stories of refusal, rejection, indifference, and invisibility, the apparently superficial immediacy of these media was contrasted by the profound reflection they encouraged in each of us. The flow of contributions soon accumulated into a tangible body of anecdotal evidence. It became clear that the problem was not our individual failure to reach artistic and professional standards, but rather that there was a systemic rejection of our contributions, based on our gender. Posting our thoughts on social media became a performative act that built and consolidated a social movement. Facebook, Twitter and WordPress played host to a vox populi that had previously been silent, fragmented and scattered.
Through social media, #WakingTheFeminists has changed the way theatre is currently thought about and discussed in Ireland. The sudden growth in popularity of the movement, fuelled by theatre practitioners themselves, has ensured that gender is now at the forefront of programmers, casting agents, producers, policy makers, and funders’ minds. The sector in Ireland is relatively small, and it is therefore significant that 6 of the major players (including the Abbey and Gate Theatres) have agreed to engage with an Irish iteration of Tonic Theatre’s Advance Programme, focused on gender equity in England’s leading theatres, to identify obstacles to gender parity within their own organisations. Initiatives like #FairPlayforWomen encourage people to attend plays written or directed by women, while #WakingTheFeminists have asked theatre-goers to record the gender balance in the programmes of performances they attend using the hashtag #WTFCOUNT.
Through #WakingTheFeminists, gender has become a key consideration in all new theatrical endeavours at every level from funding and policy, to arts management and artists, to audience members. Everyone engaging with theatre in Ireland is now thinking about gender in one way or another. We now hope to change thought and discussion into quantifiable and lasting change.
Rhiannon Armstrong is a performance artist whose work includes theatre, intervention, public engagement, installation and research. Her work is always engaged in a complex examination of relations deliberately oriented around simple actions and statements: a strategy that stems from her commitment to inviting participation from those who do not necessarily consider themselves art audiences. Rhiannon is an associate artist of Coney, has created a number of large scale exhibition and event programmes for museums and artistic interventions for workplaces, is a founder member of Kings of England’s In Eldersfield cycle, and regularly collaborates with other artists as a performer and musician. www.rhiannonarmstrong.net
Ken Eklund is a game and experience designer, best known for ‘authentic fictions’ – immersive what-if storymaking games about real issues. In these games people explore real-world issues through collaborative play and have fun working together to bring possible futures into clearer focus and to imagine positive solutions and action.
Dr Brenda Donohue graduated from Trinity College in 2013 with a thesis on contemporary female playwrights. She is an active member of the Waking the Feminists movement for whom she is currently coordinating a large research project. This project is a quantitative analysis of Irish theatre in gender terms for the period 2006-2015. It aims to find out how the top ten Arts Council funded theatre organisations represent women in varying roles in the industry. Brenda has been a member of the Irish Society for Theatre Research and the International Federation for Theatre Research since 2009.
Homepage photo by Matthew Keefe, available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/mkeefe/2349283746 under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.
- Brandon LaBelle, Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 1. ↩
- Marco Pustianaz, Giulia Palladini, and Annalisa Sacchi, eds., Archivi affettivi/Affective Archives (Vercelli, Italy: Edizioni Mercurio, 2013), p. 104; see also http://psi-web.org/detail/posts/10902. ↩
- Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth (Cambridge MA and London: Belknap Press, 2009), p. vii. ↩