A report on the cross disciplinary experiment conducted
by visual artist Heather Nicol, working with a group of voice and
theatre artists hosted by Nightswimmings Pure Research program.
Introduction and fundamental question: My work uses
materials such as sound, light and surveillance equipment in combination
with tactile materials like fabric and paper. Theatrical devices
have been part my vocabulary, reflecting my observations on artifice,
illusion and voyeurism.
I am interested in the way sound resonates when juxtaposed
with objects and materials outside of our typical repertoire for
listening. Without a conventional stage or live actors, and without
familiar narrative or musical structures, is there a will to listen?
How can voice be employed as a vehicle for discourse on social expectations,
on desire, on control, on anxiety?
My practice, like that of many visual artists, is
relatively solitary. Despite a complex web of influences and resources,
most experimentation, decision-making, and production occurs without
the direct participation of others. I am interested in questions
of process. How does an artist whose background has involved using
inanimate materials, which can be stretched, layered, reformatted
or discarded without any regard for their contributions or feelings,
translate her practice to include a "human resource"?
How can this exchange expand or alter that practice, or the practices
of the participants?
1) What happens to how we hear / what we hear when the source
is invisible? Much of theatre involves watching the live source
of sound in the form of actors and their actions. When the prime
focus is other than watching the sound being made, do we hear
2) What does connection sound like? How do we feel or identify
it? What is it that we hear on recorded material that reveals
interaction, actual connection, and response? What does isolation
sound like in subtle terms?
3) How can sounds be emotionally intense and honest, without
being ridiculous or cliché? Can humour fit in?
4) How can repetitive phrases or clips, uttered in seemingly
different contexts, explore our multifaceted identities? With
the constant, fast paced bombardment of sounds and images from
the media, can repetition be used to slow down the process of
receiving information, of listening? How do these current influences
on attention span impact on work that employs repetition?
Parameters, boundaries, limitations:
Voice, by its very nature, is linked with communication and therefore
brings certain elements into play that must be addressed. The
profound human desire for narrative must be considered. Without
words, the mind scans sounds to detect the meaning of utterances,
or to categorize what the voice may be imitating. When language
is introduced, a host of issues surrounding identity must be considered.
The choice of language spoken, by whose voice or voices, and who
is included (excluded) are just a few of the questions with implications
in racial, gender, socioeconomic and other social constructs.
How will these hierarchies influence my work? Is it possible to
use voice as a vehicle without these issues dominating?
Another aspect of inquiry addresses roles within the cross disciplinary
exchange. As paid professionals, what were the boundaries / expectations
for the actors involved? How would their attitudes, desires and
contributions impact the flow of experimentation? More specifically,
to what extent should the "artist" maintain control,
where should collaboration take precedent and within this flow,
how is authorship / signature addressed outside of a traditional
theatrical production wherein roles are defined?
Voice in isolation, voice as connector
My desired use for voice is as an element of a multimedia object
or installation. Isolating voice from the body poses an altered
terrain for "performance" wherein the physical manifestations
of character can be discarded. I am interested in the moments
of transference between various (possibly opposite) states, for
instance, between falling and flying. By shedding the need for
physical representation, I am interested in both the actors
and the listener / viewers exploration of tensions, connection
points and the fluidity that may exist in the absence of a fully
(physically) realized performance.
Non-verbal sounds: We began each day without words, making
a wide variety of sounds within a circle. This framework allowed
for listening, responding, and the blending of sounds. From a
perspective of beauty, this circle work was quite wondrous. My
objective was to release the voice from language, musical structue,
or imitating existing sounds in nature. It served to develop a
group dynamic, and explore the range of sounds in the room. A
huge range of subtle relationships evolved; the human tendencies
to mimic, echo, override, hold back and fit were in all in play.
The flying / falling experiment: Flight has been a longstanding
theme in my work, and the underbelly of that, the fall, and the
notion of shifting between these states interests me at this time.
Flight may bring to mind freedom, Peter Pan and the fantasy of
soaring through the air, a birds eye view, airplanes, travel
and espionage. Falling ranges from pleasure (the dive into clear
water) to terror and death, or to sinking. Epilepsy was known
as "falling sickness" in the 17th Century, and lack
of control might be an aspect of either falling or flying. Some
form of floating, or suspension, could be a transition point between
My work evolves through an intense attraction toward something.
In the past, it was tactile materials, with their particular connotations
or associations that I would manipulate and explore and eventually
create work with. As light and then sound have been added to my
repertoire, this approach has become more complicated, but has
remained intuitive and haptic at its core. This experiment was
challenging to me, because I was working with groups of professional
people I do not know, somewhat in the role of "director",
yet with a process located outside the discipline of theatre or
performance. I did not have a specific outcome I could inspire
the actors to unveil, but rather was needing the somewhat more
tedious process of repetition and time to experience a new material,
in this instance, specific types of voice sounds. Was it possible
/ (OK) to immerse myself in a somewhat inexplicable attraction,
attempting to glean meaning from it, when it required the input
and time of others? Had I been teaching or leading a workshop,
I would certainly have diverted toward aspects that seemed more
fun or interesting to the group. Part of the experiment was maintaining
a self-oriented focus while working with people.
Pattern with language: This series of experiments explored
repetition as a way of identifying our multifaceted lives, where
different contexts for the same words revealed different aspects
of self. It was also a means to look at our desire for connection
and approval, and for love, and the anxiety these desires can
evoke. We isolated the act of greeting as a scenario in which
different cultures, genders, ages and attitudes could connect
or collide. The actors wrote lines that we edited down to a select
few for each session. Multiple meetings and greetings created
layers, mirroring the anxiety of new situations, interviews, auditions,
and dating. The desire for connection when expressed as blatantly
as personals ads or speed-dating hones our practice of creating
and editing our personas, hoping for acceptance while striving
to assert who we are.
I was struck by both the awkwardness and unexpected poetry of
these games. Resisting full-blown stories by limiting the choice
of words for each invented "character" introduced a
level of tension that interested me. It risked being boring at
times, but by pushing through I was exploring how to underline
the awkwardness and tension without the entertaining aspect of
narrative drama. We explored very rapid exchanges, a variety of
language crossings, poor telephone connections and/ or misunderstandings,
flirtation and come-ons, and mock encounters of a wide variety.
All of this provided me great food for thought as I explore ways
to address themes of isolation, connection and desire.
Roles: While no specific "experiment" was created
to explore this part of my inquiry, it was central in my thinking.
Discussions regarding credit, authorship, "copyright",
constraints and possible final uses of recorded material were
held each day. With the breakdown of traditional roles within
the arts, and the merging of forms, structures for the artistic
input and acknowledgement of all involved are called into question.
I want to experiment with the recorded material with the same
open ended process I have enjoyed with other materials, yet to
recognize the artistry of the actors.
Almost all of the actors agreed that theyd like credit,
outside of the pay they received, but without an established playbill,
film credit roll or record cover, how should a visual artist handle
this, especially in a smaller, discreet sound object not seen
in the context of a solo exhibition? Appropriation, sampling and
outsourcing production are common, as well as a huge range of
collaborations. In film and theatre, and to a large extent in
music, all participants are noted, while the visual arts tend
to only identify the "artist". This may be a holdover
from a clichéd vision of the lonely artist, and gallery
and collecting structures for valuing art may have an indirect
influence as well. How should artists fees or the sale of
a piece be handled? Another thorny issue was the prospect of an
artist using an actors voice juxtaposed or edited in ways
the actor might dislike. These are interesting areas for further
Throughout this experiment I tried to be mindful of what I was
indeed seeking, and attempted to maintain the focus on my own
desires. At the same time, it felt challenging to me to assert
my will when there was no specific outcome I could insist on (as
in interpreting a play), but rather a process based on intuition
and the repetitive manipulation of material. It brought to mind
questions about authority, authorship, and from a feminist perspective,
my desire to create comfort among people. Within the isolated
confines of my studio, there is a luxury of privacy in which experimentation
can occur without anyone there to judge or comment. When working
with people, bringing that vulnerability, awkwardness, and repetition
into a group was challenging and fascinating at the same time.
Further thoughts and questions: Examining the complexity
of boundaries and roles in a cross-disciplinary experiment like
this is like opening a can of worms. Currently so few visual artists
acknowledge the participation of others that to do so signifies
an endeavor wherein the artist is assumed to have forfeited control
over much, or a specified area, of the project to a collaborative
authorship. Structures or norms for crediting may evolve in visual
art practices with the increase of inter-disciplinary work.
Collecting a wide range of vocal material, for future listening
and possible use in edited form, was also a complicated act in
that some of what was given, or even all of it, may be discarded,
while some small snippet may become central to a project at some
future date. How am I to remember, or even recognize, whose voice
becomes part of a new work? My tactile process has involved collecting
a wide range of materials, which are then played with, sorted,
filtered and reduced into a final work. The collecting of something
as intangible as a range of voices on tape as a potential art
material could become a logistical nightmare. As I delve further
into this, I see that I need to find participants who recognize
this, and who are comfortable crossing the boundary into the world
of an object / installation maker, where their vocal contributions
become a potential material in my repertoire, where no set "performance"
is on the horizon, and credit will handled dependant on the situation
at hand. I have acknowledged participants in a wide range of instances,
whenever reasonable, but in truth, some things simply merge and
blend with a host of other materials to become a new thing, a
Heather Nicol thing. The work of the fabric designer, the hand
of the glass blower, creators of beads or other materials
these "voices" are also part of an assemblage of textures
and meanings in my work.
Conclusions in Progress
Listening to nonverbal soundmaking in the larger groups was wonderful,
with a wide range of associations woven through the soundscores
without a specific theme or message dominating. It served the
purpose of the group dynamic well, yet it lacked some of the more
specific elements that I am seeking for the discourses of my work.
Working with the notion of transition between states (falling
- flying) was challenging and fun. It was noticeable how easily
the listening mind slots sounds into known categories. Finding
intense non-verbal sounds without sexual or wild animal associations
was challenging. It was surprising how difficult it was for both
the actors as well as me, the listener, to escape the drive for
narrative and familiarity. Yet at random moments, more frequent
as we practiced, subtlety and mystery entered into the sound textures,
intense emotion without a tale attached. My observations of non
narrative (abstract) sounds are:
1) the mind scans sound information to categorize and process
2) the first impulses when narration is hard to locate are frustration,
tension, and / or dismissal (for irrelevance). Curiosity is also
3) that sounds generated from deeper in the belly of the actors,
whether loud or soft, seem to communicate emotion best when words
Working with repetition had some of the same issues as the directed
non-verbal experiments: the thwarting of our inclination to listen
for narrative.The key exploration is how to bring intensity and
resonance without the easy access of narrative. The juxtaposition
of the limited words with the subject of greetings / introductions
/ come-ons felt like very ripe territory for me. The way that
the voices crossed over, interrupting or stopping short, struggling
for ease in unfamiliar territory, seemed to illustrate the tension
between the act of listening (passive), and speaking (assertive).
I was struck by the sense of effort these actors conveyed, sometime
so futile, to be seen and heard. I noticed that the cross-cultural
word play brought to mind the commonality of the desire for love,
the awkwardness of new connections, and the ongoing and cyclical
nature of our need to reach out.
The sound of connection is indeed extremely delicate and intangible.
While direct language can convey it, there is distraction and
seduction in the story, limiting the ability to isolate the notions
of desire, acceptance, or misunderstanding. Deconstructing and
isolating these issues for use in a multimedia work will continue
to be my goal. Limited and repetitive language or non-verbal expression
are devices I will continue explore.
As of the date of this writing, I have not created a new work
surrounding this experiment, but the experience still resonates
within me. I was inspired by the range and depth in texture, emotion
and intelligence that the actors brought to the process. I am
grateful for their hard work, and to Nightswimmings support
and engagement in my process.