s.i.t.e (screaming in the everyday)
everything is noiseful
In the middle of Martin Place, Sydney, a woman in black, her face obscured by hair, lets out a death metal roar of apocalyptic proportions. She continues to scream for a minute or so, violently flinging her body around, the granulated howl mediated through a portable sub speaker which adds feedback to the devastating mix. And then just as quickly, it’s over. This is Kusum Normoyle’s S.I.T.E (Screaming in the Everyday) project.
In his article Vocalising the Post Human, Philip Brophy suggests that “ultimately the voice can reach beyond itself, and hence beyond the limiting definitions of being human…” and that this becomes most evident when the voice is pushed to extremes, when control is relinquished (Voice: Vocal Aesthetics in Digital Arts and Media, eds, Neumark, Gibson, van Leeuwen 2010, see review RT103). But I’m not sure. What the extremes of vocalisation do is to shock us, bully us even, into realising our very fragile and interconnected humanity. Normoyle’s short, brutal interventions are so confronting because we oscillate between repulsion and empathy—feeling the scream rise up in our own gullet.
However for Normoyle, this is not about catharsis, and not merely an act of ‘performance,’ but rather an attempt to change the listening position of the everyday. By inserting her howl into the clamour of buses, trams and city roar do we hear them differently? Do we begin to listen rather than hear, in spite of ourselves?
It is the sound itself that sets these performances apart. The female scream is so often associated with weakness and hysteria, yet Normoyle’s howl is almost sexless, drawing on a lower register and grinding through sound similar to a death metal vocalist. In order to generate the extreme power of the vocals, Normoyle physically forces the emissions from her body with dramatic contractions and deep lunges, emphasised by her long, black clad limbs. While the performances are improvised, you get a sense of crafting—her use of glossolalia and the interplay of scream and feedback combining to create more than haphazard noise, but rather a short, ferocious composition.
Kusum Normoyle has been documenting her performances since 2009, using the video material in exhibitions. In 2011 she was invited to present her work as part of the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts where she exhibited her footage of previous interventions around Australia and also performed at several places around the city. With these latter interventions she is now beginning to extend her use of the documentation beyond a record to be the base material for newly contextualised artwork.
At a recent group exhibition at Yuill Crowley, Ladies and Gentlemen (curated by Matthys Gerber), Normoyle exhibited Modified Aspects, which uses the footage from a performance in an almost empty square in Ljubljana, dominated by a spectacular example of socialist architecture. However the footage is augmented—day is turned into night, the building glows and slashes of colour shoot across the frame. The audio too is expanded by a pulsing tone and shifting drone, musicalising her interplay of scream and feedback. Through this manipulation Normoyle is suggesting the energetic properties of the sites in which she plays, heightening her own efforts to make the spaces quake. In some ways this recent work can be seen as Kusum Normoyle seeking a union between the human and the architectural, bound by sound. Perhaps, after all, this is the post-human that Philip Brophy suggests.
What’s your interest in the voice and how did you get to this point of screaming in public places?
I was doing an electronic arts degree at UWS [University of Western Sydney] and had begun to use my voice in a deconstructed way, moving away from songs and music per se and doing multi-speaker voice installations. My supervisor at the time asked me “what are you doing”— “I’m using my voice because I always have,” and he said “that’s not enough.” From then I started to think about it as a highly political tool. So now I’ve come to this place where I’m using it as a very active, very direct technique in public places where I’m trying to create these situations.
You started this kind of work when you were doing your honours at RMIT. Maybe if you could just describe the kinds of things you were doing then—the kind of interventions that you were interested in.
Some of the initial ones I was doing were on the roof of the university. I remember getting responses from people all around the city. I had someone from one of the high-rise buildings clapping while another person was making a complaint. And this was very interesting for me, this hot and cold, this negative and positive thing all at once. So I was thinking about people and their reactions and [the work] ultimately being a place for people to have a voice and for something to happen. Rather than [people] going from place A to place B and becoming part of the ultimate flow of a homogenous environment—wanting to break that, intercept that and have an experience with the social domain.
Really over that one year of research it went from a naïve, strange exploration on top of a roof to being very intentional, specific [locations]—middle of the road, on trams, in graveyards. It became a conscious exploration of space, and people, and no people, and sound in space.
The approach and the intention for me when I go into these environments is about becoming part of and manipulating noise that is already there. It comes from Michel Serres' "la belle noiseuse," we are noise, we come from noise, we’ll go back to noise, everything is already noiseful. So when I think about these performances I actually think about becoming part of that rather than going into, or on top of, or creating a split. This is my personal view….It’s very hard, when you see the work to think that.
Now I’m starting to think a little bit more about the site-specificity of things, and working with buildings and architecture, and setting things up in this very intentional way. [I’m] wanting to find a way to make things around me more apparently soundful, and noiseful. So one way I’m seeking to do that at the moment is through After Effects, to vibrate this building while I’m performing with it, or make it sing.
How did you come to be involved in The Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, which by name implies it’s about graphic arts.
It is unusual that the biennial was inviting me to do these highly active works, but then I came to understand that it was because of the particular curator Beti Žerovc. She is not traditionally a curator, she’s more of a theorist and she wanted to do this research project where the event, in Slovenian dogodek, was the focus. So all of the works were event-based. She asked for some input from Australia. I ended up taking this honours work and this was projected in a room with lots of other really noisy works, which is interesting and difficult. I also did a series of performances around the town, in Ljubljana. And these were permutations of what I call S.I.T.E, the acronym for Screaming In The Everyday. I would go around the city, which is a post-socialist sort of cultural environment where it’s very relaxed, and [perform] these interventions, which like everywhere, were taken very positively and negatively. Then there’s this big cross-section in the middle where everybody ignores it, which I think is very interesting.
In your work to date you’ve been doing the live performance intervention in public space, documenting that, and then showing some of that documentation in galleries. Just from some of the work you’re showing me today, I can see that you’re starting to augment the documentation, extend its sense of being a truthful document in some way. How are you exploring the extensions of the documentation now?
The work is always the act and the performance as such. But from the performance there is a series of permutations for me and the audience. One of the things I’m very aware of currently is the fact that this documentation really lives in the frame and the work as a performance is perceived in very different ways for the people around the space. Someone 200 metres down the road will hear it in the distance, or someone else will hear it very closely. There’s something in that about sound that is something to work with in the future. But at the moment I feel like the presentation of documentation of the work is not really enough as an active or political act in the gallery for example and I’m becoming interested in exploring that space in perhaps a synthetic or theatrical way. Making adjustments to the video through effects or through layers that moderate the environment and turn it into a different place. Maybe make a building sing, or trying to unpack what sort of possible energetic things are going on in the environment. Maybe the building can sing, maybe it can vibrate—it is not as it seems.
This comes back to the core function of the work , which is to investigate the noisefulness of the environment and perhaps imaging that the building is noiseful and wondering how far the noise can go. I am thinking about transmission actually. Trying to connect all of these bits together. I would say that’s the current trend—an unpacking of how we look and listen in a live sense, and also after the fact of the performance.
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