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Sit Ubu sit. Good dog.

Mitchell Whitelaw

Sonia Leber & David Chesworth, The Masters Voice Sonia Leber & David Chesworth, The Masters Voice
photo Sonia Leber
Visitors to Canberra, or new arrivals, are often anxious to find out where ‘town’ is, where they are in relation to the middle of things, the action, the hub, the urban focus. There’s a common conversation that goes along the lines of, “So where’s the city?” “Well…” (apologetically) “there’s Civic…” Civic is the diffuse middle of this diffuse city—a loose mix of malls, cafes and bus terminals; visitors greet it with some suspicion, as if there’s actually a real urban centre somewhere else which is being kept from them.

The retail and restaurant cluster is around Garema Place, the wide pedestrian plaza that is truly, in social, street-life terms, the middle of town. Its image has been dominated by petty crime and drugs, until recently; the Place has been ‘cleaned up,’ and local government seems intent on encouraging a more lively and non-threatening public space. There’s certainly a pulse now: lots of fire-twirling, the odd band, packs of skateboarders and freestyle bike riders, hopping around the steps and benches like biomechanical goats. As well, public sculptures have been multiplying in the Place precinct, part of a public art program being run by local government. The latest of these is The Master’s Voice, a sound installation by Melbourne-based collaborators David Chesworth and Sonia Leber.

The work is physically almost surreptitious: 11 straps of stainless steel grille, inset into the pavement and up an adjacent wall. It borders a pedestrian thoroughfare through low-key retail and cafes, a transitional space. Crouching below waist level, it trips up passers-by, induces double-takes, private puzzled glances. It calls out: “Come ‘ere…gedaround ya lazy dog / Chook-chook-chook-chook! / Back…back…back…good boy, Whoa!” It addresses us directly, in a language and a sonic shape that is completely familiar. It’s just that we’re not usually the addressee, here. A throng of animal-voices: calls, exhortations, orders, signals, admonishments, affectionate jibes. In fact they’re real-world recordings of people talking to their animals, with the sonic presence of the animals themselves edited out. There’s a kind of hole in the air where an animal should be, but it’s only occasionally clear what kind of animal, and anyway it keeps changing. A phantom menagerie, chooks, dogs, elephants, horses, who-knows-what. That’s what passing humans walk into, what alerts and draws them in, a virtual form made from silly, anthropomorphised animal-talk, but a form which points to the real presence of one of those inscrutable ‘others.’

Leber and Chesworth have edited the calls together into short compositions, layered sequences which follow a passerby the length of the work. There are arrangements of sense and subject but especially sound: pitch, contour, cadence, rhythm. The ‘sensible’ inflections of speech get stretched into wild glisses and warbling melisma; syllables shorten into abstract sonic punctuation. There’s a bit of outright mimesis, growls and clucks and budgie whistles, but more often the calls work 2 strata at once, language and sound, human and animal. The words are there as a scaffolding for the sonic forms—the elements which do the behavioural work—but also for the speaker’s own benefit, a warmly ironic monologue. “You’re not going to be able to walk, your stomach’s that big…You aren’t…Eh?” At the same time these calls are full of questions, invitations to conversation, spaces for exchange; there’s this urge for an interchange, which in the absence of an articulate partner, puts words in its mouth, or maw.

So these candid, charged interspecies moments emerge from inconspicuous slots in a mallscape; their sonic shapes stand out against the ‘public’ murmur of social verbosity. As Tony MacGregor (Executive Producer, Radio Eye, ABC Radio National) pointed out at the work’s opening, Canberra is nominally a location for public, social, civilised speech; yet the House of Reps is dubbed the “bear pit.” Meanwhile these real interchanges have an immediacy that the scripted drivel of most political discourse lacks. Most striking, though, is the presence which the work projects, the way it subtly deforms this coolly anthropocentric public plaza, turning civilised language into silly noises, and turning people, momentarily, into animals.

The Master’s Voice, sound installation by Sonia Leber & David Chesworth in association with H2o architects, Pocket Park, Corner Garema Place & Akuna Street, Civic, Canberra.

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 33

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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