Inside The Young Voices Soundscape
Left in the dark, one needs to explore what is heard: a hubbub of voices filling a space. There is an inability to distinguish individual voices, to make out their identity and what each voice is saying. It is not at all what is expected.
When listening, one usually expects to have something visual to accompany and make sense of the sounds we hear, as the visual fleshes out the sound. But here, the hearing is full of doubt about the heard, as a swelling of disembodied voices fills up the room.
Going further into the space, with the guidance of dim lighting that creates an uncanny effect, not only is one in doubt of the heard but also of what is to be seen. The voices are like ghosts travelling around the space, slinking around humanlike figures, making one doubt if the bodies are real or unreal.
The disembodied voices move in on the figures from all directions, creating their silhouettes with an amorphous breeze.
However, what perplexes one’s mind is that the figures are still, mute and numb to any auditory engagement, yet at the same time the voices are ‘alive’ and buzzing all around the space. The voices do not belong to the figures, which is not what a person would expect.
In this case, one cannot but wonder if there are other people in this room too. As vision becomes stable and one’s eyes become familiar with the lighting in the space, it is clearer that the silhouettes are only mannequins, with ‘voice boxes’ at their feet.
There are more people in the soundscape, travelling around the space, listening as a mode of exploration, an approach to walking through the soundscape. Although these voices differ from one another in volume and tone as well as in the frequency and length of pauses, they combine to form a harmonised pandemonium of voices.
A sense of instability in the listener is caused by the simultaneous occurrence of voices that vary in pitch, creating an unsettling tone, colour or timbre.
Distance and proximity transform one’s perception of the soundscape as the closer one moves towards the mannequins, the more easily distinguishable individual voices become. When focusing merely on one voice, the rest of the pandemonium is muted, almost silent.
One’s auditory engagement becomes numb towards the rest of the voices until the process of listening is repeated with another voice.
It is not only as though the remaining voices are muted, but also as if they have become part of ‘the sound of silence’, a component of the background sounds, as if they are echoes of the room’s vibrations.
In The Young Voices Soundscape, I exhibited an existing collection of oral history materials created from the ‘remains’ of my previous artistic research within the project Young Voices – An Applied Theatre Project, Aiming to Bridge the Gap Between Youth and Adults (2010-2011).
The ‘remains’ from this project included a collection of sound recordings of young people’s personal oral accounts, in which they discussed concerns about their own social inclusion.
Through an exploration of the ‘anxieties’ and ‘moral panics’ often associated with young people, as well as an interrogation of how such associations might lead to social exclusion, my research within this project examined how different performance forms might facilitate youth inclusion.
Within The Young Voices Soundscape, I extended the idea of exploring performance forms as a means of disseminating oral history materials within the setting of a sound installation, in which a series of mannequins with ‘voice boxes’ (mini speakers and mp3 players) were placed within the gallery space.
These mannequins were used to represent each of the young people, with each corresponding mp3 player being attributed a different oral history account from the sound collection.
These accounts were then played simultaneously throughout the exhibition. The project was presented at the University of Bristol’s Department of Drama on the 20 November 2012 and ran from 15:00 – 21:30.
When entering The Young Voices Soundscape, participants were issued with instructions to explore the different voices, selecting one that they felt most drawn to by holding the tangible form of the particular voice (mini speaker and mp3 player) in their hands.
Following this, they were told to find somewhere in the space to stand still (acting as one of the mannequins) and focus upon their chosen voice intently. This process could be repeated as many times as the participant felt inclined.
By holding the tangible form of the voices, the participant thus stepped in for the young people as if they were themselves embodying these young voices.
By listening intently to the young voices, whilst holding the object from which the voice emanated, the participant became an active agent within the soundscape. In this way, the participants acted as ‘belated witnesses’ to what the young voices were telling them.
Through issuing the participants with instructions on how to interact with the soundscape, it was my intention to evoke the sense of belated witnessing I experienced when I originally interviewed the young people.
This meant that by selecting a voice that they felt drawn to, the participant simultaneously took on the role of both interviewer and interviewee, constantly shifting by performing these two contrasting roles.
The concept of the participant embodying the journey of both interviewer and interviewee was established before entering The Young Voices Soundscape, since each participant was initially made a custom mask from plaster of Paris.
Since plaster of Paris has the ability to adopt facial characteristics, the inside of each mask became specific to the person it was created for.
By contrast, the outside of the masks remained expressionless in order to provoke a sense of temporary detachment and physical anonymity for the participant from their facial identity.
The participants’ experience of outward physical anonymity thus became reflective of the mannequins’ expressionless faces within the soundscape. This device was used to provoke a sense of empathy between participant and young voice.
Upon exiting the soundscape, the participants were then instructed to remove their masks and attach them to a rail using string.
By doing this, the participants were invited to symbolically detach themselves from the layers of identities and voices that they had possessed within the soundscape and, in turn, to have their own personae reinstated.
In this way, the participants’ facial identification was captured as their physical characteristics became imprinted inside the mask.
It is upon this condition that they were granted access to the archive.