Curating Commissioning Producing


Film and Performance: The Voice is a Language

4 May 2012, 7pm-9pm
Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern
Bankside, London SE1 8TG

The Voice Is A Language is a performance and screening project that orbits the legacy of avant-garde pioneer Meredith Monk. The project casts Monk not as a direct influence upon, but an active player within a range of dynamic contemporary practices.

Exploring the dispersal of the voice and its relationship to image by assembling a collage of performance, music, video and spoken word The Voice Is A Language traces sympathetic lines of working between the practices of four contemporary artists:

Sophie Macpherson, James Richards, Cara Tolmie, Sue Tompkins. The programme includes rarely seen film and video by Meredith Monk as a touchstone to the other artists' work.

From Tolmie and Macpherson's exploration of gesture and archetype, to Richards and Tompkins' disarming approaches to balancing rhythm and context The Voice Is A Language seeks to displace the primacy of the linguistic in favor of a synthetic language.

This project was first conceived as part of Glasgow International 2010, at Tramway, Glasgow. In collaboration with Electra a reconfigured programme has been produced for Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic. An online reader for the project, which includes essays, sound clips, documentation and other information, can be found at:

The Voice Is A Language is a project by Isla Leaver-Yap.


Meredith Monk is a composer, singer and choreographer of opera, theatre, films and installation. A pioneer of 'extended vocal technique' and interdisciplinary performance, Monk makes work at the intersection of music and movement. Her career spans over 40 years and she continues to teach, perform and compose. Monk is based in New York.

16mm Earrings is an early performance originally conceived for the Judson Church, New York, in 1966, a couple of years after Monk graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. The film is a re-performance of the original work, filmed by Bill Withers in 1977. A collage of sound, film, dance and voice, 16mm Earrings comprises fragments and fictional scenarios, including a reading of Wilhelm Reich's controversial essay The Function of Orgasm (1940) ; a series of 16mm films projected onto Monk's body and onto customised screens; a rendition of Greensleeves, slowed, looped and expanded; and a paper effigy of Monk that burns at the climax of work. 16mm Earrings is an eccentric and personal syntax of gesture and image, where the former attempts to physicalise the latter.

Turtle Dreams, meanwhile, is an incongruous synthesis of chamber music, uniform movement and anti-narrative performance. Using the form of cabaret as a means to evoke urban culture in a satirical tone, Turtle Dreams emerged from a specifically New York context - a country one year into the new Reagan era, a capital in the shadow of nuclear threat and entrenched in Cold War paranoia. Monk describes the work as possessing, "a very Cassandra-like quality, like the prophet or the warning of disaster before the bomb. It's before the disaster and post disaster".

Sophie Macpherson, based in Glasgow, employs sculpture, photography, performance and drawing building scenarios that are invested both in an abstracted personal mythology and an exploration of the non-verbal or mute qualities of symbols. Theatrical objects and stylised costumes are recurring motifs in Macpherson’s practice, which blends the mise-en-scene of medieval mystery plays, the perfomativity of Brechtian cabaret, and the psychic landscape of Surrealism.

Commissioned for The Voice Is A Language, Macpherson presents Deep Dancing (2010), a video that combines a series of abstract theatrical sketches that slip between a rehearsal of gesture and its exhibition. The artist and her friends present themselves to the camera not as psychological entities but as performing bodies put to the service of an unconsummated ritual.

James Richards takes material culled from home videos, books, records, CDs, and combines them with the his personal archive to make moving image and installation work. Tracing unlikely rhythmic or gestural connections between heterogeneous materials, Richards saturates his work with a lingering emotional psyche. Often reworking material from previous installations and videos to reroute their initial use in ever-evolving scenarios, Richards' work examines subjects in relation to affective imagery. Overlooked moments caught on record, the half-glances of the camera, physical demonstrations and abstracted vocal melodies coalesce to form unlikely lyrical encounter.

For The Voice Is A Language, Richards presents Looking So Hard At Something It Distorts Or Becomes Obscured (Not Blacking Out, Just Turning The Lights Off), a single-channel video that examines the role of intimacy in relation to desire and physical proximity. Presenting images and sounds that are surrogates for the liquidity or porosity of the body, of being inside and outside, Looking So Hard At Something... slips between the sensual image and its abstraction.

Cara Tolmie works with sound, performance, text and video to construct scenarios that probe the intersection between personal and philosophical knowledge. Tolmie's performances move between the voice and the word, the abstract gesture and its relationship in the making of meaning. Often using repetition and refrain, Tolmie uses the space of performance to generate temporary architectures, episodes and sequences, in which actions can be played out according to the autonomous logic of the work as it unfolds.

Commissioned for The Voice Is A Language, Tolmie presents The end is tumultuous noise, a text and performance work. The complexity of Tolmie's fictive writing colludes with the moment of present action, where language is transformed from encounter to performance, and slips between meaning and incantation.

Sue Tompkins, based in Glasgow, uses both the spoken and the written word to create work that is lyrical, personal and provocative. Tompkins' language resembles half-caught slogans, incidental phrases and intimate commentary. In its written form, her work appears as concrete poetry, while the performed text is delivered as a rhythmic set of utterances, looping scenarios that hover between associative play and syncopated vocalisation.

For The Voice Is A Language, Tompkins presents My Dataday, (2010/12(. Originally conceived as a sound work, Tompkins has transposed the piece into a performance work on the occasion of TVL' s presentation at Electra's Feminisms and the Sonic.

Isla Leaver-Yap writes about and organises projects with artists. She was an editor of MAP magazine for four years and is a contributor to periodicals including Afterall and Mousse. At the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, she co-organised Nought to Sixty, and founded the on-going series Artists Film Club. She recently organised the exhibition series Short Stories at Sculpture Center, New York. In May 2012, she will participate in Banff Centre' s visual arts faculty, as part of LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL STOP PLEASE ALLOW FEATURES ASSUME EXPRESSION INDICATIVE OF AMUSEMENT JOY PLEASURE BENEVOLENCE STOP. She lives in New York.

Image Credit: Meredith Monk, 16mm Earrings, 1966

Cara Tolmie, The end is a
tumultuous noise

Isla Leaver-Yap, The Voice
Is A Language

Related Links
The Voice is a Language

Artist Talk and Performance: Pauline Oliveros

Symposium: Feminisms and the Sonic