studioplusthree Artichoke This is a Voice

Artichoke Magazine, Issue 62 (March 2018)

This is a Voice exhibition at Powerhouse Museum in Sydney explores the elusive nature of the voice “before and beyond language,” and the exhibition space similarly evokes an elusive quality. Through materials, illumination and physical forms, the subdued exhibition space has rhythm, shade and layering to take visitors on an “acoustic journey” guided by line, light and sound.

First held in London in 2016, This is a Voice is a Wellcome Collection exhibition, which is now being presented in collaboration with Museum of Arts and Applied Sciences (MAAS) and curated by Katie Dyer and Tilly Boleyn. The exhibition explores the power, physiology and psychology of the voice with a display that intersects art and science. Sydney-based studioplusthree designed the exhibition space and worked with local sound artists and vocalists to create specifically Australian content and to give their works physical presence.

Visitors enter the exhibition through a brightly lit foam-insulated anechoic chamber that absorbs reverberant sounds and draws attention to how materiality affects acoustics. The corridor opens to the first room, which introduces the diverse range of content contributing to a broad interpretation of “voice:” video and visuals, medical, scientific and technological objects, and artistic and literary works. Continuing along a softly lit passageway, Gadigal woman Lille Madden is singing the Indigenous language spoken to the crew of the First Fleet when it landed in Sydney. The back-lit muslin-covered studwork wall has a rhythm and intonation – like prosody in speech – that complements and enhances the acoustic experience. 

This wall continues around much of the perimeter of the exhibition providing what studioplusthree directors Simon Rochowski and Joseph Byrne describe as a “responsive skin.” Through light and form it responds to objects and screens by providing a solid or translucent backdrop, peeling off to give solitary space and curving around corners to avoid hard junctions. Muslin screens within the space also create indistinct boundaries allowing for glimpses through the exhibition and to “reflect the shades and ambiguities of the human voice,” Simon explains.

A series of pods in the open exhibition space suggest, but do not define, a route of circulation, and create compressed and expanded areas, positive and negative space and shades of light and dark. Each pod is designated to one artist to draw greater focus to the isolated work.

Outside the pods, sound works are projected on hanging screens layered throughout the space with carefully considered visual and acoustic bleed and spill. “Each is modulated to create moments of focus or plurality within the overall soundscape,” Joseph says, and the effect brings awareness to individual pieces as well as how they work in composition. Standing in front of Samuel Beckett’s frenetic Not I, for example, Sonia Leber and David Chesworth’s acousmatic voice gives instructions behind, and Marcus Coates’ birdsongs can be heard in the distance.

studioplusthree collaborated with a number of Australian sound artists to create a visual, spatial and acoustic experience to suit the context of the show. Leber and Chesworth’s This is Before We Disappear From View represents themes of control and discipline, and is presented in a harshly lit white corridor in which there is nowhere to hide and only one direction to walk: towards the robotic voice. Lawrence English’s Utterance features a wall of historical gramophone horns from the MAAS collection and asks visitors to consider how not all voices are heard as they don’t carry the same amplification.

This is a Voice finishes with two pieces in which visitors’ voices can in fact be heard as they contribute their voice to two ever-expanding soundscapes. Visitors can add a single note to Matthew Herbert’s intensifying Chorus; and express a desire or aspiration to become part of Lawrence English’s sound-chandelier A People’s Choir. In doing so, visitors’ voices are united with others and form part of the rich acoustic journey for those who experience the exhibition next.

Words: Rebecca Gross
Photography: Noel Mclaughlin