Voice medium and Anna Zett - Art Collector

Anna Zett, This Unwieldy Object 2014 (still) Courtesy: the artist

By Joel Mu

It seemed fitting that when I interviewed artist Anna Zett her wrist was bandaged because she strained it from boxing training earlier that week. Later, this image of Zett reminded me that speaking a foreign language can also be straining and that her boxing partner could have been her language partner. My point being that boxing and speaking are not that dissimilar – the body is used for both and in each situation there is a kind of matching-up that takes place. But what happens when the body is replaced by computer simulation and the contest is no contest at all due to overwhelming advantage?

This reflection was my entry-point to Zett’s recent work, Text-to-speech, which I viewed in the context of
Crystal Reading, a group-exhibition curated by Gislind Köhler, and still on view at Berlin’s Soy Capitán. I recently spoke to Zett about her latest works, the politics of speaking and a trend in art that seems more and more appealing to artists right now – the voice and its uses.

After the première of your film This Unwieldy Object at the Serpentine Gallery, I noted that you noted that the work was now received as art film. It sounds like your learning experience was not completely derived from art school. Can you elaborate a little?

I don't know anyone who's learning experience is completely derived from art school!

Although I don't really care about art as art, I have been around art schools. I had a job at UdK-Berlin for a bit, attended Hito Steyerl's class for two or three years and some other technical classes too. However, I was always a guest there, I never had to produce any art. Officially I studied theory for seven years: gender studies, philosophy and European ethnology (some kind of reverse-gaze-anthropology). The best thing about this theory education was that it was so removed from any potential career. It was for free, no one expected anything from you, and most professors didn't attempt to teach you anything. The only thing that was supposed to matter was knowledge, argument and method, or what we nowadays call content. Now this system has been EU-reformed and no one studies like that anymore. It was kind of paleo-liberal, at least here in Berlin, where I could visit all these different universities. Attendance was usually not registered and the curriculum was so vague, that everyone was left to their own intellectual obsessions – as far as one had developed any.

In my case, I ended up spending these formative years mostly with transdisciplinary science and technology critique. So this is a funny context to talk about my work.

I also remember what you’ve just described. Coming from Australia and a guest-student myself I was amazed by the freedom to attend classes that you weren’t officially enrolled in. It’s a pity that loose and self-directed environment for interdisciplinary learning is over. But I guess in that spirit, you mentioned developing a new genre: Research Drama –what is it?

It is a joke about the protagonist of the film – embodied by myself – who reenacts the role of the modernist research subject – a close-to trans-masculine position. The research turns into a hero's journey, an entirely fictional plot. The unwieldy object is her antagonist, as well as her love interest. Together they could make Natural History, but (spoiler!) they do not actually get together. It's a film about progress, about science and business.

Anna Zett, This Unwieldy ObjectAnna Zett, Text-to-speech, 2015. Installation view, Soy Capitán Berlin, 2015. Photo: Soy Capitán. Courtesy the artist and Soy Capitán, Berlin

I would also say that your latest work is also about embodiment, but this time played out against computer science and the business of computers. In Text-to-speech, you speak directly and non-visually to the viewer via a recorded voice-over, recalling other voice-over types like radio broadcasts, documentary films and Siri’s computerised voice. I remember being intrigued by the voice-over in your work and somehow more receptive to your critique about the internet and standardisation, and how it’s an illusion that the internet connects the world. Can you explain your critique and the voice-over tactic?

When post-internet came, and peaked, there were videos popping up everywhere that had a voice-over as their central element. It was usually speaking some form of locally unspecified North-American English, and either it was spoken by a voice simulator or it was edited to sound more non-human. These voices were talking about neoliberal capitalism, progress, the future, death, but they were designed to speak from nowhere in an anonymous language. I didn't at all feel like listening to them.

Before I even noticed the ubiquity of this trend, I had myself been working on the English voice-over for
This Unwieldy Object, and I had decided against using an English Native speaker or altering my voice. I did not aim for neutrality/post-humanism, but rather for intimacy, so I recorded it myself. On the other hand I also didn't want to perform some kind of authentic subjectivity, so I turned directly to the protagonist/the audience, using the pronoun you instead of I.

In some way my sound piece
Text-to-speech isolates this voice-over-tactic, giving my physical voice some space to reflect about contemporary voice culture. There it also says I.

Contemporary voice culture – that’s interesting. It reminds me of a comment you made about Twitter and your first tweet as having a connection to Text-to-speech – what was the tweet?

I told you before it was a tweet about voice-overs, but now I checked and actually it was one of my like three tweets in German: “Die ersten drei Jahre habe ich bei meiner Mutter als Baby gearbeitet.” After that I more or less gave up tweeting in German.

Ah, so perhaps there's another connection to how language is used and questioned in Text-to-speech, in that, the English language in particular is predominately used on digital platforms (and perhaps uncritically so) as a kind of default 'standard' language…

Whenever I turn to Twitter, which doesn’t happen very often, it's because I have a thought I would like to share with an unspecific audience, no one in particular, just anyone out there. And somehow, in the past 20 years, on and very much via the internet, the English language has succeeded to establish itself as the most suitable very medium for that. Although when I think of my active twitter contacts it is in fact mostly English native-speakers, so it is an illusion that it is just anyone out there.

I am getting used to writing in English, but it still feels like a skill that I just recently acquired. That might be one of the reasons why I am not as personal in my publishing as some of my friends who grew up in Anglophone communities, who have had their mom teach them the very language that is currently dominating art, theory and the Western internet. But in the past decade I have also become slightly disconnected from my first language. With English it's a bit like with waged labour, the market economy, contemporary art, Facebook. It's an imperial infrastructure that might give you new connections and possibilities, but at the price of disconnection (or alienation). So the German language seems a little awkward to me lately. It is kind of offline.

And somehow you’re online again! You’re currently working on a radio play (only in German), entitled Funkstille, which in English means radio silence. It’s scheduled to air on Deutschlandfunk (the national radio broadcast) later this year. What can listeners expect?

The German public radio has nothing to do with online culture, with circulation, the attention economy. It is centralised broadcasting, so I had a completely different infrastructure to reflect about in this piece. The subtitle translates into A spiritist radio session with Jeanne d'Arc and Nikola Tesla. It was developed and co-directed by me and Joshua Wicke, and I wrote the text for it. One might call it a philosophical spook comedy about the phenomenon of hearing disembodied voices – ancestral voices, technical voices, national voices, and holy voices. Hopefully listeners will feel well entertained and kind of manipulated.

An excerpt of
Text-to-speech can be listed to here.
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