Hearing Things

Description of "Hearing Things (The Oracle)," published in "The Art of the Accident," 1998.

HEARING THINGS (The Oracle) is an installation and performance that explores the creation, capture, transformation and disintegration of language.

In Greek antiquity, an Oracle - such as the one at Delphi - would be founded on the site where a vaporous subterranean spring emanates from the earth. The medium of the Pythia would receive 'oracles' from the Gods in the form of non-verbal, frenzied gibberish and incoherent disclaimings. These oracles would be verbally interpreted to give guidance on matters of the day.

In the space of Williamson's installation, an electronic Oracle - based on computer speech recognition software that receives signals from microphones in the space - recognises and (mis)interprets any sound or voices as speech, translating them into a continuous stream of text. A vaporous spring emanates from a raised platform onto which visitors are lured by an inviting, overhead microphone. The visitors may trigger nonsensical and creative mishearings, stimulating the Oracle to produce unexpected accidental phrases out of the unknowing computer set-up. The results, which are then projected onto a large glass screen suspended over the platform, are both amusing and curiously affecting as the computer endlessly generates phrases and statements, desperately trying to make sense of the most inauspicious stimulation.

The computer lacks the necessary ability to differentiate between sounds and spoken language, and is hardly equipped for its attempts at verbalisation. Despite its inability to enter into a real dialogue, or even a mirrored monologue with the visitors, they may start to 'consult' the Oracle by asking questions and investigating the replies.

At certain times, Aaron Williamson comes into the installation space and fuels the Oracle - the text output of the computer - through his extraordinary and unnerving physical performance work. Williamson is profoundly deaf and has, over past ten years, developed a strong physical approach to realising text through wordless, visceral vocalising and body-heavy movements. The unhearing, yet understanding performance artist makes himself the voice, the Pythia of the hearing, yet completely in-cognizant, muttering sound-to-text translation.

Similarly, if visitors follow their own sounds, verbal comments and questions through different stages of machinic translation and transmutation, and from one field of limited expression to the next, they may discover the poetic richness of accidental interpretation and transgressive expression of the Oracle.

Hearing Things is a co-production between shinkansen (London), DEAF 98 (Rotterdam) and Hull Time Based Arts (Hull) for TOOT 99 in association with South London Gallery. Financial assistance from the Arts Council of England.


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