Hearing Things

'Hearing Things' (1998) by Aaron Williamson is an installation-performance, an electronic oracle, powered by computer speech-recognition software which recognises and interprets any sound in the exhibition space as verbal speech.

Hearing Things

Hearing Things (The Oracle)

As visitors enter the space they will notice that an unreadable text is produced on one side of a glass screen. Gradually the visitors will realise that the sounds of their movements, whispers, etc. are projected on the glass, forming awkward words and phrases. At certain moments, Aaron Williamson, who is deaf, will visit the room to re-interpret the text that was generated by the electronic 'oracle' through his extraordinary and unnerving physical performance work. This installation investigates the relationship between abstract performance language and its representation through wordless visceral vocalising, body-heavy movements, text and computer art.

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.



Statement by Aaron Williamson

In Greek antiquity Oracles were often founded where 'a spring that speaks' flowed out of the ground: it was believed that the sounds of babbling produced by such a spring contained all the languages of the world. The Delphic Oracle in particular was a very elaborate institution and its central figure was the Pythia, its priestess. Her function was to produce an ecstatic, frenzied vocal and physical performance for consultants of the Oracle. Her gibberish and wild vocal sounds produced during elaborate and obscure rituals were interpreted and inscribed into verbal language by a group of male priests. The results were then presented as oracles to suggest guidance on personal problems or general matters of the day. In this sense it could be felt that oracles were entirely accidental phrases and statements. Or perhaps they reflected a socially-vested interest on the part of the priests. At any rate, at the point of leaving the mouth of the Pythia they were pure, unbridled, libidinally-driven acts of utterance that transformed through force of ecstasis transformed her into an embodiment of a sacred and eternal source of sanctity.

'Hearing Things (The Oracle)' is an installation-performance which, whilst not attempting to render historical accuracy, attempts to recreate or echo the key structuring ideas of the Delphic Oracle. Firstly, the visitor enters a darkened space which, with its formal spot-lighting and rope cordons brings to mind a museum or historical display. A large scroll of paper is unrolled on a platform and text is projected onto it, a reverse text which can be read by visitors positioning themselves in relation to the reflective glass autocues overhanging the scroll. The hushed museum ambience is subtly diosorientated by a spring bubbling in an urn and steam escaping through the floor.

Searching further into the darkened space, a tripod and omphalos (a navel-stone representing the centre of the world), await the arrival of the Pythia. The scroll's text, it becomes apparent, is not static but is stimulated by the sounds of visitors moving through and voicing in the space. This is 'The Oracle' and here it is given form, not through the scribed interpretations of priests but through the entirely accidental 'creative mishearings' of speech recognition software. Visitors are openly invited to vocally intervene in the space as a way of 'consulting' the Oracle. Their voices as well as any other significant sounds (footsteps, whispering etc.) will be picked up and electronically re-invented as linguistic phrases - the Oracle's own enigmatic, accidental 'reply' to the intervention. This structure holds also during the nonverbal utterances and soundings of the Pythia during the live performance sections.

As a performance artist, I've always been intrigued by the figure of the Pythia. At the height of Classical, rational Greece, she represents an unlikely anachronism. Mature, female and of 'ordinary' background (i.e. without privilege, qualification or training), her task was to embody an idea of purity for ritual authority. She would do this by performing elaborate cleansing acts, dressing in a young girl's clothing, spitting and chewing laurel leaves, and by restraining her speech from verbal articulation. Her remit was to completely fling herself into a frenzy in order to lend weight to her utterances and there are instances (Plutarch describes one) in which the Pythia became so entirely submerged in her performance as to collapse and die. Hence, even in highly philosophical, high minded classical Greece, The Pythia's 'authenticity' as a mediumistic vessel for the voice of Apollo was never questioned.

In performing the role of the Pythia, I'm very conscious of being a 38 year old man impersonating a 50 year old woman impersonating a 12 year old girl. The overlays work their way into the physical language: self-conscious maturity into unconscious guile, knowingness into innocence. The performance embodies a triangular relation which is inclusive of familial traits and tensions, working themselves into physical action and raw movement language. Similarly, the largely nonverbal vocal exclaimings are balanced between the wear of age and the testiness, the tentative experiments of youth. The Greeks of Delphi, in choosing a mature woman to portray a young girl, revealed the Classical, gendered limitation of their notion of 'purity'.

My own overlap with the Greek ideal of purity is intensively coloured by the fears I encountered when, as a child I was informed by a teacher that, as a disabled person, I would definitely have been discarded - outcast - from Classical Greek society. Hence my 'purity' is not so much sexualised as based on a direct relation towards language itself; the position represented by my experience of becoming profoundly deaf. As I no longer hear my own or others' voices (in an audible sense), the proposition of 'linguistic purity' of is brought into play suggesting my own qualification for 'receiving the oracles'.

On a more concrete, practical level, as I live with tinnitus - sounds in the inner ear which are pronounced with deafness - I am quite literally capable of 'Hearing Things'. 'Hearing Things (the Oracle)'in isolation from the Pythic, similarly invites visitors to confront their own self-consciousness of linguistic intent. The invitation is brief but exacting: 'Say Anything You Wish'. Ask a question? Scream, invoke gibberish, your own name. The Oracle will reply to all interventions, maybe even provide enlightenment or art. An art of accidents.


Hearing Things by Aaron Williamson (1998) from V2_ on Vimeo.

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