The Mouthpiece

"The Mouthpiece" (1994) is an interactive installation by Krzysztof Wodiczko.

The Mouthpiece

The Mouthpiece; photo: artist's website

The Mouthpiece is a piece of equipment for strangers. It covers the mouth of the wearer like a gag. A small video monitor and loudspeakers are installed at the center of the instrument and in front of the user's mouth. The monitor and the loudspeakers replace the real act of speech with an audio-visual broadcast of pre-recorded, edited, electronically perfected and quicked searched statements, questions, answers, stories, etc.

The Mouthpiece "replaces" the immigrant's actual act of speech with the moving image of the immigrant's lips and the sound of the immigrant's voice. It is designed to be as attractive as contemporary virtual reality gadgets. The clear resolution of the liquid crystal screen of the video monitor attracts viewer's attention. The small size of the screen (no larger than the actual size of human lips) forces viewers to come close to the user's face in order to see the image of speaking lips and to hear the voice clearly. Thus the distance between the immigrant wearing the mouthpiece and the viewers, non-immigrants and other immigrants, decreases physically and, hopefully, psychologically as well.

For a speechless stranger living in a culturally, politically and ethically unnatural situation, wearing an artificial and artistically conceived speech act equipment is a natural thing to do. In today's migration era, the wearer of the Porte-parole appears as a prophetic story-teller and a poetic interrupter of the continuity of established life in public space and dominant culture. This stranger becomes an expert and a virtuoso in the technology and the artistry of speech, equipped to speak better than others who have yet to overcome speechlessness in their encounter with strangers.

The Mouthpiece is a further evolution of the Alien Staff as the next generation of speech equipment designed for immigrants. The previous instrument was meant to operate as an attribute, an artiface, a reliquary, a portable memorial to recall in public the "private history" of the immigrant experience. It functioned as a third party between immigrants and non-immigrants and among immigrants themselves; it functioned as the immigrant's double, and as an inspiration for the dialogue between the segregated worlds of the people who entered into conversation around it.

The new instrument is a more radical type of equipment than the Alien Staff. It is directly attached to the body (the face) of the immigrant, becoming an extension of the body. The user himself or herself is no longer delegating power to the instrument, but is integrated organically with it, transforming him or her into a kind of cyborg, a virtual subject.

The Mouthpiece points to the absurdity of any attempt at depriving speech rights in a democratic society. It responds to the actual political process and experience of such deprivation, while at the same time it helps to translate this disadvantage into a new advantage. In other words, it is an instrument whose function is to empower those who are deprived of power. It is designed to assert the universal communicative rights introduced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France, assured by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States and guaranteed by most national constitutions since. An implication of those declarations is that no artifice can be created to restrict communicative rights and conversely, no artifice whose aim is to aid in the exercise of communicative rights can be legally banned. Its basic purpose is to provide a means of saying all the things that must be said and that no one wants to hear. In doing so it does not prevent anyone else from doing the same. The Mouthpiece is thus a democratic artifice.

The Mouthpiece allows its owner to compose and pre-record his or her acts of speaking and to replay and reenact it later in a particularly chosen time and place in private or public situations. This process reinforces a specific kind of power already acquired by immigrants, the artistic power of speech invention and storytelling. The storyteller has always been forced to develop an art of speech in order to tell what has usually been untold and for which there is no ready-made metaphor. The storyteller creates a situation in which repressed feelings, translated into stories, can be effectively expressed. The wearer of the alien Mouthpiece is a storyteller who is an expert in technology of speech in the cyberspace era, an alien who has arrived in a xenophobic land and who looks strangely familiar to us who have yet to overcome our speechlessness in the face of our repressed fears.

This project, like the previous Alien Staff, creates an artifice that provokes or inspires communication or translation, a display of what is usually hidden. The instrument suggests an acknowledgement of the richness and complexity of people who combine both "natural" and "artificial" qualities of life. This means that feeling artificial (not at home, alienated from oneself or others) becomes a process that can open up new questions and introduce the possibility for different identities and communities beyond nationalisms and fixed notions of difference, crossing social and psychological boundaries, meeting on new common ground where the strangeness can be shared.

"Aliens" equipped with specially designed instruments might appear perfectly natural in the contemporary migratory environment of global strangeness. Exposing their own disintegration and displaced identity, they provoke and inspire the larger process of the disintegration of identities among non-immigrants. They may spread the communicable (contagious) process of the exploration of one's own strangeness. They might help create new links and affinities between immigrants andnon-immigrants on the basis of the recognition of their common strangeness.

With the use of digital technology, the process of recording and editing the image and sound of a speaking mouth will become an artistic endeavor. The process of composing and pre-recording each speech act in private is psychologically, politically and artistically as important as the public live performance and its social discourse.

Advanced video editing, digital enhancement and transformation of both the image and the sound of the speech (through the most recent Macintosh software) is critical to the project. The technology of video production will help to create a metaphoric synthesis of often overlapping and displaced memories, fragments of experiences, statements, stories, words and sentences, all of which correspond to the unstable identity of the stranger who is living through the pain of displacement and becoming. Electronic montage will allow for changes in the speed of the lips on the screen and the change of frequency characteristics of sound, for dubbing, correcting, playing with and multiplying accents and gender indicators. Fragments of films and other videos can be inserted and other people's lips can be juxtaposed with the immigrant's, for example.

The careful choice of locations and situations for the performative use of the Alien Mouthpiece is crucial. Official events and symbolic environments are the best, because they are the least expected situations for immigrants. The presence of a group of Mouthpiece users is also essential. The image of a crowd of aliens appearing as if they have just landed from another planet (which happens to be our own) is most desireable.

In Rotterdam, before and during Next 5 Minutes (1996), local operators walked through the city with Krzysztof Wodiczko projects Alien Staff and Mouth Piece. Aided by electronic walking sticks and mouth-size monitors they demonstrated how to communicate in an unfamiliar cultural environment and language.

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