A foreword to John Wynne's Hearing Voices by David Toop
Sound art is a relatively open field, an area of activity in which the central focus of the work - sound - can be examined, or developed, through media other than sound. At its most basic (or sophisticated), this may be a guided tour through sites of remarkable sonic interest. The capacity to listen with sensitivity, a marginalised quality in our society, is where the work begins. Perhaps one of the reasons why sound art has taken so long to become recognised as a valid activity is because of the breadth of its origins. Painting, physics, architecture, music, literature, sculpture, cinema, photography, theatre, radio, conceptual art, and the social sciences have all contributed elements to this hybrid practise, and so a confusion persists: what exactly is sound art? This turns out to be a productive confusion, since sound art requires some effort to be 'read' , even at its most accessible. A sound art installation that communicates immediately still asks the question: what is going on here?
The use of language within sound art is a good example. Verbal language is a means of communication used by almost all of us, so taken for granted, yet language is a complex act in which the message carried by speech is just one aspect of a convergence of cultural context, abstract sonic material, and human body functioning that encompasses breath and brain, gesture and noise. Sound art's preoccupation with language dates from the nonsense speech, automatism, and 'free words' pioneered by Dadaists, Futurists, and Surrealists in the first few decades of the 20th century. Composer John Cage, a pivotal figure in the detachment of sound from music, was influenced profoundly by the experimental writing of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, and so words, speech, and writing, became potent sources for sound artists who followed Cage.
John Wynne's work addresses issues of language directly, yet as a sound artist, he still poses (and addresses) the question: what is going on here? As one of the many destructive effects of globalisation, languages are disappearing. Clearly, the implications for cultural diversity, and the survival of indigenous people, are catastrophic. A limited number of possibilities exist to address this crisis. As the so-called developed world moves further into the digital domain, so disembodiment becomes a structural element in social relations. The portraiture integrated into the playback system of this installation counters the shift towards a detachment from human agency, yet also engages with the mediating effects of recording technology. Faces are obscured; voices are extended, or filtered, until their meaning is abstracted. These faces, and voices, are both highlighted by the wider world of digital communications, and with conscious irony, absorbed by its power. Contradictions of this type, embedded within the work, can sensitise the listener to the question of what is going on, either at the micro-level of personal and private space, invaded by noise and other intrusions, or at the Big Mac level, where global diversity struggles against overwhelming pressure.
Through his research and practise in Botswana, recording click language speech by individuals who collaborate as performers at the beginning of a process, Wynne constructs an experience that flickers on the boundaries between speech and sound, and the various levels of meaning that can be derived from human communications. Simultaneously, the work alerts the perceiver to the beauty of language and its potential as a plastic medium, to specifics and generalities, to political and economic realities, and to the troubled, yet fruitful connections that can be nurtured in spite of an intimidating geographical, linguistic, cultural, and technological divide.