Conversation with Sissel Marie Tonn (ST), Flora Reznik (FR), Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman (AL)
and Amelia Groom (AG).
Illustration by Sissel Marie Tonn
The Reading Room is an event series produced in collaboration with Stroom Den Haag and the Instrument Inventors Initiative. Since 2015 we have been organizing this series with the intention of creating a platform for close-readings and discussion of theoretical texts among an ever-growing diverse community of artists, cultural practitioners and individuals interested in intellectual discourse. For every session we invite guest readers to share their knowledge and guide the community through texts and themes within their field of expertise. The Reading Room is made possible with financial support from Stroom Den Haag and the Creative Industries Fund NL.
As discussions in The Reading Room are so ephemeral, since 2017 we have been looking into ways of recording traces of these events. The ‘Relay Conversations’, are created in collaboration with the guest readers. These interviews are conducted as conversational relays between the three organizers; artists Jonathan Reus, Flora Reznik and Sissel Marie Tonn, and the guest readers.
The Reading Room #29 and #30, The Edges of the Voice, took place on the 8th and 9th of December with guest readers Amelia Groom and Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman. In this cluster we focused on two texts that explore the limits and potentials of vocal expression; How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn and “The Gender of Sound” by Anne Carson.
In the first session, we read and explored both texts, approaching questions of voice and silence/ing through very different entry points; that of the non-human semiotic worlds of the rainforest, and that of the gendered politics inherent in determining how and whether voices are heard. Departing from these texts, and the respective practices of our guest readers and the participants of The Reading Room, we had a lively discussion around where we hear voices, when we speak up, and when we deliberately deploy silence. On the second day Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman led a workshop on the voice, where we assembled a “non-human choir”, using onomatopoeia – non-linguistic sounds – which enabled new ways of thinking about the themes, that we had been discussing through academic writing the previous day. Aurélie also gave a presentation of her work relating to the non-human and the voice, which she elaborates on in the conversation below.
ST: Amelia, for this Reading Room session you and Aurélie both chose a text that you thought was an interesting take on our theme ‘the edges of the voice’. You chose “Gender of Sound” by Anne Carson, and you mentioned in the session that every time you read this text, you get something new from it. My question is: What revealed itself this time around, specifically in the context of the discussions we had of it up against Kohn’s text?
AG: I was struck this time by the way the text ends: “I wonder if there might not be another idea of human order than repression, another notion of human virtue than self-control, another kind of human self than one based on dissociation of inside and outside. Or indeed, another human essence than self.” Read alongside Kohn’s more recent work on ‘how forests think’ (where he attempts to decentralise the figure of the human by reading it within a broader field of relations, involving many different forms of life and thought), these final lines in Carson’s essay seemed to matter. Kohn’s project is more explicitly post-humanist, but Carson was also calling
for a reconceptualization of the human category in western thought, and a reconceptualization of the constrictive categorisations that have tended to be at work in that history of thought. Since the voice is something that exists by moving out of bodies, and into other bodies, it can pose a particular threat to repressive regimes that have tried to dissociate insides from outsides.
Following from here, my question is for Aurélie: At the end of the workshop you shared some of your sound works with us, including an amazing piece that you called your ‘audio passport’, made from field recordings in Rwanda. Along with the layers of animal sounds, percussive music and other environmental voices, there was also the scratchy sounds of the recording apparatus, constantly reminding us that these impressions are not unmediated. Your microphone in this work doesn’t just capture other voices, it also has its own voice, which contributes to the polyphonic arrangement. I’m really interested in this decision to put these recording apparatus sounds inside the work, rather than edit them to the outside. Is this important to you, in terms of your
FR: Dear Aurélie, thanks for your question. One might say, that fundamentally a community living outside their place of origin, is a diasporic community. Or at least that is the definition of the term. But its etymology points at something different: dispersion. Dispersion implies quite the opposite, that of a movement towards one specific point. This origin, which a community calls its own, does not really exist, or it does in a way, and it is mainly a privilege. A proper origin, it could be argued, is an artifact that needs to be certified by some authority, something created through the violent mechanism of dividing an inside from an outside – and therefore, insiders from outsiders.
It seems to me that the notion of community cannot do without the idea of origin. But if a community can call something its origin, it is because of a violence that institutes the privilege of being able to know and inhabit one own’s place of origin, meaning, of not having been displaced. It is the power of a voice that raises above others, to point at someone else as an outsider and expel them, in turn constituting itself as a ‘self’ situated in the realm of interiority, in the absence of exteriority.
Kohn’s text is quite complicated and somewhat problematic, but I’d like to primarily focus on an effort to transcend the so called “human” realm, towards something that is traditionally placed in the exterior of this realm. His call is for humans to venture outside to find something that comprehends them, beyond the limits that Western tradition of thought imposed on us, in regards to the very notion of thought. How to think about that, which thinks about us? He is trying to valorize elements of thought, which are not only human, by setting out to observe “the specific spaces of disruption of meanings and relationships”. It is a gesture of dispossession: what was supposed to be unique to humans, needs to be shared.
Those spaces (of disruption of meanings and relationships) are absences, they are a kind of vacuum: the meaning comes to respond to absences. He exemplifies this by saying: we are here, alive, indebted to our ancestors that are dead; or, we do things in regards to future goals, which are not present. He asks, what could it be to act in a more absential way? Perhaps the notion of diaspora, if we think of it as a movement of exteriorization, could be enriched by this appreciation of absence. A movement that is not towards one primordial original absence, but a dispersion of absences constantly at play, constantly disrupting the secure walls of the “I”. Following Kohn, if life is language, it is diasporic: it trespasses the limits that it has imposed on itself from the very start, leaving a door ajar to unexpected intrusions.
FR: Sissel, in traditional linguistic approaches, communication happens when recognition and understanding is reached. In theory, this is possible in symbolic languages, however, I personally consider false the idea that everyone in a society shares certain contractual values, and therefore can discuss matters in the public sphere,
and eventually come to agreements. Kohn mentions something in the video lecture we saw in the Reading Room, that to me was quite radical and fresh. This is that there is no guarantee of understanding within iconic language; some might get it, some might not. It seems to be something deeply personal, or even mechanical, a certain physical disposition that may allow certain interpretations. But then, how is it possible for a human to communicate with animals, if not to understand, then somehow inhabit their points of view, without exerting a form of violence of interpretation? I mean, how does one become a cosmic diplomat? I’m thinking too of Sissel’s artistic practice in regards to tuning oneself to inorganic processes.
ST: Dear Flora, I will enlist the help of some great female writers, that has helped me think along with these themes, in response to your question. In the companion-species manifesto Donna Haraway writes about her relationship with her dog: “We have had forbidden conversation; we have had oral intercourse; we are bound in telling story upon story with nothing but the facts. We are training each other in acts of
The voice is something that exists by moving out of bodies, and into other bodies.
communication we barely understand. We are constitutively, companion species”. Here she write about all the ways of relating to her non-human companion species, Cayenne, through chemical communicative pathways, consisting of material exchanges of dog-saliva and physical affection (which also very much adds to the ‘leakiness’ of speech, which we read about in Carson’s text and which Amelia referred to in her answer). There are thus other ‘acts of communication’ – perhaps not as seamless as they would be with another english-speaking human, but nevertheless, communication. What I deduct from the academic framing of these modes of communication (which I believe Eduardo Kohn wants to contextualize with his bio-semiotic approach), is that humans and non-humans constantly decode signs of each other’s behavior, in order to make up meaning. Anyone who engage on a regular basis with animals will know, that multiple modes of communication indeed take place, even in the absence of a common linguistic framework. I think the emphasis here is, that we all live with and through signs. Of course Kohn is spending a substantive amount of time justifying why these modes of relating should have a place in western anthropological tradition, but as a non-anthropologist reader, who is not invested in this cause, what I get from his work is an opportunity to remind myself of the multiple ways of noticing, and recognizing the kinds of webs of relation, within the ecology of which I am part.
Coming back to your question: Being a ‘cosmic diplomat’ for me would be to take responsibility for the sensing of this relationality of our intra-acting world. I am reminded of a lecture I saw a while back, by Dutch philosopher, artist and animal activist Eva Meijer, who have done extensive research into the rich communicative worlds of animals, in which caged birds had naming systems for their caretakers etc. What I got from her talk (and I might mis-quote her here) is that we have put in place industrial and bureaucratic systems that suppress and remove inter-species communication, distancing ourselves from our non-human others. The same can be said for disenfranchised groups of humans as well, of course, and what Anne Carson gets at, with the “de-humanization” of the female voice. Rosi Braidotti says it equally poignant: “Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Some of us are not even considered fully human now, let alone at previous moments of Western social, political and scientific history.”
Amelia, I know you have a specific interest in the mineral world within the context of art practices. To stay in the lines of Flora’s question, and perhaps my answer to her, are the ideas of bio-semiotics interesting to you and your research? In my answer I focused mainly on humans and animals. However, I think this sense of relationality, and
attunement to the ever-changing processes of the ecologies of which we are part, seem equally important to consider, when it comes to the even stranger modes of “communicating” with the “inorganic”. What is your take on this?
AG: I suppose the dissociation of insides from outsides would have to start to collapse here as well, because if we do enact any sort of communication with the inorganic we do so as things that are also already partly inorganic. We think of stone in terms of the foundations down below our feet, as something which gravity has a great hold on, but minerality is also essential for life’s vertical reach, and the density of our stoney bones is what allows us to (temporarily) get up out of the ground. While we’re talking about forests – plants also would not be able to grow out of the ground without their stony components. Trees draw the minerals they need out of the ground, sucking subterranean rock up as they reach for the sky. (I recently looked into a study of underground fungi who collaborate with trees by producing acids that dissolve solid rock, allowing them to burrow tunnels down into stones, to get the minerals the trees want).
But yes, your question really pushes at the edges of ‘the edges of the voice’. In our discussions for the Reading Room we went to animal and plant life, but we didn’t get to rocks. There is much to be said about rocks
and writing and breath and song, but I’m going to pull the breaks a little here and pose an open question, for whoever is game:
In attempting to unlearn anthropocentrism, how far out do we want to expand? How wide should our notions of language/expression become? On the one hand, the history of human exceptionalism has amounted to catastrophic violence, and there is great urgency in learning to think differently and acknowledge ‘multi-species entanglements’. At the same time, I’m wondering if there is maybe after all some form of anthropocentrism worth holding onto, in order to be able to address the specificities of actual human struggles? Or some human exceptionalism ultimately necessary, in order to be responsible for the ecological crises we are facing (which are certainly not the fault of all human forms of living, but certainly are the fault of a specifically human way of living, in which we are all deeply implicated)?
FR: I share with you the concern about accountability. But why would it be a problem to open our notion of identity, to say that we share physical components with other forms of life, and also with forms of non-organic existence?
Isn’t this a path to a less isolated form of life, to an understanding of our mutual interferences? The fact that we are connected doesn’t need to erase the differences, or the specificities of each form of existence, it just gives more tools to imagine in which ways an intervention indeed would work effectively. As Kohn puts it: “the goal here is neither to do away with the human nor to reinscribe it, but to open it”. And if we wanted to state, that we are committed to take responsibility for the events that unfold in front of our eyes, even if we weren’t certain of to what degree, we are the actual sole cause of them, we could. It is a decision that can be made, right? Or perhaps I am missing your point?
On the other hand, I suspect that no matter how much we try to conceive our entangled existence with other-than-human forms of life, we are always imposing an interpretation on the world. We do have a specificity, a culture, even our scientific knowledge is a fiction we have created. We can only hope to make up new fictions that serve new purposes, purposes that are human. This stand might be in conflict with Kohn’s attempt to get out of the “anthropological and social theory” enclosement.
But I would like to push the argument even a bit more forward: I would also like to deconstruct the myth that we humans are one species, composed of individuals that understand each other. Rather, it would be fruitful to think of humans as a potentially infinite conglomerate of sub-species. As it was mentioned in our conversations regarding Carson’s text, it seems that some humans are less heard than others. I think it is important that we consider “heardability” and not only systems of meaning when we deal with politics of the voice.
Aurélie, I will pass Amelia’s question on to you, as it seems like a central one to our conversation. What do you think about this?
AL: Thanks for those relevant and urgent questions Amelia, and I agree with your wonderful answer Flora. I can only answer in relation to how I am doing this kind of investigation myself, through my current art practice. So this is definitely not an advice for all mankind. There are similarities between Eduardo Kohn’s and my research, as my sound art and radio art have autoethnographic points of view.
I have an ongoing project called “Africa On Tape”, for which I travel to East Africa
If we do enact any sort of communication with the inorganic we do so as things that are also already partly inorganic.
as often as possible, to continue conversations with e.g. Kanyoni Ladislas, my Rwandan grandfather, who just turned 109 this year. He is one of the oldest people on this planet, one of the last traditional medicine, hunters and beekeepers, living on volcano Karisimbi, in the Virunga mountains in rural Rwanda.
Through my research I discovered that the pre colonial Rwandan cosmology and spirituality shows that there must have been century long interaction and interdependence, where the human and non human world connect all the time, 365 days a year. My research is about trying to understand how e.g. my grandfather used to live all his life in and with the rainforest, and what kind of communication strategies he had with that sylvan environment, e.g. when active as a hunter and a herbal doctor.
Traditional Rwandan hunters – until the 1940’s and 1950’s, when it was still legal to go hunting – would consider the forest in its whole as an intellectual entity, a sentient being, and would communicate with it through songs and all sorts of animistic rituals. Unfortunately I am just at the beginning of my research. But let’s conclude that I’d like to partner and dialogue with witnesses of a non western, pre-colonial life in Eastern Africa, as I think that a lot of Amelia’s questions above may be answered by those witnesses.
Life is too short to do everything, but If I had enough time I would do the same research here in Europe, and try to find traces of pre-Roman Empire life in the lowlands e.g. to research the cosmology and (probably more animistic) lifestyles from back then, to see if they had solutions for Eduardo Kohns questions, as well as Amelia’s questions above.
My second conclusion is: for me it’s all about daring to root oneself, to connect to the place you are now, to its history, its future, as well as its present. I live a semi-nomadic lifestyle for certain periods of the year. And after all the traveling and all the continents, both in rural and urban environments, dense populated or remote areas, I now understand that I am more and more interested in just one thing: a spiritual connection to the soil I am walking on. I am not there yet, but at least I’m trying to find ways of belonging, rather than ways of possessing: actively considering and including the non human world, the inorganic world and my own human ancestry are all essential in this.
Sissel, do you have any concluding words to wrap up this conversation?
ST: Yes, that is a beautiful conclusion, Aurélie, and one that is worth passing on to our readers. To put my two cents in to the question Amelia posed: I believe the posthumanist ideas (I mentioned Rosi
Braidotti before) uses multi-species forms of relating, exactly to do away with human exceptionalism, because, as Rosi states, not all of us were always considered human… Essentially (as far as I understand) it’s a break with humanism, and ideas of universalism that comes with that tradition. In the first paragraph of Kohn’s text, he relays a story of a warning he got from one of the Runa hunters: “Sleep faceup! If a jaguar comes he’ll see you can look back at him and he won’t bother you. If you sleep face-down he’ll think you’re aicha (prey; lit., “meat” in Quichua) and he’ll attack”. He explains further: “If a jaguar sees you being capable of looking back – a self like himself, a you – he’ll leave you alone. But if he should come to see you as prey — an it — you may well become dead meat”.
I love how he begins his book by putting “us” in the position of having to justify ourselves as a “self” towards the jaguar. A dynamic that we are perhaps not so familiar with. He later says that in meeting the gaze of the jaguar — as two selves meeting — we are changed. We become a different us. I think it is this differentiation that’s important, and I find Flora’s idea of the breaking-down of the ‘human species’ interesting in this regard. For posthumanist thinkers the ‘humanities’ have failed somewhat because they never included all humans.
So there are room for new alliances there, that are holding some human ways of inhabiting the world accountable (ourselves included), and making room for understanding the kind of communicative relationality that we need to start practicing more actively, with the ecologies of which we are part.
And maybe if you see the rainforest as a “self” looking back, you might not cut it all down… and with that only the trees but the entire ecosystem of humans and non-humans co-existing with it.
I guess I don’t take Kohn’s conceptions of ‘language and communication’ so literally, but rather as means to an end in bringing to the table a cosmology of relation that he has learned from his field studies. And I guess I read his text more as a story about that, than a theory. That is to say, the forest thinking is not an anthropomorphic projection of a human kind of thinking… But rather a way of enhancing a sense of responsibility to other ‘selves’’.
Finally, I have to say that I have very much enjoyed all of your input and this whole process. Your thoughts will resonate with me in my work and my world view, and for that I am very grateful.
Amelia Groom is a Berlin-based writer, and currently a postdoctoral research fellow at ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, where she is working on an art historical project about stones. Since 2014 she has taught on the Critical Studies MA at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam, and she was also the theory tutor for the Master of Voice program at the Sandberg Institute (2016-2018).
Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman’s oeuvre balances between radio, installation, performance, vocal art and composition, with her extensive collection of unique field recordings and soundscapes from rural and urban East-Africa serving as the common denominator. Soundbite by soundbite she transforms and molds all those sounds into something she describes as “Afrique Concrète”. In addition to this, she constantly premieres new music by emerging young composers from around the globe in a multiplicity of styles. Lierman is a former radio maker and host at the national Belgian broadcasting corporation and co-created two Nurse With Wound albums.
Flora Reznik is an Argentinian artist based in The Netherlands. She studied in Universidad del Cine (FUC), obtained a diploma in Philosophy (University of Buenos Aires), while she worked as a video editor in film and TV, and co-funded the contemporary arts magazine “CIA”. In The Netherlands she graduated from the ArtScience Interfaculty department, in The Royal Academy of Art, and currently co-curates the artist initiative Platform for Thought in Motion, while she develops her work as an artist in the fields of video, performance, installation and text.
Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist living in The Hague. She works with multi-media installation, textiles and writing, and her processual approach is driven by a great deal of curiosity and the possibilities of building relationships across fields. Her work revolves around an interest in structures of attention and perception within ecologies undergoing subtle or profound changes. Within this discourse her work explores these environmental (often humanly induced) changes, extending the public debates towards epistemological issues connecting these events to the body and its sensing of presence. She completed a master in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2015 and will be a resident at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht in 2017.
From the organizers of the Reading Room: Thank you again to Aurélie Nyirabikali Lierman and Amelia Groom for their insights both in The Reading Room and in this piece! We hope to welcome you both back in Den Haag. And special thanks to all the participants that joined in this gathering.