We invited artists to programme or perform live vocalisations in the ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ gallery space over the show’s run (exhibition closes 31 July). These daily events offered an intimate, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the mechanics of voice production and vocal exercises. Elissavet Ntoulia reflects on this unorthodox programme of events. 

59 live performances over 10 weeks by 9 artists inside ‘THIS IS A VOICE‘ exhibition: Voicings can officially go down in Wellcome Collection’s exhibition history as the first programme of daily live performances.

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Meredith Monk’s Ascension Variations (2009) in New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

Although performance in museums is not new, the recent opening of the new Tate Modern has shown yet again how performance has been gaining ground recently in big institutions. It can vary from large scale, all-building occupations like Meredith Monk’s (whose work also features in ‘THIS IS A VOICE’) Ascension Variations (2009) in New York’s Guggenheim, to in-gallery performances like that of the work of choreographer Merce Cunningham in Barbican’s ‘The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns’ exhibition (2013). Performance art of any kind and scale has also been seen by institutions as adding value towards their effort for creating unique visitor experiences and offering increased opportunities for interaction and participation.

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Merce Cunningham in the Barbican’s ‘The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns’ exhibition (2013).

However, the Voicings programme defied categorisations within this context of institutional trends and it evolved into an integral part of the exhibition. How could it be any different? The presence of live human voices was a necessity in an exhibition exploring the “elusive and always changing” nature of the voice. The format was informal with a different vocalist or vocal expert taking over each week, without any technological mediation or manipulation of the voices, operated on a drop-in basis over 20 minutes.

As long as artists agreed to this simple format, they were free to investigate the mechanics of the human voice in any way they chose. From Marcus Coates’s imitations of birdsongs and James Platt’s insight into the operatic voice (see video above of ROH soprano Anush Hovhannisyan performing), to Mikhail Karikis’s challenge to perform Luciano Berio’s iconic piece Sequenza III (1965) written for a female voice, the results were not only diverse but also intriguing.

Some artists decided to further explore existing projects. The relationship between performance and conversation was interrogated by David Toop and his invited singers, while James Wilkes’s score made out of people’s experiences of a poetry reading also explored the interplay of speech and voice.

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David Toop and his invited singers.

Other artists used this opportunity to develop new projects. Sam Belinfante’s piece with vocalist Elaine Mitchener used the voice and its absence to move from interview-type situations to more intense arrangements of psychoanalysis and interrogation. Mitchener returned with choreographer Dam Van Huynh and together with their invited dancers questioned the relationship of movement and vocal production (video below).

Finally, a few invited the audience to get involved in a direct way. With Emma Smith’s guidance, visitors learned and used her 5Hz language, a new language for human bonding, to create and perform unique micro scores over two weeks (video below).

After his solo vocal improvisations, Phil Minton conducted an instant feral choir consisting of the visitors present at the time in the exhibition space (video below).

Even when audience participation was not as essential, visitors influenced the dynamic of each day. The informal context and small scale gave them also the opportunity to approach the artists and find out about the development process of the performance. “I felt better – can he be prescribed!?” exclaimed one visitor after participating in Minton’s feral choir, while another became very emotional when Belinfante’s piece reminded her of visiting her mother in Alzheimer care.


Sam Belinfante’s piece with vocalist Elaine Mitchener being performed.

There were surprises even for the more suspicious visitors: “I was ready to be unimpressed but it was a revealing experience.” and “Very enjoyable. I don’t usually like singing.”

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James Wilkes’s score made out of people’s experiences of a poetry reading.

The context that proved fertile for experimentation was challenging at the same time. There was a clear development of each piece as their week progressed and the artists became more familiar with the space; they also had to adjust and sometimes ‘compete’ with the exhibition’s rich soundscape.

In contrast, the next performance part of ‘THIS IS A VOICE’ will take place in a space devoted to silence: the Quiet Volume runs until 30 July in Wellcome Library.

THIS IS A VOICE‘ is open until 31 July.

Elissavet is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

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