Teacher Voice Treatment Lecture 2, by Sarah Hayden
Introduction by Sophie Seita:
Sarah Hayden’s lecture poem sequence Teacher Voice Treatment (TVT) explodes the format of the lecture in the anti-tradition of the lecture performance, a form that sits more or less comfortably between art and pedagogy or art and criticism. Having gained traction since the 1960s, with figures like John Cage, Robert Morris, Yvonne Rainer, Adrian Piper, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, Carolee Schneemann and others playing with this hybrid genre avant la lettre, we can continue to trace its history to Martha Rosler, Andrea Fraser, Karen Finley, all the way to the contemporary experiments of Walid Raad, Hito Steyerl, Tony Cokes, Christine Sun Kim, Coco Fusco, and Gordon Hall. Sarah’s TVT both belongs to and critically analyses this didactic creative-critical trajectory.
In February 2020, I invited Sarah to present some new work in connection with her research on Voices in the Gallery at a seminar I co-run with my colleague Alex Rehding at Harvard’s Mahindra Center. Sound/Text looks at the intersections of language, music, and noise—from experimental poetry to sound archives, from conceptual art to psycholinguistics, from media aesthetics to neuroscience, from critical organology to sonic anthropology, from material culture to practice-based research. Our seminar hopes to offer an interdisciplinary forum in Boston (and since the pandemic, also beyond) for conversations about the roles that sound plays in all aspects of our lives. We’re interested in questions around liveness, documentation, histories of interpretation, and new modes of reading and listening. In keeping with the interdisciplinary angle of the seminar, our meetings try to explore an equally wide-ranging approach: academic talks, lecture performances, listening sessions, concerts, and roundtables.
I specifically asked Sarah because I’d just discovered her 2017 lecture poem ‘L1’ in Blackbox Manifold as I was putting together my syllabus for a graduate seminar on lecture performances, lyric essays, and other hybrid genres under the umbrella of ‘artistic research’ or ‘practice-based research’. I was also re-reading Sarah’s lecture poem ‘L4.5: For the 48 Portraits’ in Datableed, which I had first heard at a reading we both did together in Cardiff in December 2018. I still remember the late-night chat in a not-so-cosy but rather garish hotel bar, a conversation re-spun a year later over more post-seminar jetlagged chats and then almondy porridge in Boston, thinking of the need to find a visual-textual translation (in print or online) for what the lecture poem does in its live, sonically resonant, and embodied form.
Why experiment with the form of the lecture? Why upset the usually unwavering teacher voice?
To quote Sarah quoting Barbara Guest in ‘L4.5’: ‘Heavy [indeed] is the literature’. The lecture poem brings a bit of lightness into the whole knowledge business. That’s not to say it can’t do any heavy-lifting—for me, a lecture poem/performance is particularly fascinating when it gestures towards rigour and depth—but uses a lighter tone. It is in many ways a performance of tone. I could get theoretical here.
The lecture poem/performance introduces ideas, then pits them against—or holds them within—form. It fashions an associative, non-linear, sometimes spurious or speculative pedagogy.
Knowledge, both the production and consumption of it (I’m deliberately thinking of it as a Turkish delight or gummy bear aka Lucretius/Lucy Hutchinson ‘and when they give a bitter potion, baite / The verges of the cup with honie’) usually follows linear lines of direction, exhibits a limited awareness of the body, and delimits our understanding of ‘logic’ or ‘how things are done’. The lecture poem/performance helpfully breaks up the default, makes knowledge more tangible though not necessarily palatable. ‘Th’overwhelm from th’overwhelm is edifying.’ (SH in TVT)
We’ve probably all exclaimed at one point or another—That lecture really dragged!— When we drag something, we experience tension between two surfaces; there’s an inherent delay; time passes more slowly; we might do something with slight difficulty; we might be exhausted; it might be a little awkward. We drag our feet, we procrastinate. We dawdle.
We might chime in with Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s reversal of avant-garde time as rupture and progression: “maintenance is a drag: it takes all the fucking time.”
TVT draws our attention to the makings and meanings of lecturing, the voices of teachers and artists, but also the teaching voices in YouTube videos, the so-called ‘educational turn’, and the didactic tone or many staged lessons in performance and video pieces. This drawing attention to or drawing out or side-by-side provisionality and ambivalence is everything but a drag, indeed such a formal experiment takes the requisite time to make its point: that we need ‘lectures emptied of lecture’ (with their association of authority, surety, hierarchy), ‘new forms’, ‘fractallly, foldingly overlapping’ (like the captions and slides in the margins in Sarah’s piece, which supplement, critique, offer sideway glances), which do something with our bodies, gift us ‘particular structures of feeling’—'As the teacher voice internalised, the lesson / / the language / / that sticks’.
You can read TVT Lecture 1 here.
'I do believe the two, art/knowledge, inflect each other, but I also believe that art inflects pudding’.[i]
As David Antin had already noticed in 1975, video was always hung up on television. And much video, since then and still now, has applied itself to ‘quotes, allusion, celebration, parody and protest’ against/of Televisual forms.[ii] So far sooobvious.
HOME EC / HOME ED
Various artists, early on, looked to television’s early attempts to render itself respectable by providing ‘educational programming’: the charged cookery (utensil) demonstration that is Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (also 1975) is maybe the to-handiest example here. Amortification of the shallow range allowed to the (Child-ish, with capital C) woman presenter. Her tight voice that can speak only the names of these objects (grater, hamburger press, eggbeater, bowl), but is never loosed into anything more expansive: a paragraph, say, even a sentence. Culminating in Rosler speaking only some semantically void letters.
Not incidentally, this was the series designated by PBS for an 8 episode trial, a pilot project intended to test the viability of open captioning.[iii] Would that trial had become universal telly practice.
As Emily Watlington points out, ‘it’s [already] a didactic show’.[iv] Chef’s mission: to make europrestige food look & sound unfancy, unprompting of fear. Or, as Lazard’s voice + caption tracks put it: ‘this white woman dedicated her life / to make French food / accessible to the masses’.
Witness: Child’s every demonstration — supplemented with the patientest description. Where TV-chefs often insinuate a shade of mystery into their doings, implying the sharing of iceberg-apex skills acquired in extraordinary circumstances, this chef’s method is total — <<look no continental secrets up my sleeves>> — disclosure. At every juncture, she opts for demystification. Repeating, on each omelet variation, the basic moves (and their narration) again, bedding in the principles, revising egg-congealing 101, incorporating ‘stretch’ in the construction of a (dismaying) 5, 6 or 7-layer omelet gateau.
And for the benefit of those insufficiently imaginative to free-style conceive of how an omelet dinner party might transpire, some campish role-play: ‘Oh here comes my mother-in-law. / I’ll give her a liver omelet’. Meantimes, for the stronger (stretchier?) students, or those desirous of remedial assist, there’s even a short spot on further (ultraomelettey) reading.
But, though, but […What I want to say is…] From out of these televisual teaching materials, Lazard constitutes an alternative lesson-plan; a reroute squeaky-markered onto overhead transparency. Over the broadcast’s voice, text and image channels, th’artist adds a repeating simu-scrolling+vocalized caption-text, plus variously intermitting and overlapping audio description track. Th’overwhelm from th’overwhelm is edifying.
In its choreography of this concatenation — repurposing at cross-purposes these mutually explicative and obstructive teacher voice channels — A Recipe for Disaster schools supreme. And here, again, Watlington says it best: ‘Lazard is actually retrofitting Julia Child’s cooking show. Their remix shows both the importance and the limits of captioning sounds and describing images on media not made with deaf/Deaf and/or blind and low-vision audiences in mind from the start’.[v] Lazard and Watlington are teaching art at large a lot about captions and accessibility right now. We have, we should already know, such a very great lot to learn.
TUTOR ME, TUTOR YOU
Teaching as telling people how to do stuff on telly really properly took off with Web 2.0’s democratization of the format: making it possible for everyone to teach everyone without anyone intervening, checking credentials, certification, co-reqs.
The teacher voice from a YouTube tutorial on creating ‘a displaced body of water, using a plan and a displaced modification’ in Maxon Cinema 4D turns up in-cameo in Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc (2014). Having warned, earlier, that a ‘nervous breakdown’ on the part of the artist ‘means no budget for water CGI’, Steyerl’s chatboxes draw back the curtain on cobbled, ersatzing composition ‘I’ll have to do it myself, it will be flotsam from C4D tutorials’. Or, more flamboyantly translated, <<Ta-daah! This is how I do what I do>>. Paradoxically, this de-magikification of the process makes the synth-sea shimmer more impressively. Once pulled from pretending-realness, its constant, complex motion is made miraculous — so when the Maxon tutor exclaims ‘Look at this gorgeous displaced animated water’, we’re there with the YouTeacher, equally agog.
David Blandy’s tutorial videos borrow this Youtubey format, but promise to teach a more esoteric range of skills — How to Fly/ How to Live/ How to Make A Short Video About Extinction/ How to Make a Short Video About Ideas. Opening each time with a spookily identi-sounding “Hi guys”, this teacher voice mobilises the obligatory ambient intimacy of the genre, as well as the over-chummy mien of the tutorialist keen to endear, obliged to secure the loyalty of a class that might go either way.
‘I’m not talking about similarity but about sending and the feeling of being sent’.[vi]
Teachers of YouTube are bound by no extern-ally ratified curriculum, no consensus on canon, they are not even required to make promises in advance about predicted learning outcomes. <<wow>>.
Unconstrained by any pre-semester Bloomianisms, unperturbed even by a week-by-week reading list, the theme of the day arises, like coastal rain, without forecast. Oldstyle teaching temporalities / flashfloods of whims / classes chasing fancies. Because <<I’ve been thinking of making a film about flying>>, that’s what’s next on th'agenda.
If Blandy's tutorials do not impart the high secrets of (good) life, neither, either do they teach the ostensibly more transmissible technical skills they ostensibly demonstrate. Programs (GTA, Logic, Garageband) are cited, but their workings go unexplained — proficiency presumed prior or, otherwise, attainable elsewhere. And yet, and like the most insensible of teachers, ploughing on as the intending students fall away in bafflement, Blandy’s solicitous tones enact make & do’s <<here’s one I made earlier>> on the sweepingest of scales.
The spiritual guidance on offer is similarly sketchy. ‘Life…is symbolic’ wafts How to Fly (2020); ‘Let the stoic presence of the cormorant imbue with a quality of stillness that is both fluid and steely’.
Blandy's How To Make A Short Video About Extinction (2014) recommends the wholesale, uncredited plundering of TED-talk transcripts for video voiceovers, with those filleted in the video making for richly random pickings ‘another way we could be incinerated […] But what if we meet a rogue black hole?’ Blandy’s achievement here is managing not to tip the whole into all-out irony. It’s a fond tease, an affectionate proffering of mystic wisdom. His tutorial videos poke fun at our conscientious, attentive frow-faces, without pretending that he would not himself subscribe to a course in this wisdom, too. Even as the tutor-voiceover intones, epically airy, commanding all th’attention it claims its due, so it is describing its own composition as the most authorially vacant of all possible enterprises. The writing of voiceover text a matter simply of copy-and-pasting the first search result harvested from the bluntest of three-term searches ‘(google cormorant bird meaning)’. Content thus sourced, simply ‘Copy a bunch of text from there. And…uhm… take it into Word and edit it a bit. Then you’re good to go’.
Besides disclosing its origin story, the video also scrolls up and down the script (bare Word doc.) being spoken. A process disclosure too far, the glimpses that result feel more than merely naughty. Awkward t’apprehend. Like th’embarrassing silence that succeeds the teacher’s lachrymose loosening. What is it to be susceptible still, and in spite of it all, to the voice of the teacher who tells you — through mucosal effulgence — that they’re making it all up? What is to be lifted by the flight (raised on the wings, and at sunrise) of a bird that is only CGI pixels?
At this, at least in the dream version: a covert lodge of dodgy voiceoverists burst in, waving infelicitous NDAs.
At this, in daylight: the veil that is the screen that is th’arras rips… and the rip resounds.
Bruce Nauman’s Setting a Good Corner (Allegory & Metaphor) (1999) delivers a lesson that is almost all rural-rugged demonstration, barely a lick of explication. Capping each end of its 59’18: a passage of scrolling text, intertitlish.
The first of these, the fore-word, lays out what it is (so to speak, with apologies) at stake in the unspeaking that follows: Because ‘A good fence can’t be / built or maintained / without a good corner’, BN in farmer format is here to show us how. The second relays an assessment of Nauman’s work by one “Bill Riggins, Partner, Los Madres Ranch”. Transpiring between these bookends: real-time, unedited execution of the corner-setting, as registered in a single, static shot. The ranch (the farm) the stage, on which his teaching untheatrics unfold.
Lest aught should be missed, the student having attended insufficiently closely to the angle of approach at which a given implement should contact the ground, or the likely depth to which a post should be sunk, the video loops in unlimited repetition. Anticipating our weak corner ken, Nauman bakes the revision right in.
Though no longer quite so exceedingly jaunty of joint as in his Contrapposto days, there is yet an aesthetically appreciable efficiency and grace to how th’artist performs this labour. Time taken to watch = time taken to set the corner. Distanced from the guilt that should strike anyone statically, comfortably, observing another exerting itself in physical work, the viewer is prompted to extrapolate from this example onto other instances of seeing work (actually) happen.
Evidently more given (than is the wan at this keyboard) to carrying out similar activities with his very own body, Martin Herbert describes the video’s afterwards as ‘a spore that, once ingested, can rise to the surface of the mind anytime the viewer does honest work later, serving to dignify it, smarten it’.[vii] Though this writer-viewer is ungiven to sweating with such integrity, Herbert’s suggestion of a spore is worth carrying from here. Let’s poke it into some sodden cotton wool, where it should germinate in time for the the last part of this lesson’s third instalment.
Playing on Nauman’s own awareness of his reputation as artist forefather for the world at large, Setting a Good Corner presents his ranch-partner’s comments as epilogue on execution. This inclusion only amplifies, I think, the work’s pedagogic potency. Where a lesser teacher would slide over / edit out any mistakes, Nauman adds Riggins' addendum as though to ensure his students are not unwittingly infected in a transmission of bad habits.
Likewise, the matching, exogenous preface emplaces th’artist as himself a multimodal link in a chain of pedagogic transfers: ‘I learned this way of / building a corner from / the example of Gene / Thornton, but my mistakes are my own, / not Gene’s’. The student-turned-teacher is not yet so assured of his authority as to have forgotten to cite his sources, which is to say, name his teachers. As Herbert has it, Nauman is ‘student and teacher at once here’.[viii] Also, maybe, something of a student-teacher too, with Riggins the mentor-ish, wrinkly-knuckled colleague (or, back in the vicinity of the fam-farm, the cigire, even) assigned to carry out the teaching observation.
The intro-titles enumeration of how ‘This corner is built with / good used railroad ties, / 9’ long and set deep. / The cross pieces are / cedar posts’ lands as label-text description of materials and the TV or YouTube tutorial’s (potentially sponsored) <<Hey, so what I’m using here is….>> statement. Its wink-ready passive-formism — ‘Smooth / rather than barbed wire / is used here to avoid / tearing up my shirt and / arms and causing bad / language to occur’ — a knowing nod to genre convention.
Although th’artist already has considerable form in the corner — bouncing in them, contorting Watt-ishly as illustration of an angle, walking ‘in an exaggerated manner around the perimeter of a square’ taped on his studio floor, doing dance or exercises on their perimeters here he is all but unspeaking .
Cowboyishly clad and outside of the studio, the artist’s kinetic elegance, Nauman’s full-body-system commitment to carrying a sequence through as the teaching looks less performance art en plein air and more like plain man-of-the-land taciturnity.This near-total non-sounding of teacher voice clinks (germanically) of the tall quiet farmers of my childhood.
Why risk corruption of the message, why convert the sequence into language when what needs transmitting is a matter of step-sequences and manual handling, a lesson in the laying on of spirit levels? The teacher voice of Setting a Good Corner is the teacher voice foreclosed (manifesting only so-barely in the text-on-screen): the lesson redirected into this otherwise/otherways articulate demonstration.
Outside, even, of the outdoor classroom, other speech situations in videos disclose their pedagogic moves still more subtly.
Nancy Holt’s 1973 Zeroing In and Tony Cokes’ 1990 Fade to Black present obliquer takes — not educational TV as such — but art’s analog to PBS-type TV’s propensity for folding didactic intentions, pinpleatishily, into other programming.
In Zeroing In , this takes the familiar format of presenter/host (Holt) and keen foil/game student stand-in (Ted Castle) modelling (in conversation) not classroom activity but a sort of staged lesson in the operation of optical perception.
For the duration of the entire 31’15 video, we hear the voices of Holt and Castle and look upon an urban panorama of some miles, shot from perhaps a mile high and offering a deep view onto the scene below. Until the end, however, we see of this only what Holt elects to make visible via 5 circular holes cut in an otherwise opaque circle, and opened and closed in turn. Rather than partitioning the voices’ sources from their hearers, this cardboard cover obstructs the speakers’ and viewers’ view of the city scene, withholding the panorama that could make it all make sense. In the absence of clear vision, Holt & her lovely assistant must speculate on the nature of the circles of city that the holes expose. Their dialogue, in which teacher and lovely assistant muse together on the views glimpsed is intended to elicit teaching opportunities about the nature of perception.
It is Holt who leads, she who has set the terms for the experiments they carry out, and she who determines when ‘Ok well, I think I’ll expose all the circles that we’ve been looking at’. When the surreptitious educator asks, in arch-innocence: ‘Is there a pattern here? Can we make a whole out of all of these isolated parts that we’ve been looking at?’, her questions ring socratic.
Holt is, too, the main-ipulator of the dainty pointer that appears onscreen to prod, as though a petri dish, details of one circular space-as-specimen. And as the pair not onscreen perform live learning — appearing to work out, as we watch, that the circles in the lower portion are more in focus, so we at home, are enjoined to make newly informed connections, about the functioning of the camera lens, video playback and human ocular perception.
Announcing finally ‘Well, I think maybe we should take this tube off and get a look at the whole scene’, Holt moves us into the participatory segment of the seminar: the always-unfortunately-compressed bit before the bell, when what was demonstrated is supposed to get instituted. As the obstruction is removed to enable a full view, the instructor voices go quiet and viewers at home/in the gallery watch the city scene in silence: testing newly sharpened speculative chops. <<There you are, now, putting all that new learning into action!>>.
Tony Cokes’s Fade to Black (1990) video essay activates multiple perceptual streams at once: film footage, opening credit sequences, film titles, racist ‘jokes’, music (Pet Shop Boys, Byrne/Eno, Last Poets, Living Color, NWA). It opens with an audio clip of Althusser (stentorian voiced, femicidally professorial) explaining interpellation. But his is not the teaching voice I want to treat here, not the one that holds the main mic in this emphatically polyvocal work either.
Like Zeroing In, Fade to Black stages a conversation between familiars to communicate teachable insights, in this case not about perception but about racism — and, specifically, about the failure of white Americans to perceive it in their midst, in their behaviour. Over a shifting multimedia montage, we hear Cokes and Trammel speak, together, in solidarity, about experiences of everyday, appalling microaggressions.
Delivery of these anecdotes is conversational, but it is not casual. Playing off each other, the speaker-teachers re-enact altercations and re-voice insinuations. Practiced until exsanguinated, theirs is a sarcasm that conveys simultaneously the shock, and its ubiquity. A ventriloquised refrain — ‘There is no racism here’ — is recited, passed between them, in exhaustion, in exasperation, at the impossible state of things. Cokes and Trammel’s experiences in the 1990s are interleaved among those illustrated – via film-clips – by a damning lookback at representations of race in cinema history. The starkness of these similarities transmits sonically: in the very audible room-tone that clings to their speech. Each time Cokes cuts from clip to their dialogue, the whine that is the registration (Lucierlike) of the sound of them sitting in a room, breaks in like a siren that insists: THIS! STILL!! NOW!!!
If not quite scripted, this trading of stories has clearly been written (lecture-like) in advance of the speaking — its blunt verbal choreography mapped out.
And, mirroring Holt’s over-to-you moment, those voices recuse themselves just before 27’, i.e. before the end, leaving us watching the last clip, a grotesque pageant of minstrelsy. With Cokes and Trammel out of earshot, the viewer must contend, alone, with this egregious blackface sequence. For 1’50, an excruciating silence is sustained. And while this proceeds, their made-to-be-teacher voices are propelled, from out of sonority into speechless exclamation, from the screen: ‘YOU MUST BE SEEING THINGS // BUT THAT JOKE ISN’T FUNNY ANYMORE’.
After so much overstimulation by the video, so much somuchness — of text, voice, song, moving image — Fade to Black’s sudden economy of media-means is strikingly privative. Intentionally so. There is nowhere else to look, no escaping what we’re seeing, no alternative storyline upon which to fix. No shield from this uncomfortable apprehension of unfolding, unfinishing racism.
TEST IT ALL, ALL AT ONCE
A more mundane sort of discomfort is roused by the teacher voice of Laure Prouvost’s 2017 DIT LEARN. This time it is we, the listener-viewers who are conscripted into performing (right through) in the students’ role. Specifically in the discomfiting role of the examination candidate, under pressure, under time constraints and under observation.
In place of titlecard, the film is announced by onscreen admonition that reads: ‘YOU ARE 6 MINUTES LATE’ & then ‘YOU ARE NOW / YOU ARE HERE 12 MINS / YOU ARE HERE TO DIT-LEARN / IN 4 SEPARATE EXERCISES / YOU ARE TO BECOME / INTO ALL’.
From once we see the screen, we have already been seen seeing. Non-participation is not an option, and a test is imminent: ‘BEFORE WE START WE NEED YOU TO REMEMBER THESE FEW THINGS / YOU NEED TO LEARN AND REMEMBER THE MEANING OF THINGS / YOU WILL BE ASKED TO USE WHAT YOU LEARNED’.