After their 2009 debut exhibition at kurimanzutto, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla return with a layering of three recent works combined here to consider the diverse forms the medium of the voice might take.
Situated in the center of the gallery, the installation Intervals consists of reconfigured acrylic lecterns that serve as a sculptural support for propping up dinosaur bones to the corresponding height of their original locations within the skeletons of the respective animals. In place of a book or notes that a speaker usually relies on to deliver his speech, are the mineral remains of long extinct species — poetically transferring onto these otherwise mute objects the possibility of reading them as three-dimensional primary texts, written into the geological record that may tell us something about our own fragility. The opacity of the dinosaur bones also draws attention to the hidden material narrative of the clear plastic podiums. Conventionally used to suggest transparency and accessibility to the ideas being conveyed in a speech, we tend to forget the objects’ petrochemical origins, derived from the decomposition of plants and animals that were buried in the earth’s crust in the same era as the dinosaurs. With the increasing knowledge of the hazardous and toxic effects of petrochemical products to the health of living beings and to the earth’s ecosystems, the installation Intervals conjures objects from the last mass extinction event to express a voice of conscious about our collective future.
Set amongst the installation Intervals is the performance Lifespan — a collaboration between the artists and the American composer David Lang, interpreted by the Mexico City based Ónix Ensemble. Three vocalists whistle toward a 4 billion year old rock suspended from the ceiling and, with the force of their breath, make it subtly swing like a pendulum. Lang describes the composition as, “light and unpredictable, like air…all musical ideas begin with one designated leader and are passed around all the performers, clockwise, overlapping, speeding up, and slowing down unpredictably… it should have an air of wildness to it. this is not a gentle piece.” Lifespan begins with the performers blowing air silently in long slow streams then moving through the “f”, “sh” and “th” phoneme sounds. Whistling then begins with tones of varying lengths followed by breathy explosions of unpredictable lengths with lots of space between them, and later with the highest whistle sound possible. They continue in this pattern until arriving at a downward glissandi in which everyone begins to slow down and whistle quietly. Then the leader blows air, wild and agitated as before, while the others continue to whistle and then join with blowing bursts, then changing to the “f’ phoneme, until finally blowing air silently in long slow streams as the performance began. The ancient rock, which comes from a time when there were no living witnesses to the planet’s geological transformation, returns to its original stasis.
Exploring what can be made of the voice when language is left out is Interludes, a sound- based work that activates the physical site through the ethereal, ephemeral medium of breath. Interludes is based on audio recordings from the Sigma Sound Studios Collection at Drexel University’s Audio Archives that the artists were researching for an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014. Sigma Sound Studios, founded in 1968, was strongly associated with “Philadelphia soul” a genre that laid the groundwork for disco and smooth jazz and consisted of large productions of strings and horns mixed with pop vocals. It was also the first recording studio to use console automation, which allowed the console to remember the audio engineer’s adjustment of faders during the post- production editing process. While these technological advances led to ever more sophisticated music recording forms, certain elements of the “raw” performance, including the musician’s own bodily presence, were sacrificed in the process. In particular, Allora & Calzadilla discovered that the breathing sounds from the vocalists were commonly muted from the unmixed vocal recordings so as to go unheard in final mastered tracks. They decided to restore these omissions into an audio sequence and play them back over speakers that conjure the ghostly presence of the once-embodied singers.