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On Access Via Versioning

I come to Ain Bailey’s Version at Wysing keen to consider how this exhibition thinks about access through sound and its translation. What follows is a response that attends less to the individual (wonderful) works it presents than to the opportunities it opens for imagining a more inclusive mode of exhibition-making.

1 (on reception)

In the first space, a single buttercup-yellow wall bears a flat screen of allied hue. Facing it, amply distanced seating promises something in the offing. On the half-hour, the room is made replete by a multi-version rendition of Linstead Market. Elaine Mitchener’s overlayered, circling vocal track begins by articulating—lavishly and croakingly, raucously and deliciously—all the sounds that can be wrung from the song’s first lyrics and opening notes, before resolving into the swing of the folk song’s melody. In advance of inherited words and tune: sounds. A joyous squandering and re-spending of syllables spills in every direction round the song’s given structure, as though melody and lyrics could be located only via embodied experimentation.

Meanwhile, what the curiously depth-bluffing yellow screen displays are not captions but an experiment in the translation of sound. Here, and in each of Version’s three spaces, the screen displays a textual response to the in-air audio: a verbal re-versioning of the sound installation, commissioned from Taylor Le Melle. The translation is loose, quasi abstract; the relation between Bailey’s sound and Le Melle’s words eschewing anything like explication to instead solicit interpretation and speculation.1 The presentation of this response, enfolded into the show’s instantiation and not tacked on as temporally or spatially external to Bailey’s sound and sculpture, foreshadows the cross-sensory and cross-media translational ethos that underlies Version.

When the screen begins its scroll, it creeps at a wholly unfamiliar pace. Text slides upscreen as though carried on viscous surface.2 Words stand out proud, in congenial high-contrast, the typeface a crisp maroon-ish figure against the so-yellow ground. Writing on the reader-viewer’s encounter with text on screen, Michel Chion notes that the speed of a “text’s vertical scrolling presupposes a stable average rhythm of reading for all viewers”.3 Too often, this presupposition of an “average” is predicated on what Tanya Titchkosky calls “a mythical, normalized body”.4 Borrowing a term from Rosemarie Garland Thomson, we could suggest that presuming this imaginary “normate” reader describes a limit round who reads, and how a certain presentation—speed, size, placement—of text prescribes a certain kind of reading.5 Lessening the pace assumes less about linguistic and other capacities, delimits a more inclusive imagining of the work’s receivers.6 But there is something else afoot in this extreme deceleration that is not just somewhat slower but so unusually paced that it invites a wholly different experience of reading. This so-slowness, which promises the sighted viewer that nothing will be missed if they look away invites unhurried contemplation of the installation environment. It elicits a new attention to the materiality and meanings of the words read, and to what Craig Dworkin calls “the physical itineraries of the reading eye”.7 Glancing away, then glancing back to find the same text (or much of it) still available onscreen, I start to read differently: linebreaks tease, individual lexical choices are weighed. Instead of encountering the space/the sound and the text sequentially, I toggle between them—first with a certain, unpractised impatience, then productively, and with pleasure.

On the wall to the right of the screen, a set of wireless speakers hang in open view, below a sign advertising Audio Description. Their visibility, their very large-font unavoidability here is purposeful. Availing of the AD requires no self-declaration, no petitioning for dusty “accommodations” kept behind at reception and more or less reliably maintained.8 Semaphoring a statement about the exhibition’s intended audience, the headphones declare their availability to all sighted visitors entering the space. Here, and in each of the other rooms, the AD consists of Bailey’s vocalization of Le Melle’s text that translates Bailey’s sound. In the feedback loop that results, a multiplication of access routes and a further opening of the work. The artist’s AD version of Le Melle’s version of Bailey’s versioning of Mitchener’s cover version of Linstead Market is available to all. Headphones hang for those wondering whether, as well as those already convinced that an audio version might enhance or enable their experience of the text. In each instance, in each of the three spaces: the faintest trickle of soundbleed can be discerned in the immediate aural ambit of the headphones. The artist’s voice is only everso-barely appreciable. Its leak invites the curious (and the blind, and visitors of low vision) to enter the exhibition via another angle of approach.

Mara Mills writes of audio description as a form of “translation overlay”, noting Florian Grond’s suggestion, that “‘translation inlay’ […] more clearly conveys the amalgamation of translation and original” in audio description of moving image.9 Talk of “translation inlay” is apt in this instance, too. For the hearing visitor who chooses to so thicken their experience of the show, these two tracks will be audible at once: Bailey’s voicing is carried on headphones that are worn inside the already sound-filled space. On the headphone channel, the artist reads at a WPM rate that is roughly akin to that of conversation: neither hurried nor (as is maybe too often to be found on gallery headphones) pseudo-poetically ponderous. Fifteen lines, three verses (or stanzas or units), spool out two ways at once; audible and legible words coinciding differently on each loop-around. For the sighted and hearing visitor receiving the same words two-ways, this bi-channel encounter with the text is temporally transfixing.10

Whether read and/or heard, these words translate specifically the sound of Mitchener’s vocal performance, rather than the words she sings. Meanwhile, the lyrics themselves appear in vinyl on the window. In Words on Screen, Chion laments the visual clarity of captions, describing this presumed-inherent readability as incommensurable with the “gradations of intelligibility” and “verbal chiaroscuro” of sonorous voices.11 At Wysing, the presentation of the lyrics on the otherwise transparent glass of the window and not on the screen opens the possibility of a form of sound captioning that productively mobilizes obscurity. Through the window-glass, behind and around the transferred-text, botanical reminders of Wysing’s rural location interject and the sun sends a fluctuant glare. The visual disturbance that results does something else to the Version-visitor’s experience of the lyrics as language. By foreclosing the totalizing view that would permit the lyrics to be taken in at a glance, Wysing’s window compels an extra embodied interaction in the reader—whether by rocking/shifting about on the welcomingly spaced chairs, or moving along the window to line up a clearer view. The mobility solicited resonates with Mitchener’s fully physical performance of those lyrics. In this meeting of voice and visions, bodies are brought into relation. The body through which the singing voice emanates is made present, too, in the translation; like a roving spotlight, Le Melle’s text isolates parts of the body of “a performer”: “each of her limbs and digits—/ the right arm the left finger both heels/ the lips a left ear the throat and the torso,/ dancing in the tune of a different instrument”.

Maybe it’s almost always a betrayal to print song lyrics as text—unless, as here, they can occupy the space of something more than the blankness of a page. It’s not, the window-site implies, all about the lyrics. Just as the performance of the song is not reducible to its verbal content, the lyrics are made materially inseparable from other, simultaneously presented, mutually compenetrating sensory information. The reader’s reception of the words that are sung entails the pleasure of having one’s reading distracted/diverted by what can also be seen (whatever the weather is doing, whomever is occupying the picnic tables outside, whichever of the insects elsewhere so audible in the grounds might be passing the window just then).

2 (on ascent)

A ramped swoop of green delivers visitors into the second space. Earthing the vaulted structure and sealing inside the spill of sound, this vivid carpeting instantiates a sense of enclosure that is amplified for those who opt to proceed on stockinged feet instead of inside blue shoe-sheaths. In the main chamber, three equally green spine-obliging upright benches with white-cushioned seats and backs occupy three walls, each of which give onto a single, green screen.12 Viewable from multiple vantage points around the room, the text transmitted by screen again deploys contrast in the service of ultra-intelligibility. And here, as in each of Version’s three spaces, chromatic coherence functions as analogue for how each sound installation suffuses its context.

Fifty-nine pale ackee-fruit hang from the ceiling overhead. The jesmonite in which these sculptures are cast voids the fruit’s parts (aril, seeds, seed pods, pulpy membrane) of their distinctive colours. Where the presence of redness could be read as a warning of toxicity—an indication that the fruit had been forced open before its proper time—the near-uniformly coloured material renders any such reading futile. At the same time, it makes appreciable (though remote) the sculptural gorgeousness of the fruit-forms themselves—represented here in different degrees of opening. In a British context in which the foodstuff can be purchased only in canned (still less immediate) form, their very abundance tantalises with an image of satiety and savour just out of reach.

There’s a faintly churchy air to this space, one perhaps cued in part by those wooden fold-down chairs in the preceding room, and confirmed by the heraldic clarity of the green/white colour scheme, the ceiling height, the austere casts, even the faint provisionality of its architecture. This room at once solicits and facilitates surrender to the sound that possesses it, crackles through its air, and is conducted through its materials. Once again, flatscreen and headphones transmit Le Melle’s textual response to Bailey’s composition. The sound artist’s sizzling, bubbling, electronic-organic overflows are translated across domains and media into the writer’s “[…] street busy under water./ hard wet and galloping past me” and the crosswired transformations of “crackling thunder whose heartbeat/ muffles singing night insects,/ recorded electronically”. The sound installation is lyricless, sending some viewers to engage intently with what can be read. And yet as the sound builds and the volume rises, the translation text’s crawl up the green screen comes to seem deliberate, even stubborn—as though daring a listening reader to maintain this measured reading pace even as they are somatically, aurally and affectively overwhelmed by the cinematic dynamics of Bailey’s sonic autobiographical practice.13

3 (on vibration)

It is in the last Version space, inside Amphis, that sound is allowed to exert its fullest force.14 And, crucially, it is in this same loud space that Hannah Wallis’s curatorial mission—to explore modes of translating sound and proliferating means of access—is most fruitfully achieved. Here, as well as being played out in the air, and translated by Le Melle’s text (this time in yellow on black) sound is also made manifestly apperceptible across the body: as vibration, as fully physical, material phenomenon. A dub track by Bailey—melodic refrain, field recorded fragments, scattered bleeps and chirps, electropump exhalations—pulses through the wooden structure— shivering its timbers. With open door and light spilling in from the upper story, the whole structure seems to breathe dub; in Le Melle’s translation, “crunchy bass/ a crunchy air/ a crunchy ripple off the bass”. Since “our sense of hearing relies not only on excited eardrums, but also on sound conduction and vibration throughout the body”,15 and the site is so amply, awesomely responsive, the sound piece can be appreciated via bodily, instead or as well as via auditory channels. Bailey’s Version 2 is felt through the steps of Amphis or even, maybe through the earth surrounding it, before ever it is “heard”. Mounting hollow yellow steps, I enter the main chamber and stand still as I can, still as the vibrating space allows. As sound carries through plywood, it is absorbed by the flesh of the pads of my feet and inhabits the whole of me.16 I sit, resting my hand on the narrow wooden bench, and sound jumps the break in the cracked pisiform bone of my wrist; sound carries up to my suddenly softening shoulder.

In Sensing Sound, Nina Sun Eidsheim suggests that because “Music as vibration is something that crosses, is affected by and takes its character from any materiality, and because it shows us interconnectedness in material terms, it also shows us that we cannot exist merely as singular individuals. In that sense, music as vibration is analogous to social relations in a Marxist sense, or ‘the common good’”.17 I have been chary of the utopianism that pervades sound studies. But this notion of vibration as common good comes back to me here, now, in this exhibition that so care-fully explores a manifold experience (a thick one) of sound.

1 As Sean Zdenek notes, whilst it’s common to refer to captioning in terms of display and transcription, in practice: “Captioners must rhetorically invent and negotiate the meaning of the text” and “Captions are interpretations”. See Sean Zdenek, [Reading Sounds]: Closed-Captioned Media and Popular Culture (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), pp.4-5.
2 Maybe this thickness is a material analogue for that invoked when Constantina Zavitsanos explains how “description or vibration or captioning might tend to the thickness of text and come first, even to the point of determining a work’s form”. See Mara Mills and Rebecca Sanchez’s interview with the artist, “Giving It Away: Constantina Zavitsanos on Disability, Debt, Dependency”, Art Papers Special Issue: Disability and the Politics of Visibility (Winter 2018-19), pp.62-65.
3 Michel Chion, Words on Screen, ed. and trans. Claudia Gorbman (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), p.35.
4 Tanya Titchkosky, The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), p.33.
5 Titchkosky, The Question of Access, p.33.
6 This formulation is owed to Jenny Brady, whose 2019 Receiver was hugely influential to the development my conception of how a work can attend to and anticipate the diverse ways in which it will be encountered (received) via different sensory channels.
7 Craig Dworkin, Radium of the Word: A Poetics of Materiality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020), p.33. On the effects of variations in WPM and correlated proportion of time spent looking at the image (in moving image) see Jan-Louis Kruger, “Eye tracking in Audiovisual Translation Research”, in The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation, ed. Luis Pérez-González (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 350-366, p.356.
8 On the relative effects of making such devices openly available rather than requiring additional equipment to be checked out on self-identification at the front desk, see John F. Waldo, “The ADA and Movie Captioning: A Long and Winding Road to an Obvious Destination”, Valparaiso University Law Review 45, no. 3 (Spring 2011): 1033-1060, p.1057; Soledad Zárate, Captioning and Subtitling for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing Audiences (London: UCL Press, 2021), p.92 and Janine Butler, “Perspectives of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Viewers of Captions”, American Annals of the Deaf, 163, no.5 (Winter 2019), pp. 534-553, p.548.
9 Mara Mills, “Listening to Images: Audio Description, the Translation Overlay, and Image Retrieval”, The Cine-Files 8, Dossier on Film Sound (Spring 2015).
10 This lag between the two channels already accentuates the already extant variation between the pace at which speech can typically be aurally processed comfortably versus its reception as legible text.
11 Chion, Words on Screen, 146.
12 On the semiotics of gallery seating (and its too-frequent signifying absence), see Shannon Finnegan’s ongoing bench project, Do you want us here or not. Bailey’s colour trio (green, gold and black) also serves to invoke those of the Jamaican flag.
13 The temporal disjunction that results prompts a receiver to attend anew to how they encounter different forms of information, differently mediated.
14 Folke Kobberling and Martin Kaltwasser’s constructed this amphitheatre-sculpture from found and recycled materials, and in collaboration with a team of volunteers at Wysing in 2008.
15 Nina Sun Eidsheim, Sensing Sound: Singing & Listening as Vibrational Practice (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2015), p.54.
16 In recognition of the fact that this structure will not be physically accessible to all visitors, the sound work is also separately installed in an alternative space.
17 Eidsheim, Sensing Sound, p.20.

On Access Via Versioning

Sarah Hayden

Sarah Hayden is currently writing a book about voice in video and thinking about voice and access in art. Recent publications include essays on Jenny Brady for LUX, Christopher Kulendran Thomas for Cultural Politics, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa for LUX, Zeroing In for Holt/Smithson Foundation, liquid voice and sensorial sovereignty for b2o: boundary2 online, and a trio of experimental lectures on Teacher Voices for SpamPlaza. She is author of Curious Disciplines: Mina Loy and Avant-Garde Artisthood, and co-author with Paul Hegarty, of Peter Roehr–Field Pulsations. In 2019 and 2021, she was awarded AHRC Innovation Fellowships to lead “Voices in the Gallery”, a 4-year research, curating, writing and commissioning project, in partnership with Nottingham Contemporary and John Hansard Gallery. Sarah is Associate Professor of Literature and Visual Culture at the University of Southampton. www.voicesinthegallery.com

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