Flesh, 2017 4-channel audio installation, coated steel staircase, platform, carpet, light, dimensions variable. KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
In this conversation, Hanne Lippard talks about finding the source of her language-based artworks in the quandaries and torments of daily life. In its varying forms, from performative readings to unseen voices in public space to audio installations in spaces created for the texts, the work weaves in and out of roles reminiscent of metro announcer telling you to mind the gap, receptionist asking you to please hold, or spam bot begging for your company. No matter the guise, Lippard’s measured voice maintains an omniscient quality that moves from playing (word) games to reflecting earnestly on itself in such quick associations of sound and meaning that it can often appear to stand in for the listener’s own internal monologue.
We spoke about Lippard’s techniques of disembodying the voice, its manipulative powers and its role both as remainder of the body and reminder of a pre-literate orality. Later, we discussed how her work skirts the confessional and what that means in today’s linguistic landscape.
This interview was conducted by Moira Barrett. Moira is a writer living in Berlin.
Moira Barrett: I know you studied graphic design, so I’m curious about how and when you started writing, and the eventual move from visually focused works to these sometimes totally disembodied pieces.
Hanne Lippard: I think the writing has always been the base for it all, and it was always present in my life. Growing up in Norway, I was a native English speaker, and if you sit through six years of English classes when you already know it, you’re going to be pretty bored. So while everyone else was learning English I would just write whatever I wanted to write. In a sense, I got a writing residency in primary school [laughs]. When I was 15 I joined a very autonomous theater group, together with a few friends, where we would actually write the plays ourselves in Norwegian. I envisioned myself becoming an actress because I knew I wanted to do something performative. But then something set me on the path of graphic design, which led me to work with language in a different way: not necessarily through storytelling but through rhythm, typography and so on. I started studying at Rietveld [Academy of Art and Design, Amsterdam], where, after a few years, I found out I didn’t necessarily want to remain silent. But I’m really happy I didn’t do a visual arts degree because that detour has been very helpful for how I actually treat texts now. I was always writing, jotting down things, and it was always anecdotal and self-referential. You learn how to share without oversharing, I guess.
So, for my graduation project, I made a work called Beige, where I fabricated a semi-autobiographical persona with a story that sounded as if it was my story because of its very personal approach. But the character is only color and voice. Now that I look at it, [the color] was the way of disembodying the character from myself. And this piece is now ten years old, and that was a time when Google image search hadn’t existed for very long.
<i>Beige</i>, 6:50 min
MB: So it was a moment of intense acceleration for the possibilities of this associative play with color, which also has all these implications about lifestyle and personality.
HL: I was able to distance myself from that story, which was partly autobiographical, by using generic images from Google search: images of the color beige. You can create some distance by using something very generic. And it wasn’t that common then to use Google search for a work. Now, I think it is.
MB: Curators and critics like to connect your work to the female body, but when they’re not performed, your works are often immaterial. What difference do you see in text, in general, when it’s performed vs. when you play a recording of it? Here I’m thinking about something like Flesh, the work exhibited at KW Berlin in 2017, where the main exhibition space contained only a spiral staircase which led up to a small room you had built on top of the KW’s roof. It was carpeted in pink and the ceiling was too low for most people to stand up, but you could sit down and listen to the recorded text. That’s quite different from a performance or even from the recording being played in public space, where the voice often has no visible source.
HL: I think the most distinctive difference is that performing is a very primal and pre-literate state of conveying your text. It has that aspect of gathering people to listen and it sort of removes the text from a literary context. A lot of people want to have it printed out to read, but I want it to be a listening experience because I just want the words to come and go, so you can’t really return to it. And that is kind of an important part of it because today when you deal with a text or a recording, in most cases, you can jump back or skip forward. Even if you’re not a native English speaker, I think that this work is important to just listen to. With the installation, it immediately becomes much more sci-fi and futuristic, that sort of lingering body in a space. I think that’s perhaps where I find my work to be most exciting, when it has this aspect of being hyper-digital, this almost dystopic, “Oh, there are no bodies left.”
MB: The voice as a remainder.
HL: Yeah. Now with the popularity of speech-to-text software on phones and computers, you also see things going back to speech and remaining there more and more, but at the same time that has its roots in pre-literate orality. I think that’s why my work has a broad appeal in a way because it does remind people of things, it adheres to something in society and you get any association from the voice on the subway to a bot to someone reading for you. I think art can function as a reminder of forgotten sensations or experiences one would normally gloss over, whether or not one is trained to view art. But Flesh, of course, was an elaborate installation. I haven’t had so many opportunities to really create the space that carries the voice. Limitations are very important when it comes to using sound in visual art because there’s so much passing by an artwork and just not taking it in, since everyone’s attention span is zero point one second. I’m not moralizing about it, it’s just if you do set those limitations, people will be a bit more like, “Oh, okay.”
MB: So with Flesh, was the text created for the space or vice-versa?
HL: No, the text didn’t really exist in advance of the installation. It was an interesting way to work because I don’t really know what came first. However, there was a lot of planning which one just has to do for logistics quite early on. I did finish the texts much later than I would have imagined; there was a lot of back and forth editing.
MB: The title is so visceral and the space is so womb-like. Was there a vision or a feeling that instigated the idea for that nest space?
HL: I think it’s nice, when I look at it now, that it doesn’t say it’s either-or. It has a bit of the appeal of an L.A. living room from the 70s or 80s because of that spiral staircase and this carpet, but it’s not designed as such. And the text doesn’t have anything to do with that time period either. The colors were chosen according to the idea of flesh, like the inside of your body, the tongue or any orifices or cuts. The color of bone for the staircase, which for me always looked a bit like a spinal structure, although at the time, I was more focused on the color of this carpet. The spiral staircase was also a commentary on the work of Ian Wilson, to whom the show was partially a tribute, and who would make a circle on the floor in his early work. Well, he was very minimal; and at some point he found the circle on the floor unnecessary, imagining that speaking about the circle would actually be enough to represent it. I imagined the circle creating a space in itself and sort of 3D scanned it to become the staircase.
MB: These disembodied forms of your work make me think a lot about anonymity. Your voice can impersonate or appropriate the robotic female voices that organize public and increasingly private space under late capitalism. I really like hearing this voice play and get personal, but not quite confessional, as you said earlier. Usually your voice is heard speaking very close to the listener’s ear, but there’s still a certain distance between speaker and the listener because the texts are not exactly about an individual–there is a narrator but not a protagonist, unless that’s the language itself. So I’m wondering about how your tone developed, especially in relation to the material you communicate, and in that context, whether the concepts of the individual or of personality matter to you or if you work hard to make them so permeable.
HL: I guess it is a play between this idea of, “Is it a human or is it something much more generic?” but of course, it is specific. I think the specificity also comes with the text itself being written by the speaker. There is always an individual voice but I guess I’m trying to give a common voice to many voices. Representing the different levels of language, and reflecting on how these are being used today, whether it is commercial language or confessional and personal language. I mean, advertisements are becoming smarter and smarter with social media and ghostwriting. So, this confessional mode might as well just be very commercial. It’s not necessarily my angle but I think it plays a role.
MB: Advertising, which your voice is sometimes associated with, now manipulates us by acting confessional.
HL: And there is also this manipulative force that comes through voice. You think it goes in one ear and goes out the other but language really does stay in one way or another, in a different way than music does. I’ve noticed people latch onto one word and use it over and over again. And with politics and hashtags, what’s trending always becomes a sort of mantra.
MB: Language is being recycled faster and faster.
HL: But then in the later years, having done a lot of work in this very soothing and pleasant tone, I’ve tried to do things differently, not necessarily screaming but working with stuttering or speech impediments, without necessarily going into this as a handicap, [but] obstructing language or obstructing the body in its perfection.
MB: In a lot of your pieces we experience obstacles and horrors of daily life. Like in Pandora’s Cat, the mounting desperation of sending and receiving packages across international borders. Can you talk about your writing relationship with such daily minutiae?
HL: Well, that’s an important factor because my work always made itself from these moments. Pandora’s Cat is a good example; I haven’t spoken so much about that piece because it’s not really a visual one. It’s probably one of my most personal pieces. It’s all about moving. At that time, I was quite new in Berlin and this was the fourth country I had moved to within six, seven years. So you’re always confronted with these boxes, and what are their contents? That’s why it’s called Pandora’s Cat; it’s a mix of Pandora’s box and Schrödinger’s Cat. It’s about “unknowing,” not knowing and trusting the unknowingness. You have this abstract quantum physics-like principle, and Pandora’s Box, which is a mythical phenomenon. And then DHL, which is extremely frustrating. I mean, I can’t even imagine working in a DHL support line.
MB: But you can because you worked in a call center.
HL: I did work in a call center, but I didn’t have to deal with lost packages. This whole idea of a lost package is quite interesting to me.
MB: It is very poetic. And also a total nightmare.
HL: The starting point for Pandora’s Cat was literally just a package that was very, very lost. And all of these [lines] like “Monday, 17th of May, 6:32” are actual anecdotes from a long pdf that follows this package, where you can kind of see how it lives its own life.
The last sentence of Pandora’s Cat, “If the cat survives, it remembers only being alive,” is playing on the idea that it exists in its own belief. In the Schroedinger’s Cat principle, [the cat] doesn’t really exist or not exist unless you actually open the box–so unless someone else says that it exists. But in this story, the cat itself remembers being alive, but it doesn’t remember being part of an experiment. It’s also about staging your own story and what you choose to remember. I mean, I remember having someone tell me, “You have some boxes in my basement,” and I was “like, oh, I didn’t know about these boxes, but now I know about these boxes” and the person says, “Should I just throw them away?” but I don’t know what’s in the boxes. “No, you shouldn’t throw them away.” But then again, you didn’t know they existed. This is a very complex poem [laughs].
MB: It also brings back this idea of the remainder. In Ancientism you talk about a dog remembering the tone more than the meaning of a word. So a similar theme of what actually sticks with you–the sensation of living a bit more than what was actually lived.
HL: Yes. And Ancientism was actually something I started writing just trying to figure out what I was doing. So it’s just an abstract artist statement in a way.
MB: I liked it because you talked about the phone in there, too.
HL: Yes. I mention that my mother and I sound the same on the phone, which is true. Maybe not anymore. When I was living with my parents, people would always mistake us for the same person, which I found interesting: that you actually inherit a certain voice. That vocal chords, something so ephemeral, are still inherited.
MB: I’m drifting a little, but do you have a relationship with telephone conversations?
HL: Yeah, I do. I have become more fond of [phone calls] because I’m getting a bit crazy with all the texting–and everyone seems to be–but still nobody is calling. I mean, the phone is suddenly so much more than a phone also, which is a weird thing now. It’s still kind of amazing in its own way, because it started out as a very static object transporting a voice from one location to another, like vocal teleportation.
MB: There’s a radio theory that says it’s the most intimate medium because it’s like the voice is speaking directly in your head.
HL: But who would have known what the phone would become? Imagine what other object could have carried everything we do and own? Could it have been a lamp? It’s kind of strange how it became the phone.
MB: I also think of you as a collector of mass-and pop languages, like the language of mass-motivation in The Ssecret to SsucceSs iSs in the Ss-eSs. Are there specific motivations and methods to arranging and abstracting them?
HL: I find all levels of language interesting in their own way. Like in Ancientism, “Everything that is said with the right tone can become a piece of poetry.” You can create stories behind things even when there’s no human behind them. Like the Norwegian sex bots we talked about [earlier today] always explicitly stating that they’re very lonely and the only thing to save them is sex, or [saying] something like, “You’re walking past my window all the time,” like they’re sirens calling out. I guess it’s my colorful imagination that perks up at seeing relationships between different languages. You know, seeing this DHL itinerary of the package and filling it in between the lines. It’s a bit of a survival technique. Like when you’re working in a call center, you have to entertain yourself or see that there’s a value behind things because it can become so dark when it is only tech or a pdf or a lost package. There’s also a lot of humor in the work. So I think it’s interesting to mix it all up and see how to combine it, whether or not people know the source material.
I have a long, long document, its word count is insane at this point, but it’s a mix of writing down a diary [and] copy-pasting something from an email or some sort of weird web page name. And it becomes very endless. And if that were to be written down by hand, it would be much more collage-like, or a notebook. Now, my notebooks are just very practical. They’re not aesthetical.
MB: So you collect digitally now.
HL: Totally. Apart from post-its. I write down things on post-its. But it is just much easier to compose when you’re writing things digitally. And to find them again.
MB: What are some projects you’re looking forward to in 2020?
HL: I am very much looking forward to the second Riga Biennial opening this May where I am participating with a series of new poems, placed in public space, rather than a sound-based installation or performance. Also, in May I will temporarily move my practice to Paris for a six-month residency in the Cite des Arts. In November I will have a solo show in the Casa Encendida in Madrid. Basically the year is pretty full already!