words by Shama Khanna

Ed Atkins, Even Pricks, 2013
Courtesy of the artist; and Cabinet, London

The memorable reveal of the man behind the curtain twiddling knobs and simulating the booming, god-like voice of Oz by rascally Toto the dog is an apt metaphor for how the authority of the voice-over crumbled towards a post-historical pluralism of voices. The persistence of enlightenment theories of the West, however—where objective knowledge of the world is key to the progress of civilization—signaled that a hierarchy between the mind and body, and the attitudes and cultures that subscribe to this way of the world, still remained: “It is the confrontation of mind with matter which brings the object into being,” reads a female voice in Duncan Campbell’s recent film It For Others (2013), underlining this power relation. Contemporary artists working with the moving image analyze this separation of mind over body. Drawing on various approaches from sculpture, literature and practices from non-Western centers to technological advancement and object ontology, their works find expression beyond language, engaging in processes of perception and desire, rather than attempting to fix understanding from the top down. The voice-over no longer speaks solely from the head, but from the senses, from the body without organs and from non-human bodies too.

When I first saw Adam Curtis speak in person, for a few minutes it seemed as if his lips were out of sync with his voice. I’d never considered that there might be a body attached to this familiar accent from the BBC. Not that it’s absolutely necessary to see him as he speaks; his forensically researched retelling of recent history is utterly compelling in itself. That there could be an alternative, or parallel, reading to the images beneath the narration is the hook behind his particular brand of essayist filmmaking, matched only perhaps by the silent documentary-style collages of Harun Farocki and Alexander Kluge, Johan Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) and later by the quasi-fictional interrogations of Hito Steyerl and the time-traveling early works by The Otolith Group.

In 1972 John Berger presented the television series Ways of Seeing, which was adapted into the well-known art history textbook later that year. Perhaps the styles and fashions of the ’70s have fared particularly badly over the past forty years, but the hidden ideological history of art Berger was trying to expose seemed to be replaced by his own emphatic screen presence. The mock-pedagogical voice-over has since become a trope in itself, for example in Oliver Laric’s Versions (2007–12) series which, in many ways, picks up on Berger’s investigation into the politics of the image in circulation, and Carlton (2006) a film by Simon Martin in which a monotone female voice narrates an object biography of the iconic Carlton bookcase designed by The Memphis Group in the early 1980s. The steady rhythm of the soundtrack and the filming as the camera pans across the object, occasionally focusing in on close-up details, appears to slow down the pace of real-time experience.The normal order from perception to apprehension is subtly suspended, generating affect from this enigmatic yet inanimate subject.

Duncan Campbell, It for others, 2013
Commissioned by The Common Guild for Scotland + Venice 2013. Courtesy of the artist

In Animation Masks (2012) by Jordan Wolfson, the artist depicts an intimate conversation between himself and a girlfriend, using a crazed caricature of a Jewish man staring into the eyes of the viewer, occasionally pointing a two-fingered gun at them, as an avatar for both voices. The sparkling clarity of the HD animation, combined with the extreme characterization of the Jewish figure and the directness of his glare implicating the viewer, creates a compulsive web of sensations through which to view the work. In a recent interview with Wolfson at Chisenhale Gallery in London, he described how he wants to create the same “cognitive dissonance” he feels himself in front of “great” artworks by Caravaggio and Isa Genzken in his own works, saying, with palpable self-confidence, “I find that [my process] creates an experience for the viewer that holds them in a state of stasis where they’re almost paused.” Clio Bernard’s part-fiction documentary The Arbor (2010) similarly uses actors to mouth the words of non-actors populating the life and death of the playwright Andrea Dunbar. The technique gives precedence to the spoken word and the gravity of life beyond the fiction of the images in the film and in Dunbar’s writing, narrowing the distance between the viewer’s lived experience and the story acted out.

The semantic distancing of sound from image in Rachel Reupke’s 2009 video, Containing Matters of no Very Peaceable Colour, is particularly extraordinary. Still images of neatly arranged towels extracted from stock footage for advertising hover around the screen while a computer-generated voice lists a concatenation of search terms, rather than sentences, describing the items missing from the shot. In an interview online, Reupke explains how the structure, in which context is deliberately held back, allowed her to explore a subtext of “embarrassing and mundane subjects” such as loneliness, issues around health and the manipulation of these concerns through advertising, saying, “anything more realistic would render the clip too traumatic.” The surface of the image and the narration is not a space for metaphor but immediate, disjunctive sensorial affect.

In two recent moving image works, Peter Wächtler reads aloud in English with a strong German accent over the muted activity of his socially downtrodden cartoon subjects—a domesticated rat and a homeless man huddled in front of an open fire. Like Reupke, the flattened intonation of sound and image of his looping animations generates meaning elsewhere, although invariably this is a feeling of being utterly stripped bare. In an untitled work from early 2013, a rat with a stoop and heavy set eyes returns home every evening to be greeted by a bowling ball falling off a table and onto his head, which he duly picks up and retires to bed, waking up only to repeat the same routine in the morning (or every minute of the looped animation). The voice-over reflects wistfully on a life recalled through a string of delights, disappointments and temporary reprieves in between: “How I woke up fine and it’s a beautiful morning and I’m freed from all my fears, including the lung cancer one. How I held you close.…” Ironically, the work begins with the same opening scenario as every Tom and Jerry cartoon, leaving out a happy ending for the weary rat. Wächtler uses the disembodied voice as a device to speak from an undisclosed position of memory, the subconscious or an imagined perspective beyond death.

Camille Henrot, Grosse Fatigue, 2013
Courtesy of the artist; and kamel mennour, Paris. © ADAGP Camille Henrot

Ed Atkins’ familiar timbre speaks, slurs, coughs and curses, throwing his voice towards the deftly edited surfaces of his CGI, often becoming the voice under these immaterial skins. He observes how the HD image has become prosaic or “too real,” comparing it to a cadaver—a shell without a soul, performing nothing but its deadness. Not to say CGI isn’t fascinating on a different level—video works by Atkins, chiming with Ian Cheng’s BABY FEAT. BALI (2013),recent installations by Helen Marten such asOrchids, or a Hemispherical Bottom (2013), and Mark Leckey’s singular articulations of the animistic qualities of digital culture in GreenScreenRefrigerator (2010), all operate in the “uncanny valley” where the viewer responds to artifice as a seduction of the senses rather than necessarily for its illusive quality. Inhabiting the empty metaphor of the image and the formerly didactic space of the voice-over, each of these artists revel in recharging the screen with formidable Bataillean intensity. For Atkins’ latest video, Even Pricks (2013), the artist lends his voice and facial expressions to a CGI chimp: he puckers his lips and grins at us maniacally; erect thumbs point up or down, entering noses and belly buttons; the word “NO” appears written with a finger through fake dust on the screen, arresting the plot-line with a pregnant pause.

The soundtrack and voice have a perceptual synchronicity with the image akin to the physical experience of encountering an object in space. Atkins and other skilled video editors, including Camille Henrot and Richard Sides, work with these elements sculpturally: while acknowledging the flatness of the screen and the hollowness of the representation, their work registers above the surface, rather than through meaning, or truth, hidden beneath. In Grosse Fatigue (2013), for which Henrot received the Silver Lion at this year’s Venice Bienniale, we watch the artist’s desktop as she files through an accumulation of video panes, while the infectious bass beat of the soundtrack drives along to the words of Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Creation of the World, Or, Globalization (2002) spoken aloud. The video is a schizo-encyclopedia of hybrid surfaces, puns between the audio and the visual, cultural hangovers and lingering taboos, enlightenment through experience—the sensory immersion of club culture, and the anxious disorder of the Internet, rather than a linear construction of knowledge. In his latest installation the omega point just ate his brains (2013) at Carlos Ishikawa in London, Sides literally stuck things—bits of wire and a folded t-shirt in a plastic wrapper, onto the surface of the projection, bringing emphasis to the viewer’s durational experience in real space. Since Lis Rhodes’ Light Reading (1979), where the material of film has all but been replaced by work made and presented through the screen, these physical protrusions feel refreshingly raw.

Pilvi Takala, Players, 2010
Courtesy of the artist; and Carlos Ishikawa, London

Lucy Clout’s latest video, Shrugging Offing (2012), begins with a softly spoken voice-over of an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) practitioner politely enquiring about the viewer’s T-zone and blackhead problems. ASMR is a type of catnip for humans popularized through videos circulating on the Internet of a myriad of banal scenarios, ranging from people turning the pages of telephone directories to giving make-up demonstrations, occasionally stroking the camera lens with a blusher brush. The videos are said to produce pleasurable tingling sensations around the body—in the head, back and extremities—calming the viewer, sometimes to the point of orgasmic euphoria. The ASMR session in Shrugging Offing is interrupted by the off-camera screams of spot-squeezing rituals and onlookers watching globs of hair being pulled out of plugholes. Later, Clout applies binaural beats (another perceptual phenomenon said to have the effect of rewiring the brain to the frequency of the sound, again inducing the body to feel relaxed), during footage of the artist running her fingers around the waistband of her skirt, intercut with images of her arms and legs dropping painfully onto hard surfaces. These sections acknowledge the unspoken intimacy of watching videos online, while asserting the autonomy of the body as a measure of resistance as well as pliable form. In her momentous text Caliban and the Witch (2004), Silvia Federici reminds us of the difference between bodies and machines that existed before capitalism. She describes how the transformation of the individual’s powers into labor-power through a machinic disciplining of the body (kept under check by the voice of the factory guard), caused us to feel alienated from our bodies which came to be judged as, “inert, sterile matter that only the will could move.” The dysfunction of Clout’s falling body parts is a refusal of such an estranged idea of ourselves.

Pilvi Takala casts herself both as the narrator and the protagonist in her videos documenting various symptoms of globalized culture through her staged activity as a professional poker player in Bangkok (Players, 2010), riding the elevators all day at the offices of Deloitte in The Trainee (2008) and trying to stay popular as a teacher at an elite boarding school in the U.S. in her latest work, Drive with Care (2013). This dual role, effectively containing the artist inside her work, means it’s hard to believe what you’re seeing isn’t entirely a fabrication. This characteristic reminds me of the newest Turner Prize winner Laure Prouvost’s storytelling from behind the camera, filming around the house of her “fictional” grandparents in Wantee (2012); Steve Reinke’s confessional dictations; and Beatrice Gibson, whose voice leads us through a “psycho-sensual-geography” in Agatha (2012). Tension builds as we begin to tune the voice in our heads to the artist’s consciousness, becoming irresistibly complicit as the story unfolds. In a previous work, Monolog (2009), Prouvost goads the viewer for not being more productive while she’s been busy making the film, parodying the narrative continuity of the film, similar to John Smith’s Girl Chewing Gum (1976), where the artist appears to direct the movements of people and traffic along a street in London’s Dalston. As the artist reveals halfway through the film, he’s actually shouting into a microphone from a field fifteen miles away. Smith’s more recent series of Hotel Diaries (2001-7), often filmed with a handheld camera in single take, employ a more direct mode of using the camera, and the voice, as a witness. This work has affinities with Andrew Norman Wilson’s DIY exposé Workers Leaving the Googleplex (2011), in which the artist speaks into the camera, recounting his contentious experience of working for, and losing his job, at Google.

With the shift from mass media television programming to the personal viewing space of laptops and mobile devices, the didactic exposition of the voice-over is overcome by the intimacy of one-to-one feedback. The image is no longer “of” something, instead it is contingent, observed for what it might do over time. Working within the limits of its flat representation, emotion is externalized through moments of formal synchronicity and dissonance between the image and sound, resounding in the physical space in which the viewer encounters the work.