Word. Sound. Power.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen Still from Arise 2013

It’s a bit of a bug bear of mine when long films are exhibited in gallery settings; films designed to be watched from start to end. I find it especially annoying when the screening times are not stated but even when they are, long-from films in galleries are irritating. Yesterday I went to see the exhibition ‘Word. Sound. Power.’ at Tate Modern and several exhibited works were long. I didn’t take a note of the durations, but from memory there were 5 works ranging between 20 mins and 1 hour each.

For all I know these works might be really good, but I will probably never find out. Not only were they long, they were largely exhibited on monitors with just a couple of seats and headphones. I felt obliged to move on anyway by all the other visitors hanging around waiting to get their bums on the limited seating.

I ended up feeling unfulfilled, as if I hadn’t properly seen the exhibition. This is a real shame, and it’s a shame that I am writing about this situation rather than about the artwork. So, to talk briefly about the artwork – and this is a thought which is provisional, that I’m not totally resolved about – I felt that the exhibition was a strange mix of works that considered the more formal and physical/material aspects of language and works which alternatively focused on specific language forms (poetry, hip hop) as creative formats that can identify or unite particular communities of users and/or be used as a means of resistance.

Caroline Bergvall Crop 2010 © Steve Shrimpton 2010

In the first camp was work by Caroline Bergvall; ‘Voice’ and ‘Crop’ used word play to evoke the physical and audio qualities of speech. The longer films tended to fall into the latter camp with, for example, ‘Arise’ by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Lasen focusing on young men in New Delhi who were finding meaning in their lives and potentially challenging their social and class position through getting involved in dance and rap. I can’t do this film justice because I watched hardly any of it but it seems there was a different formal language at play in this and the other longer documentary style films as compared to the more installation based works. Were it not for Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘The Whole Truth’ and ‘Conflicted Phonemes’ the exhibition would have seemed strangely split down the middle. Abu Hamdan’s works were by far my favourite pieces in the exhibition.

Conflicted Phonemes by Lawrence Abu Hamdan

‘Conflicted Phonemes’ used a large wall diagram to depict the scale and geography of migration both within and from Somalia since 1972 (when somali became an official language with a writing system). Alongside this were forms/A4 print outs detailing the cases of individual Somali asylum seekers in the UK who had their claims for asylum rejected due to accent analysis suggesting they did not come from south Somalia as claimed. The work showed how situations of war and famine have led to multiple regional influences on people’s speech. Abu Hamdan’s other work ‘The Whole Truth’ included a video of a line graph – its red line indicating various degrees of truth or lie – that was viewed in mirror, so you also watched yourself watching it. The soundtrack was made up of interviews with people including (according to the exhibition guide) software developers, anthropologists and entrepreneurs of the biometric industry talking about voice based lie detectors. I also noticed some audio taken from UK news programmes about such software being used by benefits agencies. Both works successfully explored how the audible and material aspects of voice have social and political ramifications.