VOX BOX

 Jelena Novak


The notion of “black box” is highly loaded with different meanings since it is closely tied to at least three different contexts: 1) airplane industry, where it stands for an especially designed device – flight data recorder – that keeps instructions sent to any electronic system in the airplane and also records voices in the cockpit 2) information technologies, where it stands for  for “device, system or object which can be viewed solely in terms of its input, output and transfer characteristics without any knowledge of its internal workings, that is, its implementation is ‘opaque’ (black)”[1], and 3) theatre, where it designates the black cube space used for performance, often of experimental theatre. Bojan Đorđev and Siniša Ilić’s Black Box obviously refers to the theatrical use of the notion, although it might have tackled other uses, too.

As a listening spectator of Black Box, however, you will not be in the conventional black box theatre world. Your position as listening spectator would be displaced, as you would witness something that could be described as meta-black-box, the black box about black box, in which status and function of theatrical representation mechanisms are highly problematized. You will see the three-dimensional projection of performing in the cubus whose dimensions are like those of a big TV set. The scenes projected could be provisionaly named as Crowd, In front of the Screens, The Accident, Protest, Laughing. Along with the visual projection you will hear the projection of actor’s voice accompanied with different sounds.

Two Black Box issues are especially intriguing: one is related to its performance and another to the text of Goran Ferčec’s drama Letter for Heiner M. (2008) that was used in it. The first issue is the a/synchronization between what is seen and what is heard in Black Box creating the gap that the listening spectator is constantly forced to re/create. And the second one is the striking description of the loss of voice that Heiner Müller experienced due to his illness. What makes the performance of Black Box subversive in the context of postdramatic theatre and contemporary Western surveillance society is precisely the gap between what is heard (actor’s voice telling different stories of how The Other – homosexual artist from Eastern Europe – provokes the power system, accompanied by a mixture of non-diegetic corporeal and ambient sounds) and what is seen (three dimensional black box projection of casually dressed people performing postures of everyday situations such are standing in the crowd, staring at the screen, helping with medical urgency, protesting at demonstrations, laughing). Reinventing the body–voice gap while fighting the fear of losing the voice (both literally like Heiner Müller and metaphorically, as the Other) determines both the politics and the economy of this performance.

The gap, in general, is defined as “an unfilled space or interval; a blank or deficiency; a break in continuity. Also, a disparity, inequality or imbalance; a break in deductive continuity”.[2] When considered in the context of body and voice I detect the gap when what I see (the body) and what I hear (the voice) at the same time do not follow the expected form(s) of mutual representation. The body-voice representational construct could be explicitly defined by conventions in different forms of performing arts, but also could be implied by the ‘silent’ laws of doxa, common belief, when it becomes the place regulated by ideology. The relationship between the speaking voice and performing bodies present on the Black Box stage seems to be the place of discursive density for the authors of the piece.

The process of a/synchronization that constantly happens between bodies and voices only creates the illusion of the ‘wholeness’ and the desire to obtain it. While creating that illusion, a/synchronization actually creates the gap, caesura, and it maintains it between bodies and voices, straight and queer, images and sounds,  live and projected, immediate and mediated, Europe and its Others. With  the Black Box performance ‘convicted’ to infinite and impossible a/synchronization between what the listening spectator hears in the headphones and sees in the three-dimensional black box model, the fluctuating ‘Open’ is produced that reveals how distinctions are manufactured.[3] The network of relations is left to recipients to recognize them: bodies produce the voices, and voices produce the bodies, and what counts as performed ‘reality’ is what happens between the heard and the seen. And that reality is made unique to each of the five spectators that could see/hear the piece at the time.

Productivity of synchronization evokes the principle of the vocalic body defined by Steven Connor. The concept of vocalic body proposed by Connor initiates an interrogation of the understanding of body-voice relations. As is usually understood, the body produces the voice. The concept of the vocalic body emphasizes that the other way round is not only possible, but happens all the time. This concept underlines the reversibility of the mutual influences between body and voice: “The principle of the vocalic body is simple. Voices are produced by bodies, but can also themselves produce bodies. The vocalic body is the idea (…) of a surrogate or secondary body, a projection of a new way of having or being a body, formed and sustained out of the autonomous operations of the voice. (…) The leading characteristic of the vocalic body is to be a body in invention, an impossible, imaginary body in the course of being found and formed”.[4]

Vocalic body appears to me as a kind of vocal mirror – the voice is projected (like the image on the mirror) but that projection, vocal performance, immediately affects the identity and the presence of the body that produced it by reflecting itself back to it. The individual, expressive, self-reflexive body performs, while at the same time it is performed by the voice. And what happens with the voice from off screen that is purposely divided from its original body? In Black Box that whole person of the actor is contained in his voice. There we come to the concept of acousmatic voice by Michel Chion, «a voice in search of an origin, in search of a body», the voice one can’t see what the causing of.[5] Underlining that Chion «compares the disacousmatization to striptease»,[6] Dolar comes to conclusion that «there is no such thing as disacousmatization»[7] because «the source of the voice can never be seen, it stems from an undisclosed and structurally concealed interior, it cannot possibly match what we can see».[8] On the contrary, Connor writes that there is no disembodied voice because “(…) sounds, though always on the move, are hungry to come to rest, hungry to be lodged in a local habitation that they can be said to have come from. Sounds are always embodied, though not always in the kind of bodies made known to vision”.[9]

The body-voice construct remains arbitrary and instable, both in theory and in practice. It is reconsidered and reinvented, evoking the way Agamben rethinks the relation between man and animal. In Black Box the psychoanalytical voice of the British actor performs the search for its body in a way that determines the performativity of Black Box. That voice temporarily takes possession of each body that appears on the stage, and from those fluctuating possessions new meanings are derived. They are different for each listening spectator not only because him/her contextualizes it differently, but also because each of them is offered a different narration to try to synchronize with the image. The power to synchronize in this case also means the power to recognize, or the power to decide upon division.

In connection to the issues of the real, body and voice, Slavoj Žižek raised the problem of belonging and elaborated it by proposing a mechanism similar to the concept that Connor latter developed as vocalic body: “The voice acquires a spectral autonomy, it never quite belongs to the body we see, so that even when we see a living person talking, there is always some degree of ventriloquism at work: it is as if the speaker’s own voice hollows him out and in a sense speaks ‘by itself’, through him”.[10] In Black Box, playing with a/synchronization could be interpreted as playing with reality, but also playing with power. ‘We take this temporal co-incidence of words and lips as sort of guarantee that we’re in the real world, where hearing a sound usually coincides with seeing its source (…).[11]  It appears that someone’s voice is silenced when I see more bodies than I hear. This silencing induces more questions that can bear political connotations related to distribution of power. All those you are going to see in Black Box seem to be voiceless. And the one you will hear is hiding. It is all an illusion.


[2] According to Oxford English Dictionary.
[3] Giorgio Agamben, Open: Man and Animal, Stanford University Press, 2003.
[4] Steven Connor, “Violence, Ventriloquism and the Vocalic Body” in: ed. Patrick Campbell and Adrian Kear, Psychoanalysis and Performance, London and New York, Routledge, 2001, p. 80.
[5] Mladen Dolar, op.cit., p. 60.
[6] Mladen Dolar, op.cit., p. 68.
[7] Mladen Dolar, op.cit., p. 70.
[8] Mladen Dolar, op.cit., p. 70.
[9] Steven Connor, Ears Have Walls, http://www.stevenconnor.com/earshavewalls/
[10] Slavoj Žižek, “I hear You with My Eyes” in: Renata Salecl and Slavoj Zizek, Gaze and Voice as Love Objects, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1996, p. 92.
[11] Michel Chion, Audio-Vision, Sound on Screen, New York, Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 128-9.
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