When we meet on Skype, Anna Katrine Dolven is sitting in her studio in Oslo, an industrial building with high ceilings and concrete walls against which her voice reverberates, echoing through to me via virtual space. One of Norway’s most prominent contemporary artists, A. K. Dolven’s multi-disciplinary practice focuses prominently on sound, often in the form of human voices. “It is not nice to listen to your own voice,” she tells me in a soft tone that I find beautiful and grounding: “in the past, I used other people’s voices, but in recent years I got confident that my voice is one of my instruments. It is practical, easy—I carry it around with me all the time.”
I have invited A. K. Dolven to talk about the recurrent use of voices in her works: opening up a reflection on what it means to metaphorically place the act of thinking in the lungs (the organ where the voice starts as breath) rather than behind the forehead (the site of rational thought). The voice is a unique medium where sonorous materiality overlays and fundamentally transcends the realm of speech. Invisible vibrations travel from the lungs through vocal cords, tongues, and nasal cavities, folding the internal into the external; the same soundwaves that produce sound as meaning, carry within them the uniqueness of the uttering body. Roland Barthes recognized this singularity when he wrote, in 1971, about the ‘grain’ of the voice as a specific trait that is more than mere timbre, something more akin to an ineffable quality of sound that supplements the language of sense. Through these reflections, A. K. Dolven and I quickly find each other on the same wavelength, and our conversation begins with the work JA as long as I can (2013), made in collaboration with the late artist and poet John Giorno.
“The piece is about saying yes to life; a will to live,” she tells me: “I met John in Lofoten [where A. K. Dolven has her second home] and we became friends. We went for long walks and the piece was developed through this walking, talking, and thinking together. So, I went to New York and stayed with John, which was amazing, and we recorded the piece. Initially, we thought we would record it together, but it ended up being done individually—when I had to test the microphone in a very fancy studio, I started saying ja and didn’t stop for 22 minutes. I thought about many things that happened in my life and just went on and on. John recorded his part for the same length of time and the two recordings were overlaid afterwards. They are together but independent, just like two people walking next to each other.
Courtesy the artist and Galleri Bo Bjerggaard
Throughout the repetitions, Giorno’s voice, which starts confident and rhythmic, slowly tires. A. K. Dolven’s, on the other hand, whose flow is asymmetric from the start, becomes increasingly bodily; partly dissolving into breathing and at points diffusing into the hint of a soft laugh. This dissolution of signification into air is also partially the result of the way the word ja is sometimes uttered in Norwegian, through the sucking in—rather than blowing out—of breath. Here, signifier and signified are both connected and disjointed: ja is at the same time internal and external, semantics, and pure sonorous material.
The piece presents the acoustic, empirical, and material relationality of two singular voices, that feminist philosopher Adriana Cavarero holds against the universal, disembodied subject typical of Western metaphysics—a tradition that has reduced the voice to a mere phonetic component in a system of signification. Cavarero focuses on the sonorous materiality of the voice, as well as its intrinsic relationality, as a site of resistance against the logocentric hierarchical privileging of speech and reason over the bodily. This symbolic patriarchal order, where the vocal is pushed below the semantic, has relegated the sonorous aspect of the voice to the female realm of the body, whilst speech and semantics inhabit the realm of the masculine: ‘woman sings, man thinks’.
In a passage reminiscent of Kristeva’s Chora, Cavarero describes the vocal as “the register of an economy of drives that are bound to the rhythms of the body in a way that destabilizes the rational register on which the system of speech is built.” The Chora is the pre-symbolic birthplace of speech where language has its origins in libidinal content and the rhythms of acoustic pleasure, not yet subjugated by rational discourse. This celebration of the erotic power of the voice is found in several of A. K. Dolven’s pieces, such as in the deep breathing sounds that often accompany her vocal utterances. Another case, which points more directly to the erotic, is the piece Please Return (2014). “This work comes from a very intense personal experience,” she tells me, “but it’s not important to tell the story behind it. For a period, I was walking up in the mountains every day, shouting at the landscape the word Kom! [Come!] and hearing its echo coming back to me. I had to train my voice to be able to shout out loud in the openness of the wide landscape. I was calling something back but the word has also a sexual meaning.” I tell her that the deep echo from the mountains—the sound that returns in layered vibrations that shatter the signified—reminds me of the pulsating qualities of sexual pleasure.
The implicit critique of patriarchal codes of language is also connected to the concept of dissonance, another recurrent theme in A. K. Dolven’s practice. She talks fondly of the series of works titled Out of Tune (2011-2020) in which she ‘saves’ bronze bells that have been discarded from bell towers because they are no longer in tune, bringing them back to the public space as sound sculptures. These pieces make me think of an act of rehabilitation of marginal speech, a rebellious repositioning of the marginal towards the centre, which feels particularly urgent at our present time. It is a poetic reflection on the politics of speech: which are the voices that are allowed to speak out in public? Which ones are heard? A. K. Dolven’s exploration of the vocal, in its manifestations beyond the space of signification, is a subversive act against the disciplining codes of language. Freeing the voice from the mastery of speech opens up a different space for thinking, where rigid, hierarchical dichotomies are diffused into fleshy vibrations, thinking with the lungs.
Francesca Astesani is an independent curator and writer based in Copenhagen. She is one of the directors and funders of curatorial agency South into North, which specialises in art commissions. She holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Milan and one in Contemporary Art theory from Goldsmiths College in London.