There are over a thousand English language books titled or subtitled “the Art of Public Speaking.” The phrase is a cliché of rhetoric itself, of course, meant to dignify the deceit of public persuasion. But read another way, it is a wry invocation for Fia Backström’s staged environment and set of workshops, Studies in Leadership—the golden voice (2009), which twines oratory’s manipulation of semiotics and emotion with the aesthetic operations of poetry, bodywork, and graphic design. Documents from Eileen Myles’ run for President in 1992 are in the room too, as a kindred attempt to figure the relationship between art and public rhetoric. Their complex tone—both mordant and hopeful—like Backström’s, is neither neatly critical nor complicit. Outside on the front gate, Backström is creating a platform for an evolving public poem. First up, performance artist Malin Arnell.
SEPT 13 – OCT 4
Studies in Leadership—the golden voice, 2009, cardboard seating, lectern, and table; paper banners, eight video installation, four events.
Within her installation, Studies in Leadership–the golden voice, Fia Backström will organize a series of informal workshops and discussions expanding on the themes of her installation. There will be no set schedule for this program of events, and all visitors are encouraged to participate or watch as space permits.
The Golden Voice
A speech therapist and vocal coach will work to explore what makes a “golden voice” through the sounding of the vocal chords and the expression of the articulators and muscles in the mouth.
Nicholas & Hillary
Artist Elizabeth Orr will screen her short experimental film Nicholas and Hillary (2014) about “neoliberal superpowers” Nicholas Negroponte and Hillary Clinton. Through gender- and race-bending performances, the characters elaborate on the early development of the Internet, their private lives, and anti-Cartesian philosophy. With Jane Levy, Mariana Valencia, and Zoë Wright.
Ann Rodiger, Alexander Technique instructor and founder and director of the Balance Arts Center, will guide a workshop on presence, movement, and public performance that emphasizes the connection between body, mind, and voice.
Media and Cognition
Philosopher Matteo Pasquinelli works at the intersection of political philosophy, media theory, and cognitive sciences and will come to the Institute for an informal discussion about the themes of the work on view.
In the Spring of 1991, poet and writer Eileen Myles announced her campaign for President of the United States. The letters, speeches, and buttons displayed here are what she sent her mailing list of campaign supporters.
SEPT 13 – FEB 7
CO-, 2008, Aluminum and LED lights, 40 x 2 x 24 inches.
Public Poem Pattern, 2015–2016, vinyl lettering, dimensions variable
Over the course of the next six months, Fia Backström will be inviting poets, artists, and writers to use The Artist’s Institute front gate as a platform for an evolving text. The text will change every two weeks, and at the end of the season, the compiled lines will be turned into a pattern on a tablecloth:
Malin Arnell, SEPT 13 – 27, 2015
Tim Griffin, SEPT 28 – OCT 11, 2015
SEPT 13, 6:00–8:00 PM
Fia Backström’s season opens at The Artist’s Institute.
SEPT 16, 8:00 – 10:00 PM
POETRY WATCH PARTY
Poets Robert Fitterman, Josef Kaplan, Monica McClure, and Mónica de la Torre will join the Republican presidential candidates in a live debate moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper.
DATE AND TIME TBA (RSVP)
HOW TO MAKE A WINNING SIGN
What happens when ideology is taken up as a design problem? “A Winning Sign” allies a marketing strategist, a brain scientist, and a graphic designer for a two-hour trip through the terms and conditions of belief. Our panelists will tackle the matter of how to create a winning sign for those who prefer to lose. Can the desire to disbelieve be successfully reverse-engineered? Yes. But: what do you think? RSVP required; ticketing information to follow. This event is organized by Angie Keefer.
OCT 3, 8:00 PM – 12:00 AM
On the fifth anniversary of The Artist’s Institute, former Director and Founder Anthony Huberman returns to launch his book Today we should be thinking about., covering the first three years of the Institute. Music by David Grubbs.
Fia Backström would like to thank: Malin Arnell, Doug Ashford, A. K. Burns, Anna Craycroft, Simon Goldin, Emma Hedditch, Matt Keegan, Gunilla Klingberg, Elizabeth Orr, Imri Sandström, Kelley Walker, A. E. Benenson, Jenny Jaskey, and The Artist’s Institute.
The following are working notes that were generated out of the Institute’s process of restaging Fia Backström’s Studies in Leadership—the golden voice (2009).
The golden voice is the second installment of the exhibition-cum-artwork-cum-seminar Studies in Leadership by Fia Backström. The project unfolded across four venues between 2009 and 2010: the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, ICA London, Frieze Art Fair, and Columbia University School of the Arts. Sandwiched between Barack Obama’s first inaugural address and Citizens United v. FEC, the work addressed the vicissitudes of democratic idealism at a time when the rhetoric of collectivity — a vocabulary long associated with Leftist politics and the Civil Rights movement — was increasingly being used to defend capitalist fantasies. Financial institutions were too big to fail, corporations were granted the right to free speech in the form of unlimited spending on political campaigns; and in burgeoning start-up culture, non-hierarchical structures, mandatory collaboration, and the “sharing economy” were championed as profit-generating “disruptions” to business as usual.
Three years earlier, in her iterative performance HERD INSTINCT 360º, Backström, questioned whether taking a critical position was possible in a world in which the market demanded so-called radical togetherness: “Communes of labor, brain-washed consumer combatants, cult action, group therapy, and corporate get-togethers, guerrilla marketers… how could one possibly get oneself killed for organized activity, when it all is taking place in a symbolic universe of style and value, I am dead therefore I am!”
But by 2009, Backström began to move away from the problem of how to take critical distance, and towards the question of how to operate productively in spite of the inevitability of recuperation from the “universe of style of value.” Studies in Leadership sought to carve out a space between clichéd criticality and corporate kitsch by recycling contemporary terms of collective engagement as novel forms of aesthetic production. It wondered if contemporary relationships between leadership and the people could be used not to symbolize hope in the form of democratic governance, nor to amass autocratic control for “soft” corporate leadership, but as a way to produce new kinds of aesthetic experiences.
For the first exhibition in the series, Studies in Leadership—a family affair, mounted at the St. Louis Contemporary Art Museum, Backström experimented with the techniques of the corporate “soft leader.” In the spoken word text for her installation Control Room (2009), she described this leader as one who “reacts with cozy, oppressive tactics of feigned tolerance, propagating sociability and amusement for a relativized and fragmented society… [to encourage the] free-flow consumption of situations and relations.” In a journal entry published to accompany the exhibition, Backström wondered, “what position of authority could one occupy as an artist?” She decided to take on a “soft” role, acting the part of an equivocating artist whose work was the outcome of a protracted installation process. The resulting exhibition showcased a series of unresolved decisions, ones involving paint color, pedestals, and projected images: a new kind of soft approach.
In the second part of the project, Studies in Leadership—the golden voice, Backström considered power in more visceral terms, particularly the ways in which rhetoric, image management, and affect manipulation produce leaders and their herds. While Backström interrogated her own position as artist in a family affair, in the golden voice she looked to contemporary political and corporate orators, using Steve Jobs, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama as case studies.
In 2009, Studies in Leadership—the golden voice took the form of an installation and series of workshops at the ICA London as part of the Talk Show exhibition. It featured a stage set with a cardboard lectern, prop walls, seating, looping video and books. Four events were held in the space: A workshop with a speech coach, another with a voice actress, an informal conversation with a political theorist, and finally a film screening hosted by artist Emily Wardill. The set also featured vertical banners similar to ones you might see at a conference trade-show. Backström’s banners weren’t advertising anything, but they did appropriate language from corporate self-help books: “Speak with your whole body.” “Adjust the room… the microphone, the temperature, the sound system all make a statement.” By including them, Backström was honing in on what their authors, experts in human persuasion, know to be true — that communication frequently has little to do with semantics or what is actually being said. It is often about what Felix Guattari calls “a-signifying semiotics,” phenomena that organize social relations but are not primarily about meaning: the body’s nervous system reacting during a speech; the way a speech is distributed; the tonality of a speaker’s voice. All these machinic pre-symbolic assemblages, Guattari explains, “bring into play signs which have an additional symbolic or signifying effect, but whose actual functioning is neither symbolic nor signifying.”
In the videos that accompany the golden voice, Backstrom takes television footage from well-known corporate and political speeches — Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union,” Steve Jobs’ iPhone launch — and processes them through the post-production software AfterEffects to distort their images and sound. Speakers’ voices are slowed down almost to the point of receptive aphasia; the videos become grainy and purple-hued. A layer of floating text also runs across the images. Vocal transcripts that would usually follow a tidy path across the bottom of the screen now move in all directions and at unpredictable intervals in a typeface that stretches and compresses seemingly at random. At first Backström’s interventions appear to be designed to distance the viewer from immersion in the screen, yet at second glance her treatment doesn’t actually reveal the fictive qualities of the televisual rhetoric. Rather, the aural and pictorial tweaks to the videos actually amplify their a-significatory dimension, and the affective and machinic networks of communication they participate in. This occurs in much the same way that Maurizio Lazzarato describes Guattari’s a-signification: “capturing and activating pre-subjective and pre-individual elements (affects, emotions, perceptions) to make them function like components or cogs in the semiotic machine of capital.” By tuning us in to the waves, flows, and distortions of politicians’ voices and their teleprompter texts, Backström make us aware of the very materiality of all of it.
The speeches’ hollow rhetoric about togetherness gains a newfound density through this a-significatory manipulation. The work in Studies in Leadership begins from the position that the semantic content of such political and corporate messages is depraved, bereft of the significance it claims to have purchase on — the urgency of collectivity. In moving towards the a-significatory richnnes of these speeches, however, Backström bypasses criticism in favor of aesthetic production. This turn towards productive capacity via the materiality of rhetoric is implicit in Guattari’s formulation of a-signification, and more broadly motivates his project, with Deleuze, to define the generative force of desiring-machines against theories that presuppose a fundamental emptiness at the core of experience. Backström’s works rally against critique in an era in which pessimism seems pointless; after an unprecedented decade of abuse in political and corporate spheres alike, a term like collectivity may no longer mean anything. Rather than signaling an end, however, this reduction to nonsense could mark a generative new starting point.