Magazine article Art Monthly

Aileen Campbell

Magazine article Art Monthly

Aileen Campbell

Article excerpt

When asked to define her practice, Scottish artist Aileen Campbell states with definition: 'I make voiceworks.' Her performance-driven practice is underpinned by a fascination with the human voice as the primordial instrument, and its complicated relationship to the human body.

Given that the human voice is immanent within us, its pure sound is impossible to create without a body. But consider for a minute its possibilities for extension and separation beyond the body: operatic projection, microphone or multifarious types of recording, for example, all allow it to be separated and extended way beyond its original source. Campbell experiments with the transcendent possibilities of the human voice, yet she is also keen to emphasise and subvert stereotypical gender associations. The deeper tones of the male voice, for example, supposedly suggest earthiness and close links with the body, while the female voice can soar higher and more freely, apparently connoting hysteria or even insanity. Its high pitch suggests estrangement from the body, allowing it to be fetishised as an object in itself. Campbell is particularly interested in unbinding these gender stereotypes through experimental and often deliberately unpolished performance projects.


As an experienced chorister Campbell has frequently used her own vocal skills to explore the estrangement of the female voice from the body. Early experiments involved recording her own voice alongside domestic items including a hairdryer, popcorn machine, hoover or paper shredder, as a means of melding her own vocal sounds with mechanised noises removed from the body. During her MFA at Glasgow School of Art Campbell went on an exchange to CalArts in Los Angeles where she worked across the music and fine arts departments, giving her more room to integrate fully her musical interests and visual practice. Here she developed an interest in a rising number of pioneering female vocal artists from the 60s and beyond who explored what were called extended vocal techniques such as Joan La Barbara, Maggie Nicols and Meredith Monk. Their vocal techniques were intended to ground the female voice back with the body by exploring bizarre or 'unfeminine' soundmaking. As a member of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, a group of international musicians who regularly perform with unconventional scores and instruments, Campbell has let herself explore and discover her own voice in this way, pushing it way beyond its daily, communicative requirements.

Jane Edwards and Geoffrey Rush, Campbell's video shown at her recent solo show at Gimpel Fils, London, involved such playful use of her own vocals. A male character is seen jumping up and down on a trampoline while a pre-recording of Campbell singing a composition by Vivaldi is superimposed as soundtrack. The male and female bodies are synchronised, though the male is seen and not heard, while the female is heard and not seen. As you might expect, the motion of Campbell's singing body disrupts what should have been a seamless performance, reminding the viewer of the body whence it came. This work bears some similarity to Marina Abramovic's video Freeing the Voice from 1975, in which Abramovic lies on her back, a highly restrictive position from which to sing, and attempts to exhale long vocal notes. In both Campbell's and Amabrovic's films the female body as the vocal instrument is successfully emphasised.

The notion of perfection as being tied to classical musical performances is also deliberately questioned in many of Campbell's works. …

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