James Webb


Telephone Voice 
3’36’’ – 2011

In what ways has your relationship to sound been informed by growing up in South Africa?

This is a difficult question to answer comprehensively, so I will just offer you 4 small, yet personal, memories of sound here in South Africa.

Muizenberg, 1979: My father had won a handheld Pioneer tape recorder in a golf tournament, and the family used it to make voice recordings of us children growing up. Listening back now, I am surprised by my peculiar 4-year old accent and touched by the young voice of my father. I am also interested in the way I seemed to treat the tape recorder as some kind of sentient being in that I would address it by name and ask it questions.

Kimberley, 1983: I have memories of watching television programmes imported from Germany and listening to the dubbed English-language Simulcast track on my grandfather’s radio.

Cape Town, 1989: In my early teens, I remember the joy of receiving mixed tapes of music (by bands then classified as “Alternative”) sent from friends overseas. There was no chance that I could see these bands, or even read much about them, so the curated selection of songs were a sonic doorway into various mysterious and foreign worlds.

Cape Town, 1996: And, of course, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its emphasis on, and attempt at, disclosure had a big effect on me.

Reading these together now, I could say that my relationship to sound and South Africa has a lot to do with distance and otherness.
In what terms would you describe your practice?

I see my artistic practice as being rooted in conceptualism and relational aesthetics, touching on Live Art, and augmented by my early academic studies in religion, theatre, and advertising, as well as my formative experiences as an event coordinator for large-scale exhibitions, workshops and parties. These are all stimulated by lifelong interests in mythology, belief and communication, and how these subjects play out in the world in different ways and guises. As a result, my work is interdisciplinary by nature, combining art, music, literature, theatre and cinema, and has been framed in large-scale installations in galleries and museums, as well as unannounced interventions in public spaces. I think of my practice as making use of ellipsis and displacement, as well as translation and citation.

My process starts with fieldwork in the form of site observations, audio recordings, photographs and written notes. This often leads to relational activities and collaborative ventures, and culminates in a distillation of all these factors into the multiple forms that the work is presented, disseminated and documented. In terms of the general materiality of my practice, I have used sound, video, neon, plant life, and a variety of speakers and lights, both antique and modern, in my installations. I have consulted and collaborated with psychics, hypnotists, community leaders, dog wranglers and Ikebana experts, amongst others, in preparation for projects.
Could you say a few words about the Prayer series and Telephone Voice, the works you will present at Helicotrema 2014?

Prayer is a multi-channel sound installation comprising recordings of prayer from all the religions in the host city, broadcast simultaneously from 12 floor-based speakers. Each speaker transmits its own separate selection of prayers, arranged consecutively and looped, so that when all speakers play at the same time an ever ever-changing sound environment is experienced. The audience may wander freely through the installation, listening to the polyphony of voices from all the speakers at once, or kneel down to listen to individual prayers broadcast from any particular speaker. The project is created in situ every time, and the prayers are collected from all the different religious groups operating in the host city, e.g. Johannesburg. These have included, but are not limited to, most denominations of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, as well as new religious movements and traditional, pre-Christian faiths. The early conceptualising of Prayer was influenced by Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record as well as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Helicotrema will be presenting some extracts of the individual recordings that make up the installation.


In Telephone Voice, I used a clairvoyant to contact the late, great Orson Welles, interviewing him and transcribing the resulting speech for a voice actor to perform. Conceptually, the deceased American auteur ‘speaks through’ and directs the clairvoyant, and through him the actor, who in turn influences the listener.
At the time I was thinking about my own cultural family tree, and I believe Welles features strongly in my artistic ancestry. The artwork’s title refers to a style of telephonic enunciation often used to convey not only clarity but also a sense of status. The project was commissioned for the Palais de Tokyo’s Répondeur, a monthly show curated by Rahma Khazam where artists make works for the exhibition space’s answering machine.