Olivia Plender

Learning to Speak Sense

Much of my work as an artist has been focused on the symbolic idea of
‘the voice’, who is and isn’t able to claim the right to speak in
public. When I lost my ability to speak for a whole year, after an
illness in 2013, it profoundly changed the way that I thought about
that subject. Being literally voiceless, I felt vulnerable in public
space and over the course of my treatment I was exposed to a lot of
institutional settings, such as hospitals, which I then wanted to
reflect upon. Within feminist thinking the ‘personal is political’, so
these embodied experiences that I had as an individual do of course
point to wider structural problems and the way that we experience the
violence of political structures and gender norms within our intimate
daily lives.

In the sound piece titled ‘Learning to Speak Sense’, I worked with a
voice coach who helped me to improvise around some of the voice
exercises that I practiced during that period; which I mixed with
words taken from a very visceral essay by the suffragette Sylvia
Pankhurst, where she describes the physical effects of being on hunger
strike, when she was in prison for militant actions as part of the
early twentieth century campaign for votes for women. Many of the
words, phrases and sentences that I was given as exercises by the
hospital appear to me to have some kind of hidden political message.
For example: ‘Many Maids Make Much Noise’; or another phrase that I
had to repeat: ‘Militant Miners Means More Money’. Both seem to speak
about the power of the collective voice to be heard, demand attention,
to ‘make noise’. In the British context, any reference to ‘militant
miners’ immediately seems to indicate the miner’s strike of the 1980s,
in which the National Union of Mineworkers took on Margaret Thatcher’s
government in one of the longest strikes in British history. I became
convinced that there is an anonymous author working as a care worker
within the hospital system, who distributes their clandestine messages
through the voices of individuals who are learning to speak. I find
this idea very poetic. However, the work also explores the
disciplining aspect of voice therapy, as its origins seem to be found
in the training in rhetoric and elocution lessons of the nineteenth
century, when men were taught to speak with authority and women in
soft ‘pleasing’ voices. Therefore in the sound piece we also do a lot
of work where I am trying to learn how to speak with a very deep male
voice, which is traditionally what people associate with authoritative