Walker Art Center

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This Is Not a Trojan Horse

By Steve Dietz

A voice, from the voice box, the larynx and vocal chords — actually vocal folds — is capable, with proper voice training, of oscillating 440 times per second when singing A above middle C, or simple phonation, including voiceless and supra-glottal, even sotto voce, a stage whisper, an aside, like Galileo’s “Eppur si muove” (“Nonetheless, [the Earth] does move”), which voices concerns, voices doubt, voices truth, not in a falsetto voice, although what if they are only voices in your head, voices within, voice-overs, an inner voice, but maybe you are a voice in the wilderness, and that is the point, to find your voice or should you develop your personal voice, whichever is your natural voice, in either case, making sure never to use the passive voice, and not just follow the siren’s song, who has the voice of an angel, and you must lash yourself to the mast to not crash upon the rocks, something you only know because of a tale you heard, the voice of a bard, not discovered on The Voice, who sings what cannot otherwise be voiced, half-heard, half-known, surmised, before the age of VOA — Voice of America — or if you prefer a less moderate voice, the Village Voice, a press, and while we all know, after A. J. Liebling that “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” maybe in the age of memes and tweets and VOIP — Voice Over Internet Protocol — vox populi, the voice of the people, assuming voice recognition and/or voice-to-text improves, will allow us to raise our voices, a flash mob of voices, an Occupy Wall Street human megaphone, but in any case, it is Voice Without Which a People Cannot Be Heard.

This is how Futurefarmers works. There is a topic, yes. There are ideas sketched out, yes. Many sketches. But there is seldom a fixed ending to accomplish. During the month that Futurefarmers was in residence as part of the Walker Art Center’s inaugural season of Open Field, they led or organized multiple activities to explore different aspects of the idea of voice with various groups, including a core cadre of local artist collaborators and the general public.

A girls youth choir explored Minneapolis by voice, using song to identify the aural and psychological resonance of different public spaces. Two workshops with the artist cadre focused on building paper megaphones with kids and their families and low-power FM radio transmitters. Outside experts led mini-seminars on ethnomusicology and speech pathology. We took a field trip to the printing presses of the Star Tribune newspaper. Public programs featured local storytellers and films about different voices. The monthlong experiment ended with the event Auctions Speak Louder Than Words, which used the epitomic economic drama and the linguistic patter of the auctioneer to explore the social value of stories freely told and shared.

To call Futurefarmers’ process pedagogical is only partially accurate. It is about learning, certainly. But it is primarily dialogical. At any time, anyone can be in the position of teacher as traditionally understood because of his or her expert knowledge, specific experience, particular skill, or because it’s her or his turn. But regardless of who is nominally teaching, all participants are able to contribute to, challenge, and thereby affect, materially, what happens next.

Even more than their dialogical pedagogy, however, what characterizes Futurefarmers’ practice most strongly is its studio-centeredness. What they make is at the heart of what they do. And the value of craft is critical to everything they make, whether it is smashing porcelain toilets into “clay” for new water displacement bricks or the plebeian materials they used to craft the giant megaphone that was a primary outcome of A People Without a Voice Cannot Be Heard. I vividly remember an early scouting trip for these materials with Futurefarmers artists Amy Franceschini and Michael Swaine. Not only was it important to make the simple gesture of shopping at a locally owned hardware store rather than a big box emporium with greater choice and lower prices, but we also spent what seemed like hours discussing the relative merits of ³⁄8-inch dowels and ¼-inch plywood, sail and muslin cloth, and other various and sundry items. Fortunately, afterwards it was equally important to stop at a non-franchise ice cream joint for a cone. And popcorn.

To emphasize the craft of Futurefarmers’ practice, however, is both accurate and to do them a disservice. Every object they make is imbued with the very questions they are committed to exploring. For example, the megaphone is both a solution of how to amplify the voice of one person to public scale, but it also raises the question of how to aggregate voices and not simply valorize the speech of whoever has control of the device. Part of the answer lay in making an object so large that no single person can transport or deploy it. It requires not only collaboration, but also a kind of elaborate, if informally choreographed performance, which in the end is perhaps the core message of A People Without a Voice Cannot Be Heard. As the Occupy Wall Street protests have amply demonstrated, it is as much about the group performance of speech acts as any specific set of words that is both unsettling and inspiring. And now it has become part of the library’s collection and can be checked out. It is a public megaphone.

This leads to the final point I would like to make. While Futurefarmers is motivated by many concerns, environmental, economic, and political, A People Without a Voice Cannot Be Heard was never about a narrowly defined issue and especially not about a specific “answer” to that issue. The project, the methodology, the topic itself are all a platform and a set of tools, which do not have a predetermined outcome. Futurefarmers recognizes and values that humans are passionate animals, and rather than trying to quash this passion in the forced embrace of a shared response, one of the most significant ways to honor democratic ideals and the ideas of others is not to assume that there is one “right way.” As philosopher Chantal Mouffe suggests, “Taking pluralism seriously requires that we give up the dream of a rational consensus…. [T]he constitution of democratic individuals can only be made possible by multiplying the institutions, the discourses, the forms of life that foster identification with democratic values.” This is something that art can do. Multiply points of view. Practice diverse forms of discourse. Sustain different ways of living. This is Futurefarmers. And not a bad way to think about the Open Field.

Book: Conversations on the Commons

Edited by Sarah Schultz and Sarah Peters, Conversations on the Commons includes contributions by Susannah Bielak, Steve Dietz, Stephen Duncombe, Futurefarmers (Amy Franceschini, Michael Swaine), Lewis Hyde, Jon Ippolito, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Machine Project (Mark Allen), Sarah Peters, Rick Prelinger, Red76 (Courtney Dailey, Dylan Gauthier, Sam Gould, Gabriel Mindel Saloman, Mike Wolf), Sarah Schultz, Scott Stulen, and Works Progress (Colin Kloecker, Shanai Matteson).

Futurefarmers in the Cowles Conservatory, 2010

David Dick and artist Michael Swaine construct a megaphone in the Walker carpentry shop

Photo: Gene Pittman

Testing out radios from the How to Build a Voice Box II workshops

Photo: Gene Pittman