Hanne Lippard’s artistic medium is her voice, so naturally I’m thrilled to meet up with her for a conversation. Over the past weeks I’ve been listening to her work –online and in galleries –and as a result her soothing, hypnotic tone has become quite familiar. When we meet at a small café in Kreuzberg, I feel like I’m having coffee with an old friend.
The first thing I think to associate her work with is Vanessa Redgrave’s mesmerizing narration of the latest Patrick Keiller film, Robinson in Ruins. I mention it but Lippard hasn’t seen it, so my reference falls a bit flat. The similarities are nevertheless there. It’s a subdued and pensive discussion of British landscape, architecture and spatial memory, where Redgrave, like Lippard, reflects the subject matter seamlessly with the use of her unwavering vocal register.
Lippard trained professionally as a graphic designer at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam. At first it seems like a leap from that to her present, more esoteric art form but the connections are there. She explains how graphic design helped her to visualise pure text, as “word decoration or rearrangement.” Printed matter began to feel less meaningful to her and she took to reading her texts aloud. One of her early recorded works, ‘Beige,’ evokes the monotony, while reflecting on what statistically is the most ubiquitous colour in the universe. Her voice mirroring the mundanity of the hue, she tells the social history of beige and its relation to menial part-time work from the perspective of someone who has suddenly come to the equally banal realisation that they have a “strong liking” for beige.
Typical to Lippard’s work is an event-title like Speaking Comfort in an Uncomfortable Chair launching her Nuances of No book, published by Berlin independent press Broken Dimanche, in Venice this past spring. Because it is more often the case that Lippard’s texts speak uncomfortable truths with a voice dripping with comfort: composed, considered, articulate and calming. This disjuncture between her words and their vocal adornment is what makes her work so alluring. No matter what medium she works in –whether graphic design, writing, video or audio –Lippard seems fascinated by different linguistic structural possibilities and arrangements.
As a result, many of her texts have multiple lives, appearing in visual and aural manifestations at different times. Lippard’s audio piece ‘Locus’ was recently presented in the two-person show Hanne Lippard <> Gwenn Thomas at Exile in Berlin. The exhibition inaugurated the gallery’s series of shows pairing artists from different artistic backgrounds and generations. The idea was to create a “phenomenological dialogue” between works that had been made separately, at different time periods. Lippard’s piece in this show had a particularly coercive quality, forcing the listener to contemplate the nature of otherness and being together.
aqnb: Your work has been described as an ‘aesthetic of the word’ – is this how you see it?
Hanne Lippard: I did a writing course when I was very young, living in Stockholm. It was the sort of course where you’re supposed to write a novel. Everyone in the class wanted to write a novel about their life. Have you seen this film Public Speaking about Fran Lebowitz, directed by Martin Scorcese? It’s a portrait of her, she’s jabbering on the whole time. She says that the problem today is that everyone has the space to say something but nothing to say. This writing course was a bit like that. About six women wanted to write about their pregnancies, as though pregnancy was a totally unique experience.
I am not leaving the possibility of writing a novel out of my life but at some point I just started speaking what I’d written. People are not aware of their own voices, it’s more that everyone is afraid of their own voice- they hate the recording of it. Why is that? Being more focused on the voice, you get more analytical about the way people speak to you, how you speak in different situations. The recording is a reverberation of yourself, and writing for the voice is manifest in that reverberation somehow.
aqnb: You must be very comfortable hearing your own voice by now. I’ll probably listen to this interview later and cringe at the sound of myself.
HL: Not really, though. As a conscious speaker, I’m fine with it when I am reading or performing a text. But I have a big problem hearing myself speak in different languages, like in Swedish, for example. As a Norwegian, I feel really phony when I hear myself speak Swedish. It’s like if you would speak Australian English or something. Same language but you have to perform the dialect.
aqnb: Do you consciously tailor your voice depending on the text you perform?
HL: There’s not a huge vocal range but I guess it’s the rhythm that changes more than anything. What makes it different from normal speech is just timing and intonation. It becomes like a song. ‘Beige’ was a work I did when I was really young, still in school. At that time I was not so aware of the use of my own voice, but still it remains the most referenced of my work. The repetition of the word beige really comes quite naturally in it though. It’s the mantra of the piece.
aqnb: The narration of your audio pieces are often in the first person. Are they always personal texts?
HL: Yes, they are rather personal.
aqnb: Did you work at Starbucks, is what I’m really asking…
HL: No not actually. I used Starbucks as a universal reference point. There’s one on every high street and it’s slowly beiging people in. That is the problematic of the work though, keeping the personal delivery. The voice requires that you are always present, whereas I feel many contemporary artists are very distanced from their works. They tend to emphasize the huge distance between the artist and the object.
aqnb: When I listen to your work sometimes, it washes over me and I start to lose track of the content. But your ‘Locus’ piece at Exile really forces people to listen. When you start to read the text backwards, it brings the listener out of their complacency.
HL: It was quite a nice text to combine with the exhibited photography by Gwenn Thomas. It’s hard to negotiate playing sound art with other works. For instance, I had a piece in the Berlin Art Prize exhibition this year and the sound work gets quite lost in the mix when you have 20 artists exhibiting.
But at Exile it was quite nice because you could demand something more from the listener. They hear the words once in a normal narrative and then the exact same words start to be read backwards. You can make sense of it, and I like that. That language can be re-arranged and you understand it to some extent but there is still something obscure. Like when you use certain words together, they bring out different associations. You can’t just say, “I’m lovin’ it” without further connotation.
aqnb: Yes, like in your collaboration with Heatsick. You have all these different catchphrases…
HL: It was actually Steve [Warwick]’s text but we have a lot of overlap in our work. He has a funny way of using words, this inner dialogue about things being branded by words. And with lyrics you have to condense language quite a lot.
aqnb: The way the Exile exhibition was structured seemed really interesting to me. You had no contact with Gwenn Thomas before the opening?
HL: The gallerist had the idea of working with me next year and suddenly it was like, ‘could we do it next month? I have another artist I’d like to show you with’. It’s interesting when you are put together with someone from a different generation, and not in a group show. You know, you will be put against this person: young vs. old or this generation vs. contemporary but it completely recontextualises her work to have mine almost soundtracking it. It worked very well in that space. She is a great photographer and it’s nice that someone who has been working for so long is open to bring her work so close to another artist less known to her, in the intimacy of a rather small gallery space.
aqnb: The way it was described, it sounded more like an anti-collaboration. Yet it seemed to have worked…
HL: It was actually quite hard to work with her pieces in the sense of them being so visually strong, especially in terms of the topic; Ellis Island. The aesthetic was very 80s. I tried to write something new but in the end I decided not to, as ‘Locus’ is from 2009. I found this pre-existing text and instead gave importance to the installation. We had two channels, speakers on either end of the space, that divided the narrative of the text, depending which side was playing.
The text had never been recorded before. Now that I am working more and more with the voice, I have these texts that are unspoken and when I speak them at some point, it brings out a new life for them. That’s why it’s nice to work with people like Steve. You think you have to write a lot of new material, but really you don’t have to. You can already work with smaller texts and bring out new contexts through the use of the voice.
aqnb: In your new book, were the texts ones that you had already performed or recorded?
HL: Only a few. It was a bit out of nowhere for me to make a book at that point, but in the end it almost became like a script for my future readings and performances.
aqnb: Did you do the graphic design?
HL: Yes, I wanted to. It was a collection of many different texts but then somehow, strangely, they had quite a coherent topic.
aqnb: The book is called Nuances of No…
HL: Yes, the topic is negation in speech, communication, the Web. How we communicate through social media. There were many screenshots included in the process of writing the book, as well as within the book. I’m quite intrigued by these dead ends of the Internet. Like when you end up somewhere and you can’t go any further, this ‘Help’ that is of no help. I don’t know if it’s just since I’ve moved to Germany but there’s something about a mix between normal everyday bureaucracy and online help. It’s very often complicated. Even these small spam things where you are supposed to find lost love, or your life and plans being compiled in six short ads on the sidebar: Trips to Istanbul!
aqnb: One time I was breaking up with my ex and we kept having lengthy email conversations, and all my ads on Gmail would be stuff like, ‘How to deal with autistic children’. ‘Seemed eerily fitting…
HL: Yes, it’s almost like a side tracking of the mind. There’s a lot of paranoia and self-diagnosis or self-help that comes with supposed Internet “solutions”. Everything is becoming very self, and at the same time very helpless. So my book is not directly political but it’s a lot about social habits, a kind of current anthropology. You can sometimes see the whole current state of the world in one webpage if you have some extra sidebars. You can really capture, in a screenshot, our current state.
aqnb: Your voice in particular seems like a good conduit for these reflections.
HL: Sometimes people mention a robotic quality to my voice but I am trying still to maintain the human factor. It’s very popular to have the Siri voice as a narrator in artworks. In my work she would have to be a backing vocal or something, a lot of the message falls away without the human intonation. **
Header image: Hanne Lippard, ‘What language do you speak?’, Badische Kunstverein, Karlsruhe, DE. Photo by Hannah Cooke.