|SeaWomen, Mikhail Karikis, 2012 (a haenyeo at work, Jeju, S Korea)|
At first, both the voice and breath (being invisible) seem to resist representation and give rise to a dynamics of dematerialisation and ethereality. Certainly there are thinkers and artists who explore these dynamics and focus on a purely formal or metaphysical reading of the voice. Such a reading often neglects the ontological connection of voices with bodies, and positions them beyond the material world – i.e. it renders them signs of transcendence. The recent popularity of the term “the disembodied voice” in academic literature demonstrates this. But unless we talk about technologically mediated voices, psychoacoustic phenomena or legend, voices do not exist without physical bodies. Thinking of voices as ethereal or non-material, without the physicality and sensuality of the body, is disconcerting to me because it seems to reproduce a model of thinking about the body and its products familiar in economism, which places extreme emphasis on the body (as a producer, a consumer or a commodity) in order to ultimately annihilate it for the sake of a ‘transcendent’ value – how much it's worth in financial terms. As I aim to explain in this text, engaging with the voice expands further. When we truly employ the voice as a conceptual compass, it inevitably leads to a deep engagement with people, their bodies, cultures, politics and the human psyche.
A quest central to my work has been to research the reasons for the production of vocal sounds which are beyond language and its rules, and the meanings we attach to the ‘nonsense’ sounds we invent. Squeaks, shouts, whistles, sighs, rhymes, gibberish, jargon, acronyms, cries, yells and so on are heard in different work environments but make no sense to those outside the specific contexts where they occur. I would like to think of these sounds as somewhat anarchic, as deserters or rebels, occupying an outsider’s position in relation to the rules of language and its syntax which set out the systems that organise sounds, words, sentences and phrases. John Cage and Norman O. Brown thought of syntax as the “army of language”. In works such as Empty Words, John Cage goes as far as to suggest that breaking the rules that govern language leads to its demilitarisation – a concept that I am not directly analysing in this text, but which informs my thinking of extra-lingual vocal sounds, guides my interest in the type of communities I have been working with, and influences the artistic strategies I employ to reappraise conventions that pre-determine the 'other' and his/her expressive conduct.
In recent works I have branched out beyond my own voice, toward the voices of 'others': other artists or members of different communities, whose professional identities, cultures and sense of togetherness are tied with the production of unique sounds and vocal practices. I have studied such sounds in the context of community formation and professional identity. One such community is that of the haenyeo: female sea-workers on the North Pacific island of Jeju – a small patch of black volcanic land which belongs to South Korea, and floats between China and Japan. Operating outside the currents of modernization, the haenyeo (literally meaning sea-women) are an ancient and fast-vanishing community that now consists predominantly of sixty to ninety-year-old women who dive to depths of up to twenty meters with no oxygen supply to catch seafood, collect seaweed and find pearls. This is a gendered profession practiced only by females. There are several reasons for this. A physiological explanation is the distribution of fat in women’s bodies, which insulates them against the cold and allows them to stay in the sea for as long as eight hours even during the coldest winter months. A cultural reason is the attitude toward exposing the flesh and nudity, which was considered to be degrading and was reserved for poor women of low social status; the haenyeo profession was a social stigma. A socio-political factor which contributed to the growth of this women-only profession, paradoxically, is the sexism in Confucian law, which, until the beginning of last century did not recognise female labour, excluding the heanyeo from taxation. Thus, the diving women engaged in a low-status profession and worked against the will of the state, but brought their entire income back home.
|SeaWomen, Mikhail Karikis 2012 (empty haenyeo camp, Jeju S Korea)|
The little research that exists on the physiology of the sumbisori reveals that the technique entails exhaling very rapidly all the carbon dioxide accumulated in the body, and quickly inhaling fresh oxygen. The lungs of the haenyeo shrink from the pressure in the depths, and hungry for air when the diver resurfaces, they expand, causing a violent inhalation and a high pitched wheezy whistling gasp. These sounds occupy high frequencies above the noise of the sea and are easily identifiable. The haenyeo have limited vision above water resulting from the accumulation of condensation in their underwater masks or because of high waves. Therefore, when at work in the sea the sounds of the haenyeo could be said to function as aural signals and acoustic location markers. Also, to the trained ear, each sumbisori has a distinctive sound; it is an individual acoustic signature that is produced in the different mouths and bodies of each woman.
The sumbisori with its aural production is a work skill – a specific craft which a young hanyeo begins to learn as a young girl and takes years to perfect. Thus, practiced only by women and passed on from mother to daughter, this is a gender-specific skill that is trans-generationally transmitted, creating an inter-generational aural bond that ties the community and functions as a sonic signifier of professional identity.
The subtlety of the word sumbisori reveals an additional layer of meaning. As I am told by the haenyeo researcher Dr. Cha HyekYoung, the word sumbisori, literally translated as breath-sound, is also parallel to that of ‘overcoming.’ She explains that the haenyeo were the ones who lead the anti-Japanese resistance movement last century, and witnessed the large loss of the male population on the island after the fall of Japanese rule when American and South Korean forces massacred those suspected of supporting the reunification with North Korea. In this light, the sounds of the sumbisori become charged with the expression of trauma and the working through of suffering; their sonorities are a complex cultural sound-object – the product of a subculture operating within a particular political, geographical and historical specificity – impregnated with the potential to operate as a marker of a historical event and a non-verbal transmitter of memory, of resistance, and of rising above the circumstances.
Recent statistics reveal that the haenyeo community, which comprised thirty thousand women forty years ago, is now on the brink of disappearance. In the 1970s it was the leading economic force on the island, creating an economic and social system in which women occupied leading roles – a glimpse of matriarchy in an otherwise patriarchal Korean society. But the scale of fishing has changed radically since then, while the women insist on traditional and sustainable (and for some eco-feminist) practices outside the mainstream of industrialization. In addition, water pollution and the warming of the seas have diminished haenyeo’s profits, and occupational hazards prevent it from being a popular career choice. In parallel, there are no encouraging economic circumstances organized on a national level that could transform the future of the profession and provide the right incentives for younger women to engage in it. Subsequently, the profession is declining as the old haenyeo die out. It is hard to envisage the aural practices of the haenyeo community, which form a unique sonic subculture interconnected with skill, without their professional practice. The sounds of their community – songs, debates, communal bathing, the submisori etc – make little sense divorced from the women’s sustainable work, their reversal of traditional gender-roles, their deep sense of community and egalitarianism, their collective economics, and sense of professional identity and unique purpose in later age.
|SeaWomen, Mikhail Karikis 2012 (a haenyeo at work, Jeju S Korea)|
In the end, in my search to find the meaning of the sounds of the diving grandmothers of Jeju, I heard a rebellious sound that operates beyond the rules of (male) Logos, and is created outside the mainstream of modernization and economism; I heard an ancient craft and a trans-generational bond, a cultural sound-object and a transmitter of memory and resistance; I heard an acoustic signature of a community and of a professional identity, its fun and purpose.