Introduction: unfolding the ineffable research question



The motivation for my study arose from my personal experiences with a relative who, around ten years ago, was a patient in a psychiatric ward. The deep silence and unique energy in the ward fell into my body as a painful and affective experience, something that was uneasy to speak about yet begged to be expressed. It made me realise that there are some fundamental dimensions of human suffering that seem to manifest themselves through an embodied zone that is not easily captured by, and perhaps cannot be fully captured by, verbal communication. I began to elaborate an idea of what would happen if an artistic exploration of non-verbal vocal encounter could access such sensitive and acute situations. It felt important to pose such a question, given that the rudimentary, non-verbal attributes of human expression are easily considered uncanny, and pushed to the margins of social reality. Around the time these ideas began to form, I experienced a temporary loss of my voice as a singer, a reaction to a heavy exposure to mould. I started to experiment with the affective potentialities of voice, which were not based on representation, but began from an act of immanent attunement with the surrounding situation. These entangled paths led me to develop an artistic practice through which I could experiment with methods to invoke a group of people to attune with each other and create a mutual sphere of resonance. Such attunement is related to the sensate act of attunement to the environment and each other, as well as the potentiality of voices and silences to attune the atmosphere and experience of particular event.


Exploring the potentiality of art to accelerate well-being and produce health benefits is a growing international trend. Since the 1990s, Finland has seen increasing interest and resources invested in artistic projects addressing art and well-being. However, utilitarian interests have narrowed the focus of these discussions to the healing effects and health benefits of the arts. Recently, critics have acknowledged that more attention should be given to art experiences.1 In contrast to the utilitarian discourse, in my research I explore the non-therapeutic potentialities of non-verbal, vocal sound art in the situation-sensitive locale of a psychiatric healthcare environment, namely the Helsinki University Central Hospital’s (HUCH) Psychiatry Center.2 The investigation is ‘non-therapeutic’ in the sense that my work is not committed to pursuing cures or particular therapeutic outcomes: my aim, rather, lies in exploring the possibilities of the vocal work to create connection between participants by opening a sensate dimension of shared reality. The significance of verbal and symbolic language in the formation of subjectivity has been highlighted in psychoanalysis, including in the work of psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva.3 Studying the potentialities of voice through singular artistic processes aims to respectfully challenge this discussion, within the sphere of sensate knowledge, to consider how embodied encountering with art might matter to people. I will not deal with the issue of well-being as such in this exposition, but through the intertwining of the sensate and discursive subject matter I will aim to reveal the mechanisms of how non-verbal vocality might work in this particular mental healthcare environment.


The term ‘sensate knowledge’ expresses a kind of cognition that originates in vocal practice and is based on the (reciprocal) act of vocalising and listening. Inspired by discussions concerning the epistemology of artistic research (such as the philosopher Juha Varto),4 the term suggests that knowledge is not primarily explicit, rational, or measurable, but implicit, felt, and a matter of affectivity. Sensate knowledge is first and foremost the knowledge of the agent. Through vocal attunement, such knowledge can be potentially shared — between the one who produces the voice and the one who listens to it. As a consequence, however, this sort of knowing is bound to be local and situational. Sensate knowledge requires a sensuous, affective point of contact with the researched phenomenon: sensing the shared sphere of resonance. 


Vocal Nest (June 2015) was actualised as an eight-channel, non-verbal, human sound installation, situated in the central stairwell of a ten-floor hospital building. It was designed to be participatory, including the patients, the hospital staff, and any visiting relatives, so that they might co-invent new conditions for sensibility in the midst of hospital life. My inspiration to work with sensibility comes from the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who emphasises the active and creative attributes of sensibility, rather than its receptive attributes. For him sensibility is a moving encounter with the world, which can only be sensed.5  In his reworking of Deleuze, the philosopher Franco Berardi critically examines the assumed changes that contemporary society provokes for our sensibilities. These changes appear, according to him, primarily as affective symptoms in our relational abilities.6 Following their work, I am interested in how gradual transitions from verbal communication to non-verbal experiences, as well as transitions from silence to vocal utterances, might potentially enrich, strengthen, and animate human sensibility. In my research, I define ‘sensibility’ as a threshold of vulnerability: a fundamental sensate ability to affectively relate to and attune with the environing world and with others, beyond the scope of rational verbalisation. To my understanding, detachment from the sphere of symbolic language necessarily effects our vulnerability and sensibility, because the former is rooted in, and supported by, affective attunement.


The composition was dedicated to the hospital community. The participants included 25 mentally disabled people, who received care in the closed wards of the hospital during the spring of 2014, and four nurses. They all sang with me in this processual composition. Their anonymous voices are entangled within vocal spheres, blurring the self-contained existence of the participants. That is, from the voices alone it was not possible to identify who was there as a patient and who was not. The entangling of our vocal voices, or the subtle bendings, extensions, and other acts of tonal curves among the vocalising and listening bodies created a carnal, breathing, vocal atmosphere in the hallway. The philosopher Tere Vadén and musicologist Juha Torvinen both use the concept of atmosphere to illustrate the indeterminate in-betweenness of the experience of listening (and vocalising), which precedes subjectivity and objectivity, and is instead experienced as a shared affective space.7 The sense of atmosphere was generated during mutual vocalising, by way of simultaneously sensing (hearing and feeling) my own voice and the texture of the other participants’ voices: together these various (heard and felt) voices gave rise to a vibrating resonance sphere.8 According to the philosopher Gernot Böhme, voice has particular capacity to create such atmospheres, because it is the ‘atmospheric presence of something or someone’.9 Vocal affective atmospheres are a matter of voices entering into vibration with other human bodies, other beings, and different materialities of a specific environment, exceeding the bodies they are created from.10 The notion of atmosphere is central to my exposition of both the sensate and the conceptual levels of experience, as it enables one to expose a resonant practice that could open, even slightly, a pathway for a wider field of relations.



In this exposition, I ask: how do these non-verbal atmospheres provide evidence of a rudimentary contact sphere? And how was an encounter with this vibrating energy-matter meaningful to the hospital community? More particularly, what kinds of changes did Vocal Nest create in the specific material-discursive environment at the embodied and affective levels? How did these transitions become known? How did the piece materialise itself as an agent? I addressed the artistic process and the participants’ experiences in more depth in my previous article. Building on that work, the goal of this study is to map out the effects of different embodied encounters with the composition.


This project is linked to a methodological framework11 of artistic research in which artistic practice is apprehended as the key method for knowledge production. The research focuses on the (partially) ineffable and blurred experiential area between body and mind, and between subjects that are usually considered experientially separate from each other. This experiential area is difficult to tap into by methods or conceptualisations that rely on exclusive categories.12 Thus, it could be suggested that particular methodologies in artistic research, such as the one that I have created, make it possible to address non-verbal and resonant phenomena at a level that cannot be exhaustively conceptualised. In that sense, my attempt to name the sensate mode of knowing harbours a paradox: as I am conceptualising and writing about the emerged phenomenon, I am already distancing from the immediate sensate register. As Mira Kallio-Tavin (Associate Professor of Arts-based Research at Aalto University) emphasises, it is not possible to speak straight from the sensorial perspective.13 Nonetheless, sensate modes of knowledge production offer something valuable to the research: they provide various crucial means for the study of the foundations of affective encountering. In this study, the artistically articulated sensate knowledge is composed through intra-active relations with descriptions of people’s embodied and verbal experiences, that I wrote as field notes, as well as their own written feedback comments, that I reflect also through my own experiences. The concept of intra-action comes from the American feminist theorist Karen Barad.14 It points to the way in which individuals, bodies, discourses, and non-discursive matters of a phenomena emerge, compose, and come to matter through and as part of, their specific intra-relation.


I will explore atmospheric phenomena from different dimensions (vocal, visual, discoursive) of experience and knowledge generation. The exposition is framed by the differing atmospheres of Vocal Nest as recorded in the stairwell of the hospital during June and July of 2015. I will begin by describing and exploring the composition process as a research method. Then, I will elaborate on how the composition operated as a mediating matter for invoking a particular dwelling mode of listening within the hospital stairwell. This includes questions of how such a transition between a verbal subject position and the non-verbal atmospheric experience became known, and why it might have mattered. After that, in light of the participants’ spontaneous feedback, I will outline how people experienced themselves as part of the resonance field. The bodily and emotional range of these affectations extended from experiencing beauty, sacredness, and deep interconnectedness through the resonance field of the composition, to experiencing something almost akin to horror towards it. Finally, I will address the emergent theme of uncanniness in the non-verbal voice, and what kinds of intra-actions it aroused between differing discourses. The outcome of this analysis introduces a different outline of knowledge production, silently challenging the existing verbally-oriented epistemic horizons by enriching and blurring the expressive scales between what is understood as healthy and sick 

Vocal Nest – non-verbal atmospheres that matter

Heidi Marika Fast