I also discussed the experience of the uncanny with a psychiatric nurse (family psychotherapist Heimo Spelman from HUH Psychiatry), who experienced the composition in the stairwell and was touched by it. From the viewpoint of the practice of psychiatric care, he critically speculated, ‘What do we consider as uncanny, strange, bearable, or unbearable within […] the human voice? What do we consider as flowing and fluent?’.10 Spelman brought up an understanding that within psychiatric hospitals ‘there has been perhaps for decades a particular unwritten basic idea, that if a person shouts, or talks loudly, or incessantly, or does something differently [with his or her voice] than what others of us perhaps do (at least not at work), then this person is [considered] sick, somehow. […] That there is something wrong with him or her.’ Spelman wondered: would it have been more tolerable, from the perspective of the psychiatric health care profession, if the patients had talked about the difficult things they experienced, and these verbalisations would have been installed into the stairwell? I will answer from the viewpoint of the singular experience of a person who was in the hospital as a patient: ‘Why doesn’t one do a practice like this?’ he asked while listening to the composition in the stairwell. His answer was that if one were to hear voices inside one’s head, he would prefer not to talk about it, and would ‘rather this kind of a music’.11
I want to stress that the aim of my project was to take part in the development process of a psychiatric value system through the methodological framework of artistic research, in dialogue with psychiatric discourse. In this particular context, the possibilities of art are rooted to the embodied, sensate, and social registers entangled with the mental register. The alternative epistemological registers were not meant to compete against each other. Instead, in line with Crossick et al., the idea was to generate intra-active complementarities, where each new entanglement generates an incremental increase in our knowledge.12 The sensate modes of knowing augment the valuable knowledge production of psychiatric practice and understanding. Even if the goal of my work was not therapeutic, the singular experience might have been therapeutic to some people. Also, as performance artist and theorist Tero Nauha argues, ‘what is significantly similar between artistic practice and therapy, is the production of subjectivity in both instances’.13
Verbal interaction has its own undisputable function in the recovery process, as in so many other interactions with the world. However, what was revealed in the non-verbal atmospheres of Vocal Nest, also seem to suggest a need for self-expression on a wider scale, without a therapeutical presumption. Such themes specifically came up in one of the wards, when I introduced the composition accompanied by a voluntary vocal session: participants brought up the need for other kinds of contact besides the psychiatric care, ‘such as this’. The justification of such artistic research work in the context of a psychiatric hospital has perhaps more to do with the question of cultural rights than, for example, mental health benefits. In line with Kai Lehikoinen (Professor of the Centre for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts [CERADA] at the University of the Arts Helsinki), the idea of cultural rights here ‘reference[…] the availability of cultural services, inclusion and [particularly, and rather tangibly] the notion of having one’s voice heard’.14
To understand more broadly the non-therapeutically oriented potentialities of vocal art in the material-discursive environment of a psychiatric hospital, it would be crucial in the future to closely re-examine, by artistic means, the relation between communication and expression. From here, one could map out the gradually scaled dimensions of how communication and expression differ and entangle. As I have argued, Vocal Nest did not actually communicate information from one person to another. It was not conversation in the sense of each participant contributing to the given theme. Nor was there such a theme. Nobody knew exactly where the vocal utterances came from. People vocalised and listened to something which co-emerged in a new way through a sensate and immanent path of encounter. Something tangible arose from the vocal atmospheres that did not require any kind of a dialogue or interaction — just the embodied presence of those several people, co-inhabiting a specific time and place. It is important to acknowledge that these singular affective qualities of the atmosphere would not have been possible to create anywhere else except for this particular psychiatric hospital and with these specific people.15
The resonance sphere created new affective tones for the norms of human expression in this sensitive environment. They allowed for ineffable and rudimentary vocal attributes to inhabit the hospital space and create the time and space for sensate thinking. Such atmospheres are never finished, static, but are perpetually forming and unforming, as Anderson argues.16 Therefore, there is no normative way of knowing and hearing the affective quality of this specific vocal sphere.17 There is simply the manifold nature of the entangled voices that are heard, perceived, and in a sense created, through the sensate knowledge of the listening bodies. Perhaps it could be argued that the intensity of the vocal spheres forced the listeners to take an embodied stance on the ethos of the piece. According to the sensate and reflective research material presented in this exposition, it seems that the singular affective qualities of Vocal Nest widened, elevated, or in some cases even liberated the presence of many of the people who were in the hospital as patients. However, as noted, the atmosphere that emerged also seemed to narrow and repress the bodily-perceived presence of some other people. It thus temporarily and slightly threw off the strictly regulated psychiatric hospital space. The mediating transmission appeared between the established ways of perceiving the subject and object, and a previously unknown sensate experience.18 That is, the composition showed the psychiatric hospital environment in an atmospheric mood, and thus proposed an artistic measure for considering the significance of the human voice as experience. Through such moments, artistic practice as research may be able to contribute something to psychiatric care that could provide people with another (side)path to the process of recovery.
The uncanniness of the non-verbal voice
When listening diffractively to the spectrum of the spontaneous feedback, themes of the uncanny and strange nature of the non-verbal human sounds began to emerge. Some people felt that the experience of a resonant, entangled sphere, where the borders between separate entities might temporarily dissolve, was discomforting. Some of the staff members were worried about the new perspective: would the intimate, bare, and untamed non-verbal voices sounding inside the psychiatric hospital cause anxiety? In an ethical sense, my research was engaged with the decrees and commitments of medical research ethics, and I was obligated to dismantle the piece if it would have caused anxiety in the patients. I inquired from the wards whether it had in fact done so. According to the responses I received, the patients had not reported such reactions. However, some of the staff members had experienced the piece as ‘awful’. It was suggested that the situation could be improved either by turning down the volume or, otherwise, taking the artwork down. Nevertheless, as the patients had not reported such negative reactions, this suggestion was not actualised by the decision of the hospital.
The question now was, how to unravel the experience of the uncanny within this specific environment? Let us start with the artistic choices. First of all, it is important to point out that the installation was not primarily actualised in a gallery space, but sensitively to the situation of the common stairwell of this specific and diverse community — a transitory space, unavoidable to those who work or receive treatment in the hospital. It was installed, in other words, in a highly regulated and an understandably rigid hospital space, which could be seen as a quite challenging place for participatory vocal sound art. Also, choosing the sound installation format to expose the process of Vocal Nest framed the possible ways of experiencing the composition. For example, it was not exactly possible to respond (verbally) to the piece.1
Indeed, how might the experienced sense of uncanniness actually relate to the notions of verbality, non-verbality, and silence, and thus to the processes of meaning-creation? One way to understand this notion of the uncanny would be through an interpretative register of psychoanalytical discussion. In her theory of the semiotic (pre-verbal) and symbolic (verbal) dimensions of meaning, Kristeva identifies the surge of affects and other semiotic drives in an archaic, primary context which precedes communication. She instead emphasises symbolic forms of signification as the enabling conditions for communication and the process of subjectivity. Furthermore, in Kristeva’s understanding, the archaic register remains subordinated to the symbolic, and the relational and affirmative potentialities of non-verbal expression and registers of silence are not acknowledged. On the contrary, without a clear separation between subject and object, and thus the symbolic dimension of meaning-making, the non-verbal expression would, in her view, be mainly rooted to the symptoms of melancholia or psychosis.2
Kristeva is right that the non-verbal form of vocal expression and listening, which ‘dwells in atmospheric experience’, is surely ‘more archaic and less structured than forms of symbolic signification’, to cite Vadén and Torvinen.3 However, when approaching the ineffable event from a different angle, through the logic of this singular and sensate process, the meaning of the non-verbal voice is not fixed to its psychoanalytical or predetermined meanings. Rather, it attaches to the immanence of the vocal-affective and sensate attunement with the surrounding situation. Indeed, what kind of role might the different modes of sense perception play within the experiences of uncanny? A crucial question arises as to the significance, in terms of knowledge production, of the distance between the sensing subject and the sensed object. As Voegelin points out, ‘the way we think about the world is in no small way influenced by the senses we engage to appreciate this world, and in turn these senses have always already an ideological as well as cultural function to us employing them’.4 For example, Michel Foucault has considered in historical terms the significance of the gaze for medical perception and knowledge production.5 While I do not intend to propose historical links between the idea of gazing within clinical practice and sensing of the singular vocal sphere, it might be of use to acknowledge the different embodied subject positions between the acts of seeing and listening. As Voegelin argues, seeing as a visual perception assumes a distance from the object, whereas listening is an invisible event that always ‘necessitates an involved participation’.6 That is, the knowledge we acquire by seeing is essentially different to the knowledge we gain by listening. According to Vadén and Torvinen, the distinction between subject and object is crucial for symbolic, conceptual language.7 However, within the vocal sphere, in sound, (to cite Voegelin): ‘the object does not exist before its perception’. The passage to the symbolic sphere from the registers of silence is therefore more vague, actualising within a sensory and engaged entanglement with the symbolic sphere.8 The same goes for the differences between visual and auditive registers: they are not oppositional registers but rather they augment each other’s invisible or unheard elements. Therefore, the very indeterminacy regarding the subject-object distinction within the vocal atmospheres might have been one crucial point of entry to the experience of the uncanny with respect to the non-verbal voices.9
"It was a surprise for me: I did not anticipate how strongly the transformed mood of the hospital space would affect some of the staff members. My attention was focused on the patients: on the question of how would someone who hears voices in her head experiences the atmosphere? I focused on the ethico-aesthetical process of trying to make such artistic choices which would not worsen such possible symptoms but, in the best case scenario, would create instead a new kind of connection between people.” (Research diary, August 25th 2015)