Visiting Assistant Professor, Trans-Disciplinary Art, School of Art, Ohio University, Athens, OH
Ether and the Voice: An Electronic Media Operais an exploration of female voice, technology and identity. The body of work for Ether and the Voice was created in response to the experience of living in a time and place where language, technology, and electronic modes of expression and communication are an integral part of life. We live in a culture of hybrid concepts. Where technology, voice, and identity are viewed as interchangeable, where the voice travels beyond the body and identity assumes a range of guises. Ether and the Voice investigates older technologies as media devices which initially dislocated the voice from the body such as the telephone and the phonograph, and parallels that phenomena with the splintering and hybridization of virtual identity, digital communication, and language. Ether and the Voice exposes the architecture of the electronically saturated psyche, revealing the complex multifaceted relationship between human experience and technology.
The performance for Ether and the Voice lives in multiple spaces: on video, installation, audio and music, and on stage. The story follows Ether (the main character) through three distinct environments as she journeys to retrieve the voice. These environments are created through large-scale video projections, installation, interactive new media and an original sound and music score. Throughout the opera, Ether encounters archetypal embodiments of the female voice. Sirens are depicted as shimmering disembodied mouths while the story’s narrators – the Dreamer, the Vegan, and the Blonde – express their ability to move freely within electronic/digital spaces by shapeshifting their identities and placing themselves in alternate environments.
Act1: Extreme Roamer investigates the fragmentation of identity and language through electronic modes of communication and identification. Ether roams through an ephemeral space. She searches for connection within a “place that is void in name.” She wanders through an environment unnamed or touched by language and exposes the complications inherent in electronic communication: the separation of voice from language, voice from body, and voice from identity. Ether searches for connection among the fragmentation of visual and textual information. In the prose monologue “the L’s, the I’s, P’s,” Ether expresses this notion saying, “It’s all a mosh of information and sensation. It goes pop, pop, pop, inside the culture, a crackle of circuits and instant gratification,” and “the images change as they mix with my blood, i am no longer who i was a moment ago. the images, i am wearing them. you can see layer upon layer, living, moving, shifting.” As Ether delivers her monologue, her voice cuts through the the video signal, causing a visual disturbance in the large projections that flood the stage. Her voice mixes with the signal, traveling beyond her body.
The disembodied voice is a force unseen. As Kaja Silverman writes, “the female voice is often shown to coexist with the female body only at the price of its own impoverishment and entrapment.”  Supernatural power is achieved through the dislocation of the female voice from the corporeal. The siren’s powerful voice and invisible body is what makes her so terrifying. Her voice is heard before she is seen. Sometimes she is not seen at all. Without form, without body, she is everywhere and nowhere. She cannot be contained or controlled. Roland Barthes comments on the psychological relationship of the body to music, stating, “The body passes into music without any relay but the signifier. This passage – this transgression makes music a madness.”  The siren’s voice is severed from her body; it is heard before she is seen. Her voice is a madness that passes through the body of the listener.
The physical presence of Ether on stage creates a dynamic between what represents physical presence and the body and electronic fantasy. In Act 2: A Boat, A Home, A Future, Ether crosses a threshold. She leaves one world for the next. She swims through a field of cosmic turbulence and debris. She falls from the sky into the sea, the water element, the feminine. She has lost connection to the ordinary self and is submerged within the deep realm of the psyche. Ether struggles to make sense of her new environment as she tries to establish a signal – and communication. She sings, “I would die for a telephone, what was a boat is now a home. Oh, send me something trivial like smiley faces, x’s and oh’s.” In response to her call, the sirens engulf her and become her chorus of backup singers. Chanting in unison, they appear as disembodied shimmering mouths. Ether expresses a desire for life in the future and the comforts of a technologically advanced culture. She sings with the sirens: “Grab your crystal pistols, hang ‘em on your hips and pack your silver suitcases. We’re going to the future, leaving all our worries, hopefully they’ll let us in.” She is stranded in this alien environment without a telephone, without communication, without a home.
Ether emerges in Act 3: The Bright Side, in a place where technology has hacked the codes of voice and language. The voice is now in control and manipulates visual information. This is a place of electronic malfunction, communication has broken down, forms have decayed and the voice has merged with electronic signal. A new set of codes, expressions and systems begin to emerge. The hybrid voice has taken over and controls and creates this new environment. In this act, the Dreamer, Vegan, and Blonde have lost (in appearance) their differences. They sputter and chirp, attempting to speak, but intelligible words come infrequently. Their voices are laced with interference and confusion. Ether performs the final piece, “You’ll Find Me Above the Sky,” the deconstructed lyrics from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She controls the artifice of language and technology with her futuristic interactive Crystal Ball Magic Box. She has in the end merged with electronic signal, body and voice.
The fragmentation and compartmentalization of woman’s desire and sexuality, her feminine power, and the symbology representing her hysteria and uncontrollable excess permeates our collective unconscious. Like an installation of static loops, her multidimensionality flickers across the canvas of our visual culture. She lives as a simulation, a voyeur seeking hosts to voice her afflictions. It is through the voice that woman loosens the pressure valve of repression. Throughout this body of work Ether’s body and voice are in a constant state of flux. Connected and disconnected, on land and on sea, and traveling the distortion and signal waves in between.
Ether and the Voice: An Electronic Media Opera takes us on a multi-dimensional transmedia journey. The experimental interdisciplinary nature of the work speaks to the complex digital and electronic systems of communication, multiple media, and the flood of content available to the masses. Ether is a profile of the posthuman. A biological organism sifting through the shards of identity that live in the virtual and electronic landscape. Her voice connects and disconnects, roams and stutters, duplicates and replicates. A mad procession of images and sounds soaring beyond the body and living out their own destinies, and in fact outliving Ether’s physical body. Ether in the end merges with electronic signal. She plays with its seduction by taking over the controls and creating her own environments and experiences. She is the artist and experimenter, a voice compelled to create the future.
1. Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 41.
2. Roland Barthes, “Rasch,” in The Responsibility of Forms, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985), 308.
Colleen Keough is a transmedia artist working in video, performance, sound, music, installation, and hybrid art forms. She fuses literary and performative genres, creating hybrid works which investigate archetypal embodiments of the female voice. While a student at SMFA Boston, MA, she began screening video works at festivals, galleries, and museums, including the Institute for Contemporary Art and Museum of Fine Arts. A move to Chicago, IL, immersed her in its vibrant music scene. It was there she developed her voice as a vehicle for performance and began writing and recording music. Her current work explores the intersection of pop culture, identity, myth and technology through narratives and anti-narratives which deconstruct traditional modes of storytelling and performance. She received an MFA in Electronic Integrated Arts from NYSCC Alfred University. Her videos, performances and installations have been exhibited throughout North America, Europe and Asia. www.colleenkeough.com