I first knew of Kusum Normoyle because she was the woman who dressed completely in black—black shirt, black pants, black shoes—and screamed, really loudly, in public spaces. She was untouchably cool. But more specifically, these series of performances were called S.I.T.E. (Screaming in the Everyday), where Normoyle would scream into a microphone, her body curved to the power of her blaring, legs in a wide power stance, all broadcasted from a nearby amp. As a kind of ‘public intervention’, her screams eventually came to be amplified across cemeteries, rooftops, trams and city squares.
Yet voice and noise-centric performance is only one element: Normoyle also works across video, installation, music and sound design. She’s exhibited and performed at places like Bergen Kunsthall, Dark MOFO, Artspace and The MCA. Her more music-inclined projects include ongoing collaborations in the techno duo HVISKE with Ivan Lisyak, and Hard Hat with Peter Blamey.
Next month Normoyle will take S.I.T.E further, powering her voice via six full guitar stacks on the perimeter walls of TarraWarra Museum of Art, as part of the museum’s current Biennial. She’ll also performing at Soft Centre in Sydney alongside Brian Fuata, as part of an installation by Ella Barclay.
While these upcoming performances are sound based, the tension in Normoyle’s work is how music, utterances and noises are never just sound. Sound might be the medium, but sound is also bodily and material. It’s about space, a politics of being, desires, systems and commodification, as much as it’s about sound. Put it this way: Normoyle thinks about how sounds and voices become regulated interpreted, transmitted, perceived, and socialised.
I talk with Normoyle about these things: about what screaming means and does; what it means for the voice to be a medium; the link between pain and deinstitutionalisation; why her work isn’t site-specific; and how she understands her life through her body.
How did you first become interested in sound and music? What were your initial influences?
The first album that I was ever really touched by was Sex by The Necks, which I stole from my parents. It was the only cool sounding cd they had and I took it to my bedroom and listened to it over and over again. I ignored the title of the album, but I just enjoyed the experimental or droning nature of it.
Then I went to music school for a very short period of time and I realised I didn’t want to sing music written by dead white men and that I was more interested in ideas. Through other students I discovered The Bachelor of Electronic Arts at The University of Western Sydney. It was amazing and transformative: there I met and was mentored by Joyce Hinterding, David Haines, Caleb Kelly, Robyn Backen, Eugenia Raskopoulos and a whole lot of other people who were pretty engaged in experimental and cross media practices, electronic art, and earnestly investigating technology and art through messing with concepts and materials. So that was a very formative, very important context for me to be thinking or doing anything like what I’m doing now. I can’t imagine what would have happened without it.
I’m still in touch with and work with many of the people in the UWS art community such as Ivan Lysiak, Jon Hunter, Emily Morandini and Peter Blamey, and there have been so many of incredible other artists in the Sydney scene who’ve come out of UWS which is now deceased. It was the last degree of that came out of that era of real 70s and 80s experimentalism in Australia. Through this degree I found out about this little-super-important thing called Japanese noise and Diamanda Galás and early industrial music—I was reading about noise, and then singing normally per se all the while, but being encouraged to think about what else the voice might do.
I didn’t know you had a background singing, which makes sense because the voice is such a large part of your practice. I think you’re one a few artists I know who actually envisage the voice as a kind of medium. How you would you explain how you use voice?
I’ve talked about it in postgraduate research as the ‘voice as material’ and then the ‘material voice’. In the idea that the voice is a material, it is something that can be experienced, it can be captured, it can be edited and transformed in the way that any other kind of material can be. It can pass through, be modulated and literally effect a range of other materials—here I’m thinking about sound poetry. And then the material voice is two things: it’s the qualities of sound that’s produced by the voice that’s used outside of language and outside of “normative” harmonic singing, or music in its imperial sense. And it’s also the actual, literal physiology: the throat, the body, the tongue—I don’t even think I can say where the “the voice” begins or ends in some ways. The way that I think about voice is embedded in thinking through materiality. It’s multi-sensorality and sits within the subjective understanding that knowledge is created predominantly through an experience of multiple, simultaneous in-puts and outputs.
One of the projects you’re most well known for is S.I.T.E or Screaming in the Everyday. Can you talk through how those performances started?
That started from this wonderfully naïve place of thinking earnestly about the capacity of sound to do things, like actually do something, to change, to have a kind of force in the world! At the time I was really thinking about its force on me, which is where feedback is such an important part of what I do. In my performances, the sound projected from the amplifier comes back to my body and I in turn send it back into the amp, and I get this grounded feedback loop through my body—or at least that’s how I make sense of it as a way of being in sound.
In these early years, when doing honours at RMIT, I was genuinely thinking, “Let’s see what happens when I take my amp outside onto the street in Melbourne and scream noise at people.” It was a very simple experiment to see what happens when someone screams and you have an amplifier, 1000W pure sine wave converter, microphone etc., as opposed to screaming without any of the technological infrastructure. It was really interesting to learn very early on that nothing happens! Sound, as I was using it then, did little to nothing. No-one reacted—at least in a way that would be identifiable. And so that was really fun, to just realise that nothing changes. But then I still did it anyway!
My thesis supervisors at the time were like, “Why don’t you try and do something different each performance? Why don’t you not move?” To which I responded, “That’s ridiculous,” because the whole sound of the voice as I use it is dependent on physicality and my body’s movement. I need to be able to lunge at the amp, or jump around for the racket to come out.
Trailer for video work Magnesite Norway (2018). Exhibiting at TarraWarra Biennial 2018: From Will to Form.
But why is the act of screaming so important to you? And, more broadly speaking, there’s also the use of guttural and non-linguistic utterances across much of your work—where do they come from?
Well, two things. I was listening to a lot of Auetchre at the time and a lot of techno, and I really liked the idea of my voice trying to become a machine and to sound harsh, like it was tearing air. Screaming and over-modulating things, that is turning it all the way up on the input, and all the way up on the output, was really important for getting that that harsh sound shape. So it literally came from Auetchre initially, and Diamanda Galás.
Something that someone at UWS said was, “Why are you using the voice?” And I said, “Because I was always have.” And they said, “Well that’s not enough!” And I took it as a kind of challenge and responded, for many years with: “I’ll show you what enough is!”—for better or worse. So the sounds are based on thinking about how far I could take the voice, and only the voice. When I was listening to Japanese noise, Galás, techno or Auetchre, it was all of those things together, combined with thinking about feedback and fucking shit up and rupturing my voice. I was actually interested in pushing my voice. For example, on a tour in Japan in 2009 I bled from my throat for a couple of nights simply because I was really pushing it. During this period I was thinking about how to deinstitutionalise my voice and working through divorcing my practice from pedagogy. I’ve since learnt how to use the amplifier and the microphone to get those same sounds without hurting my voice.
Do you find it interesting that if you’re attempting to go beyond something, or get to a deinstitutionalised state, self-pain is often one of the first routes to that place?
I know, isn’t it amazing? And therefore the institution is within the body… Is it? Is that what it means, I wonder… But I don’t really feel the pain. Although when I was starting out and doing these performances I’d have to take like 20 minutes to ramp up—ramp up energy, ramp up concentration, ramp up mental solitude, and then it would take me a while to come out of it. In between those points I didn’t remember much. I’d just really focus on feeling feedback, amplification on my body, and trying to get my system to hit me back. I wasn’t using it for an end of self-harm—it was because it gave me so much fucking energy. It gives and it takes, you see. So I sometimes conceive of the circuit of voice, amp and body as an energy giving and taking system, and then I take that out into the world, out into “nature” (Timothy Morton LOLs—there is no nature).
In many ways when you hear about a screaming female it’s so immediately linked with this narrative of hysteria, and because of our current cultural context it has this implicit gendering. So I’m curious as to how much gender is on your mind when you’re creating and performing?
So the intention’s not there explicitly, but automatically there could be some kind of gendered reading because you’re a woman screaming…
So does that bother you then?
It doesn’t bother me at all. On a number of occasions, and particularly really early on, people thought I was a man in some of the videos. Or they’d be talking to me and saying “Who is the actor in your artwork?” And I’d have to say, “Well, that’s me.” But really overall I’m happy for people to take my work in whatever direction they want to.
What about the idea of site-specifity in your work? You perform across a number of sites and contexts—cemeteries, galleries, city squares. But, at the same time, you do almost the exact same performance no matter what the site is.
I’m not really interested in site-specifity as it’s understood in fluffy art world terms: where the works operates because of and in specific relation to the politics of site. There’s certainly aspects of these tropes that one could read into the work, but I’m not invested in “site specific”. S.I.T.E as a title for the project is a very fortunate joke literally about site specificity—I use it as an acronym to describe what my performances does, nothing more, nothing less. I’m trying to side-step all of that politics stuff, because there are people with real political work to do in, through and around art, and that’s not what this privileged white girl is up to right now.
Plus there’s nothing particularly specific about any of the sites, they’re kind of intentionally random and what I do in these locations never changes. So it’s kind of… I used to say it was kind of ‘totalitarian’ in that it was just total in the way it lands, and then removes itself, but it’s not really. It’s more like a ritual, or kind of occult. It’s a communing, and it’s definitely about listening with my senses and listening with my ‘inner energy things’ around the environment, and wanting to be a part of it in some sound-metaphysical way. Even though I’m not playing to them, and I’m not interacting with them directly, I think about the electromagnetic stuff and the energy that’s out there. I feel that, even if it’s in my head.
I was wondering about the specific uses of the term “site-specific” in a conversation with a friend recently where we discussed how it’s possible for an artist through their work to potentially take advantage of a location or a site by saying, “Hey there’s this thing over here. I’m going to use it for my art in this way.” And I don’t think that’s really what’s going in my work.
How do you see the relation between music, sound and noise? Like I know some artists makes no distinction between them, meanwhile others really draw firm lines, and are careful to elucidate the differences. Do you see a distinction?
Well, yes and no. From an artist’s labour perspective, for me there absolutely is a difference because of the contexts and languages that I am operating in. For instance the visual art world language (especially in Sydney and Australia) is bent on making everything separate, sectioned off, silo-ed. Sometimes here I feel like the avant-garde never happened! Live music contexts and administrative processes are all different again. I do think this idea of personal labour is really important in the way that we’re talking about what a thing is or isn’t.
But when it comes to a question of form, I don’t think there’s really much difference and I’m not concerned with having my work seen in one context or another—show things! Everywhere, wherever they want to go!.
Alongside your performance work, you also play in electronic and techno acts. Did one initially inform the other, or have they evolved together?
They were always together. I’m trying to find a way to make them speak together, which is what I’m working on now. I’m trying to bring techno and industrial music closer with the screaming practice and feedback.
There are always interesting and competing ideas on the “role of the artist” today. I’m curious as to how you see your work operating in a larger cultural and aesthetic field? Do you imagine a kind of role, or aim for yourself and your work?
I want to do things with energy, as it’s understood through amplified sound and voice, environment and objects, and landscapes—figurative, real, imagined. That would be the only real thing I want to do. I want to open up places for people to consider the idea of their own affective experiences of voice and landscape. It’s kind of ‘occult-y’.
Performance: Solid (Loud) Matter
TarraWarra Museum of Art
18 October 2018
22 September 2018