Untie the Tongue

 

by CATHERINE CLOVER

View Catherine Clover's Biography

Catherine Clover is a British artist based in Melbourne, Australia.

Untie the Tongue

by CATHERINE CLOVER

 

eeeeeeeooooooo eeeeeeeoooooooo eeeeeeeeeoooooo

eeeeeeoooooo

Barrawarn (Australian Magpie)

 

mouth -- ngaan

Use the mouth now, say our words aloud

-- you're right sometimes when you just try

Entry in Albert Gondiwindi's Wiradjuri dictionary (Winch)

 

There are texts that should only be murmured or whispered,

others that we ought to be able to shout or beat time to

Georges Perec

 

These days I would rather read aloud than read silently. When I read silently my tongue moves as if I am reading aloud. It moves, involuntarily responding to the words, sensing the words, the sounds, touching the sounds in the words, adding voice. My tongue feels its way around the words without prompting, moves adeptly, carefully. Ee-ya ee-ya ee-ya pushes up for the yuh in Barrawarn's call, the two sides hit the teeth. Extends the sound for the ow, lips open the breath is pushed out yaaaarrh yaaaarrhh. Tongue holds back and down on a wuh as the lips round the sound of Little Raven Wah! Wah! Wah! Loud tongue clicks for Common Myna tzuh tzuh tzuh, quieter melodic clicks for Common Starling, restrict the exhalation for the hissing tttsss tttsss tttsss. Pushes out and hits the top of my mouth, just before the teeth for ttuh tt-tt-tt tt-tt-tt then exhale for House Sparrow's trrp trrrp trrrp trrrp.

Four Native Songbirds

Barrawarn (Australian Magpie)

(Little Raven)

Dit-Dit (Magpie-Lark)

Yan-Guk (Red Wattlebird)

Four Introduced Songbirds

Common Blackbird (arr 1860)

House Sparrow (arr 1862)

Common Starling (arr Melbourne 1857, Sydney 1877)

Common Myna (arr 1863-1872)

__

2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. I am in an RMIT University lecture hall on the ground floor. Multi-media artist and Senior Knowledge Holder of Language and Possum Cloak Story, Dr Vicki Couzens, is about to give a talk. It is May, heading into winter, and is cool outside. Emilie Collyer is here and we sit together. From the back of the hall, we start to hear voice and a soft drumming. Vicki enters the room, pauses.

Wangakee, wanga, kooweekoowee-ngeeye

Listen, hear our story

Pang-ngooteeweeng...

We remember...

She is speaking her mother tongue, the Gunditjmara language. I catch some words but only a few.

Those of us there gathered because we have an interest in or a passion for words, for language and for the complex, complicated intersections of what it means to live in this country called Australia. Many of us, in the room, myself included, call this place home and are descendants of settlers, or perhaps are more recently arrived immigrants. Many of us in the room, myself included, are the beneficiaries of colonisation. It has afforded us --me - privileges of education, employment, language, belonging, cultural power. (Collyer)

Vicki's sister-in-law Gina Bundle is thrumming a heartbeat on the possum skin draped over her arm. I find out later that this is a possum skin drum. We are told this is earth honouring, an acknowledgement of country. Here on the north side of Melbourne we are on Wurundjeri country, but these women's language and culture is that of the Gunditjmara people near Warrnambool in western Victoria, so they (like us the audience, yet, unlike us, the audience) are visitors to this country. They pass us slowly, giving us time to absorb the ceremonial nature of this immersive moment. Vicki's voice is transporting, articulating the words of a language vulnerable to extinction, as all Aboriginal Australian languages are. The finger drumming is unexpectedly loud and resonant for an unstretched loosely-hanging skin. The two women pass us by, slowly they pass us.

Ngathook mangnoorroo...

Partoopa-ngan-ngoo-laga (or langa)

I am hungry

Wathaurong-waar (crow) and Bunjil

Thaka watnanda -- eat together

Thaka-na-wan -- let's eat

Woont tee? - Do you want tea?

Language is a lot of things.

To listen to a story about restoring lost languages, languages lost because of the violence and the terror and the genocidal aims of colonisation is rare. It is rare that we, that I, listen. I am used to speaking, debating, arguing, imagining. I am not so used to being silent. This is why, when Vicki makes the offer for us to learn, or at least utter, a few words and phrases in her Gunditjmara language, it is a thrilling, nerve-wracking moment. My mouth makes efforts to make the required shapes and sounds. I think of the grapes (real or imagined) rolling in my mouth, the tear of skin and the plump juiciness of the centre. In this offer, from Vicki, I am given a similar opportunity, to tear thin skin and bite into plumpness. (Collyer)

I don't know, Vicki tells us, when asked what non-Indigenous Australians can do to help in the enormous task of language reclamation. There is so much work for Indigenous Australians to do that there is no time to guide well-meaning but ignorant others, she says. But, she underlines, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try.

__

Eight songbirds, four native, four introduced. Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Gail Smith provides me with the names of the native birds in Woi wurrung, her mother tongue and the original language of her country now known as Melbourne. Aunty Gail is able to give me four words, three are specific bird names, Barrawarn, Dit-Dit and Yan-Guk, and the fourth word, Guyup-Guyup, is a general word for all bird species. She does not know one of the bird names, the word for Little Raven, and cannot find a translation, illustrating the loss from which so many Aboriginal Australian languages have suffered through colonial eradication practices.

Wah! Wah Wah!
Little Raven

__

Fitzroy was one of the first Melbourne suburbs I got to know when I arrived in Australia, unaware at the time that, as a young white Anglo-Scottish woman, I had followed a well-worn colonial pathway from Britain to the south, easily accessible for some and not others. Fitzroy was the location of Gertrude Contemporary, or 200 Gertrude Street as it was known then, where I was participating in an arts residency. Today, the birds are calling in Fitzroy, loud, as the tram heaves away. Turning the corner I walk along the streets. At this time of day it's quiet and unassuming and birds sing all around. Two Common Mynas converse, there is a host of House Sparrows in a low street tree, Little Raven flies overhead, and to my left a Dit-Dit duet. I walk east to Collingwood, over Smith Street, over Wellington Street, over Hoddle Street on the pedestrian bridge. I know this part of Collingwood well. Vere Street and Down Street are familiar but I haven't been here for years. It's mild. So much is the same, the streets, the graffiti, the buildings, the cracks, the gaps, the rifts. So much has changed. I pass the Collingwood commission flats and Collingwood College where my son spent his last years of high school. It is close to the eight lane Hoddle Street that dissects and fractures this part of Melbourne, one side from the other, Collingwood to the west from Abbotsford in the east. It is a state highway, a major arterial through Melbourne, from north to south and south to north. The pedestrian bridge curves over the teeming traffic and down to the gallery.

rrorrk ah ee ah rrorrk ah ee ah rrorrk ah ee ah
Yan-Guk (Red Wattlebird)

__

The eight scores that make up the artwork consider the vocal meeting point and communicative interruptions that both groups of birds may have experienced during 1860s Australia. They consider the devastating impact of colonisation from a posthuman point of view and how colonisation not only decimated Indigenous life in Australia through forced assimilation processes, but how it affected all species.

Barrawarn (Australian Magpie)

(Little Raven)

Dit-Dit (Magpie-Lark)

Yan-Guk (Red Wattlebird)

Common Blackbird (arr 1860)

House Sparrow (arr 1862)

Common Starling (arr Melbourne 1857, Sydney 1877)

Common Myna (arr 1863-1872)

I speculate on the sonic meeting point of these eight songbirds. Common Myna, Common Starling, House Sparrow and Common Blackbird, as the four introduced songbirds, adapted to life in this landscape and thrived. Some would say these birds have survived to the detriment of the local environment, and Common Myna and Common Blackbird now have mixed reputations. Barrawarn, Dit-Dit, Yan-Guk and Little Raven as the four native songbirds, have adapted to the presence of the introduced birds. All eight species are numerous, robust and resilient in Melbourne today. They are common birds, easily heard and readily seen. As the introduced birds would have worked to find their sonic niche -- the frequency or bandwidth at which their sounds can be received and transmitted -- their voices would have threaded their way through the local biophony causing ripples of sonic change, adding birdsong frequencies previously unheard in this place, on this continent.

Songbirds make up about half of the world's bird populations. One of the main reasons they are distinct from other birds is that they learn their sounds/language from their parents, like whales, dolphins, bats, parrots and humans, amongst others. This means they can learn new sounds and adapt their voices throughout their lives. Like humans, songbirds develop accent and dialect. Language and landscape are deeply intertwined for people and no less so for songbirds. The voice of Common Blackbird in Melbourne differs from brethren in cities in Europe. In Melbourne, Common Blackbird has located a sonic niche that means they sing a shorter song, a louder song, and one with greater differentiation between sounds.

woh oh ee woh tra wooo-ahhh
Common Blackbird (arr 1860)

__

Fitzroy North. Roseanne Bartley, Merryn Byrne, Kiri Wickes, Melanie Richard. We meet to rehearse in the Edinburgh Gardens bandstand. It's a bright cold day. Mouths struggle to voice the absurdist words that make up the scores. The bandstand is an acoustic delight, like a whispering gallery, and the tentative voices are carried effortlessly around the space. The performers gain in confidence forming the words in their mouths, mouthing the words, hearing themselves and each other.

trrrrr truh trrrr tss-tss wuh! wuh!

Some of the birds we hear in the gardens are included in the scores. Little Ravens live in the gardens and roost in a circle of tall elms near the bandstand. They are likely to hear our attempts at mouthing the words, some of which are based on their sounds. We can hear their voices and exchanges as we read through the scores. Listening while voicing, voicing while listening, the performers begin to hear the nonhuman virtuosos who help find a way to the sounds via the words, to articulate the words through human sound. The performers learn together, lean into each other and into the sounds, sound with each other and with the birds.

trrr pitchow trrr trrrr ch ch pitchow pitchow
Common Myna (arr 1862-1873)

__

The eight scores are constructed using homophonic transcription. This is the notating of the birds' voices using sound, inspired by the phonetic words that naturalists use in bird field guides. While the words may seem nonsensical they retain their origins in the English language. The scores are not an example of translation, nor do they have pretensions to conventional meaning-making. The words in the scores fail to render the birds' songs and calls when read silently, but when read aloud the words make sonic sense. The bodily enactment of the scores contributes to an understanding that operates outside of conventional meaning-making and embraces a physicality and an orality through voice and the breath.

__

Dja Dja Wurrung linguist Harley Dunolly-Lee explains the complexity of Aboriginal languages and notes that

Meanings in Aboriginal languages are inside (and) central, or inside but peripheral; there are meanings that hover like hungry flies. There is never a tight package of form and meaning.

According to academic and linguist John Bradley, one of Dunolly-Lee's teachers in linguistics, Aboriginal languages function relationally, where meaning depends on who is speaking and to whom: kinship is key and kinship includes all species. Donna Haraway has considered this concept for a non-Indigenous speaker and observes that

Kin is an assembling sort of word. All critters share a common "flesh," laterally, semiotically, and genealogically. Ancestors turn out to be very interesting strangers; kin are unfamiliar (outside what we thought was family ..), uncanny, haunting, active

trrrrt-trrrrt trrrrt-trrrrt
Dit-Dit (Magpie-Lark)

__

On the gallery wall the eight scores are printed on A1 sized creamy white cartridge paper, 300 gm weight, landscape orientation. Italicised black Garamond font renders each of the birds' voices. Each score is titled. The scores are placed as two groups of four, the native songbirds to the left, the introduced songbirds to the right. Four plus four. During the process of installation the scores form an assemblage not unlike Anna Tsing's understanding of the term as an open-ended interspecies gathering or potential history in the making, where elements do not fuse/merge but remain autonomous within the group.

The assemblage is in flux and changes shape during the exhibition period. The roller doors are open during gallery hours, so the birds on the street are audible within the gallery space. Barrawarn, Dit-Dit, Yan-Guk, Little Raven, Common Myna, Common Blackbird, House Sparrow, Common Starling can be heard and read at almost the same time (seeing reading hearing listening). Within the gallery space, the eight paper scores of bird calls merge, both visually and aurally, with the quadrophonic field recording of Camilla Hannan's Contagion (so presciently titled: I am in Covid 19 lockdown as I write this). This field recording includes calls from Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo. The paper scores add a material and unwieldy set of textual bird calls to the sounds of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo, while Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo adds a fifth native bird to the list of four, unbalancing the neat division of four (native) plus four (introduced) birds. Five to four, the native birds gain in numbers during exhibition. Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo adds a recorded voice to the readability of the scores and the audibility of the live wild birds' voices that seep into the gallery space from the street.

I meet the four performers -- Rosey, Kiri, Melanie and Merryn - in the gallery an hour before the opening. A converted industrial warehouse intended as a space for exhibiting large sculptural works, the acoustics of the gallery do not lend themselves to performance and our voices are not enabled by the high saw-tooth roof and hard surfaces. We have to make more effort to hear each other. The light is now failing and the wild birds on the street are quiet, unheard. We begin the performance voicing as a close group gathered around a music stand, projecting our voices into the gallery and towards the audience. However, the acoustic tensions prompt me to initiate a move towards the wall where the scores hang. Facing the scores and looking away from the audience, we walk the length of the wall in order to read each text in full: we shift our positions, pass each other, turn, retrace our steps, pause, take breath, start again. The grind of metal and the shriek of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo in Camilla's Contagion urge us to extend and diversify our output: loud, long, shrill, quiet, low, short, melodic, piercing, sharp. We voice and we walk and we draw out the connections within the space, with the audience, between ourselves and the birds' voices, between our live voices and the recording: voicing walking mouthing moving pausing listening reading calling.

chrrp chrrp chrrp chrrp chrrp chrrp
House Sparrow (arr 1862)

weh akakak weh akakak weh chchchchchchch
Common Starling (arr Melbourne 1857, Sydney 1877)

rrrraarrrk! rrraarrrrk! rrrraaarrk!
Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

Works cited

Bradley, John, "Learning Language, Learning Country", in Whose Language Are You On Melbourne Free University, 2 May 2019.

Collyer, Emilie. "Vicki Couzens Talk". Received by Catherine Clover. 20 April 2020.

Couzens, Vicki. "Wangakee, wanga, kooweekoowee-ngeeye Listen, hear our story" in Present Tense RMIT Non/fiction Lab, 17 April 2019.

Dunolly-Lee, Harley, Kennedy, Jay and Saylor-Briggs, Julie. Kinship Ties Symposium as part of Yirramboi Festival with the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) and State Library of Victoria, 6 May 2019.

Dunolly-Lee, Harley and Stebbins, Tonya. "Restoring Language to Community and Country: what's happening in Victoria" in Whose Language Are You On Melbourne Free University, 9 May 2019.

Geerts, Evelien, and van der Tuin, Iris. Diffraction and Reading Diffractively 2016 viewed 30 January 2020: https://newmaterialism.eu/almanac/d/diffraction.html.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble Duke University Press, US, 2016.

Perec, Georges. Species of Spaces and other Pieces, Penguin Books, UK, 1974.

Winch, Tara June. The Yield Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2019.