The final thematic section of The Body Electric, a Walker-organized exhibition now on view at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, brings together artists who explore the body as fluid and subject to change, revealing transformations through internal or external forces. Dubbed “The Malleable Body,” it features three works by Carolyn Lazard, Candice Lin and Patrick Staff, and Marianna Simnett that address complex issues on so many minds these days: health, care, and treatment. While some of the works focus on the complexities of gender identity, others examine physical changes by documenting personal journeys through illness and healing. To bring these issues into sharper focus, we invited each artist to consider their works in relation to these themes, as well as the role of technology in their respective practices. Here, Simnett discusses ideas that inform her video work, The Needle and the Larynx.
“No,” he said. “This procedure is only for men.” But my slender legs crossed even tighter on the creamy leather chair. I smiled up with gleaming teeth at the voice surgeon. His hairy fists held a needle. The Beast isn’t only male, I thought. He can live within Beauty, too.
I’m not the only one who’s perverted the role of “girl.” I follow a lineage of female voice distorters who aren’t afraid to expose their inner ogres:
Mercedes McCambridge, who voiced the demon possessing Regan in The Exorcist (1973), insisted on chain-smoking and gargling raw eggs to convey “the feeling of the Devil being trapped.”
Laurie Anderson laughing “ha ha ha” at America with a vocoder, an instrument developed as spy technology to disguise voices.
Lucie Dolène, who dubbed the French version of Snow White, won the rights back to her own voice when Disney used it without her permission. Picture little Snow stripped of her melodic trills and uncovering her true hag’s cackle.
And Julie Andrews lost her four-octave range after a botched throat surgery, and with one tragic snip, killed all her future Mary Poppinses and Eliza Doolittles.
“If you don’t make my voice low,” I said, “I’ll tell the temperature to rise, and when it rises, your blood will become so warm that a horde of mosquitoes will feast on you. They’ll eat you. They’ll stick their needles into you. They’ll suck the sweetness out of you until you’re nothing, but a big, dry sack of empty, wrinkly skin.”
And so it was. His gloved hand pulled back a few strands of my blonde hair and placed some sticky electrodes on my neck. He thumbed the Botox vial and drew the clear liquid into his needle. The chair squeaked beneath my bony thighs. “Sit still. Head back. There we go. Well done.” In it went, a little prick in the center of my neck, deep into my cricothyroid muscle, the muscle responsible for producing pitch.
Botox comes from the Latin word “botulus,” meaning “sausage.” The poet and physician Justinus Kerner theorized that the mass deaths in the early 1800s caused by food-borne botulism came from a toxic substance in sausages. In 1817 he published the clinical symptoms of poisoned patients. “The tear fluid disappears, the gullet becomes a dead and motionless tube; in all mucous cavities of the human machine the secretion of the normal mucus stands still, from the largest, the stomach, to the tear duct and the excretory ducts of the lingual glands. No saliva is secreted. No drop of wetness is felt in the mouth.”
And now, the same poison, a pharmakon (Kerner predicted its therapeutic possibilities as well as its fatal properties) was being ingested into my body, snapping the neurotransmission between my brain and my muscle. The signal failing like a broken telephone line, my vocal cords would be paralyzed, and like a loose string on a guitar, my voice would consequently become lower.
Beauties and Beasts, I don’t want to be a man. Nor do I want to attain the masculine huskiness of a power-hungry Thatcher. I was simply playing mischief with the systems putting bodies in boxes of cans and can’ts and handing out impossible ideals of how to sound and look. There are millions of invisible nos out there, and sometimes they can be disguised as tempting treats like Snow White’s poisonous apple. But put a maggot in the apple, and it will slowly, invisibly, eat the poison from the inside, and twist the story into an even sicker, more beautiful place.