You avert your eyes when I ask you if you're really no longer in love with those that broke your heart. You twitch a little after you've stolen, heave and churn inside before accepting that job you don't want. It is the gap between the truth and your realisation of it that makes for dramatic irony, that makes for the narratives within which you swallow and strut through life. And if you lived sensitively, the truth – the direction of the grain upon which it's all written – reveals itself. “There’s this interesting notion that the body wants to say things, regardless of perhaps the patient's attempts to disguise those signs, that the body gives them away and communicates them to the doctor in some way.” But what happens then, when you create a language that obscures what the body insists upon? What happens when you speak and the sound you make resists the silence that had settled in your sinews?
You look at a line graph – a lifeline – between truth and lie in the mirror, confronting both yourself and the system, forced to follow the arbitrary aural algorithms of what makes up The Whole Truth: Testimony, Truth and Technology, a documentary about the role of the voice in the age of artificial intelligence. A startling audio-visual document on the methods of immigration assessment by prison agencies, law enforcement (military interrogations), and tax bureaus around the world, Lawrence Abu Hamdan tells a tale of Layered Voice Analysis, 6.50, a software created by a private Israeli company. A program that attributes emotion and therefore tells a "truth" by using the voice as a stethoscope, measuring, rather than the meaning of speech itself, the quality of bodily stimuli, the utilisation of vowels, the lapses between hums. The airflow in our vocal cords, broncophony, believing that somehow your larynx is a sieve.
Citing the example of what could happen if used at airport border controls, most condemn the program for deciding the future of those that depend on it as a matter of life and death, especially because no one requires permission to utilize the program—“a bigoted horoscope… a weapon”. The piece is a set of interviews with technical professionals, airport authorities, anthropologists, professors, those that condone and those that critique the politics of this process. The result is not only a wide range of information on a single, well kept secret. There is a kind of agenda that Abu Hamdan embeds into the form and structure of the piece itself; the diverse range of voices constructs a kind of harmony between these voices so that the you, the looker and the listener begin analysing the vocal quality of the analyser. So that you become the judge. And in this way, the artist reflects the system back at you.
Image of the author listening to Lawrence's piece; Photo by Heidi Fichtner
“When subject to these systems of voice analysis the voice becomes divided into the words we say and the way we say them. When we are called to testify or placed under interrogation this division of the voice produces two witnesses. One witness on behalf of language, and the other witness speaking on behalf of the body. Often these two testimonies are corroborated by each other, but they can also betray one and other: an internal betrayal between language and body, between subject and object, between fact and fiction exists in a single human utterance. Yet in such an internal conflict the body has an unfair advantage, it is incapable of lying. The body is innocent to the intentions that corrupt our speech. However, while our bodies always speak the truth, the same cannot be said for LVA 6.50, as this software itself is riddled with the intentions of its makers. Using it we need to look for the truth buried in our bodies will only reveal what lies beneath its surface.”
The piece begins with a sound-test, and legible language is artfully garbled. It does not edit out the ring tones of Skype either—nothing is filtered. He intersperses interludes of Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation: you experience the deceiving ambient sound of a waiting room. The music allows you, also, to draw starker distinctions between the organisation of music and the organism of sound. Muffled and distorted textures layer the documentary, speaking to the subjectivity of the human voice and its corresponding emotional experiences.
You sit on a stool cushioned with sound proof foam: the comfort of living absorbs the ambient noise. Your body can perceive a range of sound but sense the truth. Your “body does not lie”. Your language is restricted within what you can hear. That is your reality, but The Whole Truth is made up of many more-or-less decibels of dangerous decisions.
“Without even touching someone this system mutes speech in sites where speech acts, attacking voices before they are ever heard. Will it still be a fair hearing when no one is listening?”
—Himali Singh Soin
(Image on top: Courtesy Lawrence Abu Hamdan/ Tenzin Lekmon / Khoj.)