Mar '04 [Home]
Notes on vam'es vOYce(s)
by Jordan Hoffman
1. The Sequence of Symbols
First to consider is his/its name/title. The sequence of characters "vam'es vOYce(s)" refers both to the artist (his nom de plume) and the title of his single, ongoing work of art. As the artist himself indicates in the unfinished biographical film of the same name, there are multiple linguistic effects oscillating in the name/title.
Firstly, as a sign of his name, the sequence of symbols is pronounced to rhyme with that father of Modernism, James Joyce, the vertical hyphen and parentheticals having no audible effect; the capitalization of the letters OY allude to the artist's Jewish origins. Secondly, as a sign of the title of the project, the sequence of symbols is meant to pun on the phrase "famous voices" and hints towards the project's intended meaning.
2. The Project
The installation piece consists of two primary shapes: the classical, rectangular canvas used in painting, and the sphere.
All canvases are uniform in size and white, each having a single image, a letter (or character or hieroglyph) from an alphabet. Each image resembles a blown-up typewriter keystroke.
Spheres come in all diameters, from six feet across down to ones of the size of a tennis ball; regardless of size, all are white. Each has a "ribbon" of language winding over its surface.
In the installation — which, the documentary tells us, ideally is ultimately global (i.e., spheres and canvases can "crop" up anywhere on the planet, from the jungles of Central Africa to downtown Dubrovnik) — the largest sphere forms a kind of sun around which the other spheres orbit. The canvases are arranged along the wall. The walls and floor of the room are white. Should the installation cross into other rooms, the arrangement of the spheres can approximate an orbit around the large sphere, as if the whole of a universe were subdivided into intragalactic chambers. Some of these ancillary rooms may contain not spheres but misshapen objects, suggesting comets. Translucent plastic tripods support all spheres.
Most spheres' "ribbon" of language contain a first person narrative; some, third person narratives. The key sphere, the six foot one, contains the following words, the last of which returns to touch the first: "we now know that language is a world that is finite that gives us the illusion of the infinite that each of us is its god that knew".
As vam'es vOYce(s) claims in the documentary film, the project has several concerns, not least of which is his anxiety that the language arts have lost their relevance in post-industrial society, although he admits this is in part an evasion of confronting his own limitations as a poet/storyteller. He tells us he awoke one night to a "vision" (this is the subject of one of the narratives on the spheres [number 232, Orlando, Florida]): the moonlight, diffused through his blinds, obscured the edge of the white bookcase standing against his white wall, so that the several rows of books (of poetry, as it turned out) seemed to stop abruptly yet certainly and arbitrarily in space. His mind immediately raced through the antinomy of the finitude or infinitude of the universe, which precipitated reflections on myriad topics: the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard, the poetry of Edmund Jabes, the essays of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida, etc. As he contemplated the phenomenon in his room (which slowly became less symbolic as his eyes adjusted to the light and the bookcase — that is, the border between the "known" universe of books [again, poetry] and the unknown infinity expressed in the blank, white wall) — he vacillated between two interpretations of what he saw in the "vision" (his word in the documentary). First, the world had become increasingly visual and, second, the language arts were losing their impact on people, and, as a consequence, the role of the language artist was becoming increasingly insignificant. The audience for poetry was diminishing; even in popular music, such as rap, the words, while foregrounded, were vehicles for a primitive, rhythmic chant. Additionally, the audience for the narrative art was turning more and more to cinema, which, in turn, due to the stratospheric success of Hollywood blockbusters, became more and more centered on what Aristotle lamented of bad tragedy: spectacle. Alternatively, vam'es vOYce(s) confesses that his own insecurities about his abilities as a writer of either poetry or narrative may be the source of his disillusion with postmodernity. His insecurities stem from comparing himself to the titans of literature: Dante, Shakespeare, Flaubert, etc.
The metaphor of the universe that the vision prompted became the basis for the installation project. According to the documentary, by having each sphere resemble a planet orbiting a central statement, vam'es vOYce(s) intends to suggest the paradox of simultaneous alienation and interconnection of modern life. As planets and other bodies in space are connected to the solar system, just so too is humankind, yet, just as each planet is discrete, so are we fundamentally disconnected from one another. The idea that language is a way for us to communicate with one another is ultimately compromised once the totality of "voices" is examined; ninety-eight percent (to date) of the spheres express themes of isolation, disillusion, longing, anguish, etc. As a consequence, the rare expression of charity, compassion or any other feeling of community shocks. (The ratio of "negative" to "positive" sensibilities in the voices "comes from my Jewish genes," the artist remarks in the documentary.)
The canvases on the wall form a "commentary" on the model universe and are not necessarily to be construed as objects in the universe. As such, the canvases repeat the metaphor of text, this time as secondary literature, much like Judaism's mishna or literary criticism. The simplicity of the images — single symbols used from the extensive history of alphabets from around the world — again reminds the audience of both the universality and diversity of language as a symbol that crosses barriers yet one that exposes what is alien. The extent of the installation is also crucial to the meaning of the work. vam'es vOYce(s) remarks towards the end of the documentary that once he had his vision he made it his life's goal to work on this one project, one he concedes is destined to remain incomplete. That the work will only be halted at his death implies the infinitude of time; by erecting spheres outside its permanent installation in Sham, Nebraska as far away as Durban, South Africa, Singapore, and Delhi, India (the documentary interview was shot in Jamaica) the vast distances imply the infinitude of space.
However, claims vam'es vOYce(s), by turning to the visual arts with the life-long installation project, he overcomes the aforementioned obstacles of the language arts only to encounter the obstacle of the increasing irrelevance of the visual arts to contemporary life (traditional narrative film being the exception). He laughs about this in the film: "I suppose [nervous giggle] after all these years [giggle giggle] while I've lived my life's dream [laughter] of being [laughter] an artist, I can't help wondering [heavy, panting laughter] if I've made absolutely [panting, hearty laughter] no mark on the world after all [guffaws] — not a single [guffaws and cigarette-inflected coughing] fucking blip on the [loud manic laughter] fucking radar screen." The film ends as vam'es vOYce(s) laughs uncontrollably in his wicker chair, the lush vegetation of a Jamaican forest behind him, while the credits crawl for several minutes over him. It is a harrowing image.