A typical scene in a dubbing studio: a voice actress, wearing headphones, sits in front of a monitor where she follows an actress‘ speech and lip movements with her own ears and eyes, trying to match her emotion and timing.
In her video „Time is the Killer“ (2008), Petra Lottje starts with this situation, then turns it upside down.
The artist is shown in two capacities that seem to be performative mirror images of each other. First we see her as a headphoned dubber, mute, motionless, facing away from us, only partially visible. Second image: the artist as actress, a small figure on an LCD screen, her sensitive face lost in the darkness, searching for her interlocutor with her eyes before she begins ’speaking‘.
Four fragmented sentences from films, three spoken with a man’s voice, one with a woman’s, all of them in time with the artist’s moving lips.
Long, silent moments pass as she searches, surprised and disturbed, for the source of these alien voices, looking into herself, as it were. The loop, fading into itself over and over, makes the search never-ending.
Lip-sync is a method by which speech is simulated using a recording and synchronized lip movements. A politician lip-syncing a pre-written speech must stay in control lest the deception be revealed. Pop singers use lip-sync to ensure the quality of their singing; the fans are usually far enough away to not notice. It can be said that lip-sync is the opposite of dubbing. Petra Lottje’s lip-sync videos, however, contain another dimension: that of the threat to our identity posed by this voice-theft in the media.
Our voice is our most personal possession. Its color betrays our emotions. The human voice never lies, not even, or especially not, when it is disguised.
Ages ago, it was already possible to remove pictures from their surfaces, their original carriers. Only since last century, however, has it been possible to record and transport sound waves. It appears that even dogs (remember „His master’s voice“?) are susceptible to the seeming reality of a recording. Sound recordings meant that voices – and those who hear them – could be manipulated in completely new ways.
Today, blockbuster movies, TV shows and commercials play to our mirror neurons, that primitive part of our brains most willing to react to optical stimuli, while using acoustic signals to delve into our subconscious, thereby manipulating and shaping our wishes.
The speech we hear in commercials has often been dubbed using speakers with „everyman“ voices, in order to give the tempting images and clever incitements even more plausibility.As these sound bites infiltrate our experiences and actions, they cause us to lose our own voices, which our wishes, dislikes and opinions depend on.
In her videos „Longing“ (orig. „Die Sehnsucht“) and „Greenscreen“ (2010), Petra Lottje mocks the seeming oneness of the speaker seen and the speaker heard. Using excerpts from TV commercials and films, she replaces all images of the speakers heard with a single image — herself.
Now the image of the speaker never changes, but the audio track does, creating alternating incongruency effects that are sometimes funny, sometimes grotesque or disturbing. Lottje „speaks“ with both masculine and feminine voices, and even the women’s voices are often at odds with the performer’s outer appearance.
What we have here is a double-cross, a productive rupture between speech act and speaker. But there is more to the double-crossing, as can be seen in „Greenscreen“.
„Green screen“, or color keying, is a commonly used technique in film and television in which actors perform in front of a green backdrop, which can then be replaced by any other background (e.g. the map seen in most weather forecasts). However, the green screen can also be seen as a metaphor for lip-syncing.
The commercials, spoken in voice-over and lip-synced by Petra Lottje, juxtapose image and sound so as to emphasize the falseness of the advertisements. Maybe the next time we see a commercial at the movies or on TV, we will remember the glaring green screen and feel how the sounds and images disassociate themselves in our minds. Our subliminal identification with the commercials we watch could, for once, be undermined by a new perception of our own selves. The commercial clips used here combine to create a rapid-fire series of words and sounds, causing much the same effect as channel surfing. By cutting them out of their respective contexts, the redundance and conformity of the competing advertising messages become particularly obvious.
However, Lottje’s works of video installation art which relate to films, such as „Episodes“ (orig. „Episoden“, 2009) and „Every Room Behind a Door“ (orig. „Jedes Zimmer hinter einer Tür“, 2006), have altogether different motives.
„Episodes“, a three-channel installation, shows two performers, a man and a woman (Lottje), playing short movie sequences, all about the „same old thing“: the hopes, illusions, and disappointments of romantic love.
The fact it is always the same couple we see makes us expect continuity, as would be appropriate for most films. But this expectation is dashed by the different voices heard (taken from the original film soundtracks). The spectator is constantly thrown from one emotion into the next. The notorious movie stereotypes become more obvious than ever, which is fascinating and amusing, but also gives rise to the question of whether we can ever escape from these clichéd role models.
Lip-syncing is not the only tool used by Petra Lottje. In other videos, taking into account that the link between language and images is often culturally impaired, she either foregoes language and music completely, as in „Free Time“ (orig. „Freizeit“, 2009) or separates images from words so as to make way for wishes and desires, without any pretended realism, as in „el momento“ (2010).
„Free Time“ shows a day in the life of the artist. It remains uncertain whether she has chosen to take the day off or if the free time has been imposed on her. The rhythm of the frames, alternating close-ups of different objects, shots of the ceiling or the floor, the movements of the performer, are all subject to associative impulses. A swinging back-and-forth pan shot from an armchair is a humorous expression of activity free of any particular goal. A muted rustling, a bird chirping, a soft breeze from the yard, and the click of an off-screen lighter are the counterpoint to this composition of silence punctuated by the usual everyday bustle.
In „el momento“, objects and situations are named in voice-over, hasty preparations for a rendezvous are made when suddenly, two shadowy figures meet in the dark stairwell and the sound goes off, leaving the audience wondering whether it was all just a dream.
The video does have, however, a „punctum“ (point), which, we recall, was one of Roland Barthes‘ criteria to determine the believability of a photograph. In this case, the punctum is a small disaster: dishes breaking at the very moment the awaited beau rings the doorbell.
But in times when not only photography, but anything and anybody can be visually and acoustically manipulated, this little incident is a subtle reminder of the question: real or imagined? and leaves poetic freedom to our wishes.
© Ursula Panhans-Bühler 2010
English: Naomi Shamban