Seven young voice hearers, aged 14-19, collaborated with artist Hannah Hull to create a significant body of artwork that comments on a key theme in our current exhibition ‘THIS IS A VOICE’. This artwork aims to evoke and challenge the viewer’s expectations of a voice hearer. Hannah tells us more about it and considers the ethics of such an artwork.
The experience of working with seven young women who hear voices has been incredible. I couldn’t have asked for a more creative, smart and sensitive group to co-produce artwork with for the current Wellcome Collection exhibition. They challenged me and my practice to the fullest, and it has been one of the most rewarding art projects I have undertaken to date.
There is so much I want to communicate about this body of work, but I’m going to talk about the one thing that is conspicuously absent from our main artwork: details about the experience of hearing voices.
Exhibited artwork by those regarded as socially-excluded is often a form of self-portrait. We come to expect some insight into the unique position of the person who made the art, a peek into a world that is not ours. This would certainly be a suitable model for an artwork being exhibited in a destination for “the incurably curious”.
But our final artwork – “Everyday Objects Belonging to a Voice Hearer / Everyday Objects Belonging to a Non Voice Hearer, 2016” – gives the viewer no insight into the difference between themselves and the young people who made it. Quite the opposite.
Two sets of the same type of objects are presented as a museum exhibit. The installation provokes the viewer into a game of spot the difference, calling into play their own expectations of what these differences should be. There are no clues that this is a conceptual artwork, just as there are no clues as to how a voice-hearer’s life is any different to a non-voice-hearer.
The young people produced many artworks that helped them to express and understand their experience of voice-hearing during the six day-long workshops we spent together. This was very important for them, helping them to visualise and understand their voices in new ways. But we distinguished between what was for their personal benefit and what was for public consumption.
I think this is a key ethical point that is often missed in social inclusion projects: just because the audience might find the art interesting, doesn’t mean it’s right for the artist to show them it. Some of the group felt painfully “different” and it would have been inappropriate to show work that highlighted these differences.
This private/public distinction helped create a safe space for the young artists to make work just for themselves, and also opened up room to talk about what they thought the public should hear and what they shouldn’t. It gave them agency to have a more provocative relationship with the public, empowering them to share only what they want to share, exactly how they wanted to share it.
There is something quite profound about the fact a group of young voice-hearers made an artwork that says so little about voice-hearing. Something that perhaps asks us, “Do we have the right to be so curious?”
Hannah makes situation-specific art and undertakes social research. Her practice catalyses dialogue & change for socially-excluded and at-risk groups.