Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA

Emma Smith: 5HZ

Arnolfini, Bristol

20 March - 6 April 2015

Review by Rory Duckhouse

The evolution of language was originally believed to have a social function rather than an informational one and lends itself freely to song. The newly constructed 5Hz language, intended to act as a language for the role of social bonding, and the surrounding exhibition by Emma Smith currently showing at the Arnolfini, is the result of a lengthy collaborative research process between the artist, psychologist Laurence White (Plymouth University), cognitive neuroscientist Nina Kazanina, and musicologist Emma Hornby (both University of Bristol).

The 5Hz language looks to transcend linguistic barriers and uses voiced sounds where the vocal cords vibrate when they are articulated; this use of language is used and recognised throughout the world. The 5Hz language is a sung language that uses rising and falling intonations, in an attempt to strengthen human connections.

The exhibition brings together a number of interactive elements designed to encourage the viewer to engage and think about our use of language, and aid further research. A vinyl record player sits invitingly near the entrance, asking visitors to play. A number of vinyl records are presented, from bird song to opera, the records presented in this sound archive all use a fictitious sense of language. This playful use of augmented language is also present within the reading archive, in which a number of books such as ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘A Baby’s Lullaby Book’ and a ‘Dictionary of Made Up Languages’ sit within the case, all to be borrowed by the exhibition visitor. These books have a specific use of language that deviates from traditional English, often focusing on the use of sound in the word.

On two computers are vocal preference tests where you can contribute to the evolution of the 5Hz language. Two sound clips are played to the listener after which they have to choose which one they preferred. The recordings are not linguistically meaningful, and often consist of numerous sounds, varying in pitch, sound quality and tone. The choice is personal to the listener and often responds to the elements of voice that make them feel connected.

A hexagonal sound chamber installation stands in the far corner, with the 5Hz ‘alphabet’ intricately cut into its wall panels. The physical structure of ‘The Language School’ encloses the visitor, but thanks to the symbols puncturing the walls, as you sit and ‘learn’ the language, all you can see is the other people within the gallery space, furthering social bonds and a sense of human connection.

A table provides a space to read or discuss the exhibition and host events. Throughout the exhibition period, a number of events, talks and workshops will be enacted within the space and further the reach of 5Hz language. This space works as a point of human communication, and will further a discussion of language and its potential uses.

The 5Hz language reconsiders how we use voice for social cohesion, looking to strengthen human connection. Within the exhibition space, Smith looks to introduce the language to a wider audience and asks them to consider how they themselves use language. 5Hz works past the purely informational, to a more human centered social connection, asking us to imagine how language might have evolved if its focus was more prioritised on social bonding.

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