Robin Thomson: Ghost In The Machine

<strong>Robin Thomson</strong> takes us to the afterlife in his first ever solo show at Dundee's Generator Projects this month

Feature by Andrew Cattanach | 21 Sep 2010

You can listen to the first ever audio recording of the human voice on Wikipedia. Lasting around 20 seconds, it’s thought to be the voice of a man singing a line from the French folk song Au Clair de la Lune recorded on 9 April 1860 on a device called a phonautograph. Hauntingly sombre, the sung notes form a textured whole with the accompanying crackle of white noise; and as with vinyl records, the musical content is barely distinguishable from the methods used to reproduce it. Unlike our reified digital age, here the medium refuses to be mute.

Never intended to be heard, the original recording is a graphic representation: the reverberations of the voice marked out on a roll of paper to help decipher the frequency of pitch. New technology, however, has allowed scientists to translate the marks into sound, giving us the chance to hear the 150 year old recording for the first time.

Robin Thomson takes these early graphical representations of the human voice as a starting point for his forthcoming show at Generator Projects. He looks to “explore the representation of the human voice in a visual landscape, and to explore the boundaries of its (im)material nature”. The central piece, By the Light of the Moon, a large scale video installation, will be “a sort of meditation on the first recording device, the phonograph, by Thomas Edison,” Thomson reveals. It will be a neurotic retelling of the technological developments of the past 150 years – “It’s like a road trip, taking you from the beginning of the voice.”

The video promises to be a suitably eccentric journey through the history of recording media, with intersecting narratives and overlapping characters. Once-disembodied voices are given a corporeal presence and ghostly figures haunt the machinery that brings them once more to life. “My projections are beaming false channels,” he discloses. “Imagine the Ghostbusters crashing the Discovery Channel. In the background a Thomas Edison mix-tape soundtrack blasted backwards through a megaphone.”

Central to the show is the somewhat fantastical notion that the voice has an afterlife, that it is in some way preserved in a spirit world, its tuneful lamentations only conveyed through specific media. “Once the voice is recorded then that’s it preserved forever,” Thomson explains. “That got me thinking about how things are stored and brought back to life”

Drawing on concerns he has held since graduating from Duncan and Jordanstone in 2008, Thomson has always “been interested in miscommunication and also studying language as a visual medium. Not like concrete poetry or anything, more like a material thing.” He describes his current video project where he has recorded a number of individual screaming voices and played each through a loudspeaker that is then thrown from a high window “so the speaker falls and the scream falls until it smashes at the bottom. It’ll be like treating sound as a sculpture.”

Currently living and working in Berlin, this is Thomson’s first ever solo exhibition, and sees the young artist return to Dundee for the duration of a one month residency. Taking time out of his busy lifestyle as the main social media PR for the musician Peaches, he explains how “it’s good to come back here and concentrate on things.”

The first solo show Generator has hosted in some while, the gallery will be transformed by the saturation of Thomson’s video and sculptural works. With projections on screens, walls and floor, as well as multiple monitors, the two galleries will become the very afterlife of recorded media; the voices of long departed individuals given material credence once more. Robin Thomson returns to Dundee, but he has not come alone. 

By the Light of the Moon runs from 25 Sep - 24 Oct Thu - Sun 12-5pm Generator Projects, 25-26 Mid Wynd Industrial Estate, Dundee