Having a voice, both in English and in German, means democratic participation. In English, „having a voice” means having a say, being heard. Not having a voice stands for the opposite – exclusion, exclusion from shaping and decision-making processes. „You can’t have change without having a voice.”

The meaning of the word goes even further in the German language. That is because „having a voice” here is equivalent to the English „having a vote” and refers to the fundamental right of being allowed to participate in democratic elections; to actively shape society.

When I first encountered Zorka Wollny’s performances and installations, I was struck1. It seemed incredible how her works resonated at the heart of our many articulated and, in some cases, still unvoiced experiences of social unrest, anger, rage, and frustration. Experiences, which had been extreme in the period of great transformation of 1989/90, and had faded from visibility only to reappear a decade later, when populist movements were taking to the streets. And with them, a bundle of questions: What role does emotion play in democracy? Are anger and frustration legitimate expressions of opinion? And what role do fears play in our societies and which role do we allow them to play? And, after all, whose fears?

In Dresden, we have been confronted since the fall of 2014 with a xenophobic, racist, and right-wing, extremist mob. Calling themselves Pegida, a short version for an unwieldy claim, ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident’2, the movement within several months drew thousands to the streets. With the rather misleading invitation to join ‘evening walks’, these demonstrations became a frightening reservoir of rabble-rousing, raging, and unfiltered calls for hatred against one of the most vulnerable groups in Europe: Refugee asylum seekers. Person without status, equipped with nothing but the protection of the constitutional right of asylum3. Persons, who have neither a vote nor a voice.

Whose Voices?

The encounter with the raw violence of this rage, directed not only against the weakest of the weak, but also against a democratic state defamed as a dictatorship, was a shock, physically and culturally, because an aggressive and often misanthropic form of communication that usually manifests itself in pubs, predominantly in closed groups of men without filters became the political language in the street. At least as shocking, however, were the theoretical questions arising in the face of an emotionally charged and deliberately permitted — or, rather, purposefully launched — mix of irrational theses, arguments and polemics that characterized these demonstrations. A strategic mix that led to a new political style which accompanies us to the present day.

But how legitimate are emotions, whether spontaneous or staged, as means of politics? Political theorists4 addressed such questions in the 1990s, pointing to the antagonistic principles of politics and the fundamental importance of emotions for democracy. While final answers are still pending, the launch of fake news and the stoking of fears, frustrations and irrational rage has become, perhaps, the most striking feature of neo-right movements and parties worldwide? Moreover, the long-held liberal view of a separation of politics and feelings as a prerequisite for democracy has become unhinged not only from the perspective of sociological considerations and political theory, but also by left-wing, populist politics.

Wollny’s artistic works, which I first got to know in documentary form, give feelings of anger and fear a physical and performative outlet. People stand in the street and are encouraged to shout, to chant. They stomp their feet and give physical expression to their anger through their entire musculoskeletal system. In one of her early performative installations ,”Vox Populi” (with Andrzej Wasilewski (2016)), anger, fear and insecurity – contrary to being suppressed — form the leitmotif of her choreography and composition. However, and counter to the strategies of the new-right movements in Germany, Poland and worldwide, Wollny does not open the forum for xenophobia and the fears of decline of a predominantly male, white, middle class. Instead, other voices are present. Those who have been silenced in post-socialist societies because they do not fit the model of profit maximization: The population of a neighborhood threatened by gentrification and a refugee family from Afghanistan.

Wollny used electrostatic discharges, flashes and showers of sparks from a Tesla transformer to literally make the voices and emotions of these two distinctly different groups visible. In an experimental accoustic and visual set-up for the 2016 Narracje Art Festival, the installation amplified the voices of the residents of Gdansk’s Biskupia Górka neighborhood, who at the time felt threatened with displacement due to intense gentrification. The intensity of the emotions that residents articulated to the city authorities in shouted postulates (e.g., ‘We will not be evicted’, ‘NO to the apartment buildings!’, etc.) triggered flashes and cascades of lightning from the high- voltage transformer. „Can we gather all our anger and need for change and transform it into new energy? Give up our defensive positions and become visionaries? Can we transform anger into music with an overwhelming and cathartic power? [….] The energy invested in expressing the need for profound change must not be wasted.” (Zorka Wollny and Andrzej Wasilewski, 2016) 5 It was the declared conviction of the group working collaboratively with the artists, that emotions, including – anger, insecurity and fear, had to be used as a political force in order to create conditions for transgressing the role of the victim and thus – by being heard as a first step – create conditions for social change. In a second performance. the visual ‘amplification’ of voices took place in Szczecin, in cooperation with a refugee family from Afghanistan living in Germany. By making the family’s narrative audible, the collaborative event gave an airing to what the Polish government labels as „undesirable […] voices”. The event also amplified the angry reactions of a socially responsible community over the contradiction of state policy with traditional values, such as the proverbial Polish hospitality.

In choosing to amplify these sets of ‘voices’, Wollny, together with Wasilewski and their collaborators, takes up what appears an antagonistic motif that today is a stereotypical trigger for the polarization of social groups and staged interests. Here, the threatened ‚native’ population and refugees dependent on a host country. But unlike in the simplistic antagonisms of populist politics, both groups become both visible as human beings in this performative representation of emotion and conflict. And audible in voicing all the nuances of their individual and collective statements, tonalities and emotions.

Wollny’s process-guided and participation-based compositions and collaborative choreographies operate at the intersection of art, contemporary music and activism. In them, the voice is a comprehensive instrument that shows the human in its entirety, as a social, political, emotional, resistant, and at the same time, vulnerable being. The Tesla transformer’s lightning and sparks in „Vox Populi” provide a strong, aesthetic image to an understanding of politics as constituted by human negotiation and communication. In it they become visible in as aesthetic bundles of historical influences and energies, both individual and collective, that can erupt in response to specific situations and unfold an enormous emotional and explosive power.

In „Vox Populi”, Wollny did not focus her artistic attention exclusively on strong antagonistic voices – the loudly articulated demands and simplifying sentimental appeals which become the objects of analysis in political theory and which lend themselves to the formation of majorities. In keeping with the Tesla transformer’s visual metaphor, her artistic vigilance is directed at the crackling, intermediate tones of finely-branched electrostatic discharges that occur between the large flashes of lightning. It is in these intermediate regions that the emotional spectre, feelings like empathy or insecurity, come to the surface. These are familiar emotions, however much more difficult to express. The reason is that they do not correspond to the dispositifs of societies characterized by traditional male values and motifs, such as the battle for dominance between opposing political groups. Or of the reverence accorded individual success. Moreover, as a principle base of her art practice, Wollny is dedicated to the intricate dynamics of collaboration. In contrast to the standard system of visual art in which the individual practice dominates, her projects hardly ever consist of isolated actions. A ‘related’ practice in the best sense of the word, they are both ‘site-‘ and ‘situation-specific‘, responding to real situations and real people, and thus almost always finding their form in collaborative practice.

Created in direct response to Poland’s 2020 abortion ban, Wollny’s exemplary project, „Let’s Make Noise, Sisters”, is an exchange of performances and installations lasting several months. Produced in the near-impossible conditions of the Covid-19 Pandemic, it features a total of 30 videos that document the collaborative work by female artists to create a manifesto as intimate as it is defiant against this oppressive political and social situation.

Destroy Patriarchy, not the Planet!

Women’s voices still bear the legacy of a systematic oppression shaped by Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions. With few exceptions, women had almost no say in public life until the middle of the 20th century. Along the same lines and with a similar timing, all those whose orientation did not conform to the prevailing heteronormative order had to suppress or keep secret their sexual preferences.

The voices in „Let’s Make Noise, Sisters” range in emotional temperature from rage to self-confident laughter; to conspiratorial whispers and the humming pull of a lullaby. They echo personal feelings, give new expression to historical political manifestos, or rhythmically reassure themselves of the empowering environment of their group.

The performance and sound installation „Things I Don’t Tell You” also addresses the current situation of women. Composed, written and performed at the invitation of Heart of Glass arts agency in St. Helens, UK, and the Chrysalis Center for Change, a British organization that supports women facing domestic violence, it is the product of Wollny’s collaboration with five survivors of domestic violence. It begins with a series of questions asked silently by victims of violence: „Am I crazy? Am I stupid? Is it my fault?” To doubts and accusations of others: „Is it true? Aren’t you too sensitive?” To political statements: „Why is the justice system failing us?” The audience for the final concert was limited to friends and supporters of the group.

Why is the artistic amplification and choice of voices so explosive? „Destroy patriarchy, not the planet!” was a slogan heard at the 2023 Global Climate Strike which saw 5,000 people take to the streets of Dresden to make their voices heard. In these protests, calls among the younger generation for self-determination over their bodies and sexuality appear coming to a head in the face of an existential threat to the planet. The urgency of this call goes beyond individual right of choice. It points to the fact, that feminist and queer perspectives offer alternative modes of thinking that might become crucial for the survival of life on this planet.6 n rage shouted out loud, in whispers, in manifestoes and appeals, in testimonies and rhythmic invocations, Wollny gives voice in her compositions and performances to the emotions and forms of that are needed to change the modes of life on this planet. It is about empathy and the reactivation of emphatic approaches of listening and healing.

Significant Bodies

The explosive and strangely healing effect of Wollny’s artistic and activist, musical and at the same time therapeutic work, lies in its critical distance to the traditional focus on visuality in art. Her work radically prioritizes the voice, and the sound and movement of the body in space. Persons are not visually ‘represented’ in her projects, but active collaborators and co-authors ’embodied’ as voices. Related to the musical awakenings of female composers of the 1960s and 1970s such as Joan La Barbara or Meredith Monk, performances developed in collaboration with the Psychedelic Choir collective and other musical partners enter a radically new and at the same time old terrain. La Barbara released a song inspired by the breathing technique of horn players on her first album, The Voice is the Original Instrument, in 1976. The „Circular Song” uses the airflow created by inhaling and exhaling to modulate a seemingly endless ascending and descending scale. The song also includes unsettling, compressive and distorted sounds of the breath itself.

Like La Barbara, Wollny’s concerts with the Psychedelic Choir use each performer’s entire body; not just the larynx. They begin with breathing noises, moans or classical singing exercises that activate the body as instrument. Ghostly and disturbing, these sounds are a recurring motif. We hear the sounds of transition between human and animal. Unlike La Barbara, who in her compositions and extraordinary vocal performances transform’s the human voice into something else – a drum or a metallic sound – while maintaining distance with her audience, Wollny completely dissolves the boundaries between audience and stage.

Bearers of the voice, laypersons and professionals, during her performances in public urban spaces appear in crowds. Dressed in everyday clothes, they become ‚visible’ to their audiences by raising their voices. For example, members of the “Imperfect Choir” performed in transitory zones of one of the most remarkable festival buildings from the early 20th century in Dresden – but rather than the stage, the performance was conceived for the foyer, the hallway, and the stairwells. For the collaboratively developed piece „From the East to the West” performed in 20227, the choreography and movement followed the natural logic of a wave. In this piece, the performers’ acapella voices became instruments through which the history of industrialization, wars, and diasporas spoke, the pounding of machines, the whistle of a steam engine, the sound of a lullaby that no one sings anymore, and the wind blowing from east to west, from north to south. The performers transform, like the personifications of an ancient drama. Not through changing the masks, but through their voices alone that become those of machines, of natural elements like the whizzing wind, and of animals – barking dogs, the polyphony of a birds or the chorus sheep.

The startling experience of voices as ghostly presences wandering through the bodies of the performers is intensified in concerts by Psychedelic Choir that consciously work with darkened spaces or spaces illuminated in colored lights8; when bodies can only be seen in shadow. In these ambiences, audience and stage merge even more strongly and the source of the sound can hardly be located.

If one believes contemporary interpretations of the ancient texts of Aristotle, the voice is not only a functional carrier for the transmission of information, or the political expression of opinion, but an expression of spiritual identity that he describes as the “soul” – a notion found in most religions and indigenous belief systems. „As for the voice,” Aristotle writes, “it is the sound as the sound of an ensouled being. No inanimate thing has a voice. [. . . ]” Thereby, the soul is the life force of all living beings – plants, animals, humans. However, this soul – and here Aristotele’s concept differs from later Christian interpretations – remains inseparably connected to the physical body.

Even though Wollny, like La Barbara, relies on electroacoustic amplification and effects for many pieces and compositions, her performances come very close to the age-old idea that humans are animate beings very close to nature, differing only gradually from their other ensouled beings. Unlike the detached ‚voice’ of democratic suffrage or political expression, the embodied voice is not controlled currents of abstract thought. It is shaped as much by vocal chords and larynx, and the cavities of the mouth, throat and nose. It conveys situational and emotional information that we might rather keep to ourselves, and is so unique that it can be used as an acoustic fingerprint.

Becoming Voices

When Wollny and the Psychedelic Choir allow the entire body to speak, to intonate sounds of animals, it is not the gestural or spiritualistic appropriation of a recreated shamanism. But an existential exercise in expanding and perceiving our bodies as the result of evolution and history, and as part of the environment and other bodies. The performances of the Psychedelic Choir collective immerse the audience in the sonic space of the human voice as a radical instrument of empathy that has the power to dissolve boundaries. In doing so, they open a surprisingly cathartic, yet existential, experiential space of fluid transitions between human and animal, cultural and biological spheres, and the material environment — zones that are by conventions separated by our cognition and perception

In sessions like „The Ceremony – Migration Series 1/3”, a three-part workshop at the Novas Frequencias 2021 festival in Rio de Janeiro, performers, migrants, musicians, and dancers, acting from very different contexts and fields of work, form a musical, rhythmic and performative collective in order to systematically explore the possibilities of improvisation and dissolution of boundaries. Like many of the experiments of the Psychedelic Choir, such events are based on acclamation and repetition, call and response on echo and on variation. Consciously linking tradition of happenings or incantation rituals rather than to the format of a performance or concert, they activate ancient forms of knowledge about communication, transmitted by acclamation and through the body. The individual performers here follow a unique and singular choreographic pattern as they merge into temporary, ecstatic community.

Heightened sensitivity is not a shortcoming but a prerequisite for a new kind of experience – that of letting go the boundaries of trained individuality in favor of becoming part of a temporary collective. Against this background, too, Wollny’s participatory projects move in a space between performance, therapy and activism.

Wollny’s experiments in communication point to the coexistence and connectedness of humans with their non-human environment, promising the possibility of making contact and communicating beyond our species. Thus, the return to a perceptual space that seems utopian, but that lies hidden deep within us as a real space of experience. Both voice and dance are forms of expression used in therapeutic areas, having an efficacy otherwise attributed only to psychoactive substances that allows us to partially or even completely erase the boundaries between the self and outside world.

Why are such experiments of perceptual shift important today? One might take the position that this kind of perceptual experimentation is esoteric. Or that it ties in with other ancient forms of knowing that we are used to looking at in disciplines like anthropology or ethnology. Yet it is precisely these ancient forms of knowing, often referred to as indigenous, that we search for as paths out of the cognitive and behavioral patterns of late Modernity. Individualization, identity politics, and a worldview in which the human being is cemented at the center stand in the way of our search for new, fluid forms of community. The perception and consideration of the interests of all life forms allows a radical expansion of our understanding of democracy.

Screams and Lullabies

Projects such as the groundbreaking „Polyphonic Manifesto” (Warsaw 2019), her „Psychedelic Choir”, and all her workshops based on joint process take the shape of temporary communities that experimentally test forms of perception beyond the individual , as well fluid aesthetic, vocal and choreographic practices. True to an orientation to non-linguistic, non-representative forms of communication, Wollny’s works defy simple categorization. They point beyond existing boundaries and definitions in order to dissolve them, giving voice to subjects who do not remain in the categories conventionally assigned to them. Am I a person who has fled? Am I an immigrant? Have I experienced violence? Am I a professional musician or passionate amateur? Aw orker or activist? A human being or living being?

Wollny is not alone in her radical plea for the voicing of emotions. Or the politics of listening that necessarily go along with it; whether in political theory, music or therapy. The Berlin-based theorist and artist Brandon LaBelle is a kindred spirit. While coming from the background of music and sound culture and corresponding pop-cultural movements that differ from Wollny, his intellectual and operational strategies align on similar paths. Among his projects is „Communities in Movement,” ongoing since 2019, in which Wollny is a creative partner. „Social Acoustics”9, „Radical Sympathy” and „The Open Body (Monster)” are the headlines for varying lines of thinking and artistic practice that emerge from a model for negotiating issues of social equality outlined in Labelle’s 2021 book “Acoustic Justice”.

The questions of how we listen and how we succeed in sharing the experience of emotions also are in the room when we ask about patterns of perception. Which are the patterns of perception that enable us to catch signals beyond the dominant conventions of majorities and that can help us break out of toxic cycles to hear our inner voice?
Not only articulating insecurities and fears („Lullabies to Wake Up” by Christine Schörkhuber/Zorka Wollny (2018/2022)) but training other forms of listening plays a central role here. Bound by the primacy of social orientation, men who gather at populist demonstrations cannot shout „we are disoriented and afraid of being unable to withstand economic pressure!” Or, „the freedom to discover my own inclinations makes me insecure!” Instead, they use misanthropic slogans such as „foreigners out” or „we are the majority”, which correspond better with their role models and help to camouflage their fear. These slogans show how brutally short the way is from not-listening-to-oneself and fear-avoiding strategies to factual misanthropic policies of simple majorities in which the majority vote cancels demands of those in minor positions.

Wollny’s projects consistently are devoted to listening and to the explosive political potential of human „minor voices10”, And to the sound of presumed inanimate matter, or other „Things of No Significance” (Psychedelic Choir, 201911). Sounds for which the human voice appropriates non-human sounds, and, again and again, develops pounding rhythms, loops, choruses, and the recurrent sound of dripping water. Her immersive soundscape „Quiet Rush” developed in the same year processes the relationship between humans and natural resources, referring to mining as one of the human practices that massively alters our planet’s surface. Created in collaboration with women living in the Slovak mining region of Štiavnica, „Quiet Rush” is a site-specific work. Wealth, individual experiences and emotions are echoed in voices and sounds, as well as in the reading of a project text that takes a critical view of anthropocentrism: „An underground concert in the realm of darkness, a world created by human ambition and sculpted by greed, inhabited by fire lizards and protected by gnomes. A composition for bodies, minerals, insects and bacteria vibrating in the bowels of the earth, beyond the reach of sun, order and rationality.”12

We are just beginning to understand the dynamics of matter and micro-biology that facilitates life on our planet. Concepts such as “post-industrial transformation” are part of this learning. Just as the ways in which regional cultures are linked to industries become most evident when they come to an end and both human and non-human life face a new beginning. In „Singing Machine” (2022), staged at the Zeche Hannover, Wollny interwove the musical influences and instruments of the region’s immigrant labour with the sounds of industrial architecture no longer in use; stair railings, obsolete steel structures, and empty halls. The result was a temporary soundscape in the colliery’s Malakow Tower that, in a compositional „flow of energy”, brought together collective fears with visions in the face of radical economic and climate changes.

In the current global political situation, it is no coincidence that calls in culture for policies of listening are growing louder. That is because the question of listening is also about decolonization. At Kunsthaus Dresden, with the exhibition „Stimmen/Voices” we will provide a platform for Wollny’s pathbreaking artistic practice in 2023. Two years earlier we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the house with „Listening to the Stones”13, an exhibition that took a radical change of perspective by turning to a material and that has a much older history than humankind—and that therefore also laid the ground for the contingency of human existence. A turn to „Politics of Listening” was also called for in 2022 by the curatorial contribution of Marta Keil and Gregorzs Reske14, at the invitation of the HELLERAU European Center for the Arts and the Kunsthaus Dresden. “Listening” in the curatorial context of Keil and Reske was turned into a political concept.15

So how do we come to make our voices heard on the threshold of a common future? And how do we listen in a radically new (or old) way so that we break open the echo chambers of the past? Singing, chanting and screaming; the expression of emotions, as well as listening to them, are both intimate and immersive practices. They require a complete persona to overcome the threshold which divides the personal from the shared. Each of us knows the moment of overcoming that it costs to raise one’s voice; to take up the microphone or the megaphone. And the equally unsettling feelings of liberation and empowerment that comes when barriers fall and the voice overcomes the boundary between private and public space. Some of us might also know the unique catharsis and energies which results from sharing emotions in groups.

The question of how we will enable and allow this empowerment and the accompanying sensitization of comprehensive listening will not only determine how we will be able to listen to other voices and forms of being in the future. It also will determine whether and how these voices will change us, our perception, and our approach to a planetary reality. Wollny’s artistic work invites us on a path that makes nuanced voices audible in all their minor and superior forms. And to share the resonant spaces, at once new and ancient, that emerge in this process as practical aesthetic, social and political spaces of experience, with all their uncertainties and fears. But also with the catharsis, the overwhelming energies and the existential hopes generated there.

Christiane Mennicke-Schwarz, March 2023