There is a scene in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies in which Q (head of research and development for the British Secret Service) presents Bond with a new BMW equipped with machine guns, rockets and a GPS tracking system. When Bond opens the door, a pleasant, lilting female voice greets him, urging him to fasten his seatbelt for a safe trip. Playing to Bond’s notorious womanizing nature, Q quips, “I thought you’d pay more attention to a female voice.”
The subtext here is that a female voice is not only more alluring than a male voice, with its sexual connotations, but it is also less threatening, even as it emanates from a weaponized vehicle. The disembodied female voice is a ubiquitous feature of our current world that goes relatively unnoticed as it enlivens our computers, busses, bank machines and automated phone lines. Our digital age is simultaneously technophilic and technophobic. While many of us have developed an intensely intimate and fetishistic relationship with our gadgets, and see social media and interactivity as a means for connection and opportunity, there is also rising concern about ‘screen time’ as the downfall of social skills and ethics. The digital feminine presence is the ideal interface for the unknown region between desire and fear. Housed in stoke-able fetish objects like iPhones, our in-phone secretaries like Siri mediate this unknown space, not just by sorting our emails and organizing our schedules but by performing affective labour we have come to associate with the feminine. In the digital realm, this work is disembodied.
As Montreal artist Mara Eagle puts it, “because they do not speak through bodies, digital voices are never tongue tied, choked by breath – or by passion.” Eagle, a Concordia MFA student, explores the tension between the disembodied digital voice and female pleasure in Autoerotix, an 11-minute, five-channel “audio recital” of eight pop songs about female masturbation recorded between 1984 and 2015. By feeding the lyrics into a free online text-to-speech generator, Eagle flattened the delivery of these songs into a digital chorus of voices – or rather a polyphonic incantation made up of one digital voice (named “Alice”), manipulated into varying pitches using Adobe Audition. Emerging out of her research on labour, mimicry and simulation, Eagle’s Autoerotix uses digital tools to disembody the concept of female pleasure.
Autoerotix can be accessed online, but the work is intended to be experienced in person, and I got the chance to preview the installation earlier this year. In Eagle’s studio in Concordia’s Fine Arts building, I was told to sit within a circle of five inward-facing speakers. I felt like the object of a ritual whose practitioners had identical plastic bodies. I listened carefully while they chanted songs like “Touch of My Hand” by Britney Spears, “Oops (Oh My)” by Tweet featuring Missy Elliot, “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls, “Body of My Own” by Charli XCX and “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper, all in clean, monotone, digitized arrangements. In her book Feeling and Form (1953), American philosopher Susanne Langer writes that one of the oldest forms of dance is the medieval Reigen, or circle dance, the “first holy office of the dance,” acting as both stage and altar (191).
Traditionally, ritual magicians and witches have used circles to form a protective barrier that contain the energy they summon. Sitting at the center of the magic circle in Eagle’s dark studio, I inhabit this space between stage and altar: as the focal point, I am the vulnerable receiver of the energies of capitalism, female sexuality and pop culture, but there is also a barrier erected by my inability to access these voices, or their source. The songwriters, performers and listeners that created these hit singles over the years are condensed into one body through Eagle’s manipulation; similarly, the multiple “I”s of the lyrics, when spoken by the same monotone voice, congeal into one “female body,” the most familiar symbol in popular culture.
Eagle’s installation imposes disembodiment, but the lyrics she uses insist upon the presence of a body (“I touch myself/I honestly do”). The effect is both absurd and playful, but it also exposes the earnest tone that propels pop music, especially songs about female sexual pleasure. In stripping away the accompanying music and paring these songs down to just their lyrics, spoken in flatness, Autoerotix reveals their mechanized performance of female desire. Without tonal harmony or sexy rhythms, the lyrics purr along mechanically, like ready-mades on an assembly line. Similarly, subjective, intimate female pleasure becomes objectified (as well as sanitized and consumable) when performed for the mainstream popular audience, a dissonance that extends to our everyday interaction with the digital feminine as well.
The star of Autoerotix is the voice that Eagle selected from the text-to-voice database, named “Alice” by her provider. Eagle’s work exposes the lack of diversity presented by digital voices. In tone and delivery, Alice’s voice is very similar to Siri’s, which is supplied by a white American woman named Susan Bennett; the fact that we take Alice for neutral is telling. Evoking Siri’s delivery of driving directions, Autoerotix’s star Alice recites the lyrics in a monotone drawl. Her “oohs” and “aahs” are comical because they are simply phonetic. They lack emotion. Yet whereas Siri is programmed to serve others, in having Alice recite songs about female masturbation, Eagle shifts the focus from the emotional labour that our digital secretaries perform to the presence of an incessant and monotonous self-servicing. (“I can do it better when I’m all alone,” Alice recites).
In keeping with the intimate subject of solo sex, many of the lyrics in Autoerotix are spoken in the first person. The command-response structure that we know so well from interacting with digital voices through our phones (Siri’s constant prompt, for example: “How can I help you?”) is exchanged for a series of statements of independence and self-control: “I can do it better when I’m all alone;” “I’ve got a body of my own;” “my body is mine.” There are also themes of unruliness and frenzied, irrepressible desire expressed in lyrics such as “I can’t control what’s happenin’,” “it’s not a sin,” and “I find myself flirting with the verge of the obscene into the unknown…I will be bold…I’m going to places I can be out of control.” Here, female embodiment and autonomy are presented, in a classical formation, as the gateway to chaos and sin. At the conclusion of Autoerotix, which features Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” Alice’s many voices collapse together into a cacophonous glitch-parade. The disembodied vocals enact an ironic corrective to the excess of female desire; in regurgitating a rehearsed mantra like a robot army, an eerie order is imposed. But even as the lyrical disarray is hemmed in by Alice’s measured digital tone, there is still disorder at its core.
Many of the lyrics that Eagle uses, such as “When it’s late at night and you’re fast asleep” (Pink) and “Getting off, getting off, while they’re all downstairs” (Tori Amos) bring to mind the private space of one’s dark bedroom. Eagle’s work juxtaposes that privacy with communality, as multiple voices share space, and the listener at the circle’s centre is invited to witness intimate sexual experience, in ritual initiation. But if this is an initiation, what is being sacrificed here? Who, or what, is the scapegoat other than the dissolution of privacy?
Our everyday encounter with digital voices is also an encounter with surveillance and dissolution of privacy, in which the feminized vocal performance fosters complacency through its comforting associations: the trusted secretary, the doting girlfriend, the woman who captures the attention of rogues like James Bond through her voice alone. Eagle’s Autoerotix reveals both the ongoing stigma surrounding female sexuality and also how it’s used to normalize everyday surveillance. The disembodied digital feminine can be a threat as it pertains to our daily interactions. Not only do we freely share our data and personal communications through our phones, developments like Project Oxford’s new Emotion Recognition app for Microsoft will potentially allow AIs (voiced by the likes of Siri, Alexa and Cortana) to respond to human emotional states by identifying particular facial expressions, a design that poses a severe threat to human rights and privacy. In this vein, Eagle’s work is both darkly feminist and a warning about issues of security in our digital era. Where performative gender roles are used to help sacrifice our privacy, what looks like maintenance of power—and technological development as status quo—is in fact our own, undetected, loss of control.
A version of Mara Eagle’s Autoerotix will be presented in Montreal at Centre Clark from September 7 to October 13, and at Studio XX in November 2018.
Hilary Bergen is a PhD student in Interdisciplinary Humanities at Concordia University where she studies technologies of the dancing body, posthumanism and feminist media history. She has published work on Siri, affective labour and the disembodied cyborg with Word and Text and most recently on rotoscoping, erasure and embodiment in Naomi Uman’s ‘Removed’ with Screening the Past.