Guest Curator: Nina Power

Choosing an artifact from the Her Noise Archive of personal significance, Nina Power has selected the LP picture disc, Can’t – New Secret, from Jessica Rylan Rrrecords in 2003 (catalogue no: HN/1/5/014). Linking with the theme of punk and extending to discussions of race, Nina has selected the text, It’s (Not) a White World: Looking for Race in Punk by Mimi Nguyen, an essay that appears in White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race, edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay for Verso Books, published in 2011 as a valuable addition to the bibliography.  Pulling both these threads together, Nina has suggested the broadcaster, sonic artist, musician and researcher, Fari Bradley as someone she would like to see interviewed in the future for the Her Noise Archive.  Finally, in answer to the question, “what would you like to add to the Archive“, Nina has chosen “voice recordings from machines in the public domain”,  the subject of her presentation, The Dystopian Technology of the Female Voice delivered at the Her Noise: Feminisms and the Sonic symposium at Tate Modern in May 2012, a section of which she has kindly allowed us to reproduce here.

The Dystopian Technology of the Female Voice

I’m interested in the ubiquitous female voice we hear in the ever-diminishing “public” realm. I say public accusingly, because of course, as we know, with every unsettled space in a transport hub, park, street, while there may be members of the public “there”, the space itself is either felt to be privately owned, or of uncertain ownership. Whichever voice we hear there is bound to be at least moderately uncanny, even if we no longer “hear” it in many cases. When we do listen, we are likely to hear a disembodied female voice gently, if firmly, alerting us to the need to be vigilant in this time of heightened security, to please ensure you take all your luggage or to go to platform 5. Of course all these not-quite-public voices are not always female, but more often than not they are. What is specific to this often-pre-recorded, disembodied, sometimes rather robotic, recognisably or attributably female voice? I have two arguments here: firstly, that the ubiquitous female voice of spatial control operates in direct proportion to the absence of an expressive female voice in the not-quite-public realm; and secondly, that the utopian potential of the technologized female voice has been co-opted into a set of sonic securitisations. Nevertheless, as the work of Pauline Oliveros reminds us, and as she herself reminded us the other night, there is this other side of technology – all that not on the side of death and destruction.

I’ll start with my second point. The history of the woman-machine, the femmebot and so on, has a long cinematic history, as we know from thinking about everything from Maria in Metropolis to the beautiful androids of Wong Kar-wai’s 2046. But the disembodied female voice – the acousmatic voice, that which we hear without seeing it – has a similarly recognisable past. If asked to think of a classic voice-only computer we might immediately think of HAL 9000 from 2001, it is perhaps the anonymous female voices of science fiction that appear with more frequency, e.g.

1. Security Breach:

We are well-accustomed to hearing the well-honed and slightly robotic tones of a reassuring female voice in places where many people pass through – train stations, airports, buses, but also at the end of a pre-recorded telephone message or reading out a set of pre-set options. Here the female voice is calm, neutral and ever-so-slightly futuristic. She is the logical vocal daughter of the switch-board operator of a previous era. But what does the use of the female voice in these spaces mean for the co-optation of recognisable female voices? What of the sinister implications for both women and public space when the gendering of this voice – often used to reassure but simultaneously to order and remind us of states of ‘heightened security’?

Sometimes, though, there is a deliberate attempt to avoid the trajectory of the science fiction femmebot voice in favour of the homely. So in the USA, we have:

2. Carolyn Hopkins, subway announcement woman

Incidentally, Carolyn Hopkins has taken the subway only once in 1957, before she was its voice.

But to go back to my point about what the technologized female voice obscures even as it tried to reassure a supposedly permanently anxious public, I want to turn to a curious instance of a mismatch between the techno-transport female voice and the woman behind it. This is the case of Emma Clarke, the former Tube announcer for the automated messages, whose voice many of you will be familiar with, whose contract was not renewed after she was deemed to have criticised London Underground after a reporter badly framed some comments she made in relation to the following recordings:

3. Emma Clarke’s spoofs:

Emma Clarke’s recordings unsettle because they send a ripple across the supposedly calming and neutral quality of the recorded female voice, which is not supposed to criticise, or feel, but only to reassure, order and alert.

If it is disconcerting to hear one’s own voice anyway, let alone at any time, disembodied, and ordering you to go somewhere or buy something, it is perhaps no wonder Emma Clarke would subvert that voice, even if it is her “own”.

Inspector Sands – Mystery Announcement at Euston Station

Inspector Sands is a code phrase used by public transport authorities in the United Kingdom to alert staff and other agencies, such as the police, to an emergency or potential emergency such as a fire or bomb scare without alerting the public and creating panic

So what is it about electronic equipment and science fiction that permitted such modes of female inventiveness? The gender-binaries and sexual imaginaries of post-war feminism found a home in writing that was both utopian and dystopian, where mainstream modes of writing – academic, journalistic – were not yet amenable to such ideas. Electronics carried with it a utopian promise of its own: if working women were rapidly being aligned with the machine in terms of communication – the secretary and her typewriter, the switchboard operator – the machine becomes central to a mode of living that is overwhelmingly modern in practice and wholly futuristic in theory.

– Nina Power, 2012.


Nina Power teaches Philosophy at Roehampton University and Critical Writing in Art and Design at the Royal College of Art, London. She is author of One-Dimensional Woman (Zero 2009) and many articles on European philosophy, film and music and has recently embarked on a new radio series, Hour of Power, broadcasting radio essays on philosophy, politics, feminism, protest and sound on Resonance 104.4 Fm.

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