Some words seem fated to sound old-fashioned. ‘Artiste’ must be one of them. Closer to the French etymology than ‘artist’ it hints at diva-like tendencies, pretentiousness, and a certain kind of falseness – an unashamed willingness to acknowledge the fictionality of a performance. Increasingly shunned, the word had it’s heyday in the world of music-hall entertainment where burlesque, slapstick, melodrama and histrionics were positively encouraged and there was a knowing intimacy with the audience.
Music-hall combined a wide variety of acts, some moving downmarket from the theatre and many moving up from their previous incarnations as itinerant entertainers. Everything from popular singers to sword swallowers, jugglers, conjurers, stand-up comedians and acrobats. Among these, it was perhaps the ventriloquist who embodied the strange relationship between performer and audience that typified the music-hall. Always absurd and often slightly sinister, the ventriloquist and his dummy (it was a primarily male role) were the most recent incarnation of a very old practice. Throwing the voice and mimicking noises had roots in early religious phenomena such as the Oracle at Delphi – a Greek tradition of prophesy in which the gods would answer petitioners’ questions through the medium of a priestess. In the middle ages the practice was also associated with cases of possession and witchcraft – the devil and his peer demons speaking through the bodies of ordinary people.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the supernatural elements of ventriloquism had been tamed and were now presented as entertainments by performers rather than terrifying encounters with the actual presence of Satan. William Edward Love, one of the most famous of these performers in the 1830s and ‘40s, for instance, styled himself as a ‘polyphonist’ imitating not just voices but the sounds of machines and the natural sounds of the landscape. He would create offstage, outdoor narratives for his audience to visualise in their minds, transporting them imaginatively from the theatre to the countryside or a city street. And yet, the darker aspects of this art persisted in the minds of the audience as can be seen in this description of one of Love’s rivals by David Brewster in 1834:
The ordinary magician requires his theatre, his accomplices, and the instruments of his art, and he enjoys but a local sovereignty within the precincts of his own magic circle. The ventriloquist, on the contrary, has the supernatural always at his command. In the open fields as well as in the crowded city, in the private apartment as well as in the public hall, he can summon up innumerable spirits; and though the persons of his fictitious dialogue are not visible to the eye, yet they are unequivolvally present to the imagination of his auditors, as if they had been shadowed forth in the silence of a spectral form.
This description is important for two reasons. It highlights the ghostly qualities of ventriloquism – the effect of hearing a disembodied voice or a voice animating a doll conjures up a sense of communication with a spirit world beyond our material surroundings. This is one of the most powerful forces that ventriloquism taps into. The performer, like a medium, seems to allow a voice that is not his own to pass through him or emanate from him. Uncannily, that voice can appear elsewhere in the room divorced from the performer’s body or animating the otherwise dead shell of a puppet or doll. Deep in the human psyche this triggers the belief that a soul can survive the death of the body and that inanimate objects may also become vessels for life.
Brewster’s description also pinpoints the unusual impact of ventriloquism on the senses of an audience. Although the performance seems to operate by throwing the voice and creating an aural illusion, its real impact lies in its’ ability to make the listener visualise an imaginary scene. The Scottish philosopher, Dugald Stewart, who may have inspired Brewster’s interpretation, had concluded in his Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind (1827) that ventriloquism is primarily a visual phenomenon bearing a close relationship to painting. Certainly, there is a case also to be made for ventriloquism as an element of sculpture with it’s emphasis on tableaux, the silent statuesque demeanour of performer who falls still while animating another object and later, of course, in the appearance of the dummy.
In The Secret Life of Puppets (2001) Victoria Nelson brings both the supernatural and art together in the main thesis of her book, claiming that In the current Aristotelian age the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognised boundaries of religious expression…We can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways that human simulacra – puppets, cyborgs and robots – carry on their role as direct descendants of graven images in contemporary science fiction stories and films…
Even when ventriloquism was later reduced to the status of a music-hall turn with the now classic tableau of performer and wooden puppet this aura of the supernatural never faded from view. In certain ways, the transition to the use of the classic ventriloquist’s dummy added a new dimension to this expression of the transcendental. Nelson’s description of these human simulacra as ‘distorted outlets’ could not find better embodiment than the ‘vent’ doll. Ugly, pubescent, often lower class and furnished with a regional accent the dummy is a crude technical caricature of the human body. Each performance is a comic spasm that explores the limits of language and nonsense. A surviving 1944 script for a ventriloquist’s music-hall act suggests that at least one tongue twister is included in the performance, possibly ‘Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppercorns’ or ‘Theophilus Twistle, less thrifty than some,/ Thrust three thousand thistles through the thick of his thumb’ or
He was a thistle sifter,
He sifted a sieve of sifted thistles
And a sieve of unsifted thistles,
He was a thistle sifter.
These rhymes may show the proficiency of the ventriloquist but they’re just as likely to showcase his mistakes and the points at which language – a vital indicator of human difference from animals – teeters on collapse.
In Dumbstruck: A Cultural History of Ventriloquism (2000) Steven Connor argues that the redundant apparatus of the dummy has a new importance in a rapidly advancing technological society. Developments in science and communication have already rendered the human body and the human voice anachronistic and inferior to new components emerging from laboratories. For Connor, the archaic dimensions of ventriloquism make it ‘a catch in the throat of media technology, the awkward sign of the workings of the works’.
That description might convey some of it’s relationship to sculpture too. The kinetic explosiveness of the doll and it’s crude but emphatic figuration lie at the roots of sculpture and while those qualities might be derided by high art they are the elements that give sculpture its’ energy and impulse. Their legacy can be seen in works by artists such as Paul McCarthy or Tony Oursler where both the low-fi technology and the theatricality of the dolls is echoed in their approaches to figure making.
Ventriloquism and the devilish qualities of the dummy offer one other important gift to artists – the ability to break taboos and say the unsayable. The raw energy of the performer and doll act, the mask afforded to the performer by the doll and the blatant absurdity of the situation opens up a space where anything can be considered and expressed, permissible by virtue of it’s comical and apparently nonsensical nature. The violence inherent in the act of ventriloquism may underscore this dimension of the phenomenon. The persistent presence of the supernatural and often, the demonic, give it an edge which is frequently acknowledged in contemporary interpretations of ventriloquism from The Exorcist through to the Chucky movies. Steven Connor points to the roots of these interpretations in the constantly repeated figure of an adolescent boy as the ‘vent’ doll. Connor argues that this doll is chosen because of the accepted patriarchal ideology which demands that boys internalise a much higher level of violence than girls. Looking then at the success of Chucky films, he recalls their link to the Jamie Bulger case in 1993.
The nation was shocked by video footage showing a 2-year-old Jamie Bulger being led out of a Liverpool shopping precinct by two 10-year-old boys, who were later found to have battered him to death with bricks and an iron bar. The outpouring of hatred towards the boys who had committed the murder was extraordinary, not least because it seemed to confirm the very thing that was being so massively grieved for, the so-called killing, not just of the child, but of childhood itself. During the trial of the two boys, it was suggested that they had been influenced by videos of the Child’s Play 1, 2 and 3 films, in which a doll called Chucky comes to life and begins to hurt and murder. The dynamics of mimicry and repetition are complex and chilling here. For children to kill a child seemed to be the proof that they are really, like Chucky, changelings, and not real children at all, and they have got it coming to them…
Whether the films really had such an impact or were a sensation that tabloids could not resist does not lessen the shock of this collision of art and life. That such an association could be plausibly made reflects the dark edge that ventriloquism still preserves under the cosy layers of clumsiness and old-fashioned performance values. The ‘artiste’, in this context, assumes all the charm of a trojan horse, smuggling the transcendental and the demonic back into our clean and virtual world.