(Im)print: The Synaesthetic Index

The Voice as Uncanny Index in Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie – Alexandra M Kokoli

Alexandra Kokoli’s essay reflects and explores the role of the recorded voice in Susan Hiller’s piece “The Last Silent Movie,” an amalgamation of sources from a variety of different archival collections spanning most of the 20th century and covering a diversity of languages that are either now extinct or are near-extinction, whilst also using it as a departure point of consideration as index of an already fleeting human presence.

Kokoli investigates the notion that the voice is not just sound, but is an object in its own right pointing towards the index and  the memories conjured up which play with the listener’s imagination and thoughts, rather than an image preserving the human subject as a maker of culture, preserving culture as a forcible production rather than as finished artefacts.  One could describe it as a sound amalgamation of found objects from archival documents, full of crackles, hisses, containing quotations and tongue clicks of languages that have long been forgotten and destroyed by post-colonisal crimes or inequalities.  This sound amalgamation is accompanied by subtitles on a black screen along with a series of etchings of the sound waves produced by a selection of words from some of the sound clips.

Kolkoli suggests that the index in the spoken word is not so much a type of sign but an interruption in signification, as a break in or with language.  This suggestion fits with Barthes’s ‘punctum’ in which it is seen as more of a ‘flash’ which “illuminates the indexical specificity of the recorded voice” and not just a piece of photographic theory as with Peirce’s suggestion of the index as a type of sign denoting its object by the virtue of an actual connection.

There is, however, a merging of the two as shown in the following three aspects of indexicality:

  1. The voice is a detail/partial object that imposes itself on the spectator/listener as semiotic excess, causing an interruption in its interpretation.
  2. It preserves memory – when recorded it serves as a reminder of mortality.
  3. The voice is brought into being and given an identity, it engages the spectator/listener on a greater level than the visual and in so doing, places them in a world of representation and discourse – restoring the index to its most basic of definitions, that of the pointing finger.

“Aural stories” that is, oral stories as heard by others share some of the permanence of an image and “preserve not just the story, but also the access of that particular story by making one complicit in its narration again and again.  They conjure up images of the speaker, allowing the spectator/listener to engage their senses and envisage how they would look, their surroundings and conditions that were prevalent at the time.

Within the settings of St Pancras station, Lavinia Greenlaw’s work, In Audio Obscura, equipped the listener with headphones as they entered the crowds. Boundaries were dissolved as fragments of individual narratives and glimpses of interior worlds glanced off one another. Overhearing these voices, the listener is immersed in private thoughts in a very public space.  I found it very evocative and rather than conjuring up images of those speaking, it was more a case of projecting the voices onto those that were in the immediate vicinity and joining the two together from that angle.

Whilst working on community workshops in Tottenham, the collective I am involved in recorded each session which we incorporated into the exhibition held at 810 High Road and the current one at the Bruce Castle Museum.  These were used as background to help the viewer by way of the index to conjure up thoughts and images of the workshops and their atmosphere.

Tension, Time and Tenderness: Indexical Traces of Touch in Textiles – Claire Pajaczkowska


Claire Pajaczkowska’s essay suggests that semiotics is a good way to explain why the trace of the hand within representation is capable of signifying memories of profoundly affective states.  The semiotics of ‘the textile’ is needed in order to show how specifically material meaning in textiles is founded on embodied knowledge and affect, that exist as indexical traces of the touch, handling and holding signifying the presence of an absence of the body.

The meaning of this is found in the concepts containing the linguistic root ‘tain’, or ‘ten’ from the Latin, tenere, to hold.  Words such as tension, tend, tendency, tenderness, attain, maintain, pertain, entertain.  These all refer meaning to the pre-symbolic material bedrock of bodily emotional experience.

Because much of the human climatic environment is textile, from domestic interiors to medical materials there is a tendency to to ignore the immediate environment.  The cultural facts overdetermine the relationship that textiles have to the haptic sense.  Pajaczkowska suggests that the best ways in which to explore textiles’ matter and meaning is through investigating a method that would help to determine the extent to which textiles could be considered as a ‘language-like’ structure, given that language is the predominant articulation of culture.  She asks whether we should take Saussure’s semiology or Peirce’s semiotics as the correct method.

Saussure states that signifying systems are dependent on patterns of the combination of signs, as well as their internal structure.  The sign is a relationship between the signifier, or the material bedrock and the signified, the abstract content.  When this material and abstract are connected, there is meaning.  When signifier and signified are expressed, there is a sign.  Few signs have a single meaning as most depend on other signs within two axes of difference – the axis of selection and the axis of combination.  This collection of differences is the pattern that Saussure identified as the structure of meaning.

In Peirce’s theory of semiotics we are offered an alternative method.  For him, the relationship between signifier and signified takes place across a spectrum of relational qualities that can be identified at three points of qualitative experience – these are the firstness or icon – an iconic image of the sun (a diagrammatical circle with rays spreading outwards), the secondness or index – a weather vane (pointing a visible trace in the direction and movement of the wind) and the thirdness or symbol – signs which have an ‘unmotivated’ or abstract connection with the signifier and meaning, (words which have no relation to their conditional content).

Threads of Feeling - Foundling Museum

Whilst the stitch is a sign dependent on its relationship between its functional quality and the ideas it suggests and each type takes its meaning in part from its function as well as the way certain buttons are attached or the style of stitch used, I feel the symbolic form is often forgotten in relation to textiles.

The Foundling Museum’s Threads of Feeling combined the functional quality of the object and the text on display with the highly charged symbolic and emotive qualities that were central to the exhibition.  Swatches of fabric and ribbon (Britain’s largest collection of everyday 18th century textiles) were left with babies at the Foundling Hospital as a form of identification should their mother be in a position to return and claim him or her.  Although heavily leaning towards patterned and colourful fabrics there are also examples of plainer more mundane fabrics which would have been worn by ordinary women of the period.  Most of these swatches would have been cut from the babies’ clothing which would, in turn have been made out of discarded adult garments.  Through this ‘handing down’ I feel one is able to truly see the indexical traces of the touch, handling and holding which signifies the presence of an absence of the body.




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