Krzysztof Wodiczko

Alien Staff

No aliens, residents, non-residents, legal and illegal immigrants, have voting rights, nor any sufficient voice or image of their own in official "public space." When given a chance by the media (mainstream or ethnic) to communicate their experience or to state their opinions, demands and needs, immigrants find themselves framed and silenced. Feeling set-up by preconceived categories of strangeness and difference, they have no chance to convey the often unbearable complexity of their lives, the world of differences between them and the confusing and antagonistic voices within each immigrant group, family or individual. These are the strangers in the process of becoming non-strangers, double aliens in de-alienation. The Alien Staff is a form of portable public address equipment and cultural network for individuals and groups of immigrants. It is an instrument that gives the individual immigrant a chance to "address" directly anyone in the city who may be attracted by the symbolic form of the equipment and the character of the "broadcasted" program. The Alien Staff resembles the biblical shepherd's rod. It is equipped with a high-tech mini-monitor and a small loud-speaker. A video player is located in a special shoulder bag. The small size of the monitor, its eye-level location and its closeness to the operator's face are important aspects of the design. As the small image on the screen may attract attention and provoke observers to come very close to the monitor and therefore the operator's face; the usual distance from the immigrant, the stranger, decreases.

The Mouthpiece

The Mouthpiece is a piece of equipment for strangers. It covers the mouth of the wearer like a gag. A small video monitor and loudspeakers are installed at the center of the instrument and in front of the user's mouth. The monitor and the loudspeakers replace the real act of speech with an audio-visual broadcast of pre-recorded, edited, electronically perfected and quicked searched statements, questions, answers, stories, etc.

The Mouthpiece "replaces" the immigrant's actual act of speech with the moving image of the immigrant's lips and the sound of the immigrant's voice. It is designed to be as attractive as contemporary virtual reality gadgets. The clear resolution of the liquid crystal screen of the video monitor attracts viewer's attention. The small size of the screen (no larger than the actual size of human lips) forces viewers to come close to the user's face in order to see the image of speaking lips and to hear the voice clearly. Thus the distance between the immigrant wearing the mouthpiece and the viewers, non-immigrants and other immigrants, decreases physically and, hopefully, psychologically as well.

For a speechless stranger living in a culturally, politically and ethically unnatural situation, wearing an artificial and artistically concieved speech act equipment is a natural thing to do. In today's migration era, the wearer of the Porte-parole appears as a prophetic story-teller and a poetic interrupter of the continuity of established life in public space and dominant culture. This stranger becomes an expert and a virtuoso in the technology and the artistry of speech, equipped to speak better than others who have yet to overcome speechlessness in their encounter with strangers.

The Mouthpiece is a further evolution of the Alien Staff as the next generation of speech equipment designed for immigrants. The previous instrument was meant to operate as an attribute, an artiface, a reliquary, a portable memorial to recall in public the "private history" of the immigrant experience. It functioned as a third party between immigrants and non-immigrants and among immigrants themselves; it functioned as the immigrant's double, and as an inspiration for the dialogue between the segregated worlds of the people who entered into conversation around it.

The new instrument is a more radical type of equipment than the Alien Staff. It is directly attached to the body (the face) of the immigrant, becoming an extension of the body. The user himself or herself is no longer delegating power to the instrument, but is integrated organically with it, transforming him or her into a kind of cyborg, a virtual subject.

The Mouthpiece points to the absurdity of any attempt at depriving speech rights in a democratic society. It responds to the actual political process and experience of such deprivation, while at the same time it helps to translate this disadvantage into a new advantage. In other words, it is an instrument whose function is to empower those who are deprived of power. It is designed to assert the universal communicative rights introduced by the Declaration of the Rights of Man in France, assured by the First Ammendment to the Constitution of the United States and guaranteed by most national constitutions since. An implication of those declarations is that no artifice can be created to restrict communicative rights and conversely, no artifice whose aim is to aid in the exercise of communicative rights can be legally banned. Its basic purpose is to provide a means of saying all the things that must be said and that no one wants to hear. In doing so it does not prevent anyone else from doing the same. The Alien Mouthpiece is thus a democratic artifice.

The Mouthpiece allows its owner to compose and pre-record his or her acts of speaking and to replay and reenact it later in a particularly chosen time and place in private or public situations. This process reinforces a specific kind of power already acquired by immigrants, the artistic power of speech invention and storytelling. The storyteller has always been forced to develop an art of speech in order to tell what has usually been untold and for which there is no ready-made metaphor. The storyteller creates a stituation in which repressed feelings, translated into stories, can be effectively expressed. The wearer of the alien Mouthpiece is a storyteller who is an expert in technology of speech in the cyberspace era, an alien who has arrived in a xenophobic land and who looks strangely familiar to us who have yet to overcome our speechlessness in the face of our repressed fears.

This project, like the previous alien Staff, creates an artifice that provokes or inspires communication or translation, a display of what is usually hidden. The instrument suggests an acknowledgement of the richness and complexity of people who combine both "natural" and "artificial" qualities of life. This means that feeling artificial (not at home, alienated from oneself or others) becomes a process that can open up new questions and introduce the possibility for different identities and communities beyond nationalisms and fixed notions of difference, crossing social and psychological boundaries, meeting on new common ground where the strangeness can be shared.

"Aliens" equipped with specially designed instruments might appear perfectly natural in the contemporary migratory environment of global strangeness. Exposing their own disintegration and displaced identity, they provoke and inspire the larger process of the disintegration of identities among non-immigrants. They may spread the communicable (contagious) process of the exploration of one's own strangeness. They might help create new links and affinities between immigrants and non-immigrants on the basis of the recognition of their common strangeness.

With the use of digital technology, the process of recording and editing the image and sound of a speaking mouth will become an artistic endeavor. The process of composing and pre-recording each speech act in private is psychologically, politically and artistically as important as the public live performance and its social discourse.

Advanced video editing, digital enhancement and transformation of both the image and the sound of the speech (through the most recent Macintosh software) is critical to the project. The technology of video production will help to create a metaphoric synthesis of often overlapping and displaced memories, fragments of experiences, statements, stories, words and sentences, all of which correspond to the unstable identity of the stranger who is living through the pain of displacement and becoming. Electronic montage will allow for changes in the speed of the lips on the screen and the change of frequency characteristics of sound, for dubbing, correcting, playing with and multiplying accents and gender indicators. Fragments of films and other videos can be inserted and other people's lips can be juxtaposed with the immigrant's, for example.

The careful choice of locations and situations for the performative use of the Alien Mouthpiece is crucial. Official events and symbolic environments are the best, because they are the least expected situations for immigrants. The presence of a group of Mouthpiece users is also essential. The image of a crowd of aliens appearing as if they have just landed from another planet (which happens to be our own) is most desireable.

In the next stage of development of the project, a portable computer and additional electronic devices will be added to allow for quick searching through a large repetoire of pre-recorded speeches using the operator's voice as a command. In this way the immigrant will have a greater variety of speeches ready for all anticipated situations and will be able to choose the appropriate video tape to respond immediately to any question. As portable equipment improves technically, links to satellite communications and the Internet will allow an immediate dialogue among Alien Mouthpiece users, enabling an exchange of experiences and coordination of their presence and their actions nationally and internationally.

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