CIRCA No 85 autumn 1998, "Irish International Contemporary Art/Visual Culture"

'The Sound Of Bells And Bellies! acoustic authority and sound effects'

by Shirley McWilliam

The academic auditorium

Like Phelan's Periphery Alastair MacLennan's inaugural professorial lecture (1994) provides a critique of the academic institution and of categories of knowledge. Produced during the period when ventriloquism was a significant and contested feature of Irish political culture it strategically employed the thrown voice and the mouthing of the words of others. The professorial lecture is the announcement by a university of its conferment of a badge of status upon one of its academics. It stages a ritualistic witnessing of academic authority and thereby acts as a verification of the legitimacy of the academic lineage. Like the practice of the British monarchy (instituted since the birth of James III when there was some doubt as to whether a papish baby had been smuggled into the queen's childbed in a warming pan), in which delegates of the state observe the birth of any potential heir to the crown in order to guarantee that the royal heir issues from the royal body and that the line of succession remains Protestant and legitimate, the professorial lecture audience expect to witness the professorial voice issue from the professorial body. The new professor is required to profess: to make a public declaration of expertise and to announce and effect his/her entry into the institutional order. The utterance of 'profession' is a performative act: like the swearing of an oath or the declaration of marriage vows, it is a linguistic action, a doing of something with words.

MacLennan foiled the 'profession' by delivering his lecture without live speech: he presented a set of slide images, a sequence of performative actions and a tape-recording of his voice. Instead of the linguistic performative act, MacLennan played a pre-recorded acoustic cut-up, a reading of a collage of statements from a diverse selection of philosophers, artists, activists, critics and celebrities, which was structured by a chance method. The strategy is a paean to the post-modern principles of appropriation, intertextuality, the non-linear text, the dissolution of boundaries between high and popular cultures and the death of the author(ity). Whilst the professorial body, live in the auditorium, arranged objects in an act of ritual labour, the non-professing voice, on tape, shifted and plundered like the spinning of the dial of a radio receiver. Into the university auditorium MacLennan smuggled a warming pan filled with his utterance of the voices of others. Whilst asserting his profession as an artist, he denied the audience the legitimising spectacle of the delivery of his voice from his body, of his profession as a professor.