I have this desire to be obscured. All the time. And obstructed and invisible. So I did a ventriloquist horror comedy. Let me (try to) explain to you.
The veil between oneself and the spectator can be extremely fragile.
I walk into a toy store. I am seven years old. The shop is in the Lower Tything of Worcester, England. I have always lived in Worcester, England. Life is both idyllic and dull and I hate school and I hate birthday parties and I hate being asked “What do you think?” The store opened a few months ago. “Tell Me A Story” reads hand painted wooden signage beneath an iron model teddy bear. Shelf upon shelf of plush puppets, stacked to the ceiling. Clowns, firefighters, doctors, magicians. All the voiceless characters you could imagine.
It’s a Saturday and I walk into the store with my mother and forty pounds of spare pocket money. I know exactly what I want.
“The witch please.”
It seems to me that ventriloquism is not, as most definitions suggest, the process of putting words into another’s mouth. Rather, ventriloquism is something else, putting new words—words freed from the conditioning of a fleshy body—into your own mouth. Like a verbal and requisitioning apparition. Like being possessed. Linda Blair, devour your heart.
Ventriloquism is obviously an act of dissimulation and deviation. So the connection between this clichéd art form and mediumship shouldn’t be hard to spot. But it took 15 (lonely) years of (going crazy for lols) talking to a witch puppet for the alliance to fully reveal itself. There are obvious connections, since the birth of ventriloquism lies in the obscure arts – ancient Greek priests claiming to speak to gods or demons, people believing in “engastrimyths” (which translates to “belly speakers “) that had demons belching words through the orifices of their hosts (Yes please).
During England’s Reformation, a mystical ventriloquist nun, Elizabeth Barton, was hanged for witchcraft, when she prophesied that King Henry VIII should annul his marriage to Anne Boylen – I can only dream of being that punk . Less obvious is the link than my solo exhibition, voice of evil, begins to scratch at the surface of (with a small gnarled red claw). It is the idea that ventriloquism, like Victorian spiritualism, involves an element of freedom in self-expression – often sexual self-expression – through an act of disguise.
In the late 1800s seance events gained such a reputation for sexual deviance that some thought they were actually a (really scary) front for orgies – I can only dream of people suggesting the same of my show.
In both cases, the veil between oneself and the spectator can be extremely fragile. And it often is. In some ways, the more fragile, the better. The collective belief of the gathered people in the most powerful of illusions – be it voice or necromancy – opens the door to the unattended self of the performer. Florence Cook – my favorite recording medium and a prominent influence for voice of evil – claimed the ability to summon a full bodily spirit, named Katie ‘Naughty Gurl’ King. I might have added the “naughty gurl”. Second, mediumship was considered a “typically feminine” practice and most mediums were teenage girls. It was believed that, to be a good vessel of spiritual energy, a medium had to be “passive”. As a teenager, Cook materialized this ghost in the early seventies.
Katie King sounds like the greatest ventriloquist model in history to me. Records say Cook would emerge from a closet under the guise of Katie, ‘behaving inappropriately’ – kissing men, placing their hands under her baggy clothes. People loved the legend of the spirit so much that when, during a session in Hackney, a lawyer tried to prove that Cook and King were one by grabbing his hands and waist in a non-consensual way, the other participants snatched it from its grip. Although they clearly and physically touched her, the congregation argued that Katie King – the truly real and excited ghost – would naturally resemble Cook, since spirits take energy and matter from their mediums.
It’s ventriloquism. It echoes words I’ve heard countless times – “Of course, you’re not the one saying that.” A dummy is precisely that – stupid, in every way. But the credence given to a stupid hoax gives full license for “deviance” to the “passive” – the ventriloquist. This “feminine passivity” perceived in the Victorian era is powerful when presented as the neutral, the frame. The ventriloquist assumes the “straight man” position while his greatest delight is his dummy’s witticisms.
‘The witch please,’ I said.
And I came out with a verbal, commandeering apparition, wearing a pointed black hat, on my right hand. The store only stayed open for about a month. Here today, gone tomorrow. As if he only existed for me to meet a strange little witch who gave me a voice.
I have this desire to be obscured, obstructed and invisible. But also seen. Really, really seen.
In the 16th century, amid the witch trials in Europe, Christians proclaimed that ventriloquism was literally a “practice begotten from hell itself”. Come to my solo exhibition, voice of evilto see me prove them right.