Carrying in the Mouth
Updated: Oct 1
Too recently for my liking I went to speak but could not. I was invited to speak an answer that would also be a disclosure, and despite us both already knowing what the unsaid sentence was, it still needed to be voiced aloud. This would do something — as voices can but are rarely given credit for doing.
Speaking is a rising, dynamic opening and creation of an event. Forming undisclosed things into vocal sound is difficult because these things often have a weight and a heat that more casual forms of speech don’t have. These are sounds that have already been shaped internally by our gut and by bursas, tissue, muscles, cells — impressed by the shapes between the organs and pressed by memories held at locations in the torso, the thigh and the nape. An embodied vocality, these are events of the body, the body in our mouths. Sometimes there are things you cannot bear to speak.
Yet, the event of speaking a disclosure is not only about speaking, it is also about hearing your own voice sound this thing aloud. The fact of the voice. It leaves your lips and touches your ears and in that movement between the lip and the ear it holds your face / holds you.
In this instance, when I was invited to speak, I engaged my vocal chords, I pushed my breath against my sternum in anticipation and readiness, and as I was already internally, repeatedly saying the saying, despite my trying to release it, I remained utterly silent — wordlessness — the sound I made before this suspension was a half heave. I had attempted to throw my words out, to release them, expecting them to emerge fully and intact, but something held the sound back and I sat in silence. I was frozen for minutes, my mouth parted ready to speak but not truly ready to hear myself say. I didn’t manage it, I gave in, sometimes there are things you cannot bear to hear.
For a performance titled Fault (2019) on Giudecca in Venice, I found an area of movement, a patch of land between the canal and residential houses that people walked through and in to get to other places, and I stood with my right pocket full of small white stones that looked like teeth.
I had collected the stones from the sea near the house I grew up in, on the West coast of Cumbria. I moved the stones, one at a time, from my right pocket with my right hand to my mouth. And then, with my left hand, from my mouth to my left pocket. A three-step task that was complicated further by speaking one of three words [Fault, Bells, Slab] at each stage of the task.
Starting with both hands in their own pockets:
1. Right hand locates a single stone and holds it between index finger and thumb and remove hand from pocket, speak first word, place stone in mouth and return hand to pocket.
2. With stone in the mouth, resting on tongue, speak second word.
3. Left hand is taken from left pocket and collects stone from the tongue, as stone is removed from mouth and placed into pocket, speak third word, keep hand in pocket.
This task provided a rhythm, performed slowly, between five and seven seconds for each stone to be moved from one pocket to the other via the mouth and for three words to be spoken. It takes around forty-five minutes for all the stones to be transferred from one pocket to the other, at which point the task is repeated in the opposite direction.
The words spoken are permutated, so the first three stones are mapped to the words like this:
These words were diverted and rerouted by chance and mistake during the performance so that each individual word shifted slightly to a similar sounding word over the course of three hours.
SALT FELLS BAD
FELLS BAD SALT
BAD SALT FELLS
SALT BAD FELLS
BAD FELLS SALT
FELLS SALT BAD
After three-hours the original three words unintentionally replaced:
FOLD CELLS BACK
CELLS BACK FOLD
BACK FOLD CELLS
FOLD BACK CELLS
BACK CELLS FOLD
CELLS FOLD BACK
Following a problem with the skin around my lips my acupuncturist performed bloodletting, pricking and bleeding. He explained that in Traditional Chinese Medicine certain parts of the body relate to other parts, for example, and in this instance, the knee and the mouth. He located a point beneath my knee and used a needle to gently let a small amount of blood. He did this on both knees, carefully dripping blood from beneath the patella, dabbing at this new mouth with some white gauze. He said this will remove heat and damp from my lips and the effects were almost instant.
Two mouths in my legs gently release heat and pressure from my body. The invisible limbs of speech, two new mouths but what do I say with them what can I say? Glacial thoughts extend towards the folds, the teeth removed, the gums touching each other. Everyone knows what blood tastes like.
When I came out to my parents at seventeen, I had the word ‘sorry’ running parallel to all my rehearsed sentences but was determined not to say it. In the heat of the saying that I was gay, and the rushed fighting of emotional response — knowing that my twin brother was in the other room 'just in case', as he said to me, ‘anything kicks off’ — my fingers folded back over my cuffs blotting my eyes with my sleeve, I was determined to not apologise.
I got caught out by my own rule almost immediately. In defence to the first responses from my parents I said I’m sorry if, and trailing off I corrected myself, no I’m not sorry, I’m not.
I’m not. I am. I declare. I use these words. I own them, I hold them. I carried this particular unsaid sentence with me, we carry them in our mouths. Grafted to our gums, unable to swallow. Years later I carry other sentences, so much longer than three words, coiled around my mouth several times in order to keep them.
Carrying in the mouth does two things. Firstly, it threatens to reveal itself, and you, by slipping out in various ways. This may be all of a sudden or slowly inching out or even attaching itself to other sounds, words and sighs. It is never not present in all other spoke words and sounds, everything else passes through that which is carried in the mouth. And because of this, carrying in the mouth does a second thing, it alters the sound of our voice. It unfolds as a tone gathered through our speech and others can hear this.
In many ways the things we carry in our mouths may be heard more than we like to admit. The sound of my voice exposed me so many times in adolescence, it could reveal me with only a single syllable or even a cough or ahem. The voice is a revelation; it has the ability to lay bare. Queer voices cut through unsafe spaces in curves. Queer voices spiral and raise with the heat of the breath carried up from the knees. Queer voices hold you.
If we cannot bring ourselves to speak then the things we carry can be practiced, or mouthed, or even spoken to oneself but this is different to hearing your own voice in the presence of others. There are many mouths inside your mouth, and they extend with and extend as sound, as tone, as stolon.
Planished, his voice produces a climate.
I like to call the throat the marshes and hold them in the palm of my hand, cambered like the hull of a ship. Everyone knows bloods taste. Saying is a ligature a cupping the ears.
Flushed as in flat, it binds me to the action, it does not loosen. The body is pressed, to the roof, until it feels nothing like a body. I am really trying to give light to a low planted seed, simply by opening my mouth. Pierced the guts. The climber, teacher, audio, discipline. Beneath a room with (loud) speakers coiled inside and my head is tilted back — vocal — but sourced from the underside of my chin. A quiet sound, scratches down to the waist until it feels like not having a body. Dry and wet.
Once I put my baby teeth, collected by my mam and given to me as a gift, I put them back, back into my adult mouth. The past and the present created an event, a gathering, an action. The impression of carrying in the mouth, something you can’t say and can’t put back.
Nathan Walker 2020
Photographer: Mika Elo
Note: The performance Fault was presented at Convocation: on expanded language-based practices curated by Emma Cocker, Cordula Daus and Lena Séraphin as part of Research Pavilion for 58th Venice Biennale 2019.