Fingernails on a Blackboard: Bella

analog video transferred to digital
Single-channel video
color, silent
16 minutes
Dimensions variable

Fingernails on a Blackboard: Bella investigates the voice as the embodied medium of speech.

The video deploys the transcript of a session between politician Bella Abzug – the feminist and New York Congresswoman – and a vocal coach.  The transcript was made from an audio cassette that I discovered in the Bella Abzug Papers, 1970–1998 held in the Archival Collections of Columbia University Libraries.  At the time, I was researching the 1977 National Women’s Conference. Bella Abzug was one of the co-chairs of our national effort, the first and only time that the United States government has ever funded such convening. In Abzug’s archive there was  a very large collection of audio cassettes. Audio cassettes are such an awkward object in an archive because you can’t easily listen to them as many aren’t yet transcribed or digitized. They  sit waiting for someone to come along and request to listen.  Amongst these audio cassettes, which were identified by descriptive labels, I came across one that was particularly intriguing labeled simply: “Voice Exercises.”

I do not know the circumstances of the lesson and if somebody recommended Abzug do it.  On the tape, there are two voices, that of a voice coach and that of Bella Abzug.  The voice lesson seems to be both about controlling the voice and pacifying it, calming it down, neutralizing it.  There are vocal expressions that are clearly speech, and others are pure sound vocalizations—for example, one that I use in The Nature of the Beast is the repetition of the word “kitty.” During their meeting, the pair work at neutralizing Abzug’s regional accent and softening her tone – strategically altering her voice to something more universal and soothing and, ostensibly, more successful in the political arena.

I moved the transcription of the cassette into an image through an old analogue video titler from the 1980s, in order to translate, or transliterate, the audio cassette into the dominant medium through which Bella Abzug was being interrogated and inspected, at the time, television broadcasting.

Fingernails on a Blackboard: Bella addresses the political consequences of gender and the specific limitations of power, communication and relatability in the specter of public speech.