Jeremy O. Turner’s personal commentary on:
Peter Walsh (1997). The Web and the Unassailable Voice. Ch.24. Pp. 229-236. (ch. 24, MDA). Ross Parry [Ed.] Museums in a Digital Age.London: Routledge, 2010.
Walsh basically argues that the generic narrator’s voice for museum audio tours represents dubious intentions through its often “patronizing” and institutional tone of voice (Walsh in Parry 2010:230). Further, Walsh claims that the unassailable voice does not seem to believe or understand what it says (expresses the collective museum committee’s bureaucratic voice). Walsh generally considers the disembodied narrating voice to be vaguely irritating and even turns people off from visiting museums. For Walsh, this voice should be “endured rather than enjoyed”. Part of this is due to its “know-it-all” tone that uses an endless monologue to appear “polished” and authoritative.
Walsh claims that such a voice would not be useful in a Web environment. However, I believe that Walsh is taking a very reductive stance based on his experience of 1990s-era digital data-base repositories (i.e. merely “a library” […] “without librarians”, Ibid:231) rather than the full performative palette available to the fantastical affordances of virtual worlds and augmented reality. His claim that the web is a “faddish new medium” (Ibid.) just goes to show how dated this article has already become. He is right to claim that communication is not (always) a monologue but can be a dialogue. Fortunately, the anachronistic “World wide web” from the 1990s has been transmuted into a meta-medium “world” of multi-personal communication, chimera ontologies and hybrid synthetic realities. Within this new paradigm, institutions such as museums only need to pretend to be authoritative to be worthwhile. Now more than ever, museums have the option of engaging in a welcome form of institutional role-playing activity as part of the exhibition experience. Ultimately, museum collections have the opportunity to have artifacts and mentifacts “come to life” in their “imaginary world”. Especially for conventional and online museums, it helps to engage the audience theatrically and having this type of “unassailable” voice does provide a sense of institutional purpose to be derived from this total experience. Such an experience is indeed suitable for the 21st century’s interest in historical role-playing – as shown in video games and chat-based virtual worlds.
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Walsh’s “Wizard of OZ” metaphor was actually applied for one of my own interactive character installations at the Surrey Art Gallery’s Techlab in 2006. This top-down “voice of authority” mythos can be re-purposed to re-vivify a sense of awe and mystery for re-experiencing museum and art-gallery collections. For the Techlab, I created and projected a large vertical avatar that mimicked Barnett Newman’s iconic painting “The Voice of Fire”  (Walsh 1997 in Parry 2010:229). This avatar was a long red-vertical stripe (almost the same size as the original stripe) and its world was the blue-space behind it. Unlike the original painting (collected by the National Gallery), my “Voice of Fire” could come to life, navigate around the blue colour-field and directly interact with gallery attendees as well as speak with its own “unassailable voice”. This voice was actually mine (pitch-shifted through sub-woofer bass speakers) and I role-played in real-time as the Voice of Fire and answered questions about the nature of art, from what I felt was the painting’s own ontological perspective on its material confinement to museum institutions.
Both docents and kids who had visited my Voice of Fire exhibit had actually made a correlation between the “Voice of Fire” and the “Wizard of Oz”.
As with similar examples to the one I just gave, the aesthetic purposiveness of the art-work (and its appropriate cultural context and expressivity) should determine whether or not this type of voice should be employed. Whether or not to use an authoritative institutional voice like this is now a creative decision. Some artifacts and mentifacts require the process of its discovery (i.e. its frailties and human activity) to be hidden and contextually complete only to those who have created them. Otherwise, museums can self-reflexively acknowledge their inherently bureaucratic and stifled collective “personality” and utilize the theatrical aspects of institutional authority. By doing so, audience members of many demographic orientations may be further immersed into the “imaginary world” of the museum. Demographic dissonance only occurs if the artifact or mentifact is seen as culturally sensitive. For those objects/entities, it must be very clear where the disembodied voice is originating from and why. By not being contextually explicit or playful in its approach the museum voice might indeed dissuade attendees from wanting to explore the cultural nuances that unravel the more complex cultural aspects of an artifact/mentifact.
Walsh questions whether or not this voice should be remediated in cyberspace. In my opinion, the answer to this lies within how the individual wishes to navigate through the “cyberspace” experience. Timothy Leary famously distinguished between two kinds of exploratory “cyberspace”. Each kind derives from the ancient etymological root-word for “cyber”. In the Hellenic tradition, the root-word was “kubernetes” (“pilot”) and allowed any individual (in their time, naval captains) the option to navigate their own course through the environment (Leary 1999:366). However, the Roman Empire had reinterpreted this word as “gubernates” (Ibid.). Gubernates – instead of kubernetes – implies top-down institutional guidance (i.e. control and governance) when dealing with informational terrain (including bureaucracy). To conclude, cyberspace museums can choose to either allow the end-user to explore collections on their own (with their own agency) and/or seek guidance from an imaginary gubernatorial-guide.