The telephone box, let’s call it ‘Chris’, is part vocal cenotaph, part gramophone, part ventriloquist and part sound installation. Just occasionally it is a telephone and sometimes it pretends to be an oracle. It merges four ideas. The test devised by Alan Turing to validate whether a machine can successfully impersonate a human, known as the Turing Test (Turing, 1950). A method used in Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research in which a machine interface is controlled by unseen human operatives, known as The Wizard of Oz method (Kelley, 2018), the unrealized machine proposed by Thomas Edison for communication with the dead in his paper ‘The Realms Beyond’ (Edison, 2015) and a fascination and fear I share with many others for ventriloquism (Connor, 2000).
The motivation for the installation erupted when my cancer diagnosis in 2014 seemed drastic and I felt the need to leave some sort of memorial to myself and a record of my obsessions. Happily, that urgency has abated but the desire to bring the project to fruition has not.
The choice of a speech-based installation was inspired by my career in the vocal arts, mainly as an opera director, my research in computer generated speech and Auslander’s observations on Liveness, (Auslander, 1999). In particular whether liveness (a quality of real-time live performance) can be faked in a non-live performance e.g. a recording. Knowing how to fake those qualities that make a performance feel ‘live’ was an aptitude I had seen in many professional actors. Of course, this met a different requirement from my telephone box as the performances were already live and the need was to create a sense of real-time spontaneity, of making every performance seem as if it is the first, but I speculated that the methods I saw exploited could be tried on non-live platforms such as computer voices. In particular I had become greatly enamored by a method of speaking Shakespeare’s verse that John Barton (Barton, 1984) and Peter Hall (Hall, 2004) had taught. The method required the actor to set aside factors such as character, situation and motivation and scrutinize the structure of the verse and prose, in particular observing line endings and full stops. This was a rigorous procedure required significant discipline on the part of the actor and needless to say some would rebel against its constraints, however those that persisted were often surprised when they discovered that the underlying ‘musical score’ of Shakespeare’s verse, if followed, could produce some remarkably ‘lively’ results. I had the idea that this procedural method of creating this liveliness in speech was something that a computer, with no capacity for motivation or real emotion, might be able to replicate. Of course, there turned out to be so much more to it than that however a sense that the answer to convincing, emotional, characterful computer-generated speech could be something other than just aping human speech, still interests me.
Auslander, P. (1999) Liveness: performance in a mediatized culture. London, New York: Routledge.
Barton, J. (1984) Playing Shakespeare. London: Methuen.
Britishtelephones.com (2018) Tele No. 232. Available online: http://www.britishtelephones.com/t232.htm
Cereproc (2018) Welcome to CereProc | CereProc Text-to-Speech. Available online: https://www.cereproc.com/
Coltman, R. (2018) The Telephone Box | Kiosk No 6. Richard Coltman. Available online: http://www.the-telephone-box.co.uk/kiosks/k6/
Connor, S. (2000) Dumbstruck: a cultural history of ventriloquism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Edison, T. (2015) Thomas Edison: The Lost Chapter • ITC Voices. Available online: http://itcvoices.org/thomas-edison-the-lost-chapter/
Hall, P. (2004) Shakespeare’s advice to the players. London: Oberon Books.
Kelley, J. F. (2018) Where did the term Wizard of Oz come from. Available online: http://www.musicman.net/oz.html
Turing, A. (1950) Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, VOL. LIX. No.236., 433-460.