The Voice as Uncanny Index in Susan Hiller’s The Last Silent Movie

From Art Journal 72, no. 2 (Summer 2013)

Susan Hiller, The Last Silent Movie, 2007, plate 1 from a series of 25 etchings completed in 2008, ea. 14-1/2 x 16-3/4 in. (37 x 42.5 cm) (artwork © Susan Hiller)

In the darkened projection room, the viewer hears twenty-five voices in succession speaking short passages in extinct or endangered languages. Susan Hiller collected the recordings for her twenty-one-minute audiovisual work The Last Silent Movie from a variety of archival sources. In some cases, the narrator is the last known speaker of the language. The piece includes a series of etchings hang nearby; they transcribe the sound waves produced by phrases from each of the collected sound clips.

The artist writes that the work “allows us to hear the words and voices of people mostly now dead. In The Last Silent Movie, some of them sing, some tell stories, some recite vocabulary lists, and some of them, directly or indirectly, accuse us, the listeners, of injustice.”

This passage in the K’ora language of South Africa is voiced by its last surviving speaker, Mukalap, at a 1938 conference of linguists in Johannesburg, where it was recorded on wax. The entire minute-long speech is translated in Kokoli’s essay.