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Arnolfini - est 1961

5Hz is a project to imagine an alternative evolution of voice for social bonding. Artist, Emma Smith gives us an introduction to the project.

The project evolved from conversations during my presentation of ∆E=W (Change in Energy = the Work) as part of 4 Days at Arnolfini in January 2013. Psycholinguist Dr Laurence White and musicologist Dr Emma Hornby were invited to contribute, sharing ideas on speech rhythm and resonance respectively as part of a live laboratory installed within Gallery 1. From conversations that emerged during this gathering there was a mutual interest to develop a project together and as a result of initial conversations on our shared interests we invited cognitive neuroscientist Dr Nina Kazanina to join the team.

Together we share an interest in vocal resonance and rhythm, and how this might affect social relations, for example through neurological entrainment. Emma Hornby’s work focuses on Western liturgical chant in the middle-ages with a particular interest in transmission, orality and the relation between words and music. Laurence White’s research explores the production and understanding of spoken language with a focus on the musicality of speech, particularly rhythm and timing. Nina Kazanina’s primary area of research is the psychology and cognitive neuroscience of language, from sentence processing and speech perception to the acquisition of syntax and meaning. As in all my practice, my interest is in human relations, intra-relationality and the ways we are connected beyond conscious perception.

The idea of 5Hz is to explore the power of voice to connect us to one another.

The project is inspired by research into the evolution of voice. In the recent history of human evolution the voice has primarily been used for spoken language. However, beyond 100,000 years ago, how our ancestors used their power of voice remains a mystery. A possibility suggested by some current research is that the voice originally evolved for the purpose of song. It is a beautiful idea to consider the possibility that as hominid species first began to vocalise we sang rather than spoke to one another as a means of communicating our social allegiances, particularly as we began to live together in larger groups.

With this in mind the motivation for the work is to imagine an alternative evolution of voice: to ask what might we sound like now had our evolutionary development prioritised social relations over the communication of explicit information. 

Over the coming year we will be staging a series of public experiments, laboratories and events including live electroencephalographic (EEG) scanning in response to a number of vocal stimuli, talks, discussions, activities and language evolution workshops. This research will be public and we invite you to join us – to create a new language we need to understand how we all respond and to do this we need as many people involved as possible!

Collaboration and participation are key to this project. A unique feature of our process is that we will be generating both science and art simultaneously – this is not an art project inspired by science but a genuine cross-disciplinary collaboration that will result both in art work and new scientific research. The research is also reliant on the public whose individual contributions will be central to the development of the language we produce. 

Ultimately the project will result in an exhibition at Arnolfini in March 2015 and the development of scientific papers. The project is commissioned by Arnolfini and supported by Wellcome Trust, Plymouth University, and the University of Bristol, whose wider networks and staff are also closely involved.

It is going to be an exciting year and we look forward to sharing it with you!


– Emma Smith

See more about the project here.