Monika Balu

Face Beak & Topophones

Understanding people and their capabilities based on the ways they communicate is tricky. Once, after a failed start to a conversation with a stranger, I was asked if I speak English.

In my artistic practice, I investigate notions of auditory perception, language, communication, and the dilemmas of visualising sound. This interest stems from my personal experience of living with hearing loss.

By using a range of mediums including photography, text, sculpture, video and programming, I offer visual clues of the ways sounds may be perceived through other senses than hearing. I frequently search for an approach that is playful and humorous but allows room for interpretation.

Recently, I started to immerse myself in an exploration of the ways we talk to one another and how I can navigate related communicative struggles and collective anxiety.

Face Beak & Topophones is an ongoing project which reflects on the particularities of communication during a pandemic, and the ways it affects society at large, and people with hearing loss in particular. Being a part of this group, I often fear speaking with strangers through fabric face-masks and plexiglass shields, as the sound seems to be trapped, making me incredibly stressed whilst trying to keep up with the conversation. Inspired by the archival material from the 1918 influenza pandemic and the plague, I created a fictional object resembling the shape of a bird’s beak and a topophone. The latter, best described as double ear trumpets, were used by navigators during the Interwar Years (1919-1938). For this work, I dive into the current use of face masks by adding the elements which make, in fact, the functionality of it questionable. With Face Beak & Topophones I aim to show the importance of direct and open human communication. 
Champagne stemware, Tableware, Drinkware, Fluid, Gesture, Liquid
What challenges did you face in the process of making this work?

It is quite easy to come up with ideas and continue to add to them. But sometimes I struggle to decide how much of my work I want to make public and what position I take in relation to it; when to stop and stand for what I have made.
Vision care, Human body, Nose, Head, Skin, Hand, Eyebrow, Shoulder, Neck, Sunglasses
Hair, Sleeve, Eyelash
Flash photography, Outerwear, Sleeve, Gesture, Grass, Happy

How are you going to develop this project further?

In my mind, there are multiple ideas left to try! I am going to perform a respiratory test in a short video, as well as encounter people and have a conversation while wearing the mask.  I am also excited to create more items to attach to the face beak for customised use. 

What has the Lighthouse program done for you as a maker?

The Lighthouse program has given me guidance and support with regard to writing project proposals, pitching, and organising a number of activities to increase visibility. It was a safe bubble to try, fail and try again. Most importantly, I have a new network of passionate photographers and artists to seek out for advice as we grow together.

For her podcast episode, Monika Balu invited Dutch artist Rein Jelle Terpstra to discuss the relationship between sound and image, the impact of memory and absence, and how communication has changed as a result of to the ongoing pandemic.

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