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Indian artist Shazia Salam during the exhibition titled Voice-Over-Voice in Dubai. Image Credit: Ahmad Alotbi/Gulf News

Dubai: The phrase “terms and conditions apply” is something that we hear quite frequently. But have you ever noticed how quickly and subtly it is mentioned in commercials? But what if the phrase is said in a different way?

Well, delving deep into such nuances of voice-over artists’ rituals, processes and procedures of the voice at work is a Dubai-based artist’s audio-visual exhibition. It has given voice to voiceover actors in a unique way.

Indian expat Shazia Salam’s exhibition titled “Voice-Over-Voice” is a collection of voice recordings, video installations and digital prints of spectral audio frequencies.

Salam has included three exercises that explore the rhythm of the voice to analyse the rhythm of work through the concept of capitalist labour.

“It is a series of exercises that engage with technological and bodily tempos such as repetition, synchronicity and lag,” said Salam.

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Shazia Salam worked with a dozen voice actors of different backgrounds and nationalities and featured seven of them in the exhibition. Image Credit: Ahmad Alotbi/Gulf News

“My goal was to question the calibration between man and machine that we are searching for through the concept of capitalist labour.”

Salam, who used to work as an architect in Dubai and India, said she realised her keen interest in the conceptual phase of a project. “Then I made a transition to art by working in different art galleries. But this is the first time that I’m using voice as a medium.”

Familiar voices

Not just for the average audiophile, this exhibition will ring bells of familiarity with UAE residents and even visitors who have been acquainted with the voices that bring a human touch to the country’s widely automated public services – either through automated phone messages, polite instructions in public places, flight announcements or radio commercials.

Salam worked with a dozen voice actors of different backgrounds and nationalities and featured seven of them in the exhibition.

“I wanted the work to be specific to the UAE and voice actors here as the voices used in the UAE are so much different from the voices used everywhere else.”

Salam started getting interested in the profession of voice artists here when she used to drive around with her sister Sheza Salam, listening to the radio. “My sister used to work in a radio network in London as a copywriter. So, most of the time when we were listening to radio, it was not just listening to any of the music or the radio programme. We were very much interested in the voices behind those programmes or commercials.”

For her project, Salam conceived the broadcasts as cultural objects. “I interviewed voice actors to understand how they imbibe that profession using their languages, accents, expressions of emotions.”

Ts and Cs apply

“In the first exercise, I told them to continuously repeat the phrase ‘terms and conditions apply’ over and over again to improvise emotions,” she said.

“It’s a clause that is compulsory at the end of many commercials. It was very interesting to have it played with by the actors, who are used to saying it very quickly, allocating so much time and emotion.”

Seven voice actors took part in the exercise. Their recordings are played through wooden boxes that look similar to vintage movie cameras. The tripods that they are mounted on are in fact inspired from the land surveying stands that Salam used to see around the construction sites.

Salam said she chose to keep the wireless speakers that play the recorded voices in these particular boxes because she “wanted the voice to be very directional depending on where you are standing.” They are visually appealing as well, she said.

The production of the woodwork was done by Manish from Delta Contracting.

One of the voice artists featured, Monika Agarwal said, “it was very interesting to see how everything had come together from one idea of capitalism and its expression, impact, and takeaways in our daily life. “Ts and Cs apply”, for example, is a phrase we hear so often that we have accepted without even thinking that everything will come with its “conditions”, that all offers (of work/ sale/ anything) are essentially conditional, and not absolute.”

Happiness through voice

Award-winning voice over artist Ana Schofield, who is popular as the voice of a Dubai-based airline, did the second experiment by reading a script involving Dubai’s favourite mascots Modhesh and Dana of Dubai Summer Surprises.

Called the ‘Emotional State,’ the second experiment is a study of the emotional state of happiness expressed through voice.

“The exercise that I’ve given her is to increase the intensity of happiness in her voice as she goes along the script. You know, happiness sounds different in the voice, depending on your culture. It was very hard to do, but she being such a great professional, she did an amazing job. She started with a very neutral tone and as she goes, she goes absolutely excited, expressing various levels of happiness using her voice.”

Salam opines that the production of happiness is a necessity in capitalist labour.

“Service with a smile is not only for the service industry anymore. Being happy is as much a part of your job and it’s something that corporations enforce onto you and it’s a very important aspect of capitalist labour. So it’s a study on that while she is increasing the internal state of happiness. The script also questions the variant of happiness that is required and what happens if that variant of happiness transforms into something else?”

The experiment is accompanied by a graphic of its spectral frequency display. It shows the various levels of frequency and at which point the voice is the loudest at a particular frequency. “Interestingly enough, the display also has the same visual language and code as a heat map and it correlates a lot with the script because the script takes place during Dubai summer.”

Mirroring voices

The third exhibit “The Mirror Exercise,” is a two-channel video installation featuring Dubai-based voiceover professionals Dima Wehbe and Afaf Shawwa Bibi.

It’s an exercise in which one of the actors is projecting or creating a behaviour through voice and the second actor has to act as a mirror and reflect everything the same way.

“In this exercise, I made the person who is reflecting the voice, and the person who is projecting the voice to keep interchanging as we go along. So after a point, it is unclear whose, in fact, is the authoritative voice.”

Apart from many generic interview questions, Salam has chosen questions from what is known as the first personality test developed during the First World War.

“It was the first time a personality test was used in the workspace to assess candidates. What it was assessing was if recruits were more prone to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and their susceptibility to shell shock. Thus began the still prevalent practice of personality tests in the workplace. Many of these tests are focussed on the construct of employee maladjustment and were deemed important in screening out applicants who would create workplace disturbances.”

The Residue Room

Working with audio engineer David Victor, Salam also decided to set up what is called a “Residue Room” where all the sounds edited out from the final files of all three exercises can be heard. That includes the sound of excessing breathing by the voice artists.

Salam said the rhythm of the blue light used in the room has been borrowed from a patent that Apple has for its computers. The ‘Breathing Status LED Indicator’ patent describes a “blinking effect of sleep-mode indicator that mimics the rhythm of breathing”.

“It’s the same rhythm that you see when you put your computer in sleep mode or standby mode. The light turns on and off like someone is breathing,” said Salam.

When and where?

Running till February 21 at Tashkeel, Nad Al Sheba, the exhibition is a culmination of Salam’s year-long participation in Tashkeel’s Critical Practice Programme (CPP). The programme invites visual artists to embark on a one-year development programme of studio practice, mentorship and training that culminates in a major solo presentation. During Tashkeel’s 2022 CPP, Salam was mentored by artist Taus Makhacheva and curator and researcher Sabih Ahmed.