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Visible Speech (2018)
Collaborative performance with the Manchester Deaf Centre
The Portico Library
8th May, 2018

In 1867 Alexander Melville Bell published Visible Speech, a complex system of phonetic symbols developed to represent the position of the speech organs in articulating sounds. It was intended to ‘improve’ the vocal articulation of deaf people, forming part of a widespread campaign in the discouragement of British Sign Language and other non verbal forms of communication, with disastrous effect. An original copy of this text is held at The Portico Library.

Prompted by my research, I initiated a collaborative performance with members of Manchester Deaf Centre, devised over several weeks of workshops. The performance invited members to select symbols from Visible Speech and re-interpret or re-claim their meaning in a non-verbal manner, an improvised process which set off an unlimited chain of interpretations across the group. By introducing non verbal communication back into the system that sought to erase it, the performance intended to undermine Bell’s ideology and provoke questions around language, power and freedom of expression, then and now.

Rowland Hill © 2019