Thuistezien 274 — 23.05.2021

Ilka Helmig
Speech Sound

What is a growing structure? Visual artist, Ilka Helmig shows portraits of slums of Paris in 1920. The images are made hundred years ago and show closely packed decrepit housing units in a deteriorated infrastucture. Next to these pictures, she shows similar pictures taken in present-day slums in Mumbay. The structure looks familiair. The only difference is that people of hundred years ago didn’t use plastic. ‘The principle how to get a roof over your head looks the same today as it did hundred years ago somewhere else in the world.’ These growing chaotic structures demonstrate human presence. Other examples of growing stuctures are cities. A satellite image of London by night illustrates her point. We can see that the well throdden paths become wide roads. Similar processes occur in our brain. ‘Today we know that the connections between the synapses develop more strongly when they are often used.’ Our activity changes the structure of our brain. Similarly, human activity creates distinctive patterns in cities and landscapes.

Helmig takes a similar approach to the visualisation of human speech sounds. No matter which language, human speech sounds are formed with the same speech organs. The phonetic alphabet is designed to represent the qualities of speech sounds. But how can you represent a sound in a visual but silent medium? In comics, you can imagine that a character is crying out or screeming. ‘We have the abstract shapes in the form of speech bubbles representing different emotions and sound volumes. But there is also a physical movement when we produce sound.’ There are a lot of air turbulences in nature, similar to an erupting vulcano, but we can’t see them. Turbulence is everywhere, in clouds or if an aeroplane is moving. We produce our own air turbulence when we pronounce vowels or consonants. In the 1960’s, German teacher Joanna Shinke experimented with the visualisation of sound structures. ‘She took pictures of people speaking different sounds and she made the air visible with cigarette smoke.’ The interesting thing is: the shapes of these clouds are reproducuable. Every time you make a speech sound, it is kind of the same cloud. ‘When we look at the world writing systems, it is amazing how many written forms have been developed for relatively few sounds we can make.’

In the Alphabetum exhibition, six examples of these air turbulences were displayed. The pictures depict smoke and visualize how a sound develops in the air. Helmig emphazises that the cloud only has the perfect shape for a split second. The drawings of the soundclouds in the Alphabetum are made by hand and it took a lot of time to create them . Four prints of Ilka’s drawings are featured in the booklet ‘Missing Scripts’. The booklet was especially made for the exhibition Alphabetum IV. Feel free to learn more about science, speech sounds and soundclouds in this PDF.

download booklet

Text: Marienelle Andringa