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A0019 – Webster, Mass Ventriloquism

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Mass Ventriloquism was performed in 2010 by a group of fifteen women inside the belly of the Malm Whale in Göteborgs Naturhistoriska Museum. The play by Brindalyn Webster relates the whale’s story. Beached south of Gothenburg, Sweden in 1865, she was killed by two fishermen and acquired for the museum by its curator, August Wilhelm Malm. Believing he had discovered a new species, Malm named the whale after his wife, Balænoptera carolinæ, and directed the task of gutting and stuffing her. He outfitted Carolina’s interior with benches and tapestries, and installed a hinge in her upper jaw, allowing visitors to descend into her belly through the mouth. Mass Ventriloquism begins where Malm leaves off by anthropomorphizing the whale, depicting her as a civic servant who dutifully hosted visitors and represented her country at the 1866 Industrial Exposition in Stockholm. The word val means both election and whale in Swedish, and the pun has led to a tradition of erecting a voting booth in the whale’s stomach. Though she is silent most of the time, Carolina speaks on Election Day, when “Sweden speaks through her.” The ephemeral play and extant video piece use ventriloquism as a metaphor for representative democracy, raising complex questions about the relationship of speech to power. With the amplified voice attributed to her in the space of the performance, Carolina becomes visible as a puppet, a mute symbol. Mass Ventriloquism emphasizes speech as a sign and demonstration of agency, while also suggesting that the forceful projection of one voice often demands and enforces another’s silence.