SINGAPORE VOICES : An interactive installation about languages to (re)(dis)cover the intergenerational distance

Research output: Journal Publications and ReviewsRGC 21 - Publication in refereed journalpeer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Number of pages27
Journal / PublicationIM: Interactive Media
Publication statusPublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes


Singapore Voices is an interactive installation, integrating sound and image in a series of touch-sensitive displays. Each display shows the portrait of an elderly person, standing with the hand turned outwards, as if saying: “I built this nation”. Two displays can be seen in Figure 1 below. When the visitor touches the hand or shoulder, they hear a recording of the speaker's voice. Chances are that the visitor will not be able to understand the language spoken, but she or he will indeed grasp much of all that is, in a manner of speaking, “outside” of the words - elements of prosody such as phrasing and speech rhythm, but also voice colour that may hint at the emotional state of the person. Then there is coughing, laughing, a hand clap and so forth. Such paralingual elements of vocal communication are extremely important and furthermore, their meaning is quite universal.
The present article presents the language situation in Singapore, the design and underlying aesthetics of the installation's sonic interactivity, and finally, recapitulates some of the media discussions that the first public showing, in March 2009, engaged. Part of an art and speech research project, the installation aims at bringing attention to the multitude of languages that Singaporeans use on a daily basis, but also the fragility of this linguistic soundscape. It is well-known that language is key to understanding an intangible cultural heritage linked to an immigrant minority: not only that of its geographical origins, but also its communal experience of migration, of diaspora, of integration. Much of this heritage is in great danger of being lost in Singapore. The installation presents eight voices: speakers of Hokkien, Teochew, Hainanese, Hakka, Telegu, Tamil, Malayalam and Baba Malay. They are telling their own stories about childhood, life during the war, cooking methods and recipes, and so forth. The custodians of these languages are now in their 70s and 80s, and Singapore Voices places them in focus as individuals. Through the interactive experience of the installation, visitors are able to rediscover the intergenerational distance through listening to and physically feeling their voices. In a condensed setting, they can experience and appreciate a part of Singapore's rich cultural heritage.
The interaction design is built from a principle where different combinations of touching trigger selected excerpts from interviews. As the voices speak, the whole display vibrates with the sound, and in this way, touching becomes a metaphor for the necessary effort, on our part, to re-establish contact between generations: necessary, if we want to understand the richness of the culture we are living in. Singapore Voices lets the visitor sense the individuality, and musicality, of the voices.

Research Area(s)

  • languages, Dialects, Singapore, interactive, installation, audiovisual art, Touch action