Writing is at the centre of Freya Dooley’s practice. These texts find form in readings, audio works, videos, scores, and publications. A recurring theme is the voice, particularly the displaced or supplanted voice. Previous works have dealt with the Greek myth of Echo, Julie Andrews losing her singing voice, and the lip sync scandal that befell Milli Vanilli. This interest is informed by feminist challenges regarding whose voice is heard and whose voice is silenced. In ‘Ventriloquy for Radio’ (2020) this concern returns in the form of a parrot.
I draw my curtains to block out the evening sun, which reflects off the TV screen. Next, I navigate to the livestream of Dooley’s new audio work, ‘Ventriloquy for Radio’. On screen there is another curtain, purple and bleeding a little light. This thin veil seems to separate audience from performer, public from private, external from internal. The curtain itself appears tactile, its folds reproduced via risograph; a form of echo.
Ticking, followed by voices. One sounds female, and is Dooley’s own: The Protagonist. Their voice is clear, though a little anxious. The other sounds male and elderly: The Parrot. This second voice is further away, perhaps in the next room. I’m reminded of my Grandad, making tea in the kitchen, a little too deaf to catch everything I say. The two voices embark upon a monologue-of-sorts, echoing fragments of each other’s speech, and delivering an interwoven account of the parrot’s arrival, gradual settling, mounting boredom, growing self-obsession, and abrupt death.
‘Ventriloquy for Radio’ is populated by instances of slippage. Between original and copy: it’s never fully clear whether The Parrot is echoing The Protagonist, or if it’s the other way around. Between fact and fiction: as with many of Dooley’s previous works, a poly-vocal account is peppered with autobiographical details – her parent’s really did run a pet shop. Then also between care and damage: on numerous occasions acts of maintenance slip over into instances of harm. The Protagonist notices a particularly thick eyebrow hair and plucks it, then another, and another. Soon, their brow is rendered bald, but the plucking doesn’t stop there. The Protagonist diligently digs out each fresh hair as it emerges from its follicle, leaving their brow bloody.
I had my own maintenance mishap a few days ago. Whilst using a floss stick (they look like bird bones), the floss became stuck between my teeth. As I tried to coax it free, my gums began to bleed, and I had to cut it loose with scissors, carefully retracting my tongue from the cold metal blades. I don’t expect that The Protagonist and I are alone in our misadventures. Dooley’s domestic radio play was written during the first 8 weeks of the coronavirus lockdown. For many, this period of time has been characterised by great anxiety and paranoia. Dooley’s anxious maintainer could be trying to keep the global pandemic at bay by controlling whatever they can, vacuuming thoroughly and scrubbing their nails. I’ve been keeping it at bay with morning yoga, Terrace House binges, and overzealous flossing. We all have our ways of managing our feelings towards that which is utterly beyond our control; perhaps even beyond our comprehension.
In Max Porter’s novel, Grief is The Thing With Feathers, two young boys face the sudden loss of their mother. Their grieving father does his best to cope, and at this moment of despair they are visited by Crow, a creature who is simultaneously antagonist, trickster, healer, and babysitter. Porter writes, “Coleridge’s albatross, Poe’s raven, Hitchcock’s homicidal flock and Iñárritu’s costumed Birdman: Birds act as figures of prophecy, manifestations of trauma, voices of the superego. Above all, they are signs of trouble to come, or trouble already arrived.” In this way, Dooley’s Parrot feels like a feathered manifestation of anxiety at a time of global crisis, personal crisis, and every other crisis in-between.
At times ‘Ventriloquy for Radio’ folds in on itself, pointing to itself and pointing to the conditions under which it is being made. Not directly, but obliquely: “What does that have to do with anything?” asks The Parrot of The Protagonist. It sounds like a question that many people will be asking themselves at this moment, myself included. What does that have to do with anything? What does my role have to do with anything when people are dying preventable deaths in the hundreds of thousands? These are potent questions from a 16-minute radio play about a person and a parrot, although maybe I’m projecting.
‘Ventriloquy for Radio’ was commissioned as part of the ongoing Interruptions programme at The Holden Gallery, and broadcast digitally in response to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown measures, 22 May 2020.
Chris Alton is an artist and curator based in Manchester.