Until you experience a Susan Philipsz installation live, it’s hard to imagine how lush and totally immersive the human voice can sound. The Glasgow-born, Berlin-based artist—winner of the 2010 Turner Prize—has made a career out of rigging galleries, museums, and public spaces with speakers that blast her lone, untrained voice singing folk, pop, and punk songs a cappella. Many of Philipsz’s recordings are layered to fall in and out of sync, filling their surroundings with rich noises, hums, and melodies. But listeners who pay attention to the words are rewarded: The recordings are almost always inspired by the cities in which they’re played.

Such is the case with Philipsz’s first Chicago commission, We Shall Be All, opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art on February 26th. In it, Philipsz gives voice to the passions and struggles of the city’s labor movement—in particular the Industrial Workers of the World, the leftist union that was especially active during the first half of the 20th century. “I used to be very involved politically,” says the 45-year-old artist, speaking by phone from Berlin. “I grew up during the recession and the miners’ strike in the 1980s in the UK. Because of that, I learned a lot about the history of Chicago, the labor movement, and the Industrial Workers of the World. I knew I wanted to use this idea of a political collective voice as the theme for the exhibition.”

While visiting Chicago last spring, Philipsz plowed through hundreds of archival IWW slogans, photographs, posters, and pamphlets at the Chicago History Museum and the Newberry Library for inspiration. She also examined sheet music of the organization’s songs and chants—and began working with lyrics such as “Workers of the World awaken! / Break your chains, demand your rights. / All the wealth you make is taken / By exploiting parasites.”

This fact-finding mission wasn’t Philipsz’s first visit to Chicago: Her first trip to the States was for an artists’ residency here in 1999. “I’d read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, which colored my perception of how Chicago would look,” she says. “I was so surprised by all the gleaming towers of steel and glass. Against the backdrop of the city’s modernist architecture, I see the voice as a means to infiltrate spaces, like a ghost in the machine.”

On a more conceptual level, We Shall Be All is also inspired by the legendary street-music scene that once thrived on Maxwell Street (which Philipsz was fortunate enough to observe during her 1999 stay). She dismantles that experience of seeing and hearing music performed live as her effigy-like voice blares from hidden sources. “Experiencing a lone, disembodied voice in a public setting can produce a strange experience among an unsuspecting audience,” she says, “like feeling alone in a crowd.”

We Shall Be All will be broadcast over speakers in an empty room on the museum’s fourth floor. The exhibition also revives Philipsz’s major sound installation The Internationale, a recording of the artist singing the famed Socialist battle cry that originated in late-19th-century Paris.

GO Susan Philipsz: We Shall Be All (Feb. 26th to June 12th) at the MCA, 220 E. Chicago Ave.; mcachicago.org


Illustration: Nazario Graziano