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Sonic boom

Susan Philipsz has won the Turner prize – using just her own voice. So was her night marred by the student protests? How did she get into sound art? And what's this about a run-in with Stephen Fry?

Monday's Turner prize ceremony was the oddest – and in some ways the most moving – that most regular guests of the annual event can remember. Students and lecturers from London art colleges staged a "teach-in" protest during the day in Tate Britain, where the award was due to be announced in the evening. At closing time, many refused to leave, remaining in the entrance hall.

Later, at the event itself, only a makeshift barrier separated the student protesters from the party-goers in the central gallery of the museum. The students – demonstrating against cuts in public funding to higher education for arts, humanities and social sciences – were invisible but audible, and the talk inside the party, where guests included culture minister Ed Vaizey, was of little else. Many at the party had attended art schools or taught in them, and, despite a certain discomfort induced by their sipping champagne while the young protesters continued with their demonstration just metres away, approved of the protest.

Anjalika Sagar – half of the Otolith Group collective, which was shortlisted for the prize – went outside to give a speech of solidarity to the students and returned clutching a crumpled banner. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, also spoke to them sympathetically. And the winner of the £25,000 prize – Glaswegian Susan Philipsz, whose piece consisted of a recording of her soft and sonorous voice singing a traditional Scottish lament over the River Clyde – remembered it the morning after just as an artist who works in sound ought: "It was a surreal experience. The particular acoustics in the gallery made it seem like it was a dream – the way the cheering and the chanting carried."

Some artists might have felt a little irritated by their moment of glory being so noisily hijacked, but Philipsz is a veteran of the barricades. In her acceptance speech, she expressed her sympathies – even if, in the heat of the moment, she blurted out that "education is a privilege not a right", which might well be taken as a prophecy. When we meet at Tate Britain the following morning, she corrects herself. "Education is a right not a privilege – as I used to say myself on demos."

In fact, before Philipsz went to art school at the age of 23, she devoted herself to political activism in her hometown. She had always wanted to be an artist, but reckoned her time could be more usefully channelled into promoting political causes. This was in the mid-1980s; she is 45 now. "We campaigned against the poll tax. And the miners' strike. We used to collect money outside shopping centres – 'Dig deep for the miners'; 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.' I thought of doing politics more seriously. I passionately believed we could change the world – that there could be socialism in our time. Those were heady, idealistic days."

So what happened? Where did the idealism go? "I know my works aren't overtly political, but . . . " She hesitates. "But I did use the Internationale in a work." Remarkably, given the fact that she has had three hours' sleep, she starts to sing, in that sweet voice . . .

Arise, ye workers from your slumber,

Arise, ye prisoners of want.

For reason in revolt now thunders,

And at last ends the age of cant!

She made the work in 1999: a recording of her voice, singing this anthem of international socialism, was installed in an underpass in Ljubljana, Slovenia. "When I hear a big group singing that song," says Philipsz, "it makes me want to cry. But with my solo voice it was ambiguous. It was unclear whether it was a clarion call to action, or a lament for the past." She says she remembers an old lady, tears streaming down her face, singing along in what may have been Slovenian or Russian.

In the end, what got her to art school was her sister Barbara, one of five siblings. (Four of them made it to the event to celebrate. Mum and dad stayed at home: "Mum was dancing in front of the telly.") Back then, Barbara was attending Bellarmine Arts Centre in Glasgow, building up a portfolio to get her into art college. So Philipsz joined the class, too. Barbara then got in to Glasgow School of Art, and Philipsz didn't. Instead, she was offered a place at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, part of Dundee University.

There, Philipsz took part in student protests against cuts to grants, and reminisces about an occupation of the university. "We had all slept in the library and, at the crack of dawn, we were put into pairs and designated our own room." She and a fellow student were put into "what looked like the nerve centre of the university" – a cupboard-size room humming with giant computers.

After an altercation in which "someone tried to shoulder the door", there came a polite knock. Could the university's rector have a word? They said yes. "And in walks Stephen Fry. He looked like a giant. He had a really deep tan as if he'd been helicoptered in from his holiday. He said, 'Look here, I am sympathetic to your cause, but do you really think this is the right way of addressing it?'" Fry was sent off with a flea in his ear by Philipsz's fellow protester.

Later, she studied as a postgraduate in Belfast. So, though she  is Glaswegian, her background is different from that of so many artists who, graduates of the city's art school, have ended up as nominees for or winners of the Turner prize, including Richard Wright (last year), Simon Starling (2005), and Douglas Gordon (1996). "I think it was a good thing I left," she says. "Though it's so hard to tell. It's been a different route from a lot of my peers."

The work that clinched the prize was the installation Lowlands Away, under three bridges of the Clyde in Glasgow, made for the art festival Glasgow International. In fact, she has had relatively little work shown in her hometown, and mourns the fact that Lowlands Away ran for just two weeks – and, during that time, aircraft were grounded by the Icelandic ash cloud, so many potential visitors were prevented from coming to the festival from overseas.

Soft voice on a brutalist walkway

It was the period in Belfast, she says, that really formed her as an artist and saw her gravitating, as a sculpture student, towards sound, in particular recordings of her own voice. "I had always liked singing, and I started thinking about the physicality of singing – becoming aware of the space created by the voice in the body, and how it projects into the space around you." The fact that her voice is untrained is part of the power of her work – there is a fragility, a humanity and a sheer ordinariness to her voice that draws the listener in, adding an emotional depth to the otherwise formal intent of her work, which is about the way that sound can fill, explain and animate a space.

A six-part piece, Surround Me, commissioned by Artangel, can currently be experienced in various locations around the City of London: walkers happen upon the melancholy sounds of 16th- and 17th-century English madrigals and rounds as they wander past London Bridge, the Bank of England and the strange brutalist walkways of the financial district.

Philipsz has, for the last nine years, lived in Berlin with her partner Eoghan McTigue; it's a city that's home to so many British artists, including Gordon, Ceal Floyer, and former Turner prize nominees Tacita Dean and Phil Collins. She plans to host a Burns night this year, with homemade haggis (she honed her technique last year by stuffing enough offal into a pig's stomach to feed 30 people, brave woman).

She has no plans to come home, though she can sound wistful about Scotland and London. But then a hint of wistfulness seems to flow through both Philipsz and her work. "I sometimes miss – Eoghan would laugh at me, he doesn't think I can change a lightbulb – I sometimes miss the physicality of making things," she says.

But, as Serota said at the prize ceremony, with an ironic nod in the direction of the chants of the demonstrators, now seems to be all about sound.

• The Turner prize exhibition is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 3 January 2011. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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