Sunday, April 29, 2007

Raucous silence

In our modern, hectic lives we rarely create space for silence. There is a growing tendency to plug ourselves into the TV, Internet, film - even on the way to work we cut ourselves off, immerse ourselves in a multi-media half sleep.

Often the glimpses of silence are accidental, as we happen to find ourselves in a quiet spot and can, therefore, often be experienced in a profoundly intense way - if we give ourselves the time to notice them. Setting aside time to be quiet is something most of recognise would be a very good thing to do, and yet we don't do it.

Rachel GommeOne misconception of silence, in my view
, is that it is simple absence of sound. One piece of installation art, running as part of Cambridge's Enter_Unknown Territories festival. Rachel Gomme's Audience : Hearing at the infamous Taxi Gallery (now known as Abbey Taxi), is an impressive attempt to deconstruct and examine silence.

Last year I was one of over a hundred particpants that took part in a "silent interview" which consisted of the subject and Rachel sitting together, in silence, for ten minutes - in this case at the Taxi Gallery. Now, regardless of how that sounds in theory, in practice it is an astonishingly stressful and hectic experience to take part in.

Some of the most common observations from participants have been on how *noisy* silence is - and how much seems to be going on that, in our normal day to day lives, is usually covered and hidden in the background. When you strip away activity and interaction and are forced to listen for a change, without filling that space with your own hustle and bustle, you begin to become aware of the creaking, bird song, distant car doors, planes, breathing and occasional passers-by all add up to something that can feel quite frantic.

But more than this there is an interesting dynamic at work during the interview. In everyday life we co-exist, side by side, with strangers all the time without a seconds thought - at the bus stop, in the street, in the pub - but the intentionality of making an appointment to sit with someone you've never met before, in silence, has a quite different social meaning, and one that we find ourselves having to define on the hoof.

SssshhhhhhhThis crisis of expectation, where people don't know if they are "doing the interview right" was another recurring theme. Should you stare at the interviewer? Well, it's polite to look, but for ten minutes straight? The alternative is to look away - but not looking at someone can be as intense as staring, and as socially improper. I found myself sharing a space with Rachel for ten minutes and never got a proper look at her, lost in a confusion of unmarked social boundaries.

Are you sharing space or the subject of an experiment? Are you really bound by an arbitrary convention not to speak? What would happen if you felt unable to constraint yourself any longer and burst out "I'm going crazy!" or find yourself overcome with a burning carnal rage? Is that going to be judged, or left hanging in the air. Can it be wrong, can it be useful, can it test your ideas about silence and shared space? Do you want it to?

We're not used to having a stranger stare at us for ten minutes refusing to speak and, no matter how neutral an air they put on, it was impossible for me to interpret it as anything but hostility. Others felt something quite different - and here is where the silence really was an interview, intimate, personal and unique. It draws information out of the subject and challenges them in a way that they could not predict beforehand. Yet unlike other interviews this information is not received by the interviewer, who is undergoing their own experiences, nor passed on to the outside world but kept private to the subject, more closely guarded than even a session of therapy.

This weekend the pieces had been stitched together, the highlights of the silences placed in a well-structured surround sound zone which did indeed recreate the feeling of the hub hub that exists within silence. As a consumer the social tensions were less challenging, although when sharing the space with others it's interesting how self conscious people become when confronted with art that you absolutely have to engage with if you want to get anything from it - but to be seen to engage with something like this might be seen as silly or perhaps people worry that they might be judged and thought a philistine if they got bored, didn't "understand" or simply wanted to stay for just a minute. Thankfully, I'm above any such plebeian worries.

The effect of others on your own appreciation of art (in the gallery, public space or where ever) is something rarely discussed but is heightened by this installation which, in itself, is about the effect others have upon your own silences. The creation of new boundaries that you may not understand can be difficult for anyone and, for those like me who have a strong sense of manners and what may be socially appropriate in any given situation (down to the finest, most painful detail on occasion) that unmarked space does not simply signify absence but also confronts where my own boundaries lie - and I suppose that means challenges, in a limited way, who I might be, how I might define myself.

When we take away the frenzy of talk and music and generalised "stuff" we're left with the frenzy of our own minds, that refuse to be still, refuse to lie down and enjoy space. Those who meditate know how hard it can be to empty your mind of its natural inclination to fill the vacuum with a tidal wave of thoughts, ideas and the kind of absent-minded ridiculous notions that have a tendency to creep in to empty nooks and crannies.

Silence isn't uniform - it's uniquely personal, defined by what's there and what is absent. The edges of a person are not simply physical boundaries marked by skin, they are above all social and in some ways less tangible but more profound. When we play with the way we relate to others, we explore who we are.


Renegade Eye said...

Out of character post. Unsure what to say or not say.

Peter said...

It's weird - awkward silences in conversation always occur at either twenty past or twenty to the hour.

Nobody knows why.

Daniel S. Ketelby said...