Curating the idea (Golden, the sculptural nature of silence) explores the notion of silence and how it could be presented in a curatorial situation or, even, as Hans Ulrich Obrist writes, ‘preserving, in the sense of safeguarding the heritage of art’ (theguardian.com 23/03/2014).
I am a bag of ill-fitting bones which move imperfectly against one another. My exoskeleton appears unsupported by its muscles, my foot clicks, my shoulder movements sound like cheese being grated, I am obviously breathing. In, out, I hold my breath pretending I am underwater but, eventually, I have to exhale. I understand John Cage’s oft-repeated interpretation for body sounds in an anechoic chamber.
I AM ATTENDING.
I am in an anechoic chamber. There is not an art of listening but an action of listening. Pauline Oliveros writes ‘I charge myself to be aware of everything all of the time’. The space of silence invites and enhances listening. Salomé Voegelin writes ‘When there is nothing to hear, so much starts to sound’ (Voegelin 2010:83). In 1951, Cage defined ‘silence not as the complete absence of sound but the presence of unintentional noise’ (Joseph 2003:21).
My clothes rustle, I should remove them. I lack courage. And my ears, my ears are loud. They appear to have grown in size, I picture myself being found, naked in the anechoic chamber with Mickey Mouse ears.
WHAT AM I LISTENING TO? TO TIME?
The body carries out its usual rhythms creating its measured response to the fact that I am alive. The isolation of these sounds without the normal ways of which time is perceived – waking up, going to work, the everyday patterns of others that intersect with our own that form a familiar beat that signifies the duration of the day.
DOES TIME HAVE A MEANING WITHOUT SOUND?
I wanted to record silence to see if it exists. Its very elusiveness was appealing. It has been like trying to track down an endangered species. The closer I get, the further way it seems to be. After my first attempts underground, I almost gave up. My failure resulted in an excellent recording of the recorder interspersed with drips.
Metronomes mark regular beats interspersed with notional silence. Silence must have a function as the sound according to French composer, Pierre Mariétan. I believe that silence is a companion to sound not its opposite and that its physicality due to its perceived as well as its imagined presence, as in an anechoic chamber.
I tried to forget about it. But it infiltrated my artist being, I went to different spaces such thick walled castles, Italian medieval cities such as Urbino, underwater in the River Stour, concrete bunkers on Mersea Island, early mornings, late nights, deep countryside. Recently, in a place where silence hung like a cloak, I was disturbed by what appeared to be the sound of a motorbike only to find it was my own stomach rumbling. I heard myself breathing, the hum of solitary bees, birds but what I didn’t hear was nothing. I listened, I strained to listen but it was impossible not to hear.
DOES SOUND HAVE A MEANING WITHOUT TIME?
Cage’s theory of the total soundscape asserted that ‘music involved all sound including non-musical and the absence of sound and that sound had four essential features: pitch, timbre, loudness and duration; by contrast, silence has only duration’ (Fineberg, 2000:175)
I fill my time in the anechoic chamber partially by drawing a response to the space. There are no external clues for me to locate myself. I am alone with myself. My hearing sensations seem to be closely linked to the perception of feel and touch. The pen scratches the paper but mostly, gives the impression of burrowing into the paper. My drawings make no sense.
DOES SILENCE EXIST?
Silence is golden as in ‘speech is silver, silence is golden’ suggesting silence as a positive, something to be achieved. However, is it possible for silence to exist? It could be said that the actions of man accompanied by uncontrollable natural occurrences create an inescapable, unmusical score.
I place my recording equipment in the anechoic chamber, press play and leave. When I play it back, I cannot hear the silence. Traffic, people, wind, a cornucopia of everyday sounds as well as my own intrude. but I believe that I have achieved my aim.
IS IT JUST THAT WE CAN’T HEAR SILENCE NOT THAT IT DOESN’T EXIST?
To understand the nature of what I was proposing, I first looked at the sculptural object in order to apply the findings to sound and silence Taking the tactility of sculpture and its inherent relationship with its environment to create a shape, of sound, of silence. The obvious difficulties of exhibiting sound relate to its fluidity, its overriding of boundaries. To present silence, the seepage of sound was towards the work not from it.
Could the sound of teacups echoing from the gallery café be said to be sculpture? What is the shape of a visitor’s footstep? Can I touch sound or feel that I can touch sound? I think of darkness as a velvet cloak wrapping itself around me. Silence hangs heavily, it has tremendous weight. Is this what I want a visitor to ‘see’?
The listening process creates an aural landscape pertaining only to that moment and location that could be said to create a form as valid as any sculpture. Can this be applied to the imaginative presence of the shape of silence? It surely becomes a Gedanken, thought, experiment, an appeal to this imagined experience, on the part of the gallery visitor.
HOW DID ALBERT GET AWAY WITH IT?
Karen Barad explores Albert Einstein’s Gedanken experiments. She quotes the Oxford English Dictionary ‘an experiment carried out only in the imagination or thought, an appeal to imagined experience; a thought experiment’ (Barad, K. 2007:288). Scientists were asked to believe the results from experiments that hadn’t taken place.
A criticism raised by non-artists is the problem of evaluation. Scientists are held as monuments of rigour. Would a curator accept Einstein’s proposal, or mine? I am beset by doubts. My mind runs over with fantastical ideas, of an exhibition existing but not allowing anyone to enter (referencing Yves Klein) to preserve the silence. A jam jar of silence lovingly hand-made.
I am asking the visitors to this potential exhibition Golden to accept that I have recorded silence. I want them to listen to the sound pieces which I believe are silent. I am asking the listener to accept the viewing of this work as a Gedanken experiment in the same manner that Einstein asked his cohorts to do. I am asking the listener to enter the gallery, put on a pair of headphones and listen – to nothing. That is, if silence can be called nothing which, of course, I dispute. The unwanted and inadvertent accompaniment of this work are the sounds of ones own body as well as other everyday sounds that occur within a gallery space and that leak from the outside. It is important that this is not seen as an alternative reproduction of Cage’s 4’33”, this is an experiment into the intersection of space (and thus of time), body and sound where ‘silence has a function as sound’ (Mariétan, 2017). Whilst similar occurrences may happen, it is the sculptural nature, the shape of silence that I wish to exhibit. It is the idea of silence that accompanies the physical presence of sound.
IT IS AN APPEAL TO AN IMAGINED IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE
Analysing these results, it is the hearing of silence that is elusive. The link between sound and silence is in the perception and between hearing, as in being perceptive to noise, and not hearing, being perceptive to silence. Silence can be said to have a physicality due only to its perceived as well as its imagined presence, as in an anechoic chamber. I do, however, persist in my view that sound and silence have shape and, maybe, even mass that relates to the traditional sculptural object. This means that they have a form that can be exhibited.
Summing up, it is my belief, rightly or wrongly, that I have recorded silence. It may be that it is solely the hearing of silence that is unachievable rather than its presence. The artist is asking the curator to exhibit something that may exist, either, as in this example, as a form of a recording or through a construction that allows unintended sound to be eliminated, but that, in either case, cannot be heard. The visitor is asked to collude in a Gedanken experiment and accept the idea of the presence of the exhibit of silence.
Chris A. Wright
I am a UK-based interdisciplinary artist, researcher and writer currently focusing on sound and silence exploring the boundaries of sound, space and self using sound-songs, humming and experimental instrumental. As part of my practice, I have sailed paper boats down the Mekong River to explore the ambiguity of the border; blown across a bottle in a fjord in Norway to test the limits of sound; recorded 400,000 bees in Birmingham, amplified a neon pink aquarium to hear the inside of bubbles and hummed in a crypt in Sardinia with an American researcher.
Through exhibition, residencies and conference presentations, contributions to publications with occasional workshops and teaching, I continue to develop my practice-led PhD in Fine Art and Philosophy, My concerns are absence and presence; borders, transitory spaces including non-place; political and social engagement; materials and process. However, I cannot resist the lure of found objects – dropped words, strange sounds, random ideas or an encounter that accelerates knowledge in unexpected ways.
The underlying seriousness of what I do is balanced by a playfulness within the work itself. I have an openness of practice whereby dialogue is inherent and continually ask myself ‘What new thoughts does it make possible to think?’.
Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway Duke University Press Durham and London
Fineberg, J. (2000) Art Since 1940 – Strategies of Being Laurence King
Joseph, B. W. (2003) Random Order MIT Press
Voegelin, S. Listening to Noise and Silence Continuum New York and London
Jeffries, S., Groves, N. Hans Ulrich Obrist – The Art of Curation 23/03/2014 theguardian.com (accessed November 22nd, 2017)
phrases.org.uk (accessed November 27th), http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/silence-is-golden.html
LaBelle, B. (2015) Background Noise Bloomsbury Academic New York and London
O’Neill, P. (2012) The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Cultures The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England
 Thanks to Wendy Stevens, senior lecturer, De Montfort University, Leicester, UK
 Recorded due to kindness of owners of The Peak Cavern, Castleton, Derbyshire. It is now quaintly renamed The Devil’s Arse.
 FKL Different Rhythms, Cagliari, Sardinia 2017
 The proverb refers to the fact that it is preferable to remain silent if there is nothing worthwhile to say. In 1831, Thomas Carlyle translated the Sartor Resartus about the virtues of silence. He writes “Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together; that at length they may emerge, full-formed and majestic, into the daylight of Life, which they are thenceforth to rule’.