Critical Essay

This essay was originally published by Five Years Gallery, London, in December 2010, as part of SO MUCH FOR FREE SCHOOL. ETC.,: A DRAFT PUBLICATION and can be viewed complete with images as part of a pdf download:

In 2014 this publication went to print and can be purchased on-line: 

Breaking My Silence: Notes Reflecting on My Performance of Observing Silence

Asked by Edward Dorrian to reflect on my performances of Observing Silence (OS) I made in July at Free School. Lecture Hall., my immediate response is Yes to him, but How? and Why? to myself.  I read his email again. I hear my voice inside my head and my ideas are re-affirmed. So I respond to the email in the affirmative and now I hesitate. I consider the possibilities and there's the temptation to respond with something irreverent, make some ironic comment (previous drafts contained one or two), or make another work, something visual or conceptual, but instead I decide to use the opportunity wisely and invest some thought and explore the context of my ideas and evaluate OS post-performance. How I will do this I don't know, but its a good opportunity nonetheless. I will do some research around the subject and will write notes about what I did sequentially, starting from the beginning of my performance and go on from there.

A few moments ago this page on which I now write was blank.

Standing in front of the audience my performance has begun. I know mostly what to expect, the audience does not. I have to keep focussed, keep to my plan. There is something methodical in my attitude now. This is live art I have conceived and I enjoy realising my ideas. 'One can look at seeing; one can't hear hearing' [1] but we're going to try anyway. In performing work there is a confirmation in the concept now, and Now is what interests me. I know that I have performed many times before, both solo and collectively, each involving a heightened sense of looking and listening, but every time I perform its different. Any nerves I have are excitement, my essential tremors shouldn't detract from the spectacle, and although there is always the possibility of some technical fault, hiccup, heckling or interruption, I accept and relish these as indeterminacies in the Now and push them to a corner of my mind. I have confidence in myself, in the work, and in the ideas, but I can't know the work until I experience it and share in its communication to the audience. OS is an idea, it is hearing and seeing, it is You and I, what we share and what we keep to ourselves, it is spectator and spectacle, voice and text, silence and noise, it is then and now. Not about Now: Now.

Each pre-recorded voice we hear reduces the tension of the silence before. We relax. I can see it in the audience. It permits people to fidget a little, to shift in their seats, presumingly unnoticed. They turn their attention to the content heard and their eyes shift as their heads either study the ceiling or gaze at their shoes. I must visibly relax too. I have heard the voice before; I recorded it and I know to whom it belongs. I have read the text the voice reads and remember what comes next. I remember who wrote it. Standing here before the audience with this unfamiliar disembodied voice is uncanny, something like a soliloquy or a voiceover in a film. The experience shared is akin to listening to the radio collectively, as people once did, (which at this moment incidentally, makes me think there's an odd inverted correlation here with Rogalsky's S [2]). It is like being read a story as a child, or a reminder too of how we once learnt to read, first aloud and then silently. I headed the proposal for OS at Free School. Lecture Hall. thus:

It is thought crude to move the lips when reading. We were taught to read by being made to read out loud; then we had to unlearn what we were told was a bad habit, no doubt because it smacks overmuch of application and of effort. Which doesn’t stop the cricoarytenoid and cricothyroid, the tensor and constrictor, muscles of the vocal cords and the glottis being activated when we read. Reading remains inseparable from this labial mimeticism and its vocal activity.[3]

To hear someone read aloud is somewhat alien. Their voice contains their own nuances of speech that are not our own, and presumably belong neither to the text nor to the author. Other than perhaps a film script or screenplay is their any direction as to how we read, save for punctuation. Whilst punctuation assists in reading it can only suggest a guide to nuances such as pace and inflection, which are there to reveal emotional, rather than literary content. The reading of a text aloud is a personal interpretation, and may account - as I've found in gathering voices for OS - why others are often reticent to read aloud. Perec's insight that it smacks of effort may go some way to explain too why others have little confidence in the sound of their voice recorded. The exception to this however, is the audio book, which interestingly are mostly abridged (an edit of the original), read aloud often by the author or a familiar voice like that of a celebrity. Our experience in reading text is however still very different. Sara Maitland, (in her study of more religious eremitic solitude than actual silence), observes that prior to the fourth century everyone who read, read aloud:

(And the script they read in the West was written without word breaks - in a single stream of phonemes, or letters, perfectly replicating speech. It is called script continua. It had no punctuation.) [4]

Prior to the fourth century reading silently was then seen as subversive; that reading privately the reader 'owned' the text in a silent dialogue with the author. Private reading by the individual led to independent thought.  The author of a book is communicating to the reader in his absence. We look, we read, but we do not hear the authors voice. We hear our own voice, but not our own words and there is an absence. To some extent there is even an absence of our awareness of the environment outside ourselves, (except perhaps what we feel, smell, or hear), and our sense of self when we read.  For example we may read in a public place but we are reading privately, again in silent dialogue with the author. Our thoughts we keep to ourselves, are hidden, secret. This is a very different experience than reading aloud. This difference in experience between reading a text silently and reading aloud fascinates me. This is in part due to the idea that an authors 'voice', that which he used to write the work (and re-read it as he went), is lost when the text becomes published as a book (a multiple), and that every reader uses his own voice to read the authors' work. Every book thus has the potential of becoming adopted by another voice, another reader:

I dip the pen into the inkwell, then watch the black shapes form as I move my hand slowly from left to right…I work my way down the page, and each cluster of marks is a word, and each word is a sound in my head, and each time I write another word, I hear the sound of my own voice, even though my lips are silent. [5]

I began collecting texts that referred to both noise and silence initially to be read aloud by myself as part of my own sound compositions and those made with London Concrete [6]. However, it wasn't until London Concrete became defunct and I withdrew from making noise that I began to read with the intention of finding more silences, and I felt it pertinent too, to explore ways to present this accumulation of appropriated texts. In light of the fact that readers make a text their own, or appropriate it when reading, and that if what they read referred to multiple variations of silence, it occurred to me that OS should contain multiple voices that are not my own nor manipulated by me, and that in performing the work I myself should be silent. Coincidentally, nine months after I began reading and gathering silences the musician, writer and sound curator David Toop published his own findings of sound and silence in fiction and visual art. Like Toop, I found that authors conceived silence not only as 'an external phenomenon that can be heard…[but] that are behavioural, metaphorical, mystical, philosophical, or political' [7], and that silence (and sound) forms in ones imagination when reading. However, further to what I've written concerning the authors' voice, I would add that whilst I concede that authors of fiction observe and borrow from life so that readers will recognise what is described, fiction is invention. If fictional sound or particularly fictional silence is invented then it never 'existed' other than as the text we read, and as a result is all the more silent. Whatever silence the author may describe we cannot hear it, we can only read it, and furthermore that in reading the silence we give the author's text our voice(s) so that the silence is broken. Perhaps the only way to preserve the silence is not to read it, or not to write in the first place? This illustrates the inherent paradox of silence. Its entry in the OED is ambiguous in its two definitions: as either an absence of language or as an absence of sound. Yet as I've found in reading silences, and in listening too, to say that there is absence is somewhat misleading. There is nothing outside the text [8], except maybe, silence.

This page on which I now write is either half full or half blank.

During my performance, the silence that proceeds the pre-recorded voice creates a 'quieting' of one's self, a clarity and an appreciation of the environment I share and a noticeable change in the focus of the audience. There is an element of shifting from literacy to illiteracy, from a language understood to a language that confuses; quietism is after all, an ignorance of sorts. I'm also aware of perspiration beneath my shirt, and the weight of my body shifted on one foot pressing into my shoe and feeling the wooden floorboards below. The sunlight, mottled by the glazed windows is very much a June sun; bright, penetrating and warming. The warmth becomes part of the stillness, the comfort of those within the hall, and that distant voices remind us that this sun has invited others to the park beyond. The warmth too permeates the hall with its own odour; dust, varnished wood - disuse? - which heightens the quiet of the moment. I can hear many sounds, some I can see their source, others too are recognisable so that I can visualise them in absence, but others are uncertain. I can hear visitors to the library pushing through the doors downstairs, a repetitive tchk, probably from the large clock at the other end of the hall in the periphery of my vision, and then also each of the audience, seated before me, breathing and listening. I can hear my stomach gurgle a little and I remember I haven't eaten, then I think whether anyone heard it. But of course, they can hear what I hear. This silence is the basis for all other sounds to be heard more distinctly, it has potential, and 'the place of the 'i' in the listened-to world…but an 'i' in doubt about his position…[and] as the call to listen to the world and to myself, as things in the world'[9].

I look at each spectator in turn, looking upon them like life-models, tracing the outlines of their bodies, studying their clothes, their expressions. A friend may return my gaze, observing me equally. Mostly the audience retreats into introspection, averts their eyes, uncomfortable by my silence and my gaze. This in turn makes me uncomfortable and I retreat inside to some extent too. I'm aware that my eyes and my silence add ambiguity to my presence before these people. This is not a straight-forward 'lecture'. The audience is realising I may never speak, and my communication is limited to what I do with my eyes and my stance. OS reveals as much as what we do with our eyes when silent as it does the experience of listening. Critics of so-called 'sound art' claim that sound is invasive, but I've always felt that the visual or light is just as intrusive. Whilst we cannot close our ears, how often do we close our eyes, or are aware of what we do with them when they are open? Vision has permanence and though sound is continual, it is temporal and ephemeral, but sound 'evokes the permanence of participation and production…[inviting one] to consider the dynamic of perception rather than the monument of its materiality'[10]. Standing before the audience, observing and listening, OS reveals to me how this experience is absurd, and yet I cannot dispute the complexity of that that I have instigated with the idea. We could close our eyes and escape, and either the audience or I could speak and break the silence, but we do not. The experience is unsettling and yet potent in its simplicity; the silence acts like a mirror: our senses heightened to such a degree as to expose us to one another, to our environment and ourselves with in it, to our own sound making and our own silence.

In the silences there becomes an anticipation for another pre-recorded voice. Each silence is approximately two minutes in duration, and each second which elapses is acutely felt, both by me and the audience. If according to Merleau-Ponty 'speech accomplishes thought, critical reflection, rather than translate its object' [11], then the pre-recorded voice serves as both a welcome contrast and as a means to reflect on the silence we have just heard described and the actual silence we shall hear. The duration of OS; just under twenty minutes, is relatively brief, yet provides a great deal of time during the work to critically reflect. The Now of experiencing OS both as performer and as audience is intense; ideas and emotions suppressed by the silence and noise are given time to ferment, time to be examined.  I could not have pre-conceived this and yet I am delighted by my experience of the work now passed. In fact when the performance comes to an end, I am genuinely surprised by my own thoughts and feelings, the relief I enjoy in regaining my voice, and the well-articulated questions I am asked and the fluidity of my responses. Furthermore, and in response to questions received about the silences I have collected, their sources, and those of which I selected for performances, shortly after Free School. LectureHall. I began a blog[12]. I have quoted those instances of silence and those I have found and added since, and I welcome too contributions of voice and found texts from visitors; I am effectively creating an on-going compendium of silence; extending the duration of the work indefinitely.

This has ended up being a critical essay of sorts. I can't profess to being much of a writer. In fact, I've found expressing myself by way of words rarely delicious; mostly its just irritating. If I had wanted to express the idea of OS as a written work I would have done so, rather than perform it, and as it is I feel I've only just begun to scratch the surface of ideas I've explored. That said, I have enjoyed researching my ideas, reading critical texts on the subject of sound and silence, and gaining an added perspective to OS which I didn't have before. Often in making work the reasons why are discovered after the event and in this way writing this text has been useful in elaborating on and giving voice to what I instinctively knew, and giving me insights to that I did not. However, reading back over this text now, I am aware that any one of these paragraphs could be read in any order, that there's nothing particularly conclusive here, but perhaps that's as it should be. No one reflection entirely rings true with what I remember. I'm not going to go into Memory here, but there is a comparison with it to be made with Sound, and OS, for precisely the same reason: its subject to change. Sound, and indeed silence, is intangible and forever there and yet out of our reach, 'neither mental nor material but a phenomenon of experience'[13]. In conclusion, I can only confirm that the experience of OS at Free School. was temporal, and it has passed. Future performances of OS may or may not happen. The blog for OS I update continuously, and invites participation; it too is in flux. Live art is in the here and now. It is not static. It is experiential. By all means read about art, read aloud about it, discuss it, write about it and listen to it and observe it, but above all, participate in it and experience it.

This page on which I now write is full. The next page is blank.

Seth Guy, Nov. 2010

[1] [see], note taken from The 1914 Box, Marcel Duchamp; the artist 'published' notes of observations in an edition of 3, quoted from Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, David Toop, Continuum Books, (2010).
[2] S (2002), Matt Rogalsky; the artist harvested the silences between words from a live BBC Radio 4 programme, info:
[3] Reading: A Socio-Physiological Outline,  first published in Esprit ,1979, from Penser/Classer, (1985), taken from Species of Spaces, Georges Perec, Penguin Classics, (2008).
[4] A Book Of Silence, Sara Maitland, Granta Books, (2008).
[5] Travels in The Scriptorium, Paul Auster, Henry Holt and Co., (2007).
[6] London Concrete [2006-9], eg. hear The Tartar Steppe:, more info:
[7] Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, David Toop, Continuum Books, (2010).
[8] "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte", Parergon, Jacques Derrida, from The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington & Ian McLeod, Chicago University Press, (1987), quoted here from In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art, Seth Kim-Cohen, Continuum Books, (2009).
[9] Listening To Noise And Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Salome Voegelin, Continuum Books, (2010).
[10] Listening To Noise And Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Salome Voegelin, Continuum Books, (2010).
[11] Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London and New york: Routledge, (2002),
      quoted here from Listening To Noise And Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art, Salome Voegelin, Continuum Books, (2010).
[13] Against Soundscape, Tim Ingold, in Autumn Leaves, ed. Angus Carlyle, Double Entendre/CRiSAP, Paris, (2007), quoted here from Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener, David Toop, Continuum Books, (2010).