The interchange between the Overground and Victoria line at Highbury and Islington station in London during rush hour has been a fascination and daily joy to me for many years. Thousands of bustling commuters funnel through a narrow tunnel and down a set of stairs, shoulder to shoulder; the deafening noise of screeching trains, whirring machinery and whistling air is momentarily muted by the tightly packed bodies that absorb and deaden reverberations. One becomes acutely aware of the intimate closeness between one’s own body and the breathing of another only centimetres away; a moment of stillness within the bustle of the city and a reminder of our connectedness in a sudden unifying quiet. In recent months these shared global silences have come into sharp focus: images of the desolate Mumbai Central Station, normally a frenzied mass of activity; the unsettling calm of Bogota without the normal roar of its eight million commuting motorists; and in London the usually desensitised hum of traffic is piercing in its absence. Silences are potent. When abruptly confronted with quiet, we recognise the noise that previously surrounded us, both acoustically and metaphorically. As Susan Sontag has argued, silence steers attention.
In her essay on the measurement of nothingness, Karen Barad writes: ‘How can anything be said about nothing without violating its very nature, perhaps even its conditions of possibility?’ The same could be said of silence. The infinite potential silences which inform and surround our lives, however, do not equate with nothingness and they are certainly not passive. Even limiting ourselves to those explored in artistic practices, the most infamous advocate of silence, the honed collective listening of John Cage’s 4’33”, 1952, is vastly different from the meditative pauses of a James Turrell ‘Skyspace’. The silent resistance and formative lineage Wu Tsang finds in the legacy of Chinese revolutionary and poet Qui Jin (explored in Tsang’s 2016 film Duilian) are worlds apart from the heightened senses in the torturous forced silence that prisoners endure as relayed in Lawrence Abu Hamden’s Saydnaya prison works (Interview AM407). Gustav Metzger’s art strike (Interview AM222) is incomparable to David Wojnarowicz’s sewn lips; and ACT UP’s famed anti-AIDS slogan ‘Silence = Death’ demands different attention to the silence that which Adrienne Rich describes as having muffled ‘the entire history of women’s struggle for self-determination’ and all those silences in the face of racist assault that bell hooks calls out as ‘acts of complicity’, recently amplified with the pithy acclamation, White Silence = Death. And while Susan Hiller’s recordings of endangered languages presented against a black screen in The Last Silent Movie, 2007, offers traces of worldviews that have since fallen into deathly irretrievable silence, the violent silencing read between the lines of the gagging order of Shevaun Wrights’s Rape Contract, 2019, delineates silences that are present and venomously active. Silences oppress, resist, divide, commune – and shape.
Literary theorist Gayatri Spivak suggests that silence is vital to the production of meaning. Describing language as both a material that can construct and as material that can give way and fray into the emptiness, she stresses the limits of language to translate meaning, arguing that rhetoric exists in the silences between and around words. A stealthy invisible code, these pungent silences are core material for poet Myong Mi Kim. Acutely aware of the ineptitude and unattainability of language – having emigrated from Korea to the US as a child, at once an insider and an outsider to the language and culture in which she is situated – Kim carves out a poetic practice which positions itself in relation to the language that forms it. Using its words to look back in on itself, Kim probes the inherent authority of language – its role in establishing and maintaining hegemony and systems of oppression – while also enacting Martin Heidegger’s premise that language always holds itself back in the process of coming into words: it reserves and silences itself. Writing in the wake of the holocaust, himself having been a member of the Nazi party whilst also being in long-term romantic relationships with Hannah Arendt and Elisabeth Blochmann, Heidegger’s words on systemic cultural silencing take on a nauseating reality. Poems such as accumulation of land, of 2009, might at first seem to be mere poststructuralist abstraction, but as her words fluctuate between different linguistic structures, registers or textual formats, something far more fragile – and volatile – comes to the fore. Continual shifts play witness to the unspoken experience of displacement, the turmoil of colonialism, the incoherencies of the migrant experience and the consequences of history, indicating what Spivak calls the ‘founding violence of the silence at work’ within rhetoric. In her long-form poem Dura, 1999, words are forcibly held apart by square brackets as if to forbid any further bridging or prevent them from spilling back into the empty space to infuse meaning with the previously penned word. Instead of providing comfortable grammatical links and syntax, Kim works against these, holding open uncomfortable silences to challenge the language to lay bare both its historic and contextual relationality. Phrases dotted across the page and repeated punctuation marks hack out space. For Kim, poetics is the ‘activity of tending the speculative’, the emptiness of the page being integral to its formation. Subjected to fracture and disruption, her semantic rearrangements – rife with voids, reticence and stillness, loaded with that which is unsaid, forgotten or cannot be articulated – force the reader to dwell in the pages’ animated emptiness. Here Kim underlies the ease with which meaning is summoned from silence, yet refuses to allow it to colonise the emptiness, instead exposing the individual reader’s attempt to ‘make sense’ of the world. On the dilemma of measuring the ‘void’, Barad cites Neils Bohr’s conditions of im/possibility at play in quantum physics: simultaneously mutually exclusive and mutually necessary. Similarly, Kim writes: ‘Complementarity. Contingency. Indeterminacy. Inseparability. Any attempt to say something, anything, even about nothing, and we find ourselves always already immersed in the play of quantum in/determinacy.’ Delineating a space that is under continual de/construction, Kim’s silences introduce this unpredictable liveness to her words, always hung in the frenzied static of being and not being. This active collaboration with silence comes into definition when hearing her read: Kim’s spoken words do not correlate with the order of those written. The printed text is only one possible rendition. Rather than being historicised in their moment of writing, her poems instead act as notations: pliable and open to constant revision with time-space, always in collaboration with the now. It is within these blank spaces, these silent chasms – where meaning remains open – that the agency of the receiver is called upon and Kim converses with her future reader. Her silences present an infinite nowness, reverberating with the unspoken, the unknown and the im/possible.
In her 1969 essay The Aesthetics of Silence, Susan Sontag argued that, in our increasingly secular culture, art is the new form of spirituality mediated by an artistic drive towards silence: ‘Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture.’ At the time of writing, John Cage’s 4’33” had been transforming art discourse in its wake for the best part of two decades, John Latham had been making his Skoob towers of burnt books throughout the 1960s and Robert Smithson was planning Spiral Jetty, which was constructed in 1970. In driving towards silence, art rejected its previous role as an expression of human consciousness and conversely offered a space for what Sontag described as ‘the mind’s need or capacity for self-estrangement’. Art’s previous absoluteness was exchanged instead for a silence that satisfied our craving for the ‘abyss of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech’. Twenty years later, the sentiment still resonated sufficiently for Christian Marclay to cover the floor of Zürich’s Shedhalle with 3,500 vinyl records titled, with a yellow label, Footsteps, 1989. The recordings were left unplayed, silent and inaccessible, while accumulating the imprint of the hundreds of weekly visitors passing over them, accruing dirt, grit and scratches. Reading the work within Sontag’s premise, Footsteps continues the determination of artists to sever dialogue with their audience. But Marclay’s records have since circulated individually; I recently found one in the Banff Centre’s extensive collection of artists’ books, where the vinyl has lain unplayed since it was acquired many years ago. The record sits with revered silent potential, its scuffed surface now impressed with gathering dust and uncareful wandering thumbs. Rather than a ‘reluctance to communicate’, its silence now operates with its own independent agency. To return momentarily to the spiritual, for Quakers silence has long been the foremost way for adherents of the faith to overcome the egocentric mind, bonding a community with mutual responsibility: silence is fragile, it can be broken at any moment; maintaining silence is a necessarily collaborative activity. The continued muteness of the Footsteps vinyl binds audiences, but, transcending the physically shared silence of Quakers or reflective space Sontag speaks of, it is a silence that travels with the object through time and place, in an unspoken social contract of accumulated silence between collaborators unknown to one another.
This silent marker of absence has long been a universal communication, as has abstinence from disturbing it. Take, for example, uncovered sites in archaeological digs that are reburied for posterity: the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc and Lascaux caves, resealed from the outside world, to be rediscovered by a future generation; or the ochre silhouetted handprints of Cueva de las Manos, added to by hundreds of hunters passing through the Argentinian valley from 11,000 to 7,000 BC, an ancient ‘I WOZ ’ERE’ imprinted on the rockface, the undisturbed messages still echoing 13 millennia later. Once played, of course, the dusty human imprints of trodden feet and inquisitive hands will dissipate from Marclay’s vinyl. As with Cueva de las Manos, the work accumulates the traces of those who have been there, but here it is the markers of deterioration that will eventually speak to the future listener, and listening will erase the indexical link. As with Kim’s work, Marclay’s silence does not seek permanence, but interaction and change; the work is unstable and prevents passive consumption because audience members must choose either to leave the vinyl untouched – collaborating in the continuing pact of silence – or to play it, wiping its accumulated narrative. Rather than the accumulated collective legacy of Cueva de las Manos, the final legacy of Footprints’ participants perhaps more closely mimics the fossilised Pleistocene footprints uncovered on storm-lashed beaches of Happisburgh, on Norfolk’s North Sea coast. The oldest human footprints found outside Africa, dated between 850,000 and 950,000 years old, they were exposed in the spring tides in 2014, only to have been erased within a fortnight; a last cry from our ancestors, a death rattle, before receding into the depths to join other long-silent traces.
Barad offers the image of an infinite drumhead as a metaphor for the field of space-time: representing the void, the perfect stillness of the taut drumhead is not assured because it has the potential for infinite indeterminate vibrations and energy fluctuations, Indeterminacies-in-action. Writing in the shadow of Mount Rundle, looming ominously and authoritatively over the Banff National Park in west Canada, I sense a similar silent reverberating energy, secreted among the unknowns in the mountain’s stoic, strata-striated rockface. Five hundred years of histories, climates, ecosystems and lives compressed in each centimetre of rock: accumulated demise forming the environment for the next, thrust upwards through fault lines, energy transferring from one form of matter to another. Like iron filings marking out a magnetic field, or the residual clues on Footsteps’ surface or the gaps demarcated by Kim’s words, the stillness between Rundle’s strata mark out long-since silenced lives. As epochs fall into silence, they layer, merge and converse with others, themselves silenced millennia before.
One of the oldest musical instruments ever found, a prehistoric flute carved from the wing bone of a griffon vulture, lay mute for 35,000 years. The language of its maker long extinct, the enduring object is a time capsule of sound from the moment when music and modern societal bonds were born. Allora & Calzadilla’s 2012 film Raptor’s Rapture shows Bernadette Käfer, a flautist specialising in prehistoric instruments, as she animates this relic from the deep past in the presence of a living descendant of the ancient bird. The beady-eyed feathered beast shifts on its gnarly talons, observing the primordial sound ominously. George Steiner, quoting linguist Benjamin Whorf, has noted that ‘for the Hopi a new sun rises every day’ and that ‘the Navaho-speaking people categorise colours by intensity rather than hue’, facts which reveal that, through shared language, communities collectively shape very different conceptions of the world. Therefore, Steiner argues, ‘at almost at every moment in time … some ancient and rich expression of articulate being is lapsing into irretrievable silence’ – each passing moment marking the extinction of other realities. For Heidegger, though, this is not a matter of decline into the past; in The End of Philosophy and the Task for Thinking he describes the unease and alienation of modes of communication as being in a constant, tireless cycle of receding, dying away and regenerating anew: a palintropic pattern of sentience developing and turning back in on itself, resurfacing in the future under different conditions. In confronting the manifold configurations of the past, striving to sound the depths of its silences, Heidegger positions latency, loss and oblivion as being central to human trajectories both past and possible, the moment of utmost fullness at once announcing a reversion into emptiness and vice versa. A scavenger, feeding on remains for millennia, the interaction between Allora & Calzadilla’s vulture and both raptor and human ancestors acts as a juncture between the long-silent remains, remainders, traces and the memory of our intertwined evolution. Endangered at the time of making the film, griffon vultures were on the brink of falling into the eternal silence of extinction. Now, happily, their numbers are soaring. Having survived this long, is it not possible that this prehistoric creature and flute might survive beyond humanity’s lifespan for perhaps another 35,000 years, silently continuing their binding duet?
To stretch our timeframe further still: ‘Everything about us now is rock / everything about us then was wet,’ professes Keira Greene’s latent oracle in her 2018 film Eustatic Drift, ‘once we were plankton slouched in the ocean / but now we are code / surfaced and held in the laminae of rock like open scores.’ It is graptolites speaking. Having grown in vast colonies, the fossilised remains of these small marine organisms that emerged some 520 million years ago now dapple black shale rock. Greene’s camera lingers on the immense cavernous landscapes, craggy edges and eroding waterfalls of the Dobs Linn landscape in Scotland that reveals the graptolites’ embalmed reality. Heidegger was speaking in the context of human-specific language, but having evolved quickly, rapidly morphing throughout a 100m-year timespan and populating the world’s oceans, the graptolites shapeshifting somersaults – now valuable biostratigraphic markers in time – can be read as a narrative, stretching Heidegger’s premise through to seemingly infinite time. Narrated in speculative collective voice, the fossilised beings reach out from within their deep-time silent slumber: ‘Billions of architects / we built micro-utopias / to live together in common corridors.’ Having maintained a certain biological mystery, dancer Katye Coe collaborates in a bodily call and response, unpacking the clues they left behind. She speculates on the possibilities of how they once moved in the ocean; but more knowingly her body traces their movement since extinction, in slow motion over the millennia, from horizontal to vertical, returning to horizontality. The graptolites’ solidity slowing them, her mortality unsteadying her; a collaborative dialogue across millennia of silences. Contemplating the transience of our species – our precarity more palpable now than ever before – Heidegger’s tireless cycle of communicative regeneration here transcends the linguistic; silence acts as the reagitating and resurfacing communication to surpass inevitable demise. As Greene’s graptolites profess, ‘everything that solidifies will speak again’.
Five hundred metres into solid, stable bedrock on Finland’s south-west coast lies Onkalo, one of the world’s first deep geological nuclear-waste depositories. Once full, it will be sealed from the outside world; it must then lie intact for 100,000 years, shielding those outside from its lethal contents. As the graptolites mark their era, one of the lasting markers of our existence will be the residue of our nuclear greed. Michael Madsen’s 2010 documentary Into Eternity questions scientists, theologians and government representatives on their conflicting approaches to communicating the lethal danger at the site. A series of signs now mark the area: ‘Nothing valued is here’; ‘This place is best shunned and left uninhabited’. But the lifespan demanded of Onkalo – and the communication of its danger – is longer than any man-made structure has so far existed, and written language has only existed for 5,000 years. One hundred thousand years ago, Homo sapiens had not yet ventured out of Africa to populate Europe or the Americas, and in that time incalculable languages have risen and then fallen into extinction. The best chance to future generations or species to avoid the danger of Onkalo, more consistent than any language, is to leave it unmarked, in silence, hidden from the perils of future curiosity.
In another of Allora & Calzadilla’s works, The Great Silence, 2014, the camera turns to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, one of the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescopes, capable of capturing the faintest of radio waves from the edges of the universe. Seeking contact with extra-terrestrial life, Arecibo has broadcast messages out into space, aiming towards a cluster of stars over 25,000 light years away, the first in 1974: no reply has yet been returned. A few years later, during a conversation among physicists discussing the possibility of UFOs, Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi exclaimed: ‘But where is everybody?’ There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way similar to the Sun, with a high probability of Earth-like planets and subsequently the conditions for intelligent life to develop; since many of these stars are billions of years older, it would seem to provide plenty of time for an extra-terrestrial civilisation to have visited Earth. With such probability of extra-terrestrial life, why is there no evidence of it? The Fermi Paradox has yet to be answered. Rather than gazing into the unfathomably silent celestial expanse, Allora & Calzadilla look back towards home to search for solace. The 300m-diameter dish sits among the lush Puerto Rican forests that provide a home for the last wild population of critically endangered Amazona vittata parrots. Produced in collaboration with science-fiction author Ted Chiang, The Great Silence narrates the parrots’ bewilderment at humanity’s lack of dialogue with them, despite our spatial and cognitive proximity, as they face the imminent end of their kind and the disappearance of their language: humans meanwhile determinedly scan for signs of companionship in deep space. Rather than stranding us in a silent abyss, the Fermi Paradox is instead repositioned by the artists to examine the universal expanse of silence as the irreducible matter that binds all relationships between the living and the non-living, human and animal, terrestrial and cosmic.
In his posthumously published essay ‘On Language as Such and on the Language of Man’, Walter Benjamin proposed the mute but omnipresent language of all things, animate and inanimate: a material community between everything, a cacophony of matter silently communicating its essence, content, existence and relationship to one another. When I first started thinking about this piece, the silence of a future lockdown was unfathomable. As the weeks and months of lockdown unfolds, in the rush to produce and consume more podcasts, online programmes, more content readily accessible from our computer screens, I find myself retreating from the noise. During isolation, Rotterdam-based artist Junghun Kim has taken on a new daily ritual: laying out on the floor a selection of objects, fruit, vegetables, plants and rocks found around his home. In this action, an ecosystem of interconnectedness is revealed. This daily ritual, one he describes as a geological meditation, shifts perceptions of these normally mundane and seemingly disparate objects to reveal an ecosystem of infinite relations between the universe’s elements. As with the frenzied potential and collaborative agency in the silences between Myong Mi Kim’s words, in Junghun Kim’s modest case study of looking and listening, the objects become a cosmology, as significant as any other, to understand the overwhelming wholeness of universal existence. The Japanese concept of ma – which literally means ‘interval’, ‘space’, ‘in-between’, but also ‘meaningful pause’– relates to all aspects of life: the space of intersubjectivity and the binding force between everything. The silence defined by ma – the silent matter between everything – is not absence, but a complete world in itself, full of active performance or, as Barad wrote, ‘the infinite plenitude of openness’. As the universe expands to its fullest point, in order to spring backwards, inwards to nothingness, the infinite impermanence of silence is alive with poiesis, both dependent and independent from its past, yet binding individuals together with its agency. In our temporary quiet present, we continue our silent communication with the silent palintropic turning of the Earth’s matter: past, present and possible.