The revolution of silence
The revolution of silence
By Lis Costa
Esquerp Magazine. 2000
He was born in Barcelona in 1956 and in 1981 he begins, under the nickname Tres (Three), an artistic career fundamentally based on the practice of sculpture, painting and music. In 1985 he commits suicide as an artist and begins his predominant interest concerning silence.
-Where does your interest in silence come from?
-In 1984 I was doing sculpture, I did some iron vertical structures (hipercubis) combining basic shapes, such as cubes and cones, and the void, which is the most important discovery of the 20th century regarding sculpture. I heard a comment about this from someone close to me who said that the void I was working with resembled Buddhist vacuity, which is defined as the absence of inherent existence of all phenomena. On the other hand, I had been making music during many years with La T, Klamm and collaborations with Eduardo Polonio and Leo Mariño. I was also attracted by silence, although with sculpture I was experimenting with the absence of matter. With music I wanted to experiment with the absence of sound. I became interested in random music and John Cage, so I founded a band called UMBN Aleatòria (Random UMBN) with Gat (another catalan musician). in order to investigate silence in music. Simultaneously I came across an article written by the philosopher Miguel Morey, that made me think that all these things which attracted me so much were not a nonsense. From then on I started to collect any kind of thing related to silence in any context. I pasted it all in the Libro del Silencio (Book of Silence), a big book full of blank pages. I don't know quite well why I was doing it. I realised that it was very difficult to define silence and I thought that if I compiled all the available information perhaps someday I would have an idea about what it was. So that's how everything started and I have not stopped since then. I keep on researching in my own way. I take, read and file things and this process gives me a more extensive idea of what silence is as time goes by.
-How has the knowledge of silence influenced your artistic activity?
-With the sculptures I wanted to focus the intention towards void, not towards structure. What I was doing was to frame the void, so it could be seen. The work was the void. With music it was the same thing. Musicians have a tendency to fill silence completely, that is the matter which the acoustic architecture is built upon. Therefore, the same happens with space. As the master Lie Zi said, in silence and in space no judgement can be made since such a judgement would deny these concepts. To make silence is a non-making process. In my opinion, it is a pure activity. It is an absolute synthesis. There are just "silences" that can take place either in the field of ecological and social activism, musical language or in contemporary art. When I became conscious about this, I decided that I didn't want to identify myself with the work that I was doing. I became aware of the fact that I had to stop it.
-And what did you achieve?
-I cleansed myself from the necessity of creation and egocentric tendencies. Everything fell apart. The idea of creation seems very pedantic and almost unacceptable to me, including the entire burden that is imposed on the artist and the artistic act, which I believe is an exaggeration and something that belongs to the past. I found a basis to distance myself from it and let the weight that I had put on my shoulders in 1981 fall down, when I changed my name and I was born as an artist. The idea of working with silence liberated me from the idea of creation and gave continuity to the idea of void. There is no work, just silences. -Is the change in the concept of the artist a subjective matter, or do you think that it is related to the general evolution of art?
-To me, identifying oneself as an artist means hell, and it's also a self-imposed idea. Of course, this is a subjective vision. For some time I believed in Kandinsky's idea of the artist, that there is no art without necessity. I had always felt this necessity, but all of a sudden, all seemed outdated to me and also a pathology and a form of slavery. From Duchamp's ready-mades onwards, true art has no other function than to look for its own limits. But this tendency of contemporary art separated it even more from people, who don't understand it. Art aspires to communicate the ineffable and, in this sense, it's clearly related to silence. There are many ways to make silences. I don't know whether this should be considered as art or not. I'm not an artist and I'm not interested in art. I'm rather interested in silence, but I can use art, since it may be one of the ways to transmit the idea of silence.
-How do you work with silence through art?
-I've been a person who has approached different interests and activities. I still am indeed, but behind closed doors. I don't want to run after anything, exhibitions or whatever, because I'm interested in silence in a different way. During a long time I undertook this investigation, looking for bibliography, compiling articles and images, and getting involved with all this world of silence. But in a silent way, because I observed a great contradiction in being interested in silence and talking about it or trying to use it for artistic means with the intention of selling the idea of silence as if it were a work of art. I felt that the idea of silence was more bound to make a silent creation. I was paralysed due to this basic contradiction that is always present in the world of silence. I was paralysed due to this paradox, until suddenly I reached the conclusion that my silence had to be heard, otherwise it was of no use.
-Do you want silence to be useful in any way?
-No, what I wanted was to free myself from this contradiction that paralysed me. I'm very interested in freedom; it's the basis and beginning of everything, like freedom in art. Freedom is basic for the human being and must be defended. On the contrary, I was paralysed and caged in my own trap of silence; unable to move or get out. It was a new prison, similar to the one I was in when I was twenty-five. Suddenly, I thought that I had to make noise with silence, at least, to free myself from this contradiction. After reaching this simple decision, Luisa Ortínez offered me to me to make something in the CCCB (Centre of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona), in the Intermix program of live arts.
-Did the first MUTED event appear then?
-Yes, this happened in 1998 and meant the chance to make a public event about silence, with good conditions, for the first time. It started with the idea to arrange a silent cocktail party. Since there were enough means and infrastructure, I ended up making a multidisciplinary and interactive installation following the philosophy of the Intermix events, which included concerts, video projections, actions and visual arts; all linked by the common thread of silence. The following year I had the chance to organise another MUTED event, so it could be improved and located in a bigger space with a few more means, so it was another fantastic experience. It was proved that the idea of making people feel the silence was possible and that the press and the media, which are responsible of spreading new things, favoured this idea.
-You had already organised another silent cocktail party back in 1993. What is the goal of these cocktail parties?
--We all know that we have the right to remain silent, but society doesn't allow it. It's what Huxley defined as "our culture's variegated chatter" or "the dance of dust and flies". In a silent cocktail party people can, out of their own accord, exercise their right to remain silent. I organised the first one in my own studio, but it was something private, with friends of mine only. The MUTED event was a public one. The great question was whether people would respect the silence and attend a leisure occasion where the goal was to have a good time, with drinks, music, etc. and shut up or not. And it worked. Many people came and they communicated in silence. To me it is like a party of the future, without words, with a different perception and mainly focused towards listening. Silence interests me for different reasons, but one of the most important is because it's basic for a good communication.
-After so many years spent compiling, reading, investigating...what is silence for you?
-A private obsession! I don't know. As Wreford Miller says, its definition depends on where you are listening, on your culture and ideology, but very especially on the context you're dealing with. In absolute terms it's something unthinkable, which leads us directly to metaphysics and it's surely something impossible for the human ear to experience. Acoustic silence is a listening experience and it has many levels. We can say that what we hear in a forest with a soft wind that moves the leaves in the trees is silence, or equivalent to silence. The sounds that oscillate between 0 and 20 dB, which is the lower threshold of human hearing, are appreciated as total silence. And the sounds that are near that threshold are sound landscapes far richer in silence than in noise. What I know is that the perception of silence has the quality of taking us to another experience, a wonderful silence that communicates something ineffable, which is put over the physical silence you are listening to. I don't have a definition of silence, I've seen hundreds of them and I think that it's something too broad to be defined and there are too many contexts to take into account. There's a definition coined by J. L. Ramírez González, within the compilation made by Castilla del Pino, which I like: "silence as an entity is an abstract construct with roots in mythical thought, while silences are properly facts and actions". I understand silence like this, as facts and actions. I'm sorry not to have a definition of silence, I'm just a compiler who sees many possibilities, keeps on studying and hasn't reached any great conclusions.
-What about small conclusions, have you got any?
-I'm just realising how important, necessary and powerful silence is, and how industrial civilisation has stolen it from us, probably forever. I'm increasingly more conscious of all this. Since it is important enough, I believe that I'm working in something worthwhile, especially bearing in mind the direction that the world has taken, bound towards pure information and pure noise from the beginning of the industrial revolution. The world is based on an equation: we need to create wealth, wealth comes from industry and for industry to grow there must be noise. More noise means more industry, therefore, the richer a country is... We have lived with this equation during two hundred years. In some years' time the real wealth will mean being able to choose the information and having access to silence, which is something increasingly difficult to find.
-Do you consider that in the artistic world there is also an excess of information and noise?
-It startles me that in contemporary art all artists have to use sound. It's a widespread fashion, and in collective exhibitions, the sound pieces get on top and impair each other, so noise and confusion appear. There's so much excessive noise, a noise that's being transmitted and labelled as culture, as something appealing and new. I think silence is more innovative, refreshing, valid and valuable. If I had the chance to organise another MUTED event, I would renounce to use machines and video image, though I know that they can help to perceive silence. But if I have to have noise due to the use of technological support, I rather prefer to renounce to it. I want to experiment with an absolute void of continuous sounds.
-Is that the reason why you do the "concerts to disconnect"?
-During the MUTED 99 event there were a few concerts of silences. Due to the richness of silences in these concerts, I was forced to improvise several races in all directions to make sure that a distant piano stopped sounding, or that the mechanical stairs were stopped, together with the video projectors and air conditioners, etc. Then I thought that the true concert of silences would be the one in which somebody would get on the stage and start to disconnect everything. This current year I've already done seven "concerts to disconnect" in several spaces in Barcelona and I hope to do many more. -What happens in these concerts?
-What I do in a "concert to disconnect" is to direct the attention on the continuous sounds that we're so familiar with. In the workplace, in public and in domestic areas there are always continuous sounds coming from machines, and this has raised the threshold of silence a few dB more. This is dreadful, makes listening and thinking boring, and makes communication difficult. It's necessary to situate once again the threshold of silence in its natural place. In the "concerts to disconnect" we slowly turn off sounds depending on their intensity and geographical location in the site of the concert. It's like a dissection, so as we turn off the loudest sounds, the presence of silence is more noticeable and all these sounds, which are still to be disconnected, take a clearer shape. It is more interesting to listen to this until we reach the point when there is no continuous sound to be heard. This is the maximum level of silence that we can accomplish. I think that there's nothing nicer than doing music by turning off noise and I think that it is an act of high artistic purity, if you want to use these words. It's the most effective way that I've found so far to make silences. It is a journey towards silence in which everybody travels and we end up making a single silence. The amount of aural attention that is awakened when I disconnect the first machine surprises me. Pleasure and relaxation accompany all of this; besides, it is a delight to feel how a continuous sound is turned off. The agents of noise have colonised us and the cultural offer is always noisy or implies amplification. In this sense, the "concerts to disconnect" are something really new and it could be said that they act as agents of silence and that people increasingly value silence more.
-Perhaps you worked first on a more artistic level and now it seems to me that you have the intention of making people conscious of how important silence is, so they can realise and perceive it. Do you consider your work to be social?
-I don't know what social art is. I think that there is a part of silence that can be worked with from the perspective of social activism, but I'm not prepared for that yet. I'm using artistic means to demand attention to silence in a broad sense.
-If you are not an artist now, what are you?
-I consider myself a student of the 'silentiology' and as a student I have to gather information about everything that touches or is near the world of silence, but there are so many and parallel worlds that it takes a lot of work to do this. The world of social activism attracts me but at the same time I avoid self-promotion. This blocks me. In a different period of time I would have liked to be a revolutionary of ideas, like my artistic parents, the Dadaists and the Surrealists, were. In the time when I worked with Zush (a Catalan artist) I believed that I was working for a revolution that defended the Individual State, and thus, anarchy. It was a naivety on my part, which I don't regret. Kafka once told Gustav Janouch: "you don't know how much hidden power there is in silence". It's like David and Goliath, so the conspiracy of noise, the global colonisation of noise and music and the resultant loss of silence seems unstoppable. That's why a revolution is necessary: the revolution of silence. David must win.
-What would this revolution of silence consist of?
-It is an acoustic revolution, but it's also related to thought. The premise of Rimbaud and the Surrealists of transforming the world and changing life would have its most forceful paradigm in the accomplishment of silence. Imagine a world where machines were noiseless and life were full of silent movement. This seems impressive even as something imagined...like New York full of movement but without the traffic noise. This is for me a clear and defined image of an ideal future, because noise is damaging for everybody and silence, on the contrary, is beneficial for all. The dominant ideology is based on rampant capitalism and selfishness. This is why a revolution of the mind is needed. Silence should play a role in all of this, in order to offer a different worldview. Future belongs to the agents of silence and technology must start working in this direction. How many people would benefit, if aeroplanes were noiseless or at least little noisy?
-Is there other people working in the same direction as you?
-There's a general trend towards vindicating silence. I'm just one amongst a lot of people who work in this area. In an international ambit, the World Health Organisation published the Green Book of Noise, which tries to impose a limit to the disasters that we have produced in such a long period of time. In England there is an association of silence activists called Pipe Down, whose members have accomplished the elimination of background music in the Gatwick airport. The fact is that, many times, music is conceived to fill the sensation of void that many people experience because they're not used to silence and this is something that must change. In Holland, for example, there are zones of silence and train wagons without music and noise. In France there are zones called forests of silence, where it is forbidden to enter with a car or playing music. There is an American who is working on a map of silent spaces of the USA. He goes to a place and checks that there is not any noise of human origin in a perimeter of 15 Km and finds very few silent spaces. There are also some people in Basel who have set up the stiller raum (room of silence), a wonderful space where events related to silence take place, but always without machines and electronics. In Catalonia there is the ACCA or Associació Catalana Contra la Contaminació Acústica (Catalan Association Against Acoustic Pollution), that is carrying through a very efficient and disinterested task. In the field of music, for example, there is a trend towards attentive listening, more focused on listening than on music itself. It's evident that there's an intention to put limits to the acoustic pollution that fills everything everywhere.
-Is that the aim of the record label that you founded one and a half years ago, called Silence Science?
-Between playing a record and not playing it at all, there must be a third possibility, namely a record that sounds every once in a while and in which music and silence alternate. This quite simple idea moved me to found the label. I find it interesting and I would like to continue, but right now it is inactive, because I don't want to rush, so I take it easy. I just want to keep myself interested in the world of silence and see where it takes me. So if I have the chance to make silence, then I do it, be it in the field of art, social activism or music with the 'Concerts to Disconnect'. We have released two records so far. The Conceptual High Volume Silence CD is a compilation of ten tracks composed by some of the most remarkable DJ's in the international scene. It comprises their personal approach to silence. The other CD is called 67' of S.I.L.E.N.C.E. and features some of my own compositions, which are based on the idea of organising silences in time. I combine chamber music, musique concrête, techno, pop, etc.; all of it linked by silence. There was the intention to make a second compilation with other DJ's, but I felt doubtful about it. I don't know if it's all right to demand silences to people who have not thought about the subject before. Everything takes time and I don't want to enter the race of releasing more and more records. These two have been very much appreciated. We needed a label to experiment with silence.
-The idea of Buddhist vacuity you talked about in 1984 is in any way linked to the idea of silence that you have now, sixteen years after?
-There is a world of silence which goes inwards and another that goes outwards, where thought is turned off and silence is found within oneself. I'm very, very far from this. I can see that this way exists and that it's not incompatible with the other one. I hope to grow in all directions.