This piece has crept in here by stealth…it is not really about sound at all.

‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it…’

John Cage. Lecture on Nothing (1949)


I was asked to speak about ‘the silence of the exhibition’ at a two-day workshop on the ‘Silences of Science’ run by Imperial College and hosted by Wellcome Collection. On the first day of the workshop there was a performance of Cage’s 4’33” and over the course of the two days various other ‘silences’ were created and evoked through meditation, prayer, censorship, and pauses both musical and vocal. The two relevant words kept getting conflated…I could swear that some ‘silence’ I heard as ‘science’ and vice versa.


When it came to my session I decided to speak without notes and without pictures…my presentation was only supposed to be 15 minutes long so I figured I could keep enough in my head to say something coherent, though I took the precaution of warning my listeners that by the end the talk might dissolve into babble. The John Cage quote above was used by one of the other speakers and though I felt that it might be a suitable introduction to my own talk I also thought that this would appear too much like self-sabotage/self-deprecation. Instead, I confessed to a kind of heresy and admitted my fondness for noise. City noise, amplified music, improvised acoustic music played at full force in small spaces.


Afterwards one of the organisers said he thought the talk was like watching and listening to someone thinking. So, rather than let that process slip away, I decided it would be useful, for me at least, to try to record these thoughts. So here is a tidied up version of what I think I said.


There are 3 parts to this talk: the first is the description of an artwork, the second is an anecdote that might morph into a rant and the third is an open question. The last of these is the one that might remain at best, unresolved and at worst gibberish.


1. The artwork is part of a piece called ‘Museum of Angels’ by Tim Brennan (2003). The work was a book and a guided walk (this is often part of Brennan’s practice). The walk started at the north entrance to the British Museum where Brennan talked about our immediate surroundings (I particularly remember him pointing out that Senate House was the model for George Orwell’s ministry buildings in ‘1984’). The walk itself consisted of a tour through the museum in silence, with Brennan pointing to various objects that belonged in his invented/hidden collection of angels. I was struck by the oddness of walking through the museum surrounded by social clamour as part of a group who were not permitted to speak. We certainly perceived ourselves as different kinds of visitor/viewer…and maybe we were seen that way by others too.


2. A few years ago, visiting the Frick Gallery in New York, I wandered through the rooms in a very unplanned way, enjoying both the peacefulness of the galleries and the collection. I came into a busy room that was still relatively hushed. There was none of the usual chatter that comes with groups of people looking at art and I realised that this was because everyone in the group in this room was wearing headphones. Passing close to the other visitors I was aware of the buzz of the voice leaking from their earpieces. And then someone stepped on my foot, walking backwards without looking. A few minutes later the same thing happened again and I came to the conclusion that the immersive spoken sound world that enveloped these listeners had robbed them of their usual sense of spatial awareness. They might have been attentive to the artworks visually but it seemed that their aural environment superseded their ‘body sense’. If the voice in their ears told a listener to step back and appreciate a picture from a different vantage point that is what that listener did – as if they were the only person in the room.


3.  When I worked at the British Museum, a phrase that was often used was ‘let the objects speak for themselves’. Of course this is impossible – the objects are mute, silent. Instead what happens is that the objects are given voices in an act of ventriloquism by a range of people: curators, educators and designers. So, despite the apparent silence of the objects there is actually a cacophony of active voices demanding attention in the gallery. Related to the idea of the object speaking for itself is the notion of a ‘neutral’ environment for artefacts. I think this neutrality is equally impossible…any space created for display comes with an array of messages; everything from the architecture through the vitrines to the armature carries some meaning. So while the acoustic space of the exhibition may be quiet…the conceptual space, as much as the visual environment, is full of noise.


In thinking about this workshop I began to wonder what the spatial equivalent of silence would be. The closest I could get was ‘blankness’. In my design work I often remind curators that it is not essential to fill every wall with artworks or displays…there is some idea of ‘pacing’ at work here. But what does the visitor do when faced with a blank space? They do not let their eyes travel along a blank wall. The wall has no duration that has to be lived through. Instead they turn away or pass on. And yet I persist in this idea of blankness because it inserts peripheral, unprogrammed space into the exhibition. Blankness, like spatial complexity, increases the chance of uncertainty, open-endedness, visual rest, punctuation…And it suggests something else that is not usually discussed – a kind of ‘exhibition time’. In this time/space combine people are reminded of the fact that they are not just seeing a particular artist’s work or a set of objects that support a narrative but are in a construct that is ‘an exhibition’. This leads me back to Cage’s 4’33” – what I believe this piece does not do is create a silence, rather it makes a space in which noise (or sound if you want) happens in an unexpected way – it makes a void into which noise floods – and as listeners we are reminded of the noise that surrounds us, the noise of our lives. Ideally what these blank moments in an exhibition do is position us as viewers actively engaging in the act of looking, examining the chaos, listening to the cacophony.


3 thoughts on “SiLeNCe

  1. Just back from a holiday in Berlin and visited a few museums. The headset offered everytime. Useful for additional information on the pieces but also noticed how they direct the flow of visitors. People tend to congregate around the pieces where they can punch in their numbers and skip a lot of the rest. Also agree about immersive sound worlds removing spatial awareness and it is a personal foible that I don’t like to listen to music whilst walking. One other aside about Cage was the exhibition of his visual art in Glasgow last year ‘Everyday is a Good Day’. I believe the works were allocated on the wall space in accordance with chance generated operations. This created some unusual results – some low down almost at the floor and others high up with plenty of white space as well. Thought it worked really well.

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