Languages of words, alphabets, ideograms, pictograms, inaudible even in their written silent form, inhabit a vertical tower of Babel. The horizontal language of images masters the transversal matter of silence, photography the syntax of light. To translate the idea of silence in visual terms, I invite you, as usual, to consider how the theme articulates into its actual components: time, space and meaning. Accordingly, if we think of SILENCE as an ACT or SILENCE as a FACT we tend to attribute to the idea two very different orders of meaning and may easily find an answer to the crucial question: is silence (perceived as) a presence or an absence.
From a formal point of view, silence as an act is about the notion of “when”. Time, as sound, is perceived as a flow: in this sense the act of silence, is a break in a continuum – before, now, after – a moment of interruption, the duration and pace of which (a fraction of time or a long time) are a variable yet precise quantum of our perception. Think of the signs of punctuation – how they determine the sense and the rhythm of spoken or written language. Think how crucial the pauses in the music are, the blank between verses in poetry. In the “passive” stream of time the “activeness” of silence conjures a condition of immanence: an immediate presence in a time “present”. A solitary or multiple presence: as repetition, as sequence, as alternation, the inner pace of silence – its brevity or extenuation – you are in the position to determine it –precisely – by setting your camera’s shutter speed.
To such qualities of silence belong: muteness, abstention or renunciation from speech; prohibition to speak, no answer; no information; secret; omission, classification, refusal to mention etc. On another level these meanings also belong to the infinite expressions and codes of our – silent – body language, the “hidden dimension” and the laws of proximity. Conscious or not, more or less subtly and depending from which part of the world we come and we are, the codes of bodily expression assume and suggest innumerable different possible interpretations. In our daily world some of those gestural codes also carry other conventional, more generally understood meanings and invoke an array of images: the index finger perpendicular to the lips; one hand passing as a blade across the throat; slowly closing both eyes; the head shaking or turning right-left-right-left, or moving up and down etc. Likewise we could think of a great number of signs, visual instruction and univocal verbal expressions, whereas silence is an active deed of opposition, often perceived, performed, imposed or imparted as radical or even violent.
With its own string of images too – or rather “visions” – Silence as a fact, is about the notion of “where”: a space – that is – “in” an actual “place”. Places and dimensions from which the presence of time has withdrawn, belonging to the present (only and if at all) as an absence. Places silently speaking, evoking or anticipating some possible other time in the past or in the future. Timeless places inhabited by space only, in all its possible different dimensions and scales. Places conveying a sense of stillness and emptiness… Remote lands, inaccessible distant shores, abandoned places summoning the idea of desolation, the evident traces of mystery, places marked by sign or symbols… To explore, to measure those volumes – or even to get lost in them – these irreplaceable vessels are the setting of depth of field in your camera.
One more notion of silence remaining unspoken is the mental image: the limitless boundaries of imagination. The combination of time and space are here constantly and randomly subverted as it is perception of silence as presence or absence, not responding to the same rules of function, of “where or when”. The enchantment of dreams; unconscious, subconscious, unfathomable inner perception; the sidereal e distances of the universe; death.
I would have imagined needing very few words to talk about silence… It has not been so.
To conclude with an anecdote, one day many years ago, I learnt that during the academic examinations for classical music conductors, the master and the pupil face each other with nothing more than musical score in front of their eyes. The pupil is expected to perform and to summon in his gestures the entire spectrum of an orchestra, the entire architecture of music – in the absolute absence of sound… My mind reeled and I imagined making a film about the image of sound. I named it Figure, drew seventy-two of one hundred and sixty sketches of the storyboard, then I never did the film. Silence summons many untold stories.
LITERARY AND CINEMATOGRAPHIC REFERENCES
Jorges Louis Borges – from The Aleph, The Immortal
Virginia Woolf – Flush
Virginia Woolf – The Waves
James Joyce – extract from Ulysses the monologue of Mrs Bloom
A.S. Byatt – Possession
Vercors – Le Silence de la Mer
Leonardo Sciascia – L’uomo solo. L’affaire Moro
Leonardo Sciascia – The Council of Egypt
Grazia Deledda – Ashes
Italo Calvino – Palomar
Dino Buzzati – The Tartar Steppe
Cicero – Orationes in Catilinam, Oratio I (es.: “cum tacent, clamant”)
Aldo Penna – The imperfect silence
Dante Alighieri – Paradise I v. 55/56 […] Transumanar significar per verba non si poria
Rianer Maria Rilke – Stundenbuch
Gottfried Benn – Stille
Tjutcev – Silentium
ESSAYS AND SPECULATIVE
Edward T. Hall – The Silent Language
Edward T. Hall – The Hidden dimension
Abbé Dinouart – L’art de se taire
André Malraux – The Voices of Silence
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul, gergo bom) – Kim Ki-Duk
The Return – Andrej Zvyagintsev
Voice of Silence – Giorgio Prosperi & Jean Cocteau
And Now For Something Completely Different – Monty Python
Sleeper – Woody Allen
Roundhay Garden Scene – Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (1888, first silent film)
The silence of the lambs – Jonathan Demme
A tree of life – Terrence Malick
2001: A Space Odyssey- Stanley Kubrick
Rififi – Jules Dassin
A woman under influence – John Cassavetes
Read my Lips (Sur mes lèvres) – Jacques Audiard
Dewi Lewis on Silence
Rome, May 15th 2011
The more I think about Silence, the more difficult I find it to define what is a complex and multi-faceted subject. I would like to present to you some of the book projects I’ve been involved in, with a range of photographers working in areas where silence might be a factor. In this way I will offer some possible ideas around the intrinsic meaning of this word and raise further visual questions for your approach to the theme.
When starting to write an essay or a talk I often turn to Google, logging-in the keyword to see what comes out in terms of information or images. Among the first that you find on the website is the gesture of the finger to the lips, from numerous older examples such as a plaster sculpture by Auguste Préault (mid XIX). It is an obvious symbol used in everyday life and a great number of images on the web repeat this gesture… On the other hand, you can find very different sorts of images, concerning, for example, the silence hanging over a site of tragedy and suffering. These say absolutely nothing about silence except through the caption. So what actually is Silence? What forms does it take?
- Silence as choice: situations in which people remove themselves from the world of sound.
- Silence as imposition: situations when people are forcedly removed – into a prison, into solitary confinement, without the ability to communicate.
- Silence as oppression – dictatorship – where one of the strong elements is to keep control of free speech in the field of normal media communication.
In all these situations the common element of communication comes through – as an absence.
But on the other hand, there is also:
- Silence as release, when individuals get a feeling of deep satisfaction from being in a quiet environment.
- Silence as place: grandiose landscapes with a sense of peace and quiet.
- As a mood: the atmosphere in a place or a situation. It is not necessarily tangible but is something that you can feel and experience.
- Silence as fear: as children, when we are afraid of facing a situation we tend not to speak, for example when in a group of strangers.
Silence can also be implied via graphics. The same word “silence” can be written large across a page, or small in a corner. Each has a different dramatic effect: the amount of weight that you put on something can totally change how it is interpreted.
There is a dilemma attached to the term. Is Silence an absence – or a presence. Is it about something missing or something being present? Visually, this is an interesting concept to consider.
Music sums up my view of how silence works within visual culture, because there it actually means the space, the pauses, the breaks between things that allow you to understand everything else that is working around it: spaces and pauses within notes are useful for understanding the single parts and the whole composition. Looking a little further, John Cage’s 4’33’’ of Silence, composed in 1952 for any instrument (or combination of instruments), instructs the performer not to play that particular instrument: there are three movements 30- 83-100 seconds and the main, key notion is almost the space between the notes; the idea that the audience should be listening to the background, the (sound of the) environment which exists as a permanent feature of our life.
It is difficult to talk about silence, as there is never true, total silence. It is something impossible to imagine. Therefore, we have to reinterpret it, as the undercurrent of something within a situation, something dealing with silence.
There are numbers of possibilities and I will present some quotations and interesting references from some books I have published that look at notions of silence:
1. Iain Brownlie Roy, Beyond The Imaginary Gates: a project in the north-east of Greenland, a very quiet and isolated environment. The author shows a landscape that may be very silent, but the important elements that he tries to put across are not actually the silence but the grandeur of nature and the stillness that gives an impression of silence and, at the least, of an atmosphere or a mood.
2. Paul Hart, Truncated: here there are images of a forest which is silent, still and quiet. However, looking at this, you realise that his real fascination is with the individual characters of the trees, so that he draws out an individual portrait from a silent and quiet environment.
3. Christophe Agou, In the Face of Silence: farmers’ life and environment in France – a very harsh, isolated world of comparative silence. This silent environment could represent either a choice or an imposition or both: people are forced to live in a certain way, but at the same time it is also a choice…
4 The Brothers is a work by Norwegian photographer Elin Hoyland. She represents the life of two elderly old brothers living in a small, isolated village in Norway. They are in a quiet environment completely apart from people and they only have themselves for company. One of them went from the village to a bigger city for a job interview when he was younger. It was the only time he went away and the worst night of his life: silence and stillness are for them a refuge and a deliberate choice.
5. Nick Danziger: in his project about Bosnia and missing lives, he shows the search for DNA evidence to re-link with people who went missing during the Yugoslavian wars, so that families could have some sort of closure about the loss of their loved ones. It was about the concept of preserving the evidence of those deaths and murders. In the end many families are able bury their relatives properly in community mass burials.
6. John Darwell, Legacy, Photographs from Chernobyl 1999. The silence of the place combined with our knowledge of its meaning has a terrifying effect (probably, if we did not know the place or the facts, the work would not operate on the same level…). In one of the “dead” cities portrayed, the sense is a silence of emptiness – and this comes from the information we already have about it.
7. After The Wall: – a work by Eric Lusito – who travelled through the Soviet Union’s military camps, established in fifteen different States from east to west, unearthing endless amounts of archive material, related to that soviet period. Many of these bases are located not far from inhabited villages, but the local population, frightened by the memory of the Soviet presence that was once there, did not go near them… There is the sense of a presence of the silence of things left behind with the awareness of what happened.
8. Dan Dubowitz, Wastelands: focuses on empty industrial buildings (hospitals, sanatoria, prisons) and again there is the sense of presence which he feels in these silent, abandoned buildings.
9. Burke + Norfolk, Photographs from the war in Afghanistan (recently shown at the Tate Modern in London). Burke was the first photographer in Afghanistan and photographed the British Army presence in the country. Over a century later Norfolk made a comparative project, approaching the subject in a non-photojournalistic way. We usually think of war areas as being full of danger, and suffering… we think of them in terms of photojournalistic subjects; but Norfolk’s approach is different, he tries to understand Burke’s approach, to get a sense of the events he lived. There is a sense of silence and quietness in the way that Norfolk photographs, but also of the gap in time, over one hundred years, that is being bridged, creating communication across a long period of time and space.
Silence it is a very complex theme and there are obvious areas of silence. There are many conventional signs that can also be easily understood as controlling mechanisms. But there still remains the central dilemma of silence as an absence or a presence, something that raises the possibility of interesting and diverse ways to approach it in photography.
Boris Biancheri on Silence
Rome, May 15th 2011
In numbers of experiences in my life, silence was present and sometimes the main element. Both a rejection and affirmation, silence is an absence as well as a presence sketching out uncountable and all sorts of constructions. Often interpreted in a strictly negative sense – coupled with fear, distress, abandonment… – However, or at least in my personal experience, also exists opposite positive silences and for many bizarre reasons sometimes. I will hereafter evoke a few of them. The first one goes back to my childhood, my family is Italian but my mother came from Baltics so we spoke German too, the main language at that time and the one of my nanny. We could speak therefore many languages yet sometimes, we were simply not allowed to speak. For example, nanny had to go for a full day shopping and as I really enjoyed being in her company, I accepted to follow her but I was not allowed to utter a word – if ever I had urgency, I could write. That remained with me for a long time, I still consider that if you have something very important to say, it is better to write it.
During my working experience I travelled continuously and held several different offices in the diplomatic services. In particular, in the early sixties, Europe was all in ferment and turmoil, people were trying to build something and many projects raised every day; people moved and offices changed. Several responsibilities had to be held and not always clear. When I was in my mid thirties and at the core of my career, I went to office n° 9 of the Economic Affairs in Rome, it had no exact competence but dealt with all the things other offices did not. My colleagues and I often handled completely obscure matters… Once I was substituting the Boss office during a meeting in Geneva about European launcher development organisation; I so asked for advice to the General Director. He gave me a very general and useful instruction which assisted him frequently along his career: “At the beginning, when everyone speaks loud and careless, no one will listen to you so it is useless to speak; and when it comes to something serious, if you are obliged to say something try to say what was previously said with different words – for example the French delegate’s opinion – or simply standing up against the Dutch delegate”. During the meeting everything turned fine, but at the moment when I was asked for my opinion, no alphabetical order was followed, not knowing how to behave I simply kept silent: it could not mean abstention as I had no instruction for that neither. I asserted therefore that my silence could not be interpreted in any way. Once back I wrote a note to explain my behaviour and to my utter surprise a telephone call of compliment came from the German Embassy! My silence – such “intelligent and effective position” – became a standpoint.
Certainly in diplomacy, when you try to find the standing between different positions, silence is often crucial. If words may help illuminating, in most cases, in my experience, peace has been reached through silence.
Considering our present system of mass communication – both from my direct experience working in the media for a long time and as a consumer an alarming noise is surrounding us; continuously stepping above the sense of things, altering the value of the news themselves, we ought to be suspicious or at least distrustful, we should learn to recognize and distinguish the noise from the news. I particularly started to appreciate silence precisely from my fifteen years of experience in communication media. Mass communication system is in fact so fragile that Democracy is endangered today. Things can appear important simply by their repetition often regardless respecting any true values… Not mentioning the political involvements. Local elections particularly symbolize that: the media are responsible for inventing the issues but not always for clarifying them nor evaluating the consequences… In every country during political elections, even small questions would influence immense decisions; there is a clash between the functioning of the system and media – that are too strong, so that inevitably they could project uncertainty and doubt. More silence in the medias would be particularly precious and positive…
I will finally tell you the story of a boy: a very brilliant and intelligent one, with excellent memory, almost a genius, but who does not like the use of words. When his Master becomes a politician then raised as Prime Minister, he follows him as assistant and for many years they work together until the day the Prime Minister is assassinated. His assistant is then projected into the main light and becoming himself the Prime Minister is asked one day to deliver an official commemorative speech at the Parliament: that would be the first time he speaks, a postponed but forced situation for him to express directly his ideas. He works long and hard on his speech and when comes the moment to begin speaking in front of thousands of people… everyone – him at first – discovers that he has no voice: he has lost it, in the things he has to say are the very important he has always thought about but in that vey moment he simply can’t utter a single word. It is a sad end perhaps, yet helping to project the value of silence and of thoughts as superior compare to words.
Silence for me is the opposite of words, noise and image. Silence in the visual contemporary evolution had in the second half of XX century, an immense growth and significance in several arts. Certainly in music: in particular after the introduction of the 5 semitones to first 7 tunes rule and growing dominance a great confusion came into music… In this wonderful metamorphosis things became difficult to understand and silence was a reaction to that, i.e. John Cages’s 4’33’’ of Silence – of nothing, becomes the construction of something.
Likewise in the visual arts: when there is too much chaos and abundance of whatever (tunes, words, images, concepts, religions) silence is needed. The XX century has several major figures who – more or less at the same time – conceived Silence as a mean of expression: Rothko, Manzoni, Castellani, Burri, Fontana. And in theatre as well, thanks to Samuel Beckett. Whether you play with colours, sounds, words, or politics,… silence is one of the most extraordinary rich themes one could embark upon it is a reflexion and a stimulus for creation…
 Edward T. Hall, American anthropologist who has extensively investigated the relations of behaviour and analysed the cross cultural boundaries in different civilisations: The Hidden Dimension; The Silent Language.
 About 30-40% of the images found use this gesture!
 Twin Towers Memorial Service, September 11th 2006.
 “[Silence] is the space between the notes that makes the music.” – Noah Benshea.
 “Silence is the ultimate weapon of power.” – Charles De Gaulle
 “Experience teaches us that silence terrifies people the most.” – Bob Dylan
 “Oppression can only survive through silence.” – Carmen de Monteflores
 “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
 France-Italy-Netherlands according to the General Director’s instructions.
 Boris Biancheri has long-time held the Chair of ANSA, the Italian National Press Agency and of the Italian Newspaper and Publishers Society.
 Summary and quotations from In Praise of Silence, Boris Biancheri, Feltrinelli Editore 2011.