The Silence Behind Us
A marvelous essay originaly published as a foreword to Bojan Gagić's sound installation Between Silences held in Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb.
Music heard so deeply,
it is not heard at all:
You ARE the music
while the music lasts.
T. S. Eliot
The Great Silence
There is a great silence behind us. It’s the silence of the buried, but not the forgotten.
This silence is a recognition that all sound is in a state of constant extinction. It might almost be as if sound is never actually there. Sound as it is perceived, instantly transitions from lived experience, to dynamic recollection. The moment we comprehend sound, those ephemeral vibrations in the atmosphere around us, their experiential affect has already vanished and what spectres that linger are relegated to the shallow grave of memory. There, the spectres of sound are reduced and reconstituted. The memories of them may be exhumed at anytime, however they are anything but the lived experience from which the memory was imprinted.
It might pay to consider the formation of these memories as relational, informed by our individual desires and moreover our political wills. When we listen, we are seeking meaning through a web of relational contexts. Our capacity to listen is a result of our being present in time, space and place matched with our relative position as a politically situated being.
The Agentive Ear
To listen is not merely to hear. Hearing refers to a base state of perception, one in which a listen may be almost absent. Most of our auditory lives are spent filtering out sound, rather than focusing in on them. Examples of this are commonplace in the everyday. As you read these very words now many of the sounds around you are being erased from your conscious listening. They are even noise, just hushed acoustic detritus beyond cognition.
To listen, explicitly refers to how an agency of the listener may be realised. Moreover how meaning is constructed through the listener being present during audition. How agency is expressed is entirely personal, relational to the preoccupations and motivations of the listener. A listening is rooted in the habitus of the listener; it is forged by, and primarily concerns itself with, their interior psychological and moreover political dispositions. It’s their experiences up to that moment that facilitates the listener fully exercising agency from within the physiological confines of their auditory abilities.
How might we amplify these listening then and expunge them from this psychological interior of the mind? These listens must be exorcised and made audible to others should their communicative possibility extend beyond the pure subjectivity of the listener’s listening. It is these challenges that hold great importance for the context of this exhibition. Indeed, it is the listening of Bojan Gagić that carries within it an unfathomable reflection upon place, space and time that is rooted in a political reading of the sonic materials presented here.
If his listening is to resonate beyond the moment in which it was experienced and be allowed to live and be relived through others, a point of transmission is pivotal. Gagić’s response to this challenge is to embrace the microphone as a secondary ear. An exterior, technological, prosthetic ear, one which when attached to a recording device offers a unique possibility for the transmission of his listening to become actualised.
Targets Outside Of Time
The landmine is without question one of humankind’s most appalling technological achievements. It singularly represents a disregard for humanity, quality of life and perhaps most painfully, the temporal nature of conflict. Unlike other weapons whose deployment requires a finger (literally and metaphorically), the landmine once deployed lies dormant like some grizzly subterranean creature. Erupting with no discrimination of target or context. Its lingering effect is most commonly a senseless maiming, rendered outside the moment of conflict during which the mine was placed.
Today, these unholy fields with their explosive have created unexpected micro-geographies across the world. Their presence is an incursion into land use. They divide arbitrarily and refuse any reclamation by humankind (without significant investment and risk). By introducing these objects, designed to create a delineation of ownership and territoriality, we have in fact generated non-places, environmental voids taunting generations to come.
How then can we come to know these non-places? How can we begin to explore their meaning in a context outside conflict? How can we reflect on these spaces and acknowledge the ways in which natural reclamation might offer a metaphor for our own desires to reaccept and perhaps even reoccupy these spaces?
The Falling Of The Light
Humans are without question a species for which vision dominates sense making. We trust our eyes and furthermore we know with our eyes. Involuntarily, our other senses are subordinate when sight is present. In our earliest days, the light of the campfire brought us security, but we dare not drift beyond its flickering circle of luminosity. In the dark we were blind and that meant we were vunerable.
What happens when our eyes fail to provide us with information? How do we approach the darkness of restricted zones? How can we reach inside them? Are there other ways of knowing in the dark? It is these provocations that guide the works of this exhibition. Without the opportunity to be physically present in these minefields how is it we can know them? Even with visual aids such as binoculars we are denied real access. Many of these fields now overgrown and cloaked in foliage, we must forgo vision as our way to know and rely on a sense that does not require the linear spectrum of light. We must cast ourselves deep inside these spaces with our ears? We must listen and apply our agency in doing so. We must embrace sound’s promise to be promiscuous, to bend and flow around corners and through dense visual spaces. We must ask sound to reveal that which we are not allowed to see.
A Year Of Fields
Bojan Gagić visited 12 minefields over the course of a year. Each environment expressly forbade his physical presence within it. He could however listen into them. As he did, he was struck by a familiarity. Whilst they might be physically alien terrain, hostile to humanity, the environments themselves replete with flora and fauna continue to flourish, perhaps even more so in our absence.
Gagić’s choice of locations is personal, informed overwhelmingly by proximity. Many of these sites are what might be called incidental. They are locations of the everyday, the everywhere and the nowhere. They are fields adjoining highways, they are backyards, and they are villages and places we all know, but have perhaps never visited. His recordings are in many ways equally incidental, they are moments carved out of acoustic scapes that come loaded with a heaviness of the past.
In the recordings, we hear a powerful absence of what lies beneath – and the painful histories tied to those objects. In the presence of the everyday; of the dog barking, of the traffic, of the bird calling, of the recordist shuffling his feet; we are acutely made aware of what is not in the recordings, but rather what those renderings of such environments represent to us. These are spaces we all can recognise, and which are woven into our most fundamental understandings of place. When we listen casually to the recordings, we can, in some modest way, build an impressionist view of these environs. If we listen deeper the absence becomes aural and suddenly we can start our own interior dialogue with these uneasy non-places. It is a small leap then to use them as stage and set for recognition of the grief and suffering, past and present, that frequent these settings.
When we approach these works by Gagić, what we are recognising is that through the listenings he has undertaken we can each begin to build a relational context linking ourselves in the present with the silenced. We can begin to imagine how we might come to reconcile these spaces with ourselves. Though we pass by them each day, and though they may be largely filtered from conscious perception, their resonance is revealed in rich detail through these listenings.
This essay was published as a foreword to Bojan Gagić's exhibition Between Silences which was held between February 23rd and March 15th at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb. We wish to thank Leila Topić, the curator of Between Silences, the author, and the Museum of Contemporary Art for the opportunity to publish this essay.