Radical Silence in Performance Art: Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s Maumau-taimi’
For Repeating Silence, 2015, I carried out four one-hour public performances in and around Melbourne’s CBD.1 I stood stationary, with eyes closed, slowly turning my head from side to side as if surveying the scene. The gesture of closing my eyes accentuated my stationary silence, troubling expectations of public mobility and visibility. With eyes closed, my body is transformed into an object for the scrutiny of passers-by—they come close and stare. I am not watching but I am hearing and smelling all the better. Their children and other family members pose with me for photographs, disturbing what would normally be a subtle spatial zone of privacy within a public space.2
Live-stream video feeds of these performances were displayed on nearby tablets: a close-up cinematic view of my face as it slowly turns from side to side.3 These tablets were positioned where one might expect to find programme or building information (beside lifts, information counters, attached to sliding glass doors, in shop windows). As a kind of face-to-face encounter, Repeating Silence explored a radical public silence or muteness.
Drawing on experiences from within my own art practice, this essay discusses artworks by the English choreographer Rosemary Lee and Tongan Auckland-based artist Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, exploring non-active or non-vocal modalities in performance art that provoke forms of listening and attentiveness. These modalities can outweigh what we sometimes perceive to be the importance of communication in language. In other words, silence, and isolating oneself from the world, provokes a far-reaching form of dialogue that gives rise to the terms radical passivity or radical silence.4 For contemporary performance art, this suggests different dynamics of passivity and extended duration. Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of the face-to-face encounter frames this exploration as an ethical response to neighbours and strangers. Silence opens me to the unsayable and inexhaustible difference of other people, creating a dwelling place that listens to others’ speech.5
Definitions of Silence
Silence can have spiritual, political and environmental significance. Silence can be absorbing, beneficial, attentive and a guard against interference. It can also be uncomfortable, resentful or even fatal. As Don Ihde writes: “Face-to-face meeting without any word results in awkward silence, because in the meeting there is issued a call to speak.”6 In other words, the voice of another can be excluded through silence. There can also be ethical and political dimensions to silence: Who has the right or resources to speak?
Furthermore, the possibility of silence can be challenged. Susan Sontag wrote in “The Aesthetics of Silence” that the performance artist John Cage insisted “there is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.”7 In other words, Cage suggests that silence is always measured by sound and noise. Along similar lines, Bernard Dauenhauer discussed silence as a “positive phenomenon” rather than a “muteness [or] mere absence of audible sound,” comparing the difference between silence and muteness to the difference between “being without sight and having one’s eyes closed.”8 In this respect, Dauenhauer argues that “silence is not merely linked with some active human performance. It is itself an active performance.”9
In a similar vein, Martin Welton wrote about silence in relation to the choreographed dance/performance work of Rosemary Lee, saying that silence is employed not so much “as an absence of sound than as a means of signalling the means by which the performance crafted a space in which to be momentarily free of ‘noise’.”10 Lee’s Square Dances took place across four squares in the Borough of Camden, London, from October 8 to 9, 2011. For one of these events in Brunswick Square, a group of participants surrounding an ancient tree very gradually and silently moved from standing, to crouching, to lying prone on the ground, and again to standing.
These artworks offer audiences a spectacle of slowed-down motion and silence. Passers-by and art audiences encounter them with, no doubt, different expectations. What might such silent potential offer audiences? In the videos of Square Dances (I wasn’t there), the audience seems mesmerised; making a choice to slow down with the performers—taking time. This is a marked difference from the reception of Repeating Silence, where my stationary body became more of a phenomenon at odds with “normal” circulation and movement. Nevertheless, both performances provoke attention and attentiveness to a different kind of face-to-face encounter in which audiences negotiate different terms of engagement. There is a striking simplicity to these performance works that nevertheless needs spelling out: that people’s habitual consciousness of themselves and others is questioned in the face of someone with their eyes closed, or a group of people moving in slow motion—or in viewing movement free of noise. People are asked to negotiate a different micro-level of potentiality that is nuanced and ambiguous—where there are fewer rules for shared activity and the specific results are unclear.
Subjectivity and my Neighbour
Engaging with Levinas’s notion of the face-to-face means dispensing with ideas of personal self-sufficiency and consciousness of the self.11 Accordingly, being is found in a relationship to the other. This is where awakening, spirituality and love may arise.12 Levinas wrote that “love means, before all else, the welcoming of the other as thou,” where “thou” is understood as the deep alterity of another.13 This doesn’t just mean that subject/object relations are challenged and critiqued. It means they disappear. As Levinas writes:
The history of the theory of knowledge in contemporary philosophy is the history of the disappearance of the subject/object problem…. The consistency of the self is dissolved into relations…. Concrete reality is humankind always already in relation with the world, or always already projected beyond their instant.14
From this perspective, Megan Craig writes:
The subject Levinas conceives begins otherwise and elsewhere—in the dark, bound and off-center, tied to others who refuse to leave her alone…. The Levinasian subject has her center of gravity outside of herself. Orbiting against her will, she is caught, like a planet, in the gravitational pull of a distant star.15
In thinking about the slow quietness of Lee’s Square Dances, Levinas’s face-to-face does not literally mean “faces”, but could be the nape of the neck, somebody’s back or other infinite associations. Its ethics, Craig emphasises, are discreet and incremental, perhaps like the movement of Lee’s participants:
Levinas reminds us of a micro-level of potentiality, a level of nuance and ambiguity devoid of flagrant indicators. In the process, he provides no decisive markers and issues no set of rules for ethical activity, no code that might guarantee any specific results.16
With reference to my neighbour, or to strangers, this radical disappearance of self-sufficiency and consciousness does not suppress difference in others. Instead, it embraces difference as part of its spiritual awakening—of love. With references to the philosophy of Gabriel Marcel and Martin Buber, Levinas describes this as a “philosophy of dialogue” that involves an exploration of an ethical response to neighbours and strangers:
Thus there is both relation and rupture, and thus awakening: awakening of the Self by the Other, of me by the Stranger, of me by the stateless person, that is, by the neighbor who is only nearby. An awakening that is neither reflection upon oneself nor universalization. An awakening signifying a responsibility for the other, the other who must be fed and clothed—my substitution for the other, my expiation for the suffering, and no doubt for the wrongdoing of the other. An expiation assigned to me without any possible avoidance, and by which my uniqueness as myself, instead of being alienated, is intensified by my irreplaceability.17
To summarise briefly, a concept of the self—and even reciprocity between subject/object relations—disappears with a philosophy of dialogue where love means being unambiguously open to the differences and alterity (the otherness) of my neighbour and stranger. But this does not necessarily mean cultural assimilation and agreement. In Listening, Thinking, Being, Lipari states that “to make the stranger a familiar is to do violence to the otherness of the other, to exclude some part of the stranger.”18
Silence and my Neighbour
The Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was ambitious to write about things like passion, faith and silence. For Kierkegaard, the only way to achieve what Levinas later calls an “awakening of the Self by the Other, of me by the Stranger”, is to spend long periods in isolated silence. He waxed lyrical about the power of silence in repeatedly remembering God. For Kierkegaard, the only way to approach the mystery of God and, in turn, relate in an ethical way to those around us, is to spend long periods in silent retreat. Accordingly, most people miss out on what Levinas might call a moment of awakening because they make too much noise. Kierkegaard wrote: “That is why it so rarely happens that human beings really get to understand when the moment has arrived, or how to make good use of it—because they cannot keep silent.”19 Moreover, this act of keeping silent has the capacity to open us in an ethical way towards others. “You became silent, and, if it is possible that there is something even more opposed to speaking than silence, you became a listener”, wrote Kierkegaard.20
How do we interpret a notion of God in this largely secularised art world and broader community? I take note here of Jacques Derrida’s thinking on faith and God where “God is the name of the absolute other as other and as unique.”21 In his writings on Kierkegaard, Derrida noted that faith is inextricably linked to our responsibility to the other in their alterity or otherness. From this point of view, my singularity becomes subsumed to the point that, as Derrida wrote, “I am responsible before the other as other.”22 To be responsible before the other as other, means being open to a philosophy of dialogue that, as noted earlier via Levinas, awakens our responsibility to all living creatures without judgement or agreement. And this might be where silent passivity holds power. This radical passivity does not mean doing nothing: it means cultivating a different set of listening skills that derives from a different kind of mobility; a different kind of negotiation between what we might call private and public worlds.
Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s Radical Passivity
Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s quiet and melancholic performances don’t skirt around issues of homelessness, isolation, Pacific Island poverty and hard labour. While he could be said to engage a meditative ambience of choreographed silent movement, ‘Uhila’s performances explore subversive and generative ways of thinking about misconceptions of Pacific Island peoples and their agency: perceptions of a lack of labour; perceptions of slow movement as laziness; and perceptions of sitting about in unemployed passivity. In doing so, he engages in a philosophy of dialogue motivated by a different kind of mobility. So, what do we make of ‘Uhila’s silent passivity; his waiting about, his disengaged looking and his reticence?
In 2016 I observed ‘Uhila through the large glass pane of the ST PAUL St window gallery. For the work Maumau-taimi’, he sat in this closed vitrine, waiting. I say “vitrine” because the ethnographic and museological ramifications of this artwork struck me upon viewing. ‘Uhila’s subjecthood, his subjectivity, simultaneously became his and ours as he became an object of display. This was especially uncomfortable for me as I realised the level of subversion in where he had put me: white and on the outside—the public side. We have rehearsed his every move together, yet our differences remained affronting.23
His silent display continued for most of the morning until interrupted by a series of conversations. By way of a sign within the interior gallery, a queue of people formed by late morning, waiting for long periods in order to walk into the window, sit down on the bench beside ‘Uhila and have a conversation with him. On the one hand, this broke the silent register of the artwork, but on the other hand, those conversations remained silent for those of us on the outside unable to hear anything through the glass wall. The vitrine became a place of dialogue and exchange that I could only look upon as a question. At one point, a participant looked at me. They laughed. Despite all my conversations with ‘Uhila about his work, I didn’t anticipate the silence on my side of the vitrine being so powerful.
I could have lined up and gone behind the scenes in order to emerge right in the work; a participant seen by other participants. But I was busy that day facilitating examinations and showing people around. We had already completed our supervisions in that gallery space over the previous forty-eight hours with passers-by looking at us. I had sat in there with him for some time and these rehearsals were not not the work. And in the early hours when no queues had formed I had been in there with him. Time was long. In our attentiveness to each other there were silences. Things were thought. My fondness for him grew and our distance widened.
Supervisors learn to shut up and listen, holding back on initial judgements: paying attention to time in time. That is, to give immediate attention to time in the present before it becomes the past; extended, supple and capable of weaving in and out of differences. Lipari might call this constitutive listening: “communication from an intersubjective, dialogic perspective far different from a linear transmission-orientated model, where sequences of words are thought to depart from oneself and enter another.”24 Through her reading of Levinas, she describes listening others to speech,25 where listening “does not absorb the other into conformity with the self, but instead creates a dwelling place to receive the alterity of the other and let it resonate.”27 This creates a politics and ethics of listening that doesn’t familiarise the stranger into indifference.
There is no point denying or doing away with this vitrine; this ethnographic glass divide that ‘Uhila cleverly destabilised. To evoke the words of Lipari once again and her thinking about striving towards an ethics of attunement—to try and make this separation familiar would be doing a “violence to the otherness of the other, to exclude some part of the stranger.”27 ‘Uhila turns an alleged laziness—his unemployed passivity—into rituals of slowly nuanced engagement. This might be what Levinas is driving at when he reminds us of a different micro-level of potentiality where fewer rules apply and the specific results are unclear. And this is the agency of ‘Uhila’s performances that I most grapple with. If his life-size vitrine is redolent with the wrongdoings of ethnographic and museological history, my earnest attempts to address those long-threaded, unruly and messy entanglements are confronted.28 His silence accentuates our differences, striking a chord with Kierkegaard’s call for repeated silence. In his recurring rituals, given prominence through this thing we call performance art, it is ‘Uhila’s silent passivity, his waiting and his reticence, that undoes familiarity. As Derrida made very clear in his late work: attunement and whatever we might call civilisation are not about sameness but about difference. To be at home in my own skin is to feel the absolute otherness of my neighbour; even my neighbour’s irreducible differences.29 And perhaps ‘Uhila reminds us that it is only by this route that some kind of ethical attunement might be possible.
About the Author
Chris Braddock, artist and writer, is Professor of visual arts at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), New Zealand. He co-leads the Ph.D. and M.Phil. programmes and the Art & Performance Research Group. He is author of Performing Contagious Bodies: Ritual Participation in Contemporary Art, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 and editor of Animism in Art and Performance, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. His performance and sculpture was included in Material Traces: Time and the Gesture in Contemporary Art curated by Amelia Jones in Montréal, 2013. In 2015 his performance, Repeating Silence, with livestream was selected for Performing Mobilities in Performance Studies International (PSi#21) curated by Mick Douglas and David Cross. Key research terms include: animism, contagion, material trace, ritual, silence, spirituality, the body and performance.
See christopherbraddock.com for documentation of the performances that formed part of Performing Mobilities at Performance Studies International (PSi#21), RMIT Design Hub, RMIT & VCA, Melbourne. Curated by Mick Douglas and David Cross.
This was especially the case for Trying from Above (Hair), 2011, a work performed in the public causeways of the Prague’s Veletržní Palace (Museum of Modern Art) for the PQ11 Prague Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space, curated by Sue Gallagher and Tracey Collins.
These live-stream feeds were also screened during the Assembly Symposium (PSi#21), RMIT University, Melbourne, October 8–11, 2015.
See Thomas Carl Wall, Radical Passivity: Levinas, Blanchot, and Agamben (New York: State University of New York Press, 1999).
See Lisbeth Lipari, Listening, Thinking, Being: Toward an Ethics of Attunement (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University press, 2014), 194, 200.
Don Ihde, Listening and Voice: Phenomenology of Sound (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), 177.
Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” in Styles of Radical Will (USA: Picador, 1967), 20.
Bernard P. Dauenhauer, Silence (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980), 4.
Dauenhauer, Silence, 4.
Martin Welton, “Listening-as-Touch: Paying Attention to Rosemary Lee’s Common Dance,” Performance Research 15, no. 3 (2010), 54.
Emmanuel Levinas, Proper Names, ed. Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery, trans. Michael B Smith (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 5.
Levinas, Proper Names, 5. Referencing Gabriel Marcel.
Ibid., 19. Gender altered.
Megan Craig, Levinas and James: Toward a Pragmatic Phenomenology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 2.
Levinas, Proper Names, 6.
Lipari, Listening, 198.
Søren Kierkegaard, Spiritual Writings: Gift, Creation, Love: Selections from the Upbuilding Discourses, trans. George Pattison (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 188.
Kierkegaard, Spiritual Writings, 185.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 68.
Derrida, Gift of Death, 68.
Janine Randerson and I co-supervised Kalisolaite ‘Uhila’s Master of Art and Performance (MPMA) degree at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) in 2016. Maumau-taimi’, 2016, was part of that degree submission.
Lipari, Listening, 133.
Writing about chains of entanglement, Ian Hodder notes that “humans are forever chasing along the chains to fix things, forever drawn into further dependences”. See Ian Hodder, Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 110, 112.
This is paramount in Jacques Derrida’s late work on faith. In the 2008 publication, Islam and the West, Derrida discusses his own identity as a French-Maghrebin-Jew or Arab-Jew and says: “To be at home is… to feel the absolute otherness of one’s neighbor” and that “civilization and community are not about sameness but difference. The Greek, the Arab, and the Jew… define Mediterranean civilization precisely because of their irreducible difference.” See Giovanna Borradori, foreword to Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, ed. Mustapha Chérif, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), xvii.