Silence takes courage
The Museum für Kommunikation in Berne has taken on a bold concept with its exhibition “Sounds of Silence”, which runs until 7 July 2019. An acoustic experiment, more aural experience than classic exhibition, it deals with a scarce resource – silence. And it marks the Swiss debut for an immersive sound system. Visitors to the visually pared-down space can approach the topic of stillness intuitively and explore aspects of everyday life afresh as well as encounter some surprises.
Noises and images – they constantly surround us, demanding our attention, sometimes irritating, sometimes interesting us. The noise of traffic and construction in the streets and the burble of music and advertising in shops never stops. Smartphones are omnipresent; barely an hour goes by without the flashing and beeping announcing the arrival of a text message. Sometimes we just long for peace and quiet.
This state of affairs inspired the curators in Berne, Kurt Stadelmann and Angelina Keller, and audio-play writer Bettina Mittelstrass to devise the “Sounds of Silence” exhibition concept. With the Berne museum’s characteristic love of experimentation, it takes an acoustic approach to exploring questions like: What is silence? What effect does it have on us? How do we experience it?
Interactive aural experience
On arrival, visitors are equipped with earphones and smartphones, manageable technology. We don’t have to operate anything, so there’s nothing to stand in the way of uninterrupted listening.
A long room stretches out in front of us. Black and white predominate; just a few seat cushions add colourful accents and serve as places to rest. Gauzy strip curtains create transparent boundaries rather than dividing up the room. The design is reduced to abstract graphic patterns and elements on the floor and walls, resembling soundwaves. Circles or frames mark points of interest or transition. But there is no sequence or fixed order; visitors go on their own individual tours of this acoustic world, at their own individual pace. Their movement determines the duration and intensity of the recordings they hear. Nothing captures their gaze; they can be all ears.
Atelier ZMIK of Basel developed the scenography for the Berne museum’s sound-room in close cooperation with the sound designers of the Basel studio Idee und Klang, the museum curators and the graphic designers of Berrel Gschwind. Rolf Indermühle, one of the two partners in the spatial design studio, sees the project more as an interactive aural experience than an exhibition in the conventional sense: “To place the focus entirely on hearing, we decided to completely do without any visual content. No exhibits, no photos, no statistics, no films are shown. But plenty of space is given to the visitors’ own thoughts and sensations as they ‘explore’ the audio-content.”
The sound system by FRAMED immersive projects of Berlin works with the open design of the space, which is a key to allowing the visitors an independent and uninterrupted listening experience. The sound designers of Idee und Klang developed the sonic landscape based on the audio technology. The experience concept emerged, then, from the interplay between sound and space.
Talking about silence with sounds – an acoustic scenography
Ramón de Marco, one of the founders and sound designers of Idee und Klang, describes silence as one of the most elementary and sensual experiences that humans can have: “We can only perceive surroundings as silent if we compare them with surroundings that are less quiet. If you want to say something about silence, you can only do so with the vocabulary of sound. This insight formed the keystone of the conception and realization of “Sounds of Silence”. The dramaturgy is then entirely based on sound.”
The usomo sound system was developed for spaces without real audio sources; it can precisely locate virtual sound sources. As it runs independently of servers, without the need for streaming, the number of users is not limited. The tracking module on the visitors’ earphones does the job of exact localization, i.e. position and rotation, distance from and alignment towards the virtual audio sources. The visitors determine when, where and how often the audio content is automatically played by their own movements. All the audio data for “Sounds of Silence” are on the visitors’ smartphones. Via the usomo tracking system, the usomo app controls all the sounds precisely (up to 10 cm away and 1° rotation) and fast – in real time. Around 20 barely visible transmitters have been installed on the ceiling, and in the three different areas. With the usomo software, the sound designers can control all the features and all the effects of the sounds, whether pitch, reverberation or speed.
What is loud, what is soft?
The sound system guiding the visitors through the aural exhibition conjures a very natural, dynamic effect: loud and soft sounds alternate and seem acoustically sometimes closer, sometimes further away. These fluid transitions ensure the recordings’ credibility and focus the visitors’ attention. I found myself becoming determined not to miss anything, thinking perhaps I should go back and listen again, more closely…
“Soundclouds” is what the scenographers call the listening points in the main part of “Sounds of Silence”. As I wander between them and let them envelop me, I encounter familiar sounds – recognize a forest, a street by day, and by night. But what is that? Something dragging, fabric rustling, a tennis match, a chainsaw? Without visual illustrations, I need to concentrate hard to recognize some of the sounds and where they come from.
“Sounds of silence” traces a large thematic arc, including references to music and literature (e.g. a traditional song about the dark, quiet forest; Odysseus’ encounter with the sirens), religious aspects such as the meaning of silence for Benedictine monks, some amazing facts from the natural world (crickets can make a noise of up to 90 decibels!) and recounting the history of silence – and noise. Because noise isn’t new – it first started to grip cities with industrialization. People have argued about the nature and problem of noise for a long time. Today, noise levels are checked, measured and discussed in parliaments. Lawcourts negotiate rows about rows; city councils deal with complaints about traffic noise and clamorous kindergartens.
Author Sara Maitland spent 40 days and nights alone on a remote island and has written about the beauty – and horror – of silence. She describes the intense emotions she experienced, from delight and enjoyment to panic and hallucinations. In silence, you can’t escape your feelings; they can spiral into extreme delirium or rise to illumination. The exhibition tells of the desire and search for silence: People who seek quiet, or who are forced into it, and the intense experiences they have. Christopher Thomas Knight lived in complete isolation for 27 years in a forest in Maine. Refusing to speak even after his discovery, his silence shocked everybody. John Lilly, a US physicist, shut himself into an isolation tank; his experience later served the military as inspiration for methods of torture. The wellness industry, meanwhile, offers stressed-out city dwellers the chance to relax in complete darkness and restful silence in “float tanks”.
In a last, darkened room I get the chance to rest and gather my thoughts one more time. A contemplative note is struck here: Niklaus Brantschen, a Jesuit and Zen master, explains silence to us in a wise and almost tongue-in-cheek way. He is very aware of its importance and healing power – we need stillness as well as pills. In stillness, we are more acutely present and so can be a present for the others. And silence takes courage – a lack of sounds also disquiets us. People need peace to regain strength, but it takes strength to embrace peace. Because, as we all know, the quieter it is around us and inside us, the louder our thoughts become.
This eye-and-ear-opening aural exploration is a small treasure in our restless, often tumultuous times. I leave the surprisingly un-silent exhibition relaxed and thoughtful. And I ask myself whether and how much silence we need in our lives – and where we can find it.