Wednesday, 13 August 2008


Susan Hiller, The Last Silent Movie (2007, video still).

I saw Susan Hiller's recent show at Matt's Gallery, and afterwards, like many people I guess, I had an argument with my friend about whether it was a film or not. If you haven't seen it, then the piece comprises thirty minutes of edited sound recordings from archives of extinct and endangered languages, including lists of words, field recordings, song and storytelling events, and stilted studio reconstructions of phrases and questions. The screen was blank throughout, with subtitles at the foot of the screen providing an English translation.

I saw the use of video and cinema as central to the pieces impact. Firstly, the cinema style presentation was appropriate to create a particular context of attention - the work was shown every half hour, with admittance only at the beginning, and seats in rows facing the screen. There was the curious presence of the blank screen, its own presence as a shape moving forwards or backwards, a definite but also uncertain and intangible presence that seemed appropriate to the languages we were listening to. Finally, Hiller has said that she wanted to take the recordings out of their archive-mausoleums and give them some life again. Even as it negated many of the normal components of the cinematic experience, Hiller's choice of medium admitted that it is as cinematic images that these languages are likely to acquire their greatest cultural currency.

Susan Hiller, The Last Silent Movie (2007, etching, plate 12).

My friend said all this was an example of how, if I liked something, I would say anything to try and persuade someone else how wonderful it was. For my friend, the centre of the piece was nothing to do with the form Hiller had found for presenting the recordings, and all to do with the recordings themselves. If anything, the filmic presentation distracted and a series of headphones on the wall that one could listen to would have been a more direct way of encountering the sound. But for me film was central to conveying the paradoxes at the centre of The Last Silent Movie: a resurgence of interest in a language that was also its disappearance; an utterance that indicated a loss of speech; a contemporary work that is comprised of historical recordings.

Susan Hiller, The Last Silent Movie (2007, etching, plate 13)

In a recent Art Monthly talk at Tate Modern, Hiller talked of her interest in the anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf, for whom each language contains a particular concept of the world. She also talked of her Belshazaar's Feast(1983-84), in which video screens broadcast images of fire, responding to a newspaper story ridiculing an elderly woman who claimed to hear voices in the white noise coming from her television set after close-down. The piece seemed emblematic for Hiller of her relationship to extra-sensory or paranormal phenomena: avoiding debates on the reality or not of the voices, instead focusing on the woman's experience as an imaginative, culture-making activity.

Perhaps that is another reason why I found the evocation of cinema so key to The Last Silent Movie, because cinema foregrounds the role of fantasy and projection in our experience of these languages, making it explicit so that it could possibly be a constructive part of some genuine relationship. As Hiller observes in a 1985 interview with Stuart Morgan, reprinted in Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller:

I'm interested in things that are outside or beneath recognition, whether that means cultural invisibility or has to do with the notion of what a person is. I see this as an archaeological investigation, uncovering something to make a different kind of sense of it. That involves setting up a situation which welcomes this perhaps anarchic, non-volitional stage of awareness. (242)