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Steven Bates (Montreal, QC.)
November 8 to December 7, 2013

Silence, Time and Dead Air

On the radio silence is not permitted. Dead air – the absence of audible programmed material – suggests instability and disorder: warfare (an attack on a transmission tower), loss of revenue (advertising), human or technical error. A radio performance in 2005 of John Cage’s 4’33” required that the BBC disable a ‘dead man switch’ that would otherwise have launched recorded programming.1

By contrast to Cage’s 4’33” which frames silence to support listening, Bates uses silence to explore notions of time, transmission, silence/signal/noise, technological change, voice, authority, and the refusal to speak. Two short stories were influences: Walter Benjamin’s “On the Minute” and Heinrich Böll’s “Murke’s Collected Silences”. Each story addresses aspects of silence in radio broadcasts. Benjamin depicts a scenario in which the demands for punctuality cause tremendous anxiety for the guest broadcaster who misreads the studio clock and cuts short a live recording session only to discover his error barely in time to prevent (too much) dead air. Böll weaves several subnarratives together – the dynamics of hierarchy and defiance within and between radio administration and staff, bureaucratic policies and the commodification of silence as physical units (celluloid tape).

The installation, Dead Air, includes four works: A Minute for Walter Benjamin, Start. Stop., To End, To Begin and Beacons. The first three works are video and sound documentation of connected performances. The fourth is a sound piece.

A Minute for Walter Benjamin uses 24 clock radios tuned to the same FM frequency for transmission. ‘stop’… ‘stop’… ‘stop’… ‘stop’… ‘stop’… ‘ok, that’s enough’… ‘ok’… is transmitted as polyphonic vocal sound. A period of dead air lasts for a measure of time equal to the sound. Then, the word ‘start’ breaks the silence spoken as a chorus followed by a lone ‘start now’. Then, dead air again. The cycle of spoken word and dead air continue. In reset mode, the 24 clock radios accompany the broadcast as a syncopated rhythm of blinking red and green quartz light. Clustered on the gallery floor, radio cables and electrical wires intersect and overlap as a tech-organic rhizome.

Start. Stop. is a series of mediated performances of durational time presented as documentation. Participants are videotaped individually as they perform one minute of time for the camera using subjective awareness or guesswork as their internal timer. Performances range from 0’30” to 03’00” in duration. The video depicts varying states of concentration and psychological effort of the participants. Ambient sound from the recording sessions – music, coughing, and bodily shuffling – is the soundtrack for the video, heard on headphones.

The second video, To End, To Begin, is a projection, its subject is the environment of the recording studio. The video is banal, subtle and (almost) monochromatic. Near-still images of walls, the texture of the wall surfaces, architectural details and peeling paint are accompanied by subtle shifts in light. The quietness of the video proposes a visual equivalent to the audible silence.

In Beacons, a snare drum functions as a signifying object and amplifier for recordings of radio broadcasts of international time beacons. The sound is low; audibility is difficult. As a symbol, the snare drum references colonization and the militarization of time and society.

The art of our time is noisy with appeals for silence. 2

In “The Aesthetics of Silence”, Susan Sontag muses on notions of silence in relation to art, pedagogy, rhetoric and paradox, in particular, the extent to which sound is employed to articulate concepts of silence. She acknowledges the ability of art to enhance the quality of attention of a viewer, heightening the sense of awareness and consciousness. Silence allows for a more immediate sensuous experience of art or a confrontation with artistic production in a more conscious, conceptual way. It provides time for an ongoing exploration of thought as punctuation, giving space for thought, suggesting the absence or the completion of thought. Silence can indicate a determination to continue one’s activity deviously as rhetoric.

Bates uses silence to reduce the information clutter that clogs the senses, giving (us) pause to hear-see sonic and visual silences and to reflect on aspects of our contemporary context. Dead Air points to issues of censorship and the militarization of global time and of society. But he also offers hope. The failure of the performers to perform time with scientific accuracy proposes that internalization of military time and regulation of human behavior is not (yet) complete.

Dead Air is an open work that requires active engagement by the viewer to connect the parts. For me, the exhibition was best experienced alone in the gallery. My desire for solitude was not nihilistic. Rather it allowed me to hear the nuanced sound of dead air.
Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech… and an element in a dialogue.

~Text written by Ellen Moffat

1 “(Re)Marking Time in the Audition of Experimental Music” by Virginia Anderson, Performance Research: On Listening, 15(3), 2010. p 33

2 All quotations are from “The Aesthetics of Silence” by Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will, 1969.