With Covid-19 ravaging populations and the World trying to come to terms with lockdown, it seems an appropriate moment to reactivate this Platform-7 project from 2013 exploring the trauma that follows on from a sudden shocking change in circumstance.
Silent Cacophony took place in a multitude of locations simultaneously on Remembrance Day 2013 exploring the abstract nature of events like we are presently experiencing with Covid-19. The disease is inflicting mass death, suffering and forcing populations to adapt behaviour, and it can be assumed, leading many people to reassess what being human means.
Meaning of event
Increasingly over the past century the word ‘event’ has become associated with some form of performance, whether pop festival or football match. However, ‘event’ is really a moment in time when something extraordinary happens, which can be bad like a car crash or great, as when a healthy child is born. Daily life is full of small personal events that make up an individuals’ personality and worldview, then occasionally these small events are overtaken by a major personal event, as in being diagnosed with cancer or winning the jackpot on the lottery.
Recreating the feelings, emotions and empathy an individual feels at the moment of experiencing a major event is very difficult to recreate outside the bubble of that actual moment. The pain of hearing of death of one that is dearly loved or joy of first-love are very personal and acute sensations. In my view, only art can offer a close proximity to such emotions, by twanging the atoms deep within that foist upon humans the extreme emotional response that only appear in times of rare circumstance.
Silent Cacophony inception came from reading personal diaries of people living through the two World Wars, particularly those who were exposed to sudden explosion, whether a bomb landing on their house or a bombardment from artillery while in a trench. A pattern began to emerge where people would describe life before a particularly incident in rosier terms and the time afterwards using deeply disturbing language. Similar accounts can be found when reading witness statements from victims of terrorist atrocities and major accidents. Terms like ‘it was so peaceful you could only hear the birds sing’, ‘life was all so perfect before…’ or ‘not a sound could be heard before the first explosion’ proliferate such writing. What I found fascinating was whether there was any reality to these accounts, the ‘before the explosion’ moment where they claim to be actually aware of the world surrounding them. My challenge was fairly mundane, people notice silence when they go on holiday to the country from the city or find themselves on a deserted beach, however in the general hubbub of daily life the sounds of aeroplanes, the worry about going into overdraft and picking up the kids from school fills the conscious mind. For soldiers during war, concerns about mother’s health at home or finding some extra rations become the daily normal. Basically it is rare for people to note such change in their daily life except in exceptional circumstances, like going on holiday, going to war or, as in now the present case, a global pandemic.
A mother’s cry
Silent Cacophony sought to try and mimic the experience of sudden change. Anyone who has listened to the wailing of a mother on hearing of her child’s death will often say it is one of the most harrowing sounds that can be heard. Such a sound, which can only be truly created by such grief penetrates the consciousness as no other. The loud bang of an explosion, or the internal crunch of bones one hears when in an accident, offer very precise moments in time, an event few ever forget. These moments are so abstract to daily existence that it becomes a struggle to interpret, both internally within the mind and externally when explaining to others. The philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of the silence of those who returned from the trenches of the First World War, they would not discuss the horrors, and took the experiences to their graves without ever sharing. The silence hides the trauma, almost a cacophony of competing thoughts, processes and arguments going on within the mind. Self-challenges, ‘could I have done more’, self-loathing, self-doubt and many other competing internal discussions churn over and over, days, weeks, years and too often for lifetimes.
‘Was it not noticeable at the end of the [First World] war that men returning from the battlefield grown silent – not richer, but poorer in the communicable experience?’ (Benjamin, 1990, 84)
The world is now sharing a worldwide abstract experience, as if it is a global abstract art intervention in which everyone is a participant. In the UK at least, there is a resounding Silent Cacophony dichotomy. Street of cities and towns are in the most part silent, beyond birds and occasional distant vehicle, yet it can only be guessed at by us on the outside of hospitals the noise, bustle and horror that is occurring within those buildings.
As with war diaries, and with accounts of those who have experienced terrorist attacks, there is likelihood of some rearranging the pre-Covid-19 memories; money was not such an issue, there was enough food, actually the relation with father was OK. A gloss will be painted over the top of peeling flakes in hope it will deceive the eyes to the reality of these events, it will be the only way for people to restart their daily lives. However on a wider scale, a collective change is in motion and only time will be able to reveal what it will look like.
For me, I suppose, is that following this crisis more people will be willing (or able) to appreciate the importance of abstract art and performance, and the unique role it plays in preparing everyone for the unknown. Abstract art intervention events like Silent Cacophony seeks to safely challenge people to consider beyond the hamster wheel that we are all collectively engaged in turning, while rushing about in living daily life. Life will return ‘to normal’, however the normal will not be as it was. Only through reading, watching and listening to our words and actions pre-Coronavirus that we might be able to understand who we were then, as our own minds will distort the past, no matter how hard we try.
Coming of sound
My one forecast beyond this period will be the increase in those interested in sound, soundscapes, soundart and concepts of noise. When the planes begin flying again, people will notice the noise, it disruption to sleep, to conversation and to life – and this will lead to a fundamental revaluation.
John M – 11th April 2020, Easter Saturday
Benjamin, Walter. (1990/1955) Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt, Translated by Harry Zorn, London, Pimlico
2 thoughts on “SILENT CACOPHONY”
What an amazing day this was, and exploring the empty part of Euston station with my double bass wielding friend Liam felt so un-natural. Empty corridors and long used escalators taking nobody nowhere, today a strangly familiar sight in airports around the world.
Lyceum Theatre, Covent garden
This single event was unusual. I was allowed to imagine silence, in relation to the Lyceum Theatre bombing.
How to approach the subject was my biggest challenge. In the end I went with a fictional character living through this real event. After that the words came very quickly indeed. I played with the idea of ‘the absence of sound’ having a sound all of its own.
The Lyceum is a huge performance space. One of the largest in London. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relaxed, when I should have had concern. There were so many distractions to deal with, coupled with the fact that I did not in any way attempt to ‘perform’. I just read quietly, pretty convinced it wouldn’t be picked up by the distant microphone. Time was not on our side either, yet Sandra Djukic pretty much shot in one continuous take, but with camera issues causing multiple pauses.
The most satisfying moments for me are when the stakes are high, and you only have one chance to get it right. Give me no rehearsal, a rushed script and the chance of everything going wrong… and I’ll read word perfect. The opposite does not apply. Go figure!
After all that, all these years later, I still remember the stage manager telling us how many tons of lighting equipment were above our heads. An ominous threat, high up and out of sight… considering the subject matter, made for a perfect setting.
Venue: Lyceum Theatre, Covent Garden
Words written and performed: Harry Vendryes
Filmed and edited: Sandra Djukic