Our website use cookies to improve and personalize your experience. Our website may also include cookies from third parties like Google Analytics and Youtube. By using the website, you consent to the use of cookies.


Silence at Staging a New Field conference

Notes on An Invitation to Participate in a Performance of Silence:

This invitation was presented in a leaflet at the beginning of the conference ‘What is Performance Philosophy: Staging a New Field’. A copy was anonymously left on each chair in the lecture theatre.  These are notes made in diary form throughout the conference, followed by reflections on reactions to the invitation. At the end is the extended proposal further contextualising the performance. 

1. Initial attempts to be silent – distracted by things crossing my mind that I try not to express. (Such physical discomfort of sitting in lecture theatre). Feel that if I could say this out loud the feeling would be dealt with, but instead the unexpressed thought of the thing is more distracting than the thing itself. I’m curious about what happens when we lack the language and means to say/express what we need to say. Like…some kind of madness?

2. In the past at events like this I have wanted silence in the gaps, I have wanted to avoid what I’ve felt as a pressure to enter into a dialogue, because I’m still trying to understand what I’ve heard. But now, having imposed this silence on myself, purposefully trying to remain silent (I don’t know if we’re the only ones doing this, but there is a lot of chatter) now seems futile, and yet it is giving me time to process. It’s not silent in my head, but when I have felt overburdened with information I have wanted silence, to switch off. Alan Read comments about how in his experience when speaking with philosophers, artists etc., conversations always return to the domestic, (we all do it). This chatter is important; it’s our lived experience. What would I talk about right now? Probably about lunch and needing the loo. I’m writing all this down, I’m not being silent really; I’m just having this conversation more privately.

3. Thinking of physicality, language of gesture – how I say ‘thanks’ for a cup of tea, without words.

4. A text message conversation…can’t resist being noisy…so we decided through gesture to turn phones off. Gestures are noisy…performed silence, mime, and not actual silence. Gestures become comic. My desire for coffee outweighs my commitment to not talking…’coffee please…thanks’.

5. Maybe because I’m tired, or maybe because we are more conscious of gesture than usual, (and our gestures are exaggerated), but everything has become much funnier. We go into as room where a few people are sat quietly and separately. We come in like bulls in a china shop…somehow increasing our own level of noise and making a big disruption through our attempt to not verbally communicate.

6. Thinking about affirmation, participation… saying something out loud and passing this information on as a means of documenting, a means of affirming that something happened….how we document life…through shared conversation, repetitions…

7. Re: coercion…or going along with a sense of the majority…whether we make an act of refusal, and what this act of refusal might be. A refusal to do as requested, or a refusal to go along with the majority. What groups or micro-communities exist here. We aren’t sticking to silence, and I have this feeling that because there is no group silence, that imposing our own silence seems futile, we are too small, the group is too big. But in going along with the feeling of the majority I realise that we are lacking any sense of commitment to experience: of what remaining silent in all this noise might reveal for us. In a group there is a kind of shared mentality or behaviour; but where is the line between decisions being made unconsciously collectively and somebody beginning or leading a decision. Like those drama exercises you do at school where you stand in a circle very still but have to mimic one another’s movements and eventually everyone ends up with arms flailing all over the place. Where did those movements begin?

8. Have we set ourselves up for an impossible task? After one of the panels I am so confused; and I need to say this out loud. I am confused partly because of my own (lack of/mis) understanding – receiving new information – and because of a frustration because of a gap between thought and language. I need to find a means to express in language my (lack of) understanding, in order to work through this and my frustration. And the only way I feel able to begin this process is through language. I don’t understand the language the speakers are using. It’s above my head. I need Chris to translate. Or I need to be braver and admit in front of everyone I don’t understand and ask the speakers to explain. Anxiety about a) being caught out – fraud – struggling to keep up and b) that me asking is wasting everyone’s time who does get it. I can only attempt to speak when I can argue something….a proof of my own understanding.

9. Absence – presence. Our own absence or invisibility (or rather choice to be hidden) or our own level of removal in presenting this work (presented on paper as an invitation – not announced to people). A refusal to claim this as ours?

Reflections on delegates reactions:

Re: our anonymity (we didn’t put our names on the hand out either). It was suggested that had we announced this proposal there would have been more pressure to participate. It was important that this invitation (without pressure) was explored though – where in a group of people agency to take part exists. (It’s also perfectly possible that people didn’t want to do it because clashed with their own agenda for the gaps in between speakers – to network, catch up with colleagues – or that they thought it was a crappy and superficial idea. The invitation is stronger and people feel more desire to participate if it resonates with them). Its anonymity made it seem both official and unofficial. That it didn’t have names made it seem to some that it may have come from the organisers, as their signatures are already on the event, and therefore didn’t require names (but, for those who know the organisers – and their work – they will recognise it didn’t come from them), and that its anonymity made it seem unofficial in that it wasn’t claimed, it wasn’t marked by a signature or gesture saying ‘I present this’.

We edited the information heavily from the various things we wanted to say, in order to make it concise. I also felt aware that if we had stood up and presented this as a lecture the text would be much longer. I didn’t feel like it could be too long, because people could stop reading if they weren’t interested, or read it later if they didn’t have time now. We also wanted to cut passages that we can take for granted people will already be aware of (the concept) or have figured out. However, the two A5 pages came across to some as too much justification – that if we want people to take note then we need to justify the experiment less (be more confident = people take note). The intention was that the text would be a contextualising essay, not a justification of the experiment, which we hope would come through the experiment itself. The fact that it didn’t come across this way I think signifies a lack of confidence – it’s own failure due to a lack of authority – it’s over justification giving the sense it wasn’t coming from an organisation. This is interesting in terms of what makes us decide as a group (or individually) to follow an instruction or suggestion; what we perceive as authority.

There was a talk about neutrality, nothingness and the negative, that felt apt here, that the request for silence isn’t a lack of something (i.e. noise), nor is it a refusal, neither is opting out or abstention to do something a neutral position. As well as not leaving a lack or a void, it can be a reaffirming of another intention and action (i.e., to network).

A signature as an authentication – that means someone has spent time on the thing they are signing. A lack of signature and anonymity in this context suggests the thing is not being claimed (fear of recognition? So that something doesn’t appear as authoritative – anti-hierarchy? That feminist fridge-magnet friendly quote from somewhere that is relevant to both these suggestions ‘for most of history anonymous was a woman’) – therefore not being imposed – therefore can be ignored.

Our own ingrained protocol to behave a certain way. E.g., if people were invited to talk during one another’s presentations, they wouldn’t, out of respect.

During one of the talks I was at (about humour & Zizek), for the first time in the gap there was silence. I think this was because we were all exhausted. The person chairing though instead of letting this silence be, said ‘lets all make a joke and fill this silence’. Culturally, despite that we call for moments of united silence to show respect for something tragic, we are generally uncomfortable with silence. It’s used as a measure of a reaching a point of intimacy in a friendship or relationship – when you are comfortable together in silence. Maybe that’s why we use silence as mark of respect, not just to focus our thoughts on the situation we are silent for, but that the silence contains a degree of difficulty or even sacrifice for us.  Generally, silence is something we must cover up.


This performance happens in the moments in between speakers and events at the conference. Often in these moments we talk to the people we are with: perhaps processing and reflecting on what we have just heard, or as a mental break, talking about another topic entirely. Whilst these moments are important, we want to explore the act of thinking, and the impossibility of this ever fully being translated into language.  At the beginning of the conference we provide leaflets with an invitation to join us in an act of silence between speakers. Rather than designed to be an empty silence, we prompt attendees to think about what they have just heard. This gives a moment to process this information without the pressure to enter into a dialogue with your neighbour, but also denies you the opportunity to prove your understanding of the talk just heard. If, in any conversation, a series of continual subtle status relations play out, then how does our relation with our neighbour change when this conversation occurs in the mind? We wish to consider the purpose of a conference: the need to come together and share ideas. We don’t want to disrupt this, but rather lend weight to the notion of thinking, of what and how we share.

Participation is a buzzword at the moment, and various practices both seek to remove whilst naively reinforcing hierarchies; what we are proposing is participation through an act of seemingly non-participation. We wish to shift the focus to the performance that always exists in the mind: to the processes and freedom of thinking itself. Whilst being silent is not a requirement for thinking, which obviously we are always doing, it highlights the many individual performances occurring at that moment as each individual privately engages. Intellectual participation does not require an outward display of active participation. Thinking is not a passive act. Performance exists in the mind, and is always unknowable, as this can never be fully translated into language.

A discussion around active and passive engagement has been at the forefront of contemporary performance analysis. Most people studying these questions are familiar with theorists such as Jacques Ranciere, Claire Bishop, Grant Kester, Rudolph Frieling and Boris Groys. The notion of participation is debated and contested within its contemporary use as a liberating and emancipatory act, to a patronising act that assumes emancipation is required, to a manipulative and controlling act whereby individual authorship is tested as each participant is ‘herded’ in to a set of desired behaviours. This in turn can in fact liberate the artist from responsibility, in opposition to the supposed intention of such practices to examine our own individual agency, artist included. As Boris Groys comments, “Though the artist’s decision to relinquish exclusive authorship would seem primarily to be in the interest of empowering the viewer, this sacrifice ultimately benefits the artist by liberating his or her work from the cold eye of the uninvolved viewer’s judgment”. Here, we wish to open up an invitation, with no expectation that people will choose to take part.  We are interested in the relationship between a formed community and the power they have over one another.  For instance, if some people choose to remain silent, do others follow suit, as this becomes normalised behaviour? It is human nature to not want to our behaviour to stand out. Similarly, if some consider remaining silent but find they are spoken to, do they decide to speak? Which has more power, the invitation, or the relationship between our neighbours and ourselves? We feel, given the audience of the conference, all these possibilities and questions will be very clear to any potential participant, and so the fundamental intention remains; each decision to engage or not to engage, each persons thought process, is a unique and personal performance, never fully knowable to anyone else.

We are interested in the unknown in this performance; both the unknown that is occurring in the mind, and in the unknown in that we don’t know whether people will choose to engage with it or not. We enjoy this uncertainty; rather than a performance that attempts to deliver a structure that must be participated in, we welcome refusal. Participation is an invitation, not an instruction. We cannot enforce silence. Rebellion may take the form of secrecy (remaining silent, and thinking of something else, whether intentionally or not), or vocally, through talking. We won’t know what people make of the premise, thus the performance becomes the attendees, not ours.  Rejecting the premise does not mean the performance has not taken place, but rather a difference performance occurs, one that is seized by the attendees. We would argue this is the power of any audience. Whether you sit in an audience watching a performance you dislike, and out of politeness remain silent; or challenge the performance by walking out (or a more disruptive act); or simply interpreting a performance in a different way to what the artist intended, the mind is not controlled. Slavoj Zizek supports this idea by stating,

“On the information sheet in a New York hotel, I recently read: “Dear guest! To guarantee that you will fully enjoy your stay with us, this hotel is totally smoke-free. For any infringement of this regulation, you will be charged $200:’ The beauty of this formulation, taken literally, is that you are to be punished for refusing to fully enjoy your stay . . . The superego imperative to enjoy thus functions as the reversal of Kant’s “Du kannst, denn du soUstf” (You can, because you must ! ) ; it relies on a “You must, because you can ! ” That is to say, the superego aspect of today’s “nonrepressive” hedonism (the constant provocation we are exposed to, enjoining us to go right to the end and explore all modes of jouissance) resides in the way permitted jouissance necessarily turns into obligatory jouissance.” (Slavoj Zizek)

What Zizek is suggesting is that, we feel that we have an obligation in order to confirm. Even if that obligation comes in the form of invitation, we have the choice or the option to decline, however, if we do so this often has certain social implications. We are interested to see how the invitations to perform with us will be accepted or ignored. The micro communities formed at such events as a conference means that there will be collaborative decision making, the performance will identify this and will examine a collective / social response to an invitation.

We are always performing. At what instance does the opposite occur, at what instance is one able to manipulate a group to a way of thinking; here we being to think of a political and sociological context that the experiment will not even scratch the surface of, but the politics of thinking and the performativity of thinking has vast reaching ramifications.  At this moment, we wish to contain the performance to the conference, to the subject of the conference, and those present at the conference.

Moments of silence are now embedded in our culture as an act of remembrance or respect. When we partake in these moments of silence alone, we are supposedly symbolically united with our country and everyone else partaking in the silence. This reinforces a notion that in these moments we are all united in thinking about a specific subject. And yet, in national silences, how often do we think of the subject at hand, and how often do our minds rebel? We are interested in these acts of rebellion. The attendees will have an agenda to listen and share knowledge. Does the mind rebel away from this agenda? “Everyday life takes the form of largely unconscious actions and performances: ‘many men, and even people in general life, do not know their own lives very well, or know them inadequately’ … The devaluation of everyday life by ideologies appears as one-sided and partial, in both senses of the word. A direct critique takes the place of indirect criticism; and this direct critique involves a rehabilitation of everyday life, shedding new light on its positive content” (Henri Lefebvre)

Does the level of engagement change throughout the day? Do people enter in to it and then abandon or forget it? Do people consider it useful? Does it offer respite or present a challenge? Is engagement accidental, stemming from tiredness due to active listening and paying attention, needing a few moments to switch off, and be silent? Is it decided that remaining silent creates a hierarchy with speakers at the top, with only those comfortable to speak during any Q & A session able to challenge this; as everyone else remains silent and unable to voice their opinion quietly to their neighbour? Or does it does it remove status relationships existing amongst attendees as they have the freedom to think whatever they want without having to vocalise it?

When do silence or talking denote thinking? How do we measure thinking or acts in the mind? Do we need to? How do you measure the success of a conference?

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Related Posts

Skip to toolbar