Nimrah Nadeem

SUMMARY

The site for this intervention is the Indus Valley’s campus, or sections of it, depending on how crowded it is. The site itself has sentimental value, but what works is that it is logistically convenient because firstly, it is a secure location, and secondly, there’s a captive audience who will probably come to more or less the same conclusion about the intervention.

The idea was to place certain people at strategic hidden points of the campus, who, at a given point, would emit a long, drawn out scream. The intervention would be in the form of sound itself. In a city where we don’t flinch at the sound of a distant boom, where we’ve been desensitized to most disruptions in say, the space of an entire city, I wanted to see how people would react to the human element of a scream.

I chose to use people as my medium. The concept is to do with an aural disruption in the space, as opposed to a physical one. The external stimulus is sound, as opposed to a tangible installation. I wanted to explore the idea of interacting with an intervention that’s more abstract, as opposed to being physically tangible.

It occurred to me that to attempt to change the spacial dynamics of an ordinary space using only sound might be an intriguing social experiment, too.

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‘LISTEN’

A Site Specific Project

When you hear music, no matter how loud the crescendo, how earth shattering a symphony, the one thing the human ear instinctively focuses on is the human voice. The singer’s voice will always resound with the listener over all the sound of a full orchestra. Why is that? It’s because we are hardwired to want to listen when we recognize a human voice.

When I first thought about the words site intervention, the immediate mental vision I had was of an installation, or some sort of physical change in a space. Then I began to question the idea of such a tangible alteration in a space. Must it be a physical disruption? Must it be solely visual stimuli that encompass the entirety of the intervention? I began to think more and more about how we take our other senses for granted, and I became obsessed with the idea of disrupting a space with something intangible. I was fixated on the need for an abstract, invisible disruption in the space – as opposed to a tangible installation. And I kept returning to the idea of the human voice being something we are hardwired to connect with.

The site that I chose was the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture campus. I decided that I would place certain people at certain hidden points of the site. At a given point, they would scream a loud, drawn out scream and quietly slip away. I wanted to examine the reactions of people nearby, and see for myself how the space would change, even if it was just during those split seconds of confusion following the disruption – or whether it would even change at all.

The nature of the disruption is very ambiguous and arbitrary. Where is it coming from? And more importantly, why? This information is withheld from the audience, as the ‘screamer’ is out of sight. I was hoping that withholding this information would somehow make them participants of the intervention.

The wails were met with mixed reactions. Wry amusement. Apathy. Indifference. What I didn’t realize was that the nature of the site itself prevented a response. Did I expect people to be surprised? Perhaps a little. I felt betrayed at the lack of an impact it had. Here I was, engaging in drawing the longest breath I’ve ever drawn, and wrenching from my gut the loudest, most drawn out and physically painful sound I’ve ever made, and there’s nothing to show for it but amusement and indifference. The following day, I lost my voice, much to my chagrin.

The project somehow changed for me at that point. This was one solitary expression of emotion that was forgotten after a few moments of confusion. And I couldn’t understand why I felt so betrayed by it. The project became about isolation. In some strange way, I felt like my body was the site, and my lungs were on fire.

It became about incoherence and unsaid words and a feeling of shame. I’m not sure if this was because I felt the project had somehow become an utter failure or because of the embarrassment I felt. There was a voice in my head telling me that this wasn’t art, and that instead it was akin to some sort of elaborate prank. But now that I’m writing about it, I realized that once more I seem to have found another layer to this intervention, if that’s what I’m calling it. Somehow, I’ve gone back to that one question we never really manage to answer: What is art, and what isn’t? And when do we know that we’re bordering on the pretentious and pseudointellectual?

Was it unsuccessful because of the anonymity of the screamer? Had I been in the thick of a crowd, thrown back my head and released the same scream with twice the intensity, would I have been more successful?

Earlier, when I was brainstorming ideas about intangible disruptions, it didn’t occur to me that performance art was exactly this; the most tangible feature was the human element. I found a similarity between this project and one of Yoko Ono’s performance art pieces Voice Piece for Soprano.[1] The installation at MoMA featured speakers and mics, and an open invitation to the visitors to literally scream into them, much to the chagrin of the employees. Here, she is actively engaging with the vistors. They become part of the medium, and are instrumental to the work. This is something I feel my project was unsuccessful with.

I did find another piece about intangible disruption using sound, or rather lack of sound. During her residency this year at the Serpentine Gallery, Marina Abramovic handed out noise cancellation headphones, plunging her visitors into deafening silence before having them embark on a series of tasks after eventually standing in front of windows in isolated silence.

“At least in psychotherapy, there’s always someone to talk to. Here, no one can hear you scream,” writes Adrian Searle in a review in The Guardian.[2]

A physical disruption would cause a shift in special dynamics. The auditory disruption caused a shift in the social dynamic. Once again, here was something I realized after going over the project several times in my mind. The established social dynamic was suddenly and violently disrupted, interrupting conversations and eliciting a general air of confusion. The disruption was jarring, as though the scream somehow tore a rent in the fabric of normalcy. But the effect was short lived, because after all, at an art school, you are conditioned to expect the unexpected.

Challenging the norm, challenging the notion of what is proper and what is not, and questioning terms like ‘propriety’ and ‘decorum’ were also themes running through my mind. In an alternate interpretation, the screamer is a rebel, and the scream is a battle cry, ringing with defiance. I remember thinking about Foucault’s madman, and his isolation from the rest of society[3], and the anonymity of the screamer didn’t seem like such a huge flaw after all, given this interpretation. In the ship of fools, all we know is that a large number of nameless, faceless people were weeded out from society, and literally set adrift. Their identities remain largely a mystery, must like the origins of this bizarre disembodied wail.

 

[1] http://observer.com/2010/07/moma-turns-down-the-volume-on-yoko/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jul/18/marina-abramovic-halfway-through-512-hours-serpentine

[3] Book: Madness and Civilisation – Michel Foucault.

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