Experimental Ethnography: Susan Hiller
Rebecca Close, 2 September 2011

‘I can speak my language…I am a fluent speaker…do you speak your language?’

So reads one of several subtitles played across black screens, as part of US-born, London based artist Susan Hiller’s 2007 artwork The Last Silent Movie. The text translates a crackled audio recording of a speaker of Blackfoot, an endangered language originating from South Alberta and the Blood Reserves in Canada, where Hiller sourced the audio clip originally recorded in the 90’s. The Blackfoot speaker’s words are celebratory and affirmative – according to a 2001 census there are still 4,500 Blackfoot speakers remaining in Canada – and yet the speaker’s penultimate question, as it arrives to viewers of the work (displayed as part of Hiller’s retrospective at the Tate Britain) is instrumentally ironic. Like the other recordings of the 25 nearly extinct or entirely extinct languages that Hiller collated from archives around the world for the work, the speech has been translated into English. As the subtitles interpret the audio, the viewer/ listener is forced to meditate on English as a colonizing master language, and translation as a precursor and consequent artifact of language death.

While the title of the work suggests a history of the era of silent film, it is in fact an inverted description of the film’s format in which the audio takes center stage. Some voices sing, some tell stories, some recite vocabulary lists and some, directly or indirectly, accuse us – the listeners – of injustice.

The intentions of the work are framed by Hiller’s editing, which she has described as a form of choreography. The subtitles, which constitute the only visual material of the 22 minute film, are carefully aligned to the rhythm of the speaker’s voice. As a former anthropologist, with feuds to settle with the tradition, the artist forefronts the intimacy of speech and the physical human presence in a recorded voice. In doing so Hiller questions the inflated value of the archival institutions who traditionally transpose this material as ‘cultural data’; organised and shelved. As with Jean Rouch’s Chronique d’un été and Guy Debord’s Critique de la Séparation, two of the first self-reflexive films produced in the West that began to question the ethnographic tradition, the work transforms what is traditionally the passive subject of documentation into an active theme, which has a determining influence on the form the film takes.

It is true, as Amadou Hampâté Ba, an ehnographer and oral historian from the precolonial Masina Empire, pronounced at the Unesco in 1960, that in cultures where the oral tradition is still strong ‘when an old man dies, it is a library on fire’. Yet Hiller’s work reminds us that an extinct language does not necessarily point to the absence of text, but to the absence of the speaker. She explains: ‘People always talk about how concerned they are about language loss. But that’s abstract and distant; not the real voices of real people, ghosts in your ear.’

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7 September 2011
Issue 09

After some creative strategy brainstorming over here at HQ we have decided to take a new direction with our next issue.

Issue 09 will be the first in a continuing series of themed issues of The [Un]Observed. With this focus we aim to challenge our curatorial style, to continue to forefront the work of a growing number of artists and producers, whilst allowing The [Un]Observed to realize itself more fully as a publication.

The first issue takes the theme of Borders. We are already over the moon about the works we have lined up and can’t wait to share them with you.

7 September 2011
The [Un]Observed: Live

After the success of our last event at OHIO in March, we’re going for round two.

We’re hoping to add a performance element to the lineup, showcasing the talents of some amazing local artists, in addition to our selections from the magazine.

We are committed to maintaining our goal of clearing a space for creative thinkers and audiophiles to meet and mingle and listen. Stay tuned for details.

5 May 2011
Get Your Audio On (with food)

Francesca Panetta was in town and to celebrate, we decided we would have an audiofile party, a chance for people who love sound to geek out for the evening over delicious food. So a little over a week ago, we got together, at tart made by Philip, and talked shop with Andrew Roth, Ben Furstenberg, Aaron Ximm, Roman Mars, Amy Standen and Jeremiah Moore. We realized how fun it was and hope to have more audio parties in the future…

5 May 2011
We’re going Terrestrial…Again!

In less than two weeks, The [Un]Observed will have its debut on WGXC in New York, the radio station for the brilliant Free103point9 which presents some of the best transmission arts around. We’ll be launching our show with new work from the upcoming edition. On deck will also be the remarkable Gregory Whitehead who has been an inspiration for many on how to make great audio. Stay tuned on May 14th for The [Un]Observed on WGXC.


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