Sifting The Silence by David Trigg
Sifting the Silence: on Anthony Shapland`s A Sound Not Meant To Be Heard
A lone bearded man, standing on a hill, bellows at the top of his voice. As he shouts, his words echo across the Rhymney Valley. Yet, for all the pained yelling, we hear nothing; his speech, deliberately omitted from the film`s soundtrack, remains an enigma. This scene occurs as the climax of Anthony Shapland`s Broadcast, which forms part of the installation A Sound Not Meant To Be Heard (2018). The film, which is shown on an elevated 60 inch flatscreen, placed on a length of Welsh wool carpet, follows the anonymous male as he travels from the urban environment of Rhymney to the rural landscape beyond the town. His meandering journey sees him traverse low-lying woodland, open heath and grazed hillside, stopping briefly to munch on a sandwich and chuck windfallen apples into a stream. But it`s only after you move nearer to the installation that you realise all is not what it seems. Resting on the grey carpet, facing upwards, is a smaller flatscreen showing a second film in which it is revealed that every sound of the man`s rural excursion is, in fact, a fabrication. Here we see the artificial soundtrack being created by a Foley artist, whose job it is to emulate everyday sounds for film and television. Named after the pioneering sound effects artist Jack Foley, the process is usually so well integrated with the moving image that it goes unnoticed by audiences, yet without it films can feel empty and unnaturally quiet. As Shapland`s protagonist yells, the Foley artist pauses. The ensuing silence is jarring.
While viewers of this installation may experience a slippage of perception, becoming suddenly uncertain if sounds heard are real or constructed, it would be a mistake to read the work as simply being about the artifice of film, or a calling into question the superiority of sight over other senses. Such interpretations are legitimate, but the installation`s third element, in the form of a nearby autocue - the type used by television presenters and politicians - expands our understanding of these films. Here, a stream of seemingly disjointed text, drawn from writings about and by the artist`s lovers, brothers and father, provides a rambling script of sorts. The words, which scroll across the autocue screen and read almost like a poem, offer musings on the nature of communication between people and the challenges of understanding one another. To what extent can we truly understand another person, their thoughts and feelings? And, perhaps more to the point, how much of ourselves are we willing to reveal? These are the questions that seem to lie at the heart of this installation, inspired as much by the artist`s personal experiences as his close observation of others.
Foley is essentially deception and, though it plays a vital role in helping build a sense of reality within filmic scenes, it relies on being able to pass off one sound for another. Hunkered down in a darkened recording studio, gazing at a playback screen, Shapland`s unassuming Foley artist is shown in his Foley pit (as referenced by the strip of grey carpet), creating all of the film`s incidental sounds: the rustling of clothes, the splashing of water and the rattling of an ageing passenger train. Straw, stones, buckets, branches, old clothing and even car doors are repurposed to generate sounds uncanny in their realism. The orchestrated soundtrack was completed with stock recordings of bird song and wind sounds.
As with telling lies, Foley presents falsehoods as truth, an idea that`s explored further in Shapland`s artist`s book fiftytwoSundays, which compiles a list of fibs, half-truths and enigmatic statements, juxtaposed with images across its pink pages. Each intriguing one-liner conjures larger narratives relating to awkward social interactions, dysfunctional relationships and the art of Foley itself: `He turned away from me in the bar because he thought I was boring`; `You drove faster and faster while arguing with him. He was scared`; `You told me that you had told your sister everything`. On one page, an image of drawn curtains is presented beside the statement: `A canary sang when I turned up the lights, thinking dawn had begun`; while on another, a blank page sits next to the words: `After I told you he was going to be okay, I faced the wall and cried`. Other statements refer explicitly to the Foley process: `It wasn`t rain you heard but basmati rice, dropped onto a carpet tile`; `It is a scrunched up crisp packet, not a fire crackling`, and, `You made trees creak in the wind by twisting a leather wallet`, which appears next to an image of hands contorting a credit card holder. This image reappears in the photographic diptych Creak (2008), another visual reveal, exposing the deception of the Foley artist. The ambiguity and fakery, presented in fiftytwoSundays and other recent works, alludes to Shapland`s belief that the world itself functions like a film set, or stage play; life is essentially a temporal drama and, like the theatre or cinema, it creates illusions, a play of shadows to which we hopelessly cling.
The metaphor of world as stage was famously referenced by Shakespeare in As You Like It:
`All the world`s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts`
(Act II, Scene 7)
Such ideas were not, of course, original to Shakespeare, having come down from classical times. Modern sociologists refer to the analysing of social interactions as a series of theatrical performances as `dramaturgical analysis`, an idea developed by Erving Goffman, the influential sociologist. Goffman believed that life is a continual performance in which people enact multiple roles, controlling how they appear to others depending on context. These roles, or masks, tend to portray individuals in the best possible light. In his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), Goffman makes a distinction between `front stage` and `back stage`, arguing that, in social interaction, the front stage is where specific roles are performed for an audience, whereas back stage is where masks are discarded and players fall out of character. As an example, the serving staff in a restaurant are expected to present themselves as friendly and courteous to customers in the dining room, or front stage, whilst behind the kitchen doors, back stage, they can shout, swear and shove dishes without consequence.
The rural landscape provides an escape from the formal expectations and structures of daily life. Could it be that Shapland`s protagonist is retreating from Goffman`s front stage toward the outermost regions of the back stage, a place where he can truly be himself, or at least behave in a way hitherto restricted? Maybe. But, as the autocue reveals, even after an outpouring of suppressed emotion, the anonymous figure still does not comprehend his actions: `The thing has been said. The thing I don`t know has left me. But I still don`t understand it. Did you hear it?`
His impassioned yet silenced words, whatever they might have been, are lost on the wind, taken to a place where they can do no harm. Indeed, we can imagine this man, in a fit of pique, becoming physically aggressive, and there is a violent subtext to some of his actions. Take for example the apples thrown into the fast-flowing stream. The same green fruit appears elsewhere, in the photograph Breaking Bones (2018), where they are seen littering a wooden floor. According to one Foley artist Shapland spoke with, small apples and acorns cracked against parquet give a convincing bone-break or fracture sound. With this in mind, the apple-throwing scene takes an ominous turn as the sound of breaking bones, though not actually present, is conjured by the imagination. It evokes the childish adage, `sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me`, which, as we all know, is untrue, for it is quite possible for sound, in the form of words, to do real psychological and emotional damage.
The profound physical power of sound is explored in Shapland`s video installation A Sharp Intake of Breath (2018), in which a female singer attempts to shatter a wine glass with her voice. On screen, the vocalist is seen limbering up her vocal cords while two technicians prepare the wine glass, set up microphones and adjust amplification equipment. The sound of a loud, artificial tone rings out across the gallery*; combined with the singer`s vocal exercises it creates a piercing and oppressive soundtrack.
In the early 20th century it was believed that Italian tenor Enrico Caruso could explode champagne flutes in this way, though no evidence exists. Nevertheless, the idea has become firmly embedded in the popular imagination. Notable cultural references include Herge`s Tintin comic books, which feature a running gag about the opera diva Bianca Castafiore, who regularly shatters glass with her powerful voice. The ability of sound to damage physical matter has been known since ancient times. In the Biblical story of Joshua and the walls of Jericho, the city fortifications were destroyed after the repeated blowing of trumpets.
Modern physics has proven that, with sufficient volume, sound can certainly shatter objects, providing the sound waves match the resonant frequency of the object. And every object has a resonant frequency, the natural frequency at which it vibrates. A glass harp - an ethereal musical instrument made of the wine glasses, which are particularly resonant - is played by running damp fingers along their rims. For a singer to shatter a glass, the pitch of their voice must match the frequency of the object and, most importantly, must be of sufficient volume (at least 105 decibels). Yet this phenomenon is still considered by many to be the stuff of urban legend. Through the use of video editing, Shapland plays on this doubt and uncertainty, challenging viewers to evaluate the veracity of what is presented.
The action here is split across four screens, referencing the banks of video monitors used in TV broadcasting, where various feeds are edited together into a single definitive version, showing the same event, but from different viewpoints. Three of the monitors sit on metal shelves, while another has been placed on the floor; the configuration is such that it`s impossible to view them all simultaneously. Walking around the installation, it soon becomes apparent that the singer, technicians and glass are never seen occupying the same space. The anticipation builds slowly until, finally, in another moment of total silence, we witness the glass shattering. Unlike the imagined visceral screams of A Sound Not Meant To Be Heard, the female singer`s powerful voice is carefully controlled, the product of years of training. But again, the climax is silenced. Did her voice really break the glass, or was the technicians` tone generator in fact responsible? The silence offers no clues, leaving us to question all that we have seen.
The deliberate ambiguities of A Sharp Intake of Breath speak to the theme that runs throughout Shapland`s recent works. Though they initially appear to be concerned with the phenomenology of sound, in fact his installations and photographs reflect a broad epistemological interest in the nature of illusion and belief, which, in this present age of fake news and hyper-cynicism, seems especially germane. Indeed, the photograph Wind Through Leaves (2018), subtly suggests media manipulation by showing strips of videotape attached to an electric fan fluttering in the breeze. Referencing again the techniques of Foley, this piece also reminds us that deception and persuasive aural fantasies are not limited to the realm of movie sound effects. Video editing techniques play a large part in the way that meaning is created in the media, as do scripts and the way facts are presented, or indeed misrepresented. Shapland`s works encourage contemplation of the fact that, while the majority of our lives are spent on Goffman`s front stage, there is also back stage to which we are only occasionally privy. For the most part, however, we remain in the dark, or rather, the silence.