Interview with the Artists

Johanne Bernstein

realized for the exhibition "The Elsewhere" at Royal Festival Hall, London 1999

Johanne Bernstein: When we first met you were proposing a different project to the current one, though it was also called The Elsewhere. You wanted to use the Ballroom as a site to show live images (transmitted via the telephone network) of underground stations in Berlin, London, Montreal, Moscow, New York, Paris and Rome, where you would emit through the Tannoy systems the sound of places of worship (such as synagogues, churches and mosques). You talked of  transforming the underground stations – indistinct multicultural transient places – into “profound places of listening” by the intervention of a type of sound which represents stasis and uniform culture and purpose.
Clearly you are interested in disrupting the habitual perceptions of a place by introducing evidence of a different kind of place or community that exists  elsewhere. Can you tell me why this is and how this has figured in your previous  work?

Silvio Wolf: Places are complex entities. Like individuals they have their own memories, identities and symbolic lives. What we experience is an interaction of these many layers. I’m fascinated by the personality that a specific place is capable of expressing, and I’m also increasingly obsessed by the need to establish a symbolic relationship with such a place. Searching for a given place’s identity enables me to establish my own roots and memory through it. What challenges me in this process is the possibility of activating a perception of a simultaneous past and present, of here and elsewhere, coexisting in Time and Space. People can be made aware of  this through the symbolic languages of Art.
A few years ago I became aware of these things while working on a project for a major art space in Milan which had originally been the refectory of an orphanage for girls. My discovery of the origins of the building and the design of the installation became completely interwoven. I wasn’t just interested in giving evidence to the lost traces and memory of the place, but rather with giving a new form, life and presence to the vanished community of girls which had previously lived there for centuries. Through my research into those very specific references, I began to face general issues of the disappearance and identity of any enclosed or separated community.
Since then I have developed installation projects for a number of public spaces originally conceived for or still used by different kinds of communities, like ex-schools, mental hospitals, churches and an ex-prison. In the process of working in each place, I found that my own subjective perception of it would gradually change, transforming it from an originally foreign entity into a symbolic territory, so that the finished installation would transcend the specificity of the place and give the audience a more general and shared understanding.

J.B.: Can you tell me why you are interested in disrupting the experience of the underground station, and why you wanted to use the sound of religion specifically to do this? I’m also of course interested in why you felt  that the Royal Festival Hall’s Ballroom was an appropriate place to present this project.

S. W.: People in the underground share the experience of an unusual suspension of their present time. They are all coming from somewhere and aiming to go somewhere else, and it’s as if the time spent in the underground system were of a different and rather lower quality compared to the time spent in their over-ground lives. In the underground one becomes part of a vast, silent, ever-changing and passive community within a strange environment to which no one ever belongs. I thought that the sounds of places of worship transmitted through the Tannoy systems, would transform these everyday indistinct and transient places into profound places of listening, where the “sacred” could unexpectedly be experienced. The sound has a special quality; it reaches deeply inside you more than any image can because images are hindered by too many cultural barriers. The project also involved using a public location in each city to present the live images and sounds of the seven simultaneous underground events. I thought of the RFH Ballroom as the perfect location in London: it is the focal point of a transient and crowded place, and its 5 x 30 metre rear glass windows looks like an fantastic back projection screen. It could be turned into a wall of live images broadcasted from the seven different Undergrounds, and the Ballroom audience would witness the entire global event.

J. B.: What made you propose the current and simpler project for The Elsewhere?

S.W.: After working on the project for over a year, it could not be finalised because of technical and cost-related problems faced by the sponsoring telephone network (although the project is still alive, and I’m looking forward to its future fulfilment). In any case, by that time the Ballroom had become a meaningful “symbolic territory” for me with a strong and autonomous identity, which went far beyond the original project. That’s when I felt it had the potential to express in a different form another concept of The  Elsewhere.

J. B.: Much of your previous work uses light as its subject. Can you describe in what way, and what you mean when you talk about light as being a  primary form of visual language?

S.W.: In most of my previous photographic pieces and more recently in  the site-specific installations, the light has become not only the medium but also the subject matter of my work. The light illuminating my subjects, in other  words the light that allows me to “take” the pictures, is trapped within the image thus becoming a visible image of its own. In the same way that a fresco can physically be detached from its original wall and removed to a new site, so can the light take an object virtually off the place where it was found and transport it elsewhere. Within this process the light changes from a pure medium into an active and visible subject.
In The Elsewhere at the RFH the light as much as the sound is used as a primary form of language. The same way that the children’s voices are the only original sound instruments to be heard in the Ballroom, the pure white light is the only new element to be seen in the space. It represents the potential origin of any image, but is  also presented as an almost material entity of its own. Its energy creates a luminous white screen allowing the audience to give form to the projections of their own mental images. The very light that prevents us from seeing the outside world can thus make the inner space of the Ballroom, and the inner world of our minds visible; as you wrote in your text ” Whilst leading nowhere physically, the Ballroom can lead anywhere mentally, or virtually”.