The web enabled Hiller to extend her research until she had collected several hundred statements from Africa, Asia, Australia and Oceania, Europe and North and South America. She then supervised recordings of many of these accounts, both in their original languages and in an English translation, and then brought the work together in a sculptural sound installation inside a disused Baptist chapel off Portobello Road in West London.
Witness explored the relationship of the visible and the visionary, and between seeing and believing. As visitors entered the chapel, they heard a low murmur, a multitude of different voices - male, female, young, old - speaking at different volumes and in different languages. The voices emanated from 350 small circular loudspeakers, hung at varying heights from the ceiling of the chapel. As the visitors moved from speaker to speaker, they were party to individual eyewitness accounts which triggered surprising responses, making the visitors themselves a witness to the persistent phenomenon of the paranormal in every culture.
After its first presentation by Artangel in London, Witness has been exhibited at major international museums and festivals including the Havana Biennale, Roskilde Festival in Denmark, Kunsthalle Basel, Museu de Serralves in Porto, Baltic in Gateshead and in a major survey of Hiller's work at Tate Britain in 2011.
Three Witness Statements are available to listen to on Soundcloud.
Image: Detail shot of numerous speakers suspended from the ceiling at different heights at The Chapel during Witness, 2000. Photograph: Parisa Tagwizadin
Appendix to the book Witness
I felt something like a magnetic field, an oppressive heat, a surrealism of silence, an atmosphere, a mist, a line of cold air, a dreamlike state... I reported it to the police; I never mentioned it to anyone.
Witness is an installation that uses sound to explore the unstable territory where "the visible" merges with "the visionary". We are conditioned to think the real visible world lies outside ourselves, and that what we see inside must be unreal - but Witness, like earlier works of mine, reconnects "objectivity" and "subjectivity" in both its subject matter and its intended effect.
The installation is activated by viewers listening to many voices telling stories in many ways, in many different languages. The work doesn't fully exist until people listen to these voices. When people do, others see them as part of Witness.
The stories are about marvels, extraordinary sights and sightings, and I think that listening to them heightens the ability to visualise imaginatively and with empathy. In a culture supersaturated with external imagery, this private but common reaction can come as a surprise and a rare pleasure.
Image: Audience members hold two speaker to their ears in the darkness of The Chapel during Witness, 2000. Photograph: Parisa Tagwizadin
Preliminary research for Witness
Guide to zones:
3. Australia and Oceania
4. Miscellaneous Europe I
5. Miscellaneous Europe II
6. France, Canada and Switzerland
7. Portugal and Brazil
8. Spain and Spanish-speaking South America
9. United Kingdom
Image: Installation shot of the numerous speakers suspended from the ceiing at different heights, glistening in the glow of the three orbs floating in blue light, at The Chapel during Witness, 2000. Photograph: Parisa Tagwizadin
Susan Hiller is constantly collecting – not so much objects as contemporary rituals and patterns of thinking and feeling. This is the raw cultural material, the social fact, from which she forms her work.
One consistent area of interest for Susan has been the paranormal, and she had begun to collect testimonies from around the world from people who had seen or felt that they considered to be extraterrestrial presences or apparitions. She gathered an extraordinary range of this material over a relatively short period of time, classified both by origin but also by species of apparition. We then gathered together a group of willing accomplices to help read the witness statements in their original language or dialect. There were several hundred witness statements: in over 30 different languages. Each and every one of them was individually recorded before being mixed by David Cunningham.
Image: The weather-worn Baptist chapel on Golborne Rd, with it's simple sign that reads 'WITNESS'. Photograph: Parisa Tagwizadin
When you first walk in, all you hear are waves of whispers. As your eyes grow accustomed to the dark, you see that these are emerging from a forest of 500 loudspeakers suspended from the roof. Moving from speaker to speaker, from testimony to testimony, you listen in on a mass human exodus from sense and factuality. — Waldemar Januszczak, The Sunday Times, 4 June 2000
Standing outside this dangling world, with its sizzle of tinny voices, one views it almost as a model of some sort. Walk among the earphones and one is transported. The stories themselves matter less than their cumulative effect, the fact that these people believed what happened to them. There is something lonely and lost about these accounts, this wish for the stories to be believed. — Adrian Searle, The Guardian, 04 May, 2004
What is so compelling is the earnestness of the testimony, the absolute conviction with which these anonymous, ordinary people tell us of their meetings with men whose skin is blue or metallic, whose craniums are huge and who have slits for eyes, or no mouth. Then for a few electrifying moments, all the voices fall silent except for one who, speaking in English, holds the room spellbound. — Richard Dorment, The Daily Telegraph, 31 May 2000
The collective host of voices, and the single voices, seem to be two different things. When you put your ear to one of the speakers, it isn’t – what you’d expect – a homing in, with one voice among the many simply becoming louder and clearer. No, it’s as if you’ve suddenly tuned in to a new voice that wasn’t part of the existing crowd. — Tom Lubbock, Independent Tuesday Review, 23 May 2000
People see strange things. Lights in the sky, mysterious phenomena, visions and visitations — things they can't explain but know they saw. Susan Hiller has been collecting stories of these sightings for years. Some of them are prosaic and descriptive. Others are visionary and marvelous. All of them are true. Hundreds of eyewitness accounts were brought together through years of research for "Witness", Susan Hiller's ambitious installation, which asks us to explore the area where rational explanations no longer seem to hold. This accompanying publication, presented as the artist's "Witness" research file, contains a large selection of the original witness statements, as well as a selection of Hiller's personal notes, sketches, and drawings on the work as it developed. To seduce the reader into experiencing the visions of others, the book comes with a CD containing 50 witness statements.
Susan Hiller (1940 – 2019) was born in the USA. In a distinguished career of more than 30 years, she drew upon sources as diverse as dreams, postcards, Punch & Judy shows, archives, horror movies, UFO sightings and narratives of 'near death experiences' to make innovative and seductive works out of ephemeral, sometimes seemingly unimportant items, works that involved the audience as witness to the lacunae and contradictions in our collective cultural life. Her ground-breaking work in sound, multi-screen video and other media is widely acknowledged to have been an important influence on younger British artists.
Susan Hiller graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1961 and went on to postgraduate study at Tulane University in New Orleans with a National Science Foundation fellowship in anthropology. After conducting fieldwork in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, she became uncomfortable with academic anthropology's adherence to scientific claims of objectivity and decided to become an artist.
Hiller is often called ‘artist’s artist’, someone whose work has been recognised by major museums worldwide. The Provisional Texture of Reality, includes some of her most significant talks, interviews, and essays on other artists. A major retrospective of her work was held in 2011 at Tate Britain.
Images: An audience member holds a speaker to her right ear, the other speakers shine in contrast to the darkness of The Chapel during Witness, 2000 (left) and portrait of Susan Hiller (above). Photographs: Parisa Tagwizadin
Who made this possible?