We had the pleasure of working closely with Susan to realise Witness, one of her most widely-seen installations. To make the work, Susan collected several hundred ‘witness statements’ from around the world; stories of unexplained sightings by people from all around the world, strange lights in the sky, mysterious flying objects, visions and visitations. She envisaged an intriguing form for the work, a darkened space housing a forest of whispering speakers from which a multitude of voices emanated in a babel of different languages.
Witness was first presented in a disused Baptist chapel off the Portobello Road in West London in the summer of 2000. Over the next decade, Witness reappeared in cities all over the world, including Basel, Gateshead, Havana, Porto, Roskilde and Turin, before featuring in the major survey of her work at Tate Britain in 2011.
Last summer, Susan made a wonderful new work, London Jukebox, for Artangel. The classic 70s jukebox contained a playlist of 70 songs from Lord Kitchener to the Kinks and the Clash. All the songs were inspired by London. The earliest was Vera Lynn’s A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square from 1940, the latest was Lowkey and Mai Khalil’s Ghosts of Grenfell from 2017. London Jukebox is a tribute to the city where Susan lived and worked for over 50 years, and a testimony to her brilliant work with popular cultures and to her generosity as an artist and as a friend.
James Lingwood and Michael Morris, London, January 29, 2019
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 was born in the USA in 1940. 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 involve 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?