How we made Witness

James Lingwood


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.

I recall going to Susan's studio one day and her show¬ing me a very simple cheap mylar speaker. She wanted dense forest of speakers but she also wanted a shape to the piece, so that it would be more than simply an immersive environment. The final form of the installation echoed the shape of the speakers: it was a kind of oval with a cross running through it and it also echoed the form of a flying saucer...

In essence the work explored the necessity of believing and how and why seeing becomes believing. At what point do rational systems of explanation fail to account for an experience?

Susan worked with her sound engineer Adrian Foggarty, who came up with an installation that worked acoustically, so that you could hear a murmuring of language as you entered the room. As you went into the work, you could identify individual testimonies, and could pick up and put individual speakers to your ear. Adrian also worked with Susan to orchestrate the rising and falling of the babel of yoices. As the yoices died away, the audience seemed to be rendered immobile. Witness was one of those projects where the research preceded the location. But when the right place, an abandoned empty Baptist chapel on Golborne Road, was finally found, then the form began to be resolved and the encounter with the work was finely tuned. The chapel was directly off a street, which could not have been more culturally diverse: a mix of Afro-Caribbean, North-African, Portuguese, Asian and British, which reflected the diversity of origins of the witness statements in Susan's piece. Every Friday and Saturday, a man from Yorkshire set up his stall to sell fundamentalist Islamic pamphlets...

Image: The weather-worn Baptist chapel on Golborne Rd, with it's simple sign that reads 'WITNESS'. Photograph: Susan Hiller