Susan Hiller: lights, objects, beings

Appendix to the book Witness

£19.95 from Cornerhouse



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.

The existence of the World Wide Web accelerated my research for Witness. The Web is a giant confessional where people feel able to externalise perhaps-embarrassing secrets that might be harder to share face-to-face. As the impact of this public confessional increasingly became part of my experience of collecting stories, I realised they were being put out on the Web by people who were hoping that somebody, anybody, would be listening. The function of just listening and registering someone else's vision felt more and more important to me. Having become a witness to the stories myself, I wanted other people to have the same intense experience.

What kind of stories are they? All of them seem to me to be trying to describe something that's almost indescribable, because previously unseen. There are stories too strange to tell until now and stories that have been repeated over and over again. There are very embarrassing stories, shocking stories and very beautiful stories. There are matter-of-fact descriptions of incredible sights and poetic revelations concerning small incidents. The personal confessions broadcast on the Internet to anyone who will listen are very different from the many concise eye-witness statements reported to the police, the army and various investigative bodies, but, with varying degrees of detail and engagement, all the stories in my Witness files concern themselves with a few specific themes: the sighting of strange lights, mysterious flying objects, and non-human beings.


1. Lights: the experience of light in various colours, indescribably bright, indescribably coloured. Colours never seen before, rainbow-hued, strange mixtures, unstable or oscillating.

… Bright pink lights, shiny gold switching to red then blue, several spots of cold white almost blue light, incredibly bright and sharp like a pencil, a blinding flash like lightning, a glittering crown in the sky, the colour and intensity of the setting sun, a silvery-green cone of light, an intense wall of beautiful yellow light eleven meters in height, a magenta beam, a brilliant blue oval of light, shimmering, glowing like neon, brighter than Venus at its brightest. . .

2. Objects: extremely large or very small, flying or hovering or just sitting in the road; shape-shifting, sometimes singular and sometimes multiple and somehow simultaneously both singular and multiple. Silent or noisy, leaving behind on rare occasions their imprints or traces, circles of bent corn or stains of unknown substances, but most often, nothing.

. . . Plate-like, cigar-shaped, mysterious glowing balls of energy, transparent proto¬plasmic amoebas or jellyfish, a gigantic manta ray, bright spider webs, dark triangles, flotillas of shining points, flying machines, little hearts, the colour of lead, basically spherical, a fluorescent red-orange coloured egg, a silver rectangle, like a World War I helmet, a huge metallic globe surrounded by flames, dark and glowing. a small pointed star that grew larger and larger, orange fireballs, a beautiful plate-¬like thing, an elongated envelope, small and dome-shaped, an enormous ball of light which divided into three and then seven orb, visible on radar, invisible on radar...

3. Beings: People like us or people definitely not like us. Tiny or enormous, grey, green, brown, pink or white. Moving gracefully or awkwardly by flying, levitating, hopping etc. Gendered, non-gendered, reptilian, mechanical, humanoid, and insect-like. Ignoring us entirely or communicating telepathically or directly, speaking various earth languages without moving their lips, if they have lips. Melting through walls, landing in small vehicles, gathering specimens, waving, performing painful examinations, delivering messages. As real as I am or a misty projection? Friendly, cruel, loving, disinterested, concerned, wise, duplicitous, or helpful.

... Very handsome, hideous, very thin and luminous from inside, corpulent with four legs, like little dolls, almost a giant, large blue protozoa, hazy as though formed of cigarette smoke, head like a rugby ball, a reddish face and fine teeth, huge piercing eyes, eyes like a frog, eyes like slits, wispy black hair, long blonde hair, completely hairless...

The stories are artefacts of their time and place; they are (social) facts; and they are the inspiration as well as the basic material for Witness. Whether the incidents are empirically verifiable or whether they exist as a different kind of "reality" altogether. is a separate issue. These are real stories concerning sights that were seen by real people.

In this book you will find a selection (in English) of some of the Witness files I collected over several years, juxtaposed with notes, sketches and diagrams. See it as a dossier recording some of the raw materials and thought processes intrinsically connected to the making of Witness, rather than a retrospective document illustrating and analysing the sounds, shape, lighting, colours or ambience of the installation itself, how it works and what it means.

When I hear all the voices in Witness, I sense a multitude of actual physical presences, each one of which is completely unique. Listening to a story triggers complex emotional, psychological and physical responses. Storytelling is a compelling art form because we see pictures through the power of the voice. What' s coming through these voices is far richer than the subject matter of their stories...

Hearing a selection of stories told one-at-a-time in English on the accompanying CD is very different from the multilingual polyphony of the installation. But perhaps while listening to or reading the stories as text, you will be able to imagine, as I did, a whispering babble of contemporary voices talking all at once, rising and falling, filling a room, each voice as unique as a fingerprint. Any images suggested by thestories are entirely of your own creation.

Image: A floorplan sketch for installation of Witness at The Chapel, 2000. Photograph: Susan Hiller