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Iain Forsyth, Jane Pollard and Jason Pierce, ‘Silent Sound’, 2006, production still

What inspired the piece? Jane Pollard: It wasn’t a blinding flash. The catalyst was our last piece, which was a remaking of a Cramps video. This time, we started by using the present moment as a medium to challenge the past. We realised we were using a language that shared roots with spiritualism. So it was sort of an aside which started our interest in spiritualism—particularly Victorian spiritualism and its connection with the invention of things like the gramophone and telephone.

How did it begin?
Iain Forsyth: It began as a performance in St George’s Hall, Liverpool. It now exists at the Biennial as an installation; largely sound-based but also physical installation.Jane P: We wanted the process to be experimental in the truest sense. If we’re tapping into anything, or re-enacting anything, it’s in the spirit of those Victorian performers such as [American spiritualists] the Davenport Brothers.

Why Jason Pierce?
IF: We had done a lot of research into the Victorian era and got really interested in stuff that existed in what Edison called the ‘etheric’ space: it’s there, but you can’t see it. That’s how we got interested in the idea of subliminal messages. So then we were looking at different ways people have generated subliminal messages since the 1950s. It’s mostly done through music. When you think about ‘quitting smoking’ tapes or ‘weight loss’ tapes, they always use gentle ambient music, something nice to listen to while the subliminal message is communicated. So we wanted a musical element and were trying to think what would be the best carrier of the signal. We wanted to commission a new piece and the first name on the list was Jason.

What role does the music play? Jason Pierce : I always think when you get music in art, it’s a real fucking jump to your system, because the art world is so silent. So being asked to do something like that was a big honour. Someone asked me today, ‘Did you do the music for Silent Sound ?’ I don’t think I did the music; I think of the work as one whole thing. And that’s what’s really great about what we did.Jane P: In an earlier performance we were re-enacting the last ever Ziggy Stardust show. We’re attempting to work with a psychological connection to our audience. So I hope people leave analytical processes to one side and come with that kind of unconscious welling emotional sensation.

How have people responded?
Jane P: The reactions have been extreme: a lot of people crying, more tears than I’d ever expected. People have described tears as being a sort of release, and a sense of loss—or hope, in a strange way. And a lot of people have cried walking around the installation. Maybe when you understand the mechanics of everything, you don’t see it with the same sort of immediacy. I cried, but that’s by the by.

What about that title?
IF: When we where researching the history of subliminal messaging, ‘silent sound’ was a phrase that appeared in various forms. It became shorthand for the project.Jane P: A lot of people expected not to be able to hear the music. So in a way it’s slightly misleading. But we didn’t want a really flowery title, we wanted something strong.

Is it art or music or both?
Jane P: In its context so far—art. In a way, what do I care? I care that it retains enough heart to have integrity. I don’t really care if people call it an art project or a concert.IF: Since we started working together, the reaction has changed. From what you would call an art audience, it wasn’t uncommon to get the reaction, ‘Well, that’s just music.’ At the same time it wasn’t pure enough as a music event for the music audience. I think culture has moved on so much in the last ten years. I don’t think people struggle with the idea of hybrids.

Do you believe in spiritualism?
IF: I’m an open-minded skeptic.Jason P: I’m a big no. What interests me is less to do with the dead and more to do with communication without words. What they are doing almost defies explanation: I got a four-page letter from them by way of introduction. But what they did was really moving and human. It works in a really beautiful way. You can go and see anything with any kind of energy around it and you can say, ‘I don’t get it’, and then maybe in ten years’ time, you can see exactly the
same thing and it will floor you. With this, you won’t get the chance to check it in ten years’ time, because it happened there and then.

Interview by Cedar Lewisohn