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American artist Susan Hiller opens exhibition at the Abattoirs Museum in Toulouse
Visitors look at a video installation, comprising of 106 TV sets, by American artist Susan Hiller in the Abattoirs Museum in Toulouse, southern France, as part of Toulouse's International Art Festival, on June 1, 2014. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA.

TOULOUSE.- Although her work has been shown in numerous European and American museums over the last twenty years, and notably in a major retrospective at the Tate in 2011, Susan Hiller has had few exhibitions in France. In the large basement rooms of the Abattoirs four immersive works will be on show, including a new piece, all linked by a mesh of human voices, from the lost languages of the Last Silent Movie to the stirrings and statements collected in Channels and in Resounding Ultra Violet.

Hiller’s early worked was strongly influenced by minimal and conceptual art. She then went on to develop what she calls “paraconceputalism,” substituting the logic and rationality of these two tendencies with a strong interest in unexplained phenomena: visions of UFOs (Witness, 2000), near death experiences (Channels, 2013), and paranormal phenomena (Psi Girls, 1999). To explore these zones of great uncertainty she uses methods she learned from her training in anthropology, such as field research, collecting and classifying data and statements, comparison and analysis, presentations and expositions. These methods bestow greater credibility on her objects of study and, in turn, are pushed beyond their usual neutrality and objectivity by the extreme nature of the subject, becoming open to invention. “To enquire, and to transform, these are the leitmotifs that run throughout Hiller’s œuvre,” observes English curator James Lingwood. Transformation here means a lot more than organising and analysing. Hiller says that she chose art in order to substitute the imaginary for the factual, and also to renounce the distance of the supposedly external, detached observer in order to “be inside all her activities.” For distance is probably one of the major questions running through her work. She grounds this in everyday experience the better to bring out the unknown (disappearing languages in The Last Silent Movie, 2007-8), the inaccessible (the radio waves from the Big Bang in Resounding Ultra Violet, 2014), and the unexplained. In this way she questions the limits of experience in a highly effective reflexive process whereby the viewer has a very internalised and personal mental and sensorial experience of each installation. Many of her works of the last two decades do without images, using only sounds and speech. Those languages that are dying out seem that much closer to us because we only hear the words and their translation: the speaker is not physically present, nor do we see their more or less picturesque environment. The same goes for the visions of UFOs: their oral description is given form only by the memory and imagination of the listener. This deepens their impact. In this way the archive patiently built up by Hiller the collector suddenly comes alive.

Susan Hiller was born in 1940 in Tallahassee (United States). She works and lives in London. She had her first exhibition there at the Gallery House in 1973. She had solo shows at the ICA in 1986 and Tate Liverpool in 1996, before her major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2011. She represented the UK at the Havana Biennial in 2007. Her works are held in many private and public collections around the world.

Some hundred television screens are assembled to form a wall. Some of the screens show coloured light (between blue and grey) while others show lines on oscilloscopes. We hear buzzing and sputtering sounds as well as voices speaking in different languages but, as it happens, of the same kind of experiences: near-death moments. The installation touches us both by the content of the testimony – coming close to the unknowable beyond – and by the vibrations and textures of these voices that are one of Susan Hiller’s preferred materials. Disembodied, these are the voices of revenants in the strict sense, almost of phantoms.

History is more inclined to remember the first talkie (The Jazz Singer, 1927) than the end of silent movies – one invention drives out another. Susan Hiller chose to make “the last silent movie” – a film that, as its title indicates, speaks of extinction, and in a highly paradoxical way, because it is made up primarily of sound. It consists of a series of recordings of voices speaking in languages threatened with extinction, while on the black screen we see the names of the languages and the translation of the words. Their presence resonates within us all the more intensely in that they reach us free of any picturesque elements, or even the body of the speaker. These salvaged snatches question the march of history and the forgetting that accompanies it.

“I am interested in the spectral dimension, in the strange, and in the shadowy element that emanates from recorded sounds, because you can’t distinguish between the voices of those who have long been dead and those of the living.” Sounds with different frequencies and origins are superposed here, echoing or blurring each other in a reconstitution of the emissions of gravitational waves that accompanied the formation of the universe, recordings of periodic signals of variable stars, messages in Morse code emitted during an experience of waking dreams, recordings of broadcasts by numbers stations, stories about UFOs. Combined with blurred, desynchronised images, visualisations of audio signals, they suggest interfaces or even aberrations, in which we find ourselves imagining messages from distant spatio-temporal places.

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June 2, 2014

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