Visual Silence?

In 1952 the avant-garde composer John Cage created his experimental composition 4'33". In this work, Cage created a set of instructions for the musicians not to play their instruments for the entire duration of the piece. The premiere of the work was performed by the pianist David Tudor: he sat down, addressed the piano as if about to play, closed the keyboard lid, remained silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and then stood up and stepped away from the instrument.

Thus the performer and audience members experienced a period of "silence" or non-intentional sound. In other words, Cage wished to engineer a particular sensory environment by diminishing (not eliminating) the influence of one sense and allowing indeterminate elements to make an important contribution to the formation of music: the sounds of people shuffling in seats (no doubt wondering what the hell was going on), the muted cacophony of dissonant breathing rhythms, the echoes of the enclosed architectural space of the auditorium — all became the chance sonic environment for Cage's composition.

But as McLuhan points out, any change in the ratio of our sensory perception — for example, by dramatically reducing the reliance on the auditory — forces a change in our other senses as well, and thus a change in how we understand our external environments. In the absence of sound (or at least its reduction) during 4'33" the ratio of senses would shift, likely toward what would have otherwise been the dominant sense modality of vision. The audience members were probably intent on perceiving the piano player visually, to see why there was no music being played, what he was doing instead of playing, and from where the other indeterminate sounds were emanating. In other words, there was simultaneously a shift toward the linearity of determining observable causes and effects.

We witness a similar change in sense ratio during the practice of gait surfing, though instead of reducing sound we attempt to reduce (but not eliminate) the reliance on vision. The goal of the exercise is to recalibrate the sense ratio such that the auditory and tactile elements are emphasized in the movements through urban space. This is amplified, on the one hand, by the shared acoustic space of the synchronized playlist, itself a particular dérive through the archives of music that initiates a communicative experience or vibrating string of co-poiesis between the surfers. On the other hand, it suggests an opportunity to understand one's flow through the wave of pedestrian traffic in a tactile, relational sense.

Perhaps Cage provides a reminder for us: just as there is no complete silence in 4'33", so too is there no complete blindness or visual silence in the practice of gait surfing. Maybe we should remain attuned to those indeterminate visual elements that might otherwise be considered optical noise, drawing from peripheral rather than linear focus.


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