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  • The Slightest Breath (On Living)
  • Jean-Christophe Bailly (bio)
    Translated by Matthew H. Anderson (bio)

For Giuseppe Penone 1

Behind John Cage's 1952 musical work, 4'33"—a work where, far from a desire for scandal, he suggests that one can listen to silence and that silence is itself a sonorous and variable material (and is thus alive)—is an experience he had in a soundproof room at Harvard University. In his account, it was there, right in the place where he expected to encounter silence and experience it as absolute emptiness (as the withdrawal, as it were, of all noise, all sonorous beating, no matter how minuscule), that he instead discovered something that remained within the silence. But, when the question of the two sounds he had been hearing—one high-pitched and one low—came under consideration, Cage disagreed with the sound engineer, who interpreted them as coming from his nervous system first, and his blood circulation second. But, was it still the case that the persistence of these bodily noises, regardless of their origin, quashed the very possibility of silence? Or, [End Page 1] did they allow one to think of it differently? As a resonant environment or a sort of acoustic khôra? One that is always already affected? And it was as a result that the composer had the idea of making it heard. If the score of 4'33" is blank (vierge) and entails nothing more for the instrumentalist besides the traditional tacet, which basically summons him to not play, then it follows that space of silence's duration is also an inhabited space. And if silence is itself a note, which is infinitely stretched out and withdrawn, then it is also the space of a collection. Here, what is normally seen as a disturbance—such as the slightest breath or the most distant echo—instead becomes a contribution and, thus, a material.

The sculptor Piotr Kowalski recounts a similar experience (2004). Near the end of his life, he tried to produce holograms that would behave like mirrors. From a technical standpoint, holograms are similar to photos that have been recorded through the use of lasers; they thus need absolute stillness to be "taken." To make a large mirrored holograph, Kowalski needed to carry out his work in the underground laboratory of a Dutch factory, one that specialized in the production of curved glass. But in this space, isolated from the world's vibrations—similar to the way sound was cut off from Cage's anechoic chamber—he could not attain a perfect stillness, even for the briefest exposure. Here again, the disturbance came from the body, from the heat emitted by the human body. And even if it was minuscule, it still made the glass plate vibrate, making the total inertia he needed impossible. Just as Cage became enthusiastic for the resonant remainders that inhabited silence, Kowalski found enthusiasm in the unexpected subsistence of movement. He suddenly found that he was faced with the world Heraclitus dreamed of, a world where everything moves, and where it is vain to try to stop motion.

These two experiences take place within the confines of the percept and they both confirm the same thing; namely, either that there is no "nothing," or that "nothing" will never be within our reach. What this unobtainable silence and this impossible inertia allow us to see is not simply the circumstances of being alive; instead they also allow us to see that life is incapable and unaware of how to leave itself behind. Even when it is distant and restrained, confined within airlocks and thresholds, it is already entirely a surpassing and an excess. The resonant or vibratory remainders are not from the world; [End Page 2] they are productions. Persisting behind what is almost effaced is the force of a beginning. It is the very potential (Potenz) of what begins or arrives. Before any determination of a being, living perhaps resides—but without a residence—in the fact that something arrives instead of nothing, and that this coming and arrival continue.

Though we have a sense of this, there is someone who senses it more keenly than us...


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