The art of listening

They say that silence is golden and that sometimes it’s better to listen than to be heard.

In Yallambie Park last October there appeared one morning a couple of open faced, Perspex triangular boxes the mysterious purpose of which was not immediately apparent to the cursory glance. What were they for? Had they been beamed down overnight by a visiting alien space ship in lieu of the usual crop rings on the grass? I do recall seeing something similar as a central, unresolvable enigma in Stanley Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that landmark spaceship flick, a big, black monolith is tasked by aliens with the job of waking mankind up to itself.

“Stop, listen,” art in Yallambie Park, February, 2022.

That film was made over 50 years ago but in some ways, the thingamajigs in Yallambie Park might be closer in inspiration to Kubrick’s monolith than you may possibly think at first. The Yallambie boxes are part of a temporary community art installation in the park titled, “Stop, Listen” by Vincent Giles and Alice Bennett. The boxes have appeared at two parkside locations in the City of Banyule – one at Yallambie Park and the other near Warringal Park over in Heidelberg. The sites were chosen by the artists themselves as having local appeal and providing the potential of acoustically rich environments for avifauna and pedestrian traffic. The big idea is to stand inside one of these boxes, to face out towards the surrounding area and to stop and listen to everything around you. You see, most of us never stop long enough to appreciate the world around us and these structures, in spite of their wonky build and temporary star picket post quality, work surprisingly well acoustically. I’ve stood inside them on several occasions since Christmas and listened to the change of sounds the horn like structure of their form creates.

Art lover on the Main Yarra Trail, Heidelberg, February, 2022.

The Stop, Listen artists were paid $6000 for this project after securing a grant under Banyule Council’s annual Arts & Culture Project Grants scheme last year. The concept, location and installation of the art was developed and managed by the artists themselves. The money spent might seem over generous to some or tight fisted to others, but what price art? I don’t really know. Art, as they say, means different things to all who experience it. When I was down in Warringal Park on the weekend to look at the other Stop, Listen installation located there, the dog walkers were out in force and as I observed, dogs too can show their appreciation of art. Isn’t there a certain, Marcel Duchamp “Art of the Readymade” in every fire hydrant seen by a little dog?

“Stop, listen,” art north of Warringal Park, Heidelberg, February, 2022.

When I was at art school and learning the tricks of the trade in graphic design, I remember being introduced to contemporary art by way of a foam cup glued to a piece of black painted cardboard. The price tag at that time was half the cost of a small house, but it was art, or so they told me. A Styrofoam cup can be elevated to the dignity of a work of art simply by the artist’s act of choice. Art can be as simple as that.

It’s a fact that art and the performing arts have always had a raw deal in Australia and two years of pandemic have seen them pushed continually last on the handouts list. Personally, I’d like to see more of our dollars spent on the arts and less on roads and war machines, for it is my belief that it is from art that the worth of any civilization can be measured. Art in all its forms is all around us in every aspect of our daily lives and we would know this if only we could see it as such. If we could recognize its intrinsic value, the world might be a very different place. In one of my early posts I made comment about a POW of the Japanese who, observing the penchant for art in his captors, came to realize them not as barbarians but as fellow human creatures. From the transitory nature of simple installations like Stop, Listen we can come to understand the nature of art and the natural art in our nature.

Two men inside a sound cone
Secret Agent 86 and The Chief meet inside the infamous “Cone of Silence”.

Those who recall repeats of the old American spy spoof comedy, “Get Smart” will remember the acoustic problems Secret Agent 86 and The Chief found when using their “Cone of Silence.” It was a running gag, the purpose of which was supposed to enable secret conversations inside. The reality however was that use of the cone inevitably made conversation inside impossible while easy for those outside to overhear. How many of the world’s problem could have been solved before they started if there had been no secrets and instead transparency in all things? When the President of the Russian Federation says, “We have no plans to invade Ukraine,” does he mean the tanks are on their way? When a Chinese frigate sailing in Australian economic zone waters shines a military grade laser at RAAF aircraft, what do we read into this message? Are these things even happening or has the rhetoric of propaganda distorted the facts to our hearing? Maybe it’s time to sit down and talk things through before they go any further. In any situation other than the vacuum of space, sound is an ever present medium but using it to communicate properly is as much a gift of our civilization as the use of our opposable thumbs. It’s getting a balance and a perspective across cultural barriers that has always been the problem.

A line of scripture pasted inside the artwork in Yallambie Park.

While looking at the Yallambie Stop, Listen cones I noticed that someone has pasted a line of scripture, probably by way of ministry but in the very act itself, also creating art in a way. The line was 6:33 from Matthew’s Gospel but personally I like the line that follows, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Matt 6:34

When first seen by the monkeys, Kubrick’s Monolith was silent. It erupted into a cacophony of alien sound only at the touch of that first monkey hand but the sounds soon had all the monkeys jumping up and down, walking upright and waging war upon their neighbours. Silence can be golden. All we need to do is to dump the rhetoric, get a bit of perspective and listen.

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