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To measure is knowing - conversation with Sarah of Sonsbeeck

13 Aug 2017 Vibeke Mascini

How many sips would it take to empty the biggest pool in the world? Why do we count the weight of a whale calculating the kilos it would weigh on land? What to do when the kilo no longer weighs a kilo? In my thesis I research how we deal with measurements in daily life and in art. As a part of my research I talked to Sarah van Sonsbeeck, who (as a fine artist with a background in architecture) deals with space and size on a regular basis. She expresses concepts in ways that differ from their obvious measurements. One of her works is a cubic decimetre of silence using a vacuum, which is extraordinary in itself because a vacuum is a kind of anti-space and silence is a kind of anti-sound. Even though sound is usually measured in decibel, according to Sarah van Sonsbeeck, decibels cannot quite express al the characteristics of sound.

VM: Do you see yourself as an artist whose work deals with the concept of measurements?
SvS: I did of course try to create a kind of unit for silence. I think I'm always concerned with space. It's funny you speak of measurements, which is actually mental space. There a lot of aspects that influence architecture or the immaterial space we inhabit, that don't have a measurements, things we don't learn in architecture but facets of which most people would say they are much more determining than aspects that are measurable. The silence, the noise from neighbours or the weather are good examples. In Delft (University for Architecture) they always said 'the numbers tell the tale', but I think that's nonsense. There are factors that are not measurable with a ruler or can't be captured in a unit that are very defining.   

VM: Silence is of course a big abstract given, even though you manage to make it concrete in different ways. A lot of your work seems to be an attempt to depict silence. Do you think that's possible?
SvS: The longer I research the more complex and multiform it becomes actually. There is not one silence; there seem to be countless amounts of silences. To a researcher, silence means something completely different then to a banker or artist.

VM: So silence is relative?
SvS: Yes. With the work Municipality of Silence I recently did for the Dutch consulate in Istanbul, I noticed silence is mostly determined by its context. For example, in Turkey silence is about the freedom of expression and the suppression thereof, which is not something you would immediately think of over here. In Holland people tend to see silence as a luxury, something that doesn't really exist even though you long for it. So, it strongly depends on whom you are asking, which might make silence impossible to depict. I don't think you can point at it and say: this is it, but what you can do is can discover the boundaries of it. The agreements and attitude towards silence are more important than what it really is. Because you think everyone knows what silence is until you meet someone who has a completely different idea of it.

VM: Which can be quite annoying when that person is your neighbour.
SvS: Exactly. So I don't think 'the silence' exists, but at the same time you can depict her (or him, I wouldn't know) by discovering the borders. By asking a lot of people what silence means to them or by trying to see where it disappears, where it ceases to exist. That was the case with the cubic metre that I made for de Paviljoens in Almere. This silence was broken and that was what made it perfect, in my eyes.

VM: Is silence better expressed in cubic metre than in decibel?
SvS: It's different.

VM: Tchaikovsky once described music as the silences before and after the notes. That insight makes those silences seem very valuable. What is your favorite silence?
SvS: Well.... I was the only one who didn't answer the question I asked all of my friends during my research. I asked them what was silence to them and by now I think of silence as some kind of Rorschach test, those stains a psychologist shows you and you have to say what you see in it. It's the same thing with silence. Because one person said 'silence is worries', and when I asked him if he was alright, there seemed to be a whole story behind that remark. Another one was very concerned with his ex at that point and he answered: 'Silence is when I no longer hear from her.' That says a lot, every answer is a kind of mirror. I don't know if I like silence so I am not sure if I have a favorite. I was very impressed with the silence of the dead room, but I wouldn't call it a favorite because it was a very unpleasant silence. A room without an echo. It feels as if someone was pressing on my eardrums. It was really strange.

VM: For Municipality of Silence you actually duplicated one silence, by measuring Holland's most quiet place to Istanbul's silence. What is the quietest place in The Netherlands?
SvS: I made a promise not to say which place that is. It's statistically the most quiet place and that calculation comes from a statistic construct based on maps of the government. The quietest place is somewhere in the Veluwe but if I were to say which place exactly, people would go there and it would no longer be the quietest place. I would mess up the statistics, so that's not possible.

VM: How do they determine the quietest place?
SvS: It's a very beautiful way. There is a map of The Netherlands that shows these islands of silence and that seems very convincing. The numbers tell the tale, very exact. But the way that map came about, with measurements that are more imaginary and less and less based on facts. The silence map is made up from three methods. The first is extrapolation; they measure a piece of the highway and assume the rest of the highway is roughly as loud. The second is 'wishful thinking': the further you are removed from the highway the quieter it probably is. And the third is called 'self-fulfilling prophecy'. That's because the map is used to guide airplanes, which makes the quiet parts of the map even more quiet. It's a very doubtful map. Architecture in Holland is confronted with a lot of regulations: this is how fire-resistant the house should be, this is how much parking space you need to have but the amount of silence someone should have it not determined. At first I thought it was silly to create a cubic metre of silence until I went to the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, it's a museum of measurements. You can't find 'the metre' there, but there are tons of metres that came before. Because well, one started to rust and another warped.

VM: It must have been an enormous relief for science when the formula for the metre was determined in 1983.
SvS: Yes, but even now the metre depends on how precise your measuring tools are. And those instruments are based on the same units. The units we base our belief on are actually very personal. It's a kind of history of human failure. In that way, science is much more personal than you would think, so I thought to myself: I could continue to make units for silence for my whole life, each one more and more precise. So I started with a cubic metre and after that a cubic decimetre of vacuum. That's how I continued.
Right after I returned from Paris I saw an exhibition in Schunck in Heerlen, that's where I saw the work that made me sure about creating a cubic metre. It was Trois Stoppages by Marcel Duchamp: three threads of a metre long that he had dropped a metre from the floor and then glued to the place they landed. Those were his new definitions of a metre, a metre influenced by falling. That is such a poetic work to me. It actually says everything about science. The real science, of which we think it is so exact, works in the same way. It is a pretty personal search, subject to many factors, factors we might not see now but will be considered in the future. Just like we used to think the Earth was flat. There is some kind of approaching insight. That's why I thought Trois Stoppages was such a beautiful work. It might not be the perfect silence but it is the perfect metre.

De stilste plek richting het noorden en het zuiden
De stilste plek richting het noorden en het zuiden

  De stilste plek richting het oosten
De stilste plek richting het oosten

VM: What is the perfect kilo?
SvS: I have no idea. It might not have been made yet.

VM: What concept is still in need of a unit?
SvS: Silence. At the same time that is a kind of critique on the whole the numbers tell the tale and I wonder if a unit is that significant.

VM: In conclusion: What does a whale weigh?
SvS: Well, water weighs a kilo per litre. So if something can swim in it without sinking or rising it needs to have a similar weight. How big is it - let's look at the room, the door is two metres, I think a whale is bigger, maybe three by three - (mumbles) I'm grabbing a pen... (more mumbling)... that seems like a lot but my makeshift calculation says 180.000 kilos.

VM: That is an extremely exact estimation. The correct answer is 170.000 kilos maximum. Only 10.000 kilos is a very small difference on a scale like this.
SvS: The numbers tell the tale, don't they?
VM: It seems like they do. Thank you.

19th of January - 23 of February
Chasing Rainbows is a group show of Sarah van Sonsbeeck, Anya Gallaccio and Antonis Pitas
Annet Gelink, Amsterdam

Translated by Maurits de Bruijn

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