Photography: Scott Duffey /

Think back to the last song you heard and try and weigh up how much you actually connected with it. You heard, but did you listen? Did you hear the sounds, process their meaning, and react to them? Did you just use your ears to listen? The act, even art, of listening is far more involved than our sense of hearing, and it’s a skill which is as profound to our way of communicating as being able to articulate.

Currently running at The Bluecoat, LISTENING is a groundbreaking exhibition – the latest Hayward Touring Curatorial Open exhibition – which examines the crossover between the visual and the sonic, with many of the selected artists working in the fields of both contemporary music and art. Featuring a variety of media, from drawings and sculpture to prints and video, and with works ranging dramatically in duration from less than a second to six hours, Listening is an orchestration of works that curator Sam Belinfante claims “interrogates the act of listening itself, rather than merely its aural objects”.

From the almost inaudible sound of a dying star to the stretched, dissected and reassembled noise of a clap of thunder, our notion of what makes up the sound we hear will be laid bare. A new work by Turner Prize-winner Laure Prouvost choreographs a dialogue between lights and objects in the exhibition, while the insulated anechoic chamber of Haroon Mirza – winner of the Nam June Paik Art Center Prize 2014 – silences the outside world to allow us to listen profoundly to the sound of our own bodies.

The exhibition will also include Liverpool-based artist Imogen Stidworthy’s rarely-seen work, The Whisper Heard, which centres on the spoken word in relation to different notions of meaning and communication. In the piece, sounds and images are configured into three acoustic zones, focused and reflected within the adapted space by loudspeakers and a parabolic dish. The sounds come from two people who deal with language in very different ways: a man suffering from aphasia, a condition following a stroke which affects the language faculty of the brain; and a three-year-old boy who is in the process of learning to speak. Both participants respond to the narration of a chapter from Jules Verne’s Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, a passage which sees the character Otto Lidenbrock losing all sense of relation to the outside world and his trust in his senses. As neither participant is able to read, their relationship with these narrated words is primarily oral.

To get more of a feel for these ideas of interpreting spoken and written words, we spoke to Imogen, the 2008 Liverpool Art Prize winner, on what listening actually means.

Bido Lito!: What does your piece, The Whisper Heard, aim to highlight?

Imogen Stidworthy: It challenges the meaning of language. In the installation, the voice of the little boy pronounces but he doesn’t understand; the man understands but doesn’t pronounce. The child is still learning to speak and the man has a condition called aphasia, damage to the language cortex of the brain, which means that the synaptical links that help him connect thoughts with words are sometimes lost.

When words aren’t working ‘properly’ we have to feel around them to find other forms of meaning. We may have to detach from language in order even to sense and register other forms. How can we let go of language when we’re up to our necks in it? In the installation, the spoken word is pulled apart into interrelated zones: what you could call body language, thinking space, facial expression, vocal resonance, the narrative thread of a story unfolding, written text – all these elements are configured as a spatial, sonic ‘machine’.

BL!: We’re interested in the nature of meaning within the piece – is comprehension of the spoken text necessary in understanding the message?

IS: If you don’t comprehend a spoken text you start to listen differently. Meaning is not only semantic, I’m interested in the sound of the voice, the hesitations, the elisions, the embodiment of thought, or of response, and the space of relation between two bodies and subjectivities engaging in dialogue. What is it that is passing between us and giving us the experience we call communication?

BL!: Have you made any changes to the piece since you first exhibited it?

IS: The work was developed for an exhibition at Matts Gallery in London in 2003; after that, I showed it in Bergen, Tel Aviv, Seoul and Linz. Every space was different and every time the arrangement of the elements had to be adapted to the space. The elements are assembled like a kit set up temporarily for a test or a treatment to happen. This can be wheeled into any space, though the key is in the relationship between the parts. There are some sonic effects – reflections and lines of focused sound – that have to be set up, and there’s a synaesthetic dimension which happens when all these relationships are working together.

BL!: Why have you included imagery (in the form of video) in a piece that is ostensibly about challenging our methods of hearing?

IS: With The Whisper Heard I wanted to focus on processes of what we think of as ‘understanding’. Listening and hearing involve different forms of attention – one is more searching than the other – but listening and hearing both set us up with very different expectations for what we might understand from visual images. The work operates within that tension between the sonic and the visual, and it needs both.

BL!: As we are bombarded by mainly visual information from every angle, do you think our ability to listen is being lost?

IS: How we listen and what we listen to is affected by many things. The visual image is one factor within a much larger set of conditions shaped by our social, technological, cultural and political environment. Our capacity to listen is not being diminished, though of course it is changing. A lot of attention is given to visual culture as a way of understanding broader cultural shifts; historically, much less attention has been given to our listening culture, for reasons which continue to be discussed and written about. Visiting the exhibition Listening involves many different modes of listening and hearing; perhaps it helps us to focus on some of those changes as we experience them in ourselves.

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