Silence: In Conversation with Cecelia Nercasseau Gibson

Category: Short film, Interview
Originally Published: Spatial Sound Institute


Cecilia Nercasseau Gibson is a multidisciplinary artist with a practice that draws inspiration from architecture, urban environments, stage design and sound. Born in Chile, she was deeply intrigued by the subject of human perception and communication in relation to spaces, bodies and experiences on many levels, including the physical, emotional, creative and philosophical. She has developed her artistic practice combining these interests, with a particular focus on sound art interventions in the public space.

Her piece at the Spatial Sound Institute is a multi-layered exploration where she creates and holds a space of immersive listening and sharing in the stages she suggests towards the notion of Silence — External-Horizontal, Internal-Vertical and Divergent.

An intimate dialogue of natural sounds, resonant sounds and spontaneous exchange follows, each containing the world of silence within it. Silence, she reminds us, can be uncomfortable, but never without its subtle power and impact that may appear in our awareness and interstices of everyday experience where we can allow it in and experiment with it.

Gibson and I chatted over the course of a month while she was artist-in-residence at the Spatial Sound Institute in Budapest. We begin our conversation in the aftermath of the pandemic's collective shock and prolonged isolation that had left us vulnerable, unconcealing our psychological and spiritual needs, as well as our interconnectedness to the larger ecology, nature and our ability to comprehend our own experiences as human beings. In this short film and conversational feature, Gibson talks about her practice and shares her vision for Silence, what it means for listening, experience and to reconnect with oneself.

Alifiyah Imani: Tell me more about your work in public spaces and what prompted you to work at the intersections of architecture, urban environments, stage design and sound?

Cecilia Nercasseau Gibson:  I studied architecture in Chile and at some point during my career, I realized that there were too many buildings all over the city that were not doing what architecture is meant to do, which is to create spaces for communities and for people to communicate.

Soon after, I took a course on sound art and this had a profound impact on me. I started noticing how sound interacts with space and it's the space where people actually are; and somehow, what architecture and construction does is to close this space, this emptiness and shape the void. Listening is one of the senses that allows you to experience where you are, as if you were putting yourself in a specific point on the earth or a context.

This way of comprehending the relationship between sound and space was a huge opening for me and I started to think about it a lot after that. How is it possible, for example, to make a bridge without having to build the entire structure, but only by using sound.

In 2014, there was an art festival in Valparaíso about interventions and I applied with this installation called Fonópticos, which consisted of two large metal cones. People had to put their heads inside and listen. It was modeled after the radars used during World War I. I built and installed them and initially wasn’t sure exactly what would happen but had a kind of a hunch. The cones were placed on one side of the concepción hill and separated by a distance of 100 meters. I had hoped that it would be possible to somehow communicate but it was a bit far. At one point I was there and someone came over from the other side and said, Hello? Hello?.

It worked, I realized. When the person places their head within one of the cones, without having to shout can catch the echo of the urban landscape as well as the voice of the person in the opposite fonóptico. It was exciting for me that you can still create this connection, even though it's not apparent or made of concrete. This also became a starting point for me.

Soon after, you moved to Berlin. What triggered this and how did it further influence your practice? I am also wondering if you could tell me about zooz, a practice you hold close and has spiritual meaning to you.

The landscape in Chile is immense, dramatic and beautiful. I feel a strong attachment to my ancestral and indigenous heritage which has been displaced and suffered at the hands of colonizers and the oppressive regimes that continue to endanger it. Growing up amidst this was very hard. At the same time, people seem to be trapped in a bubble at times. At least in Santiago, I'd say, you're at your house, then you go out, get in your car and go to a store or possibly another house.

There is so much fear. To actually be open to the unknown and to navigate with freedom. This has a lot to do with the post dictatorship of the long-drawn-out Pinochet regime. It was a really difficult time especially for my parents as they grew up when no one could walk out on the streets because they might kill you. As a result, this was somehow imprinted on the way of raising as well.

In a way when you have this sense of protection, it makes you feel insecure and that you can’t stand by yourself. For instance, the way to love for families and people is to make you happy, but in a way that means you can never feel anything else, you know? So it's a little strange in a way, because if you're feeling awful or sobbing, it's like a catastrophe. This manner of dealing with emotions, that is to block what you are feeling. Following this is also that you have structures and stereotypes to follow.

At a certain point I felt full, really full of a lot of things that I didn't even choose in a way.

I left for Berlin on my own and planned to arrive there in the winter just to be sure of my decision. Really interesting things started to happen. I always loved to sing and somehow in Berlin I started making music with a bunch of people I had just met through serendipitous encounters. I also met Opay, a dancer and performer who is integral in my journey and collaborated with her on workshops and pop-up interventions with what she calls the zooz approach. This is a practice towards spontaneous self-expression. It's about feeling your complete self in a split second and stretching it as far as you can.

I was mostly with my voice, but it could also be movement or any other gesture. The idea is to create this atmosphere that pushes you to give your best, but not the first thing that comes to mind. You try over and over and then all of a sudden, something new appears. It was a really good exercise in improving yourself without even realizing it and most of the time the group I practiced with were all astonished by ourselves. It was as though you were carving yourself from the inside out.

Later during my stay, I was also awarded a DAAD scholarship to complete a Master’s program and I pursued a study that combined stage design and exhibition spaces. It piqued my curiosity because, with theater, you have the fantasy element as well as the sound. You are building settings that aren't quite real in certain ways, but they are in a sense, because the performers are present. It also corresponded with my interest in public-art and experimental exhibition venues. This is also where the project silence originally surfaced.

I understand you have been working with the topic of Silence for a while, starting with your MA research, but has it also evolved in response to the pandemic?

In some ways, I suppose it has, in the sense that a situation is intuitively recognized. I was alone in my house when the pandemic struck, so I had to be in silence to truly create silence —  and to embrace the present moment for what it is.

What does silence birth in this new reality? As I understand, there are several readings you reference in your work.

I was particularly interested in John Cage's writings, as well as Alain Corbain's,  A History of Silence. I was also captivated by the creative process, particularly in relation to Agnes Martin, an abstract painter. She mostly lived and worked alone. Her process was to get up in the morning and look around her surroundings, waiting for inspiration to strike. When she couldn’t find the inspiration she needed to paint, she would sit in solitude by herself and wait for an image to arise in her mind, which she would then convert into a gridded canvas.

As I read about her life and work, I realized that silence is, of course, a filter. It is a space of exchange with the unexpected. I also thought that it was the skin that somehow sustained every sound but at the same time it gave space for other sounds to appear. It's a permeable material.

In music, John Cage considered silence as an open door to new or outsider sounds; as an absence of silence and as an open space. Martin confronted it as a way to train herself and to let the inspiration come to her. These ideas influenced and coincided with my project deeply at the time of the pandemic.

Tell me about the soundscape you recorded in Zebegény. How is the practice of listening during a soundwalk activity introduced in the piece you developed?

The soundwalk at zebegény was an open-ended exploration. It was important for me to situate myself on-ground without preconceived expectations and to think of listening as a framework on how one understands their relationship to the environment, to pay close attention to the perceived origin of sounds and how they reach us. The town with its proximity to nature was an interesting cinematographic backdrop to enhance this listening experience of natural sounds and also a compositional exercise to really have a sensation of a space.

For the piece, this recorded and later composed part is the first layer, what I call External-Horizontal. This is related to how we move, because we move horizontally. It's related to awareness, perception and the physical body. As a result, silence is interpreted as a wide sound. So wide that it's barely audible. It is kind of making a horizon or topography of sound that is composed of very little points, where the sounds are in a low intensity but in the same value. I also like to think of it as taking a close-up of your molecular structure to see what it's made of, hence the piece begins with becoming aware of where you are standing through vibration and gradually rises. I am then using the crickets as a beholder of all the other sounds and this is a sound that is so continuous in time that somehow it holds and stays there, similar to fermata, which means holding one note during a period of time.

For me, the perception of time is also very fascinating. You have this continuous layer in which you lose all sense of time. And it was this relativity of time that I experienced most vividly during the walk.

You also imagine the piece as a space that is made up of different axes. How would you describe the sound field and how does this sound field correspond from one axis to the next?

The whole structure works as the skin of the silence and how it would manifest itself and reflect itself on the physical world. It's like an empty space, but the space is made of everything. So it goes from the outside to the inside, from the shape until no shape, from the dissipated to the condensed. And in this space, there is the silence itself - in connection to all.

Silence has layers and levels. As a result, it switches in geometry and order, from External-Horizontal to Internal-Vertical to Divergent axis points. Spatially, the external world's stillness is visible on the surface, through a connection with the environment. Rain and thunder fall from the external-horizontal horizon paving the way for the vertical and opening internal space. In terms of architecture, this translates to a resonant area of the room with the microphones turned on, so anything you do here has a resonant character. The idea is to encourage reflection and invite people to view themselves through sound and focus their attention on the inside.

Divergent Silence is the third layer, which combines all of the previous ones. It represents the phenomenology of consciousness. Slowly and subtly, the listeners explore intuitive awareness to personally express themselves through music or ideas that may come in the moment. It creates an open frame where something can happen. I also connect it to the practice of zooz where you flow through sensations into an ambiguous, yet compelling and transforming space. Silence, here is seen as a potent avenue of adventure that taps into the revelatory character of consciousness, formed by inner tendencies.

Could you tell me how you adapted this for the studio space and the 4DSOUND system? How was your experience working with spatial sound?

As an architect, the system allows me to visualize how sound will travel inside a room, how it will move and how might people interact with it. In this way, it naturally represented a way of thinking about space that feels intutitive to me. But before I reached this point, the difficult task I faced was converting the architectonic qualities envisioned for the original proposal into spatial sound. For this, I needed to build a strong narrative in terms of composing the soundtrack as if it were a theater piece; how all of the pieces appeared, from where to begin, where to turn on the light, the higher notes, what sort of music is playing in the background, what is it’s character and so on. I also thought a lot about how to keep the tension alive in the external-horizontal stage without overemphasizing a particular sound.

I'd say it took me a week to construct my own shapes and movements but at the same time, I was able to explore even what hadn't been thought of yet. Thinking about this shift in axis was interesting because I had to construct the second space, the vertical-internal, entirely with sound. There was a point in the composition when the buzzing of the insects became irritating as well as giving the impression of putrefaction, heat or even wild nature, perhaps signalling that something else was about to happen. One night during the residency, an intense electric rain began to pour on my window and simply the thunder and lightning of this rain inspired me to use the sound of the rain as a change of axis. The entire movement made sense; the sounds began on the ground and rose higher and higher until, all of a sudden, the rain came down, sweeping away the tension and chilling the air. Following that, the raindrops opened up to the internal-vertical space. This chamber represents an enclosed space with high ceilings possibly made of a reflective material that can enable the reverb of everything that moved. It can be an emotional and powerful experience to listen to this in the space. If you really allow yourself to be immersed, then you are entering pure perception and consciousness.

What did you learn from others' listening experiences?

I learnt through remarks and observations that there are three parts to listening especially with regards to spatial sound: Firstly, it is the state of the mind in which you enter the piece and lose yourself in it; the second is the moment of listening, which is constantly changing from the thoughts you carrry, to the body and where you move and how to place your body in this experience and transform as a full listener organ because we are not used to it. Lastly, it is how you feel after you've interiorized the whole piece. When it comes to emotions, it can bring out vulnerablity.

Also what may appear to be quiet or soothing at times, can be incredibly invasive. When I was working, my three-year old son came into the studio and I expected him to be more fascinated by the sounds (oh, there's a cricket, there's a bird there) but instead he was terrified by them. In a way that I'd like for this to come to an end. He got through this fear eventually, surrendered to the situation and fell asleep. It was really interesting to observe.

Silence makes us uncomfortable. But at the same time it's about how you approach what's around you, and if you're uncomfortable, you'll see a reflection of yourself right away. It is an intriguing point of direct experience.