Still sitting in the library after Ant Hampton and Tim Etchells’ The Quiet Volume, I’m almost too overwhelmed to write. I previewed this piece before the Time-Based Art Festival began, so I knew what to expect going in: Two participants are seated at a table at the Multnomah County Central Library, and they proceed to follow instructions piped through headphones. I’d even watched a YouTube video about the work, so I knew how the voice would sound and some of the instructions I would receive.
Yet The Quiet Volume still managed to surprise, disorient and even unsettle. Over the course of an hour, it prompts an impressive variety of questions: In a place devoted to quiet concentration, why is there so much noise? How does your internal reading voice sound? How does the addition of another voice change your experience of reading? And how is it that words become so much more than ink on a page?
Time slows in ways both calming and uncomfortable. The Quiet Volume is a spacious and generous work, allowing participants time in their own thoughts. But this can also make it disconcerting—it’s an engrossing experience, but not a particularly diverting one. Negotiating between the manuscripts and the audio narration, which sometimes correspond and sometimes diverge, challenges the senses and the intellect. At times, the audio instructions sparked frustration. I found myself resisting a few of the directives, disliking how they forced images or thoughts I hadn’t conjured on my own. But being at the whim of this disembodied voice is also a bracing experience. Ah, vulnerability—that double-edged sword.
As it encourages inward thinking, The Quiet Volume also provokes consideration of libraries as complex spaces: sites of both privacy and community. I’ve always enjoyed people watching at the Central Library, but this work cast my fellow readers in fresh light. It’s a meditative and stimulating experience, and one vastly different from any other I’ve had at TBA.