Q&A: Suzanne Silver on Vanishing Acts

Jennifer Lange, Film/Video Studio Curator

Oct 05, 2022

The typed letters “e" and "sha" are on a thin piece of transparent vinyl that is partially folded against a grainy, scratched background of brown shades. The piece of vinyl is folded and raised, so the "e" is readable as a shadow.

Through December 31, artist Suzanne Silver presents Vanishing Acts in The Box, the Wex's dedicated space for video. The work, which is presented with an accompanying physical installation, is the remarkable result of Silver's efforts to maintain a daily practice during pandemic lockdown and her observations of light moving through her living space.

Below, Film/Video Studio Curator Jennifer Lange talks with Silver about the work and its relation to her overall practice. And at the end, Lange hears from Sivan Silver-Swartz, Silver's son, a musician who provided the score for Vanishing Acts.

Jennifer Lange: You started Vanishing Acts during the pandemic, during the most intense period of isolation. I remember you described how you followed the light through the rooms of your home, including your children’s empty bedrooms. Can you talk more about the motivation behind this work?

Suzanne Silver: Curiously, I don’t remember the exact moment of awareness of the effects of light and shadow, but I became deeply invested in working with light and how its timing creates chance effects of illuminating, dissolving, multiplying, blurring, and the gradual disappearing of the image.

I started working on Vanishing Acts in March of 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic. Without access to my outside studio, I began wandering inside, following the sun, capturing these fugitive moments with my cell phone camera. I do specifically remember rolling out a piece of vinyl that already had some marks on it and the sun shone through and projected the marks in a magical way. The images moved with the movement of my hand, so it became a moving image in both senses of the term. One of the first videos involved a pun in which I punctured the letters "AHAH" backwards and forwards in aluminum foil from the kitchen so that the interjection “ahah” alternates with “haha” for some palindromic humor.

The ephemeral results were aleatory and, at their best, hauntingly poetic. I really did feel like a magician making words disappear and reappear, but one who was never trained in ledgerdemain. Instead, light made these things happen and I chose words that spoke to what was happening around me and in the world. The emphasis on vanishing was literal because people were disappearing through isolation, illness, and death.

Related to this, I think there is a palpable sense of sorrow and loss in Vanishing Acts. Fragility and the fleeting nature of time comes through in phrases like, “I was here but disappear,” and, “For a long time I used to dream.” But then the way these words are rendered—as floating and unfixed and in light and shadow—reinforces this feeling. The words have a literal meaning, of course, but they also embody feelings. This isn’t really a question! Maybe a prompt for you to talk more about language as a recurring theme/concern in your work. 

SS: The are several variations of “I was here but disappear,” including one that simply has the letters “IWHBD” with the last two dropping off. The sun would start to set and the light would fade and create mini-movies of letters flickering on and off. I found the effect mesmerizing and kept recording and trying other versions to get closer to this sense of loss and sorrow reflecting the time in which they were made. Unfortunately, that time is also now with an ongoing pandemic, continued racism, injustice, and war.

Since I am an artist and not a writer or a linguist, my use of language is more floating and oblique. However, language is present in my work even when text is not. By the way, “For a long time I used to dream” is a riff on Proust’s opening line of Remembrance of Things Past or, more accurately, In Search of Lost Time: “For a long time I used to go to bed early”.

I have used wordplay (puns, palindromes, anagrams), sentence diagrams, and punctuation in my art for a long time. I have been working with coded language (Morse code, semaphore signaling) since 2016 and focusing on sound and silence since 2020. The recording as sound and memory, its voluntary and involuntary suppression, speech as freedom of expression politically and poetically are subjects I try to “voice” through unexpected combinations of materials in space. These configurations fluctuate depending on site and relative ephemerality of the given medium. Using projected light is a new direction. When light shines through suspended metal discs, for example, the punctured text is cast as shadow.

Although it’s not presented in chronological order, you captured these moments of domestic light daily, right? Like the ritual of recording time in a diary? As you started looking at these accumulated recordings, were differences in time at all discernible? How did you approach editing them together?

SS: It was, indeed, a ritual act and a kind of discipline which enabled me to make something every day even if less than a minute in length. I could stay active by making these little poems of light. Differences in time of day are discernible – and certainly differences in weather. Near sunset there would be an orange glow. Depending on the room and the direction of light and projection surface (wall, floor, bed, tabletop, etc.), different things would happen. I learned to play with the vagaries of light. It really is the light that makes the work. I may start with a word or image, but the effects of the light determine how the image is perceived and in what way the magic happens. I follow the light rather than controlling it.

There is morning light in my daughter’s old room, late afternoon light in my son’s and the light is of different intensities and colorations. Of course, this being Ohio, there were cloudy days as well. I occasionally used artificial light (a bedroom lamp) but much prefer the natural sunlight. In one piece, switching off the artificial light makes the image disappear instantly and this was an effect I liked.

There was thematic continuity over the two-and-a-half years, so older and newer works are intermixed in the video. Vanishing Acts is divided into three acts (the references to theater, circus, or magic acts is intentional), each one containing its own disappearances. Each video is separated by a one-second slug (with only a couple of dissolves) and a five-second slug between acts. The five-second slug is white as are the one—second slugs for the middle act. The one-second slugs for the first and third act are black (Paul Hill, Wexner Center film editor, graciously joined the series of images and inserted the slugs according to the rhythmic resting places I wanted).

The acts are not otherwise labelled and do not need to be. Certain videos or different versions of videos repeat in each act; otherwise, the general theme for act one is sound; act two is light and shadow; act three is language.

I first debated whether to shape and “polish” the work with greater intentionality—or reject a controlled narrative altogether and randomize the videos algorithmically. I decide to keep them basically as is. I decided that it would violate the naturalness and serendipity that created the work in the first place. They were ephemeral moments captured on my lowly cellphone. As a non-video artist, I could break the rules (knowingly or unknowingly). It would have been another kind of work entirely had I edited more severely. I wanted to reveal the chance nature of the videos. They are more like haiku than a novel. At their best they are small poems of light.

"I learned to play with the vagaries of light. It really is the light that makes the work. I may start with a word or image, but the effects of the light determine how the image is perceived and in what way the magic happens. I follow the light rather than controlling it."
Suzanne Silver

Are you still doing regular recordings?

SS: I still make them regularly, although the pace has slowed as I have returned to my outside studio and work in other materials and forms. The use of language, however, continues.

Your work takes the form of paintings, drawings, and objects which are often created from everyday materials but it’s quite clear that light is an important medium/material for you.  And when I think of light, I think of cinema and photography. Is this your first video? How do you see this body of work (the video and installations like the one here in The Box) in relation to these other art forms? Certainly, you’re using some of the same strategies and techniques (thinking here of Rayograph/photograms and even to some extent Zoetropes and Magic Lanterns).

SS: This is the first video that I have made, although videos have been made of my performance-based projects on two separate occasions. One was a walking and “figuring” ritual that was part of a year-long project called Ludic Interventions, which took place in three different countries. Sivan composed the score by rhythmically tapping the porcelain line fragments that I had used in the actual “figuring” ritual. Another was a video of a group performance (Dots for John, Dashes for Emily, and Punctuation or Everyone) that I conceived and directed, which took place right before the pandemic (documentation by Dani Restack). However, Vanishing Acts is the first work composed entirely of videos that I made myself.

Language and space have always been important to my work and now I would add light, that is, light as an actual medium. I welcome a relationship to early forms of cinema in my work. A few years ago I was invited to make photograms for DUST: The plates of present, a project co-founded by Thomas Fougeirol and Jo-ey Tang which is now part of the permanent collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I had never made them before and had no real darkroom experience. When I started following the sun around the rooms of my house at the start of the pandemic, I recognized a kinship with the earlier use of light and projection.

Since that time and sparked by a collaboration with artist Luke Stettner, I have been using stills of captured light and shadow to make photograms. I don’t think any of this would have happened if I had not tried to capture these ephemeral acts. The photogram has become an expressive medium for translating the transitory images I had configured, witnessed, and documented into something more permanent.

It seems appropriate for a project that started so personally, in your home, for you to collaborate with your son, Sivan, a musician now based in Los Angeles, on the music for the space. The sonic environment that Sivan created is not simply a video soundtrack, it’s a part of the space and at play with the installation of objects.

SS: Sivan’s music works so well with the images even though and perhaps because there is no one-to-one correspondence; rather, he built an “ecosystem” and “echo-system” to accompany the images with its own silences, allusions to the circus, magic acts, or a brass band, and the gravity of loss and mourning. His score is on a separate loop so never aligns in quite the same way with the looped images. Much to my delight, I find that wherever the sounds land, they work beautifully with the images.

A corner of a room with dark gray walls with a square grid pattern embedded in them. The left wall is covered with glossy blue transparent vinyl. The right wall has shapes made of aluminum foil hanging from strings attached to the ceiling. Letters spelling out the word "VANISHING" are also hung individually from the ceiling over white paper attached to the wall. Below the hanging letters, the word "ACTS" is cut out of foil that's attached to the white paper.

Vanishing Acts installation in the Box, photo: Melissa Starker

When we first talked about showing the video and doing an accompanying installation, I was super-excited about the possibilities, and you were very generously game to experiment with the rather inflexible environment of The Box. It’s not a conventional gallery space at all and has many limitations but I think your installation is really such a brilliant kind of intervention. Can you talk about the process of installing and of working with light within the black box space? You mention the allusions to theater and circus and that comes through in the installation itself. The space is so much more inviting than it usually is as a basic black box for video!

SS: I always enjoy responding to a given site although, I must admit, the physical limitations of The Box made it challenging. My response is usually improvisatory and based on constraints. I was initially stymied by the difficulty in having my metal letters and cutouts cast a stark shadow artificially, but that problem was eventually solved. I decided to have the letters of the title suspended much like words in the video itself. Both in the video and the installation the strings are attached—it may be about illusions of all kinds, but nothing is hidden, and the strings are there for all to see.

The entryway to The Box serves as a title card for the whole piece. I set up the installation elements like a theater marquee or the circus sideshow to lure people in. The lighting is exaggerated but the vinyl sheet of words like “hooray, “sing”, and “hoot” makes it oddly cheerier than what is inside, which is restrained and often sorrowful. I felt the space needed something in addition to the title and its shadows so decided to add sheets of blue vinyl to upholster parts of the walls. It is a beautiful electric blue when lit and can cast a colored shadow, but I did not want those capabilities activated. I wanted it to hint at color and establish a relationship with the sudden bursts of blue that you occasionally find in the video.

Being given permission to include actual objects and actual light which creates actual shadows in the black box setting allowed me to probe more deeply into the relationship of what is present and what is absent, what is tangible and real—and what is pure illusion.

Sivan, is this the first time that you’ve collaborated with Suzanne? How did you approach creating a soundscape/score for this work? I think it was your initial idea for the music to be played out of synch with the images, right? By untethering it from the timing of the video, you’ve really created a soundscape for the whole room and all the elements of the installation. Can you talk a bit about how this idea developed?

Sivan Silver-Swartz: This isn't technically the first time I've collaborated with my mom but it's definitely the biggest project we've worked on together by far. Being able to collaborate with her really opened up all sorts of conversations and ideas in my own music, and even though the art we make often can seem so different to me, it also struck me how many of our conceptual and aesthetic instincts aligned! Which really shouldn't be surprising since I've been looking at her art since I was an infant.

I was initially a little stuck when we first started talking about me writing the music for the piece since I've always been a bit uneasy about writing music for images of any sort, still or moving, in part because of how the music becomes attached to the images it accompanies. It's for good reason that the Jaws theme happens in the movie when it does, attaching itself to those images on the screen, but it can become an intimidating responsibility to attach music to images that are much more ambiguous.

One of the things I love most about my mom's art is all the beautiful ambiguity that happens when you try to read the words, signs, and symbols that she makes and try to interpret them for yourself. It seemed to me that a way to respect that ambiguity, as it were, was not to attach specific sounds to specific images, but instead create a collection of sounds that could all in their own way fit to any given image in the video and spark various interpretations in the moment. So as you said, by making the length of the audio a different length than the video and therefore out of synch, when each one repeats they overlap at different points—that almost guarantees that if you come back to the room a second time, or compare your experience with someone else who entered at another time, that your experience will have been different, with a different combination of images and sounds. We both talked about how we wanted the experience of the room to be something that could be experienced "in full,” no matter when you enter or exit, no matter how long you stay, and hopefully this encourages that feeling.

You used a variety of instruments, recorded in different environments, to create the score. Can you talk about those decisions and the relationships/connections you made between the music and Suzanne’s images? Also, in terms of the use of tones versus melodies?

Sivan Silver-Swartz: Yes! I recorded with my friends Adam Hirsch and Ben Rempel, both wonderful musicians and people, in two places: in a living room and in an abandoned tunnel in the San Gabriel Mountains, just outside of L.A., called the Mueller Tunnel. These two places could hardly have a more different effect on the resulting sound: in the living room, with the close mic'ing we used, the sound was very dry, with almost no reverb, while the tunnel could let a sound linger in the air for a good two or three seconds. I wanted something that echoed—no pun intended, although given how much wordplay is in the video, maybe I should intend it—the relationship between the objects and their shadows in the video. The two things are always alike and different in different ways; the objects that make the shadows could be more recognizable or legible than the shadows they make or vice versa, you could mistake one for the other at times, or you could have them meld into each other so that you can't tell there's more than one thing there.

The idea with these two very different sound worlds was to edit them all together into one stream of sounds from both sources and have a similar kind of ambiguity enters into the viewer's mind. Is the very reverberant sound I just heard an exact echo of the dry sound I heard before it, or was it a bit different? If the dry sound came after the reverberant sound, which one is an echo of which? Is that instrument I'm hearing in the reverberant space different from the one I heard in the dry space, or do the two spaces affect the sounds of the same instrument in dramatically different ways?

In terms of what the listener might actually hear—tones versus melodies, and also pitch versus percussion, sound versus silence—I guess I'd say I was thinking about three major things: first, having the sounds always exist in the world of the images rather than vice versa, and so leaving space for the images to continue developing while the sounds stay silent. Second, I think there's a real sense of lightness and playfulness in a lot of my mom's work, a desire to entertain, and I wanted to make sure I was honoring that feeling in the sounds I was making. The third was another way of trying to echo that sense of ambiguity by exploiting certain aspects of the microtonal tuning system I was using for the pitches, called just intonation. Sometimes, for example, a tone or melody might repeat in another instrument or space but just ever so slightly up or down microtonally from the first time. Or perhaps a melody appears with a drone note behind it but then repeats with a different drone note or by itself in a way that totally alters the feeling you're getting from the melody. Or perhaps you might simply hear a chord and find it sounds slightly unfamiliar from what you expect. 


Top of page: Suzanne Silver, Vanishing Acts, image courtesy of the artist

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