Art

An Indian Artist is Documenting Sounds From People Stuck in Isolation

From the sounds of waves crashing and birds chirping to those of hospital equipment—Pallavi Paul’s “time capsule” captures the sounds of lockdown.
20 April 2020, 6:59am
isolation sounds project art

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

Among many other things, the state of isolation has made most of us acutely aware is one major component of being under a lockdown: the silence all around us. In a country like India, especially, where our collective background score is usually noise and chaos, the silence of this “new normal” can seem deafening. So when Pallavi Paul, a New Delhi-based filmmaker and artist, experienced the streets for the first time under the lockdown in Delhi on March 24 (the lockdown was imposed on March 23), she was captivated.

"I’m a filmmaker, so it’s interesting for me to listen in to the ambient textures of spaces," the 32-year-old tells VICE. "Before shooting we record something called ‘room tone’, which is to test and recreate the ambient sounds of spaces. A trained ear can easily tell if the recording has been made indoors or outdoors. But during the curfew when I was recording the streetscape just by my window, for the first time, I couldn’t really distinguish the inside from the outside, just by ear.”

This revelation led Paul to invite hundreds of such “isolation sounds” from across the world. The result is “Share Your Quiet”, an ongoing project with Goa-based art gallery Sunaparanta, in which Paul collects audio clips of different forms of silences around people in their confined environments—“their new everyday”. This segment is a part of the gallery’s larger project called #SurvivingSQ (Surviving Self-Quarantine), in which artists share creative coping mechanisms during the pandemic-induced isolation.

“We also wanted to understand how art functions as a kind of glue or connection during isolation,” adds Leandre D’Souza, the curator and programme director of the gallery. “We started off with airing ‘Monday Symphonies’, in which we recorded silences from different parts of the world. It shows that this project truly transcends walls, and even boundaries.”

Interestingly, Paul, who often explores socio-economic and political themes in her work, has placed this series during a time when public displays of “spirit” and solidarity—such as the famous clapping and clanging of plates last month—are being seen as “noise”, or distraction from real problems. “It drowned out any kind of doubts, questions or voices, even as the streets were brimming with hunger and rage of the poor,” says Paul. “Many (myself included) did not participate in this cacophonous display of public spirit. In fact, we were trying to find a way of withdrawing from it. This withdrawal was political and sensory at the same time. This project of the 'quiet' offers a space to do that.”

Artist Pallavi Paul

So is this work political, then? “The project is kind of an act of disobedience,” says D’Souza. “Because you’re signalling to people around you. Each quiet communicates with another quiet, and as a listener, you start to imagine this different kind of solidarity, which transcends what is now being seen as a typical, political and public display of solidarity.” Paul, at the same time, feels that "inviting people to this project doesn't enforce any one kind of political expression." She says, "Even as people bring sharings to this invitation from different perspectives, what is fundamentally political about the project is that it refrains from asking participants to be productive. Just as clanging plates or bursting crackers have been made into political acts, to hear without instruction is also a political strategy."

Paul also chose “quiet” over “silence”, as the latter denotes oppression, while the former “gives an individual agency”. That individuality lends itself into the sounds too. You hear the forces of sounds as subtle as breathing, the ice melting, church bells chiming, smooth gusts of wind, or even walking on the road. You hear the azan prayers blaring from a loudspeaker, or somebody playing the guitar. You also hear mechanical sounds like that of a saw against a wooden surface, that of hospital equipment or even the sounds of a machine. The project has received around 200 entries from around the world, including countries like China, India, Japan, the US, Canada, Europe, Serbia, Thailand and Australia. “In fact, we’ve been receiving video recordings too, now,” says D’Souza.

The soundscapes can sound calming at times, even peaceful, but Paul admits that sometimes, you come across a certain anxiety and dread that many are experiencing during self-isolation or quarantine. "We get a sense of what that person is doing or encountering. This imagination and emotion, the eeriness, the fear and the anxiety—you feel all of this intensely. One thing that is clear, however, is that it is not individual isolation, it is collective, transnational isolation," says Paul.

Set against the larger backdrop of the quietude of isolation, these sounds almost become disruptions. “That’s what’s happening in this forced isolation,” says D’Souza. “For instance, I grew up in Mumbai and I moved to Goa just before the lockdown. Coming from a city, you're perpetually overwhelmed by noises, and it's difficult to discern one sound from the other. Now, small sounds like the waves or other natural sounds get amplified and cause some anxieties. Soon the body will start to adapt, and maybe this will be the new soundscape.”

The project will continue for the time being, and the artists look at this exercise as creating a time capsule of sorts. “I’m just imagining the people that will come after us," says Paul. "Maybe 20-30 years down the line, if people engage with this archive, it can be a different retelling."

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