Unexplained Lights in the Sky: Susan Hiller’s “Witness”

by Ann Jones

Strange lights in the sky, odd saucer-shaped objects circling overhead, aliens who abduct unwitting passers by before returning them to their day to day lives… UFO sightings are familiar territory, occupying the minds of conspiracy theorists and providing the subject matter of countless films and television programmes and an interesting challenge to the ingenuity of special effects designers especially in the days before CGI. To declare my hand from the start: I don’t believe in UFOs. I believe there is always a rational explanation for lights in the sky and that it’s never the presence of space craft from elsewhere in the universe. I believe that the ghost in the tree is almost always a plastic bag, that the shadowy alien form on the television after closedown is probably tiredness, or dodgy technology, or bad weather, or almost anything but attempted communication from another world, that fact and fiction are easily blurred, especially in the presence of the human mind, and that true stories are still just stories. And I believe that you can prove practically anything with the internet if you have a mind to. So why then do I find Susan Hiller’s sound installation “Witness” – currently on display at Tate Britain as part of a retrospective of Hiller’s work – one of the most compelling art works I’ve seen in recent years?

When I first saw “Witness” in June 2000 I came to it cold; all I knew about it in advance was that an acquaintance I’d bumped into by chance one day had thought it brilliant and told me I must go and see it – and I must go that week as it was about to close. At the time I knew relatively little of Hiller’s work but my friend had been insistent and his enthusiasm spurred me to seek out the disused chapel in Notting Hill where the work – an Artangel commission – was on show. Told the installation was upstairs, I climbed the spiral staircase in complete darkness (this may not have been intentional: on my descent the stairs were dimly lit) and emerged into a magical, otherworldly space. “Witness” takes the form of a darkened room in which hundreds of loudspeakers hang, at various heights, some out of reach to all but the tallest of visitors, catching the light from a ring of lights at the centre of the work and beams directed into the centre from the edges (in the chapel the external light came from windows masked in blue). Entering the space, it’s immediately apparent that the cacophony of voices that fills the room emanates from the speakers. Getting closer it becomes clear that the voices speak in many languages and that each voice tells a story – a true story – of an encounter with a UFO or similarly unexplained phenomenon. At times the cacophony dies down and a single voice fills the room. Spookily, this always seems to be the voice you were already listening to. The stories are ones Hiller found on the internet; they are given voice for the installation, spoken in their original language. Some are recent, others decades old. Some are from named sources, others anonymous. Many start with a disclaimer indicating that the storyteller expects to be disbelieved. And, of course, given that the stories come from around the world, many are in unfamiliar languages.

Of the stories I listened to on my most recent viewing of the work at Tate Britain, three stick in my mind. One, dating from the 1930s, was recounted by someone who had witnessed a UFO while in hospital with pneumonia. Hmm, what to believe: an accurate eye witness account or the ramblings of a delirious man? Another described an incident in which two alien beings, or maybe machines, I wasn’t quite clear on that point (I think I may have been listening to two stories simultaneously) tried to drag him to their craft. He resisted, got back into his car, drove it off the road into soft mud and had to walk several miles home. This incident was followed by an appalling headache and a thirst that lasted two days, or a very bad hangover as it might also be called. Then there was the woman who saw a bright green light floating above her street at around 3am as she was heading upstairs to bed after chatting online. Her story was long and involved but the one key detail for me was this: the fact that the following day her husband, who had come downstairs during the incident, had no memory of any of it. To the witness this seemed to make things more spooky; to me it made it seem more likely that she’d dreamt the whole thing. Obviously I’m showing my bias by conveniently citing the stories it’s easy to be sceptical about but, while I don’t believe the stories to be factual in any objective sense, I firmly believe that most, maybe all, of the witnesses completely and honestly believe their version of the events they describe and, more surprisingly, my own cynicism is immediately set aside when I listen to them in a way that it isn’t when I watch documentaries about UFO sightings or dramatisations of similar narratives on film. While not completely suspended, my disbelief is considerably muffled by the voices that cut through the semidarkness.

In no small measure my fascination with this work comes from the beauty of the space but ultimately it’s the sound – and the stories it holds – that keeps me there. Just standing in the midst of the speakers, the indecipherable cacophony intrigues me, but in the end it’s the stories that work their way under my skin. I find myself listening to stories told in languages I can’t begin to recognise, much less understand. At times I hold a speaker to each ear, allowing the stories to mix in my head. The narrators speak directly to me, into my ear and mine alone. I can never hear all the stories and even if I could I would only understand a limited number of them. However strong my disbelief, the conviction of the storytellers is compelling.

At its most basic, Witness is a collection of evidence; it is, in essence, documentary. The stories are presented without interpretation or dramatisation; they are re-spoken rather than re-enacted. They are the sort of stories that in many ways would make better subject matter for film than for art; in film the fragmented narrative of a witness’s memory can be made whole, the gaps filled in and the experience fixed visually according to the director’s understanding of the witness’s description. Documentary film might present the stories as written but would generally offer additional research, dramatic reenactment or some other form of contextualization; a simple series of talking heads would make for a rather boring film. One of the strengths of Hiller’s approach is that each viewer’s experience of it is unique; everyone comes away with their own set of stories and their own memories of the mysterious lights above and the shadows of the speakers on the floor and everyone believes or disbelieves according to their own experience and understanding. And even the most sceptical come away with a sense of these narratives as having a strong hold not just over those who earnestly bear witness to these strange events but over those who need to believe that there is something out there, something beyond the mundanity of the world we know. Just as the encounters stay with those who experience them, “Witness” has stayed vivid in my mind for more than a decade.

It can be argued that from the earliest cave paintings, art has always held a mirror up to the world and sought to record the reflection, drawing attention to the unusual and special as well as documenting the quotidian. In representing this collection of stories harvested from thorough internet research, Hiller offers us a picture of a world where for many religious faith – historically the basis of dominant shared belief systems – has been replaced by, or at least made to coexist with, a belief in UFOs and visitors from other worlds. As Hiller herself is quoted as saying (on the Tate blog), ‘… the stories are examples of contemporary visionary experience. Only today people see UFOs where once they saw angels.’

Ann Jones is an artist and educator

Susan Hiller’s exhibition at Tate Britain continues until 15 May 2011.

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About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at ImageObjectText.com and occasionally contributes to MostlyFilm.com – writing about art, mostly.

5 thoughts on “Unexplained Lights in the Sky: Susan Hiller’s “Witness”

  1. The photo makes it look like a rather beautiful upside-down forest of voices.

    How did you decide which voice to listen to first? Did you stand in the middle and grab a speaker, or listen to the first voice that you heard?

    Hiller’s comment about UFOs being contemporary versions of visions of angels is interesting. Who knows what Blake really saw on Peckham Rye that day?

  2. Lovely, lovely piece, and I’ll have to find an excuse to go up the That London.

    Sladey, have you read The Gernsback Continuum ? Sorry for the dodgy russian link but it’s somewhat appropriate – it’s William Gibson’s first published story and takes that idea (that UFOs are an expression of the collective unconscious filtered through contemporary media) as a starting point.

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