Voicing Abstraction / Wave #8 ESSAY March 2023

Right at the Center, There is Silence – Infrasonica Notes

Marivi Véliz

I made the whirling world stand still – Arthur Rimbaud (1873) [1]

[1] Taken from María José Arjona’s Facebook page some days before the performance. During those days, she posted several quotes related to silence and the process of her performance.

[2] Misinformation attributing this attack to FARC still circulates. The event has been manipulated to further polarize the Colombian armed conflict. See: https://www.clasesdeperiodismo.com/

Around midnight on May 15, 2000, three men entered Ana Elvia Cortés de Pachón’s house in the Chiquinquirá municipality, Boyacá, Colombia, and forcibly placed a bomb around her neck. They left a recording with her husband in which they requested fifteen million Colombian pesos within 10 hours. If the couple denounced them, their family would pay the consequences. Although the deed was attributed to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia –Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP) [2], it was perpetrated by ordinary delinquents, marking a level of cruelty never seen before. Ana Elvia and her husband were humble farmers in a place that until that moment was very quiet. Many neighbors heard the news of the bomb from the radio and went to her house while members of the army’s bomb squad and the police tried to deactivate the collar. They tried to deactivate it for hours, made to feel longer by the presence of witnesses and the media coverage, which recorded the woman, still alive, carrying that heavy and strange bomb. The image became a landmark of Colombian contemporary history. Eleven years later, Colombian artist María José Arjona returned to it as the starting point for “Right at the Center, There is Silence,” a performance that deviated from the brutality that the image recalls.

[3] The term indicates that it is an audiovisual material based on the performance but conceived by the artist as an artwork in that medium. "Right at the Center" shrank the performance experience to 5:41 mins and added the sound of the artist’s heartbeat while performing to the video.

In the performance, Arjona is surrounded by four microphone stands whose microphones have been replaced by razor blades. They threaten the performer’s neck, with only three millimeters between her and the blades. For six hours, she maintains her body perfectly upright. Any movement entails a risk, so the tension between concentration and exhaustion, mind and body, becomes palpable. The performance took place at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MoMCA), in the Croatian city of Rijeka, on two consecutive days, Nov 11-12, 2011. She is placed at the back of a gallery with two entrances. Although the walls on her right side and in front of her host monitors playing video art, she appears to be isolated in a white cube with plenty of empty space in her surroundings. As the museum visitors enter, they are surprised by a “living body” in the exhibition, surrounded by four microphone stands, as if the performer were about to sing. Once they get closer, they realize the subtle presence of the razors. Beneath her clothes is a microphone that records her heartbeat, a sound that she later added to a video performance. [3] “Justo al centro” [Right at the Center].

María José Arjona, "Right at the Center, There is Silence," 2011. Photo Sanjin Stanić. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMSU), Rijeka.

[4] Arjona relates her use of the term composition to music, subsequently highlighting
the relevance of time in her work as a means of transforming physical and emotional states. The composition of her performances works with pace, rhythm, rest, movement, and time. See: “The Collective Body: María José Arjona interviewed by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill.”

[5] The exhibition was part of El Proyecto Pentágono [The Pentagon Project], financed by the Colombian Ministry of Culture. It consisted of five exhibitions under the categories: 1) Video and Photography. 2) Arts of the Body. 3) Tri-dimensional Arts. 4) Drawing and Pictures. 5) Art, Fashion and Clothing. See: Investigaciones sobre arte en Contemporáneo en Colombia. Proyecto Pentágono. 2000.

Although Arjona’s approach to silence and some of its links to violence were tackled when the two days of performing were completed, they became part of the imprint for “Right at the Center.” The silence in the face of the neck bomb becomes a repressive and meditative force that is in the body, making her aware of the corporeality that some emotional reactions produce. She uses these reactions to compose her performances. [4] Her corporeal awareness comes from a combination of her training in classical ballet as well as in Deleuzian studies and performance art. As a little girl, she danced until she suffered an accident that prevented her from continuing her career. Then, she decided to study visual arts (1996), motivated by reading about a similar bodily pain that Frida Kahlo experienced that resulted in her unique artistic language. While at The Superior Academy of Arts of Bogotá, she studied with philosopher Consuelo Pabón. Pabón was influenced by Gilles Deleuze and was interested in the arts and the philosophy of the body, which contributed to Arjona’s decision to become a performance artist. In 2002, Pabón curated the exhibition Actos de Fabulación [Fabulation Acts] that aimed to show what distinguished the arts of the body in Colombia at that time. [5] Arjona performed her first durational work at this event, in which she also met pioneer Colombian performance artist María Teresa Hincapié, who later introduced her to an art gallery where Arjona performed her next piece (Rodríguez). The gallery space became another important element in her work; her performances, corporeal deployments within aseptic spaces, are usually set in white cubes or black boxes.

[6] It was a new era of greater security and background checks that involved many institutions beyond the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), which resulted in longer processes.

The power of violence to silence people and the spectacular treatment of violence in mass media motivated Arjona to leave Colombia. However, she didn’t leave these issues behind. After 9/11, the migratory cases of Colombian citizens and others from countries associated with terrorism in the United States were backlogged and Arjona felt extremely vulnerable. [6] She was in a migratory limbo, unable to travel. Later, when she obtained her residency, she established herself in New York and continued to reflect on the silent ways in which American violence operates. In contrast to how violence operates in Latin America, it is not about dismembered bodies, kidnappings, or physical aggressions aimed at profit or political power. In the United States, violence is racialized and is publicly visible in the actions of the police and the authorities, as the video of George Floyd’s detention in 2020 showed. Or, it acts silently, hidden in the American dream, in the alienation of the individual, the pressure to succeed, and the overstimulation in cities like New York. These subtle elements intertwine with the type of silence that immigrants and displaced people self-impose to survive, to fit in, to learn, until they gain, if possible, a political voice, the power to speak out and be listened to. Democratic participation is often metonymically associated with the voice. Phrases such as “make your voice heard” equate the voice to expressions of individual or specific needs, preferences, opinions, and political standpoints. It is not the speech or what is said but the uniqueness of each individual voice that is taken to indicate how differences become political. That is why Arjona aims at the significance of having–or not having–a voice. If the voice is subjected to political rights, why not silence? What is the relationship of the voice to the body? The answers come from her journey in silence. The artist’s inquiry uncovered an exploration of her own body through the language of the audible.

María José Arjona, "Right at the Center, There is Silence," 2011. Photo Sanjin Stanić. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMSU), Rijeka.

[7] This idea also recalls “Hay que saberse infinito” [To be Known as Infinite] the title of the artist’s solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá (MAMBO) in 2018. The phrase seems to be the result of Arjona’s own reflection, as such it was quoted in Lepecki, André. “On Making Ethical Matter: Magical Politics in the Art of María José Arjona.” María José Arjona. El sonido del cuerpo. 2017, p13.

[8] Barthes also referred to the figures that he created to explain the neutral as traits and twinklings. He employed them as a way of breaking the tension between binaries and reach a possible third language.

In “Right at the Center”, Arjona is a voiceless stance that appears as a direct response to what is not yet communicable. She works on establishing a neutral presence, one that results from consciously using a long durational practice to turn the fatigue of the performance labor into a basic state of the living. In The Neutral (2005), Roland Barthes considers this kind of fatigue as the opposite of death, “since death, the unthinkable definitive ≠ fatigue, the infinitude but livable in the body.” [7] By examining the figures of weariness and silence that Barthes envisioned as neutral forms, [8] Arjona unveils a presence that comes from exhaustion, as in a slow delivery where things are reborn. She takes forces that inflict violence on the body and works with them as if they were malleable. She stops and transforms them, exploring the body’s living potential and power. “Right at the Center” arises from a tense body in perceptual alertness to violence, which then moves towards the neutrality of quietness. Thus, silence turns into a corporeal experience, a sensorial system that neutralizes the power of speech and the power of some languages over others. Arjona’s muted body works with the audible and the distribution of the sensible as if it were exploring another language. One that embraces whispers, tremors, gestures, visions, emotions, and all other corporeal forms of communication.

In the MoMCA’s photographic archive, Arjona appears isolated. From afar, her image suggests solemnity and reification. Nothing happens and time passes, and then a viewer gets closer and notices the four razors. He steps backward and tells the others in the audience. According to Arjona, that tension was the starting point of the performance. She felt it. Her silence was crucial in order to listen to the others, process their sounds, the sensations that produce their presence, and respond with quietness. Consequently, it was also about not reacting, again returning to a silence that little by little was transformed into an endurance. The artist was committed to avoiding blood, wounds, and drama. She aimed to direct silence to the audience, making them responsible (and aware) for their (re)actions. To that end, she created a scenario that put on hold the forces of aggression in order to direct the beholders’ gaze towards her body, her presence, her breathing. The performance defined a space greater than the one delimited by the microphone stands. There, the artist’s body was clearly separated from the social interactions that were happening around her, as if she were a living object of study. However, even while not speaking and barely moving, she controlled the action.

The performer does not try to escape or throw down the stands that hold the razors that threaten her. She simply abandons any effort to fight, and imposes only her physicality, her being as a sheer matter of power while surviving and thriving. Thus, her stillness articulates a long lasting and remarkable silence that she eloquently addresses to the audience. It acts as if it were a sensorial language connecting bodies through incorporeal connections. Untouched by the razors, the artist remains in the same position, which suggests that to experience the performance, literally and metaphorically, the audience needs to change perspective. The performance provokes those present “to see” what will happen and, in that sense, draw an attention that is not only a matter of staring at her, but of looking at her in different moments, embodying the gaze, feeling her presence, her metaphysical state.

Dressed in black, surrounded by white walls, she is a living visual target that should be observed, but also a receptive body that can be affected by the intensities of emotional states of the “viewers.” She owns the time that the performance should last. Indeed, time is the source of her agency. It is because of the long time that she keeps silent doing nothing that the narratives of the performance or its silence turn into a kind of movement that seems to echo the steady transformation of the living as if it were a neutral instance of words and representations. No vantage points, reactions or states of being are addressed during the performance, they matter more in their own transitions than driving specific meanings. In this way, the performance explores a sensorial language that acts politically against doxa and normativity. Its nothingness, its prolonged state of stillness advocates for experiencing time in a non-productive manner (opposed to what modernity has imposed), as well as the right to be quiet.

In The Neutral, Roland Barthes argues that the right of speech, which has been intrinsic to the exercise of power, is also tied to the right to silence, including the right of not listening to others, which demands the right to nature’s peacefulness. This latter is threatened by politics, it is a right that can’t make itself heard. However, as in Arjona’s performance, it acts politically because it contributes to cleaning up the noises and pollutants produced by the accumulation of speeches and representations. The right to be quiet, looking for the peace of nature is rooted in the Latin verb silere: stillness, which along with the Latin verb tacere: verbal silence, seems to trace the Western origins of the concept of silence. Silere refers to the silence of nature and divinity while tacere refers to silence within speech, although Barthes warns that there is no longer silence outside speech, “nature is so to speak sacrificed to speech”. Therefore, silere becomes tacere, except in poetry or when referencing creation myths. Then, the demand to be silent, the right to be quiet is the right to tacere. Silence, then, could be a tactic to outplay oppressions, intimidations, the dangers of speaking, and a stop of judging and speaking mentally. In that way, silence works as a focused mediation in search of silere. In “Right at the Center,” the right to be quiet, of paralyzing the performativity that demands to fit in a society, becomes an exercise of feeling others, listening not to their words, but perceiving their vibrations, voices, and intensities as part of the interconnectedness of nature. In that sense, it is a search for silere.

[9] Here is the original verse and its English translation: “jah urreisands gasok winda jah qaþ du marein: gaslawai, afdumbn! jah anasilaida sa winds jah warþ wis mikil [And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm]”

[10] Mayan-K’iche’ linguist Enrique Sam Colop, who translated the Popol Wuj based on the reading of the manuscript found by friar Francisco Ximénez in the 16th century, and the comparison of an array of sources, employed the term Wuj instead of Vuh. In the Mayan-K'iche' oral tradition, wuj refers to mythical stories and had already been used by other scholars.

Unlike Barthes, American essayist George Prochnik looks at the roots of silence in the English-speaking world. Annoyed by the noises in New York, he starts a journey in pursuit of silence that leads him to associate it with the interruption of something, a stop, “a step backward from the tussle of life.” Prochnik traces the origins of silence to the Gothic verb anasilan, the wind dying down, and the Latin verb dēsinere, to stop, to cease. In the Gothic Bible of the fourth century, anasilan denotes that the wind ceases to blow as synonymous with calm and stillness. [9] Like dēsinere, it indicates a stop that aims to portray the peace of nature, the force of the living associated, in this case, with the power of the Christian God. However, silence as stillness also appears at the beginning of the sacred Mayan book Popol Wuj, which recounts the mythology and history of the Kʼicheʼ people. [10] Therefore, an act of long-lasted stillness, as in “Right at the Center,” is an attempt to go beyond tacere. It is a bodily effort to communicate only through a sensorial language as if, in doing so, the body could peel off the resonances of sentences, phrases and reconnect with the ancestral forces that link it to the stillness of nature, anasilansilere.

María José Arjona’s performance radically exercises the right to be quiet and takes it towards the abandonment of the personal. It is not about herself as a subject, her person or María Elvia Cortés de Pachón’s history, although these representations were set before the performance and made up a cultural body that cannot be easily delinked from the artist herself. As Barthes points out, speech aims to control nature and also pollute it. Therefore, in order to detach from the narratives associated with identities that preconditioned it, Arjona’s performance almost reproduces a state of human stillness that could be equated to the image of the wind dying down, employed by Prochnik. In that direction, it could be understood as a travel towards the relational forces that link the network of the living. In that way, “Right at the Center” contributes to “cleaning” the pollution of the verbal and visual narratives of violence that haunt everyday life as well as the performance practice. By going back to the sensing process of the human body, the performance carries words, signs and semiotic paradigms away from the social to an ephemeral point where they no longer make sense anymore until they are born again. Unnoticed, the performer and the audience make contact, feel each other, generate, perhaps, retain some images, thoughts, and sensual memories that are not the result of fighting against the world of representations and their values. On the contrary, they come from an exchange with a still body that subtly displaces the forces of violence and aggression, as portrayed in Arjona’s video performance.

[11] See: Lepecki, André. Singularities. Dance is the Age of Performance, 2016, and “The Collective Body. María José Arjona Interviewed by Cecilia Fajardo-Hill. Performance as Poetry of Long Duration.” www.bombmagazine.com 21 May. 2018 https://bombmagazine.org/articles/the-collective-body-maria-jos%C3%A9-arjona-interviewed/

Scholars and art curators A. Lepecki and Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, have considered that the sensorial language that Arjona creates turns into a unique form of political resistance because of its refusal to be captured within the notion of the subject and identity. [11] I would add that it is also because of the way that she apparently uses her labor force to produce nothing. She detaches the life experience from the modern regulations of time, efficiency, and productivity to step back and place the body among the archaic forces of nature by seeking to sync the body with sensorial states rather than stable meanings. Arjona positioned herself against the shock tactics that pervaded much Colombian and Latin American art. The recurring mechanisms of violence in performance emptied the possibilities of the corporeal. She decided to leave her country seeking opportunities to develop her career beyond violence and its culture. She wanted to resist it. In doing so, she experienced the adversity of migration and the imposition of identity labels derived from cultural and national stereotypes. Nevertheless, she challenged them silently through conscious and coordinated actions. Her silence performs. Silence performs. It involves all the senses. It is a time full of perceptions, thoughts, feelings that frame the communicative force of the body. In that light, as Barthes argues, silence can be also a political right; the right of not having a voice because there is a need to listen and connect with what has not yet become audible. Having or not having a voice is equally political. While the first claims social recognition and confronts the state, the second reassures the performativity of making sense and meaning. It points towards a shift, a change of perception that also claims to be perceived and to become part of what makes sense socially. Through silence, artists and citizens explore their body, their sensory perception and embodied behaviors, which often disrupts the agreement between perception and meaning that fuels the norms, subtly transforming the social and the political.

María José Arjona, "Right at the Center, There is Silence," 2011. Photo Sanjin Stanić. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMSU), Rijeka.


This work is abstracted from Véliz’ dissertation “Silences in Performance Art. Liveness in the Americas in the 21st Century” (2021).

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