Some ideas or concepts enter this world fully formed. Others elude or even resist definition, develop slowly over time, never quite reach a singular, definitive form and only ever exist in the here and now: as chance, as an opportunity.
I first thought of developing a series of Silent Lectures in the spring of 2016. At the time, I was still living in London. The UK had gone through a prolonged period of government-imposed austerity (welfare cuts etc), the pro-European camp was losing the Brexit debate and referendum, and although I had been active politically and well connected, I felt utterly helpless, unable to do anything about any of this.
These early Silent Lectures therefore, to some extent, were expressions of failure, both at a personal and at a collective or societal level. All that could have been said it seemed, had been said – to no avail. Although this series was never realised, the idea of silent gatherings as performative events stayed with me.
When during the pandemic in the fall of 2021 I returned to this idea, I was in a very different, a much better place, both physically and mentally. I had relocated to Berlin in 2018, was in the process of launching Reboot2030, the Democracy School’s YouTube channel and had begun rebuilding my practice as a theatre director and artist.
What I had in mind this time was a very different proposition. The Silent Lectures of 2016, although silent, are ‘scripted’ events and come with ‘directions’ for how to ‘stage’ them. Taken together they tell a story in seven ‘acts’.
The Silent Lectures of 2021 (see unruhe.eu/silent-lectures and silentlectures.org/about) display none of these features. They are individual acts of solidarity, highlighting peaceful struggles around the world in a celebration of our shared humanity. Their main purpose is to unite, to nourish and to amplify.
To inaugurate this new series, I decided to host a Silent Lecture on silence itself at the Holocaust Memorial, the ‘Stelenfeld’, in Berlin, Germany. I picked this site partly because of its centrality for Germany's relationship to its past (its culture of remembrance) and partly because I have been thinking a lot about silence lately and couldn't think of a better place for a Silent Lecture on that subject.
To promote the event, I wrote to around ninety, mainly local arts organisations and NGOs and to the press. I also tried to engage with the Jewish community and invited members of that community to participate.
However, the response I received was dismal. No one, except for a very few groups and individuals, seemed at all interested and I was beginning to wonder whether my invitation to gather in silence would be met… with silence?
In the end, nine people did follow my invitation, so that a group of ten souls gathered at the Holocaust Memorial on 19 June, unsure about what to expect.
I had visited the Stelenfeld (the Memorial) previously and was struck by the sheer power of the place, how the acoustics, the light, the temperature, the ‘energy’, everything changes as one moves deeper and deeper into it. Anticipating a small turn-out, I therefore had decided to place this Silent Lecture at the centre of the field, deep inside the grid as it were, rather than on its periphery.
This turned out to be the right decision as the interior of the Stelenfeld offered some welcome protection from the scorching sun (the temperature on the day reached 35c outside of the Stelenfeld, whereas inside of it, it was noticeably cooler), whilst sheltering us from the inquisitive gaze of others passing by.
Still, when I welcomed the small band of people that had come to join me in silence, I was worried. To my mind, up until that point, Silent Lectures were also about size. The larger the group of participants, the bigger their potential impact both inwardly (on the group) and outwardly (in the community).
As it so happened, that wasn’t the case, at least not as far as the impact of the Silent Lecture on the group of participants was concerned. Although size obviously is a factor, when it comes to Silent Lectures, small isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The small size of the group allowed us to bond effectively surprisingly quickly, even though we were a hyper-diverse, heterogeneous group that included Arabs, Asians, Europeans and North Americans, Atheists, Christians, Jews and Muslims, artists and scientists, as well as activists, managers and technologists.
“We only met five minutes before and most of the time I had my eyes closed but I felt there was a connection and I felt the presence of all your bodies and it was somehow intense.”
The small group-size also meant that the Stelenfeld, the site where this Silent Lecture took place, was given a great deal more room and therefore played a far more dominant role in people's active engagement with the subject of silence than would have been the case (or even possible) with a large group.
Hence, during the subsequent discussion we talked more than I had expected about ourselves and about our physical engagement with and sensual experience of the site: about its architecture, its surfaces and its micro-climate, about the smells and sounds we noticed in the background, the wind, environmental noises and the multitude of languages spoken by other visitors.
“With the silence, I paid attention to the voices, languages [around me]. I thought this is a place that brought all these different people together… So, there was something really powerful about that noise that at first bothered me. I thought, “God, this is really distracting me”, and I just listened to it and it became something quite beautiful… to feel this kind of connecting tissue that was all around us.”
It was a truly magical experience for us all, that created an intimate space for a sincere and open dialogue on silence and its consequences.
“The memorial was a very fitting choice. Because, what always struck me is you start low, and you start seeing these stones, and you start going deeper in. You feel what it must have felt like to live in that time, when all of a sudden… the world… everything seems… OK, there are some barriers, there are some problems… and then all of a sudden you are under water.”
Before we finished the discussion, I asked those present whether they thought the Silent Lecture concept and format were transferable, whether in their opinion they could work in other locations, with different topics and with larger groups? The answer was, as expected, a qualified yes.
If the focus of the Silent Lecture is on reflection, small groups of about ten people seem preferable. This is what we had and it worked really well. One way of accommodating larger numbers would be to break them down into a cluster of small groups and organise multiple Silent Lectures synchronously.
Otherwise, large gatherings could be powerful, for as long as they remain site-specific and focused on a single word or phrase to avoid morphing into something else, a vigil or a demonstration for example (both viable but different concepts).
It will be interesting to see how our understanding of the Silent Lecture concept evolves as we go on exploring it within different contexts around the world.