Silence can say 1,000 words

Story by Monica Baltich

Buzzing traffic, stifled coughing and quiet murmuring are all noises that make up silence, noises that people don’t normally pay attention to until they’re forced to listen or see them from a new perspective.

Using this idea for inspiration, UW- Eau Claire students and faculty created a new art exhibit entitled “Exchange of Silence” that utilizes multimedia to draw attention to those subtleties.

Jyl Kelley, an assistant professor of photography at Eau Claire, and Min Kim Park, a visiting professor of art at St. John’s University in Minnesota, developed the project together and were inspired to bring this idea to their students. Art, sculpture, photography and digital installation students at both universities worked under the same theme, and Kelley said she was pleased with the result.

Park also thought students in her art classes, who were not art majors, should get a chance to display their work and show off their unique views.

“This kind of thing never happens at St. John’s, so I thought it would be interesting to see how my students, who are non-majors, put on a show,” she said. “To see the perspectives of different disciplines like nursing or business majors would be different.”

However, she didn’t want to tackle this new technique alone, so she called on her best friend Kelley to help her organize a collaborative effort between the two schools.

“So many ideas came from the inspiration of silence, and it gave the students a lot more venues than just a video or sculpture class,” Kelley said. “St. John’s students had a lot more performance-type work and ours were more structural. You just see how unique everyone’s perspective is.”

One installation made by Eau Claire students includes about 10,000 bright orange and green hanging strings (see photo below), which sway and move either with the air conditioner in the room or simple movements in the air.

Eau Claire junior Kelsey Kocvara worked on the project and liked the reaction people seemed to have when they looked at the bright colors and gentle movements.

“The green and orange are bright and they kind of clash; it affects the senses,” she said. “But also, even though you think nothing is moving, the air is still there and you see it when it affects the strings.”

Jason Lanka, assistant professor of art and design at Eau Claire, worked with the students in the more structural aspects of their pieces and said the string piece really captured the subtleties of the world around us.

“It shows that we’re not even aware of things, like air, that move through spaces where we live and work,” he said. “I think this really breaks down the subtle relationships in what we see and why we see and how we see.”

Kelley said other artists influenced the students and said she was particularly inspired by contemporary composer, John Cage. In a well known piece called “4’33”,” he organized a piano concert, walked on stage, opened the piano and then sat in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. He intentionally did this to pick up on every sound the audience was making as they grew impatient, which helped people realize there is noise even in what they consider silence.

Kelley and Lanka had their students do certain exercises to get inspired. The students put on blindfolds and just sat and listened to noises they would not normally pay attention to.

“The exercise to blindfold them was great because once we did, the ideas kept flowing out,” Kelley said. “There were so many ideas and the projects just began to take form.”

Another piece in the exhibition explores the issue of being desensitized to violence. It pairs violent imagery with implied violent language from cartoon songs in a constant sequence.

Eau Claire junior Megan Byron worked on the piece and said she hopes it will help people realize how much violence is really out there that people don’t always notice.

“I think it shows how we separate ourselves from violence,” she said. “We see it so often but not usually one after another. This helps people to see what kind of impact it has.”

Patrick Mcloone, a senior management major at St. John’s, said he really enjoyed collaborating with the students at Eau Claire and said he learned a lot from their more structural pieces versus his more digital-based one.

“Because all the students here were in a digital installation class, most of ours were technology based,” he said. “But looking at Eau Claire’s pieces, which were more structurally based, we could see how they applied the same theme to a different medium.”

Byron said she thought it was great to see the collaboration work well and she hopes the people who come to the exhibit will take a more introspective look at art and the world around them.

“I think people will come away with a different understanding of art,” she said. “It can make you think in a different medium, that it’s not just something that hangs on a wall.”