I recently released the final episode of Sound of Silence – the world’s first silent podcast featuring special guests. It was a two-and-a-half-year project that saw me broadcast 100 episodes of silence that I had recorded face to face with a plethora of people. (The collected silence has now been turned into a weirdly addictive interactive exhibition at www.soundofsilence.org.uk)
As with most of my projects I didn’t fully understand what it was about until it was completed. Whilst I had an intention right from the start to experiment with a silent podcast I had no other defined objectives or ambitions. I like to think that this absence of defined objectives means my projects can lead me by the hand to magical places that I would never have taken them had I been in charge.
Reflecting back on the podcast there are many memories, insights and questions about the nature of silence and human interaction that I will write about elsewhere. But I also found that reflecting on one of the longest projects I have undertaken meant I got a deeper insight into my own creative process. I’ve always resisted trying to make sense of how my mind works in case doing so means that it doesn’t work that way anymore. But reflecting on Sound of Silence has actually helped me notice a number of principles or philosophies or practices that seem to have been present in my work for many years and this actually feels quite helpful. The one that has really intrigued me and catalysed this blog is what I like to call Provocative Absence.
I think of Provocative Absence as the intentional removal of something that is habitually present but we are not necessarily fully aware of. For example, imagine that a constant but very subtle humming noise suddenly stops and you only become aware that it was there through its sudden absence. The disturbance occurs when the absence is noticed and we experience a weird moment of confusing counter-point – “Eh? Did something just stop?” It is an absence that provokes something in us. An absence that causes a momentary interruption to our habitual flow of awareness. I now realise that this concept is something that has been present in much of my work. In Sound of Silence the provocative absence was the removal of content from the medium of podcasting. In Inexpert 2018 it was the removal of expertise and tangible take-aways from the tradition of conferences. In my Alternative Book Club it is the removal of books from a book club. Ideally this blog about provocative absence would have no words within it to fully embody the concept!
Looking beyond these conceptual art projects it has been present elsewhere. In facilitation I have always been fond of removing traditional but inhibiting structures in order to stimulate creativity and encourage a group to work things out for themselves. (The Lab is a long-running experiment in nurturing this.) In talks and interviews I am keen to remove anything that might be construed as an “answer” in favour of inviting the audience to make their own sense of the subject matter. And in the extensive dialogue facilitation work that Claire Genkai and I undertook a few years back, the dialogic process (as described by David Bohm) removes the illusionary comfort blanket of consensus, agreement and script from difficult and delicate cultural change work.
It is also the way in which I best learn. The most profound and memorable learning experiences have been when I’ve been invited into a space of dissonance and confusion provoked by the absence of something I didn’t know I habitually expected. At Ashridge I was invited to make my own sense of the world for the first time through a number of experiences that didn’t always make sense or have any logical link to the subject matter. My greatest insights on the Hoffman process came from the lengthy periods of silence that gently held me back from my habitual response of dampening my discomfort through escaping into conversation. And I still have no idea what the best ever workshop that I attended back in 2019 was about!
As somebody interested in creativity and the power of counter-point this concept fascinates me. The weirdness and unfamiliarity we experience through the absence of something that we didn’t even realise we habitually expected invites us into what gestaltists call the fertile void. A vivid encounter with a creative but often confusing emptiness from which fresh awareness can unfurl. And what feels particularly exciting is that, whilst we may have some control and influence over what we look to remove, what emerges from the fertile void it creates will always be wildly diverse and largely unpredictable. And that feels like a potent form of creative experimentation.