The Silence Project: The powerful Finnish art initiative reclaiming silence
By Lena Hunter | Photos: The Silence Project
The Silence Project is a celebrated initiative by the Finnish artist Nina Backman, that explores the concept of silence in urban spaces. Now in its tenth year, its experimental events, exhibitions and seminars have made it one of the most radical and relatable contemporary art projects in Europe.
“The Silence Project was initially inspired by Jokamiehenoikeus,” says Backman. Jokamiehenoikeus, or ‘Everyman’s Right’, is the Finnish law protecting the free access to nature and foraging – regardless of private property. “It means everyone has the right to nature and silence,” she explains. “Ten years ago was also when silent retreats became fashionable, and silence became commodified. From my Finnish perspective, it was bizarre.”
Juggling notions of silence as a luxury and silence as a right, Backman began to explore the idea in art. “Silence is a big part of my identity and my own practice. I think it’s essential if you want to create artwork. Silence contains the whole spectrum of human experience – from bliss to horror,” she says. It was such a large topic that she decided to set it up as a non-profit programme, and to invite other artists to collaborate. Today, The Silence Project has blossomed into a varied programme of international exhibitions, seminars and a series of poignant events.
In tandem, Backman has collected stories about how people in different cities experience silence for ten years. “Of course, silence doesn’t really exist – there’s always some form of sound. So we all experience it differently. Interestingly, in cities, many felt that noise is a kind of cocoon – that they are free because they are invisible,” she says. The stories unearthed the highly personal nature of the relationship between silence and freedom and, though Backman intended to use them in an app mapping silent spaces in urban centres, they instead fuelled the creation of perhaps the most captivating event in The Silence Project’s portfolio: The Silence Meal.
The Silence Meal
At these unique dinners – which Backman refers to as performances – guests dine in total silence. The Silence Meal was created for artists as a pre-opening for their exhibitions: “To give them an experience in silence while being surrounded by their artwork in the museums or galleries,” says Backman. But due to rampant public curiosity, occasional dinners are now open to everyone. “I’m careful with the venues. This is a special work of performance art,” says Backman.
Despite the simple premise, the event is compelling. “In silence, hierarchies die. Social identifiers that we’re usually attentive to – religion, culture or financial status – become obsolete. Instead, we access this very powerful, ancient and intuitive mode of human communication,” says Backman.
The Silence Meal has garnered a glowing response on the international art scene, but some of Backman’s favourite editions have taken place close to home. “We performed a Silence Meal in Berlin, where people sat all night and went for breakfast in the morning. That would only happen in Berlin!” she recalls. “We’ve performed it in some of the great Nordic venues like Punkt Ø – Galleri F15, and once at midnight, in a beautiful hall in Flagey in Belgium, to open the Arvo Pärt concert weekend. That was quite magical!”
A Million Trees to Finland
The Silence Project’s latest offshoot is called A Million Trees to Finland. “I wanted to create a forest for the Silence Project, but I didn’t have the land, so I settled on an event in which we would give out free seedlings,” says Backman. Quickly, the event snowballed into a series. “Maybe it was the right timing,” she muses. “Now, we plant trees together with museums, cities and counties. As I see it, we’re creating silent spaces by planting trees, where ideas and creativity can flourish.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Backman has been fielding attempts to politicise A Million Trees since. “When we started the tree project, almost all the political parties in Finland wanted to be connected to it,” she says. “I declined. But it gave me the idea to host a filmed Silence Meal with the name Silence Politicians, featuring well-known Finnish politicians, as a platform for raising money for a good cause. The idea is in development at the moment.”
In Backman’s hands, ideas are powerful and mobilising, as the ever-growing scope of The Silence Project demonstrates. This year, it was awarded the Most Innovative Social Art Initiative 2023 by the European Enterprise Award. Undoubtedly, Backman is grappling with a concept that taps directly into the environmental and social concerns of our modern age. We can all relate to silence.
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