Tom Varley: The Sound of Silence

For New Work Scotland Tom Varley is getting back to basics with words and pictures. We chat to him about violins, lemons and what silence sounds like

Feature by Jac Mantle | 02 Apr 2013

If you’ve ever visited a country where you had no prior knowledge of the language, it might have seemed like a completely random amalgam of characters and sounds that you were at a loss to make sense of. Tom Varley is engaged by the idea that this is exactly what language is, even as it articulates the most advanced and complex thought of modern society.

“I’m interested in the ways in which sound or technology reveals the essential abstractness of language – how’s it just a collection of shapes that are only happening because there’s a consensus about them by a community of people who all speak the same language,” he says.

Varley has just held a show in the Glasgow Project Room, which included a work made from audio footage of medical examinations of patients suffering from receptive aphasia. Sufferers’ speech is superficially fluent but they are unable to use or understand more than the most basic nouns and verbs. The found footage features patients repeating words after the doctor. Some have no discernible difference in pronunciation, while others replicate sounds or letters but have been morphed into a different word entirely.

“Just the idea of it seemed like a really powerful reminder of how arbitrary language is and how you take it for granted,” says Varley. “There are moments when you’re reminded of what it actually is, how you’re just generating sound waves and stimulating nerves in people’s brains. It’s crazy, really.”

For his show at Collective, Varley is making a film loosely based on the footage but not specifically related to Aphasia. It takes the form of a filmic alphabet of words and objects, something like the picture dominoes you’ll recall from childhood. Actors recreate the spoken exchange, the first voice naming what’s on the screen and the second repeating it, but with some skew or variation.

“They’re all different but what I would like to achieve with all of them is some poetic circuit,” says Varley. “You get a sense that there’s some test or game happening, but you don’t completely understand. The first three objects are quite ‘straight,’ but as the piece develops, there’s a real slip between what you see and what they’re saying. You question if it’s accurate.”

A violin becomes ‘Violence,’ becomes ‘Silence,’ referencing a work by Bruce Nauman and supplying the film’s title – Violins Violence Silence. Filmed entirely in Varley’s studio using objects he found to hand, the indexical structure of the alphabet offers a way of bringing together things he’s been reading about without necessarily suggesting concrete links between them.

Shot in 16mm against a flat coloured background, the images look something like flash cards from the 1970s. Aptly, jelly features, along with a contact lens, some sheet music and a lemon. The latter references the lemon in Structuralist film Zorns Lemma (1970), which Varley cites as a key influence. The famously long experimental film by Hollis Frampton combines an epic poem with progressively more random moving images, eventually abstracting the whole alphabet into 24 arbitrary scenes. “My work will be that-meets-Sesame Street,” Varley reassures me.

Unlike Varley, Frampton was without the luxury – or perhaps the obligation – of endlessly re-editing and reworking footage. “I am an artist who likes to revisit, so working with a format that doesn’t allow for that in the same way is really helpful. As for using film rather than video – it does look beautiful, and I think that’s totally fine.”

New Work Scotland Programme Shona Macnaughton | Tom Varley, Collective Gallery, Edinburgh, 6 April-5 May. Preview 5 Apr, 7pm-9pm