Susan Hiller - Lost and Found

Documenta 2017 catalogue essay, Kassel, Germany

Susan Hiller's practice always takes us to the edges of the known world, to locations where our usual ways of mapping become hesitant, thinned. We are presented with the possibility that our accepted means of orientation are not authoritative but contingent and constructed, and that the maps we habitually rely on serve to mask or exclude other territories as much as they might describe or reveal them. Hiller reports from the very edges of understanding, from areas normally seen as inimical to consciousness and therefore 'unknowable'. Witness (2000) uses of alien contacts across intergalactic space, from people around the globe. Channels (2013) travels beyond the event horizon of death, relaying records of near-death experiences through the flicker of cathode tube television sets.

Language has a central role in Hiller's work, and The Last Silent Movie (2007) and Lost and Found (2016) use language to invoke Language itself as a specific cultural construction that contains and generates worlds. In The Last Silent Movie we hear recordings of extinct and endangered tongues. A stunning variety of sound-waves produced by the lungs and mouths of people, many of whom are now dead, seeks to trigger the neural responses of understanding and communication: but the language is dying or dead. Instead of understanding the sounds, our eyes have to read the meaning of the phrases, translated into a still dominant language, one that has been instrumental in the silencing of speakers of Lenape or Southern Sami.

Bearing witness to erasures and occlusions that unfolds in Hiller's practice is not a passive or romantic memorialisation. For Hiller, the act of representing, of bringing into view, is active and dissonant. It animates signals and information that run interference on dominant codes. Lost and Found continues her focus on language groups and their speakers, but now includes languages that might be leaving the archive to be spoken in the present and the future. As if to reinforce the physicality of these possible returns and survivals, a flexing green oscilloscope line tracks the sound made by the voiced plosives, fricatives and aspirations. This moving wave also acts as a synecdoche for the arena of technology itself, which, although the production of a dominant and flattening culture, also operates - with its spread and increasing digital perversity - as a platform used by the excluded and the marginalised for agency and expression. As a medium, technology allows the voices of the dead to be heard. On being heard, these voices return to the living to be mouthed, to articulate particular, specific, mappings and experiences of the worlds that these languages describe and contain.