Orchestrating Silence 


The hand up in the air, slightly waving and then turning into a fist began to spread as a common code, specifically applied in the presence of, or hope for, life in a particular space. In the rescuing areas, the fists-up gesture became part of a common language within a day following the earthquake. It was quickly learned by those involved in the rescue areas, becoming as necessary as gloves and helmet. People began to orchestrate silence, an act that can be thought of both as similar to or the opposite of conducting music. We may think of songs of labor, working people singing to synchronize their movements in order to become one body. But how could silence become a similar driving force of organization in labor? The need for silence to become collective and communal gave rise to the fists-up gesture, a simple, efficient signal to instigate silence through a multitude of fists rising up in the air, similar yet also in opposition to how a single conductor leads musicians. Innumerable people both signaled for silence and stilled their own noise production, at the same time both conductor and performer, a performance that required attention and pause in activity. The few improvised, necessary scores became the cardboard signs with “SILENCIO” written on them, with the image of a fist quickly replacing the word. These signs scored a “listening for” or “listening out” more than a “listening to,” hoping for those sounds which, once audible, would point to life and location. 

As the media and social networks spread images of the fists-up signal and how it engendered silence, its use became recognized beyond the disaster areas. Two days after the earthquake, the BBC showed in its online version a selection of short videos under the title – Mexico earthquake: Why are rescuers clenching their fists – in which viewers across the world could see brief instants of fists being raised in the air, multiplying, and then hear how the loudness of urban noise and rescuing noise would decrease, allowing silence to arise. Another post on CNN, just one day after the earthquake, mentioned the fists-up gesture, underlining the importance of silence to listen for survivors.

In Silence as Gesture Kris Acheson reflects on the nature of humanly produced silence, our perception of it and how we translate it to language: 

People metaphorically think of silences as objects that we can ‘break,’ ‘feel the weight of,’ and ‘cut with a knife.’ We often also speak of silence, not as space to be filled, but as a substance filling space itself – a room, a church, or a forest. Silence seems sometimes a palpable force that hangs in the air. Furthermore, when more than an environmental attribute, when humanly produced, silence, like spoken language, seems to emanate from people, moving out through the air around them toward others just as would waves of sound. (Acheson 2008: 545–6)

The silence during the rescue activities was often described as above: a silence that had weight and density. It was also a silence that waited, acted, and listened, a human ear casting about for particular signs. A very particular experience of underground and invisibility came into being with the earthquake, the fallen buildings and ruins. Locating life had to happen through acoustic knowledge that depended also on the orchestration of silence. For human ears, the audibility of life sounds was continually mediated by the fierce silence created by the fists-up gesture; it became a conduit, a means of transmission for life sounds.