I at once had the idea of inviting more guests, asking each one to design a different soundscape for the room. This introduced an aspect of research into the work from the beginning, although the form of research was altered when my first guest did not want to be ‘free’, and we began making the soundtrack together. Instead of comparing finished soundscapes, I now focused on one soundtrack and its almost imperceptible details.
Already prior to this work, I had been interested in dialogue as a genre in writing, and I initially planned to edit the discussions between Virtamo and myself into a text. I had also used dialogue in a few artworks, although I had not tried recording as a medium. For The Lovers’ Bed and Words Left Behind, I gathered lines from telephone conversations and from Marguerite Duras’ novel The North China Lover (Editions Gallimard, 1991). In Helene (2003), artist Hannele Rantala and I wrote down discussions we had had when looking at paintings by Helene Schjerfbeck (1862–1946), and in Kitchen Conversations I recollected things said around the kitchen table in my home. On the basis of these experiences, I was intrigued in particular by the sense of lightness arising from the rhythm and structure of speech. I hoped that dialogue would give me an opportunity also in research to write without using weighty propositions, in a more allusive way.
When the video was finished, I transcribed the discussions word by word, and began editing them into a more readable form. Silence became a central theme of the text from the outset, because it was the thing the conversations kept returning to again and again. At the end of the text I suggest that silence might also be the ‘research question’. The suggestion remains without a response because it is directed at the reader, and it is not the case that Virtamo seize the idea in real life. Artistic research was not his passion, at least not when Room was made, but rather my ‘thing’. I am certain it made the division of labour clearer between us. In any case, our roles were rather conventional: I had commissioned the work, and the sound designer sought to realise my wishes. The exceptional thing about the project was how much time it took – we spent nine months perfecting a nine-minute soundtrack. We did not work actively on it all that time, of course, but we did have time to experiment and to consider different options at length. Another charming aspect of our cooperation was that the work was truly ‘homemade’, with no great financial or technical resources. The recordings that called for absolute silence were made by Virtamo at nighttime upstairs in his grandfather’s house in a space that was like a sound-insulated studio.
Although silence became the foremost theme in the writing process, there are other recurring motifs in the dialogue. One of them is the ‘contest’ between Virtamo and me over the issue of abstract and concrete (or realistic) sound. It may derive from the different basic character of sound and image, because, as Virtamo points out, sound is intrinsically immaterial. Personal preferences were also involved: Virtamo said he liked to create abstract sounds in which you can discern a tone, whereas I was fascinated by ordinary rustlings and clinkings. The slow movement of the crossfades introduces another concept – the sacred – which is subsequently replaced by the word ‘poetic’. In a similar fashion, the green plastic carrier bag in one shot becomes a symbol for the everyday or mundane. It is interesting to note how much of the conversation consists of the effort to define concepts, and how hard the speakers have to work to ensure that words mean the same thing for them. By the same token, I have not considered it necessary to define concepts again in, say, footnotes. Using the word ‘slurp’ to illustrate abstraction is in any case much better than any dictionary definition.
The result of the negotiation between the abstract and the realistic is ultimately a kind of synthesis – the abstraction of realism. Although the sounds in the work are recognisable sounds issuing from everyday objects, they are not used in a realistic way. It is at times unclear whether a sound issues from external or internal reality, and if the source of the sound is in the picture – such as the spool of thread – the sound is not heard in sync, but first when the image is already fading. There is also another theme in the text that involves abstraction: the need to maintain separation between sound and image. This was something Virtamo wanted to change subsequently. In particular the line where he speaks about the unwritten rules of sound design, caught his attention. ‘It sounds as if I were saying that sound and image should always be separate,’ he said, ‘although good sound design consists of making sounds that fit the work in question.’ I myself was not bothered by the phrase about unwritten rules, because I recognised the ideal immediately from the world of experimental cinema. Who would merely want to ‘illustrate’ pictures with sound? But it is true that sometimes the need to avoid such illustrative use of sound can acquire almost comical aspects. This happens in our dialogue when we consider how or whether to include a sound for the clock in the video. ‘It creates a kind of Hollywood association,’ says Virtamo, ‘if you have an alarm clock on the table and you can hear it ticking.’ In reality, however, the clock in the shot does not tick, because it is an electric clock. But the grip of Hollywood is so strong it takes a long time before we grasp the fact, although the power cable behind the clock is clearly visible in the picture.
In the introduction I remark that the first and the second part of the dialogue are more or less faithful to the original, whereas the third part is edited like a jigsaw puzzle from four different conversations. The third part can also be regarded as a kind of reconstruction of conversations with Virtamo, because some of the recordings had disappeared. I began the reconstruction by assembling from the remaining recordings all the lines that involved some particular topic. Folders appeared on my computer with names like ‘Steps’, ‘Cups’, ‘Vacuum cleaners’, and so on. I then tried to write the lines into an authentically sounding dialogue. There was a lot of material, however, and I had difficulty trying to decide in what order to present the themes. Finally I checked the order in which the sounds appear in the finished work, and used the same structure for the dialogue. The jigsaw puzzle in the third part of the dialogue is thus a detailed image of the final piece, although in the dialogue the work is still unfinished.
In the introduction I also point out that the process of assembling the third part was not unlike the process of editing video that left me with the question of how much research data can be manipulated. As a matter of fact, this applies to the entire dialogue, because the situation with the third part made me take ever greater liberties also in the first two parts of the text. For example, I began abridging the lines heavily, or dividing them into several lines, because this enhanced the impression of lightness. From a research perspective, the aim of achieving lightness may of course seem contradictory. Can lightness be analytical? Or does research need those ‘heavy propositions’ I was hoping to be rid of by using dialogue? Regarding whether editing is allowed or not, I think it is essential to distinguish between research data and result. In this work, the recordings represented the data, which I transliterated verbatim and entered into my archive. The finished, edited dialogue is not data, but a result. It is a consciously constructed entity the purpose of which is to articulate Room and the process of its making through the use of colloquial dialogue.
What, finally, is my ‘research question’? My view of the research question is just as practical as my view of artistic research: I feel that every work presents its own question to me. For the most part, the question does not exist prior to the work, but develops in the course of its making. The research question can also change, or there can be many such questions. When I was making Room, the primary question that emerged from the project was how to express with sound the silence following the mother’s death. I was also fascinated by dialogue as a writing genre – could it be used for the purposes of analysis? On the whole, I am interested in the process of creating a work of art: how artistic decisions are made, how sound affects the image in particular cases, how the sound of a vacuum cleaner winding down becomes a dying breath. That process is also the thing that I, as an artist, am most familiar with and which I can therefore describe to others examining the work from other perspectives.
My artistic processes seem to lead me into a dialogue with a field of art or life I am not familiar with. In my previous work (Tango Lesson) that unfamiliar element was empirical science, and the dialogue took place through research literature. By contrast, the dialogue in Room consists of real discussions with a sound designer I had invited as a ‘guest’ to the work. Because of the format I chose, the text contains no direct references to other artists or writers. The original, unedited discussions did include mentions of some artworks, but as I was editing the text, I felt the remarks remained disconnected. Writing the afterword, I felt that a review of artworks addressing silence would be an entirely different topic, one whose place is not in this essay in which my research interest focuses on the process of the making of the work, not its contextualisation.
In my view, the ‘findings’ of research can be concepts, revisions or metaphors. One such finding in the discussions between Virtamo and myself is the green plastic bag, which helps us understand the difference between the sacred and the mundane. Another fascinating moment is when echo and light come together in the second part of the dialogue. Sunlight hitting a nail on the wall – or rather the shadow cast by the nail – suddenly appears to me like a visual echo, which ‘makes [the object] a lot bigger’. I would hardly have had this association without the dialogue with the sound designer.
After Virtamo, the work had another guest from the Theatre Academy Helsinki when Pauli Riikonen, who studied at the Department of Lighting and Sound Design, made a second soundtrack for the piece as an exercise. This time I did not participate in the sound design at all, nor did Riikonen hear Virtamo’s version before making his own. Yet there was much that was the same in the two versions. For instance, Riikonen had left in a long silent sequence around the middle of the piece – what I call ‘dead sound’ in the dialogue. To balance the silence, he used an intense, undulating sound which I initially interpreted as an electric drill, but which turned out to be entirely artificial noise. In the midst of the noise, you could hear familiar details such as a door banging or steps.
The most interesting thing about the experiment has been to observe my own reaction to one particular element in Riikonen’s soundtrack. The sound was very quiet, hardly perceptible piano playing, and to my astonishment I was deeply moved by it. My reaction was all the more surprising because I had always said that I do not want any emotionally appealing music in my works. Riikonen’s piano was not sentimental, however, it simply sounded like someone practising a piano lesson next door. Giving a free hand to the sound designer made me experience something that would not have been possible had he asked me for my opinion. Based on this experience, I am willing to return to my original idea of alternative soundtracks, and invite new visitors to Room. The mother’s former bedroom has become a guest room.
Translation: Tomi Snellman
Saloranta’s video works can be seen on the website of Av-arkki – the Distribution Centre for Finnish Media Art.