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International conference – Keeping silent, listening, speaking up (France, 2020)

November 4 - November 6

International conference – Keeping silent, listening, speaking up: voice and silence in audience-response to arts and literature

November 4-6, 2020

Université de Lorraine, Nancy, France

In most Western cultures the convention has been that those who receive a work of art do so quietly: whether we look at readers, cinema goers or audiences attending live performances (in the theatre, the opera, …), silence appears as a common denominator and a primary condition of reception. However, contemporary artistic practices often work to challenge this prerequisite, as does a significant portion of academic research into matters of reception. What such work suggests is that audiences can never be considered as perfectly silent agencies. Their voices have a part to play within aesthetic processes – before and after the moment of encounter with a piece, but also in many cases during that very encounter, at the heart of the aesthetic experience itself. The aim of the conference Keeping silent, listening, speaking up: voice and silence in audience-response to arts and literature is to explore the issue of reception through the specific phenomenon of the spectator’s voice, which only exists and can only be understood in its dialectic tension with silence. We therefore invite our colleagues to listen to those silent and loud intervals that are among the primary components of any audience’s embodied response to a work of art.

This international conference organised by the members of the research pole « Voices and Silence in the Arts » from IDEA (Interdisciplinarity in Anglophone Studies), as well as members from the CERCLE, CRULH, and LIS labs at the University of Lorraine, and from the ERIBIA research team at University of Caen-Normandy, is part of a transdisciplinary project which has been investigating the dialectics of voice and silence in the arts since its inception in 2016. Besides its biannual seminar, the project convened a first international conference at the University of Lorraine in 2017 (14-17 June in Nancy), which focused on the processes of emission and utterance. The tension between voice and silence was approached through an understanding of vocal emission and breath, and an exploration of transitions between and intertwining of voices and silence, in literature as well as film, theatre, music, and in visual and performance arts. This led to the publication of a collection of essays entitled Voix et silence dans les arts : passages, poïèsis et performativité (2019). The aim of this second conference is to examine the issue from the complementary perspective of reception.

Despite conventional perceptions of silent readers and spectators, the notion that reception cannot be passiveis well documented. Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (1945) already proposed a theory of perception as activity. Within the field of semiotics, Umberto Eco theorised the ‘interpretive cooperation’ of the reader (1959). Theoreticians of reception from the Constance School, such as Jauss and Iser, paved the way for further investigation into how reception contributes to and shapes literary history. Before them, happenings by Dada forcefully and iconoclastically demonstrated the part that audiences have to play in the act of creation. More recently, Jacques Rancière has also contributed to deconstructing the ancestral image of audiences as passive receptacles by highlighting the work of a spectator who always observes, compares, interprets, and ‘makes his poem with the poem that is performed in front of him’ (‘The Emancipated Spectator’, Artforum, March 2007). Already in 1960 Marcel Duchamp stated his conviction
that a painting was a product of the onlooker’s work as much as the artist’s. It is also clear that the reader or spectator is not an abstract entity, but is defined by an embodied condition which plays a crucial part in the act of reception.
This was one of the most important conclusions that could be drawn from the practice of happenings and performance art. After a significant amount of research focused on the body of the artist, inspired in part by sociological approaches to creation, more recent work has turned to the bodies of those encountering the work of art. Among articles testifying to the emergence of this academic concern are Serge Proust’s investigations into the body of the spectator in the theatre (2005), and Anne-Marie Picard’s psychanalytical approach to the body of the reader (2010).

This conference on Keeping silent, listening, speaking up: voice and silence in audience-response to arts and literature means to apprehend the question of reception by bringing together an understanding of the act of reception and an analysis of our embodied condition as consumers of art. Its aim is to explore the physical manifestation of audiences’ active response as vocal outbursts alternate with moments of silently welcoming what is being presented. It will apprehend the act of reception from the perspective of those two indissociable, concrete phenomena that are voice and silence. The reader or spectator, envisaged as active and embodied subjects, will be seen to keep their peace and raise their voices, alternatively and inseparably. Topics might find some articulation with, but must by no means be restricted to, the following guidelines:

  • Questions concerning readers/viewers and reception cultures. In opting for diachronic and intercultural approaches, it will be possible to examine the evolution of the spectator’s/auditor’s/reader’s status and how he/she may have been compelled by literature and the other arts to remain silent or to be vocal. Looking at the contexts in which spectators or readers have been required to remain silent, it will be seen to what extent reception studies have apprehended the historical and cultural conditions that have favoured certain attitudes towards the spectator’s/reader’s right to express himself. Attention will be paid to the conventions that established and modified the attitude of the spectator in front of the play or the text, by more or less restricting his/her freedom of speech. The way these collective histories interact with individual stories and how they affect the spectator’s/reader’s training and education will also be investigated.                                                                    From an historical perspective, Western drama has more often been intended for spectators free to express themselves vocally than for spectators reduced to silence (one need only think for instance of Greek drama, Elizabethan drama or the ‘théâtre de la foire’ in Paris). The norm of the silent spectator, which became the prevalent mode in Europe in the late nineteenth century, generated a clear-cut dialectical relationship between the rule of silence and the transgressive breaking of that rule. It is that very norm that needs to be questioned and put into perspective. Similarly, if the issue is addressed on a diachronic scale, it appears that the act of reading was long regarded as an oral and collective activity, more than as a silent and solitary one. In his Histoire de la Lecture, Alberto Manguel reminds us of Saint Augustin’s surprise on discovering Saint Ambrose’s silent reading. He mentions Les Confessions as one of the first texts presenting reading as an interior and intimate activity, as opposed to the monastic tradition of reading aloud. That tradition involved the body thoroughly and completely, so that the text was literally incorporated through the reader’s eyes, mouth, hands and breath. In the nineteenth century, Flaubert’s famous ‘gueuloir’ when writing Madame Bovary – a genuine vocal feat! –, revealed the writer’s desire to anticipate the reader’s voice: ‘Poorly-written sentences do not stand up to this test [reading aloud]; they oppress the chest, disturb the heartbeat, and find themselves thus outside of the condition of life’, he said. In the entirely different context of African American and Caribbean cultures, the participative relation modified the attitude towards reading by presenting the participative mode of reception as the normal one. It is a well-known fact that the reader also gives life to the text with his voice and his silences. As Barthes used to say, it is the role of the ‘reader-producer’ to construct another text through his reading. The conference will thus be the occasion to examine the role of voice and of silences in this process.
  • What the observer/listener/reader says – or does not say – about the work of art. Examining the audience’s silent or vocal response. How we respond to a work of art, vocally or silently, is a rather complex question to unravel. Responses can range from the clearly-defined, ‘a-posteriori’, critical discourse of the reviewer or other critic, to the more spontaneous, unmediated act of reception, experienced intimately and inwardly. Between these polar opposites, various degrees of critical or aesthetic reception can be envisaged from the perspective of the interplay between voice and silence. In the performing arts, vocal responses can be unexpected or inappropriate, as in the case of the notorious mayhem provoked by Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. But they can also be deliberately provoked as in Dadaists events. Sometimes, they are simply part and parcel of the performance itself, like the recorded applause edited into the soundtrack of sit-coms. Be that as it may, performance venues can be seen as aesthetic spaces, where scenic and proscenic voices and silences jostle or attempt to neutralize each other. There are specific moments, peripheral to a performance, during which spectators can express their responses. The intermission is a case in point: it can be seen as a ‘political moment’ (Badiou) when the spectator feels free to break out of his or her silent bubble, to communicate with other spectators, before returning to the customary silence of performance-experiencer. Shows, spectacles, performances or public readings often allow time in their programs for audiences to take part in debates, discussions or other view-sharing forums, and yet the very same audiences are expected to keep their peace during the performance. These instances, in which spectators who had previously been expected to keep silent are encouraged to express themselves audibly and forcefully, deserve also to be investigated from the point of view of the relation voice/silence. Beyond the performing arts, other art forms are equally concerned by the dynamics of silent/vocal audience reception. Frederic Wiseman caught on film the silent scrutiny or murmurings of the visitors pacing along the corridors of the National Gallery, either alone or following the Museum guide’s explanations (National Gallery, 2014). In this respect, it would be of interest to consider how voice and silence interact against the background of ambient noise or musings of crowds in museums or other exhibition places, but also in casual talk, in press and radio reviews and in academic institutions or even in adaptations seen as a reaction or response to one of these works. From this point of  view, it would be possible to go so far as to reflect on those moments when reception, formulated and communicated through different channels – the media, or academic and artistic channels – becomes itself an object of mass consumption, thus raising, in a new interaction between discourse and readers, listeners or spectators, the question of the dialectical relationship between the voices and silences involved in reception. What the spectator’s/auditor’s voice and silences do in the work and to the work: for a poiesis of reception. Finally, we will look at the multiple ways in which the voices and silences of the receiver contribute to the creative process. In many cases, they are a structuring element of the work produced. The use of Call & Response in the gospel is only a particularly visible example, as are performance poetry, slam poetry and other practices of orality during which the spectator can react at any time. Particular attention will be paid to the ways in which contemporary artists and writers bring into play and stage the voices and silences of the spectators as integral parts of the work. John Cage’s 4 ’33’ ’is the most famous instance of this contemporary trend. In her performance The Artist Is Present, Marina Abramovic creates the conditions for a silent face to face interplay during which glances are exchanged between herself and each of the participants, a type of performance which creates a disturbing counterpoint to the civilization of commentary (Steiner) which piles up discourses and mediation between the work and those who might be confronted with it. In Bruce Nauman’s sound and immersive installations, the spectator’s body is tested physically and mentally by the space in which he/she moves, as in Corridor or in Get Out of My Mind, Get Out of this Room where he/she is assailed from all sides by an impersonal, injunctive and insistent voice. In Sleep No More (Punchdrunk Company, 2011), an emblematic example of promenade theatre, the spectator, who is masked and free to move but invited to remain silence, steps into the fiction as an anonymous but embodied gaze, as a wandering spectre and a silent presence which is disturbing for other spectators. Finally, the contemporary vogue of ‘participatory’ shows, which aim to revive the relationship between actors and spectators, deliberately creates moments when the spectators can speak or sing. This is illustrated, for example, by participatory operas (at Rouen opera, most particularly) and by contemporary immersive theatre (Closer by Patrick Marber, Compagnie du Libre Acteur, DAU). Other illustrations are the recording of people’s experience of listening to music, a project carried out by the members of the LED project (The Listening Experience Database, 2014, a collaborative project between the Open University, the Royal College of Music and the University of Glasgow), and the presence and exchange mechanisms in corporal cinema (Maria Klonaris, Katerina Thomadaki). The spectator’s voices and silences are also a first-rate material for fiction-making operations which make possible a reflection on the dialogue between the work and its receivers embedded in the work itself. The cinema often depicts spectators at the very moment when they are face to face with the screen. Nana’s entranced look when watching Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962) is that of a talking character who remains temporarily silent in front of a silent film. Theatre also knows how to stage the words of spectators within the fiction itself: the irascible spectator of Eleutheria by Beckett (written in 1947, published in 1995), the anonymous viewers whose reactions after a show were collected by Jean-Claude Grumberg and made the subject of Sortie de théâtre (2000), the whimsical ‘Old lady in the first row’ who daydreams aloud and appears as the eponymous buffoon of Marion Aubert (Les Histrions, 2006). It is necessary to explore the forms and stakes of these creative gestures which, by staging the act of reception and its audible manifestations, bring the spectator out of the silent obscurity to which he seems to have been destined by a certain tradition of Western thought.

This conference invites researchers, theorists and practitioners (directors, filmmakers, performers, storytellers, etc.) and anyone interested in this issue to propose theoretical and practical studies on the voices and silences of receivers in literature and cinema, in the visual and performing arts.

For paper proposals, please send an abstract (500 words) and a short bio-bibliography (150 words) under Word to Claudine Armand and Diane Leblond :


Languages of the conference: English or French.

Submission dealine : May 3rd, 2020
Scientific Committee’s decision: June 4th, 2020

Keynote speakers
Mathieu Duplay literature, Université Diderot-Paris 7
Stéphane Ghislain Roussel visual art, musicologist, curator, Luxembourg

Invited artist
Tameka Norris New Orleans, USA


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Organizing Committee:  Claudine Armand, Pierre Degott, Jean-Philippe Heberlé, Yannick Hoffert, Lucie Kempf, Diane Leblond, Jean-Marie Lecomte, Gilles Marseille, Barbara Muller, Marcin Stawiarski.

Scientific Committee:

Claudine Armand (Literature and American art, text/image, UL – Nancy)
Kathie Birat (American and Caribbean literature, UL – Metz)
Johan Callens (Theater, performance art, Vrije Universiteit Brussel)
Gilles Couderc (Text and music, 19-20th century, Université de Caen-Normandie)
Pierre Degott (Music 17-18th century, UL – Metz)
Jean-Philippe Heberlé (Text and music 20th-21st century, UL – Nancy)
Yannick Hoffert (Theater and French 20th century literature, UL – Nancy)
Lucie Kempf (Théâtre 20th-21st century, UL – Nancy)
Diane Leblond (British contemporary literature, visual culture, UL – Metz)
Jean-Marie Lecomte (American cinema, UL – Nancy)
Olivier Lussac (aesthetics, visual arts, UL – Metz)
Gilles Marseille (art history, contemporary period, UL – Nancy)
Marcin Stawiarski (Literature and music, Université de Caen-Normandie)
Patrick Van Rossem (art history, contemporary period), Utrecht University)


November 4
November 6
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Université de Lorraine
Nancy, France


Claudine Armand
Diane Leblond

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