the benefit of all your doubt - 2020 - audio/visual installation
"Of truth, we know nothing, for truth is in a well“
Democritus c 406 BCE – c 370 BCE
The Benefit Of All Your Doubt is an immersive and sensory audiovisual art installation.
In the middle of a darkened room, a sizeable tank-like structure emits a soft light from its open top. Gentle lapping and dripping sounds fill the space. Beyond this, coming from the four corners of the room, whispers can be heard. These entangle and intertwine, blend and merge with an overall soundscape. Although the words seem indiscernible, a narrative is there to be discovered.
Approaching and looking over the side, the visitor sees the inky surface of gently moving water at the bottom of the structure.
The created environment is ambiguous, being both soothingly womb-like, yet having an underworld-like, disconcerting quality - initial responses, either way, are at an inherently emotional level.
That the voices heard are whispered is significant.
Whispering compels listening in a variety of ways. Deeply ingrained survival instincts force us to become quiet and focus when we hear a whisper: it is a form of primal signalling that indicates the possibility of predators in the vicinity. But whispering also implies intimacy. It forms part of our first sensory bonding experience as babies and then, throughout our lives, it occurs as an interrelation allying mechanism, from the bandying of gossip, secrets and conspiracy to the 'sweet nothings' exchanged between lovers. In all cases, whispering activates the right hemisphere of the brain, our so-called emotional, intuitive side. When someone whispers, it feels personal, as if for our ears only. We accordingly devote a great deal of mental energy to listening to it and, especially in this particular environment, where our senses are also heightened by the darkness, we become more receptive.
Subtle aural stimuli, such as whispering, additionally trigger a physical reaction known as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. ASMR describes the primal responses that stem from the sympathetic nervous system such as spine-tingling sensations, goosebumps and the feeling of the hairs on the back of the neck standing on end. Such reflexes are remnants of archaic defensive strategies, where creatures puff themselves up to appear larger, especially when aroused or threatened by danger.
Although comprehension is not necessary for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Responses to occur, the initial incomprehensibility of the content and resultant effects are a component of the overall experience and an intended starting point from which a search for meaning follows.
The Benefit Of All Your Doubt began with an exploration of two sources on the same theme: the phrase 'the naked truth', its derivation from a saying attributed to the Greek philosopher Democritus "Of truth, we know nothing, for truth is in a well", and an ancient Roman fable.
"The Tale of The Truth and Falsehood", tells the story of how two female spirits, The Truth and Falsehood, meet one warm and beautiful day and agree to take a cooling dip in a nearby pool. They undress and take to the water. This, however, is a ruse. Falsehood, seizing the chance, quickly slips from the water and stealing the other's clothing, runs off into the outside world clothed as The Truth. On discovering this, The Truth is enraged. She leaves the water but refuses to dress in the elaborate apparel left by Falsehood and scours the country to recover her own garments. Unfortunately, the people she meets in the outside world are mortified by her nudity. They are unwilling and unable to look upon the naked Truth. Instead, they all too readily accept Falsehood dressed as The Truth. So The Truth, dejectedly, takes to a life of solitude at the bottom of a well.
From "The Tale of The Truth and Falsehood" as told above, four 'whispered-word' narrative dialogues were abstracted and developed.
The essence of the piece is confined to the whispering and its relationship with the visual and audio elements of the installation and their potential significance.
The visual elements of the installation consist of four loudspeakers, each on a stand draped in black fabric, and the black painted structure which measures 1200mm long x 800mm high by 1100mm high. At the bottom of the structure is a 40 inch TV monitor on which video footage of a rippling water surface is displayed. This structure could be interpreted as representing bathing, the symbolism of this being birth, rebirth and the religious rituals of purification and baptism. It could also be a well. Wells have historically been venerated as holy places where, almost miraculously, life-giving waters issue from the earth. But, as you stare down into the 'water', you are offered not only personal reflection but an ancient connection with the sacred realm of the underworld. Associated in antiquity with feminine entities that personify purity, wells are a place where nymphs, maidens, moon goddesses and other female spirits offer sources of wisdom, healing, prophecy, renewal and the fulfilment of wishes.
Water, and its energies, is further suggested by the sounds that are used in conjunction with the video and the whispering. Dripping water echoes as if in a cave and the lapping and light splashing implies a presence.
The room itself, cloaked in cinematic darkness is also significant. The absence of light carries primal connotations, things found at the depths of the unconscious, of the beginning, of time, of before 'let there be light'. There is an intimacy to the darkness that disquiets, yet concentrates the mind, a chiaroscuro effect that draws attention to the merest light and the possibility of emergence.
Response to the artwork is initially at an emotional level. However, with time spent inside the installation, when its elements as described above are considered, cognitive left-brain engagement occurs, and interpretation begins to take place.
Analysis and the search for meaning are primary, intrinsic motivations in human beings and this installation contains within it many seeds of meaning. We are hard-wired for 'story', our inquisitive minds are piqued and, along with the other elements of the installation, the whispered words are pieced together as we search for sense and meaning.
When realised as a full installation, it is possible to read 'The Benefit of Your Doubt' on many levels, all accessed through open engagement with the various constituents of the work and with no guidance from a linear artist intention. It is atmospheric, immersive, the elements of the piece are polysemous and offer subjective interpretation presenting visitors with the opportunity to independently explore and participate by creating meaning for themselves. It is durational and performative, perplexes, disconcerts and prompts cognitive engagement from which individual conclusions are reached.
The title, "The Benefit Of All Your Doubt" is an integral element of the piece, and offers an entry point for meaning. It was developed from the English expression 'giving the benefit of the doubt', a phrase used as a concession when we have no choice but to believe a statement or person with no available verification.
We live in a time described as 'Post-Truth'. However, the choice of reworking this ancient Greek aphorism and the Roman allegorical story at the core of this installation perhaps infers that things were ever thus. Yet it would seem that facts and the truth are becoming harder to discern within the cacophony of information delivered and available to us at any given point. What does the future hold for the Truth? Do we have the will to conquer this ourselves or should technologies be developed that afford new ways of seeing the truth and offer a path to enlightenment? If not broached are we to simply and blindly slip further and deeper into what one day will be known as the New Dark Ages?
The Benefit Of All Your Doubt asks, as we enter a 'new normal' and face unprecedented challenges, if the truth can ever be recovered or is it lost to us forever?