Now Is the Time to Say Nothing (Battersea Arts Centre, until October 19th)
Dragging yourself away from the comfortable observation space in front of a screen is easier said than done. Everyone watches news in a controlled position of isolation, whether that be viewing on television, PCs, tablets or mobile devices.
But a fascinating art installation which continues to tour five years after its conception demands an escape from such security and challenges its audience to be roused for the sake of fellow humanity. Using strong images, a soundscape to assault the senses and interactive elements the work is a forceful entreaty to viewers not to remain detached.
A powerful audio-visual plea to understand the plight of refugees and dare to embrace the challenge to help, Now Is The Time To Say Nothing currently showing throughout the day at Battersea Arts Centre is an earnest collaboration focussing on the Syrian conflict.
The audience is encouraged to drag themselves away from TV screens relaying the personal stories and try to empathise with and understand the reality. It’s a moving but optimistic project which is a lot more than art for art’s sake. Not only is an important experience for the purpiose of information, but it is also a creative theatrical experience.
Now Is The Time To Say Nothing is a four-year long co-operation between director Caroline Williams, Syrian artist/filmmaker Reem Karssli and teenagers from London’s Young Vic Taking Part project which says more in an hour than weeks of political debate.
The video installation follows the real story of Karssli as she records her daily experience of the Syrian conflict on camera. The group of teenagers from the UK who contact her hope to see beyond the footage they’ve watched on their TVs, so they work together to co-produce an experience which attempts to connect a UK audience to the human story behind the news.
No more than 14 people at a time enter a room and take a seat in one of an outward-facing circle of comfortable chairs, each with a small TV and headphones. We are shown footage from the war, news items, and extracts from Karssli’s Every Day, Every Day which chronicles everyday life in Damascus for a family who realise “the old days are gone.”
But then the pictures are replaced by the snow of TV static, which is described as the remnant of the Big Bang. Snow turns out to be an important recurring image, whether it be that which fell during pauses in the fighting, or synthetic snow that drops onto the audience. We are told to reach forward and touch the screen, feeling the electricity, as the project begins to draw us into what is happening, with a voice telling us they dream of someone who’ll care.
This development of personal relationship is boosted as we then see excerpts from Karssli’s Skype conversations with the British teenagers as small talk becomes an exchange of stories, likes and dislikes and a burgeoning of understanding.
In an effective and unexpected twist the audience is then ordered to leave their chairs and stand in a circle, engaging with one another, smiling, making real contact. We are asked to empathise with those ordinary people affected by the conflict, to put ourselves into the picture as Karssli’s flight as a refugee into Germany is recreated in the simplest of sound and images, with her own voice whispering breathlessly into our ears.
It’s a clever way of turning passive consumers into interested participants as we begin to appreciate something of the claustrophobia, the uncertainty and the fear. We are only in the room for just under an hour – the film reflects something much longer and more harrowing for those in the midst of the reality. It also gives us an opportunity to think hard about what TV actually shows us – especially when major news stories wrestle for attention alongside light entertainment, quiz shows and fictional drama, all of which are available at the swift click of a button from our cosy chairs.
It’s a story with an upbeat ending – the group of young people Skype Reem again after a couple of years, having initially wondered if she had even survived her escape. They are deeply affected by her story, which has become more than just an art project.
Nobody leaves the viewing room unmoved and it is helpful that there is a break out area to which the audience can go afterwards to see information about how we might respond practically (there are plenty of posters and fliers from groups local to the venue who are taking action in different ways), or simply to have a cup of tea and chat about the experience with others who have just seen the installation.
Ultimately we are asked the same question as members of the public in the film: are you prepared to do something for those impacted by conflict, for those forced to flee homes and families, even just signing a petition, or is it simpler to brush it all under the carpet and pretend it’s not happening?
The Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosiński once remarked, “The principles of true art is not to portray, but to evoke.” Based on that comment Now Is The Time To Say Nothing is an important and provocative work of art which cannot be ignored.
A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/