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The Quiet Volume

Mitchell Library Reading Room

Waiting in the foyer of the Mitchell Library, I watched a large group of American teenagers filing through. They entered through the door on the left, trailed past the terrazzo map set into the floor while taking photos, then exited through the door on the right. I heard one girl say to her friend “Just one more!” as she paused to take yet another photo. It is a beautiful library, but I was a little surprised at this parade that visited so briefly.

Mitchell Library Entrance

Mitchell Library Foyer Map

I was sitting in the foyer of the Mitchell Library waiting for the person who would be my partner for The Quiet Volume, described as a “whipered, automatic performance”, taking place in the Mitchell Library Reading Room. As the performance is for two people, you could either bring a friend or be matched up with another person: I chose the latter, and had been wondering all morning who they might be. As it turns out, it was someone I knew, Lara, who had come from  her project in Hurstville Westfield. “What a surprise to find you in the library,” she said, and we laughed about the coincidence of not being strangers after all.

We were given iPods and taken in to the Reading room, where specific desks had been set up for The Quiet Volume. I could see other couples sitting together, their performance already started, picking up books, or looking around with pensive, listening expressions. Our table was at the back of the library, near the Special Collections area. I like this area as I enjoy peeking at what people are looking at in there. Recently I was doing some research in the Mitchell and I watched a man going through a box of small squares of yellowed paper, tickets, perhaps. I wondered what they were, but there was no way I could ask, people don’t do that kind of thing in libraries.
The Quiet Volume very much worked with this experience of being in the library, what you can and can’t do, the way your internal voice and thoughts work, the act of reading, and the way you view other people in the library space. Lara and I sat side by side like the others and listened to the voices in the headphones. They alternated between reflections, instructions, silence and sound effects (I particularly liked a moment which had a cacophony of dropped pens). There was a pile of books in front of us, novels and a book of city photographs. We went in and out of these books and stories, our movements somewhere between casual and self conscious, although as we sat there few people paid us any attention. A man nearby frowned into his old laptop, two girls conferred about their studies, both grasping pencils, library staff pushed trolleys back and forth and went in and out of the secret doors at the sides of the Reading Room. When I go to the Reading Room to study it is the sound of these doors opening and closing that punctuates whatever I am doing, and it always makes me think of the secret back rooms of the library, and imagine what must be behind them.

All the regular library activities went on around us as we followed the whispered instructions. Afterwards we agreed there had been a lot of directions, and so much concentration was required. At times I became distracted by the condition of my hands, as they were the only part of my body I was really aware of during the performance. Sometimes my thoughts would drift off and I’d stare at the books that surround the room or look over at people studying, and then realise I’d missed a set of instructions. But it was easy to pick up again.

At the end we sat quietly for a few minutes, observing the last few moments of library quiet, before pushing back our chairs and walking back out to the foyer to return our iPods. We flipped through the guestbook, which had been started in Basel – the work has travelled to many countries. Scanning through them we noticed that people had very eloquent and poetic responses to the performance. I guess that makes sense for an artwork about our relationship to reading and libraries.

The Quiet Volume is by Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton, and you can read a short interview I did with Ant for Time Out here.



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