About an hour before seeing The Quiet Volume, while flipping through the new David Foster Wallace biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story at Powell's, I landed on a passage describing how Wallace's ideas about language were influenced by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein's early work characterized language as a rigidly logical system, a notion he later rejected in favor of the position that language is communally defined, by usage. ("Meaning as use," as a character in The Broom of the System puts it.) During his career as a fiction writer, Wallace explored both of those positions, as he constantly grappled with the philosophical underpinnings of language.
I read that and I thought "poor David Foster Wallace" and "how awful to feel so stressed out about language" and "I don't really remember my college philosophy courses very well," and then I put the book away and headed to the Central Library for Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton's The Quiet Volume, a show that blew me away by creating just the sort of anxiety about language I'd been pitying Wallace for having.
The show requires advance reservations; more guided tour than performance, it accommodates two audience members at a time, and I'd say it's best if you go in not knowing the person you'll be paired with. After checking in at a TBA table next to the library's information desk, my partner—a nice man named Jeff—and I were led upstairs by a volunteer, who gave us each an iPod, pressed play, and showed us to our seats at a table in the library's periodicals room.
On the table in front of each seat was a stack of novels—Jose Saramego's Blindness, Kazuo Ishigiro's When We Were Orphans, and a third I can't remember—and a notebook. Whispered instructions in our earphones urged us first to pay attention to the sounds of the library, and then guided us to read from our notebooks and from specific passages in the novels. We were challenged, in clever and subtle ways, to think about elements of the reading experience we all take for granted: the speed at which we read, the way a writer's voice "sounds" in our head, how weird it is that it's possible to get lost in text when text is just ink on a page. It also points out that language has the power to make an individual experience a shared one—but the process of finding shared meaning is necessarily vulnerable, messy, and imperfect.
It's a very good show, and I found it incredibly stressful. To be asked not only to think about the malleability of language, but to feel it—through clever cross-cuts between audio and printed content, through overlapping but discordant narration and text—was distressing on a foundational level, like when you repeat a word so many times it loses all meaning. The Quiet Volume gave me that feeling, applied to every word. Just thinking about it makes me feel disoriented, like my inner monologue has been translated into Korean and then back again. In other words, it altered my perception as surely as eating a bag of mushrooms. A+ job, art!
The show's not all anxiety-inducing, though—it's also an ode to libraries in general, as public spaces full of people having very private experiences. Timely, given that the establishment of a permanent source of library funding for Multnomah County is on the November ballot.
The Quiet Volume isn't included with a regular TBA pass, but tickets are only $10. Buy 'em/make reservations here.