Susan Hiller’s practice takes us to the edges of the known world, to locations where our usual ways of mapping become hesitant. We are presented with the possibility that our accepted means of orientation are not authoritative but contingent and constructed, and that the maps we habitually rely on serve to mask or exclude other territories as much as they might describe or reveal them. Hiller (born in Florida in 1940) reports from the very edges of understanding, from areas normally seen as inimical to consciousness and therefore “unknowable.” Witness (2000) uses spoken testimonies of alien contact delivered by people from around the globe. Channels (2013) travels beyond the event horizon of death, relaying records of near-death experiences through the flicker of cathode tube television sets.
Language is central to Hiller’s work, and The Last Silent Movie (2007) and Lost and Found (2016) invoke language itself as a cultural construction that contains and generates worlds. In The Last Silent Movie we hear recordings of extinct and endangered tongues. A stunning variety of sound waves seek to trigger the neural responses of understanding and communication: but each language is dying or, like many of the speakers we hear, now dead. Instead of understanding the sounds, on an otherwise blank screen our eyes read the meaning of the phrases, translated into subtitles of a still-dominant language, one that has been instrumental in silencing the speakers of Lenape or those of Southern Sámi.
For Hiller, the act of representing, of bringing into view, is active and dissonant rather than memorializing or romantic. It animates signals that run interference on dominant codes. Lost and Found continues her focus on language groups and their speakers but now includes languages that might be leaving the archive to be spoken in the present and the future. As if to reinforce the physicality of these possible returns and survivals, a flexing green oscilloscope line tracks the sound made by the voiced plosives, fricatives, and aspirations. This moving wave also acts as a synecdoche for the arena of technology; although the production of a prevailing and flattening culture, it also operates as a platform used by the excluded and the marginalized for agency and expression. Technology allows the voices of the dead to be heard. On being heard, these voices return to the living to be mouthed, to articulate the particular mappings and experiences of the worlds that these languages describe and contain.