The Listeners

As we look forward to 2019, we shift the mandate of 1 × 1 slightly this month to publish Ernesto Pujol’s writing on his work—The Listeners. What better antidote to carry with us into the new year than this—the figure of the listener as a work of public art.

- Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

Ernesto Pujol: The Listeners Osnabrück Town Hall, Germany, 2018
[Photo by Angela von Brill.]

Listening to people and place has always been part of my practice. Nevertheless, the presidency of Donald Trump has heightened the need to listen to everyone in America. It has given me the urgency to give form to listening as an ongoing project called The Listeners, which had its world premiere during the summer of 2018 in Germany, another society experiencing the rise of the right. My performance was supported through a partnership between the City of Osnabrück’s Kunsthalle and its municipal theater, the Theater Osnabrück, in connection with the Labor Europa youth project funded by the Federal Government’s Commission for Culture. The Listeners took place on Saturday, August 25, within the emblematic Westphalian Peace Room of the city’s medieval Town Hall, during a cultural festival celebrating the 370th anniversary of the Peace of Westphalia, which ended both the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants and the Eighty Years War for Dutch independence from Spain. Between six and twelve million people died in the combined conflicts, including 20% of the German population. 

The Listeners consisted of sixteen individuals, men and women ranging in age from eighteen to eighty, trained as public listeners who took turns sitting in silence for sixteen and a half hours listening to hundreds of citizens. Although part of a citywide festival, the performance was not a spectacle; it could not be seen unless visitors entered a quiet room to speak to listeners, who heard them in silence for as long as they wished, without judgment. The Listeners was not just a listening community and station, but the laboratory of an ephemeral listening school. The performance turned the tables on art, which historically speaks as audiences listen. In this case, the audience spoke and the art/artists listened. My project is now on the road, seeking to listen across the U.S. What follows is a selection of my writings sharing what I learned about the artistic gesture of empathic listening.

Ernesto Pujol: The Listeners (Pictured Listener: Ester Davanzo)
Osnabrück Town Hall, Germany, 2018
[Photo by Angela von Brill.]

What I Learned About Listening While Listening in Silence

  • Listening is the foundation of the social contract.
  • Social media has form, the form of technology and the form of graphic design. But social practice also needs form; to think otherwise is to ignore the human condition and art.
  • How to give form to listening? How to create an aesthetic container for what is otherwise a chaotic, draining, and even threatening experience?
  • The Listeners consisted of sixteen listeners listening to hundreds of people for for sixteen and a half hours. They listened in silence while sitting inside the Westphalian Peace Room of the Town Hall of the German city of Osnabrück. They listened to what is rarely shared, to what remains unspoken or secret: the memories, dreams, traumas, nightmares, pain, sadness, joy, and happiness of people, who carry these around unseen.
  • Listening requires silence. It is not spectacle. It is not a game.
  • Silence not only provided a boundary: it was a shroud, a shelter for our listeners. Many performers thanked me afterwards for imposing silence as a form, because they took refuge in the form.
  • Listening is defined by self-sacrifice: the wordless voice of a person who believes in listening.
  • Silent listening is loud.
  • One must protect the listener, the speaker, and their contact, because listening bears the weight of humanity.
  • Listening can only unfold within a discreet dynamic: patiently training performers in the discipline of silence; sensitively training them as empathic (non-judgmental) listeners— selecting and securing their place of quiet engagement, and creating a protocol that prepares visitors to be speakers, to be participants rather than viewers.
  • Listening Memory – Metaphor 1 (Wet)
    I feel as if I went down to an ancient riverbed to watch a mighty river flow and was given lots of stones to carry. I was still carrying them weeks after the experience. I could not seem to put them down, to unload. However, this was not bad. Their weighty companionship was something I asked for. I wanted experience, and thus, the content of real experience: the river's width, depth, and strength. I was open to whatever the river flooded me with.
  • Listening Memory – Metaphor 2 (Dry)
    Yet, I also feel as if I spent a day sitting deep in the heart of a vast desert. And people came from afar to unload their unspoken stories, their emotional pebbles and stones. They entrusted them to me and left unburdened. And I was happy for them. But I am now the burdened listener, slowly placing the weight of their experiences along the road; carefully releasing invisible boulders of narrative along an invisible landscape. 
  • The Listeners confronted me with the invisibility of the real; so much of what is real is invisible.
  • Animals make calls to establish and protect territory, to mate and nourish. Humans call to be recognized, loved, and remembered. All life needs and wants to be listened to.
  • Listening is part of a perceptual package that has lost physicality. As we read text messages and emails that we control, we miss the uncontrollable smells of the body, its temperature, moisture, posture, the flow of breath, and the intense proximity of a face. We are listening with less physical information. We are listening less.
  • After The Listeners, some of the performers were in shock, not only because of the content of what they listened to, but because of the impact of the non-verbal aspects of listening. They could not believe the sheer amount of information they acquired through physical proximity, by simply sitting next to each other, in silence.
  • Contemporary communication leaves little room for the subconscious. More often than not, the subconscious is communicated non-verbally, through gesture, volume, tone, and chemistry. But technology disembodies our exchanges. We are flattened, increasingly communicating without the underbelly of the self. We face a future of broken vows, our promises enacted by partial selves.
  • Because listening has been divorced from physical experience, from being with persons, people support immigrants without listening. It is a Platonic support from inside a cave—an untested support, fragile and brittle.
  • What if the public spoke and art listened? What if this was our new cultural reality?
  • The Listeners felt more real than our so-called reality, because we increasingly live inside our heads, inside computers and websites, labeling files and casting others as types: conservatives, leftists, immigrants, refugees, white supremacists; as members of opposing or foreign groups. But when you listen without labels and filters, as our performers in The Listeners did for for sixteen and a half hours, people come out of the flatness of webpage timelines, acquiring subtlety, likeability, and familiarity. Listening makes people real. Listening makes us real. Listening returns reality to our thinking process.
  • We think that if we do not respond verbally, that if we do not give advice, we are engaging in a dangerous disservice. But I say to my performers that the world is full of talk, of predictable advice from family, friends, neighbors, teachers, ministers, priests, nuns, rabbis, imams, astrologers, supervisors, bosses, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers, physical therapists, doctors, designers, stylists, financial planners, coaches, lawyers, accountants, and more. We do not lack for advice. What we yearn for is to be listened to in silence, without being interrupted or judged.
  • I have not always needed to be loved, but I have always needed to be listened to.


Ernesto Pujol

ERNESTO PUJOL is a performance artist and social choreographer. He is the author of Sited Body, Public Visions: silence, stillness & walking as Performance Practice (McNally Jackson Books, NY), and Walking Art Practice, Reflections on Socially Engaged Paths (Triarchy Press, England). Pujol lives in Philadelphia, PA.