Notes on a silent meal


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Last week I had the honour of partaking in a rather special dinner: a silent dinner. The artist Nina Backman had invited 27 guests to one of her famous Silence Meals – this time in the Finnish Embassy in Berlin on September 22nd, 2016 in the Fælleshus of the Nordic Embassies.

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Unbelievably this was the 35th installment of a Silence Meal. These meals are a core element in her ongoing artistic work called The Silence Project – including exhibitions, events, public lectures and artist talks. With these elements she works on »the traditional Finnish concept of ›freedom to roam‹ or ›everyman’s right‹ jokamiehenoikeus that allows free access to forests, waterways and the right to collect natural products, regardless of ownership of land.« To experience silence and to roam in silence is for her one crucial if not existential ›everyman’s right‹. Backman has been working on this project since 2013.

During this very meal I allowed myself to take some notes on what I could observe – in the behaviour of others as well as in my own drifting sensibility, in my inclinations and inhibitions in this situation of eating four courses with a larger number of other guests in radical and unfamiliar silence. The courses had been provided by Finnish chef Sami Tallberg. And these are the 11 notes – in German as I wrote them (and below translated into English):

Wenn die Stimmen der 27. Besteckpaare gegen Ende der Vorspeise sanft verstummen.

Wie schwer fällt es Dir, vollständig schweigend, Augenkontakt mit Fremden zu halten?

Das Anstoßen der Weingläser geschieht nun mit gesteigerter Klanglust.

Kellnerinnen & Kellner stehen nun unter besonderer Beobachtung.

Was machst Du mit Deinen Händen, wenn Du unter Fremden schweigst und den Hauptgang erwartest?

Die duftende Sauce erfüllt Dich ganz.

Wenn Dir sprechen verboten ist, schließt Du die Augen & Deine Blicke beobachten ungehindert.

Das kleine Theater der Toilettenab- & -zugänge.

Du versenkst Dich in Dich selbst, wenn Du längere Zeit nicht sprachlich in Kontakt trittst.

Du möchtest jeden der anderen – unbekannten & fremden – Gäste umgehend duzen.

Gegen Ende des letzten Ganges werden die Herren unruhig & müssen die Gläser orgeln lassen.

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When the voices of the 27 pairs of cutlery are gently silenced towards the end of the first course.

How difficult is it for you to maintain eye contact with strangers in complete silence?

The clinking of the wineglasses is now taking place with an intensified pleasure in sound.

Waitresses & waiters are now under special observation.

What are you doing with your hands if you are silent among strangers and you expect the main course to be served?

The fragrant sauce pervades you, it fills this space.

If it is forbidden for you to talk, you can close your eyes – or your eyes can observe everything without any hindrance.

The tiny theatre of going offstage to the toilet and returning onstage from the toilet.

You actually immerse yourself in yourself if you can not stay in touch with others verbally.

You feel the urge to approach any of the other guests, be they unknown to you & alien as can be, without any formal restraint.

Towards the end of the last course the gentlemen at the table become more and more restless. They feel the urge to play music on all of their glasses.