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"In Place: Grossmünster"

Zürich, Switzerland

October 6, 2011
8:00–17:00


The third intervention of the "In Place" series. A recording of me reading the following text was used in an installation exhibited by the Espace Rien in Geneva, Switzerland during October 26–November 5, 2011. The photo above shows an interior view of the church.

"The Grossmünster looms before me on this rainy day, wrapped in the gray sky and hulking clouds lumbering out over Zürich's old city towards the lake. I enter the church, passing from daylight into the early morning gloom of the majestic arches and bare stone walls. Sound showers down around me and I feel submersed in a deep, rich, resonating body. I take a seat in the wooden pews on the main floor and try to adapt to the relative silence. The day outside leaks in from time to time as a tram passes by, a motorcycle revs its engine, someone sounds their car horn. Soon the small sounds around me manifest themselves, like miniature detonations going off. Every scrape of a shoe, heel and sole stomping across the wooden floors, someone settling into a creaking pew nearby, all these sounds momentarily fill the church with a wrenching violence.

And then the quiet descends again. Silence does not really exist here, but an unmistakable lack of any identifiable sound now hangs over the interior of the church. I hear the blood pulsing in my ears, I visualize the sound of air currents coursing slowly through the church, of everyone's breathing magnified and filling the space like one stupendous breath. The air seems at once to be spinning around me and throbbing with the vitality of all these sounds barely registering in the void. Different hues of gray light pour forth from the ancient glass windows. At times the cavernous room seems to be floating in a murky bath of endlessly permutating light. The glint of a lone candle shines up on the second level of the church, cut adrift in the red and blue light of Augusto Giacometti's stained glass windows.

The church's bells start to ring. They seem far away, as if coming from another church in a distant part of the city. I had assumed the bells would be louder, sound more direct, filling the church with their vibrations. People talking adjacent to me nearly drown out the bells, their voices caroming through the main hall. I get up and walk up the stairs to the second level. Crossing the wooden floor in front of the stairway my steps explode around me, try as I might to tread silently. As I pass under the first arch separating the ground floor from the second level, the acoustics change noticeably around me. Everything seems more controlled, warmer, less the notion of floating in a sea of uncountable sounds. I continue walking towards the very front of the church and take a seat near the wall, directly below one of the two domes.

Off in the distance now, as if a million light years away, the main hall of the church surges with all its activity. It seems very few people come here to pray. Mostly tourists enter the main doors. They talk, their cameras click, they walk heavily over the wooden floors, high heels clicking briskly across the timeworn stone. I guess the Grossmünster is just another place on their itinerary, as most of the tourists don't stay very long. They pile in, gawk at the Sigmar Polke stained glass windows, at the grandiose organ perched on the second level in the rear of the church, at the bare domes and the display of dusty antique bibles in a glass case. Some of the visitors pay to walk up the bell tower and get a bird's eye view of the city. Their voices wash over the main room like tides rushing in and out from sea. A swash of murmurs, laughter, now and then a loud conversation, ebb and flow out on the main floor as I sit under the furthermost dome and enjoy a slim ray of sunlight streaming in through the lofty windows rising up before me.

I walk over to the choir chairs and seat myself there. Here I am closer to the whirling mass out on the main floor of the church. I can see all the people walking in and leaving, milling around in an aimless fashion, lost in the grand heights of the arches, the raw stone, the impression of nearly limitless space sailing way up high in the stirring shadows. For a brief moment, the church seems empty, not a tourist in sight. The silence comes piling down again, nearly taking my breath away. These dramatic spikes in sound levels exhilarate but also wear me down with time, each crest of silence demanding a new orientation to the space.

Out of nowhere I hear a choir singing, just one chord for maybe a few seconds and then they're gone. Why did they stop? Did someone close the door to whichever room they were singing in? Was I just dreaming? I start to feel spooked. Sitting in a church for hours is not without its occupational hazards. The vibe is so heavy here, like a weight pressing down on my body, on my soul. I don't feel at ease. More out of place, distracted by all the sound crackling intermittently around me. I'd like to hear more singing.

Towards midday the gloom begins to lift and a ceaseless mob of visitors swarms in and out of the main doors of the church. I can see this continuing until I leave in the afternoon and begin to dread the coming hours of humanity trampling through these hallowed grounds. The eruptions of small sounds are gone now, just this bewildering miasma of voices and footsteps attaining a standing state of reverberation and agitation. The sense of space when I arrived in the morning is long gone.

I move back down to the main floor and experiment with sitting off to different sides of the room. Yet I soon become distracted wherever I sit, with people always walking by, their voices trailing behind like wisps of smoke. Eventually I return to the middle of the pews, placing myself back in the center of the throng. I feel the room reeling around me, voices sifting up to the limits of the church's soaring heights and dissipating there like vapor. In fact, very few people bother to sit down here at all. They walk about impatiently, looking for some image to consume, some information to read, some memory to take back home with them or to snap up with their cameras.

The accumulation of people here seems independent of any accustomed daily rhythms. It's like the Grossmünster exists outside the normal transition of the day's passing. I slowly get used to this haphazard pacing and decide that perhaps this is what a church is for, to step outside the daily trials and tribulations, take a moment away from the day's course of events and just be still. Which is what I'm trying to do, though I'm certainly not doing nothing: I'm thinking the whole time, concentrating on how I am perceiving the space, thinking about how the sounds here affect how I feel in relation to the room around me, to time slowly passing.

I walk back to the second level and glance upwards towards the dazzling organ, its numerous pipes resplendent with golden angels sounding their horns. Someone has turned on the lights around the organ's keyboard and two men are talking nearby. They go away and then one returns and sits himself down at the organ. I'm not sure what to think about music here, this wasn't part of the equation, as strange as that might sound. And I guess it is strange, because shouldn't music be a part of any church? Shouldn't this have been something to count on, even to look forward to? It seems I was too caught up in analyzing my own perception to allow for the possibility of someone playing the organ.

As I move back down to the main floor again a deep stentorian tone fills the church, as if emanating from the floor below and rocking the main room with an amazing force. Everyone around me stops in their tracks, frozen in disbelief or anticipation. It takes a few minutes before the anonymous organist plays some long slow chords and then a melody. People slowly begin to sit down, as if preparing for an organ recital. This has been the first time today I've seen more than just a few people sit for any length of time, whereas for me the entire day has already been a concert of sound and I've been here the whole time attending it. The more the organist plays the more I think that this sound is an intrusion here. The tones cut through the air, accumulate along the stone walls, snap back and forth from ceiling to floor. The music stops and starts, this is no concert, at least not the kind of concert these people sitting around me had probably hoped for. One by one they get up, return to walking aimlessly around the church, finally leave. The music carries on haltingly. The organist seems to be improvising or perhaps just testing the organ to see if everything is working correctly. There is no structure, no direction, which seems to suit me better. The organ becomes just another intermittent sound, like the clomping shoes, the voices, an occasional noise from the world outside bleeding in through the old stone walls.

Bright afternoon sunlight fills the church. I make one last round from the lower floor to the upper and take a seat again under the last dome. I bask in the intense light and the sound of the organ floats like a cloud off in the distance in the main room. I'm fading away in the warmth of the sun and the rich, deep tones of the organ's longest pipes, barely audible but pervading my chest, as if stemming from some hidden place deep inside my body. Clouds pass before the sun and a momentary darkness fills the church. The organ has stopped too. I make my way through the sea of tourists and head out the main doors to leave."

 

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