Cildo Meireles’s Babel (2001) at Tate Modern, London
A collection of 800 radios — Bakelite, vintage, Art Deco, retro plastic — gather around a metal frame to form a tower some three metres tall. Large, old radios line the bottom of the tower; smaller, newer radios congregate towards the upper tiers of the tower, making it appear even taller. All of the radios are switched on and tuned to different networks. Voices, music, and radio pops and hisses blaze like a roaring fire. In a dark-lit room at the Tate Modern, you are immersed in a sonic sensory overload. This is Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles’s 2001 installation Babel.
The installation references a story from The Book of Genesis
The story is a myth about The Tower of Babel and it goes like this. A little while after the great flood, the inhabitants of the land of Shinar built a tower that could reach the heavens. Discovering the tower, God was angry and scrambled the languages of the tower’s creators so that they could no longer understand one another — and that’s why people speak different languages. Meireles’s installation Babel is named after this story. The radios are tuned to different networks around the world, and consequently, sound in different languages.
Meireles’s use of radio recalls work by composer John Cage
The American composer and pioneer of post-1950s avant-garde music John Cage (1912–1992) did not only bring sound into music, he was also interested in the radio for its potential to take sound away from composer’s control. Cage often incorporated radio into his pieces. For example, Imaginary Landscape №4 (1951) was a performance with 12 performers playing radios led by a conductor; Williams Mix (1952) was a radio piece that feeds in and skips through different radio stations based on a chance-based graphic notated score; Water Walk (1959) was a performance piece in which Cage makes sound using a plethora of objects, five of which are radios. Meireles’s use of radio as a means of sonic production recalls some aspects which feature in the music of John Cage: both Cage’s and Meireles’s use of radio is conceptual, having largely to do with the aesthetics of sound, and both also rely on a degree of indeterminacy, as radio is not controlled by the composer.
Meireles shows us how listening involves choice
As humans, we can only ever occupy one position in space. From our position, a multitude of different voices can often be heard at any one given time. And though we are also able to move around and listen to different voices, what we hear is largely determined by where, exactly, we are standing. In Babel, we cannot hear all of the voices, sounds, music, pops and hisses at once. Though our placement with respect to the installation may be the result of fairly trivial reasons, such as our simple curiosity to move around the installation and look at each individual radio, these reasons nonetheless determine what we hear.
There is a metaphor at play in Babel which applies to everyday life. Though we can flit between different sources, we can only ever listen to or comprehend one voice at a time, whether it’s TV, radio, social media or conversation at a pub. In Babel, so many different voices are speaking at the same time that not one is properly heard or understood. It might well indicate that one of democracy’s virtues is also a paradox: the ability for everyone to have a voice guarantees that not one person has effective power. Not only that, our global society stretches well beyond borders of language. Though the problems we may encounter as individuals in global capitalism may be similar to those of others across borders, we lack the tools to truly relate to one another through comprehension not just because of language, but also physical location. So few visitors of Babel — except for the extraordinarily talented multi-linguist — will be able to understand all the languages on offer, even on top of the physical limitation of not being able to be on both sides at once.
Made in 2001, Meireles’s work evokes a phenomenon which is prevalent (if not worse) today
The problem is to do with the so called “Tower of Incomprehension”.The magnitude of the problem is further emphasised by the shear size of the tower; this paradox is an intimidating, overwhelming one. While radios represent a markedly older media landscape, and in this case might well be a technological limitation determined by the time of the work’s creation (2001), it’s not hard to imagine a renewed installation constructed of smartphones — mobile media having grown to an incredible 50% of all media consumed in the UK over the last few years. In the increasingly saturated social media sphere, comprehension is just one of many challenges; breaking through the noise is an increasingly difficult feat.
Babel is unique upon every visit
Babel’s sonic component is new in every second. It constantly renews itself and never repeats. Tuned to the world’s radio stations, whose sonic sequence is defined by what is taking place in the world, Babel reminds us that we live in one giant improvisation — one which leaves behind technological precipitates (old radios and even older radios), as it constantly finds itself platforms for the New.