Satdee night last, my lovely friend Liz treated me to a nice slice of Sydney Fringe performance art at The Silent Dinner Party. Brainchild of artist Honi Ryan, it’s a simple and intriguing idea: take a couple of hundred strangers, anywhere on the globe, sit them down to dinner, and insist that no-one says a thing – for two hours.
Me, not talk for two hours? While sitting next to lovely Liz? And while running into dear old pal Stu outside the venue, who I hadn’t seen for eight years? Silence seemed an impossible ask, but a test of will and strength surely worth exploring.
The rules on entering the event at the gorgeously deco Marrickville Town Hall were clear:
- Please do not use words or your voice
- Please do not read or write
- Try to make as little noise as possible
- Don’t interact with technology
We were beckoned into the dining hall by a Seuss-like host wearing a bright blue suit and teal goatee, who silently invited us to sit at the long banquet tables there, cloud-shaped lamps strung above our heads.
And almost immediately the rule-breaking began – not by me, but by many of the guests who, for reasons only they might know, decided that the rules were not for them.
For the next two hours we were treated to sniggering, much of it forced, deliberate cutlery-banging, foot-stamping, bottle-whistling and general smart-arsery.
My heart sank for Honi, the artist, the one who had gathered us here to share her experiment. She tried to work with the rudeness of her guests, attempting to cajole them by her own inventive displays of silence to grasp silence themselves.
At one point Liz and I got up to dance, to have some fun with this challenge of silence, and within two minutes, a hundred people had joined us – stomping in conga-lines, openly laughing. Just not getting it.
It struck me then that I was in a room full of people who most probably all considered themselves to be highly culturally engaged folks – artists, musicians, writers, quite a few were handing out their business cards – and yet they were showing such disrespect for a fellow creative quester. Why?
I’m the last person to take things too seriously – I’m as irreverent as they come – but it made me sad to think that so many in the room thought the sounds of their own voices were so much more important than embracing another’s idea. Honi’s dare to us was to reach for different ways of communicating with each other but it seems most weren’t up to it.
For all their hipster beards and thick-framed specs, for all their nice wine and designer smugness, they were just a bunch of bogans, really. And that’s a shame. But perhaps a point well made by Honi Ryan after all…