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The Blackouts by Tres or how to turn Everything off


04 September 2017
This month's topic: Silence

The Blackouts by Tres or how to turn Everything off

Human nature – which is so prone to making, producing and communicating – is noisy, as are the buildings that accommodate and enable such productivity. This as obvious as it is obviated, as resonant as it is deafened by the very noise that constitutes its essence, and is something that Tres (Barcelona, 1956 – Premià de Dalt, 2016) succeeded in revealing flawlessly in the numerous Blackouts he produced over more than fifteen years.

In spite of the multiple cultural influences that shaped his career, most of his work emerged around a commitment with silence, understood not only as an acoustic phenomenon but also as a philosophical and ideological attitude. As stressed by Valentín Roma, curator of the anthological exhibition staged at La Virreina that closed last June, in Tres’s oeuvre, silence is ’a strategy of total emptying’. [1] His silence was a stance from which to show the noisy emptiness of the art system and an ascetic practice through which he sought the real and profound meaning of working in the field of art.

The Blackouts, a distinct body of work within his multifaceted oeuvre, were actions in which Tres gradually switched off the electrical supply that guaranteed the technological performance of a building, plunging it into absolute darkness and silence. The lighting, the ventilation and heating, the telephone lines and the computer servers were all progressively disconnected in a step-by-step elimination of light and noise that could well be understood as a concert in reverse, in which sound is subtracted instead of added, as described by curator Michal Libera. [2] The Blackouts are a sound investigation and an exercise in individual and collective listening, but they also represent a moment of awareness revealing the high levels of electrical noise and light pollution to which we are subjected. By divesting buildings of their technological artifice and exposing their purely material properties, their natural acoustic, atmospheric and light conditions, these actions offer different experiences of architectural space.

The continuous functioning or semi-functioning of many public and commercial buildings is dependent on the 24/7 culture of our late capitalist society that Jonathan Crary has described so humorously. [3] A society in which urban and technological structures create spaces for constant productivity and consumption, and where the dynamics of continuous operativeness begins to seep into private homes, where wireless technology enables us to answer professional e-mails in the middle of the night or cope with insomnia watching television programmes and surfing the social media. This ongoing task entails a more or less obvious steady emission of brightness and noise, thanks to which night-time is no longer a space of darkness and silence, just as it is no longer an interlude inexorably reserved for resting. In fact, it ceased to be such an interlude during the process of industrialisation, when the introduction of an effective system of electric lighting enabled the widespread implementation of night shifts, albeit the new technological and wireless society has consolidated and exacerbated this logic.

In this context, Tres’s Blackouts symbolically defend darkness, silence and the night in both poetic and political terms, and short intense acts of resistance to the culture of continuous hyper-production and operativeness. These are not guerrilla actions, for the blackouts are carried out with the consent and collaboration of the agents in charge of the building and with the complicity of an audience that must remain silent. However, despite being artistic actions, thanks to their force and revolutionary spirit, they transcend the superficiality of an aesthetic exercise. As Valentín Roma has pointed out, we are facing a collective production of silence that generates a break in meaning, spaces of possibility that may be read in a utopian key. [4]

’The building is important, and the condition is that it has to be turned off completely, with a cut-off at the end’, wrote Tres in a letter to me when we were planning the possibility of organising a new Blackout some time ago. So there are no concessions, no simulacra but a real blackout, an effective shutdown of productivity, a momentaneous death. A glance at the list of all the European premises and buildings that Tres switched off between 2000 and 2016 confirms that indeed the choice of place is not trivial. Among other spaces dedicated to the production of music and sound, Sidecar and the Auditorium represent two opposite ways of understanding and experiencing music in Barcelona. They are accompanied by a long list of art centres, museums and other organisations whose activity revolves around the image and visual culture, such as Hangar centre of artistic production, Idep Higher School of Image and Design, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB), the former Centre d’Art Santa Mònica and the extinct Mediateca of “la Caixa” exhibition hall (now CaixaForum) in Barcelona, and other spaces throughout Spain such as Centro Cultural Matadero in Huesca, Arteleku in San Sebastian, Azcuna Centroa in Bilbao and CA2M in Móstoles, Madrid, the city where Tres also switched off La Casa Encendida, in a charmingly ironic gesture and play on words.

We therefore establish that silence as an auditory phenomenon is often cleverly associated in Tres’s work with darkness, warning us that in a society that is so pervaded by images, noise is as acoustic as it is photogenic, and that all forms of generating silence involve a strategy of resistance to the image. There is probably no better example of this than Tres’s ’balls of silence’. Made of Cinefoil or black wrap, a material that shuts out all light, they plunge all these temples of art, these spaces dedicated to the production of visual meaning, into darkness. Tres was perhaps questioning the place of the image in contemporary society, inviting us to rethink the role that art centres should play in this hyper-visual age. What is the place of the artistic image in such a bright and noisy world? How can we promote forms of critical thought from the visual sphere? Tres posed strategies for opacity and for the attainment of silence that may enable us to ratify the function of art and perhaps even also protect some of the liberties that have been restricted by surveillance and control systems in pursuit of a presumably safer society.

It is interesting to note that long before Tres’s Blackouts, the city of Barcelona had suffered several other power cuts. During the Spanish Civil War, lights were switched off and homes and inhabited areas were darkened at night-time as a defence strategy to combat the aggressive air raids launched against the city, making it difficult for the enemy air force to find its targets. We are no longer bombed from the air but we now face other threats, more concealed and less noisy. It is also apposite to remember that Tres’s first Blackout took place in a Barcelona cybercafe in 2000, a time when the world of the Internet still aroused naïve enthusiasm and the belief that it could become a tool for empowering democracy. Five years later, Tres switched off the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC for its initials in Spanish), the largest Spanish public institution in its field, chiefly dedicated ’to developing and promoting research in benefit of scientific and technological progress’. [5] Tres’s Blackouts rendered inoperative the lamps, xero-copying machines, alarm systems, surveillance cameras, emergency lights and circulation of metadata, reminding us that it is not darkness and silence that make us vulnerable, but rather this society of noise and constant light in which everything is visible, everything is monitored and everything is recorded. Perhaps the blackouts are the only possible defence strategy we have at our disposal.

[1] Leaflet of the exhibition entitled Tres. Blackout, 1 April – 18 June 2017, La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, Barcelona. Last accessed on 16 September 2017 at…

[2] Quoted in the digital document BLACKOUT_cast_2016.pdf sent to us personally by Tres.

[3] Jonathan Crary, 24/7. Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Verso, London and New York, 2013.

[4] Leaflet of the exhibition entitled Tres. Blackout, op. cit. Last accessed on 16 September 2017 at…

[5] Presentation of the Higher Council for Scientific Research, last accessed on 16 September 2017 at

Fotografia © Ernest Gual

Alexandra Laudo is an independent curator. In her projects she has explored, among others, issues related to narrative, text and the spaces of insertion between the visual arts and literature; the cultural history of the gaze; practices of resistance to the image in response to hypervisuality and oculocentrism developed from the visual arts and curatorship; and the 24/7 paradigm in relation to sleep, new technologies and the consumption of esimulants. Laudo has explored the possibility of introducing orality, peformativity and narration in the curatorial practice itself, through hybrid curatorial projects, such as performative lectures or curatorial proposals located between literary essay, criticism and curatorship.
Photo: Foto: © Ernest Gual

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