The Silent University, Dr Nazar Pola
Dr Nazar Pola

Ahmet Öğüt reflects on his year long joint residency with the community programme at Tate Modern & and the Delfina Foundation with the development of The Silent University – a knowledge exchange platform.

According to the dictionary Silence means: complete absence of sound; avoiding discussing something; the state of standing still and not speaking as a sign of respect for someone and prohibit or prevent from speaking. If we also look at the meaning of Silent, it means not making or accompanied by any sound; not expressed aloud; without an accompanying soundtrack; saying or recording nothing on a particular subject and not prone to speak much

These known meanings of silence and silent mostly refer to a passive state of understanding. We decided to have a look at these notions from a different position. 

Who are we? We are The Silent University. 

What is The Silent University? 

It is a knowledge exchange platform initiated by myself together with Synthia Griffin and Nora Razian from the Learning & Community Partnerships team at Tate, working with asylum seekers and refugees who, although having a professional background, are unable to practice their profession due to a variety of reasons including their status. They have become lecturers, academic consultants and research fellows of The Silent University. 

For The Silent University, silent and silence mean a rather active mode of silence. 

It is a poetic protest.
It is a functional tool. 
It is about exchanging positions through empathy. 
It is a consciously delayed exchange. 
It is a currency. 
It is a statement saying; “I am here, I do exist”. 
It means if you want to meet me, first you have to understand me. It means I won’t tell you my story until you deserve to receive it. It is about the strategies of exchange.  

The notion of silence has always been a curious case in literature, theory, cinema, music and history, beside it’s meaning in law. It may sound negative when Wittgenstein notes his famous argument in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,

Where of one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

However, it becomes definitely clear to us that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of silence when we listen to Mladen Dolar saying in his book A Voice and Nothing More;

We must not interrupt the silence unless we have something to say which is better than silence.

He argues that, the voice is the instrument, the vehicle, the medium, and the meaning is the goal. 

The Silent University will use silence as a powerful tool and perform it as a poetic protest. As Susan Sontag remarks in her essay The Aesthetics of Silence; so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence. 

How will it operate? The very first public events of The Silent University will take place at Tate Modern at the end of November and a round table discussion at the beginning of December. There will be a publication, a resource room, a symposium around the notion of alternative education, a series of silent courses developed by the lecturers of The Silent University and discussions led by the academic consultants of The Silent University connected to themes that resonate with the project - migration, alternative currencies and the notion of silence.

During June and July 2012 a series of weekly meetings took place with a group of participants that have had a variety of asylum, migrant, and refugee experiences. In particular the project has involved those that have had a professional life and academic training in their home countries, but are unable to practice in the UK due to a variety of reasons related to their status. The participants have been developing course topics in their own languages connected to their qualifications and have rehearsed them as Lecturers of The Silent University. 

The Silent University will survive as a University in Time and will mostly be accessible online, appearing temporarily where hosted by collaborating institutions. The Silent University has no limitations; it operates beyond any language, nation, or territory.