Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 143–150 | Cite as

Outer Silence—Inner Dialogue

An Essay on the Performative Dining Experience “The Silence Meal” at Zagreus-Projekt, Berlin
  • Günter MeyEmail author
Arena of Auto Ethnography


This essay summarizes my thoughts and feelings about participating in the performative dining experience “The Silence Meal” at Zagreus-Projekt, Berlin, and it was hosted by the Finnish artist Nina Backman. The Silent Meal experiments revolve around sensual impression and silence and are part of the Silence Project that brings together independent artists with cultural and social entities to study, share, and experiment with the concept of silence in relation to new urban realities. The main body of the text is written in a memo style, interwoven with reflection parts to create a dense description of the situation as I experienced it. The closing remarks focus on methodological concerns about writing and elaborating memos and the introspection approach.


Silence Rules Grounded theory methodology Introspection Memoing 

FWD: Background: The Silence Meal Project [Appetizer]

In spring 2015, I received an invitation to participate in the performative dining experience “The Silence Meal” at “Zagreus-Projekt,” Berlin,1 hosted by the Finnish artist Nina Backman. The Silent Meal experiments revolve around sensual impressions and silence. They are part of the Silence Project ( that brings together independent artists with cultural and social entities to study, share, and experiment with the concept of silence in relation to new urban realities. The Silence Meal started in 2013 and takes place at different locations in Belgium, China, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, mostly with more than 20 participants per dinner. Every dinner follows a specific script and is officially opened when the artist sits down. The idea of a meal free of verbal distraction is to create a communality of silence which allows for an intensified experience of the dining rituals. Thus, in removing the “ingredient” of the spoken word, guests are free to explore a myriad of sensory experiences that can be both physical, emotional, spiritual, and cultural in nature. By relying on one’s inner voice only, the Silence Meal allows its guests to observe what emerges in place of unspoken interaction (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Performative dining experience “The Silence Meal” at Zagreus-Projekt, Berlin, 2015 (photographer: Volker Kreidler)

The following essay summarizes my thoughts and feelings about the dining experience. It is a mixture of self-reflexive memos and introspection. The first draft of this essay was written some days after the event. It is based on notes I produced directly after the event was declared to be over by the artist. I went outside to smoke a cigarette and reflected, fast and free-floating, moment-by-moment, about the event. This text found its final form through a multi-phased copy-editing process.

Subject: Reflexive Memo on the Silence Meal [MAIN COURSE]

the first really exciting moment after the voices died down was the sound of wine being poured into glasses; both waiters started pouring—one on my left, the other on my right—producing a stereo sound, a choreography i have never experienced quite like that before. voice over: i like drinking wine … but never have i experienced it like this. i recall the “click” of the lighter when i started smoking. it was a special light and sound, and i smoke often because i enjoy the click. and now i heard the sound of wine cascading into the glasses like a waterfall.

very early on—waiting on the appetizer—i asked myself when was the last time i had been sitting in such quiet surroundings … and then the answer came to me: many years ago, at the funeral of my mother. all the people were quiet, with no music playing, waiting for the ceremony. as i thought of this, the memory of sitting in front of the coffin did not affect me with sadness. it is a special moment to be aware of one’s own inner voices. after experiencing this impression, it became clear that i was enjoying the moment at the silent meal without fear! not knowing why it could be dangerous, the only possible reason being that all new/not-known moments can be anticipated with fear. voice over: before i went to the event i asked myself how i would feel, and as i got the invitation from the artist, i was not sure if i would end up liking the actual moment … i was sure i would be curious and interested to be part of the event, the performance … but i was unsure if i would like the actual tangible moment sitting between strangers—and to be an object under the control of rules.

i interrupted my presence at the table to go to the toilet, but before i did i asked myself whether it was allowed—what a silly question. the setting could be understood as an experiment to confront someone with his or her own rules, i thought. like a child, life is a socialization process of finding one’s own way with(out?) others’ wishes, rules and expectations. voice over: i feel that we are confronted always with rules, explicit or implicit; and more importantly, expectations from the others but these are always projections about expectations.

i enjoyed sitting in this special location with its ambience, as well as with the concrete human beings, the two women on my left and right, the man opposite of me. i focused on the person i felt to be in connection with. without connecting to someone (i!) will get lost, i thought. but the connection was in me: it was a projection, because i did not know anybody in the room. voice over: i was surprised by what happened before the dinner started. there was some small talk, some chatting about this and that (and, as is the case at similar events, the established mode is to build bridges by stressing common ground and empathizing similarities—no antithesis or negotiation); chatting about knowing someone (some had taken part in the event before, some seemed to know someone else and others seemed to be a couple—but i am unsure if these assumptions were right); and talking about the forthcoming event. it was possible to get into contact. when i had anticipated the event, i had not given any thought to the time period immediately before the dinner was to start. i liked being in the rooms, walking around, giving a smile to people, receiving a smile back.

in the meantime—during the main course—i thought about who of my friends i would tell about this, and i was surprised to whom i talked in an inner dialog. silence produces a wonderful thought-floating moment. it was possible because of the congenial atmosphere, the two women on my left and right, and the artist at the head of the table. sometimes i looked around … some of the others were interacting like mimes; but this felt a little distracting, so i focused less on the active parts and looked more into myself instead, focused on my auto-dialog. and i started remembering similar moments. the performance of >Weingeister< [Wine Spirits]—by the German industrial music artists Einstürzende Neubauten—, a drinking event without words that was held some years ago.2 voice over: fifteen years ago Einstürzende Neubauten produced an album titled >SILENCE IS SEXY<, the title song i sang to myself for many days after the event. and i remembered the event; it became part of me/of my (his)story. later i remembered that i listened to >ENJOY THE SILENCE< by Depeche Mode rather often in recent years.

after an hour or so—waiting for the dessert—i wished that the moment would last longer and longer. i was surprised by that thought. voice over: mostly in my life i live in noisy surroundings—music, television, street life; and in the past i have often avoided being alone, feeling anxious at the thought of it, and sitting for many hours in bars instead. and now i felt like i was enjoying the silence and sharing the moment with others i did not know and most of whom i would never see again. i felt a bit like being at home, a certain familiarity—again, this is a projection, as i know (and as i knew at the time).

during the whole event i ate very slowly, and tasted the flavors of the menu3 and the wine; and i felt powerful by eating slowly. power in finding my own way for me, and enjoying every inch of the plate; and i thought about the power of eating slow to structure the time (my time and the time of the others). the appetizer seemed never-ending, and all the others finished before me and had to wait for the main course; the waiters had to wait. voice over: the eating dynamics in families are based on power, and interviews with persons with eating disorders make it clear that the meal/eating is power—the power of the parents; and the persons with anorexia are proud because of their power over their body—to not feed their body.

RE: Some Remarks About Writing Style—Memoing and Introspection [Dessert]

The writing style of the main text—people who receive messages from me know that—is like I write an e-mail: all words are written in lower case; often I use “…” instead of using the enter-key or just to signal that there would be more to say; sometimes, I write words in full CAPS to highlight special ideas and so on.

In recent years, I often start—when writing texts together with colleagues but also as the sole author of short texts—by typing word-by-word and paragraph-by-paragraph in my e-mail style to sketch the outline form beginning to end (once completed, I copy the draft into a regular text editor, and through the copy-editing process, it finds its “traditional” form with corrected grammar and orthography). In the case of this essay [=main course], I did it the same way. I promised on the evening of the dinner—when saying goodbye to the artist—to send my impressions. Some days later, I sent her my text as an e-mail, written in my e-mail style. Why do I write in this style? For me, it is more personal, a less official style, and also emphasizes the status of tentativeness (sometimes it helps me to create ideas, not to sit in front of a blank screen); e-mails for me are quick conversations to inform someone (including oneself) about something and to get quick responses. But e-mails are also more than that: they allow us to share ideas. Because this essay is an interim fixation (like all texts!), I did not transform it into correct grammar with capitalization when I start to revise it step-by-step to its final form for the public readership. Content and style should fit. As I sent my essay—after submitting it to Human Arenas—to some of my colleagues, they gave responses like as follows: “very private and at the same time very detailed in regard to general experiences of human beings” or “thought-provoking and outright beautiful” or simply “interesting and very intimate.”

From the first version typed as an e-mail based on my handwritten notes at the evening of the event to the final form, the text develops. But the storyline existed from the first version including the “voice-over” parts. Voice-overs give the chance to break the storyline (more accurately, to create my storyline). On the one hand, they connect thoughts in the reported situation with thoughts about other situations (before the event or after it) or thoughts at different times during the event. I was not interested in telling a story like a chronicle of the event divided in past, present, and future. The anticipation of the event, the event itself, and the aftereffects should be told as interwoven parts in order to indicate the complexity of the “experimental setting” which is more than the actual event itself. On the other hand, the voice-over parts bring together different impressions—including ambiguities and ambivalences—I have had in singular moments.

The text elaborates on the idea of auto-ethnography and its variations and approaches (Ellis et al. 2010, para. 15–24; especially on layered accounts see para. 20; on community auto-ethnographies, see para. 22). But it is written more in the way of a reflexive memo. Memo writing (also called “memoing”) is a central part of grounded theory methodology as developed by Glaser and Strauss (1967, see Chap. 5; for an overview, see Ruppel and Mey 2017). Memoing is the creative process to fix ideas, concepts, experiences, and reflections. Especially reflective memos help to keep records of professional or personal experiences while conducting a study. These reflections may concern the researchers’ intended or unintended role(s) in the field; emotional involvements with the phenomenon, persons, groups, or institutions under investigation; professional or personal problems; and uncertainties with their research. As such, reflection is a central means to become aware of one’s subjectivity in an analytic approach to understanding (Mruck and Mey 2018/in press).

With regard to “hearing” the inner voices and to be aware of one’s own emotions and to detect one’s own thoughts, “introspection” was established a hundred years ago in psychology (Valsiner 2017, pp. 59–64). Because of the mainstream focus on natural science approaches to psychological research, introspection was lost as a method in psychological research for a long time. In my research on The Silence Meal, introspection was fruitful to examine my own conscious thoughts and feelings and to determine mental states including sensory, bodily, cognitive, and emotional processes. But my approach to introspective research differs from classic introspection studies which was originally conducted as a guided dialogue between experimenter and subject, and mostly refers to very short “singular interventions.” In my case, the time range between fixing my impressions and the situation under inquiry was long, and also, the researched situation of more than one hour with all the different thoughts, feelings, and associations was very complex. To handle such multi-sited arrangements, interesting insights could be given by new approaches to introspection, e.g., the dialogic introspection where more than one researcher is involved (Kleining and Witt 2000). In this approach, after a self-observation process and after writing a first introspection protocol, these preliminary results are shared with other researchers. All texts are read aloud; afterwards, there is the opportunity to rewrite and possibly expand the protocol. It is possible to repeat the feedback loops twice—or several times if this seems productive. Thus, the group of researchers (or more generally, other persons who participated in the same situation) helps to improve the collection of individual data as well as its quality (precision, amount, depth, and differentiation). In working together, the members of the group produce a resonance effect which allows them to reconsider the experience recorded and to relate it to their personal introspective experience (Kleining and Witt 2000, para. 16).

Having the idea of a dialogically oriented introspection in mind—which is integrated into this final part (=the dessert) mainly because of suggestions made by the reviewers of HA who requested me to elaborate some methodical concerns—I pick up this idea to extend my reflection. By referring to comments about The Silent Meal on the project’s website (—and feedback by participants I got from the artist Nina Backman—I’d like to add some more general words. By linking my thoughts and feelings with notes about how the other participants experienced The Silent Meal, I hope to deepen the insights induced by the experiment.

For example, one comment talks about how “The clinking of the wineglasses is now taking place with an intensified pleasure in sound,” which fits well to my sentence: “now i heard the sound of wine cascading into the glasses like a waterfall.” Someone else detailed in his feedback the sound cascade by highlighting “the little sensual attractions of the food, the body noise of chewing motion, of your own breath, swallowing and digestion; the clatter of knife and fork on the plate,” as I also heard (and still have ringing in my ears) but did not write in my text, because of the dominant experience of the “winefall.”

Also, I found in regard to my impression about other participants’ interaction—“sometimes i looked around … some of the others were interacting like mimes; but this felt a little distracting, so i focused less on the active parts and looked more into myself instead, focused on my auto-dialog”—a similar story. “[T]here was a young woman that was very lively and immediately started to interact with gestures and facial expressions. I smiled at her but I was not able or willing to get into that kind of conversation, so she turned over to the other side to get in contact with other guest.”

Also interesting is the notion of “The tiny theatre of going offstage to the toilet and returning onstage from the toilet”; it seems to be mirroring my words from an external perspective: “i interrupted my presence at the table to go to the toilet, but before i did i asked myself whether it was allowed—what a silly question.”

Overall, in the participants’ comments, one can find several remarks about exceptional character of the situation “If it is forbidden for you to talk.” It seems that the pendulum moves again and again between inner voices and observing the outside: “Between each course I fell deeper and deeper into my thoughts and the feeling was close to that meditating. Every person was there with their energy and their thoughts, their body and their mind, sometimes wondering around, sometimes being still.”

A last comment should be cited in its entirety, because it focuses on the dual character of the situation:

“But staying silent during the whole meal produces a real crazy merge of contemplation and communication in one. In a moment, you feel radically thrown back on an intimate experience of yourself. Sometimes, if everyone responds to a silent toast, the wineglasses create a sound of intercommunity, but then you seem to be alone with you again. But like scallywags, the shared look scamper, undermine the strictness of the ritual, silent jokes running down the line of faces, as ambivalent as they have been spoken out. You observe the faces and hands of the others, try to read their gestures and thoughts, if they are still smiling or looking absent or bored or absent. So, at the end, it might have been a silent meal without being really silent in the (contemplative) sense of the word. It was talkative in a way that unburdens everyone to hide his perceptions behind words.”

In the end, it is clear that my story—besides all similarities of other participants and my experience—is only one voice in a polyphonic world; as the experiment exemplified, the experience of silence can be contradictory and highly subjective. It is interesting to see how artists develop scenarios and settings researchers often do not think of for their research projects. Wissenschaft—especially psychology—could learn much more if it was to embed and recreate in its methodology ideas of the classic humanities such as introspection and also discover the fine arts and artistic research (as an addition to already established approaches of natural science, e.g., experiments.) and social sciences, e.g., grounded theory methodology.

In accordance with the above, the closing words of this paper shall be given to Nina Backman, the artist who founded the Silence Project and hosted The Silence Meal. She responded via e-mail after reading my essay and described the general idea of the event:

“Silence Meal is a performance that I originally created for the participating artist of the Silence Project after our first residency in Finland. From that moment on the performance grew to become a fundamental part of the Silence Project, a ritual to be repeated with every exhibition. These days I perform it also individually. Silence as we all know is a paradox, because the sound is everywhere. I am interested of the experience of silence, rather than the absent of sound. People experience silence very individually and when the silence is experienced jointly, it is a great connector between people. In silence people observe themselves and others, hierocracies are broken and complete strangers connect in silence in a deep and meaningful way. The performance can also be difficult for people, because it can get very emotional, sometimes people cry or laugh hysterically or even get angry. Silence Meal is also a concert of many sounds that we don’t normally pay any attention to and at the end the multiple layers of silence together with other sensory experiences create an experience which is unexpected and magical. When the meal is finished people talk, as they would have never talked before. At the end there is no need for small talk, since people already saw each other and this is a great beginning of deep and meaningful conversations.”


  1. 1.
  2. 2.

    “It started out as just an idea, perhaps out of a simple wish to drink some wine with friends as a performance, not talking, just ritualised behavior (symposium in the original sense?), concentrating on just the wine and on the sound. Everything was miked, the table, the glasses, the throats—and we really didn’t know where this was taking us. Yes, the wines were good.” (Quote from the back-cover of the CD Weingeister 2007)

  3. 3.

    In order not to leave the curiosity of gourmets and luculans unsatisfied, this is the entire menu: appetizer: beetroot with pomegranate, black cardamom, and roasted sesame, fried sea bass with lemon, coriander, and anise, yogurt mousse with horseradish and rape oil, radishes; main course: guinea fowl breast and leg with a rosemary crust, marinated cabbage with sea salt and lemon, and a cep sauce with white port; dessert: honey ice cream, chocolate sauce with Grand Marnier, and whipped cream with vanilla.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg-StendalHansestadt StendalGermany

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