On August 23rd, 2019, a Silent Dinner took place at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, in Katoomba, Australia. The performance is a part of the programming for the exhibition ‘with every breath‘ curated by Rilka Oakley. Photography by Ona Janzen. It was co-hosted by Honi Ryan and Atlas Talisman.
Curatorial premise: with every breath
Being in the present moment is a fundamental challenge in contemporary society. The rituals we undertake on a daily basis can serve as a reminder to be present, to be here now. Whether making food, washing or dressing we perform multiple ordinary actions on any given day. When we pay attention to these actions we become aware of that moment. The artists in this exhibition encourage us to slow down, be still, breathe, reflect and listen. Most importantly they ask us to take our time.
The exhibition features artists Sarah Breen Lovett, Cherine Fahd, Karen Golland, Anne Graham, Rachael Wenona Guy & Leonie Van Eyk, WeiZen Ho, Rachel Peachey & Paul Mosig, Pamela Pirovic, Julie Rrap, Honi Ryan, Abi Tariq, Marty Walker and Hayley West.
A Blue Mountains City Art Gallery exhibition. This project is supported by the NSW Government through Create NSW.
You can book a seat by contacting the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre on +61 2 4780 5410 or emailing email@example.com. Tickets are $75 – $85 including a three course meal.
Our first Silent Dinner in Paris was warmly hosted by Susan Westre and the Schultz family, and catered by the fabulous (and bare bottomed) Fabien Borgen from the raw organic restaurant 42 Degrees.
It was a feast for all the senses as the spring light fell late around us, switching to the twinkle of candles in this beautiful Parisian family home.
Our gracious host, Susan Westre, leads you through the evening in her experiential account here:
Susan Westre – Silent Dinner Paris – May 24, 2019
Performance art and food. That is a new combination for me. So when I was asked to host a “silent dinner” at my Paris apartment, I was super intrigued. Abi, a performance artist I had known socially, introduced me to Honi Ryan, another artist whose organizes and curates these dinners around the world. After my first meeting with Honi, I knew I wanted to offer our apartment to host one of these dinners because of the sheer weirdness of the concept.
I was super curious who would come to an event like this. An unknown location with an unknown chef and menu with people you had never met before. The rules in the invitation stated that for the two hours of the meal service, there would be absolutely no talking, reading or writing and…no digital devices allowed. What – no mobile phones? No Instagram-able moments? Plus it was happening in a complete stranger’s apartment. Who pays for something where you have no idea what the food is going to be or who will be there?
It turns out that curious people do. The evening was full of surprises, and the weirdness of the situation was part of the fun.
I got to greet the people as they arrived with Honi the host, and both of us are huggers, so I followed her lead and hugged everyone who arrived. That is never done with strangers in France, so that alone was fun to see how people reacted. The reaction was surprised but always good. There were many more women than men at the event, and hugging was such a positive way to start the non-verbal interaction. The next surprise of the evening was that the gourmet food was 100% raw and 100% vegan, served by a chef who wasn’t wearing any pants. He was wearing a professional chef coat and apron, and written on each butt cheek was a word “CRU” “NU”, which means “RAW” “NAKED” in French. We started with champagne and an “Amuse Bouche” (small bite-sized appetizer to delight your mouth) in the living room, and then moved to the long table for 18 in the dining room. One thing that everyone did was make intense eye contact. With everyone – partly because we didn’t know what else to do, I think. Eventually sign language and laughter that bubbled up around the room, and as the courses were served, people became more and more animated. Maybe it was the wine, but I think it was this weird sense of connection with these people who dared to put themselves into a situation like this. Between the main course and dessert, I felt compelled to hug everyone again from behind, just because I was having such a good time and it was the best way I knew to express it. People changed chairs, people laughed more, and then before we knew it, 2.5 hours were up. People started pointing to their watches making hand motions to me with a real sense of urgency. Could we talk now?
Honi told me that she once had a dinner that continued for 4 hours in silence, so I didn’t want to be the one to break the silence, but I knew there were no rules, so when 3 people were consistently making dramatic sign language that they wanted to talk, I said, “We can talk now if we want to.” The room erupted into applause and a big cheer. These complete strangers who hadn’t said a word amongst themselves were so curious to learn about each other. For me, the silence increased my curiosity. After we broke the silence, I didn’t have enough time to talk with everyone as much as I wanted to. It was such a diverse group in age and backgrounds and nationalities. A Canadian man was celebrating his birthday that day and his girlfriend from Singapore had bought them tickets for the dinner. There was a very hip young lesbian couple, one an American screenwriter from LA and the other from Saudi Arabia. I’ve never met a couple like that before. In fact, there was another striking young Saudi Arabian woman who came alone who was an artist in residence in Paris. And there was a British woman there who worked at a Montessori who was also raised in Saudi Arabia. Three unrelated women who grew up in Saudi Arabia at this weird art/food event. I loved that I met these interesting people from that part of the world where I had no interaction in the past. With the exception of the birthday boy couple and the lesbian couple, everyone else came alone. That alone is rather brave for a social event. At one point, I realized how many more women than men there were around the table and I felt this really powerful feminine energy in the room the entire evening.
Honi had told me that each event she had done never had a script and she never knew what would happen at her silent dinners. That intrigued me and the evening didn’t fail to live up to her claim. Her calm demeanour and warmth set the tone for a truly unique and one-of-a-kind experience that I will cherish.
We stand outside the Karachi Parsi Institute for Berlin based artist, Honi Ryan’s Silent Dinner. Waiting to be ushered in, we talk and take last drags from our cigarettes. Anticipating to be silent for the duration of the dinner/performance, we fill in all the silences, awkward pauses, flustered run-ins with people, with words—language saves us.
However, language also fails. Fails me, fails us.
Most of the time, I am caught with how to align words, align them in such a way that makes me intelligible.
We are language, and that is how we understand ourselves and others. It constitutes us; we are able to comprehend, make visible our ideas, through language. We think through language; we become and embody it. How then can one think about being silent? Would being silent entail another kind of consciousness? Is it another, perhaps a more intricate or complex, way of being. These are some of the concerns that I brought to Ryan’s Silent Dinner.
The language I think in and mostly engage with has a binary structure; it is an unstable field of conflicting/conflicted ideologies and desires; it is fragmented, and by nature demands to be continuously pieced together, and also by extension fragments the self, beliefs, ideologies, and desires. What I have been trained to do for as long as I can remember is to internalise those conflicting beliefs and ideologies, and present to the world, or people I am in contact with, a cohesive self. A self that is stable unlike the language it speaks, albeit only on the surface.
Would being silent then reflect our true selves? Because, of course, one wouldn’t have to present or communicate a cohesive self to people or the world.
When I signed up for the meal, I was asked to be silent, to which I consented. For me, this was an act of collaborating with uncertainty from the very beginning—I had never deliberately made an active choice to not speak, or have a meal with people that I did not know, or know well, from before.
When we were finally inside the Karachi Parsi institute, we were guided to our thaals. We did not get to decide who we sat with, or who sat next to us, it was up to the artist to make that call. Collaborating with uncertainty, with not knowing what comes next is exactly what followed—and I think that there is poetry in that because so much of our lives revolve around continuously making decisions and communicating them, and to give that up opens a unique space of inquiry for the self. A simple act, sharing a meal in silence, did that.
Eating together is a part of most cultures, and it comes to us almost naturally or automatically. That said, it is also extremely rehearsed because we do not eat with people we do not know. And in a way, eating with strangers, or with people we do not know well, in silence can enable us to become mindful of them, their bodies, boundaries.
Karachi is home to more than twenty-two million people; its ethnic and cultural landscape is rich and diverse, but majority of its population lives in their respective bubbles, with little to no multicultural dialogue and access. It is also a city that is fragmented—like the language I speak—and makes no effort to hide or clean those fragments. Languages mark and activate, give and deny access to, its neighbourhoods. Its residents have had a difficult time because of the languages they speak, or do not speak.
So to host a Bohra dinner at the Karachi Parsi Institute—two seemingly disjointed cultures, weaved together through the context of the city, and especially thinking about it now, while writing—makes sense. Karachi’s culture has no centrality, the location of which is not always clear, or it is muddled, mimicking how it has grown, both organically and inorganically, peacefully and violently. There is beauty in this haphazardness; this muddled way of being and thinking, the embracing of which accounts for many attendees of the Silent Dinner.
In my interactions with the Bohra community, I later learned—but witnessed and experienced first—that each meal begins with having a pinch of salt. According to them, it cures and prevents ailments. Salt comes from the earth, without which most meals would never be complete. Salt is earth. Karachi is salt—it is in its air, in its soil, on its buildings.
Immediately followed by salt, comes sweet. Salt leading to sweet, setting up a binary only to be pulled and stretched later.
Communicating without language needs another way of being, and requires patience—especially for those who do not necessarily know how to sign and communicate without words (both written and spoken). The Silent Dinner provided us with a space where we learned, albeit slowly, to communicate differently, where failed attempts at making your intensions known was, of course, a part of the experience. In these failed attempts at communicating, I realised, albeit with reluctance, that in the larger scheme of things operating in real time, inconsequential ones do not necessarily matter—and that one can let go, and immerse himself/herself in the experiences that are offered; and sometimes immersion can only happen if one is silent, silently absorbing his/her surroundings; listening, eating, and being with others in silence.
 Same can be said about most naturally occurring food, but this signification of salt as earth (for me) is immediate because of the frequency with which we use it.
 Language, even though central to our understanding of ourselves and the world, can interfere with the experiences that we have, making it difficult to fully absorb, pause, and appreciate.
From October – Dec 2016, I was artist in residence with the Lahore Biennale Foundation, working on a public art project called Urbanities. My main projects there were group silent walking performances in the city led by local women, in research into the complexities of being a body in public space in Pakistan. The work led to a change in government urban planning policy to include functioning footpaths in some areas of the city. As a part of this residency, I also held a Silent Dinner.
On a rooftop in the old town, on December 5th 2016, 60 of us sat for exactly the allotted 2 hours. It was a calm Silent Dinner, with many people resolved to remain reflectively with themselves, in silence. The intensity of the subtle nuances in communication that occurred across the tables grew over the night, as people reached out to each other and connected, slipping into convivial, gestural, eye contact and other engagements. Much was understood, much left behind. It was the first silent dinner not to involve alcohol, so the evening did not take as dramatic a curve as it does when it follows alcohol’s arch.
The sounds of the environment rang strong, at 5 floors high we caught the distant buzzing of the busy city roads, and endured interventions from neighbouring conversations and stereos, all providing us with something ‘else’ to tune into. This melody, along with the magnificent views of the stunning Badshahi Mosque and surrounding walled city provided much distraction from the necessity of immediate human interaction. A welcome relief (an excuse almost) to be with others while consciously immersed in the environment; paying attention to the sounds that we normally ignore, the we usually drown out with our words. The thick haze of smog hung with deceptive romance on the horizon, blending the orange and green lights blissfully.
My new love is Pakistani food. Such incredible cuisine, and our silent meal was no exception. We began with a raw beetroot salad that I made for the guests, and followed with a very traditional vegetarian meal prepared by local chefs. The beat to the evening was provided by the patter patter of dough being flung quickly from hand to hand to make ‘pathooray’, a local bread specialty freshly fried for us, sizzling softly when the dough hit the oil bubbling on a round metal plate. This harmony repeated as long as the people ate more, and so the beat followed our bellies.
At the end of most Silent Dinners, I feel exhausted from extending my capacity to be understood without words, but here in Lahore I felt revived, happily fed and rejuvenated. Nourished by the warm gentle nature of the folks I shared the experience with, and the encapsulating city that hosted us.
Photos by Sana Ullah Rajpoot.
Thank you to the Goethe Institut Pakistan for their generous support of the project.
What an incredible evening… Last night was the largest Silent Dinner to date indeed with 200 people in attendance at the Paddington Town Hall, and most definitely one of the most playful!
Let’s see –
A a killer dancefloor worshiping a silent DJ; one woman adorning everyone’s napkins (known as the Bride or the Scarecrow); a game of cricket; a massive macarena; plastic fruit tennis and flying apples; the solidarity and strength of the silent standing protests to quiet noisy folks; tug of war; peace flags; napkin hats; delicious dessert; more plastic fruit (confiscated ;); pavlova; many a meaningful gaze; belly laughs and genuine hugs.
We can’t help but peel off some layers and access the parts of our perception that normally lies beneath the top coat of words. To acknowledge the subtleties and complexities of communication, and reflect on our interactions and broader social behaviours.
I must say there were quite a few phones pulled out last night — the device addiction is deep: 2 hours seems to be just tooooo loooong, which is totally crazy!
What a beautiful room we had at the Paddington Town Hall. My heartfelt thanks go to The Sydney Fringe who produced the Silent Dinner with such care and support, it is quite overwhelming, you guys really are rocking it as one of the best supporting entities for artists in Sydney, and quite frankly the best festival I have ever worked with — two years running. Love your work! And to all the volunteers, staff and caterers that made the night happen, you guys were solid, and led it with grace.
And to ALL YOU PARTICIPANTS — FOR BEING IT! Yourselves, in the moment, mindfully; playfully and bravely.
In November 2015, The Silent Dinners were a part of a group exhibition at the Goethe Institut Barcelona, called Utopian Tomorrow, curated by Herman B. Mendolicchio. It was held in a private house in the centre of Barcelona, a dinner of 25 people and the silence lasted for the 2 requested hours before the host/home owner spoke, allowing her gusts to do the same. The menu was a seasonal banquet prepared in collaboration with local food enthusiast Alberto Bellini. The beginning of the evening was surreal, as people received their glass of champagne on arrival, and then lounged around on the deck in the cool winter air, opening up their perceptions to other ways of encountering, while munching on carrot sticks and fresh hummus. In itself like a Vanessa Beecroft arrangement of bodies in space, staying silently to themselves.
The evening had huge swings in energy, but all the while was an intense experience. The group went from extroverted games and table top walking, to long endured eye contact sessions, sitting, engaging, holding, each other in a still and felt exchange.
The piece is aptly presented under the title Utopian Tomorrow, in itself an exercise in alternate models for living, questioning what we can do with real-physical space encounters in todays digital era. As a means of dropping fast judgement patterns and exercising tolerance, the political implications of eating together in silence are profound. And here in Barcelona, I felt those implications closer and more tangible as realities then ever before. Things are moving. People attitudes to mindful practice are changing, and in the digital snowstorm around us, we are increasingly happy to disconnect in order to connect.
“There is a world made of no words, silence, full-bodied glances, heartbeats, veiled shyness, intrepid movements, fast imagination, and alternative empathies. The Silent Dinner is the door to access these inner layers we tend to neglect.”
Herman B. Mendolicchio. Curator of A Silent Dinner in Barcelona, with the exhibition ‘Utopian Tomorrow’ in Barcelona, 2015 supported by the Goethe Institute Spain.
For the Sydney Fringe Festival’s keynote closing event this year, we are hosting Honi Ryan’s international performance art project – Silent Dinner Parties. After having booked out runs globally, including Adelaide and Melbourne Fringe Festivals, the Silent Dinner project returns to its hometown to quietly unite Sydney folk with its biggest banquet yet. We invite you to join us at Marrickville Town Hall as we shuffle up social norms, and see what communication morphs into over a delectable three-course dinner without words.
The meal is prepared by Sydney’s Studio NEON chefs who are constantly looking for something creative, challenging and a little outside the box. They are contributing to an inspirational evening as part of the silent dinner series with a local, seasonal, menu filled with lots of colour, texture and flavour to keep your senses captivated.
Come and play with the possibilities of making connections in different ways, as we dine together in silence.
If you would like to participate in the event for free there are spaces open to volunteer staff for the night. Send your expression of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.
AFTERWORD: Sydney, that was simply spectacular. 185 of us eating and connecting silently together under the clouds in Marrickville Town Hall. What a special evening, with everything from silent congo lines and a castle of glasses, group hugs and the occasional waltz. We had spontaneous percussion group emerge, to be silenced again by when the group protested by standing and raising their spoons above their heads. There was magic and mystery, in no way watered down by the large number of the group. Thanks are to Bravo Child, whose playful energy permeated the room. To Kerri Glasscock and the Sydney Fringe for being amazing producers, and to all of you there. You’re ace. With love, Honi xx
EDIT: Wowsers!! We won the big Sydney / New Zealand Tour Ready Award at the Sydney Fringe Festival Thank you so much Sydney we hope to see you again soon. Mwah!
On the tenth of May 2014 a Silent Dinner Party was held in Leura, in Australia’s Blue Mountains as a part of the performance schedule along side my solo exhibition at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre.
Although I have lived in these mountains for nearly 5 years, I had not held one up here before. Since I was having the exhibit it seemed a good time to offer a gallery audience the opportunity to participate in some of these social sculptures that were referenced in the white cube. Despite many requests for a SDP in this area I have not felt a pressing need to do it, precisely because gathering in silence is not such a foreign thing here.There are many yoga and meditation retreats on these mountains and indeed one guest noted that she was aware that many of the participants had most likely done a vipassana meditation which requires 10 days of silence. This didn’t seem to dampen the desire of folk to come and we quickly had bums on all available seats. The experience reminded me that it is not a meditative environment that is created at these parties (although some guest have wanted that and managed to maintain their own calm, private, mindful state during the meal). Rather, these dinners create a space that reflects on language and allows for the more subtle forms of communication to be forefront (in often very unsubtle ways). At spiritual retreats, silence often means a lack of communication. You keep to yourself and don’t engage in eye contact or overt body language, you certainly don’t have conversations in mime, desperately deciphering what it is your mute interlocutor is saying. Whereas at my Silent Dinners, that is the stuff that they are made of. The earnest attempts at understanding each other in silence breeds a recognition of the importance of communication and it’s intricacies. It points at the hierarchy of information we intake, how we rely on words to express and receive that information, then throws it to the wind (usually in a fit of laughter).
If linguistic communication is one of the things that defines human beings apart from other animals, then the deduction of it from a social environment can be seen to be a return to an animal or primal state, that can reveal base elements of this human animal. Base elements that transcend cultural difference, and can play a hand at breaking down prejudices.
The Blue Mountains dinner was lovely by all accounts. It was a relatively peaceful beginning, then there was a point after the main meal where, as if by general consensus, the group decided to get active. I missed the cue for it as I was in the kitchen but all of a sudden people stood up and started mingling. Did you guys orchestrate that? There were 26 of us around that huge table in the wonderfully eclectic environment of Hayley West’s house. There was more than enough to distract the eye from the need to talk! The Indian inspired vegetarian feast was dreamed up and prepared by Charmaine O’Brien who has done extensive travel and research into Indian cuisine, specialising in street food she has a written book on the topic and her delicious recipes will be available on the eaten section of this site in the next days. The chats in the kitchen before the guests came were most enjoyable. I love learning about people and food! And where would we have been without a waiter, and what a waiter we had that night, Micheal Lovett you did it in style! All round amazing help from my mum, Trish Ryan who has now worked on or attended countless SDPs and come to quite enjoy them it seems, although she still mouths words (mother!) My thanks are to these folks, and extend to all the guests, it was great fun. We danced to those universal beats, jumped around in the shape of hopscotch out on the back terrace, and had a decided penchant for napkin origami, that is when one wasn’t throwing the napkins at unwitting folk. One of the guests, Meg wrote an account of her experience, which is a great read. Check it out on the post below.
I will most definitely be hosting more Silent Dinner Parties in the Blue Mountains in future so drop me line any time if you would like to attend one.
Thanks Mountains, I’m off again soon for a time, as I do when the winds here get so cold that they simply move through you. But I will, as always, return to ya.
An experiential account written by Silent Dinner guest Meg Benson in the Blue Mountains, Australia in 2014:
I attended a Silent Dinner party orchestrated by Honi Ryan an artist specialising in social sculpture and hosted in Leura of the Blue Mountains this May, 2014.
It was an intriguing and challenging idea that immediately filled me with suspense.
I understood the possibility of the open slate of the experiences that may or may not unfold, apparent by the simplicity of the rules, which really allow for anything outside those rules.
Do not speak, do not write, try to make as little noise as possible, do not read and do not mouth words. That was all.
Prior to attending, I was asked such questions (by more than one friend) as… “does it need to be meditational, like vipassana?” another comment was… “it does not say that everyone can’t have group sex”… of course a joke, but it made me wonder how these rules are permissive if interpreted by a group or culture of people so inclined.
It occurred to me that people may have entered the silent dinner party space with such self-imposed concepts and expectations about how they should behave… pressure to abstain… to be transcendent or pressure to fill the space and perform.
Honi embraced us upon our welcome, and this dispelled any imagining that we should survive the dinner party of 2+ hours by avoiding touch, human interaction and eye contact, I already felt comfortable, welcome and equal.
Upon commencement across the evenings’ 5 star presentation of a 3 course meal, I soon realised that dinner was a perfect scenario to explore social rules of engagement and norms, permissions to connect, enjoy and communicate in silence. It’s something we have all done numerous times, and although many houses have many varied table manners, it is a familiar ritual to explore such unfamiliar conditions. I experienced the ritual of dinner as somewhat of a comfort blanket.
The silence did have a sound…it was the sound of gentleness and mindfulness. The sound of delicately handled utensils, of polite and unassuming presence, all embracing smiles, wine pouring from the bottle, creasing and crinkling of paper table cloths, of giggles and laughs that popped out accidentally or uncontrollably and of generous footsteps bearing lovingly presented food.
I observed an initial sense in the group of guests (including myself) of looking for cues for permission to interact or for direction, yet personally felt a delight in the unexpected of what would flow naturally. I noticed Honi was in the traffic flow of many gazes as if she herself would signal a green, red or amber light. This was what the group of guests at the early stage was looking for until bit by bit it found it’s freedom though the gradual accumulation of spontaneous independent interaction.
Without much to cling to, in sustained silence, amongst mostly unfamiliar people, I dug down into my values and framework for enjoying life to create a self-aware playing field to navigate self and others in this unpredictable TRIP (to me this experience had all the elements involved in a psychedelic trip except the trip itself). I prepared my self with a sense of respect, spontaneity, gratefulness, playfulness, non-rigidity, flow, interest in relational interacting, appreciation that nothing is in isolation and that themes of play can develop, maintaining compassion for self and others…. a self imposed rule that guides all my life,being non-serious yet also disinterested in shallow distracting, space filling frivolity.
Honi’s self-erecting social sculpture was a spectrum of changing moments ….as broad as the palette of the mind that moves like clouds in a changing landscape.
It appeared to me that people were at times looking to common dinner party norms for permission and guidelines for social behaviour and I saw this in many ways. At what point does someone settle into their being and trust their own motivation aside from the perceived expectation of compliance?
AM I ALLOWED TO START EATING WHILE THE FOOD IS HOT even though people are still being served?…. half a table had been served first and some were eating. My answer was tonight I make the meaning and the rules, I owe it to my sense of respect to the cook to consume it while it is hot, coz mere compliance to rules on a table of 20 or so is senseless compliance. I noticed some started eating and then looked around and stopped as if someone would perceive disrespect and perhaps because they would like themselves better that way.
Other contented folks continued on ….
How naked ! when the rules are all stripped away! except the non-negotiable container of silence that we all bravely arrived to encounter.