File Note 104: Sam Belinfante - Camden Art Centre

Essay by John Mowitt



Sam Belinfante Images References Quote Biography Credits

Sam Belinfante

Roughly 45 minutes into Aryan Kaganof’s Night is Coming: A Threnody for the Victims of Marikana (2014) we are shown (it is not spoken) the following quote from the South African jazz bassist Johnny Dyani: “When you start talking about music, you start lying.” This repeats, although slightly out of phase, Martin Heidegger’s observation from his 1959 lecture on language: “to talk about language is presumably even worse than to write about silence”. Taken together such formulations direct our attention, our eyes and our ears, to the essential difficulty that animates, even agitates, the corpus of Sam Belinfante. This is not quite the classical problem of what the Greeks called ekphrasis, that is, the difficult work of transposing an image (the shield of Achilles) into poetry (the language of Homeric epic), but what separates these insights is less time than thought. What Dyani and Heidegger are stressing are the stakes of acknowledging the paradoxes that beset virtually all work with sound whether realised as music or as silence. This work is not only difficult, challenging, it may be impossible; not in the sense of being unachievable, but in the sense of constituting a form of achievement that is marked conspicuously and repeatedly by its own limits. These limits are not signs of failure for they are hugely generative and Belinfante insists that we retrace his own encounter with them. To take “listening” as an example: Belinfante is not only inviting us to listen in various settings and to various sounds, but he is insisting that we also attend or attune to the difference between hearing and listening, that we, in effect, listen to what listening is, how it takes place. Put differently, he is reminding us that one cannot listen without hearing, but one can indeed hear without listening. And, in that sense, he is reminding us that neither hearing nor listening are essentially, or exclusively attached to the ears.

What this tells one directly is that Belinfante agrees with the German writer Friedrich Schlegel when he insisted that the theory of the novel had to itself be a novel, suggesting two things about him: firstly, that he treats art-making as a rigorous form of thinking, not merely beautiful, sublime, kitschy or ugly; secondly, his work is not approaching its concerns from the outside. Belinfante does not make art about audiovisuality. Instead, he works to involve us in the thinking that his materials call
forth from within him. 

Currently working in the shadows of 20 Maresfield Gardens he is pursuing this “calling forth,” in dialogue with both doctors and psychoanalysts. More specifically, he has turned his camera on the striking amalgam of gesture and percussion that arises when the body involuntarily reacts to the small mallet or hammer used to test reflexes. In footage from the talk On the One Hand and the Other which accompanied his residency, Belinfante frames two male bodies as they engage in this practice of testing, a practice that coordinates the mute tap of a knee or arm with the silent, but abrupt movement of a limb. The age old activity of “percussing” the body, sounding it for health, is here brought directly into contact with the matter of rendering the gesture of the unconscious audiovisually. Belinfante has taken this even further by attempting to stage, that is sustain, through the device of a foot activated recording loop, this enigmatic touch between the place in the body where it doesn’t think that it thinks, and the movement that this body can nevertheless bring to the screen.

But does it mean to say, as I have, that Belinfante provokes us to wonder whether either hearing or listening are attached exclusively to the ears? At one important level this means noting, even delineating, the education we have received from audiovisual media such as film or television, an education that disciplines us to treat sounds as attached to objects in the visual field. More than providing Foley artists with the founding cues of their craft, this lesson also registers the decisive role of vision in shaping listening. As Theodor Adorno and Hanns Eisler once argued, vision provides sense making with the model of nimble clarity that sounds confound. Put differently, if sounds make sense (more, by the way, than merely having a source), they are, in effect, visualised. We thus “listen” with our able-bodied heads and bodies as much as with the psychological and physical apparatus grasped by audiology. It is in relation to this set of issues that Belinfante’s attentive work on gesture in the audiovisual field assumes its crucial importance.

In Belinfante’s choral piece, The Full Gamut (2015), for example what he systematically explores is the musically expressive potential of the tonal rudiments in Western music. Such movements, made memorable in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, are deployed by Belinfante to trace the work of sound as it plunges listeners into the oral cavities from which it resounds. Structured as a round, loosely working through the circle of fifths, The Full Gamut makes gesture, that decisive demarcation device in Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, vanish between the sight and the sound of the body emptying of its sonic contents. It thus sets us to thinking about where the work of audiovisual art is taking place, or, to dig out another forgotten ancestor, to cite Baruch Spinoza: what a body can do.

Similar points could be made about Belinfante’s short, Accordion (2014), where musical sound is generated by the reversible handling of the bellows, keys and buttons. Sonic gestures indeed. Here, on these pages, these gestures are being written about. If what Dyani says is true then you are reading lies. But with consummate artful dodging Belinfante is working precisely on and at the places where writing, speaking, singing and filming stage the paradoxes they don’t quite succumb to.


Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1994)

Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by James Strachey (1994)

Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, 1975

Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear (2009) 

Beryl Korot and Steve Reich, The Cave, 1990–1993

Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A selection (2004)

Darian Leader, Freud’s Footnotes (2000)

John Mowitt, Percussion: Drumming, Beating, Striking (2002)

Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening (2007)

Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 A.D.)

Jonathan Rée, I see a Voice: A Philosophical History of Language, Deafness and the Senses (1999) 

Steve Reich, Writings on Music, 1965–2000 (2004)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg (dir.), 1977

Simon Steen-Anderson, Black Box Music, 2012

“You suppose correctly that music is foreign to me, but you naturally cannot know to what extent it is foreign, incomprehensible and inaccessible.” Sigmund Freud


Sam Belinfante (born 1983) is an artist living and working in London. Along with filmmaking and photographic work, his practice incorporates sound, performance and curating. Recent exhibitions include The Curves of the Needle, BALTIC 39, Newcastle (2015); The London Open, Whitechapel Gallery (2015) and the solo show Many Chambers, Many Mouths, Southard Reid, London (2013). He curated and participated in The Voice and The Lens, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, which toured to Whitechapel Gallery as part of Spitalfields Festival in June 2014. Recent performances include The Full Gamut, Camden Arts Centre (2015) and Corpus Sonus, Whitechapel Gallery (2015). Recently Belinfante won the Hayward Touring Curatorial Open with his exhibition Listening which opened at BALTIC 39 in September 2014 and toured to Bluecoat, Liverpool; Site Gallery and Sheffield Institute of Arts Gallery, Sheffield; and Firstsite and Art Exchange, Colchester. 


John Mowitt is a writer and holds the Leadership Chair in Critical Humanities, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds.

Published on the occasion of Sam Belinfante’s residency at Camden Arts Centre, 14 December 2015 – 13 March 2016.