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Visual Art

Hear this essay read by the artist, along with field sounds from the forest site in Finland.


Striving to represent the world, we inevitably forfeit its direct presence.

———————————————David Abram

I ARRIVE IN THE DARK SHIVER of January in Finland to begin work on my master’s degree in time and space arts. The ground has been erased by snow, and my disorientation renders me visionless. After several years of photo-documenting my performances, I suddenly have no desire to pick up a camera. Instead, I want to crawl inside the camera; I want to be the camera.

During my third week in Finland, I meet a woman who is blind. She tells me, “It’s not me with the handicap but all you who are sighted, because you require constant illumination.” I begin to wonder how to make art that doesn’t depend upon the privileged sense of sight, that embraces darkness.

Alyssa Coffin. Silence Chamber, 2022-23. Woven branches in forest, snow (sometimes melting), visitors participating in sensory artistic practices Dimensions intentionally unknown. Helsinki, Finland. Artist at the project site with the work in progress, 2022. Photo: Petri Summanen.

In the caverns of my imagination, an image emerges. A branch structure woven into the forest. A chamber of visual silence: a space to disconnect from a visual culture that capitalizes on attention. A place to crawl inside the earth, rest our eyes, and cultivate internal stillness.

Does visual stimulation cause a kind of inner overexposure, a burning of the eyes of our soul that results in spiritual blindness? What might appear in us if there was space for divine imaging?


In September, I wander the forest near my apartment, noting places with plenty of fallen branches, where the ground slopes and rocks could provide a good support. When I arrive at the site, I know it’s the right place because I don’t want to move. I feel solid ground under me, and the desire to go down more unexplored paths vanishes. All at once, there was only ever one place; my curiosity turns toward deep-time layers. Every time I’m there, I sit on the same rock and apply my pencil to a large journal.

October 11, 2022.
To stay is to acknowledge there is more here than I can (yet) see.

             To stay is to become like a rock.            To become like a rock is to attend.

Friction of bare hands against bark, hollowing cold in my bones. I begin to read through my fingertips and converse through touch. Each branch is a unique character, a singular encounter; each has a different capacity for bending, a different breaking point. I can’t use them with habitual assumptions or prescribed methods for efficient building. Every move is a collaborative relating, a reciprocity. I can’t predict the pathway or the end result. I let the branches grow from their base among the rocks, extending the landscape. I exert hidden muscles to tug and tuck: the technology of body meets the wondrous technology of branch.

My vision is to seal the woven chamber into darkness with clay from the nearby sea. The buckets of clay wait like patient cargo ships on the sidelines. In late November, I have to leave the country for a few days. When I return, the first snow has come, and the clay is frozen solid. I am devastated, not at the loss of my vision but that after so many weeks of being intimate with this forest site, witnessing every little shift of the seasons, I have been absent during its most significant transformation.

The snow blankets the chamber into optical oblivion. Three rocks. Or a white womb.

Site photo by the artist.

Slowly I embrace the snow as a gentle salvation. It creates an atmosphere of visual serenity. Going inside the chamber feels like burrowing underground and then coming up into the embrace of an arctic stained-glass cathedral.

I begin to invite people to visit, asking them to silence their phones and tuck them away, to slither on their bellies up and in and lie with me in silence. People mostly come alone or in pairs, though one day the chamber envelops a group of twelve. Most people stay for an hour or so, some as long as three hours. I don’t permit anyone to photograph the chamber, and I even restrict myself. When I took the photos on the following pages, I first paused to ask for a kind of permission.

To photograph the chamber isolates and flattens it into a mere visual, a symbol of the real. It renders the living organism time-stamped and static. Photography implies a defined subject, resulting in a bordered artwork. This indexing of reality into a frame abstracts it from its relational ecosystem, severing branch from rock from snow from sky from earth. I want to lure people away from visual placeholders and into the darkness of their imaginations, where chamber can be rendered in an inner landscape.

Months of engaging haptic sight teach my body that this chamber is like darkness: a borderless expanse where inner and outer landscapes merge. I resist habitual photo-graphic vision and begin to develop practices to build my attention and develop a new kind of ocular acuity, one less shaped by the distractions of our frenetic visual culture. In the breath of space between my body and the body of the woven branches, an uninterrupted dialogue begins.

When snow covers the chamber, sealing it into a dark enclosure with light coming only through the entry slot, it becomes a sort of camera obscura. For so long, the camera has been mediating between my body and my environment, interrupting the conversation, inserting itself into the relationship. Now I can inhabit this apparatus. Now the environment is the camera and the camera is the environment. The dark chamber has given a shape to the inside of the outside.

I begin to approach the chamber as a place to experiment with what it might mean to be a light-sensitive receptor, with the natural capacities of my body (atrophied by reliance upon the camera’s eye) to capture and inscribe the sensuous world inside of me.

—-Dec 9, 2022. I want to be born into and out of the chamber’s dark body
—-like a pinhole camera that requires only a prick to let in a small thimble of light,
—-focused and directed; to sharpen reality onto my insides.


In December, my friend who is blind visits. We arrive and stand in a heavy silence; I know that for her there’s no visual subject of reverence. I ask if I can describe it to her. I attempt to evoke the chamber’s image using feeble words to call it into existence, perhaps not unlike God in Genesis imaging the heavens and the earth into reality.

Photo by the artist.

But words are not the kind of language that can paint images in her mind. I have given her fragments, she says, frustratingly partial but intriguing. The gaps evoke her curiosity. I wonder if the chamber exists to her in its imagistic absence, precisely in these dark gaps where imagination can shimmer and play.

“Where are you?” I often ask visitors to the chamber.

—-I am in a womb that has been pushed up from the earth.
—-I am in a protective embrace.
—-I feel warm inside (like the sensation of home) even though my body is cold.
—-I am in memory.

The chamber is a holding space. It carves out spacetime not tethered to the site or structure. The chamber is inside you, always accessible. You carry it with you wherever you go, a portable sanctuary.

Photo by the artist.

As the work evolves in dialogue with its visitors and the forest around it, my original idea of a visual silence chamber is transformed. Silence becomes an internal posture of attention, an opening of the body, a literal holding of space. Silence is the first practice, the ground for participants’ entire experience of the chamber.

Sinking into stillness, we practice tuning internal landscape with external landscape; psyche with the ecological intelligence around us. Silence allows us to be present to everything that is already speaking: the wind in the trees, our breath, the song of birds, a buzzing fly, the distant roar of the metro, a barking dog. We listen in expanding circles, stretching our hearing out from our own thoughts and then returning to the still, quiet voice inside.

Photo by the artist.

The participant decides when to begin silently moving around the chamber. Each visitor is invited to explore every section and crevice with playful curiosity. We gather information through all our senses. I press my feet up against the branch frame, testing its strength as it releases its creaking whine. I close my eyes and let my hand fall behind my head and begin to touch what I find, exploring the textures. I lift a small rock to rub against my lips to taste it. I bury my nose in a pinecone and take a deep breath. I turn a twig over and over in my hand, only then opening my eyes to relate this haptic knowing to visual information.

Hours pass; we are not so sure anymore of time; we have sunk into another plane. Eventually images and memories surface and are offered as slow, soft words into the air. Cold at last drives us to begin the exiting ritual. It is something like being born from the womb of the earth or slipping from the dark inside the camera back into the encompassing image of the world.

Film still by Martin Dušek.

I instruct participants to close their eyes and lower themselves onto their backs, letting the sloping earth pull them down to slide into the door frame until they feel the blast of light against their eyelids. They tilt their heads back, then open their eyes to gather in this upside-down world and trace what they see, inscribing insidethemselves the trees, sky, light, smells, and sounds. The final image is burned into the living medium of their bodies, to be carried with them.

—-October 2, 2023. For months my friend has imagined the chamber without
—-seeing any photos of it. When she encounters it and places her hand on the
—-branch weave, she begins to cry. She tells me she is moved by the generosity of
—-its presence.
—-While lying inside, my back slowly dampened by wet soil, I look up at the strong
—-weave of branches arching over me. I think about the difference between striving
—-to create the ground that holds our weight and perceiving the ground that is
—-already abundantly beneath us, holding us up, bearing us up as
—-flesh of its flesh. I can no longer conceive that my own hands have woven this structure;
—-I am more certain of the truer story alive in my imaginal body: that when I
—-rest into the ground that already exists,

———————————————-I find                        I am encompassed.



Alyssa Coffin is an interdisciplinary artist from New England currently based in Helsinki. She recently completed her master’s in time and space arts at Uniarts Helsinki’s Academy of Fine Arts. Her site-responsive work uses animate materials from the land to create structures that allow the body to be in dialogue with the earth.




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