The Imaginary Scream


Robert Willim


I dreamt about a work I will never make. In the dream I walk through the woods surrounding the small town Taivalkoski in Finland. I walk for hours, far from roads and houses. After some time I stop in the woods, at no particular place, and I scream at the top of my voice. I listen to the reverberation and the evanescence of my shout.

In my dream the performance is lo-tech. I wouldn’t bring any electronic devices. No mobile phone or GPS that could register my movements. No digital writing or mapping, no data gathered. I would be off the grid. This mundane performance would bear some resemblance to works by artists like Richard Long or Hamish Fulton, who have embraced the simplicity of walking and the direct embodied connection to nature and various places. But I wouldn’t follow them, I wouldn’t walk any specific line. Unlike them I wouldn’t collect anything, wouldn’t make a single pile of stones, no carving or inscription, no photographs, maps or representations to present in galleries or museums. In the dream I wouldn’t communicate my memories or experiences of the work to anyone. It would remain my private solitary action, experience and happening.

But now I communicate, I write about what would never be communicated in the dream. Here, my imaginary unperformed scream works as an experiment of potentiality. What is the ontological status of an envisioned performance intended never to be realized? My thoughts go to Yoko Ono and her TAPE PIECE III/Snow Piece (1963) and her ideas about the inaudible. Her instructions for the piece:

Take a tape of the sound of the snow falling.

This should be done in the evening.

Do not listen to the tape.

Cut it and use it as strings to tie gifts with.

Make a gift wrapper, if you wish, using the same process with a phonosheet.

(In: Kahn 2001:238).

The tapes with silent snow falling that are never played but instead cut and used to tie gifts with are media that in some abstract way still carry and mediate inaudible sounds. The Imaginary Scream is also inaudible, but the reason for its silence is that it has never happened, and is intended never to happen. Without durance it can’t be recorded. It’s a non-happening, a non-performance. But like Yoko Ono playing with the inaudible specificity of snow falling in the stillness and darkness of night, I can play with the fantasy of my piece being performed at different times and conditions. The scream would evoke certain feelings and thoughts when experienced during the times of dark snowy winter, and others during a bright summer night. Under any imaginable condition different affective universes would unfold.

There’s a tension between the intangibility of the imagination and imagining specific and clearly defined conditions. To relate the non-performance to an actual area and municipality give some concretion. Presenting exact coordinates that locate it at a specific point outside Taivalkoski would in a way make it even more tangible. Then again, imaginations and dreams are always transient, no matter what they are about. There’s however a blurred border between imaginations, fantasies, dreams, plans, proposals, scenarios and suggestions. But when it comes to The Imaginary Scream the plan is to keep it in the realm of the imaginary.

Why scream? There’s something instantly emotional about a scream. It’s hard not to be affected by the screams from humans or other creatures. It’s something that defy words, like in Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, where howls, grunts and wordless expressions were used as metaphysical tools to create a more emotional theatre, a shortcut past an aesthetic distance to an immediate experience of the cruel conditions of life (Artaud 1958). Screaming, this primal occurrence, has been dealt with by a number of artists and philosophers, like Francis Bacon (who expressed: "we are born with a scream; we come into life with a scream, and maybe love is a mosquito net between the fear of living and the fear of death"), Edvard Munch, Jaques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze to name a few. There’s no need to here delve into a deeper analysis of the philosophical or cultural history of screaming. Nevertheless, the combination of physical simplicity and possible metaphysical complexity of a scream makes it perfectly suitable for a non-performance in the Finnish woods. The immediacy and affective strength of a scream performed is an intriguing contrast to the abstract contemplative scope of the non-performed imaginary scream.

There is one intention behind this work, the intention not to perform it. What would it take to configure a method for it? The regularity of a method requires some kind of substance and concrete anchoring. A method could be related to the past or the future. It could either have been implemented or been intended to be performed. But could we talk about a method of the non-performed and non-intended? A method that focuses all the abandoned actions of various art and science projects. All the roads never taken, the tools never used. How does the deselected come back to haunt projects?

What about emergence? Is the performance actually born the moment that I communicate this? Now when the idea is communicated, now when the idea is articulated, written down, it is in a way realized, or has started to mutate. The imaginary scream is still imaginary, but no longer confined to my secluded thoughts. The fantasy has become a social imaginary. It has taken some form, some sketchy character of being an outline. But the banal essence of this outline, this word score if you will, is that the piece will never be performed. In this way it diverge from Fluxus works by Yoko Ono, La Monte Young and others, which were conceptual and often ephemeral, but still meant to be performed (even if the instructions sometimes made the works impossible to realize, like Youngs´ "Piano Piece for Terry Riley #1" which included the instructions: "Push the piano up to the wall and put the flat side flush against it. Then continue pushing into the wall. Push as hard as you can"(In: Nyman 1999:84)). By not being performed or contextualized it maintain some absurd autonomy, in some travestic way commenting on modernistic dreams about sovereign works of art.

If The Imaginary Scream would be performed, if anchored in time and space, it would dissolve or transfer into something else. And when talking about "something else", what are the boundaries of the performance? Where does it end? The description of the dream above might be some referential point. For some time it didn’t have any name. Now it can be referred to as "The Imaginary Scream." Did it become less imaginary when it was given a name, the naming as performance, even though the name implies it is "imaginary"?

Thanks to Mats Arvidson and Max Liljefors for commenting on an earlier version of the text.


Artaud, Antonin 1958. The Theatre and its Double. New York: Grove Press.

Kahn, Douglas 2001. Noise, Water, Meat. A History of Sound in The Arts. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Nyman, Michael 1999. Experimental Music. Cage and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Robert Willim is an artist, cultural analyst and associate professor of European Ethnology at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden. Willim's research has primarily dealt with themes like digital and material culture as well as cultural economy, and he has also examined the interplay between art and science. His music and artworks are related to his practices as a cultural analyst and ethnographer, and the works often emanate from research questions. More info: www.robertwillim.com