Simulacrum

Tijdschrift voor kunst en cultuur

In Search of Silence’s Image – Marijn Bril

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It is never silent on the internet

In a world in lockdown, many sounds are muted. There is almost no one on the streets after the curfew, no commute between home and work, no nightlife, and not a single open restaurant. Day in day out I sit in my apartment with closed windows, only once in a while I hear the zooming sound of a car passing by. Yet in this state of isolation, real stillness is still hard to find. As soon as I pick up my device, phone or computer, the imagined silence is broken. With ongoing police brutality, political turmoil, and daily reports of COVID-19 infection rates, the media feels louder than anything. In this chaos, my Twitter feed floods in opinions and counter-opinions, BBC notifies me of BREAKING NEWS on a regular basis, and my phone lights up to inform me of yet another government press conference. It is never silent on the internet.

All these notifications, alerts, and messages are not strictly sonic ones. They are visual, text-based, they might contain an image or a gif. Sometimes it leads to a video, but more often not. I can spend days interacting with my phone with the ‘actual’ sounds muted. Yet even in this absence of sound, these interactions can feel loud. The writer Laurence Scott says, ‘It is becoming intuitive to think of silent images and strings of text as forms of noise.’ [1] We understand our relationship to visual stimuli through the framework of sonic stimuli. The language used in online platforms already signifies this, as Scott exemplifies:

“Mute may end up being the verb of the century. I remember noticing the mutation of muteness while trying to get rid of an unwanted advert crowding in on my YouTube viewing. It was one of those online billboards, an inert, soundless, digital poster. Moving my cursor pitilessly towards the X button, a piece of rollover text intervened like a social worker, asking if I wanted to ‘Mute This Ad’. I did so, and a square of plain colour covered the billboard, displaying the words: ‘Ad Muted’. ” [2]

We can thus understand something that is solely visual as something sonic. The sound level depends on the message of the image or the text; some messages hardly make a sound, others may be experienced as a constant hum, a noisy crowded room, or people screaming at one another. Whereas political turmoil might feel loud, a soothing message from a friend could feel like a soft whisper. Amidst all those sounds, can we find space for true silence? And if so, what would silence look like? This essay will take you along on my journey in search of silence’s image – from contemporary media to a recent media history.

Silence as the lack of a signal

In my quest for the visual equivalent of silence, I must first determine a working definition of silence. Digital messages in all their different formats can be experienced as noise. Maybe silence occurs when there is no signal, no Wi-Fi network to join, no 5G. My Twitter feed is empty, Instagram only shows blank white squares, and news notifications are shut off. The lack of this signal, this potential silence, can only exist within its own environment. It is lacking because we know there used to or is supposed to be a signal. As Susan Sontag has elaborated, silence is never absolute and can only exist in relationship to something else.

” ‘Silence’ never ceases to imply its opposite and to depend on its presence: just as there can’t be ‘up’ without ‘down’ or ‘left’ without ‘right’ so one must acknowledge a surrounding environment of sound or language in order to recognize silence […] A genuine emptiness, a pure silence is not feasible — either conceptually or in fact.” [3]

None of these contemporary signs transfer the feeling of silence. Their visual languages remain within the platform’s interface, platforms that are made for constant messages, notifications, refreshing, and endless scrolls. Sometimes the lack of content takes up the form of a message, when my Facebook timeline tells me ‘You’re all caught up for now,’ or a ‘404 Page Not Found’ appears when I open a broken hyperlink. Even if the content were to be completely missing, it would only remind us of what is not there. An empty feed that does not load evokes more Fear of Missing Out than it creates peace. A broken link elicits more frustration than it does calmness. Even without messages, the platforms themselves represent noise. 

Morgan Meyer discusses how silence is created in an artwork through the significant non-use of technology. She borrows the term ‘significant non-use’ from philosopher Andrew Edgar and musicologist Thomas Clifton, who use it to analyze silence in music. ‘A musically significant silence occurs,’ Edgar explains, ‘when not all of the instruments or voices are being used.’ For example, a pause might surprise listeners and ‘sound like an insert or parenthesis.’ A significant non-use is a voluntary break; it means knowing how to use, being able to use, but eventually deciding not to use. [4] By deliberately using and non-using technology, whether that be musical instruments or the instruments of our daily lives (the screens that have become the main windows into the world during isolation), silence could be experienced at this alternation. However, in search of silence’s image, this is a rather unsatisfying answer. Unplugged, shut-off, or dead screens lack the content of noise. This silence cannot produce a visual language of itself beyond merely presenting a non-used technological object.

Television noise as the visual language of silence

What can a lack of signal look like more than an empty interface or an unplugged device? Going back in time to a recent past, when technology did not always carry the burden of interaction, I find myself in the early 2000s. The television in the centre of the living room brought entertainment and distraction to the domestic sphere. But as I grew up in a household that never strived to use the latest technologies, the television was a symbol of boredom for some time. The large box-like analogue tv was collecting dust on a shelf in a corner of the attic, not plugged into the electricity socket, not receiving any signals at all. Whenever my sister and I complained about wanting to watch tv, my father simply referred us to the unplugged television upstairs. There not being any tv shows did not strictly hinder ‘watching’ it. There is something nostalgic about this time. As a time before the internet (in our household), I could spend hours playing arcade games that were pre-installed on the computer. Overstimulation was hard to find. It is within this sphere that I believe silence can find itself visualized. 

Once plugged in and brought back into the living room, the television has a particular way of showing when a channel is empty: noise. Noise or static is a random dot pixel pattern when the antenna receiver of the television obtains no transmission signal. The flickering black and white dots result from electronic noise and radiated electromagnetic noise accidentally picked up by the antenna. Whereas in audio noise isn’t silent, I would argue that this tv static (noise) is visually similar to the concept of silence. More than the lack of something, television noise is a visual language on its own. I find poetry in the fast-paced flickering, the black and white dots jumping on the screen, the noise appearing as a plain grey surface from enough distance. When I close my eyes to mute outside stimuli, the flickering darkness behind my eyelids has a visual similarity to the flickering ‘snow’ on the television screen. By staring into the flickering image, a silence within my mind can be created. In the same way that meditative practices stimulate to ‘silence’ a stream of thoughts and find stillness within, the noise image in its boringness and poetry calls for an experience of stillness. Hundreds of hours of this white noise can now be found on Youtube. Although tv static belongs to the analogue tv, a technological object of the past, its visual language continues to flicker in a contemporary networked context. Just play the videos full screen not to be bothered by advertisements, algorithmically recommended videos, and opiniated comments. 

The environment I spend large parts of my day in, the internet, is visually, textually, and sonically loud. By examining technologies that preceded contemporary ones, such as the analogue tv, inspiration for new visual languages of silence may be found. When a UX designer creates interactions, notifications, and messages, they might as well design moments of silence and stillness. After all, a good symphony needs silence between the tones. The television noise, in its boringness and poetry, brings an antidote to today’s overstimulation. Celebrating white noise might momentarily bring us back to our pre-internet brains, a small moment of stillness amidst the deafening silence of lockdown.

Article and visuals by Marijn Bril – a media designer, researcher, and curator fascinated by the complexity and absurdity of digital culture.

NOTES:

  1. Laurence Scott, Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital Age (London: William Heinemann, 2016), e-book. 
  2. Scott, Ways of Being in the Digital Age.
  3.  Susan Sontag, ”The Aesthetics of Silence,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 1967/2002 ), 11.
  4.  Morgan Meyer, “A Space for Silence: Exhibiting and Materialising Silence through Technology,” Cultural Geographies 23, no. 2 (2015): 321–36. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474474015588708. 
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_noise