The Noise of Our Screens
Information overload, Bruce Nauman's Clown Torture, and the sounds of the Arctic
I often find myself longing for the days before I had a smartphone. Everything seemed so much quieter and calmer then. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d get one, like we all have. Back in 2010 I decided to buy an iPhone so that I could cut down the number of things I took with me when I went running in the local park. I was doing my PhD and I wanted be able to make notes as they came to mind AND to listen to music all on one device. The fact I could make voice notes too was a novelty and totally sold it for me. I wasn’t interested in mobile internet or being able to take photos or anything like that. I was so innocent and clueless about what this gadget in my pocket would do to me. Most of the time in those early days it was just switched off. I didn’t give it a second thought.
How things have changed. I find the attachment I have to my phone increasingly uncomfortable nowadays, and lately I’ve been testing out whether I can leave it in another room and forget about it. Even whilst watching the gripping drama of the latest series of Happy Valley (yes, I’ve succumbed to the hype) I’ve found my thoughts wandering to my phone. I’ve had to force myself to let go of the need to check updates on email, Whatsapp, social media, news apps. It’s like a tic, my habit of refreshing feeds, and I want to kick it.
This week I listened to an interesting podcast about silence and the problems that stem from the noise that surrounds us, including the informational noise on our screens. In 2010 Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, estimated that we now create as much information every two days as we did from the dawn of civilisation up until 2003. According to Justin Zorn, the co-author of the book Golden: The Power of Silence in a World of Noise, most Americans take in about five times as much information on a daily basis now as we did in 1986. He describes it as like ‘trying to drink out of a firehose of information’. Most of this content is of course utterly banal, surface level or inaccurate.
I don’t know about you, but I find it all thoroughly EXHAUSTING, and there is little satisfaction to be had from constantly staring at the screen. It makes me think of the video installation Clown Torture (1987) by the great American conceptual artist Bruce Nauman. The artwork consists of four videos in which a clown is filmed doing the same thing over and over again. In one video the clown screams the word no, whilst jumping and kicking. In another he repeatedly opens a door booby-trapped with a bucket of water that falls on his head. In the third the clown struggles to balance a fish bowl on the ceiling with the handle of a broom. And in the last one he is filmed saying the phrase ‘Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence Pete falls off. Who’s left? Repeat’.
All the films play simultaneously in perpetual loops on screens in the same room. The clown’s torturous tasks are painful and exhausting to watch and the noise of the videos competing for your attention is incessant, jarring and unnerving. But there’s something about it that makes you keep watching. Here’s a short snippet I found on YouTube to give you a flavour:
I’m not sure what Nauman’s intended meaning was and given it was made in 1987 before the days of the internet explosion, he probably wasn’t thinking about informational noise overload. But in the context of my life in 2023, it’s where my mind goes. The anxiety of not having my phone, but also the feeling of dependency and entrapment. The constant need to consume more information. And the noise of it all.
This morning I ran out of data as I was walking my dog along the river. Usually I’ll use this time to listen to podcasts but this morning I was forced to listen to other things. Mostly I kept on coming back to the thoughts in my head. But I also tried to listen to the sounds of the environment around me - the birds, the rushing waterfalls in the river, Peggy’s paws rustling through the dead leaves. Although it was still noisy, I was conscious that I was actively connecting with my auditory environment, which is something I don’t think I often consciously do. I’m too lost in my own thoughts or hooked on something I’m listening to or watching to listen to the soundscape immediately around me.
It made me think about a video I watched recently in which the English artist Darren Almond and Danish artist Jacob Kirkegaard talk about their experience of sound in the Arctic. Kirkegaard works with sound under the ice, and Almond with photographs over the ice, and both make similar observations about what happens to the human senses in the Arctic - sounds, visuals, taste, your body’s response to temperature. Kirkegaard says it heightens your senses, and makes you focus on all the small details: ”What is there? Is there really nothing? Or, wow, there is something.” It’s a 6 minute video, and it is full of wonder. Watch it when you have a quiet few moments.
As always, I’d love to know what you think about any of these ideas - informational noise, Nauman’s Clown Torture work, the video on the sounds of the Arctic, or anything else that comes to mind.
Artists From The Gallery Companion Readership
This week’s featured artist from The Gallery Companion's readership iswho is a writer, journalist and artist based in London. His most recent book is Psalms for the City, a collection of poetry and illustrations.
We talked about returning to art practice later in life, the therapeutic nature of drawing, the freedom and fun of Procreate on the iPad, and the ways in which new technologies can change artistic practice:
See more of John-Paul’s work on his website, follow him on instagram and Twitter and subscribe to his Substack.
Craig Mod is a writer/sort-of-philosopher that I like. He’s spent quite a bit of effort wrestling with his relationship with his phone and with the Internet overall. He talks about that struggle on this podcast episode: https://hurryslowly.co/003-craig-mod/. He’s also written a bit about it, just search for “Craig Mod I want my attention back”. And yes, I realize the insidious circularity of turning to the internet to cure one’s addiction to the internet.
This year I’m turning my phone on aeroplane mode to keep it at bay and the first time it was for a few hours. When I finally turned it back on my daughter called me to check if I was ok and to let me know she had a panic attack because she couldn’t contact me. A lesson to us both I think!
On another note, I love the drawing by John-Paul Flintoff. So often in digital work, especially digital collage it it difficult to tell if it is analogue or not when reading it on a screen. Because I can see it is a digital drawing I feel a weird sense of relief, as if I can be confident that what I am seeing is real. But apart from this the colour and the atmosphere of the drawing is so alive.