Tag: essay

A SOUND BARRIER

Sensory Integration October 2, 2018

I wrote this essay in February 2017, as part of an artist residency at Testing Grounds, with While the Hour arts collective. My project for this residency involved an attempt to discern and notate the cacophony of nonhuman sounds I heard in that place.

TESTING GROUNDS

The traffic noise here is more or less constant. The site is in the centre of the city, where peak hour lasts all day. The noise is not altogether uniform – there are discernible, wave-like patterns in the volume. This variation could perhaps be explained by the surrounding traffic-light cycles, which compress and release the vehicular flow, creating intersecting formations that sometimes amplify and other times obliterate each other. Still, the frequency of these waves causes an overall effect of constant, unchanging noise – a dusty and supernaturally turbulent ocean beach.

When I take the traffic sounds as my point of focus, I begin to feel as though time has stopped. The consistency of the wave across the day dampens the feeling of time’s motion. Time has frozen, yet the traffic keeps inexplicably passing. I know, intellectually, that I am hearing an effect of constant change, but I feel, bodily, the solidness, the dependability – the soundness – of the sound.

I feel the soundness of the sound, but I feel it via an unsoundness of my body. I notice a turbulence in my chest and gut, an agitated rolling and juddering across my skin. I suddenly feel a desire to lie on the ground or prop myself up against a wall. I’m looking for a sounder body to lean on, to brace myself against the intangible body of the noise.

WHALES

Whales can see barely 20 metres ahead in the water, but can hear a wave crashing on the shore from thousands of kilometres away. They use their voices to communicate, and they use their finely developed echolocation abilities to find prey and to understand the contours of their environment. Where a human’s consciousness and sense of self relies heavily on visual information, a whale’s is based primarily on sound.

The oceans have become much noisier over the last century. Busy shipping routes and underwater gas exploration have contributed to what marine scientist Christopher Clark calls “acoustical bleaching” – an intense blanket of noise that drowns out the whales’ voices, preventing them from feeding and communicating.

Whales have been observed hiding behind rocks and moving dangerously close to the shore in an attempt to escape the noise of underwater explosions. Whales living in noisy parts of the ocean are thought to be suffering from chronic noise-induced stress.

WAVES

At Testing Grounds, I feel awash in noise. I had planned to spend most days working here over the residency, but in the end I found I spent most days hiding from the site.

I had noticed the ocean of noise on my first visit, and realised that I would be unable to ignore it or to easily focus on anything else while I was there. Most people I meet appear to have the ability to filter out unnecessary aural information. This is an ability I have never been able to share or to fully comprehend.

I decided that if I could not ignore the noise, I would make it the focus of my work at Testing Grounds. This tactic had worked for me in the past, ameliorating my stress by narrowing my focus.

Yet, despite my best efforts and my lifetime of finely-honed coping strategies, I felt as if I was drowning. I fled home, and I dreaded having to return the next day. The site is as impossible and inaccessible to me as if it were situated on the bottom of the ocean floor.

A SOUND BARRIER

Humans, like whales, experience psychological ill-effects from noise pollution. Noise-induced sleep disturbance can contribute to high blood pressure and mood problems. Noise can impair concentration and increase irritability, having negative effects on people’s interpersonal abilities.

Noises from traffic, aircraft and industry typically come to people’s attention only when they are loud enough to cause a disturbance. These noises are perceived as inherently bad, meaningless, or unproductive. They are an unfortunate by-product that spills out of an otherwise useful device or activity, an excess that we can accept insofar as we can ignore it in favour of more meaningful aural activities.

This is no surprise. These sounds are unpleasant, cacophonous, and unstructured. They have no meaning aside from their undifferentiated excess. They are difficult and worrisome and pointless. They are the offcuts and refuse of something more desirable. It’s hard to love trash.

It’s hard to love trash, but I think trash is still worthy of remark, for no reason other than that it exists. I think it’s worth acting as if the noise is meaningful, even when there is no meaning to be discerned. The noise is audible, and that is more than enough.

REFERENCES

Stansfeld, S. A., & Matheson, M. P. (2003). Noise pollution: non-auditory effects on health. British Medical Bulletin, 68(1), 243-257. doi:10.1093/bmb/ldg033

Jenner, C. (2017, February 15). Too much noise in the ocean for whales’ sensitive ears. The Conversation. Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/too-much-noise-in-the-ocean-for-whales-sensitive-ears-17933

Schiffman, R. (2016, March 31). How Ocean Noise Pollution Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life. Yale Environment 360. Retrieved from http://e360.yale.edu/features/how_ocean_noise_pollution_wreaks_havoc_on_marine_life

The Beige Times issue 1, January 2002: Cosmic Latte

Beige September 20, 2018

abstract, amorphous beige image, sort of like a stain or maybe outer space, with typed text pasted on topabstract, beige, grey, and yellow drawing, possibly looks like a bruise or a face, with typed text stuck on topabstract, beige, grey, and yellow drawing, possibly looks like a bruise or a face, with typed text stuck on topCCF03022016_0007abstract, amorphous, beige drawing, possibly a galaxy, possibly a spilled drink of some kind, with typed text stuck on top

Image description: a five-part collage. An abstract, amorphous, beige image, sort of like a stain or maybe outer space, made with oil pastel and wax medium on fabric. Strips of typed text are pasted on top. Text reads:

Owing to a software error, scientists initially believed that the universe was green. It is now known that the universe is beige.

In January 2002, Ivan Baldry and Karl Glazebrook from Johns Hopkins University declared that the true colour of the universe was pale green. The scientists had used data from the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey – a survey which measures the light coming from more than 200,000 galaxies – to determine the average wavelength of light in the universe.

The scientists wanted to know what colour the universe would look like to a hypothetical outside observer who could stand in the void and gaze at the universe from afar. Unfortunately, the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey was not undertaken in the void, but rather at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in New South Wales.

The universe is expanding at an increasing rate, and the cosmic bodies within it are moving apart at increasing speeds. Your perception of light is dependent on the velocity of the light source relative to your own. When a light source is moving away from you, the wavelength of light that your eye receives will be longer than the wavelength of light that was emitted by the source. This is known as a redshift. As New South Wales is situated within the universe, and the universe is moving away from New South Wales, any measurement of universal light taken from there is redshifted.

As such, the scientists needed to de-redshift the data before they could discover the externally-viewable colour of the universe.

I read Red Shift by Alan Garner in 2002, the year I first became mad, the same year that the universe was first green, then beige. Red Shift is set in Southern Cheshire, England; its story spans nearly two thousand years. The characters – ex-soldiers of the Roman Empire, villagers caught up in the English Civil War, and two teenagers in the 1970s – echo each other across vast gaps in time. The place is like a character, its personality manifest in the words, actions and prophetic visions of its inhabitants who cannot know each other, but who continuously repeat and predict each other’s paths.

A second problem in determining the colour of the universe lay in the physiology of human vision. The human eye registers colour differently in different environmental conditions. The researchers wanted to see, from a human perspective, what the data was telling them about the universal perspective. In order to do this, they needed to further adjust the data from the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey.

Unfortunately, the software they were using had an error in it. Just weeks after announcing that the universe was green, the scientists issued a correction, saying that the true colour of the universe was a shade of beige they had named “cosmic latte.”

On Glazebrook and Baldry’s webpage, where they discuss the science behind their discovery, there is a typo: “emailed” is spelled “emailled.” Emaille is German for enamel. In 1923, László Moholy-Nagy produced a series of paintings entitled Konstruktionen in Emaille, better known as Telephone Pictures. He describes his work process:

I ordered by telephone from a sign factory five paintings in porcelain enamel. I had the factory’s color chart before me and I sketched my paintings on graph paper. At the other end of the telephone the factory supervisor had the same kind of paper, divided into squares. He took down the dictated shapes in the correct position.

Several decades later, Moholy-Nagy’s first wife stated that he’d actually ordered the pictures in person, not over the phone. There is still some disagreement regarding the truth/relevance of this claim.

Said Glazebrook, “There’s no error in the science, the error was in the perception.”