Silent transmissions and noisy interventions

Abstract: When contemplating modern art and aesthetics through models of in/compatibility, the motifs of noise and silence seem to emerge by default. One way to address the ”in/compatibility” theme, would be, then, to trace the roots of these motifs from both a historical and aesthetic-theoretical perspective.


Looking back: During the 19th century, formal and epistemological models of western art, which had to a large degree expressed dogmas of ‘transparent’ communication, were challenged and eventually abandoned. This entailed, for instance, a mistrust in linear perspective, that for centuries served as a general matrix for representing and mediating relations between mathematics and spirituality, reality and perception, objects and concepts. As such, perspective was recognized as a format compatible with a variety of artistic expressions and philosophical ideas, capable of establishing a direct line of communication between represented objects and viewer. Eventually this convention was redefined within the modern, autonomous system of art.

Questions of compatibility were continuously important to artists of the 19th century, but in ways very different from previous times. Firstly, the scientific theories that now informed artists’ exploration of compatibility between different art media (for example, the equivalence of musical scale and optical spectrum) and between world and artwork (i.e. the search for true representation) no longer hinged on doctrines of geometric harmony and universal order, but had instead to do with discoveries of the propagation and vibration of waves, as well as new insights into the human perceptual system. Secondly, the renewed recognition of relations between reality and perception involved a shift of attention to the apparatus of the medium itself. And thirdly, this shift exposed how the communicative nature of art was full of noises, interferences, and interruptions rather than indicative of ideals of rationality and clarity.

Georges Seurat, "La Parade de Cirque", painted 1887–88. Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA

One example to illustrate this could be the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat (alongside examples of impressionism, later futurism, cubism, etc). Following a number of contemporary theories of colour and vision, Seurat pursued a scientifically true form of representation by use of ‘pointillist’ technique. The results were generally considered as unsuccessful in terms of being truthful representations of reality, for obvious reasons. However, the artistic-scientific system of Seurat involved crucial aesthetic transpositions. Not only did the pointillist model, anchored in the science of polymaths such as Hermann Von Helmholtz, demonstrate that the optical effect of colour was a subjectively bound construction; a result of interference or ‘noise’ in subjective perception. It also implied a change of the status of the perceiving subject from being a passive receiver of stimuli from external objects into an active contributor to the making of perception itself.

Seurat’s idea of a scientific system of painting that atomized – or, in fact, digitized – the picture plane in order to attain the highest degree of realism, thus, turned onto itself and proved the opposite: Namely, that the intervention of an actively receiving subject implied unexpected degrees of noise in the communicative process. As such this can be seen as the exposure of a fundamental incompatibility between ideals of realist artistic representation and scientific insight. Also, it puts emphasis on the incompatibilities of the medium per se, which in turn had its role redefined from being a ‘silent transmitter’ of meaning between an outside world of objects and a receiver, to instead exploring its inherent means and effects and thereby displaying its noises and distortions.

Listen now: Ideas of ‘in/compatibility’ are an obvious inspiration to many artists working within the field of electronic and digital media. Numerous examples of glitch-, noise-, and malfunction-aesthetics could readily be analyzed under this heading. Furthermore, plurimedial experiments promoted by labels such as Raster-Noton or Touch. deal with strategies of sonificiation and visualization which often gain both aesthetic effect and semantic strength from more or less apparent references to the in/compatibility of formats, media, and diverse data material.

Frank Bretschneider," EXP" live (photo: C. Scorteanu, Conception Lévy)

When looking behind or listening closely to the immediate expressive effect of these ‘purely’ digital art works, similar questions about ideal representation, media-noise, and silent/transparent transmission seem to arise, as they did in connection with, for instance, proto-digitizing pointillism and the countless radical, formal experiments that followed, including the domain of music and literature. Thus, it is exactly these similarities, differences and isomorphisms between early modern artistic-scientific thoughts on in/compatibility and contemporary digital aesthetic strategies that could be investigated further.

Works cited:

Clarke, Bruce & D. Henderson, Linda: From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature (Stanford Univ. Press, 2002).
Crary, Jonathan: Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (MIT Press, 2001)
Demers, Joanna T.: Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music, (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010)
Elkins, James: The Poetics of Perspective (Cornell University Press, 1996)
Schiff, Richard, “Realism of Low Resolution: Digitisation and Modern Painting”, in Terry
Smith, ed., Impossible Presence: Surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2001).

5 thoughts on “Silent transmissions and noisy interventions

  1. When I read this summary, the idea of relating incompatibilities of both modern and contemporary artistic and scientific thinking models was very interesting to me. Thus, this article presents a direct dialog with Morten Riis’ article, and it made me feel even more interested in trying to think of an Art History having the incompatibility between thinking models, concepts and both emerging and established cultural practices as a basis. 
    The idea of cognitive theories being the element that brings us to the thought of perception as an active process expands the complexity of semiotic processes and of the interfaces between the world and us. Assuming that these perceptive interfaces – which can be considered, for example, according to the Umwelt concept by Jakob von Uexküll – are anchored in a fallible model is assuming the world, scientifically, as a result of a symbolic process. This is something that clearly isn’t ignored by contemporary artists.
    That being said, I believe that one of the main ideas that caught my attention in the text is to think of the relation between reality, perception and the thinking models (artistic and scientific) based on the transformations and speculations that many artists have been operating in the media apparatus itself.

  2. The text raises some interesting points. The historical take on the artist use of exact science in the 19th century I find very riveting. I know the text i short but you talk about a shift in attention towards the medium itself in 19th century art, maybe you could give some examples? In the introduction you talk about noise and silence. Is clarity equal to silence? Or where is silence in this history? If we say that there is a connection between noise and incompatibility, is there a similar connection between silence and compatibility? This could be to understand compatibility as something that runs smoothly, something where the medium is a silent mediator, to quote you. But I was thinking on a more rudimentary understanding of silence, understood as complete absence, in terms of sound and image, and other sensory impressions – how does that relate to the concept of compatibility. I mean everybody talks about noise and malfunction in relation to incompatibility, but maybe it is even more interesting to talk about compatibility and silence.

    I know that silence and transparency is not the same thing. Complete silence is a theoretical condition. Even in the anechoic room there is the sound of your own body. But again it is very interesting when relating to the concept of compatibility, in terms of understanding compatibility as a theoretical – even utopian – condition. Something that never will happen.

  3. Thank you for these comments and questions. My response has turned out a bit lengthy. But just to recap on the historical perspective: The connections and congruences between art and science have long been a subject to art historians and theorists of visual culture (Crary, Kemp, Elkins). My particular interest in such investigations is specifically to focus on the instances where noises, interferences, silences and interruptions emerge as part of the discourse – where problematic incompabilities within ideas of congruence, representation, and (transmedial) transmission are accentuated. So, my intention with mentioning a shift of attention toward the ‘medium itself’ is to suggest that this signals a shift from ideas of (ideal) compatibility to an acknowledgement of essential incompabilities, which are in turn made paradigmatic for the development of new aesthetic forms of expression. The preoccupation with ‘the medium itself’ is, furthermore, an often-referred-to trope of later modernist and avant-garde art where it largely conveys how both theorists and artists went from concentrating on realist models of representation to being concerned with the internal, formal logics of the medium as such. As the 19th century psychologist (alongside contemporary aestheticians) William James described this tendency, artists were occupied with learning “to see the presented signs as well as the represented things” (James, 1890). Eventually, this aesthetic paradigm led to an autonomous, abstract art. One radical example of this could be the proto-monochrome “Black Square” painting (1915) by Kasimir Malevich; at once defying the laws of tradition, demonstrating an overt incompability or discprepancy with former conventions and representational strategies, and instigating a new system of visual language – something, which can both be seen as ecstatically open to multiple significations or as obscurely closed and self-referential, and as demonstrating an aesthetics of proto-digital ‘discrete signals’. So, my further elaborations based on the draft will have this as a sort of background framing when discussing in/compabilities in terms of silence and noise in relation to digital media.

    And to just comment shortly on your considerations on silence: The idea(l) of a silent medium, operating ‘smoothly (inaudibly/invisibly) is part of the discourse of silence and noise I want to address. But also, what interests me about the relations between silence/noise and compatibility/incompatibility are how we can discuss their dynamic and ’unstable’ connections. Following this, your suggestion to consider silence in relation to compatibility points to an experience of indefiniteness when trying to categorize the functions and meaning of such concepts. For instance, if silence as absence, or pause, or termination occurs in a given communicative situation or signal processing system it simply takes on a function similar to noise. Aesthetic discourses of glitches and ‘broken media’ almost always refer to ideas of noise. But silences and interruptions can be just as glitchy as noises and interferences, and just as crucial to organization of information and meaning. Also, this made me think what the notion of a “signal-to-silence ratio” would imply…maybe not an answer, but something we can get back to.

  4. I enjoyed the historical dimension of your piece, tracing notions of noise and silence as a way to think incompatibility in modern and contemporary art. I found your discussion of transparent communication (through something like linear perspective) a great entry point to frame the move toward interference and noise. During your discussion of Seurat, I found your statement that there is a “fundamental incompatibility between ideals of realist artistic representation and scientific insight” provocative and empowering. It actually made me think of Foucault and Ranciere. Foucault, because when studying something (madness, prisons, etc.), he would ask how did this become possible? Ranciere, on the other hand, because he talks about politics as the distribution of the sensible, that is, what things are perceptible to the senses has a political dimension. I thought of these two thinkers because that passage in your text made me ask the question: why does, at different times, a person think something is compatible or incompatible? Your Seurat example is works so well here because while he thought he was constructing a “scientifically true form of representation,” as you write, it turns out that there is quite a bit of noise in this representation. While science and media surely play a part in how the artist understands compatibility / incompatibility in their work, it also must be something that goes beyond that. In general, I’d really enjoy to hear more from you on how you’re thinking and linking together transparency and compatibility and incompatibility and noise.

    • Thanks for your comment, Zach.

      Sorry I haven’t responded further to it, but I simply haven’t found the time to do so. I will touch very briefly upon Foucault in my presentation, and the suggestion to include Ranciere seems obvious – definitely something I’d like to discuss when we meet.