David holds the barbed wire as I lean under it. He's the reason we are both here, at the far edge of a field at the far edge of town.
We had been talking about his youth, growing up in that part of Canada where farming dominates the landscape. The Prairies. He told me that they often used the kilometers of wire fencing as a system of communication.
It's true, you can send signals along the wires.
'Maybe we could try that here,' I suggested.
And now we were in a field.
The idea had changed, as all ideas change when applied to reality. Rather than send a signal along the barbed wire fence, we decided that we could use it as a broadcast antenna. Coupled to this would be a small development board, a tiny microphone, an amplifier, and a transformer. It would be powered by the car battery we had carried up the hill.
You could, if you were being technical, call it a pirate radio station.
However, we were not planning on playing music but instead, we wanted to send the sound of the rural landscape down the valley and into the town. You would be able to tune in and hear the grass as it grows, and the hedges as they lean into the wind.
We often think of noise invading quiet spaces.
We were trying was to invert that.
Quiet as a force.
We often think of fences as keeping things in, not allowing them to escape further.
David walked the perimeter, checking for continuity as I hooked everything up.
I'd rehearsed this a few times in my kitchen but this was our first field test.
Realistically, we expected it to be a failure. Perhaps, at best, the broadcast would be strong enough to reach the radios of passing cars that happened to be tuned into the exact frequency.
Once everything was connected and powered on, I wrapped it in thick plastic and gaffer tape to make it watertight and as quiet as possible.
We left the field, dipping under the wire again, and set off walking back towards the town. After a few minutes, David pulled the battery-powered radio out of his rucksack and turned it on. He moved the dial towards the frequency we had aimed for – one that didn't compete with a local broadcast – and listened as we passed through distant voices and songs and static, and then... nothing.
I'm not sure what we were expecting. Perhaps we should have made a distinct test signal. At first it was a disappointment, but this turned into a particular giddiness.
We were not listening to the static of nothing. We were broadcasting silence.
[SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO]
Signal to noise ratio is a measure used in science and engineering that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise.
Expressed in decibels, a ratio higher than 1:1 indicates more signal than noise.
When the signal to noise ratio drops below 1:1 there is more noise than signal. The signal is lost.
The term is also used metaphorically to refer to the ratio of useful information to false or irrelevant data in conversation or exchange.
How dare he!
How dare the man behind the counter of a shop, his shop, in Spain, over two kilometers away from the hotel...
How dare he speak only Spanish!
The reddened man at the other side of the counter, the customer, tries again. This time, louder.
'Do you have any Marmite? Y'know, for toast. Breakfast.... Break... Fast.'
And once more, even louder.
The shopkeeper frowns and shakes his head. I catch his eye and I smile in apology. He smiles back.
The customer tries one last time. Loud and now with the exaggerated hand actions of someone either spreading something on toast or sharpening a knife on a leather strop.
The customer flip-flops his way through the store and out into the sunlight. He's shaking his head, unsatisfied and muttering.
I approach the counter and smile again. The shop owner smiles back. I point at the packet behind him and he hands over the cigarettes. I hand over the money and I use the only Spanish I know.
'No problem,' he responds.
I walk out of the shop, down the aisle, passing the shelves of magazines, bottles of cheap but decent red wine, and the jars of marmite.
Generally, when we think of amplification we think of volume. We think of making things louder.
However, the main way in which we encounter amplification is more about transforming a signal from one that we can't hear into one that we can.
The signal, as a radio wave, can travel astounding distances, dependent upon its wavelength and modulation, but once received it is unable to move the paper cone of a speaker.
In this case, the amplifier takes the radio signal and converts it into electrical impulses that can move the speaker cone.
This also highlights a limit of amplification, at least in this sense, in that it doesn't distinguish between the signal and the noise. It converts them both equally.
A noisy signal becomes noisy audio, no matter how much you amplify it.
If we were talking about electrical equipment there would be three main sources of noise.
External noise is inescapable. It is a fact of the universe. It is cosmic background radiation. It is the sound of the Sun.
Internal noise, conversely, is produced by the very equipment you are using to receive the signal. Most commonly this takes the form of thermal agitation noise, flicker, resistance effect and short noise, which is caused by the random movement of electrons.
Then there is the other, lesser talked about source of noise.
Other people's signals.
There are ways of isolating a signal from the noise surrounding it. Your radio is rather brilliant at it. It uses frequency as a selection criteria.
You turn the dial to a specified frequency and every other frequency is filtered out.
Can you imagine a radio without this ability? It would amplify all the signals it receives at once. All of the songs, and interviews, and adverts overlaid and intertwined and stuck together with static.
Google captions are amazing.
Real-time translation of audio into text.
This is like living in the future.
You can read what you can't hear.
But is it real? If you can't hear what is being said, how do you know that what you are reading is a perfect copy. A signal without the noise of a machine?
What follows is a collection of captions, taken over a two week period, 15–26 June, 2020, during the FIELD residency. Presented without context. I will never know if these were words genuinely spoken, but I have my suspicions that they were not.
America Pain twins.
Beer on Swoosh.
More Warp Feel.
We might just find a prom but we'll never get there.
What do we need with this cabinet?
Nobody gets back to you after the small poo.
You're being kind if you think your ex is a massive thing.
We should order film back in 2015.
Mike Spence, you so different.
This pie killing best looks break it.
I'm a lime, non-disabled.
Use your imaginal cells.
But all of wooden throwing in here is time.
We're death we can adapt.
Socially engaged practice we need to lick.
I wonder if this is a good debacle.
40 Week gas station period.
Everyone's just google.
It would have been nice to be on that salad.
The Mosquito is an 'anti-loitering alarm' sold by Compound Security in the UK. They describe it as 'using the science of sound to prevent anti-social behaviour'.
It is designed to stop teenagers from gathering in groups.
The Mosquito relies on the fact that as we get older, our ability to hear high-frequency sounds lessens. Young people, teenagers, can hear what we can't. Also, and rather importantly, these high frequency sounds are unpleasant.
Like a dog whistle.
At a frequency of 16–18.5 kilohertz, a tone is inaudible to adults but unpleasant to teenagers.
That's the science of sound, apparently.
The Mosquito broadcasts at a high volume. It broadcasts like a fire alarm that warns of adult disdain, rather than any danger.
The system is often installed in public spaces. If you are wondering if that is legal, Compound Security assures you that it is.
The system is installed to prevent congregation. Outside shops, in city streets.
The Mosquito targets people that want to meet with their peers in public spaces, by deliberately and selectively making their environment unbearable.
And somehow, it is the teenagers that are accused of antisocial behaviour.
[SIGNAL TO NOISE RATIO]
It is 2017 and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is in full swing. I'm excited to be here, not as an artist, but as an audience member.
I'm surrounded by amazing work of outstanding quality and variety.
And their posters.
And their postcards.
And their flyers, thrust into my hands as I walk the streets.
The same expressions staring out, over and over in a row along a wall.
An endless narrative of four star reviews.
It was brilliant, the best show I've ever seen, four stars.
It was awful, the worst show I've ever seen, four stars.
It has become noise.
The competition, for my ears and my eyes.
It is overwhelming. There is so much here that I adore. So many things that I'd normally be thrilled to encounter... but the noise.
It is 2017 and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is in full swing.
I'm in a bar, hiding, not watching anything.
The first unions were children of the industrial revolution. Workers realising the combination of their awful working conditions and their own power as a necessary resource.
The union became a tool. An amplifier of a clear signal. A single message spoken with power.
The unions were of, and for, the working class.
When did this change?
How did this change?
Capitalism... no... Neo-liberalism.
The unions and their strikes are not for your benefit. The darkness you sit in is their fault. You just want to work, and make money. Your life isn't that bad... it is better than your parent's. You can even buy your own house now. Your former council house.
It is not the government that goes on strike, it's the union.
And the working class dissolves. It chose a quiet passivity over a unified voice.
We all became middle class.
'I'm the first of my family to go to university', says everyone.
Except for the ones that don't. The new underclass. Non-working class. Exploited and now voiceless.
Back to Thatcher. Now she makes gathering illegal. Protests and raves. No single voice, no repetitive beats.
She becomes a political mosquito.
Which one? The one that drains your blood and spreads disease, or the one that stops teenagers from gathering and organising?
The rise of the individual is sold as empowerment. Your voice, your way.
Except now we are all shouting. Millions of different voices, all urgent, all saying different things all at the same time.
Shout louder, they say.
But all this does is make you compete with your peers, your friends and your family. You are distracted because your throat hurts. It's tiring shouting to be heard.
And it is lonely.
The signal to noise ratio has been reduced to less than 1:1.
...But this isn't the end of it.
We are not powerless. We have a weapon.
The ability to pause our broadcast. To reduce the noise. To listen to others and to allow their signal to get through, and perhaps, to work together to amplify it, in union.
They walk amongst us. The last generation that could fall asleep in front of the television and wake up, some time later, to a screen of snow and the sound of static.
You can download apps that play you white noise, to lull you to sleep. It isn't the same though. This is clean, artificial noise. You will never hear the accidental bleed through of strange music, people speaking languages you can't understand, conversations and communications, and the hum of cosmic background radiation.
It's that sound, the pervasive, eternal sound of the universe that has such a soporific effect on us all.