Soft Rains Will Come - VISUAL

VISUAL Centre for Contemporary Art &
The George Bernard Shaw Theatre

Soft Rains Will Come

How can we process our emotions in the face of media oversaturation and communication in crisis? Author Ian Maleney responds to Christopher Steenson’s exhibition Soft Rains Will Come, speaking of ‘micro joy’, ‘macro gloom’, and the connective power of radio

The radio’s jammed up with talk show stations

It’s just talk, talk, talk, talk, ‘til you lose your patience

— Bruce Springsteen, ‘State Trooper’

A friend writes to me. He is a new father. He writes of micro joy and macro gloom. His intimate life is centred now on his newborn child, just weeks old, but the strain of the world which presses in on him is disease and war and all manner of social and political disappointment. In his life, these different strata of experience have assumed almost equal importance – the smallest and most singular of things weighted against the most abstract and vast. I write to him: I do not much think of what is out there now. More and more I am thinking of who and what is near to me. My personal balance between the local and the global, the intimate and the zeitgeist, has tipped almost totally toward the former. I haven’t the energy for anything else, this is true. I am getting older, more selfish maybe. This is just what happens. But also there is something about the way the global, external world comes to me now, through the numberless voices of a digital aether; an always-on welter of image and opinion where what is not said, what is not shared, does not exist. No one is talking about this. And yet they are talking, talking, talking about something, everything.

I realise this is one of the primary subjects of conversation in my life now. So many of the people I speak to, in person, are feeling it. What is the feeling? It is not exactly apathy, no. It is not that one does not care, but rather that the form of public opinion – the manner in which care is expressed publicly – has become so mediated, so drenched in the performance of concern, so riven with the recognisable ticks and slips of our now-default asynchronous, one-to-many communication, that our own sense of caring is somehow neutralised. It is there, still, but it is frozen, somehow incapacitated. And there is a feeling maybe of inadequacy, that we haven’t the capacity in ourselves to care as we should: we feel bad because we don’t know how to feel bad enough, to paraphrase Joanna Newsom.

The feeling leaks into everything else: the micro-joys are drowned beneath sheets of noise. Sometimes it happens only semi-consciously, as when you might self-deprecatingly compare your own woes or triumphs to the deluge of world affairs. I know other people have it worse, but... It’s only a small thing, but... I know the world is ending, but... Sometimes it happens explicitly, as when something you thought was good – bringing reusable cotton bags to the grocery store, say – is actually bad. There are, after all, so many things to care about. There is a lot wrong, and living in a world where it feels like everyone is a columnist in their own newspaper means there is no end to being told all the things that are wrong, all the things one ought to be caring about (this week at least), all the facts and half-facts and lies and misunderstandings that make up the narrative; history is being made, picked over, and forgotten in a matter of hours; we see it happening now, in real-time, in all its unbearable granularity – must we hang on its every update?

I hear a voice: does history only move in one direction? There are twelve radios. The messages are intermittent and mixed. I hear codes, stories, monologues; mostly I hear static, the absent presence or present absence of the awaited transmission. The noise persists, its interruption is fragile and brief. To be waiting on a signal from some unseen elsewhere is to be in a state of desperation; one’s inner solitude takes over, the sense of utter loneliness is unavoidable. When the signal comes and the connection is made, the relief flows like warm water through the ice. I have heard the voice, I am not alone.

The world which comes to me through the radios is primitive and strange. Antarctica uncovered. Barter, trade, and foraging. Civilised people without civilisation. Something I have known is, here, definitively ended, past. The waters have risen, the people have moved. And the radio survives. This signal is not like the modes of communication I have become used to, not like the grim industrial relentlessness of contemporary digital transmissions. For one, the delivery is calm, uniform, unemotional. The audience is unknown and unmeasurable. There is an endearing practicality – and of course something romantic – about its particular mix of durability and fragility. Like love, it may go on forever, and it may die instantly.

I think of the German film series, Heimat. We are in a rural part of southwest Germany in the 1920s. The opening section (‘Fernweh’, or ‘The Call of Faraway Places’) shows one character working on a home-built radio, the first ever in the area. After a long preparation, the radio is ready. The young engineer hooks up a long wire receiver to the roof of some old stone ruin on top of a hill, where he and his family have gone for a picnic. Suddenly, the sound of music enters the scene. The sound is coming from some city miles away, and it is with them, here and now, in their ‘timeless’ countryside idyll. What a miracle. Modernity has arrived. The radio is the first communicative technology that instantly spans space like this, and it changes forever the feeling of being in a particular place; now we know, and cannot forget, that there are other places and that other things are happening there right now. For better and for worse, our heads are filled with a live connection to the world beyond our immediate senses.

A century on, what is this feeling? I’ve said it isn’t apathy. It may be confusion. Given a surplus of information (quantity: endless; quality: mixed), how should one react to a crisis? The crisis is one of communication. Of significance within a saturated network. Everything is amplified, distorted, blown out – there is no clarity. In this case – knowing what we know about what is coming, about how the world is changing and being changed, about all the wrong we see – it seems urgent that a different form of communication, a different type of signal, is found. The waves are there but our world is ill-tuned now. By always moving forward, building on ever more uncertain and complex foundations, the ability of civilisation to respond to the world is diminishing – today, civilisation imposes itself with ever less flexibility on the civilised. It may take an undoing to interrupt the sheets of noise. History may move against us.

Ian Maleney is an author, producer and web developer based in Dublin. His books include Minor Monuments, published by Tramp Press in 2019

Christopher Steenson,
Soft Rains Will Come
is at VISUAL Carlow from 26 February – 22 May