No Signal: The Death of Snow

It was hard to ignore the switchover from analogue to digital TV in the UK this Spring. In London, reminders of an approaching doomsday were plastered all over the trains, buses and billboards. Beneath their upbeat pink-and-white colour scheme, these advertisements seethed with a foreboding tone. “Your TV channels will disappear in APRIL”, they warned, as though a technology-disabling electromagnetic pulse was on its way. Many featured a wizened robot grasping an impotent remote control. Behind it – the source of the trouble – was a television screen displaying the familiar mark of analogue transmission failure: snow.

This salt-and-pepper haze goes by many names. Some know it as “white noise” or “static”. In other languages, it’s “fleas”, or “war of the ants”. Snow’s meaning, however, is fairly constant. It tells us that somewhere between the transmitter and our screen a broadcast signal has been interrupted. It isn’t surprising that snow is associated with obstruction, or – in the case of the posters I saw throughout the city – a coming void.

The recent news of analogue television’s demise in the UK prompted my mother to reminisce about watching TV as a child. “Sometimes the picture was so staticky”, she told me, “I thought maybe there were secret messages in it.” My mom isn’t alone. Snow might signal the disruption of one type of transmission, but it has appeared as the carrier of other, more subliminal, kinds. Take the work of video artists Steina and Woody Vasulka for instance. In their 1974 video “Noisefields”, electromagnetic signals, one of the features masked by television’s so called transparent interface, are revealed in the flicker of buzzing snow. The search for such secret information brings to mind an aspect of television’s own largely-forgotten early history: its associations with spiritualism. These are brought to light in the book Haunted Media, in which Jeffrey Sconce writes of the twined evolution of “media and mediums”1. He dredges up the ghosts of other “teles” – like telepathy – that came of age alongside television, and reveals that they still linger in our relationships to technologies today.

Holmdel Horn Antenna, New Jersey

Scientists also number among those who have found secret messages in static’s hum. In the early 1960s, a Princeton physicist named Robert Dicke was exploring big bang theories of the universe’s origins. If such a thing had occurred, he thought, radiation that would have been released when the universe was born must still be out there. His problem, however, was a lack of evidence. Meanwhile, at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey, two researchers3 were desperately trying to eliminate a persistent static received by the highly-sensitive antenna they had set up to listen in on the Milky Way. They tried everything they could think of to get rid of this noise, including evicting some pigeons who had taken up residence inside the antenna’s gigantic horn. When the researchers realised that the noise was not pesky interference, but, rather, that it was coming from space, they contacted Robert Dicke. It turned out that what they had taken to be noise was actually an audible detection of the radiation released at the birth of the universe, the very proof of the big bang theory that Dicke had been looking for. Even without a sensitive antenna, you can register some of this ancient radiation on your own devices – and it’s likely that you’ve been doing so for years; the radiation is, in fact, the source of much television snow. So when a receiver hovers between channels or fails to pick up a signal, displaying static instead, it is acting as a real-time cosmic data visualiser.

As the UK shifts to digital TV, in moments of transmission failure, snow is replaced by a frozen screen. Unlike static’s prickly, information-rich “war of the ants”, the screen freeze is stony, silent, and sometimes accompanied by the tight-lipped message: no signal.

Such technological disruptions have long served as critical and aesthetic tools for artists. From the Vasulkas to new media artists like JODI, interruptions to our screens’ normal processes have been deployed as jolting, productive failures. For instance, every computer user has no doubt encountered the frustrating technological hiccup or breakdown known as “the glitch”. But for artist Rosa Menkman, in these moments, the machine, she says, reveals itself 2. A glitch may be a failure in one sense, but it can also serve as a window into a machine’s often mysterious interface.

Technological disruptions like glitches are usually encountered privately. The transition to digital TV, however, might be thought of as a collectively experienced kind of glitch. On the night of the switchover in London, the city’s Crystal Palace transmitter lit up for all (within eyeshot) to see – a spectacular last gasp. And in a curious expression of the collective switchover experience, the words ‘RIP Ceefax‘ flooded twitter that same evening, as the BBC’s teletext service perished alongside analogue TV. As is usually the case with a glitch, the machine – in this case, television – revealed itself. This became clear as normally veiled or ignored features of its apparatus emerged as the focus of anxiety: not only do switchover announcements picture unresponsive, snowy TV sets, but journalists pen nervous eulogies to snow’s comparatively communicative qualities, and the dire expression “blue screen of death” has migrated from the PC to digital TV. The swapping of analogue for digital technologies is hardly new. But these responses suggests that the country-wide disruption to the processes of television viewing has nevertheless carried that jolt often experienced with the glitch.

Decommissioned Analogue Transmittors, 2012, Simon Denny

I experienced such a reflex – the kind prompted by the uncommunicative machine – when I encountered a particular artwork in the Remote Control exhibition at London’s ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) this spring. In the main gallery, the artist Simon Denny had deposited a gigantic now-defunct Channel 4 transmitter. A complex of switches, drawers and tubes, this silent slab of machinery divulges nothing. As an apparatus that once conveyed television broadcast signals, but which is now impotent, this piece is transmission failure materialised. And standing beneath it is just as illuminating, in an immediate sense, as gazing at a snow-filled TV. Like the glitch, it is uncannily laconic in its non-functionality. Also like the glitch, it entreats the viewer to search for secret messages in its opaque facade, as so many have done in the blur of television snow. Denny’s transmitter just might deliver on that front, for it is quietly revealing: as an obsolete chunk of matter, its presence makes palpable the alienation of most viewers from the processes it performed, from the production of the images on their screens.

Television snow may be dead, but not the critical potential of the glitch or technological failure to unmask the unseen lives behind the machine. I saw this in the anxious responses to digital television’s “blue screen of death”, and in my own reaction to Denny’s dead transmitter. In their silent disclosure of our estrangement from the work propping up the normally-functioning screen and its illuminated flicker, such new signals of failure, like snow before them, carry their own kind of secret message.

1 Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 25.
2 Menkman, Rosa. The use of artifacts as critical media aesthetics. Sept. 2009. in: ISEA 2009 Conference Proceedings Reader. March 2010 ISBN: 978-1-905902-05-7.
3 Eventually these two researchers, Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias,
won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for finding evidence and
successfully measuring the Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR) in 1964. (source, paragraphs 4 and 5, visited 18th July 2012)