Channeling babble: Susan Hiller’s Channels

written after visiting Everything At Once, November 2017

I STAND ALONE in a black-walled room in 180 Strand, a solitary figure before a wall of televisions. The screens offer little in the way of visual entertainment, though. Some are bright blue or darkly fuzzed, others crackle with white noise. All 104 televisions resemble the kind that populated my nineties childhood: hulking affairs, clunky with the promise of the future. But these screens, neatly stacked squares of blue like a Roman mosaic, have lost their power to transmit. Analog dinosaurs in a digital age, they are obsolete.

A foreign voice punctures the static susurration, and another and another, until the empty room fills with a disembodied global chorus. Then the voices fade away, leaving a single speaker. He describes a near-death experience as an oscilloscope image on a screen corresponds to his words. Other narrators tackle the paranormal subject: a sixth former in a car accident, a man with a sore throat at a football match. Though the experiences differ they share common themes and phrases, from weightlessness to visions of long-dead uncles and that inevitable tunnel of bright light. After a few narratives, the voices multiply up to teeming chatter again, before succumbing to the relative silence of white noise.

This circularity of sound, from static to babble to single voice and back, forms a rhythmic pattern, like a wavelength, and the installation — Susan Hiller’s Channels (2013), part of 180 Strand’s 2017 Everything At Once — continues to unravel what much of her art probes: the distance between the technological and the bodily, the scientific and the spiritual. She questions how we absorb information, how we convey experiences — including irrational ones — and how technology mediates this communication.

These questions are partly explored by the relationship between the movements of Channels ‘ television screens and the viewer’s experience. The undulating noise is a communal background movement to the individual movements on each screen, introducing an interplay between the collective and the independent, the common and the anomalous. Together, the screens flick through barren channels, searching fruitlessly for a signal, a constant collective action spiked by isolated voices. Phrases describing the speakers’ near-death experiences match my physical experience of the installation. One narrator remarks on the shift from ‘stillness’ to noise, while another recounts feeling disembodied, devoid of tactile sense, as if he was ‘a thought-form … a spirit-form even’. In this dark space I too experience fluctuation and disembodiment, relying on my ears to figure out what’s happening, visual capacities reduced to static screen fuzz.

Channels’ screens produce sound not image, a confusion of function that underscores analog’s outmoded status in the digital age. Technological progress renders the televisions redundant from their primary purpose. The arrangement of the televisions emphasises this, piled like goods in the high street electronics stores of yore — I think of the secondhand washing-machine shop that spills its wares onto a street corner in my gran’s rural village — but piled tidily, revealing care and nostalgia for a technology which once epitomised the promise and power of the future.

Channels confronts the death of analog with accounts of near-death experiences: both produce the same blank gaze into the future. The piece elevates the supernatural and the technological to the same plane. The televisions and the oral narratives both deal with promises of the future, yet neither can fully articulate what comes next. The non-functioning analog television fails in its promise, while the near-death experiences are deemed implausible by modern society. In using analog television sets to broadcast near-death experiences, Hiller highlights the anomalousness of such encounters. They don’t fit into the narrative of the modern world, one that’s ordered by science and technology. But she doesn’t condemn psychic accounts to the trash heap , either. By lifting near-death experiences to the same status as technological advancement, Hiller points out that just as technological networks endure and progress, spiritual networks do not fade from society either.

Like Cildo Meireles’ Babel (2001), a replica of the Tower of Babel built with radio sets that modernise as the tower grows, Channels is immediately contemporary but also a historic artefact, celebrating two strands of time at once. Both works comment on mass production, the collective vs the individual, the hopes and fears produced by tech’s impact on society, and how tech moves through time.

Yet while Babel soars into space, a tunnel of voices guided towards the heavens, Channels uses recent nostalgia to plunge into the future. Meireles’ radio sets are tuned into live radio stations: they perform their correct function, tech given the upper hand to control the output of individual voices and experiences. Time is less kind to Hiller’s televisions. Defunct, their incongruent ability to channel the babble of those who claim to have seen into the future questions what unites society: tech, or something more spiritual.

Originally published at

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