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The Silent History

Quiet and considered, the apocalyptic testimonies of ‘The Silent History‘ contrast starkly with other interactive story experiments. But the speculative fiction project bursts with interesting performative characteristics. Overlap’s Rob Barker investigates…

The Silent History is, in part at least, a collection of six volumes of escatological ‘testimonies’ set between now and the year 2043, chronicling the discovery of a condition called emergent phasic resistance, ‘characterized by the inability to generate or comprehend language of any kind.’  Each volume contains twenty testimonies. Each testimony of around 1,000 words is unlocked on a consecutive day, with a break of a month between each volume. You cannot skip chapters. Welcome to the future.

Or is it? The fictional ‘testimonies’ that form one half of The Silent History‘s innovative two-pronged attack on 21st century living have much in common with the kind of episodic storytelling Ralph Harrington has already written about on this very site. These brief slices of story – designed to fit into coffee breaks and commuter trips – are difficult to judge as The Silent History‘s story is currently less than a month into its twelve month lifespan. So far, volume one’s testimonies are a China Mieville-like mundane apocalyptica set in a sinking school system populated with The Wire-like characters (the combination of minutiae and passive ‘he said/she said’ in some of the testimonies also reminded me of Arjun Batsu’s short stories for Twitter). But while it’s an embryonic piece of fiction, The Silent History has a finished design that sings.

Central though the testimonies are to The Silent History, they’re only half the story. Start up the app and the screen is literally split vertically in half; the top dedicated to the authorial piped daily content while the bottom half depicts a GPS-pulled map of your current location. This is the key to the other part of The Silent History. Anyone can contribute a page to complete this unfinished symphony by posting a field report for the location at which they’re currently situated. Visit the GPS location a field report has been posted to and while you’re there you can read it via the app.

It’s a nice piece of Geo-cache-inspired crowdsourced content. But it’s particularly interesting for the way it’s presented onscreen. Innovative and attractive, it feels similar to the split screen kinetic that movies like Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair popularised, but it also reminded me of an auditorium theatre; stage on one half, audience ranged in the other.

Indeed, The Silent History‘s testimonies share several characteristics with performances. You can’t just skip to the next item like you can when listening to recorded music (or indeed a book) – The Silent History only unlocks each testimony once the previous has been read – and you even get a five minute warning (a neat badge in the testimony section) when it’s time to return to your seat for proceedings to recommence.

It’s a really interesting design decision. Simultaneously ascribing the crowdsourced content a solid half of screen real estate while carefully segregating it from the app’s authored content. The audience can chat amongst themselves but they’re safely ringfenced off from the performers (the use of characters from the testimonies in audience’s field reports is not encouraged in the authors’ Guidelines for Prospective Field Reporters).

I’m writing from Sheffield in the north of England and my nearest field reports are in Manchester so I’m unable to provide any insight into the value of this content. But the magic of The Silent History is that at time of writing I’m hugely compelled to visit a city sixty miles away in order to file a report. And that compulsion is immersive. The feeling is that of being in a journalists’ hotel in the next city from the war and the one month gaps between volumes of testimonies could turn out to be inspired if they encourage the audience to write and explore these crowd-sourced tales.

There’s other, more auditory similarities too. The Silent History’s as-live, locationised characteristics reminded me of Eric Eberhardt’s You are listening to L.A. Eberhardt (note the Twitter feed handle; Idontlikewords) has created a website that offers a live ambient soundtrack for an auditory location. Visit the website and you eavesdrop in on a rich, distinctive soundtrack to a city – a selection of streamed ambient music under a live feed of scanned police radio broadcasts. It’s a little like the kind of thing Brian Eno is trying to do with generative music but Eberhardt’s mix is the perfect soundtrack to The Silent History. Both blend verisimilitude and performance; both offer a live format and constantly revolving cast of Dickensian characters; and both work an exquisite tension between the reassuring (ambient music in LA, smooth as ice presentation that’s like something from a multinational’s Powerpoint in Silent) and the startling (live police reports of 211’s and crashes in LA, mute toddlers in Silent).

There’s a sensory ‘skinning’ (in the videogame sense) of environment in The Silent History‘s field reports, the Guidelines for which highlight the importance of sensory details. ‘Once I watched a little boy tying a rope from the trunk of one tree to another. I can’t explain this, but it was not a game’ says Margaret Lafferty in her arresting fictional testimony. Full of characters unable to process the new or strange, The Silent History may turn out to be a book about people who can’t understand performance art.

Both are fascinating trips, and although The Silent History‘s adept borrowing and remixing of different mechanics approaches a kind of format ecstasy at points, the most resonant characteristics have their basis in a more familiar format. The broadcast aspect of The Silent History; that of taking a seat – on the tube or breakout area or park bench rather than auditorium box – to witness a Testimony from one of the story’s quietly unsettling characters is a callback to the idea of appointment television, with all the benefits of shared experience and frustrations of waiting for the next episode that entails. Silent it may be, but when you hear the call of the iPad to catch the latest testimony in this distinctive and confident new story, you may find the addiction is not so dissimilar to that of particularly pernicious tune…

The Silent History is available now. Volume one is free. Rob Barker is an online narrative consultant and co-founder of Sheffield-based ‘investigations in new and forgotten storytelling’ organisation, Overlap.

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