Sound and Silence: A Response to “After the Glow: Radium Girls”
By Adrienne Raw, University of Michigan
Kasey Julian’s video essay “After the Glow: Radium Girls” takes viewers into the history of the radium girls, a group of women employed in factories during World War I to paint radium onto watch dials. In the years following the war, these women fell victims to the toxic effects of exposure to the chemical, and Julian’s essay highlights both these women’s experiences during their factory work and the lengths the government and corporations went to in covering up their fault in exposing these women to deadly chemicals and their consequences. Julian’s history of the radium girls alone is compelling, but she makes her work complex and contemporary by connecting the experience and response to the radium girls with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. In making this connection, Julian’s work presents a larger critical argument about greed, institutional corruption, and the dangers of history repeating itself.
Within this argument there is a theme of silence: silence about the dangers, silence during the deadly consequences, silence in the refusal to admit culpability. Julian plays on this theme of silence by constructing a particular kind of silence in her piece. Though the video is at no point truly silent—with music providing an auditory soundtrack and images and written text providing the visual narrative—there is still a sense of silence in the lack of a narrator. Music, well-chosen to reflect the eras of each stage of the argument, sets the emotional beat of the piece, while the images and texts, well-timed to keep the viewer engaged in a relatively long piece, give key information and guide the viewers’ understanding of the narrative Julian constructs. Within this mix of music, image, and text, the lack of a narrator becomes conspicuous, both representing the silence Julian argues against and making the viewer do their own active work in participating in the argument—in a sense, breaking the silence of viewership.
The presence of silence in the absence of a narrator is only one part of Julian’s command of combining, sound, image, and text to powerful effect. Particularly noteworthy for me were the opening and closing moments of the piece where Julian used the combination of these elements to make her viewers feel her argument about history, rather than just seeing it. In the opening of the piece, a ticking clock overlays the context-setting images of World War I trench warfare. Text tells us the basic facts about the war’s beginning and the men who served while interspersed images take us onto the battlefield—the catalyst of the demand for women’s work in the factories, but separated from that work by an ocean. In the closing of the text, Julian’s final admonishment against corporate greed continuing to manifest in events like the Flint water crisis—delivered again through the alternation of simple text and image—is also accompanied by the ticking of the clock. The sound brackets the piece and though simple becomes a representation of Julian’s argument, bringing together the clocks the radium girls worked on, a sense of historical context implied in the analog technology of a ticking clock, and a sense of time slipping away from our future should we do nothing to combat the forces that led us to both the radium girls and the Flint water crisis.
As an argument, Julian’s piece presents a strong indictment against a societal unwillingness to change or take responsibility even in the face of mass suffering. As a video essay, the piece is a compelling example of the ways image, sound, and text can be deployed—or strategically withheld—to complement an argument.