How I Tried to Catch the Void

hands-on exploration of the forms of emptiness in urban life

Publish something every day, better trice. Hustle. Refresh the newsfeed. Read the news. Keep up. Network. Sell. Refresh. Watch. Buy. Share. For a Westerner of the twenty-first century, nothing is more unsettling than an empty space, than a piece of time and space not chock-full of content — be it a pause in a conversation, a waiting line, or an idea of death.

But the masters of the past civilizations had a different approach to the void.

The ancient masters had a way to play with the void instead of denying its right for existence; they would caress her as a lover with a stroke of a brush, they would worship her as a goddess in days-long meditation practice — and then strangle her to harness her powers.

“Am I worse than the ancient masters?”— I thought, — “I’m going to try and catch the void as well.”

The void is curious. It may belong in foggy landscapes and abandoned monasteries, but sometimes you can spot it in the city, where it seeps through the days, steps lightly, unnoticeable for an unprepared eye.

As a human, the way you catch an ancient, wild, immaterial thing is by giving it a name and a physical shape that make it easy for everyone to put a finger on it.

So I went to prepare the traps.

1. Void in an object

Blanc. was an idea for a product design contest in 2016, and my first attempt to court that elusive mistress. The task was to create a bottle and a label that would be distinctive and attractive, and I thought — what if instead of stuffing the label with variegated graphics, we just leave it empty, and allow people to write down whatever the moment represents for them?

Renders and presentation images for Blanc.

We won something that time, and then I passed a few days lost in Photoshop, imagining all the possible contexts around this label — an inspired entrepreneur, an exalted lover, a group of friends that fought many battles together, a delirious hero deciding his fate in Crime and Punishment.

I think this was the moment when she slipped away from me, the void. Shouldn’t be trying so hard to fill it in.

So I went to try another time.

2. Void in a city space

Venice (the real one, the Italian one) is a city most deprived of the void that you can imagine. Everything screams at you, everything demands your attention, each peace of centuries-old decorations on the walls, each hungry pigeon on San Marco square or no less hungry gondolier in each canal; the colors, the graffiti, the stories, and the wild crowds of tourists that squish you against the walls on the narrow streets.

I lived close to Venice in 2018, and this is where I brought my next exploration, in the shape of a few white, empty A3 paper pages.

What I was most curious about in this experiment was not even the void itself, but whether people will be able to see it; of the shape it must take to attract attention.

I placed my papers in several antique streets of the city center and hid behind the corner, observing the people flow. What I can tell you from this observation is that there are no species more unattentive than a tourist in the city of Venice. They are stuck in the maps in their phones; they make selfies at each bridge and every corner; they all rush somewhere, and from there immediately to another somewhere, until all the surroundings blur into a single colorful blob.

But I managed to catch one.

At a quiet dead-end between two pedestrian highways, two women stopped to catch a breath. In this space, the blank piece of paper was a refreshing change, and one of them got caught, looking at it for a few solid minutes, trying to guess the meaning.

That was a result. But I needed something way more engaging.

3. Void in a conversation

I don’t know about you, but for me, the way WhatsApp allows its users to delete messages is the definition of awkwardness. While other messengers like Telegram let you delete a text completely like it never existed, WhatsApp leaves an uncomfortable black hole of a “message was deleted”, attracting the painful curiosity that the original content of a message would never merit.

Who knows what was there?

Maybe, someone’s uncontained feelings:

Maybe, something you should be calling the cops at:

Or a storm that never happened:

Absence and omission are a powerful storytelling tool, and I had fun imagining these non-stories.

4. Void in self-representation

Do you know why whenever you go on Instagram it seems like everyone has a perfect life of their dreams and you are a pathetic loser? Because everyone shares the good days, no one shares the days in which nothing cool had happened.

So I imagined a newsfeed in which, for every day in which you don’t post, this automatic message appears:

Or something even more disruptive:

I think this needs to be some kind of flashmob, to add some cute nothingness in a distorted world of social media. Are you with me?

Anyway, if you try to play with the void for some time, the void comes out to play with you. Isn’t it something that Nietzsche might have said?

5. Void in its natural habitat

I went for a mountain hike a few weeks ago. The mountain was around 900mt high, and I am in no way an advanced hiker. When, after a few hours of desperate panting, we reached the peak, the mountain was enveloped in tight, soft clouds of fog.

There was no panoramic view for us, but we were gifted this scene:

What happened to the paraplane riders that decided to swim in the fog that day is one of those mysteries of life that will never be solved.

But it’s good to be reminded of the vast scale of the unknown. Makes you more aware of your place in the world.

Makes you want to keep playing with it.

Add Drama Button. Stories from another hemisphere. Russian in Milan, Italy. Get a letter from me:

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