Catalogue essay commissioned by Simon Maidment and Paul Shephard for their exhibition distanceequalsratetimestime at Conical Gallery, Melbourne, 2006
Above ground telegraph lines, power cables, telephone lines, wire fences what have you, stretch across this wide brown land this white burnt land this browned dirt land this place in every direction. Criss-cross. Just try driving anywhere and there they'll be, marking the road or out on some tangent probably as the crow flies, from bush to habitat from here to eternity. Infrastructure. The road map of colonisation.
Crucifixes to science, the old religion merged with the new one.
New mobile-phone towers rise above us, surround us. It seems every church has a new patron: Saint Mobile. Spires and steeples that once stretched toward heaven, now face the financial bottom line.
Not as dubious as the church I saw in Vienna with a billboard for Johnny Walker whisky, or the one in Berlin with Claudia Schiffer in lingerie, but I can't help pondering the church's willingness to reflect the social imperative: 'We must have more phones!'
Like the great mosques in Istanbul I visited, whose interiors have been upgraded with electric lighting. Oodles of 15 watt light globes threaded together by masses of tangled cable in mock chandeliers, hover just above head height and seem to form barrier between prayer and ceiling, between thoughts and things.
It feels like God has fallen down. Or, at least, no longer flies as high.
We call it an energy grid, but that's not right. It's more like a ball of yarn. No. Like the seed head of a dandelion. Yes. Frangled, and stretching from centre to periphery. Like the mycelium of a fungus beneath a forest.
Also not really a web, apparently the World Wide Web is more like a big bow tie with tendrils hanging down. The knot in the middle is where all the connections are. One side of the bow tie is all the incoming-links, the other side those domains linked by the core but not back to it. The stringy bits are dead ends.
The Web's associations and connections are also often likened to a network of friendships. That's me: dangling. No one calls.
The network, the wiring-together of people, cities, small towns, only serves to highlight their isolation, to render concrete the division and space between one body and another. Power circulates, the margins are at the centre. Bouncing along like radio wave from clouds. Communication. Network. Global. Those words go around belonging to no one.
In the era of the wireless network, why does my house look like some giant spider has spewed in every corner? Or someone has scribbled in the air near the floor with fat textas: white, grey, black. Every power point extrudes cable, and it's growing, writhing between every electrical device in some manic profusion. I leave the house for a few hours and come back to find messages in the coiled mass. 'Go out', reads the squiggly cord, 'Moomba'.
Sure, one device will talk to another through the air. But they all still need power, a rechargeable battery or docking station. Still need cables for electricity. No way around that.
The proof is in the chaos. The laptop we buy for mobility - 'I can work anywhere in the house' - and the masses of cable we need to support it. More cords than a rock band. The hub of essential communication devices: mobile phone, modem, computer, mouse, keyboard, laptop, television, speakers, clock radio, MP3 player, DVD player, electronic diary, digital set top box, telephone answering machine, fax, printer, scanner. I'm just here to keep the LED displays from blinking.
I can't even work the TV any more. Five remotes and when I press buttons either nothing happens or too much at once. I was beginning to wonder whether ABC voice-over had become standard on American sit-coms. (You can stop that. Just press AV > Up VCR 3 on the small grey remote, + 7 Menu Off on the bigger black one, and I think there's another one but I don't know where it is.)
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, thunderous voices will start-up in the living room. They seem self-contained, bombastic, shameless, argumentative. They are so loud. They don't care what time it is. I wake in shocked stupor and have to switch the AV box to 1 or 3, instead of 2.
It was 1985 and I was at art school when I first heard someone people talk about answering machines. I asked a fellow student what an answering machine was, how did it work? She told me her mother had one, 'It can just go off at any time. You can be standing in the kitchen and it will just suddenly go off.' A lecturer listening-in saw the confusion on my face and tried to help, 'It's like a phone, but with a remote. You don't have to be home. You can be at work, anywhere, and people can get you.'
I imagined something between an exploding toaster and a model aeroplane.
'Telegraphy' (from the Greek words tele = far and graphein = write) is the long-distance transmission of written messages without physical transport of letters, originally over wire. 'Photography' (from the Greek word phos = light) is the process of making pictures by action of light.
But don't we also read a photograph across the distance of time and space? And don't optical cables now carry images? The old technology haunts the new.
When asked to describe radio, Albert Einstein replied: 'You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.'
I got the bit about the telegraph and the cat, Mr. Einstein. But it wouldn't take a genius to come up with a better metaphor for radio. A missing cat? Just because a person discovers e=mc squared, and fright hair, is no excuse.
Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the Wireless Radio, became a hero in 1912 when the new Marconi wireless equipment aboard the sinking Titanic alerted the world to the ship's plight. Distress signals were relayed to the Carpathia, a passenger ship travelling nearby, which rescued the lucky few who made it into lifeboats. Suspicious failings on the part of the wireless technology were overlooked at a commission on the Titanic disaster, and Marconi received a gold medal and rousing investment.
In his later years, Marconi became obsessed with the idea that the voices of the dead at the sinking of the Titanic were still trapped in the ice. Marconi thought it simply a matter of finding the right equipment, an aquatic microphone of the right design, to unlock the voices stored in icy water. A bit like a phonogram, maybe, or a wax cylinder, he believed water was an excellent medium for recording sound. In 1921, sailing in the Mediterranean on his experimental yacht the Electra, Marconi claimed to have received radio messages from Mars. But, significantly, no cat.
Inventor Thomas Edison also believed one might harness electronic recording devices to receive messages from the dead. Uncannily anticipating the newspeak of our own era, Edison preferred to call them the 'living impaired'.
What if we could see them? Sound waves, I mean. Voices. Streaming. Straining. Stretching from lip to ear. Yarning. Speaking in ice crystals like the whispering of the stars. Or directional, like lines of flight. An arrow, flying across the table or around world. A narrative arc, a path of intent, looping desire between people. Vibrant and sparky, like the threads of an interesting discussion.
But, disappointingly, I'm told they would probably look more like soup. In scientific presentations electro-magnetic radiation is always depicted as haze. Amorphous, imprecise, indirect, slack.
A rhizome of ancestry connects my aunty to me. And a bundle of fibro filaments.
Years ago, when she left Telecom after 40 years' service, my aunty requested her retirement gift be a fibre optic lamp. Spooky, since she could not have known then that the future of telecommunications would be fibre optic cabling. She had been a telephonist, in those days of fabric-covered black cords and switchboards, and travelled to remote areas of Australia to teach people to work their first telephone. 'When it rings, lift the receiver and speak loudly. “Good evening, 276 - 176 – 0”, if no one is there, hang-up and wait.'
My aunty is speechless now since her stroke. What is the silence like for her, the gap from which she can no longer summons words, the wiring in her brain now damaged beyond repair?
Not as black as all that, probably deep blue, and hazy. But dark, certainly, dark like a rat trap and twice as slack. Sinking, solvent. Like unexposed film maybe, milky and opaque. Like a photograph that takes its shape from exposure to light, and records a something before the lens, something illegible and unnamable before it is processed. Always at the core of the photograph this Thing, haunting it: a trace of something now somewhere else.
On Sunday evenings in my childhood, my aunty would switch on her fibro lamp for us and the tiny motor would slowly turn a hundred delicate glass filaments around its metal base. The fibres would glow, and mutate fabulously in pastel shades from pink to blue to green to yellow. It's mine now.
It goes around. And changes colour. And I can hear my aunt's voice when it turns.
'Mustn't have it on too long. Don't want to waste it'.
© Susan Fereday 2006