Summerland (2019)

Summerland, for 24 computer-controlled telegraph sounders, exhibited at Consolidated Project Space, Newburgh, NY.

Summerland is an installation for for an array of 24 antique telegraph sounders arranged along two tables, each approximately 14′ in length. These Morse code receivers, which mechanically produce tapping sounds, were the dominant form of long-distance communication for most of a century, requiring a skilled listener to translate the taps — sonic representations of dots and dashes — into language. These devices are arguably the first digital-to-analog converters, turning binary information into an audio stream of rhythmically modulated clicks. It is also, by its use of fluctuating voltages to create sound, the ancestor of the audio speaker, the telephone, and most modern sound reproduction technology.

This work recuperates this most ancient of electric sound producers, using modern, computer-controlled forms of digital transmission to reanimate this prototypical apparatus, so it can speak once again. This work uses speech and text from two major figures in 19th-century communications as source material which drives the choir of sounders.

One of those voices is that of Samuel Morse himself, the inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph, and excerpts from his writings and letters are translated into the dot-dash code that bears his name – a cipher once understood by many but now on the verge of extinction. The other is that of the medium Kate Fox, whose experiences of ghostly ‘rappings’ in her house a few years after the invention of the telegraph led to the founding of Modern Spiritualism, and the craze for communicating with the dead that lasted well into the 20th century. The generative algorithms of Summerland use transcripts of Fox’s séances in an attempt to synthesize her voice, an obviously impossible task with 19th-century technology.

Invisible action at a distance – what we now call telematics – has always been a hallmark of the supernatural. Once the telegraph appeared, making instantaneous long-distance communication (by tapping!) possible, it did not seem unreasonable to many that a ‘spiritual telegraph’, as it was often called, could use other invisible forces to communicate with the world beyond. From its beginning, information technology has always been entangled with myth and dreams of worldly transcendence.

This conversation is created by a generative algorithm, which uses complex decision-making structures to fashion a never-repeating dialog, in which layers of utterances, reproduced as taps and clicks, retain the character of language while remaining forever out of reach.

In the context of contemporary magical thinking about media, Summerland looks back at the archaeology of communications, a séance which seizes from the ether the dead voices of Morse and Fox, materializing their words in streams of clicks through a medium — the sounder — no longer able to articulate. Thus the promise, and ultimate failure, of communication with the past is built into the very attempt to make the sounders speak. However, the psychic and electromagnetic forces we can summon can still, in the act of materialization, evoke the dimly-seen ghost, the unnerving rap of unseen knuckles on the medium’s table.

Summerland, exhibited at The Albany Institute of History and Art, 2020

I published an article about both the theory and technology behind Summerland in Leonardo Music Journal. Find a link to it here.

Summerland was made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. Additional support provided by a Foundation for Contemporary Arts Emergency Grant.