"The Messenger" (c) 1998 Paul DeMarinis
"They were given the choice of becoming kings or kings' messengers. Like children, they all wanted to be messengers. Therefore there are nothing but messengers; they race through the world and, because there are no kings, call out their messages, which have become meaningless in the meantime, to each other. They would gladly quit this miserable existence, but don't dare to because of their oath of office." Kafka(1)
The Messenger is an internet-driven installation based on early proposals for the electrical telegraph, in particular those made by the Catalan scientist Francesc Salvá. As in many of my works I examine the metaphors encoded within technology, especially lost or orphaned technologies and try to trace their origins, speculating on the way that mechanisms are the repositories of larger unspoken conceptions and dreams. In The Messenger I take the telegraph as a point of departure from which to examine the relationship between electricity and democracy, and how electrical telecommunication technologies have participated in our solidarity and in our isolation, in our equality and our oppression, in the richness of our experience and the uncertainty of our lives.
In The Messenger email messages sent from around the world are received by a computer in Galerie Metronom and spelled out, one letter at a time over three fanciful telegraph receivers. The central receiver, a circular array of talking chamber-pots, speaks out the letters in twenty six different voices. Men, women, schoolchildren and aged pensioners are jarred into vocalization when their individual letter is activated. The watery resonance of the metal bowls creates a unique reverb for each voice, disconnecting it from the other voices and from the acoustic space of the gallery. Along the left alcove of the gallery is a chorus line of 26 little dancing skeletons. Each wears a tiny pancho emblazoned with a letter of the alphabet. When each letter of a message is activated, the skeleton jumps, producing a danse macabre as the email messages roll off the internet. In the right alcove the third telegraphic receiver is a line of 26 antique glass jars, each filled with an electrolyte and holding a pair of metal electrodes, one of them shaped like a letter of the alphabet. The electrical currents cause the electrodes to change from shiny metallic to black alternately and to produce hydrogen bubbles. Nowhere does the system possess any memory or understanding of the messages displayed. Unless the signals are observed, written down and interpreted, the installation is the final meaningless terminus for messages that have traveled around the world and died. Related images that come to mind are Babel, the tree falling in the silent forest, the dying cry of the last surviving human. That the phenomenon of the lost or meaningless message has become so frequent an experience in our daily lives is due in no small part to our increasing reliance on electricity as our dominant medium of communication.
Electricity, though observed since ancient times, only became a subject of intense interest in certain enlightened circles during the first half of the 18th century. That the early experimentalists were men of privilege and education is revealed by the materials they used to generate static electricity: fur, amber and sealing wax. That they lived in cold climates, too, was a requisite for the regular observation of the static electricity, for only in cold dry environments can the charge built up by friction accumulate without dissipation by atmospheric moisture. The invention of the Leyden jar, a primitive capacitor, opened up the possibility of accumulating much larger quantities of the electric fluid. Not coincidentally, many of the same individuals who held this keen interest in electricity had economic interests that led them to tinker with social reform as well. Benjamin Franklin comes to mind as a prime exemplar, but others abounded. The story of the electric telegraph is bound up with the story of democracy. Their myths, to this day, prove to be inextricably intertwined.
Democracy and Electricity, the two white knights of the modern age, sallied forth on their adventures on some unknown date in the middle of the eighteenth century. In the case of Democracy, Rousseau's "Social Contract" of 1763 provided a sighting of modern democracy in full regalia. Its favored sidekick's first recorded appearance in the role of a messenger is usually dated to 1753, on the other side of the channel, when a letter from a mysterious C.M. appeared in Scot's Magazine proposing a system of rapid signaling across distances using static electricity. This system consisted of 26 wires, one for each letter of the alphabet, to convey electricity from a Leyden jar at the transmitting end, to 26 pith-ball electroscopes at the receiving end. A charge of static electricity, traveling at the speed of light along the wire, would impart a positive charge to two light balls of pith suspended closely together on threads. The like charge would cause the two balls to repel. The message, spelled out one letter at a time, could be reconstructed on the reception side by assiduously observing all 26 sets of pith-balls for this deflection and noting the sequence of corresponding letters.
In the ensuing decades, waves of exported and homebrewed enlightenment rolled first across Europe, and then around the world. As we follow our knights-errant through their exploits, we read with relish of the brave encounters they make with both the residuum of the old patriarchy and with the new forms of oppression that Juliet MacCannell has termed "the regime of the brother"(2) In electrical demonstrations during the ancien regime little distinction was made among the message being transmitted, the path of conduction and the recipient. "On one occasion in a demonstration before the king organized by the Abbé Nollet, 180 guards were said to have been made to jump simultaneously; on another, an entire community of Carthusian monks at Paris, linked together by iron wires, were reported to have made the distance travelled by the shock over 5000 feet (1.5Km)."(3) The Czar of Russia, ever interested in news from afar, held great interest in the newly discovered electrical fluid and replicated the French experiments with Cossacks. When news of the electrical telegraph spread to his empire, however, he immediately suppressed it, lest his enemies employ it to foment a conspiracy reaching from Petersburg to Siberia.
The idea of the electrical telegraph tickled many a great mind on its way to realization. Among them was the Catalan scientist Don Francesc Salvá i Campillo. Though something of a sideline for this polymath, his proposals were significant in a number of ways. They are of particular interest because, spanning as they do from the era of the revolution to the defeat of Napoleon, they reflect, in the spirit of their mechanisms, the transitions of social franchise during this period. Salvá's first proposal is similar to the one described in Scot's Magazine. It uses a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet, a Leyden jar to transmit a spark across these wires, but peculiarly, instead of the pith ball electroscopes and indicators, Salvá specifies a number of persons, one for each wire. Upon receiving a sensible shock, each of these persons, presumably servants, was to call out the name of the letter of the alphabet to which he or she corresponded. A twenty seventh person, presumably literate, was to write down the message so shockingly spelled out. This is probably the system that Salvá operated between Madrid and Aranjuez in 1798.(4) Whether Salvá's abandonment of pith-ball electroscopes in favor of human receivers was due to problems with electrical dissipation in the moister climate of Barcelona, a cheaper labor pool, or the relative ease of transcription of 26 vocal sources into a coherent message are questions that only further research into his work might reveal. Nonetheless, the scene of a hall filled with the sighs, whispers and moans of humanity being shocked into literacy seems an appropriate and emblematic image for the events of 1789.
Other features of the early proposals for the telegraph are of interest here. That the systems, both C.M.'s and Salvá's, were not necessarily conceived of as bi-directional indicates a historically different ideal of communication than we would judge essential. It is interesting to note that the single example offered in C.M.'s text spells the alphabetic sequence S-I-R, reinforcing the impression that the proposal was a product of the member of the aristocracy. Thus the imaginary colonial telegraph office portrayed in The Messenger uses a variety of distinctly Mexican sounds and images to display the messages sent from afar and Mexican imagery derived from the "Day of the Dead" iconography. In this imaginary colonial telegraph reception hall, messages are received from inaccessible capitals, commands that have lost their meanings. By careful observation and transcription of the sounds and movements we can make out some words and phrases sent by someone to someone, pertaining to what, we cannot discover.
Toward the final years of the 18th century, after Galvani's discovery of animal electricity, Salvá formulated a revised proposal for the telegraph using freshly severed frogs' legs as the indicators. Each leg, when stimulated by the spark, would dance and in so doing, jerk a slip of paper on which the corresponding letter of the alphabet had been written. In the first decade of the new century, after Volta's invention of the electrochemical battery, Salvá proposed a scheme that proves politically correct to this day: electrical current flowing through the wires causes electrolytic decomposition of water, the resulting bubbles of hydrogen serving to indicate the letter selected. There is historical evidence that this last system was actually realized in the early years of the new century, transmitting messages over a distance of several kilometers in 1804. Salvá's prescient proposals for a submarine telegraph, too late to save Spain's rapidly crumbling overseas empire, were intended as one-way communication between Spain and the American colonies. Because there was no code or enciphering, a message received on foreign shores would invariably be spoken in local accents, danced by new world toads, decompose foreign waters. Another thirty years were to pass before the American painter Samuel Morse discovered and solved what was by then a "sweet" problem, building his first working telegraph model on a canvas stretcher. Morse's critical contribution, the code of dots and dashes, not only allowed the transmission of any written message on a single wire, but provided the prototype of a digital metaphor for communication that has reached its apex in our own time.
During the last decade of our own century the internet has been touted as inherently democratic, a tool that unites nations and classes with brotherly shareware, that brings information and tidings of freedom to oppressed peoples yearning to become cheap labor, a force to be feared by dictators. News stories surrounding the internet in regard to freedom of speech issues and popular uprisings in third world nations sound a familiar tune. Democracy and Electricity, the regicide and the king's messenger, have mounted their horses and are once again coming to deliver us. The mechanisms and metaphors of The Messenger may serve to remind us that there is no inherent bi-directionality in electrical communication, that a body can be a telegraph as well as a recipient of a message, that who is transmitting what to whom is often lost in the speed and coded immateriality of electricity.
(1) Franz Kafka quoted in Friedrich Kittler Discourse Networks 1800- 1900 Stanford University Press 1990
(2) Juliet Flower MacCannell The Regime of the Brother Routledge 1991
(3) Margaret Rowbottom and Charles Susskind Electricity and Medicine - History of Their Interaction San Francisco Press 1984
(4) C. MacKechnie Jarvis The Origin and Development of the Electric Telegraph in The Electric Telegraph, An Historical Anthology ed. G. Shiers Arno Press, New York, 1977