Year : 1992
As part of the Working in Public project, John Barrett-Lennard and ArtSpace, Sydney, 1992.
Steel Bell, Performer, Radiophonic Broadcast.
25m x 12m overall installation ~ performance space with Nationwide live broadcast at Midnight for 21 days.
Nelia Justo tolls the midnight bell.
The Story so far…Catalogue text for Working in Public.
Field Notes from An UnRequited Space.
I found a small transistor…sometimes I get batteries as gifts…look its connected up to these metal pipes for an antennae……… so I’ve been listening, sometimes I listen and read at the same time…Tell me what is it when we whisper, a flow of breath carrying a tiny message, but a message directed entirely within the cavity of another’s ear. There are always two texts, the exhaled message, humorous or intimate, carried together with the omnipresent, silent message that reiterates that noise is power, that each sound carries within it both a record and a command to re-order the World.
Broadcast 3rd April 1992.
1968 marked the inevitable point where the certainties of my childhood no longer proved serviceable in a world of violent flux. A world those many mouths whispered that a beach had been discovered beneath the pavé of Paris and that the hottest spot in L.A. was no longer 77 Sunset Strip but the inferno of trashy Watts.
During the televised Apollo moon landing my mother had ceased her knitting to gaze at the screen with incredulity. After a cursory appraisal of the blurred moonscape she wisely cautioned me not to be duped by such shabby Hollywood fantasies. For her the flag, permanently unfurled, to compensate for the absence of lunar wind, and the clumsy puppet like motions of the ‘actors’ failed even as convincing science fiction.
Only now do I begin to appreciate the unintentional significance of her words, which recognised all transmissions as fiction. Ironically it is I who must now struggle to accept the authenticity of the small voice, which inhabits my ear when we speak to each other across the globe. This whispered mother voice of my childhood surely does not belong in this material world.
Now is the null-point where day is abolished. This is the ultimate location where the exchange of the manufactured for the natural is transacted. Where even the dance of waves and particles falter and unravel, to leave the sun blackened. There is a space between diastole and systole where time lies idle and directionless, where blood begins to eddy and cool in the heart and where the resonance of the bell is totally absorbed by the density of the chamber. Movement in all dimensions comes to a standstill. The loss of one identity precedes the acceptance of another, all instruments rest at zero.
Broadcast 12th April 1992.
In the conceptual development of “An UnRequited Space” my intention was to scrutinise and enter the immaterial construction of the urban fabric – the inaccessible tolling of a bell in an underground chamber, temporally positioned at the synapse between one day and the next would echo through the vascular conduits of the city and occupy the impalpable spaces of broadcast.
However during the nightly manifestation of the work this well reasoned assertion of the non-physical was forcibly displaced by the overwhelming realisation that the entire fabric of the work was dominated by the physical phenomenon of resonance. That a glancing blow of the wooden mallet across the geometric surface of the bell could transfer its energy to “sound out” the massive enclosure of the bunker was in itself a singular experience – but as I monitored the event in real time (relayed to my headphones via satellite) a contest between actuality and fiction unfolded.
The protagonists of this drama consisted of the visible kinetic event repeating itself before me, the hammer fall across the surface of the bell, juxtaposed with a second site, which was extrapolated from the evidence of the live broadcast, feeding back to me from ABC Adelaide. Each time the bell was struck I imagined the simultaneous vibration of the ossicles in the ears of a listener several thousand kilometres distant. This was not the transfer of meaning, or of symbolic content but quite plainly a massive and instantaneous diffusion of a physical event.
I want to read you something from Mininsky; listen to this….
If having fixed the original form in our mind’s eye, we ask ourselves how that form comes alive and fills with life, we discover a new dynamic and vital category, a new property of the universe; reverberation. It is as though a wellspring existed within a sealed vase and its waves, repeatedly echoing against the sides of this vase, filled it with sonority. Or again, it is as though the sound of the hunting horn, reverberating everywhere through its echo, made the tiniest leaf, the tiniest wisp of moss shudder in a common movement and transformed the whole forest, filling it to its limits, into a vibrating sonorous World.
Broadcast 6th April 1992.
A phenomenon by definition is inextricably linked to the possession of a sensory body. Naturally it is our habitual (and inevitable) use of the body’s perceptual horizons as indexical mechanisms which have created topologies of embodied and disembodied events or thresholds of the tangible and the intangible. As any foray, beyond a world bounded by Newtonian physics will demonstrate, our perceptually framed understanding of spatial and temporal reality fails to recognise objects and events, which refuse to conform to the scale and velocity of the Procrastes bed which the frame of our body has become.
An UnRequited Space has been the subjective site permitting me the act of separating seeing from believing.
The following texts formed the 21-day series;
Each night I would have the same dream, I was four years old, lying awake, afraid to fall asleep, afraid to enter that inevitable landscape. The ground surface was uniformly smooth, formed of dense iron plates extending to a featureless horizon line. Roaring from this iron ground and billowing all around me would be huge columns of flame, the sky low and dull with black smoke.
I knew I must escape but each time that I began to run a massive caisson of steel would crash to the ground and encircle me – I would look up at the polished black interior of the tower and watch the wracks of smoke pouring overhead. Next I would be overcome by a frenzy of anger and determination and fly against the walls of my prison, beating and kicking the metal – It would always prove immovable, I would subside exhausted and bitter.
But each time I reached the point of acknowledging my defeat the caisson would vanish… around me the blasted and burning surface – and I would begin to run.
If I could dissolve these walls, scrub away at the serial numbers of soldiers painstakingly scratched into this brute surface, gradually flense away the layers of concrete and stone rubble, then eventually I would arrive at the colours of nature. To regain the surface would be to regain the simpler existence of organic order, and to escape the unimaginable density of the air in here, burdened as it is with the exhalations of forgotten machinery, the silences of inactivity and the shallow breaths of shadowed lungs.
I found a small transistor…sometimes I get batteries as gifts…look its connected up to these metal pipes for an antennae……… so I’ve been listening, sometimes I listen and read at the same time…Tell me what is it when we whisper, a flow of breath carrying a tiny message, but a message directed entirely within the cavity of another’s ear. There are always two texts, the exhaled message, humorous or intimate, carried together with the omnipresent, silent message that reiterates that noise is power, that each sound carries within it both a record and a command to re-order the world.
Look I tell you everything is connected… this is the place of connections.
The drumbeat and the chant are a sublimation of the thunderclap and the howling of the storm. This is a husbandry of noise, the erratic and unpredictable bellows of nature, chained to time, to rhythm and metre. A raft of song floating in Chaos.
The foundry and the smelter are a sublimation of the drumbeat and the chant. Song is now forbidden on the shop floor, in its place is a silence totally occupied by the continuous explosion of the furnace and the reports of transformation, as nature is recreated upon demand. Here concepts are bought to their ultimate conclusion, noise equals power, and power produces noise. Whispers could now operate only as subversion, but here to whisper is to shout above the din, full in the face of a comrade who can no longer hear, for whom bird-song is a childhood memory.
Here it doesn’t matter how strong the lights are – this is the domain of mental night – an absolute darkness that no amount of knowledge will dissolve. It gathers here like firedamp dreaming of a conflagration, or is carried away as a viral cell; dreaming that contagion is destiny. On the surface, only at night does the empty city become a matrix for such fantasy. Then the debris of utilitarian signs that litter the surface loose their function and the city is revealed as a single organism. A single vascular body digesting transactions, exhaling transmissions, each conduit open to receive thought, breath, and energy. No amount of light can penetrate these viscera.
I want to read you something from Mininsky; listen to this….If having fixed the original form in our mind’s eye, we ask ourselves how that form comes alive and fills with life, we discover a new dynamic and vital category, a new property of the universe; reverberation. It is as though a wellspring existed within a sealed vase and its waves, repeatedly echoing against the sides of this vase, filled it with sonority.
Or again, it is as though the sound of the hunting horn, reverberating everywhere through its echo, made the tiniest leaf, the tiniest wisp of moss shudder in a common movement and transformed the whole forest, filling it to its limits, into a vibrating sonorous world.
It happened on the surface…. yes in the open air…I was walking…suddenly to one side of me a loud grunt. There was a man lying on a hospital trolley, he was naked under the white sheet. He was a big handsome man with a black beard and a large tattoo, but he was un-conscious in broad daylight, being wheeled by two attendants. His groan had been formed as his breath had been forcibly expressed as the trolley carelessly encountered a kerb. The naked body and the sleeping mind slipping through the bright sunlight in an envelope of total darkness.
The average daily count is nineteen; it’s a speculators reflex, a banker’s barometer and a realtors dream. Counting construction cranes is the best way of keeping in tune with this city. The tip of the mechanism is a sure index, pointing vertically downward to a place of scraping away.
At first a clawing down of a past, too new to be valued; then a scraping away to the bedrock, to the smooth, hard, ground zero of the cities history. Into this cavity angular structures will graze archaeology, the skeletal will meet with the fossilised. For the moment this is a special guarded place, this future under-world will contain the stomach and heart of the structure, a site of massive reverberation, pumping liquids, and gases, and signals, and energy to fuel the functions of the super-structure.
Men are working here, feverishly as surgeons, opening and sealing the viscera as fast as possible in order that this other city is exposed for the shortest period only. It is as if this image of the canyon, with its calls to a distant history, or this amphitheatre with its reference to a history, which is coveted, is too volatile to be viewed, too arousing. For the moment it is possible to crouch here and shelter from the wind and constant rumble of the streets and to hear for an instant the echo of a distant mountainside, or the hammer-fall on an anvil deep within a super-natural forge. But then all is owned here, even images, even sound.
Do you have a match?…No, well if we had a damn light you could see your own breath, your vital warmth abandoned and overwhelmed. This bunker is a cold store…a cold store for the imagination…it is here that all our forgotten narratives slowly settle into oblivion.
At first a dusting of fungal growth but then later the inevitable flow of one inscribed surface through another. The compression is complete as all the fictive elements return to the original substratum, random voices babbling over the worn culverts; seeping downward to fertilise that which is both unseen and un-see able.
When the eye first encounters them, the body shrinks away, simply tries to evade the whole situation by imagining itself in the warm air of the street. The body, frozen in recoil, listens as the eye begins to speak hysterically – its gaze, hypnotically fixed, upon row after row of eyeless sockets; repeating these are not people, these are minerals. The earth has glazed each surface with a brown residue and the air hovers cold and almost odourless.
An equilibrium can be reached…. now it is simply the vast number, which provokes disbelief. Each of these people, now crushed in piles below, bled their energy into moulding the surface of the city. Understand – we are witnessing not a graveyard but a spoil-tip for the city’s power source. Long stripped of metabolic heat all that remains here is dry calcium.
Listen, I once had a friend, a traveller, I’ve kept his last letter with me here ever since………The village of Nebej is high in the mountains of Guatemala above Sacapulas. In the centre of the village is an adobe cathedral with a single tower rising to the bell platform. Each morning an Indian climbs the circular stairs and begins a symphony on the two bronze bells.
The smaller is cracked and neither has a striker. He uses a wooden stick to play a complex of sonic patterns that weave into the echoes from the mountains. The tower walls are covered with pencilled poems. The poems describe a lover’s body.
A bell not yet a bell must be a manikin for a bell’s body, a clay memory of an adobe cathedral and a signal for what must eventually be a call sign and a discipline device. The bell has heralded the siren on the factory wall, the school and the prison. I hear a bell in every foghorn, auto horn, air raid and fire alarm. The telephone rings, the crossing gate falls, I am awakened, warned and informed as the sonar scans, scans by body, my social body, my physical world and the air sings with discipline as the atoms are constantly re-ordered.
Now is the null-point where day is abolished. This is the ultimate location where the exchange of the manufactured for the natural is transacted. Where even the dance of waves and particles falter and unravel, to leave the sun blackened.
There is a space between diastole and systole where time lies idle and directionless, where blood begins to eddy and cool in the heart and where the resonance of the bell is totally absorbed by the density of the chamber. Movement in all dimensions comes to a standstill. The loss of one identity precedes the acceptance of another, all instruments rest at zero.
This city is large. It is composed of large structures. Large structures in small spaces. Its systems are massive. Huge masses move through the city’s air spaces. All movement is percussive. All motive power is based upon the serial harnessing of explosive forces. Trapped within the heart of each mass, moving or stationary, lays a kernel of violence, radiating motion, heat and sound.
Each heart gives up to the atmosphere the glow of hydrocarbons and the staccato of respiration. The chorus of hearts permits the city to speak. To reveal its thoughts, to expose its inner nature. This city is large. Large not through the accumulations of history, but large through newness.
This city has never learnt the songs of childhood. It is still trying to articulate its first word. Its mouth is filled with roaring. Its narrow air spaces resonate at the lowest pitch. The pitch of pre-oral culture.
Our desire is for speed. The footfalls, which beat twice each, second still share in the biology of bird song. The motor running at 3,000r.p.m. drinks power at 50 Hertz. Rhythmic impulse plus speed equals pitch, and pitch the index of our desire.
The sound of our desire is a flat tone, continuous and without interruption or modulation. The duration of the keynote is infinite. It pervades each space occupying it as a viscous fluid, without direction, drowning the particular with the indiscriminate. The idiosyncrasy of the bell has found its antithesis in the drone of the motor which regulates its pealing. In our system time is always running out. The bell has always punctuated this fact with its complex acoustic signals, but at a subliminal level the operations of the regulating motor constitute the real meter of time, penetrating further and for longer than the pulse in our wrists.
Then here we dug and dug in search of the truth that Francis Bacon told us would lie in the deepest mines of nature. The cyclic caprices of the seasons and the fickle character of social organisation are excluded. Plunging downward along the vertical axis we have abandoned the banal materiality of the surface for constancy of the substratum. Here experience is no longer supported by palpable evidence, the skeleton of dimensions slip from the body of space and time clots into masses as events fuse into simultaneity. Here the civilised find their cave. Rootless intellects range over all landscapes and all possibilities of thought, each mind separated in its private cell, bathing in the universal transmission.
The Romans dreamt of constructing a vast architectural cosmos – a cosmos of arches and concrete vaults, an urban stellar system formed of indestructible interior volumes, brimming with the power of technical logic, and imperial authority. From these enclosures nature would be banished, only light was permitted to enter, nature as a servant harnessed to illuminate the artifice of these interiors where only human logic or human madness remained; no trace of moss touched these bare walls, which secretly contained in their depths the frozen bodies of marine serpents.
The truck is standing outside, all but loaded for the journey to the coastal lagoons. A final circuit of the room to pick up the remaining vital items for the trip, the gun and the portable radio receiver and he quits the building. After three hours in which the cab radio has competed with the rattle of the diesel truck he curses, stops the vehicle and checks the glove compartment without any apparent conviction, merely to confirm that the cartridges are still lying in the corner of the room.
The truck pulls up outside, he cuts the motor, he is passing through the first of the steel blast doors, his I.D. card is scrutinised, he passes beyond the second door. He is positioned before a downward sloping corridor, which terminates in its own vanishing point, he is walking. He is standing at the head of a perforated steel spiral stairway, he descends.
His I.D. is re-confirmed, this time by another who cannot or will not speak. He proceeds to the transmitter room. He is seated before the device; he glances to the left in order to indicate his readiness to the other operator, who returns his gaze with a studied neutral acknowledgement, calculated to dispel any emotional contact. The surrounding atmosphere is perfectly conditioned. They return their focus to the device, the dual keys are inserted simultaneously and locked to the right – a threshold is crossed – the transmission proceeds, its radiations emanating to fill every crevice of the known world.
He walks diagonally across the room to the opposite corner and stoops to retrieve the two cases of cartridges and, as a secondary measure, picks up some spare power cells for the portable receiver unit. He is free to leave – he is seated behind the wheel of the truck.
In between the land of the still living and that of the dead there is a cave…
The truck passes along a dry valley floor, moving over a pavement of rock slabs, which float in drifts of brilliant quartz sand, the fossil remains of some pre-historic beach. Gradually the vehicle descends into the dense scrub which lines the lower reaches of the gorge. At the creek he slows to a halt and out of respect turns off the cab radio, this creek flows down from the silent cave, a place that only the very old may visit. On the drivers side (to the North-East), the country eventually opens out to form the coastal plains with their lagoon systems, but to his left the massive jumble of dissected sandstone ridges continue unbroken, parallel to the distant shore.
She sits only a metre from the brightness of the creek. From here her vacant gaze is filled with the movements of crayfish, creatures that promise such good eating. This country will be her larder – an old lady’s privilege. He lingers a while, his toes and the front tyres of the vehicle immersed in the creek. Idly he considers how good the fishing would be here, but that will doubtless be his privilege in many years to come – he is bound to continue his journey, out of respect for the old, from fear of the keeper’s censure and propelled by his desire to bag geese on the salt-water lagoons to the North-East.
He imagines that he can already hear faint rifle reports drifting in on the coastal breeze – his brothers and sisters must be eating roast goose by now. The truck fords the creek, the radio returns; goose and gun-sight eclipse in his mind’s eye. The old lady remains motionless, a day – two days and then crawls into the darkness of the silent cave, carefully propping her spine against the smoothness of the rock surface. She lifts her gaze to regard the fading light that inhabits the cave entrance, closes her eyes and is gone.
Throughout that night and for the following day the transmission continues – the two keys remain locked into the central control panel of the device – a guarantee against equivocation. The room slumbers in a monochrome red light; the atmosphere is constantly re-circulated and monitored. Many metres deeper the automatic power plant spins a thread of high voltage energy up through the device and onward to dissipation at the terminals of the antennae installation.
Around the shores of the lagoon the transmission rains down on the hunters camp, mixing with the smell of roast goose. It irradiates the cabinets of their portable radios and enters the cabs of their vehicles but is unable to penetrate the tuning circuits or become manifest in the small amplifiers; popular music, carried on different frequencies, has granted the hunters immunity.
The transmission showers down on the keeper, bathing his head and body with a foreign knowledge. But then the keeper is an old man, he doesn’t have a radio, doesn’t want one either. He too is a master of the silent gesture – his conversations are with the departed – as he helps them on their way from this place to the next. He is the gateman who ensures the living that this is a one-way traffic.
By now the dogs will have visited the old lady – she will have been scattered. The keeper must gather her up and install the bone pieces in a crevice high in the cave wall. From here the old lady will be able to continue her journey without cause to return. He sprinkles the floor with fresh water from the creek and very slowly sweeps the cave with a green branch. It is cool under the overhang, it is always cool; a good place to sit and watch the crayfish.
The light has been fading for some time now – for quite how long it is impossible to estimate; it is only possible to remark that a feeble red glow remains. Apparently the transmission stopped abruptly a day ago. It is now possible to imagine the faint sound of distant gunfire somewhere to the North.
This transmission is number (1) of a 21 part series…broadcast live from an UnRequited Space….Latitude 33 Degrees, 52 Minutes and 18 Seconds South…Longitude 151 Degrees, 12 Minutes and 40 Seconds East………….it is now exactly Midnight.
© Nigel Helyer 1992.
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