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Tapping the air, away

I am delighted to be speaking at the Transient Topographies conference organised by The National University of Ireland in Galway. Transient Topographies: Space and Interface in Digital Literature and Art is the second Galway Digital Cultures Initiative conference, and will take place at the Moore Institute for Research in the Humanities and Social Studies, Galway, from Friday 20th April to Saturday the 21 April 2018.
My paper, Tapping the air: a wireless topology of listening and communication on the Lizard Peninsular, is based on a covert residency and micro-FM transmission at Marconi’s Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station, Cornwall, last summer. In a choreographed assemblage of original field-recordings, imagery, text and [attempted] live micro-FM transmission, the paper explores the development of the project within the context of listening, materiality, and loss.

Travelling to Galway is a return of sorts, serendipitously retracing Marconi’s own radiophonic footsteps: following the first transatlantic wireless transmission from his Poldhu transmitter in Cornwall to Signal Hill in Newfoundland, commercial interests led Marconi to move to Ireland, where, in 1907, he built the Clifden wireless station in Connemara, County Galway. The journey also retraces my own family’s emigration from Eire. As a child in the 1920’s, my father, together with his parents and sisters, became economic migrants, leaving home and Connemara for the damp outskirts of Manchester. My father died in 1975, without ever returning to Ireland. In 1987 I returned with[out] him, to find the house he had left, the place where he was born. The elderly woman who now lived in the tiny one-up, one-down, labourer’s cottage, very kindly invited me in for tea, and told me she had moved into the cottage when my father’s family had moved out. Years later I learned that the cottage, our ancestral home, had been demolished and there was nowhere now to return to. Marconi’s Clifden Wireless station is still disappearing, its buildings abandoned to ruin, its contents sold for scrap and no employees surviving to communicate and transmit its history.

 
Tapping the air: transmission edit part 3. 3:00 / mp3 / 2017

The landscape of the Lizard peninsular is haunted by the architectural remains of listening and communication: from the mast array and antenna at Lizard and Poldhu, to the blast walls of the WW2 radar station at RAF Pen Olver and RAF Dry Tree, the abandoned underground listening of the Royal Corps nuclear monitoring station (a place which still does not appear on maps) to the looming low of the Lizard foghorn and galactic ear of the Earth Satellite Station on Goonhilly Downs . During the residency at The Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station these hosts of signals sent, received and lost, became the primary focus of the field-recording process, a process which itself became a form of eavesdropping, a listening-in on landscape, a tapping into listening.


Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station: antenna (field-recording)

Poldu: loose wires (field-recording)

Tapping the air: transmission edit part 3. 3:00 / mp3 / 2017

The residency concluded with a micro-FM transmission from the former ‘operating room’ of the station. Tuned-in through six portable radios the performed transmission was based on field-recordings made in the Lizard landscape. These recordings included sounds available to ear and others occluded from audition: the Aeolian strum and automatic Morse of antennas and loose wires at Poldhu, the perimeter hum of security fences at RAF Dry Tree and the Earth Satellite Station on Goonhilly downs, the sentry pulse of Lizard Lighthouse foghorn.

Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station was the site of Marconi’s first ‘over-the-horizon’ wireless transmission. Prior to this, it was believed that wireless communication was restricted to the optical horizon. In January 1901, the reception of a simple di-di-dit, signalled not only the letter ‘s’, but also an escape from the visible: a flight from the material into the airy immaterial, from permanence to transience. Steven Connor writes: ‘The wireless world promised to cut our connection to the sluggish and annoyingly chopped-up world of time and place and bodies and […] matter.’ The medium of radio offered an insubstantial and ephemeral terrain, where place comes through and passes away. In the atmospheric dead air of this wireless landscape, we hear not only the dissolution of space and substance, but also the ‘fracture and fluctuation of time…’ (Connor).

Transient Topographies  Conference Schedule

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