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A perfect summer’s day. Sunshine, slight breeze. The Ness ablaze with flowers.
Derek Jarman, Modern Nature

Prelude

Seagulls flocking over Ness [field-recording]: 02:00 / mp3 / 2019

At 9:15 AM on the 24th July 1991, the Post Office collected a hand-written envelope, that had been dropped into a letter box in New Romney near Dungeness. A day later, a bright orange envelope, addressed in a flourish of black ink, fell onto the floor of a one-bedroom flat in Park Fields, Wolverhampton.  Addressed by Derek Jarman this envelope is kept between the pages of a copy of Modern Nature.

In June this year, Modern Nature featured on the BBC Radio 4 series, Book of the Week.  Beautifully read by Rupert Everett the programme was recorded at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s home in Dungeness. Everett reads from the desk where Modern Nature was written, and an orange envelope inscribed. The letter enclosed within that envelope ends with the words: ‘Dungeness is all flowers.’

Since receiving the letter in 1991, I have wanted to return to Dungeness and see Prospect Cottage in full flower. This summer, twenty-five years after his death I finally returned. I say ‘return’ although I had never actually been to the Ness. And yet, having waited so long, it does feel like a return of sorts, a return to somewhere I have never been and to a memory I am yet to forget.


Starlings Transmitting [field-recording]:  02:32 / mp3  / 2019

Listen. Listen now. Listen to Ness.
Ness speaks. Ness speaks gull, speaks wave, speaks
bracken and lapwing, speaks bullet, ruin, gale deception.
Ness speaks […] transmission, reception, Ness speaks
pure mercury, utmost secret, swift current, rapid fire.
Listen again. Listen back. Listen to the past of Ness […] [1]

As part of the ‘fifth continent’ Dungeness is set adrift, detached, flat and exquisitely bleak. Closer to Calais than London the Global Positioning System of my mobile, ignores Brexit and positions me firmly in France.  On the shingle, the derelict shell of a wooden shed [2], is thought to have been built by Marconi as part of his experiments with the transmission of wireless radio signals across English Channel. The airwaves still chatter in the frequent modulation of broken English and spoken French. Like many of the buildings on the Ness, Marconi’s ‘Wireless shed’ has been converted into a modernist holiday home.

A physical and architectural neighbour to the Wireless shed  [3], the Fog Signal Building is part of the Trinity House Experimentation Station [4]. In August of this year it became the site of my most recent covert residency and micro-FM transmission. The industrial bungalow lies low in the shingle at the very tip of the headland. Rising from its flat concrete roof, the perpendicular pluck of a decommissioned radio tower breaks cover, transmitting a ghost of presence in the horizontal empty – Ness. Every morning a small electronic murmur of starlings settles on the tower, briefly recommissioning transmission.


Fog Signal Building once housed the air pumps, whose compressed breath, mouthed through an array of six horns, tested the distance and propagation of fog signals. An architectural ghost of these forgotten voices remains in a monochrome tower of mute horns, which peaks over the sine waves of shingle, bellowing silently, out to sea.

Formed through longshore drift, the ‘dangerous nose’ of the Ness is constantly wiped by oblique incoming winds. And yet the landscape seems strangely still, evacuated of presence, it oxidises quietly. On the horizon the sea is visible, but it’s sound remains distant and remote, an audible rumour behind a vast tide of shingle.


Considered one of the quietest places in the UK, in the 1920’s the Ness was referred to as ‘the nearest approach to silence […]’[5] and selected as a good site for the large array of three acoustic mirrors at Great Stone (aka Denge). The early warning system of these concrete ears extends along the Kent coast, from Denge to Hythe, onto Dover and the South Foreland Lighthouse, where in 1899, Marconi conducted the first international radio transmission.

As part of the Hythe Acoustical Research Station, the sound mirrors at Hythe were constructed by the Air Ministry in the 1920’s with the largest of the two (30ft) being completed in 1929. Designed to survey the air, the mirrors listened out for the incoming propulsion of enemy aircraft. Although successful in tests, by 1936 the acoustic premonition of sound mirrors was superseded by the electromagnetic scan of RAdio Detection and Ranging.



Hythe Mirror gunfire [field-recording]: 00:41 / mp3 / 2019

At the summit of The Roughs, overlooking the beached military ranges below, the largest of the Hythe mirrors survives. Tagged and crumbling, its cracked concrete ear still listens. ‘[A]lone with nothing particular to listen to’, perhaps as Derek Jarman writes, ‘this is [its] finest hour.’[6] As I ascend the hill and reach the mirror, I hold a microphone out into the oracle [Auricle] of its hollow, and I am suddenly confronted with a burst of gunfire, the echo of its acoustic shrapnel shattering the mirror’s derelict silence. Francois Bonnet notes that ‘the echo, produced by the repercussions a multiplied sound […] establishe[s] a supernatural sonorous environment’[7]. Brandon Labelle also recognises the ghosting of acoustic delay when he writes: ‘the echo is a sound that comes back to haunt [ …]’[8]. Just as the mythical Echo wasted away,  her bones turning to stone, so too the percussion of the ballistics recurs, an echoic and fugitive spirit, mineralised in the concrete of the mirror.


Air Harp n.3: 04:12 / mp3 / 2019

My previous transmissions at Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station were composed of sounds found and recorded in the surrounding landscape. At Fog Signal I decided to not only listen into the landscape, but also introduce other sounds into it. The ‘air harp’ is a cheap second-hand auto harp, ‘prepared’ with the flotsam of wood, screw and polystyrene washed up onto the Ness. Performed by the wind, this automatic aeolian harp, uncovers the murmuring music of sea breezes.

But from where and whence do these ghostly melodies come? Athanasius Kircher, who first described the Aeolian harp in 1650, ‘surmised that the wind comes in rays’, plucking the strings and causing them to sound. Whilst, in Physiological Disquisitions, the 17th century natural philosopher William Jones proposed that the music of the Aeolian harp originated not in the strings, but in the air itself. The harp operated as a ‘sound prism’ ‘[refracting] the wind,’ dividing and revealing ‘vibrations […] already present in the air.’[8]


Pebble arc: 02:40 / mp3 / 2019

Fog Signal Transmission [harp and signal] edit: 03:00 / mp3 / 2019

The transmission at Fog Signal, begins as the beam of the Dungeness lighthouse automatically announces night fall. A line of pebbles cast onto the shingle, traces an arc of auditory space and presence.  The auto harp sounds, divining the air and revealing a concert of signals already present. I transmit to an unknown and unknowing audience, the transmission, like sound itself, disappearing in the moment of its appearance. Signals lost are sent, received and lost again. No one is listening, nothing is heard.

 

Footnotes

[1] Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood, 2019. Ness. London: Hamish Hamilton. p.5

[2] This shack appears in the landscape of Jarman’s The Garden (1990).

[3] It is difficult to confirm that Marconi built the ‘Wireless Shed’ in the 1890’s.  The building is also refereed to as the Decca Radar Station, built by the Decca Navigator Company in 1961.

[5] Fog Signal Building and the Experimentation Station complex were redesigned by the Interior Architects Johnson Naylor

[5] Richard N Scarth. 1995. Mirrors by the sea. North Elham: Minnis Print Ltd. p.5

[6] Derek Jarman. 1991. Modern Nature. London: Century. p.72

[7] Francois J. Bonnet. 2016. The order of sounds. Falmouth: Urbanomic. p.25

[8] Brandon Labelle. 2010. Acoustic Territories. London: Bloomsbury. p.15

[9] Thomas Hankins & Robert Silverman. 1995.  Instruments and the Imagination. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 94-95.


Silence and weak signals live: part one [edit] 5:23 / mp3 / 2019


Silence and weak signals live: part two [edit] 5:28 / mp3 / 2019


Silence and weak signals live: part three [edit]  5:27 / mp3 / 2019

To mark the end of the exhibition of Various Silences at Winchester School of Art Library, I performed a short micro-FM transmission in Library 2. Silence and weak signals: for five poorly tuned radios, was accompanied by the live dissolve of a cretaceous ammonite, a dissolve that quietly released the fossilised air of ancient C02 into the atmospheric lull of library stacks. The performance begins with a damaged silence as I take Silence on Loan from the library shelf and drop the stylus into its groove.  Tuning into the dead air between radio stations, I find silence and weak signals coming through the radios, whilst the tapping of the library shelves and architecture, calls substance into question and asks for a response from elsewhere.


Each day of the exhibition, a page of the erased found novel Red Silence: for the missing, was turned. As I removed the novel from the exhibition, the silent dust of language rubbed out and unsaid, remained on the cabinet floor.

sebastiane hegarty: [un]re[a]d silence

Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall.
Off the Beat(en) Track.
Deep Wireless Festival of Radio and Transmission Art, Ontario, Canada. 2019

On this day, one hundred and eighteen years ago, a test signal was sent from Knowles Farm on the Isle of Wight to the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station on the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall. At 5.32pm (the same time that I now post this here) a Post Office Telegraph was handed in at the Lizard Village Office, confirming receipt of the signal and declaring Marconi’s test ‘completely successful.’ The transmission was ‘a world record for long-range wireless propagation’ and the first time a wireless signal had been transmitted ‘over the horizon’. Prior to this, it was believed that ‘the operating range of wireless would be restricted to the [optical] horizon.’ (Rowe) But on Wednesday the 23rd January, 1901, in what became known as ‘Marconi’s First Great Miracle’ the arrival of three Morse code dots at The Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station, signalled not only the letter ‘s’, but also an escape from the visible: a flight from the material into the airy immaterial.


In that same year, at Poldu, some six visible miles from the Wireless Telegraphy Station, Marconi had begun construction of the largest transmitter ever built. The Poldhu station was charged with determining if wireless signals could be transmitted and received over the fathomless horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. On the 12th December 1901, the faint dit-dit-dit of Marconi’s test signal transmitted from Poldhu, was heard some 2100 miles away, at a receiving point on the appropriately named Signal Hill, in St John, Newfoundland, Canada. The signal was too weak to operate the Morse printer and could only be confirmed by the (h)ear(ed) witness of Marconi and his assistant George Kemp. Without visible evidence, the existence of a signal was disputed, even today the authenticity of the transmission continues to be questioned. Pat Hawker, a writer for the journal Radio Communication, states: ‘[W]hatever clicks Marconi and Kemp heard on that windy Newfoundland cliff, they could not have originated from the three dots automatically transmitted from Poldhu.’ That the existence of this inaugural signal of wireless communication should be so spectral and suspect, seems appropriate for a medium in which the perimeters of the real and imagined, the here, there, then and now are so diffused.


Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall is a recording of a micro-FM transmission, composed and performed live at the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station in August 2018.
The transmission was based on field-recordings collected on the Lizard Peninsular and surrounding environment; a landscape littered with the history and architectural remains of listening and communication technologies. The transmitted soundscape mingles local sounds with recordings made on the Isle of Wight and physically transported over the horizon to the Lizard station. The architectural ghosts of towers, wires and blast walls are sounded out by the air moving through them and the by the geological dit-dit-dit of Serpentine pebbles tapping out Marconi’s test signal upon them. The transmission began as the first illuminated arc of the Lizard Lighthouse signaled nightfall: weak signals lost in and to the visible landscape.

Tapping the air: weak signals at nightfall is featured on the NAISA Radio programme, Off the Beat(en) Track. Curated by Darren Copeland, Artistic Director of New Adventures in Sound Art (NAISA), the programme is available online as part of the Deep Wireless Festival of Radio and Transmission Art.



In the autumn of 2018 I toured the air. The tour was problematic, not in terms of content or audience response, but in terms of what constitutes a tour. I decided that two performances, separated from each other in place and time, is the minimum axis required for a tour to occur. The bag was packed, the t-shirts printed.

The tapping the air tour consisted of two performed transmissions for six radios. It started in September at The Iklectic Art Lab and concluded at the APT Gallery in October. Both micro-FM transmission were based on field-recordings made on the Lizard Peninsular during a covert residency at Marconi’s Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station in Cornwall: site of the world’s first ‘over the horizon’ wireless transmission.


Photography: Nicolò Becciu.

Tapping the air: for six radios and a piano was part of Eclectic Electronics, an evening of experimental sound work at the Iklectic, curated by Bernhard Living and including performances by Lucie Štěpánková, Lucia H Chung, Phil Durrant & Pat Thomas.

The performance began by tuning through the signal jammed London air in search of an available and vacant radio frequency. A vacancy found the six radios are individually tuned into the signal of the transmitted soundscape. However, the signal is never stable, the position of each radio and my physical proximity to them shift and recompose the sound transmitted, establishing a localised and dynamic soundfield.

This soundfield was haunted by the recorded dit-dit-dit of Marconi’s test signal being tapped out on the architectural remains of communication technologies that litter the Lizard landscape. The call of this tapping receives a live response in the geological tap of Serpentine pebbles on the frame and strings of the Iklectic piano. As the transmission closes the choreographer Julia Hall taps unseen on the external wooden walls and windows of the building: a signal coming through from the other side, testing substance and questioning presence.



tapping the air: for a fragment of chalk and any number of  radios 
edit / opening / 03:02 / mp3 / 2018
edit / ending / 03:39 / mp3 / 2018

At the APT Gallery, Tapping the air: for a fragment of chalk and any number of radios, invited the audience to tune into its frequency. The performance began with the audible dissolve of a chalk fragment exhumed from the cretaceous geology of Alum Bay on the Isle of Wight (site of Marconi’s early radio transmissions and the Marconi Monument). As the International Ocean Boy slowly tuned into the slither of a vacant FM frequency, the prehistoric static of CO2 escaping from the dissolving chalk was absorbed into the emerging atmospheric shush of radio transmission.



On Saturday the 15th September I will be performing, Variation for six radios and a piano at the Iklectik, London. This live variation is based on recent field-recordings and transmissions at Marconi’s Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station in Cornwall and is part of an evening of Eclectic Electronics curated by Bernhard Living. The evening includes performances by the excellent Phil Durrant & Pat Thomas, Lucia H Chung, Lucie Štěpánková, and a new film by Lisa Minaeva.

In August I returned to the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station. These two small wooden huts are the oldest surviving purpose built radio buildings in the world. In 1901 Marconi’s Morse test signal was transmitted from the Isle of Wight (IOW) and received at the Lizard Wireless Station. Not only was this the furthest a wireless signal had been transmitted at that time, it was also the first ‘over the horizon’ wireless transmission. Prior to this it was believed that wireless radio signals would be confined to the ‘optical’ horizon. The reception of a simple dit-dit-dit, signalled not only the letter ‘s’, but also an escape from the visible and concrete: a flight from the material into the airy immaterial.
Last summer I began an unofficial, covert residency at the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station. I spent the time listening to and recording from, a local landscape littered with the architectural remains of civil and military communication. At the conclusion of my residence I re-composed the field-recordings into an ephemeral landscape, transmitted live in a performed micro-FM transmission, broadcasting from the former ‘operating room’ of the Marconi Station.


This summer, in advance of my return to the Lizard, I travelled to the Isle of Wight. I used contact microphones to tap and listen into sounds underneath the apparent landscape: the hysterical Morse of Red Funnel air socks, the tap dance of footfall on the Marconi Monument in Alum Bay. Returning to the Wireless Station, I brought these recordings with me, physically transporting the signals over the horizon to the Lizard. Whist on the IOW I also sent a physical signal in the form a 7” vinyl record, cut with a silent groove and transmitted to the Wireless Station via Royal Mail (without the protection of sleeve or envelope.) On my arrival I found this scuffed silence waiting, kindly collected and shelved by Geoff, one of the volunteers at the Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station Museum.




air sock / edited field-recording / 02:12 / mp3 / 2018

On returning to the Wireless Station my aim was to compose a new work that would mingle the site of Marconi’s original transmission (IOW) with site of its reception (Lizard). I began by listening again, eavesdropping on the local landscape and its changes. I extended my listening along the communication coast from the Serpentine factory at Church Cove to the secret WW2 tunnels at Porthcurno. I also started to introduce signals into the landscape, tapping out the dit-dit-dit of Marconi’s test signal on the architectural revenants of listening and transmission: the derelict Orlit and suffocated air shafts of the subterranean Royal Observer Corps early warning station, the Dry Tree Menhir (standing stone) surrounded by the Earth Satellite Station on Goonhilly Down. Tapping listens in, fathoming space and testing substance, it both confirms and questions presence: I am here, is someone there?



orlit signal / edited field-recording / 02:00 / mp3 / 2018

The Wireless Station is on the very periphery of the terrestrial. There is of course absolutely no mobile signal. When the rain comes down and the fog comes in the horizon evaporates. At night everywhere disappears, the intermittent tinnitel hush of ocean and occasional creak of air offering only brief moments of location. I had originally intended to transmit from inside the Wireless Station, but decided that bringing the broadcast into the landscape would encourage interference and amplify the loss of signal The transmission started at 9pm with the scuffed silence of the record disappearing unheard into the landscape. As silence revolved on the turntable, the crepuscular beam of the Lizard Lighthouse started to rotate, automatically announcing the end of daylight and approach of nightfall. Broadcasting at night immersed the transmission in the atmospheric weather of radio: a signal lost to the landscape and the static of night falling upon it.



weak signals for nightfall [edit] / micro-FM transmission / mp3 / 2018

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