Tapping the air is a practice-based research project performed through a series of covert residencies and transmissions at locations associated with wireless and listening history. The air was first tap, tap tapped in 2017 with the temporary occupation of Marconi’s Lizard Wireless Telegraphy Station (Cornwall); site of the first ‘over the horizon’ wireless transmission in 1901. The most recent transmission took place in 2021, during a brief window of opportunity between COVID lockdowns, when I retraced the journey of that signal back to Knowles Farm on the Isle of Wight and the empty concrete base of the missing radio mast which had sent the di-dit-dit of Marconi’s test signal over the horizon to Cornwall. Each ‘residence’ concludes with an unannounced (and mostly unheard) micro-FM transmission, broadcasting from the location of residence. Tuned-in through portable radios the performed transmissions are re-composed from field-recordings gathered in local landscapes haunted by the discarded remains of listening and communication technologies.
Having spoken about the project at galleries and conferences in the UK and Ireland, in 2019 I was invited to present a paper at the Radio Preservation Task Force Conference 2020 at The Library of Congress, Washington. Sadly, due to the Covid pandemic, the conference was postponed. But on the 26th of April, 2023, I took flight over the Atlantic to Washington DC to perform my paper, Tapping the Air, at #RPTF2023. Directed by Neil Verma and one of the largest events to be held at the Library of Congress, this ground-breaking conference brought together over ‘300 archivists, radio and television historians, artists, information scientists, journalists, curators, sound studies scholars, broadcasters and others.’
On my first day, I listened to songs of extinction (Alexandra Hui), the queer archives of Lesbian radio radicals (Stacey Copeland), the celestial short-wave mixing board of the ‘ignorosphere’ (Amanda Dawn Christie) and the Plutonium Blues tapes of toxic landscapes (Jay Needham). I was fortunate to meet Davia Nelson of the radio producers and artists The Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson & Nikki Silva) and attend their Keynote interview – one of the absolute highlights of the conference.
(Serendipitously when I returned home, exhausted and ill late on Saturday evening, I fell asleep to the radio lullaby of an edition of BBC Radio 4’s Something Understood, by The Kitchen Sisters.
As part of a panel on Recapturing ‘Liveness’, chaired by Nathan Moor and including Stephanie Brown and Professor Anne MacLennan, I performed the paper, Tapping the Air: Ghosts, landscapes and technology. Having traced Marconi’s signal back to the Isle of Wight, this variation of the paper submitted for the conference in 2019, includes images, words and sounds from the haunted landscape surrounding Marconi’s former Niton Station at Knowles Farm (IOW). In particular, the empty concrete base of the now absent radio mast:
In the national monument of this mouthed hollow, the metal spiked teeth, which once held the radio mast aloft are still present. Tapped with a pebble from the geological fault of the Lizard Peninsula, the teeth chit, chatter and chime, pealing the sibilant consonant of Marconi’s test signal, back into the landscape.
Tapping the air. (2023)
Whilst at the conference I took advantage of the opportunity to wander off and listen in on people’s conversation. Through this I discovered that the Library of Congress, has a vast complex of subterranean passages, connecting the buildings of the library and leading me from James Madison to Thomas Jefferson. These tiled walkways are lined with hidden shops and the occasional still lives of museum storage. I arose from this underground mosey, up into Jefferson at the exact hour, the viewing public are allowed to join a queue for a brief 5-minute transient through the celestial vaulted silence of the research reading room. I queued, I rounded silence, listened, recorded and left.
Baird Auditorium, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
The conference concluded on Sunday 30th April, with a Listening Party at the Baird Auditorium in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. My sound work Over the Horizon, composed from the fragmented remains of the three occupations of Tapping the Air, was included in this listening event. Sadly, I had to leave on the Saturday and was not there to hear the catering susurrations chatter of Marconi’s metal teeth, tapped and sounded on the Isle of Wight, brought over the horizon of the Atlantic Ocean and received in the acoustic shell-like of the Baird Auditorium.
Thank you #RPTF2023 for a fascinating five days and for a truly life affirming conference.
There is a summary of the conference here
And a short 2 minute clip of conference sounds and images here