20 Mar 2010

Obscura Day, Dunedin

In response to its international call-out for guided tours around unique and fascinating collections, I volunteered to organise a New Zealand chapter of Obscura Day, a global event hosted by the online 'cabinet of curiosities' Atlas Obscura.

The event took the form of a tour around the back rooms, obscure cupboards, and dusty hallways of the Physics department of Otago University, Dunedin, and was co-hosted by teaching fellow Paul Yates. Not a public or official collection, the many fascinating antique teaching aids and unique machines in the Physics department's current possession were pulled out for the perusal of a select group.

These included the Beverley Clock, which runs on its own atmospheric pressure, and the Transmitter used by Professor Robert Jack in the first radio broadcast of a music programme in New Zealand, transmitted from the very same department in 1921.

These items would indeed make a incredible private museum, although sadly soon after the tour the collection was broken up and auctioned off, with the Robert Jack transmitter saved only at the eleventh hour from sale. This priceless piece of New Zealand radio history now resides in Dunedin in the collections of the Otago Settlers Museum.

thanks to adroit shutterbug Markus Gradwohl for many of these images. more photos of the tour can be found on Flickr, here

& here is an interview Zach Pontz (from CNN online) conducted with me via email about the event :

1) Are you from New Zealand? What do you do for a living? What's your age?

My name is Sally Ann McIntyre, and I am a 35 year old, Australian born independent curator, writer and broadcaster who has based herself in New Zealand since 1991. I have a family background in New Zealand, with both my parents growing up here. My current day job is teaching in the English and Media Studies department at Massey University in Wellington, and currently I am involved in a variety of projects and networks relating to radio, sound and media art. These often tie New Zealand networks with those based elsewhere. For example, with co-producer Gilbert May, a broadcaster with Radio One, in Dunedin, I commission NZ programmes for the Radia global radio network, which is a peer-to-peer community of radio stations (including Resonance FM in London, and Radio Zero in Lisbon) that facilitates artists and broadcasters making independent, experimental and exploratory radio, with a focus on radio as an art medium. These stations are based in local broadcast communities, and use internet file sharing to pass their radio programmes around the world, taking turns broadcasting each other's shows.

> 2) how'd you come across Atlas Obscura and become involved in Obscura Day?

I became aware of the Atlas Obscura initially via my fondness for its precursor website, the Athanaeus Kircher Society, and through keeping in touch with what was happening when the Kircher site went offline. I've been studying Museum Studies lately and both of these sites seem to me to be a really interesting reinvention of the Renaissance idea of the Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities, which is a precursor to the modern idea of the Museum that attempted to be a total collection of the world's wonders, from one collector's perspective. This idea seemed obsolete for centuries afterwards - the hubris of attempting to collect the world, and the eclecticism and personalisation of this model being two things that didn't appeal to the increasingly specialised and discipline-oriented Museum theories and practices that sprang up after. But I'm deeply interested in how globalisation and the internet seem to be leading us toward a return of the Wunderkammer - this idea of Museum practice becoming virtual, that the objects are gone, but you can still log your collection as a series of virtual sites or items - and I love Atlas Obscura's take on the tourist trail as a series of wonders, with an eccentric, curiosity-driven and personal bent.

> 3) What are the personal benefits you gain from the website and how do you think you benefit from it as opposed to a regular book guide?

I think that the Atlas Obscura couldn't really exist in the way it does without the internet. It is a globalised way of looking at the local that really respects locality, but respects its distribution via the internet as a form of peer-to-peer communication device, which is really the way it should be used, ideally, and this is of course something which other forms of media - the one-to-many models – cannot do. This seems to me to be one thing that artist's projects lik Atlas Obscura can offer the world and its forms of communication right now - the sense of possibility of framing things differently, to expose forms of knowledge and ways of thinking that aren't part of the dominant way of looking and talking about the world.

> 4) How has the web and social media helped you communicate as pertains to the site?

I'm highly suspicious to some degree of social media, although i do use it. The accessibility of Obscura Day's call for organisers was brilliant, though, and seemed a very good match with the Physics Dept tour, which is why it was so great when Dylan seemed enthusiastic about my suggestion. I feel very privileged to be working with Atlas Obscura, but at the same time, am enjoying the peer-to-peer, user-driven feel of the site, and its inclusiveness in terms of being involved, with people who i have never physically talked to but sharemany ideas with, on this side of the world. A lot of my work is involved with various types of distance-collaborations with networks of radio makers around the world, and this seemed a natural extension of that process. It was also great to consider the physical manifestation of the Atlas Obscura's virtual space, and I was happy to be able to tick a box for that in NZ, as the Beverly Clock was alreadylisted on the site, and to integrate Atlas Obscura into my own local community, as well as exposing the wonders of this intriguing place to the rest of the world. This to me seems to be the big triumph of this way of working, and of the internet as a facilitatory for collaborative work.

> 5) Can you tell me a bit about your Obscura Day trip?

The Obscura Day trip I have organised is in Dunedin, which is a University town in the South Island of NZ, with a very interesting history of intellectual endeavour, and subcultural (musical, artistic, and DIY inventor) vitality. Paul Yates and I will be leading a select group around the hidden wonders of the Otago University Physics Department, where Paul teaches, and poking around in the history of the field as it has occurred in Dunedin. There are some incredible things there, the Beverly Clock, for example, which runs on atmospheric pressure, and is in many ways a precursory foray into contemporary ideas around environmentally sustainable mechanisms, and the transmitter built and used by Professor Robert Jack, who was an early radio pioneer in New Zealand. He used the transmitter in 1921 to stage the very first broadcast music programme in NZ history. Paul will also conduct a few science experiments and demonstrate other machines for the audience - so i'll be a real science-nerd affair!

3 Mar 2010

'SiB (sounds-in-between) Radio Gowanus' - narrowcast radio project at Cabinet Magazine gallery, Brooklyn

When radio cegeste was invited by free103point9-associated, US-based curator Maria Papadomanolaki to participate in her narrowcast installation project SiB (sounds-in-between) Radio Gowanus, a radio station operating from 16-19 March as a component of the exhibition Postcards from Gowanus (at Cabinet Magazine's gallery space, Brooklyn), mail-art was on my mind. As was considering the near-obsolete medium of the postcard, from the perspective of the history of distance-based communications and its associated media and artforms, as being less an object than a postal circuit, with conceptual links to other communicative mediums (eg. narrowcast radio, the internet), with a focus on its similar potential for one-to-one relationships between transmitter and receiver within networks of exchange. As John Held writes, in his historical analysis of mail-art in Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark's At A Distance : Precursors To Art and Activism on the Internet : "...the Mail Art community... was fixated not on the postal exchange, but rather on the aesthetics and distribution of communication".

As a sometime collector of haunted sounds and haunted images, my starting point in looking at postcards as communicative devices was to ignore any monumental, touristic or nationalistic aspects, the glossy, mass-produced surfaces, and turn to the flipsides, the 'b-sides', if you will, of this media, the scrawled notes and memos of which are not spaces of public, shared, already-agreed-upon meaning. (Re)reading the lost, potentially long dead messages of a collection of randomly selected postcards from the first half of last century as a form of broadcast, I searched through their voices as a way of activating the wider medium's poetics of the personal. This process was greatly helped, practically speaking, by my amateur-collector's interest in vernacular postcard photography and the micro production-scale of the Real Photo Postcard (RPPC), a form of community driven, folk-photographic exchange of small runs of images, which New York based writer Luc Sante refers to as a "ghost telegraph".

As Sante puts it in his recently published Folk Photography : The American Real Photo Postcard 1905-1930 : "The real-photo card was typically a product of the small town, particularly the small town isolated on the plains, whose newspaper did not have the capacity to reproduce half-tones, and whose lonely citizens felt an urgent need to communicate with absent friends, distant in those days even if they lived only three stops down the railroad line."

A second aspect to the project's development was also to consider the notion of a 'sonic postcard' in an entirely more literal and formal sense, by looking at the 78RPM phonographic postcard, a truly odd and fascinating footnote in the history of audio-visual media, briefly in existence in the early 20th Century. Some images can be found above, and here is their place within a timeline of sonic media on the Museum of Technology site. These sometimes twee, often awkward, highly ephemeral hybrid objects are spatially and temporally bounded transmitting devices, with their messages constrained to 'postcard size' spaces; they are also notable for the way their production and dissemination through postal networks exposes a shift in the cultural function of sound recording and playback media, in the early stages of their popular usage, from agency- or user-driven toward something more passive and receptive, with the audio component of these home-recorded, directly communicative 'real phono postcards' (as they were, early on, carrying messages from speaker to speaker, like an audio telegraph, or an answerphone message, before becoming a more symbolic transfer, via the transmission of a novelty pop jingle); tracing a similar process as can be seen contemporarily, perhaps, in the difference between sending a personalised email and an online social networking mass gesture, in the form's evolving from one-to-one communicative device toward its later standardisation and commodification of communication.

The brief lifespan of this hybrid medium is traced in an online history of Tucks 'talking postcards', which can be found here. It's interesting in particular to note the shift from Max Thomas's conception of their usage...

"On October 7th 1904 Max Thomas, manufacturer of phonographic machinery and requisites at Berlin, claimed a patent for Phonogram Cards, for which he also applied in the United Kingdom in August 1905: "It has been proposed to enable persons, each provided with a gramophone, to converse one with the other by sending through the post a postcard or lettercard composed of paper or celluloid which has been previously impressed by the recording device of the sender's instrument..."

... toward the highly successful, and slightly suspect, popularising of the short-lived medium by the Tuck company :

"Judging by the numbers of cards still turning up at flea markets, the only company that succeeded in manfacturing Gramophone Record Postcards commercially in large amounts seems to have been Raphael Tuck. The Raphael Tuck Company published their first Christmas greeting card in 1871, and the first picture postcard in 1894. The Tuck Company entered the American postcard market in 1900 and maintained an office in New York. American artists designed the postcards and they were printed in Germany and England and returned to the U.S. for sale. In 1929 Tuck went into the business of producing Gramophone Record Postcards. As all kinds of postcard designs (landscape view, greeting cards, art reproductions) turn up, and the pictures are largely obscured by the dark-brown opaque recording material, it is thus probably safe to assume that Tuck used obsolete old postcard stock as raw material for their product. The cards do look much older than 1929, and the designs hardly ever have any logical relation to the (electrically) recorded sound pasted upon them. Any recording could be pasted on any postcard – and, discographically speaking, noting details of the postcard designs would be irrelevant. The musical selections are exclusively public domain, no money was spent on music rights and royalties.[...] In the absence of recording ledgers or other factual evidence, it is difficult to identify the performers and to date the performances. The repertoire mostly consists of undateable standard repertoire pieces - folksongs, Christmas carols, marches, spoken greetings etc. No doubt this helped Tuck to avoid paying royalties"

The relation of the phonographic postcards to certain concerns in contemporary media art practices is an intriguing one. In a way, Tuck's clunky, imperfect, oddly charming, failed-acousmatic layering of a sonic communicative medium onto a visual one is formally, if accidently, in alignment with the strategies of 'SIB Radio Gowanus' itself, if this email description from curator Maria, of the non-synchronous layering process of spectatorship around the radiophonic / visual elements of the show, emphasising the slippage and gaps between media, and distance between participants, is anything to go by :

"They way it will be set up is as follows: Signal goes into the transmitter and then visitors will be given radio headsets to tune in as the wander around the gallery. Many of the exhibits have a very prominent visual aspect so I am pretty sure that this very intimate second layer of sounds will create interesting correlations. Apart from the imagined soundscapes sent by the translocal participants, the program will also feature field-recordings and sonic artworks produced using the local sonotopia."

As yet another broadcast project involving participation via casting over networked distance, this time not with the associated immediacy of live streaming, but instead through posting recorded audio through the internet file sharing service 'sendspace', to a gallery-based localised transmission on the other side of the world, i took the project, inevitably, as an opportunity to self-reflexively explore the poignant relation New Zealanders have to communicative distance, and the associated history of media within NZ culture. A focus on nostalgia and folk-related forms perhaps digs deeper into the networked surface, underlining that the 'translocal' nature of such contributions mostly works best when it doesn't elide the exploration of a specificity of location (or the history of that specificity) in its drive toward the 'transnational'.

I'm looking forward to the feedback, from a distance.


this is what the organisers had to say, generally, about the show (from the blog, readable here) :

“Postcards from Gowanus” is a creative research program exploring a multitude of approaches to mapping the immediate vicinity surrounding Cabinet Magazine’s gallery space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Drawing upon the psychogeographic tradition of critically and creatively engaging with public urban space, “Postcards from Gowanus” will examine the ways that mediation fundamentally alters our relationships to the environments in which we conduct our daily lives.

"Sib (Sounds-in-between) Radio Gowanus" is a narrowcast audio exhibit that will run in conjunction with the exhibition "Postcards from Gowanus". The program will host a series of sonic artworks ranging from field recordings, drones, micro-sound to ambient and electro-acoustic compositions by US and International artists, including works by the participants of the "Postcards from Gowanus" exhibition.

"Sib Radio Gowanus" essentially bridges the space between the inaudible, invisible (and yet real) ethereal and the physically present exhibits inside the gallery.

"Sib Radio Gowanus" is curated by Maria Papadomanolaki and is sponsored by free103point9. Participant Artists (so far): Tim Arndt, Giancarlo Bracchi, Peter Cusack, Penny Duff, Gabrielle Herbst, Amir Husac, Lina Lapelyte, Daniel Lopatin, manekinekod, Sally Ann McIntyre, murmer, Michelle Nagai, Naono, Dimitris Papadatos, Maria Papadomanolaki, Heidi Prevost & David Smith, Jase Rex, John Roach, Sawako, Janek Schaeffer, Jeremy D. Slater, Hans Tammen, Mark Peter Wright, Bryan Zimmerman.