MES­SAGE RE­CEIVED

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is the foun­da­tion of so­cial life, in an­i­mals as in hu­mans, and in­deed an­i­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion, with­out the ben­e­fit of lan­guage, is far more mys­te­ri­ous than our own: herds and packs of mam­mals act in uni­son, flocks of birds co-or­di­nate in a way that im­plies a con­nected or net­worked mind, and ants and bees or­gan­ise them­selves into elab­o­rate so­cial sys­tems. Lan­guage, how­ever, gives hu­mans other advantages, al­low­ing us to think about the past and fu­ture, draw in­fer­ences and make choices, in­stead of func­tion­ing on the ba­sis of more or less hard­wired in­stinct.

This abil­ity to choose dif­fer­ent cour­ses of ac­tion, to learn from ex­pe­ri­ence and to pass on what we have learned to oth­ers, is essen­tially why hu­mans are ca­pa­ble of his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ment and an­i­mals are not. Even so most hu­man cul­tures, be­fore the be­gin­ning of agri­cul­ture and ur­ban life, barely changed for thou­sands of years at a time.

But the power of lan­guage to ar­tic­u­late coun­ter­fac­tual propo­si­tions and con­jure up ideas of alternative re­al­i­ties also al­lows those who can master it to lead oth­ers and achieve dom­i­nant po­si­tions in their com­mu­nity. Rhetoric, the art of per­sua­sion, has a long his­tory: Plato crit­i­cised it as in ef­fect an in­stru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of rea­son for power and gain, as op­posed to philosophy whose mis­sion was to seek the truth. To­day we have univer­sity cour­ses in com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which re­ally means the use of the me­dia to shape the opin­ions, de­sires and fears of a mass pop­u­la­tion.

We live in a sea of al­ways-on me­dia con­nec­tion, but for a long time com­mu­ni­ca­tion at a dis­tance was dif­fi­cult. The hu­man voice does not carry far, and is clearly au­di­ble only over an even shorter dis­tance. The in­ven­tion of writ­ing rev­o­lu­tionised the power of lan­guage in many ways, for among other things it is al­most a pre­con­di­tion of ra­tio­nal think­ing. But it also al­lowed writ­ten mes­sages to be car­ried over great dis­tances, ex­tend­ing the ex­change of knowl­edge but also the reach of im­pe­rial power.

Dis­tance, how­ever, meant time: mes­sages could travel around the world but, like the light of the stars, the world from which they orig­i­nated might have changed sig­nif­i­cantly be­tween the mo­ment of emis­sion and that of re­cep­tion. In­stan­ta­neous com­mu­ni­ca­tion across dis­tance was mas­tered by mod­ern tech­nol­ogy only since the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury, and the tele­phone was still a nov­elty a cen­tury ago: Proust writes of the strange and mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of hear­ing his grand­mother’s voice on the tele­phone, sud­denly dis­em­bod­ied and vul­ner­a­ble.

An­gel­ica Me­siti has long been in­ter­ested in the modes of hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ver­bal and non-ver­bal, over dis­tances and in prox­im­ity. The re­mark­able three-screen film work that she pro­duced as re­cip­i­ent of the in­au­gu­ral Ian Pot­ter Mov­ing Im­age com­mis­sion, The Call­ing (2014), was de­voted to the an­cient whistling lan­guages still prac­tised in parts of the Mediter­ranean world, in this case in Turkey, Greece (the island of Euboea) and the Span­ish Ca­nary Is­lands.

These were three com­mu­ni­ties speak­ing dif­fer­ent ver­bal lan­guages yet they could all use whistling — in ef­fect whis­tled tran­scrip­tions of their re­spec­tive lan­guages — to com­mu­ni­cate with oth­ers far away, up and down hills or across val­leys, where the hu­man voice would be in­audi­ble or in­dis­tin­guish­able. It was a skill that al­lowed a com­mu­nity to live and work in re­mote and sparsely pop­u­lated re­gions but also de­pended on close bonds of fa­mil­iar­ity to re- main in­tel­li­gi­ble. Such sys­tems rapidly die out in ci­ties, where close­ness makes them re­dun­dant and most ex­changes are with strangers.

Me­siti’s in­stal­la­tion at Syd­ney’s Artspace is based on an­other sys­tem of dis­tance com­mu­ni­ca­tion, morse code. This means of trans­pos­ing al­pha­betic let­ters into pat­terns of dots and dashes or, in au­di­ble terms, short and long beeps, was de­vel­oped as a way of send­ing sig­nals over the new elec­tric telegraph de­vel­oped by Bri­tish and Amer­i­can sci­en­tists in the 1830s and 40s. For the next cen­tury it re­mained a cru­cial ve­hi­cle of civil and mil­i­tary sig­nalling: I re­call my grand­mother at­tribut­ing her in­som­nia in later life to sit­ting up all night in Jerusalem dur­ing the war lis­ten­ing to and tran­scrib­ing telegraph sig­nals.

In 1844, Morse’s fa­mous first mes­sage ex­pressed his won­der at the po­ten­tial of the new in­ven­tion: “What hath God wrought!” And when, 150 years later, the French navy fi­nally aban­doned morse sig­nalling in 1997, it an­nounced this de­ci­sion in an eerily po­etic fi­nal trans­mis­sion: Ap­pel a tous. Ceci est notre dernier cri avant notre si­lence eter­nel: “Call­ing all. This is our fi­nal cry be­fore our eter­nal si­lence.” League by Waves Tossed

This orac­u­lar ut­ter­ance was no­table not only for the me­lan­choly of the idea of eter­nal si­lence but for the am­bigu­ous con­no­ta­tions of the word cry rather than mes­sage or trans­mis­sion: for a cry is not neu­tral but usu­ally im­plies joy or pain or an ap­peal for help. It caught Me­siti’s at­ten­tion and be­came the ker­nel of the in­stal­la­tion at Artspace, where a hang­ing sculp­ture, like a kind of wind chime, re­pro­duces the mes­sage’s pat­terns of longs and shorts.

At one end of a space par­ti­tioned by translu­cent screens into some­thing of a maze, there is a video of a per­cus­sion­ist tak­ing the morse code sig­nal as the ba­sis for a rhyth­mic im­pro­vi­sa­tion. His mu­sic, which per­vades the gallery space, re­minds us that all mu­si­cal and even ver­bal rhythm is based on the same prin­ci­ples. The met­ri­cal shape of verse is noth­ing but the al­ter­na­tion of stressed and un­stressed syl­la­bles in most mod­ern lan­guages, and of long and short syl­la­bles — more ex­actly match­ing morse — in Latin and Greek.

At the end of the gallery, we en­counter, re­vealed in two stages, an­other kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, only this time in prox­im­ity, even di­rect con­tact.

On the first video screen we find a young man and woman — both blond Nor­we­gians — sit­ting on the floor side-by-side: we soon re­alise the boy is blind and the girl is ex­plain­ing a chore­o­graphic pat­tern to him by a com­bi­na­tion of di­rect con­tact from body to body and phys­i­cal ma­nip­u­la­tion of his hand or arm.

As we turn the corner into the fi­nal space we dis­cover the ob­ject of this un­usual form of non­ver­balver­bal, tac­tile com­mu­ni­ca­tion: the girl is

Stills from Re­lay (2017), left and right; still from (2017), far right

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