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