Roundtable on Paul St George’s Telectroscope

As part of JVC‘s ongoing commitment to exploring the continually evolving intersections Victorian culture with contemporary literature, arts, and popular culture, we have convened a virtual roundtable discussion on Paul St George’s Telectroscope. This roundtable is also being simultaneously published in the print edition of JVC 17.4 :

From May until June of 2008, New York City and London were visually connected in real time via the Telectroscope’s tubes and tunnels, to the amazement and delight of residents and visitors alike.


Join us, dear friends, as we again allow the Telectroscope to bring people from different continents, countries, and time zones together as we discuss the workings and significance of this extraordinary contraption.

For more information on the Telectroscope, explore its virtual incarnations:

Roundtable Participants:

  • JC: Jay Clayton, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University
  • LH: Lisa Hager, JVC Online Editor and Assistant Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha
  • DP: David Pike, Professor of Literature at  the American University
  • PS: Paul St George, Artist and Creator of the Telectroscope

The roundtable began with two questions and each participant’s response:

LH: To begin our conversation, I would like for each of you to consider the extent to which you think the Telectroscope offers a model of mobilizing technology to engage with broad American and British publics while simultaneously creating connections between those two publics. What makes the Telectroscope so accessible to so many people? What about it elicits such whimsy and joy from its participants?

LH: Continuing this line of inquiry, we might characterize the Telectroscope offering a very steampunk vision of technology — that is technology whose workings are visible and fathomable by the average tinkerer. With its visible brass tubes and broken ground, it seems tangible and inviting in its workings and invites passersby to pear into its depths.  How then do the Telectroscope’s incorporation and reworking of Victorian aesthetics and narratives both suggest a critique of modern aesthetics and technology and posit the ways in which those same aesthetics and technology undo themselves?

Initial Responses: Jay Clayton || David L. Pike || Paul St George

Ongoing conversation:

PS: Reading David’s contribution, I am struck first by David’s comments on the specifically Anglo-American nature of the first Telectroscope project. These two locations, Tower Bridge in London and Brooklyn Bridge in New York, were selected because of the age of the two bridges (Brooklyn Bridge celebrated its 125th birthday during the project) and because I wanted to create a narrative, or back-story, for the project that operated around the edges of already well-known and accepted stories. People know, or think they know, about transatlantic tunnels and communication cables and they also know, partly through the books of David L. Pike, about the subterranean worlds under both London and New York.

It is now a cliché to say that England and America are “two nations divided by a common language.” I revive this hackneyed phrase to excuse myself. I suspect that I do not use the word ‘whimsy’ as it is used in America. So I will leave my response to the whimsical parts of the conversation until I have learned the shared meaning of the word.

I do know that American audiences and English audiences responded very differently to the Telectroscope. People at the Brooklyn installation behaved more physically than the more reserved Tower Bridge participants. The American participants acted out and invented many visual gags and dances. The English audience were more involved in the Victorian backstory, whereas (as David says) the backstory was not so relevant to American audiences.

I am far too cautious to interpret this distinct difference between the two ends of the Telectroscope. I can point out that it is too simplistic to refer to differences in character in the two countries. People at the Brooklyn end were not all from Brooklyn or even all American. Equally, the people at the Tower Bridge end were from many different countries. Nevertheless, it was clear that people at one end of the Telectroscope behaved differently from the people at the other end of the Telectroscope. Discuss.

How does the Telectroscope participate in this discourse of technology? Perhaps I can say something about my intentions. It is my impression and understanding that there was something very different about technology in the Victorian era. It seems that, then, people dreamt of, imagined, talked about, and wrote about new devices long before they were invented. Then, inventors would try to satisfy that public desire. Think of cinema, the bicycle, some aspects of photography, the telephone and television. Now, again it is my impression and understanding, there are fewer inventions and the sequences of events (1. market demand, 2. supply of technology) is reversed. So, now we have a technological adaptation of something already existing and then the advertising agencies and marketing companies spend a large proportion of the sales price to persuade us that we want this new (old) technology.

My intention was to evoke that earlier, more hopeful and optimistic, attitude and to call out, in my humble way, for technologists to return to giving us what we want and need rather than trying to persuade us that we want another adaptation of what we already have.

DP: Reading Paul’s response, I find myself struck again by the difficulty in finding positive terms for describing the deviation from functionality. It’s not as if “useless,” “impractical,” “fanciful,” or “playful” sound any less pejorative when speaking of technology and yet all of them have been used to characterize steampunk’s relationship to Victorian technology as well as Paul’s Telectroscope (at least from the American side—”quaint” and “fanciful” both appear in the New York Times preview of the installation, although the writer does avoid whimsy).  Looking to the OED for help with the word “whimsical,” I find “Characterized by deviation from the ordinary as if determined by mere caprice; fantastic, fanciful; freakish, odd, comical,” with a helpful 19th century source, “1836    W. T. Brande Man. Chem. (ed. 4) 17   Alembics, stills, retorts, receivers, and a variety of whimsical and complex vessels,” that suggests the close relationship between science and whimsy. The term whimsical, like the other adjectives quoted above, always denotes a deviation from the norm; it is also, unfortunately, dismissive and patronizing in its connotations, with a strong whiff of the outmoded. As Hardwicke’s Sci.-gossip put it in 1890, “All these whimsical prescriptions gradually fell out of the Pharmacopœias” (26 85; OED).  I would hazard (or at least whimsically suggest) that we owe to the Victorians not only the myriad of fanciful devices and inventions that includes the Telectroscope but also a discourse of science that allows us (or constrains us) to identify them as such.

I don’t know how much this is the Victorians and how much it is what we see in the Victorians, but my guess is that it’s something to do with the specific chronological gap between ourselves and them, along with the nineteenth-century origin of so much of our infrastructure and conceptions about technology, and a deep antipathy to another cluster of infrastructure and conceptions we tend to identify as modernist (i.e., post-Victorian).  I recently visited the Library of Congress Packard Campus, where they store their vast audiovisual archive. One of the more fascinating rooms, a very large one, is devoted to outmoded players, which need to be stockpiled so that outmoded media will continue to be able to be played in the future. Old VCRs, reel-to-reels, and 8-track tape players don’t look quaint or whimsical to me yet; they’re too familiar. This may be, as Paul suggests, because they weren’t created by desire but followed on an artificially created desire. The products of modernism may be beautiful—ask any proud owner of an iPad or an iPhone, sleek, white, and perfectly efficient—but the Victorian invention promises to us a different relationship to technology.  Indeed, that would be one way to take the title of Gibson and Sterling’s seminal steampunk novel, The Difference Engine.

So, what I was trying to characterize with a language impoverished by market-driven technology was the welcome Victorianist utopianism of Paul’s Telectroscope.  But I am also wary of putting too much weight, as a critic, on an installation whose greatest pleasure, for me at least, was, as Adorno wrote of fireworks, its evanescence and very lack of functionality. I really don’t know if the Victorians saw themselves this way; Brunel, for example, was quite persuaded he was going to make money from the Thames Tunnel, and the Thames ferrymen were quite convinced that the tunnel was unnecessary.  But I do know that now, for a good many people, this is what the Victorians mean, and I find it a much more compelling meaning than the trappings of empire or the heritage industry that we used to think the Victorians had been.  Meanwhile, I find myself dreaming, like Paul, of what the world might look like if “technologists return to giving us what we want and need rather than trying to persuade us that we want another adaptation of what we already have.”  I hope we’ll see more of it, both recuperating the past and looking towards the future, as in these inventions: Rescued by Design.

LH: After reading both of your initial posts and responses above, I’m also struck by the playfulness and whimsy of Paul’s Telectroscope. As Paul’s comments suggest, the experience of the Telectroscope and its whimsy are culturally and geographically specific. And, as David’s comments point out, the very nature of this quality makes it hard to define in a fixed manner.

What so delights me about the installation is the way in which it invites the public to play. Rather than presenting an opaque piece of technology that resists/prevents any sort of tinkering or hacking (like an iPhone, for example), the Telectroscope seems to exist exactly for this purpose. It asks its users to find their own ways of communication and fun while making its Victorian workings visible. Yet, it avoids the finality of full disclosure by keeping those workings uncertain as we wonder if those plans and stories could possibly true as opposed to the more likely modern video technology.

This uncertainty is a key part of what Jay describes as the Telectroscope’s “haptic” quality in that users are invited, in the sense of Derrida’s invitation to the Other, to feel as if they could themselves physically assemble a similar device of mirrors and tunnels. Most of us have little concrete understanding of how the computers that pervade our lives actually work, but almost all of us can thoroughly grasp the idea of image reflection. Having recently visited my hometown’s Makerspace, this idea gives me visions of tinkers all over the globe using found and surplus objects to create a network of Telectroscopes!

PS: It has been a joy to read Jay’s contribution.

When designing the work, I intended it be more than a sculptural object; around which people could walk whilst scratching their heads in bemusement.

We are familiar with sculptural artworks that put the viewer into a position of inferiority. Sometimes the power relationship is physical; the artwork is bigger, more powerful and more dangerous than the viewer. Most often the viewer is in a weak position, having insufficient knowledge to know what the game is, except that they know they should not ask. Sculptures are usually placed in a gallery or a public place so that the viewer knows they belong to an institution that they are probably not part of and do not subscribe to. The viewer is excluded from the meaning of the work and excluded from the world that controls the work.

I wanted to make a work where the viewer was a constituent part of the art and where the physical, tangible part of the work (the Telectroscope) is merely an allowing structure; around which the real work, people and their social relations, cluster.

I also wanted to make a work that was multifaceted: the back story, the cultural, the historical and the racial undertones. There was always the risk that one or two aspects of the work would dominate and the others would be lost or overlooked. Jay has noticed these undertones, and this is very pleasing. I can only hope that others are nearly as perceptive as Jay is.

I want to add some comments to some of his insights. Jay writes of the location of the Telectroscopes on the “piers on the South Bank and in Brooklyn”, and he refers to the “magic of satellite video conferencing”. There is a reason for the public, outdoor location and an explanation for the difference between video conferencing and the Telectroscope experience. In a normal, everyday, video conference both parties are indoors and lit by artificial light. One participant might be starting their day, whilst the other might be about to go home, but otherwise the participants in a video conference seem to share the same telematic space. The Telectroscope is outdoors and in public. When looking through the tunnel at the other participants it is clear and felt that they are in a different time zone, the sky might be light around you and dark at the other end. Participants also notice differences in weather; and possibly season. Participants in a video conference are probably framed by an egg-shell painted wall and a shiny wooden conference table. Participants meeting through the Telectroscope do so with the Tower Bridge behind them, or the ‘million dollar’ view of the Hudson and lower Manhattan. Participants in a video conference might remember that they are in different places, but parties at a Telectroscope know and feel that they are in different cities, at different times and in different air.

Why audio only? Jay rightly points to the absence of an audio channel. “…it uses visible signaling only.” My intention here was there would be more communication, rather than less. If participants could “flick on a web-cam and log on to Skype” they would have talked more easily, but they would also have been fairly still whilst they talked and listened. Whilst talking to the other person they would not have engaged with others around them; it is more likely that they would have turned their backs and walked away from other people and from the Telectroscope. Lastly, ignoring polyglots, speech (if it is to be understood) has to be in one language or another and so exclusive. I wanted the lack of audio to lead to the invention of other ways to communicate and to greater interaction among people in the audience. And I want these bodily forms of communication to be inclusive; and fun.

Why do I, and others, invoke “Victorianness.”? Jay asks “How did we grow so nostalgic for clunky nineteenth-century machinery?” ‘Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’, and my nostalgia is not for the look or even the presence of Victorian devices. I see this machinery, and this Victorianness, as an emblem of an abstract idea. It is this idea that I wish to invoke.
My understanding, and it may be flawed, of the Victorian era is that the public’s desire for a device came first, then inventors raced to satisfy that demand and the gap between concept and implementation could be thirty years or more. The racers were prepared for an extended marathon and did not give up after a short sprint. The Telectroscope was invented by Figuer’s accidental hoax in 1878, the “device for the suppression of absence” caught fire in the public’s (and Twain’s) imagination. Many inventors in many countries filed patents for an invention that would enable two-way live communication. Then thirty years later, the word had changed (Telectroscope to Television), and the aims had reduced to one-way broadcast but the Television was invented.

Punch cartoon depicting a video call
Punch Cartoon, 1879

(Every evening, before going to bed, Pater– and Materfamilias set up an electric camera–obscura over their bedroom mantel–piece, and gladden their eyes with the sight of their Children at the Antipodes, and converse gaily with them through the wire.)

Paterfamilias (in Wilton Place). “Beatrice, come closer. I want to whisper.”
Beatrice (from Ceylon). “Yes, Papa dear.”
Paterfamilias. “Who is that charming young Lady playing on Charlie’s side?”
Beatrice. “She’s just come over from England, Papa. I’ll introduce you to her as soon as the Game’s over!”

Nowadays it seems that we do not have inventions, we have incremental adaptations. It also seems that these adaptations are not in response to a market demand. Rather it seems that we are sold these adaptations and persuaded that we want them. This persuasion usually includes making us feel insecure and disappointed about what we have and where we are.

Our nostalgia is to be in some other time, that is not our own, when we could hope that some clever person was trying to make something that would meet our real needs. A time when we still believed in improvement, that things would get better. A Victorian time.


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