Roundtable on Paul St George’s Telectroscope – David L. Pike

The post below is David L. Pike’s initial response to the questions posed in the JVC Online roundtable on Paul St George’s Telectroscope. David Pike is Professor of Literature at  the American University. To view the questions and ongoing conversation, as well as the other participants’ initial responses, use the links below.

Questions & Ongoing Conversation || Jay Clayton || David L. Pike || Paul St George

There are a number of possible factors in the popularity of the Telectroscope. Some are related to its particularly Victorian take on technology, others to the logic of public art installations, and still others to questions of contemporary urban space and city life. I will address the latter reasons first, since they provide the spatio-temporal context for considering the Telectroscope in its relation to the Victorian. I would begin by observing that any large-scale installation with free admission in a well-traveled area of a major city such as the waterfront of Brooklyn or Southwark in London is likely to be well attended, especially when accompanied by the fairly substantial publicity achieved by the Telectroscope. The area on both sides of the East River around the Brooklyn Bridge and the south bank of the Thames are prime tourist destinations as well as frequent sites for all manner of free entertainment. In this sense, the Telectroscope is no different than Olafur Eliasson’s 2008 Waterfalls installation, the commercial sites in and around the South Street Seaport and the various informal performances they also host, along with the South Bank’s and Southwark’s many cultural institutions and less elevated entertainments such as the carousel and the London Eye.

The Telectroscope can be seen as participating in a larger shift in focus in both cities toward revitalizing and also commercializing as publicly accessible leisure and touristic activities waterfront and downtown spaces that had previously been devoted to wholesale or industrial activities such as the Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan or the prior mixed-use south bank of the Thames. The Southbank Centre, whose buildings date mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, was primarily a fairly unpleasant destination for concerts, performances, film screenings, and art exhibits until the public spaces were extensively renovated in the late 1990s, and the development was extended in a much more preservation-oriented fashion downriver. The current South Street Seaport began being developed in the early 1980s, around the same time as the waterfront across the river beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Whereas the South Bank remains a landmark of brutalist redevelopment, the downriver development in Southwark has mixed contemporary buildings and structures such as Norman Foster’s City Hall (2002) and the Millennium Bridge, with historical buildings and infrastructure, from the Borough market to Tower Bridge to the Tate Modern’s converted power station. Similarly, the East River sites have a strong architectural connection to the past, incorporating historical buildings, ships, paving stones, and other landmark features into their architectural schemes, in a user-friendly, postmodernist disregard for historical specificity familiar from, say, Covent Garden and its surroundings.

Arguably, a shift in urban development that concentrates leisure activity and tourism in downtown (rather than suburban) areas, and is as attentive to the attractive design and full use of exteriors—parks, squares, pedestrian zones, bridges, walkways—as to the interiors aims to reproduce a dynamic sense of public space that more closely resembles the 19th-century city than it does the modernist cityscapes of the immediate postwar. Unlike the Barbican, whose labyrinthine structure and fortress-like design around open courtyard-like spaces self-regulated its identity as a public space, or the original South Bank, whose empty concrete walkways and stairway created security risks and hidden spaces easily appropriated as shelters for homeless persons or for criminal activity, these new designs privilege visibility and accessibility, making them attractive for a much broader demographic of visitor and making them far easier for authorities to regulate and police, and far easier for entrepreneurs successfully to commercialize them, like the “More London” development around City Hall, and its public amphitheater, “The Scoop,” or the phenomenally successfully conversion of the monolithic mid-20th-century Bankside Power Station into the Tate Modern. Rather than the stratified and segregated spaces of the typical modernist urban development or industrial zone, these new spaces offer free indoor and outdoor entertainment for the general public along with a variety of pricier activities for a range of different groups, from high-end to low-end shopping and dining, to a broad range of cultural activities, to various river-based activities. However, there is no necessary connection to the 19th-century past of these urban spaces in the current practices that occur in and produce them. Rather, this history is present as material traces in the urban fabric and as gestures toward remembering the urban past (monuments, historical plaques, and informative displays) that may or may not be part of the experience of those who come to these spaces. So, it is quite likely that the majority of the many visitors to the Telectroscope were either unaware of or paid no attention to its Victorianist backstory, but were simply charmed by its appearance and the entertainment value of its design.

Now, the fact that the spatial history of these two sites need play no active role in visitors’ experiences of them does not necessarily mean that it does not, or that it is impossible for an installation to accrue meaning from its intervention in the history. So, I would not pin too much meaning on the specifically Anglo-American nature of the link established, but I would suggest that it is part of a loose cluster of associations that gave depth to the appeal of the Telectroscope and that its design pointedly evoked. The transatlantic connection between England and the United States is part of that cluster; even more so, I think, is the narrative of its excavation and subterranean arrival. The spectacle of the Telectroscope emerging out of a pile of rubble in front of London’s City Hall or at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge graphically performs the eruption of a foreign artifact into a familiar space. Part of its whimsical charm is this sense of disruption, just as the opportunity to wave to Londoners or New Yorkers is a pointless but pleasurable novelty. Priority was supposedly given to those making appointments to speak with friends or family abroad, but that gesture seems just as vague and nonessential as the New York–London link. The existence of the link does of course raise specific associations, but any other two links would have raised other, perhaps equally valid associations. So, whatever the Telectroscope’s relationship to telecommunications technology, I think that its success arose not from any practical application of that technology but from its opposite: the investment of time, money, energy, space, and technology into something wholly impractical.

Technology is highly serious, of course, and highly practical, and its seriousness and practicality have been part of its representation since at least the 19th century. It is costly in time, money, brainpower, and natural resources and it is integral to economic success and political might on a citywide and a national level. Victorian technology was, as the Telectroscope clearly signals, part of the imperial enterprise; technological innovation remains heavily funded by the military; and, although it is now phrased in economic rather than military terms, technological innovation continues to be regarded as essential to success on the world stage. How does the Telectroscope participate in this discourse of technology? First of all, in its Victorian whimsy. I don’t think Victorian technology and Victorian inventors for the most part saw themselves as whimsical or quaint, but our current ability to regard representations of that technology as whimsical and quaint constitutes a major part of its attraction. That we are able to do so, I believe, is in large part due to the enduring negative power of the modernist discourse of technology, which was able to represent itself as rational, efficient, serious, and in every way unwhimsical and unquaint precisely by virtue of its dismissal of the Victorian technology that, for practical purposes, had in fact enabled its modernist replacement. Part of our current attraction to mixed-use public urban spaces derives from a rejection of modernist brutalism, even as we have found ways to incorporate that brutalism into this new attraction (on the South Bank or in the Barbican or the Brunswick Shopping Centre in London, or along the Hudson River in New York, where the unsightly Westside highway has somehow been worked around to create a bustling riverfront strip). The charm of the Telectroscope lies precisely in the transparency of its whimsical conceit of seriousness. It purports to take itself seriously, but it doesn’t, and its performance of sincerity provides relief from the self-important and hectoring clamor of contemporary technology. We may find it impossible to live without telecommunications (and what else is the Telectroscope anyway but a reductio ad absurdum of Skype?), but the Telectroscope’s essential purposelessness reminds us that perhaps we could, just as we can easily imagine living without all of what now appear to us as wonderfully unnecessary Victorian schemes and inventions.

This same appeal to the superfluous is, I think, fundamental to the recent popularity of a steampunk vision of technology. The Victorian is essential to this vision because it remains integrally linked to our current discourse of technology in a way that, say, Renaissance visions of technology do not. The cityscapes of New York and London are seamed with 19th-century infrastructure and dotted with 19th-century buildings. They are no longer 19th-century in the way they are incorporated into the 21st-century cityscape, but they have also never wholly lost their 19th-century materiality or resonance either. So what steampunk tells us is, on the one hand, that nothing is absolutely necessary about our present technology, what it promises to do for us, and how it promises to do it. The Telectroscope may appear to be an incomprehensively costly and complicated process, but it’s really just a cable that was already there anyway. So the Telectroscope, like steampunk, demystifies the discourse of modernist technology. It recalls for us the origins of that very technology in the physical labor of excavating, tunneling, and handcrafting, making its process accessible to us. In this, it is of a piece with the historical pastiche of the South Street Seaport or Covent Garden, with the important difference that it also demystifies the commercial imperative of those sites. They incorporate public space into their designs, but they are at heart commercial enterprises. To be sure, Victorian inventions were also primarily ventures in financial speculation; however, here, too, the utter failure of the historical project renders transparent and then nullifies the presence of any ulterior motive. The Telectroscope is not only useless, but it is also worthless, at least when judged according to the standards of capitalization involved in the cityscape around it.

Still, I don’t see anything directly subversive or revolutionary in steampunk, but then that would be a modernist expectation of art, anyway. Like the Telectroscope, it is a phenomenon that exists within and in complicity with the capitalist cityscape that enables it. You can find a dozen steampunk-inspired sites on the 3-D virtual world Second Life; all of them are imbricated into the economy and grid of Second Life as much as any others. This Halloween, just like last year, you could visit the Third Rail Projects Steampunk Haunted House at the Abrons Arts Center in the Lower East Side in New York—if you could afford the ticket. But these and other steampunk initiatives do take a skewed attitude toward the nontransparent and monolithic structure of the commodified cityscape that is neither simply nostalgic nor simply whimsical. And in addition to their resolute refusal to take the discourse of modern technology seriously as such, they locate something else of value in the Victorian beyond the suddenly critical impact of its quaintness: its utopianism. This is the part of steampunk that derives from Walter Benjamin’s dictum that emerging technologies give rise to multiple possibilities and potentialities that rapidly dissipate as the forces of capital find the most efficient use for those technologies. And there was a corollary to Benjamin’s dictum: those multiple possibilities and potentialities tended to be most visible in hindsight rather than at the moment of emergence. We only recognize the new as such once it begins to be represented, and that process of representation is also the process of constraining its possibilities. The alternative Victorianism associated with, but not limited to, the various strands of steampunk finds in 19th-century technology possibilities and potentialities still present within our current technologies, as the 19th-century cityscape or spatial conceptions remain present within our cities today. Projecting those 19th-century technologies into the alternative futures of our present, as Paul St George’s Telectroscope equally suggests in a material context, is one way of seeking to restore the original myriad of possibilities to our present, highly constrained use of them. Judging from the popularity of the installation, as from the growing cultural presence of steampunk, it is a mode of seeking that is highly compelling to our current historical situation.

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