“Raygun gothic,” William Gibson called it in The Gernsback Continuum, his term for the ‘tomorrow that never was’ and still the most vivid description of a certain style of retro-futurist, space age classicism exemplified by Frank R. Paul’s 1920s artwork for futuristic magazines like Amazing Stories. In 1911 Paul illustrated Hugo Gernsback’s novel – Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 – a book whose enticing title is belied by its contents. “Ralph then attached the Telautograph to his Telephot while the girl did the same,” is a typical sentence, making it fair game for the stigma of being “surely the worst SF novel ever published” (according to writer Martin Gardner) though since most of us now spend a considerable slice of our time attaching Telautographs to our Telephots, this seems a little unfair.
Yesterday I was attaching bone conduction speakers to snare drum wire – twenty strands of quivering silver steel, like curling hair – resonating the whole set up with a drum bought in Chiang Mai and a bell bought in a Japanese shrine, the reason for the latter being its iron clapper, useful for magnetically attaching the tiny speaker within the bell’s inner cavity.
I tried playing old cassettes through this instrument-without-a-body: spirit medium séances of Malay indigenous people, a herd of wildebeests, trance dances of Laos hill tribes imitating the sounds of dog, monkey, goat, sheep and cat, and finally an interview I recorded with my grandfather and uncle in 1979. That gravitation toward a kind of spectral oral history of distorted voices – human/animal/spirit – makes sense to me; the bone conduction elements of this configuration was developed for me last year by David Bloor for an installation, The Body Event II, that played back my conversation with John Latham through objects (books and their pages, representations of books, a howler monkey skull, my late father’s oil can, as in a Vanitas painting), into the space where I recorded it shortly before his death.
Syd Senior, my mother’s stepfather, was short and feisty, given to playing the jew’s harp and telling risqué stories after a beer. A talented Sunday painter in watercolours, he worked in the print; when I was a child he walked me around the City of London, took me to see paintings, Hawksmoor churches, the inner sanctums of print works and courts, a Dickensian world. By 1979 the stuffing was knocked out of him. His ruminative, gravel tones reveal a way of speaking now almost extinct, the way a working class north Londoner would say “gorn”, “old whasname” and “most interesting”. “I remember when old Queen Victoria died,” he told me, voice dropping to a whisper. “By god, you daredn’t say anything. They were very patriotic in those days, you know, 1914, all that lark . . . it was a very high class kind of thing. If you was common you wasn’t wanted, know what I mean?”
Recently returned from Venezuela where I’d recorded Yanomami shamans, I needed work. There was a chance to do some paid research for Artist Placement Group, for what was known as the Reminiscence Aid Project, placed with the Department of Health and Social Security. Initiated by DHSS architect Mick Kemp, it was developed by an APG team that included Ian Breakwell, Bill Furlong and Hugh Davies; for their input alone it should occupy a significant place in any credible history of sound arts. Shut down in 1979 by the election of Thatcher’s government, which put an end to long-term research in the DHSS, the Reminiscence Aid project was an early practical experiment in what is now called ‘reminiscence work’, a therapeutic tool with internationally proven efficacy in the care of elderly people suffering from dementia, memory loss and other effects of old age. Among other things I tested the Reminiscence Aid Project slide show in care homes and researched smog, the killer pea-souper fogs that blanketed London until the Clean Air Act of 1956 enforced smokeless zones.
So we talked about smog, Grandad Syd, Uncle Bob and myself, Bob returning again and again to acetylene lighting, the way its gaseous glow from his bike lamp lit a path through smog as he cycled to work at the Belling-Lee factory every weekday, or the acetylene flares burning holes of visibility from within the toxic murk. Through a now irritating oversight I neglected to ask about listening in smog, how a person might use sound to find their way or how sound was affected by all those soot particulates and was the dirty air of smog different to fog in its acoustic aspect? Nineteenth century physicist John Tyndall investigated the behaviour of sound in fog and found counter-intuitive results. The Duke of Argyll lived close to shipyards in Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde. “Shipbuilding goes on there to a great extent,” he told Tyndall, “and the hammering of the caulkers and builders is a sound which I have been in the habit of hearing with every variety of distinctness, or of not hearing at all, according to the state of the atmosphere; and I have always observed on the days when the air was very clear, and every mast and spar was distinctly seen, hardly any sound was heard; whereas on thick and foggy days, sometimes so thick that nothing could be seen, every clink of every hammer was audible, and appeared sometimes close at hand.”
To hear the dead speak through objects, living on borrowed resonance, their voices thinned, abraded and hazed by host materials and the lack of a tangible body is uncanny. The radio of things, it might be called by a raygun gothic enthusiast. Bone conduction was pioneered by Hugo Gernsback, publisher of Modern Electrics, The Electrical Experimenter and Amazing Stories. Nicknamed Hugo the Rat for the way he cheated the science fiction writers published in his innovative magazines, Gernsback filed a patent in 1923 on what he called the Osophone, a hearing aid that transmitted sound vibrations to the osseous tissue of the body. Clearly he had a thing about sound, also inventing a helmet device called The Isolator in 1925, a self-contained, oxygen-fed, deep air diver equivalent of the soundproof rooms constructed by Victorian writers such as the anti-democratic, pro-slavery historian Thomas Carlyle. As an aspirational state, the definition of silence to men like Carlyle was misanthropic: world, shut up!
Where the Osophone was a legitimate ancestor to technologies like Google Glass, The Isolator seems more like a bizarre antecedent to John Lilly’s 1960s deprogramming experiments with flotation tanks and LSD. Implicit in all of this is a deeper theme: the tension between humans as isolated or social beings, connected or disconnected, cut off by atmospheric or neurological conditions, deafness or personal experimentation, in the dark or lit by flares, lost to history and death or given revenant vibration by attachment to matter.