“Every new medium is a machine for the production of ghosts.” So writes John Durham Peters in his brilliant and strange 1999 history of communication (and its failures), Speaking to the Air. At the heart of that study is a dialectical, prophetic effort to show that our purported yearning for error-free intersubjective encounters has always veiled a kind of obverse mystery: a “felicitous impossibility of contact” wherein we long for each other, ourselves, and a different world. Whenever technology is drafted into the service of “communication”, the resulting devices inevitably service that antinomic condition of spectral solitude, silence, and interception. In this affecting essay/experiment, Julian Chehirian goes looking for the history of telecommunication, and is left sitting in the slim shadow of a lightning rod, listening to a voice from beyond the grave.
— D. Graham Burnett, Series Editor
May 27, 2020
After acquiring an advanced degree in history I spent several years adrift, often on cheap inter-state buses. I continued to present bits of my dissertation on the history of telecommunications technologies (specifically, on dropped calls) to a series of miscalculated audiences including marxist archaeologists, military and maritime historians, and shortwave-radio repairmen at small colleges and public venues.
The position was “Statewide, as required”, but placed me in-town, in a foreclosed office building that had once housed the claims center of a flood insurance firm. From the vantage point of my desk I could see, alternately, deeds of sale that I was to examine and file, and a river too vacant for its breadth: lacking docks, void of boats, and broached only by the foundations of an absent bridge.
At nighttime I enjoy listening to cassette tapes I’ve collected from a church thrift shop. I have spent many nights in this way, after an early dinner, fixing my attention on a new cassette while allowing my gaze to flatten against the pale of plastered walls. One cassette offers astute marital advice, one projects a brassy Montreal marching band, and a third is “psychoacoustic”, containing, I have come to believe, the sounds of sailing. Cables tensing, water wiping forward on the hull, and the sound of fabric slapping back and forth. I listen in stillness.
In late January my supervisor called me, uncharacteristically, with an assignment. It concerned a piece of land in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Now it was owned by the County — a park — but once it had been a telecommunications facility. There was, he said, a request from AT&T, the previous landowner, who wished to reclaim some unspecified thing from the land, which the County had since made into an ecological preserve — a rarified meadows habitat.
Between 1929 and the late 60s, he told me, transatlantic telephone calls made from the United States were usually destined to pass by short wave radio signal through this 800 acre farm once known as the “American Telegraph and Telephone International Radio Telephone Transmission Station”. The farm was punctured by hundreds of 85+ ft tall pole-antennas arranged in rhombic formations — with each projecting sounds made in Chicago, Albany, or Washington, towards London, Tangier, Damascus, or Buenos Aires.
In the 1960s some 16,000 conversations per day moved through here. By 1975 the facility had become obsolete, superseded by undersea cable and satellite communications. At the time when AT&T decommissioned the facility only one antenna remained in use, connecting the mainland to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The terrain of the park is varied. Some entry points allow passage on narrow pathways between thorny woods. Another spills out into a wide, grassy, rolling expanse. On the perimeter are failing rural houses. A view of one is blocked by a raised pool covered with tarp which rises and sighs very much like a chest. Another house rests uninhabited, a wound in its roof yawning and pulling the structure inward.
I notice a smaller sign that directs me towards the Bryan Farm and find my place in a small gravel lot. Now on foot, my line of sight is reduced to the path ahead and the trees about. Walking past the occasional power walker and baby stroller, I notice a number of guiding displays spread throughout the pole farm-turned-nature preserve, providing descriptions of the antenna technology once used by AT&T as well as a historical chronology of the facility.
The gazes of two of the people pictured seem to repeat the gaze of the camera towards something other than themselves. My own moves beyond the group, and thereafter I cannot help but unsee them, my attention taken over by the poles — those dark incisions receding into the pale. I know that there were in that very instant a thousand or more voices in exchange — like a vectoring cloud of gnats, an exchange of energy not visible, without trace, but there nonetheless.
But even historians can have their moments of lowered inhibition. Moments where such uncertain thoughts can be thought, if only for a time. I reach back for questions, questions that once seemed permissible in the stifled ecstasy of my graduate studies. I reach back for the memory of a night immersed in a paper on telecommunications. In this story there were patent applications, bureaucracies, federal regulators and the US military. Wartime protocols, engineers and scientists. Local landowners. Emerging technology and emerging forms of experience. For there were, after all, people making telephone calls.
In my own work I had been wanting to write about telephones as a “social history of intimacy” while also doing a history of the technology itself. But I was, in the end, forced by professional considerations to choose only one. The latter, predictably, since the former was deemed hardly to make sense, and anyway to be quite likely impossible to achieve. (I vaguely recall a text message from my supervisor, nervously double checking that I had understood his concerns.)
Dawn felt alright. But on the edge of her voice I could hear some sedimented, fierce, and forthcoming impatience if I made the wrong move. I could hear the sound of a coiled stationary telephone cable slinking against the edge of a desk in bunches, like tranches of something she has on her mind but awaits the right amount of pressure to put through to me.
So I found myself at the county archive instead to check for anything on record with the State. The archive was occupied by other rank and file sent there, like myself, by higher ups to track down paperwork. I was pointed to a filing cabinet where I found only a permit for oversized-load deliveries to the site in 1967.
I took inventory of what little remained amid the brush, on stumps, and in trees. Twelve pole tensioners that appear to be porcelain but feel like bakelite, like in the picture above on the lower right. Some thirty-five feet of braided metal cable attached to the tensioners. Elsewhere I noticed porcelain knobs, like the one pictured on the top left, some less intact. I ran my finger on the groove and found three downed telephone poles nearby with hand- and foot-holds. But I felt I had exhausted the space, and that what more there was could only lie at some remote threshold of access. Below, or above, or maybe both.
In a public library in Trenton, I wait for the rain to pass and rifle through A History of the Telephone, reaching a passage on the first transatlantic telephone call. On January 7, 1927, the president of AT&T, stationed on the East River in New York, announced to the secretary of the General Post Office of Great Britain: “Across three thousand miles of ocean, individuals in the two cities may by telephone exchange views and transact business instantly, as if they were face to face.”
Power spoke first, but a closer examination by Cary O’Dell reveals that Power merely pasted over a prior day’s test call — which was more accurately the inaugural transmission.
What happened after the presidential ribbon cutting the following day has hardly been preserved, not even in the cracks of an archive. But if these first trickles created the conditions of transmission, what followed was an estuary of voices. Communions from afar, unpleasant news, stretched out friendships, loves, business affairs, and transactions.
I think about this land as it is now, silent except for the crow and the rustling shrub. I think about this straddling of presence and absence, desire, and communicative possibility and improbability. How strange it is that even when the facility was operational, little — nothing — could be heard of the many conversations moving through here to elsewhere.
I remember a book, Wisdom Sits in Places. There, an anthropologist (Keith Basso) had studied the meaning of places and memory for peoples of the Western Apache. He points out that memory and its possibility for survival and transmission is closely related to place. So the displacement of natives from ancestral lands has had the effect of stripping the past from its places of residence.
I stop. I accept a cigarette. I ask them how they were doing — about their day. They tell me that Chris Baranowski, whose name is printed on the bench, had passed away. Of an overdose. Due to Fentanyl. While attempting rehab. His friends did not realize the extent of the situation. His parents had placed this bench here for those who knew him to come to, and they had done so.
“He was a great musician. Music meant everything to him”, the guy sitting on the left told me. “The service for him was at the Presbyterian church in Lawrenceville nearby. We came from different places. These guys from DC. This one from New York. I came from Philly. The church was really full. His family and some of his friends spoke and it was so much being there without him, while surrounded by everyone who loved him. After everybody had said everything that could be said, his family brought a stereo up to the altar. They put on a cassette of a one track recording Chris made. He was by himself in a room inside the world”, he said and looked elsewhere. “You know we could play it for you”, the one on the right offered.
I felt something quite strange sitting on the bench with them, listening to a diminutive speaker that had been placed in the grass — a little telephonic grille spilling him into the surround. I could feel him present though I could not see him. The brittle barrier between his room somewhere in the world and this place at present had cracked and softened.
Julian Chehirian is an artist and PhD student in the History of Science at Princeton University. He writes on the history of psychological sciences and curates exhibitions at the intersection of art and public history.