First presented as part of Drift, a group exhibition curated by Micah Donovan at The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario. 16 June – 8 September. Opening Reception: Friday, 5 July.
Two old style phones without dials, installed side by side on a wall, left-right phones, stereophones. They ring intermittently, but the visitor can pick up either phone at any time. On one all you hear is the sound of licking, close and intimate, for salivaphiles. On the other you hear a voice telling you that the sound you hear on the other phone is the sound of the artist thoroughly licking the phone, it is left ambiguous as to which of the two phones has been licked (in fact, both have).
Electronics: Robert Cruickshank
Images: Christof Migone
Telephones: A shrine to the desperate hope that one day the world will listen to us. Answering Machines: they are patiently training us to think in a language they have yet to invent.
– J.G. Ballard
In January 2013 I was invited to contribute to a group exhibition at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG) in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada by guest curator Micah Donovan. The theme of the show, titled Drift, turned around the tensions between play and discipline. After some discussions with the curator, we settled my contribution was going to be Publick, a work that I had conceived in 2005 but never realized. I have done work with telephones before, in fact, it was a central element to the live radio art programming I did between 1988 and 1994. The presence of callers to my radio show permeates my first CD release, Hole in the Head. It was a way to complete the radio loop and involve listeners as participants; Bertolt Brecht thought that radio was an unfinished invention which was stuck on one-way communication: “It was suddenly possible to say everything to everybody but, thinking about it, there was nothing to say. Radio should be capable of not only transmitting but of receiving of making the listener not only hear but also speak, not of isolating him but of connecting him.” One way that Brecht correlates with my proposal is that I intend to focus on the private moment of the call, and shift the two-person interaction to one that is now in the public realm. Of course, you and I both know that private conversations in public settings are now the norm (though not without causing consternation in some), and user feedback in general is the default mode in most communication platforms. However, the closing of the loop that enables the listener to speak back does not thereby mean that alienation, inequality, corruption, manipulation are no longer active forces that are at play at both the micro level of a single call and the macro level of the phone network embedded in the nexus of other networks (financial, military, etc.).
Publick does not address these matters head on, but in an understated manner. Insidiously and humorously, it questions the habits we have formed around the daily use of this (now primarily) mobile tool. There is a somewhat nostalgic element conveyed the wall-mounted rotary dial phones that encourages the gallery visitor to pick up the phone. At least that is what I witnessed at the first gallery presentation of Publick. The subsequent reveal that is heard on these phones jars interestingly with the quaint appearance of the phones.
The piece consists of two old style phones without dials, installed side by side on a wall, left-right phones, stereophones. They ring intermittently, but the visitor can pick up either phone at any time. On one all you hear is the sound of licking, close and intimate, a soundtrack for salivaphiles. On the other you hear a voice telling you that the sound you hear on the other phone is the sound of the artist thoroughly licking the phone and that the phone has not been cleaned since. It is left ambiguous as to which of the two phones has been licked (in fact, both have). There are a series of different purposefully confusing messages with variations on that message, a small sample: Hi, I have given clear instructions that these phones not be cleaned after I’ve licked them / hi, the sound of licking on hear on the other phone comes from me licking the phone you are holding now / Hi, you’ve just been licked.