11 February - 18 March 2006

Stefhan Caddick
Stefhan Caddick

“Are you ready?” the message went out. The first message to cross water, the first wireless communication.

It is well documented that Marconi carried out the first wireless transmission near Cardiff. Gugliemo Marconi and his Cardiff born assistant George S Kemp began trials on the 10th May 1887, between Lavernock Point and Flat Holm Island. On the 13th they were successful. Contact was made and the age of wireless telecommunication had begun.

‘The imagination abandons as a hopeless task the attempt to conceive what - in the use of electric waves - the immediate future holds in store. The air is full of promises, of miracles. The certainty is that strange things are coming, and coming soon.’

They had succeeded in transmitting a message through the air across a distance of 3.5 miles. It is widely accepted that it was Marconi’s prescient question “Are you ready?” that opened the airwaves and heralded the dawn of the new era. But this, it seems, is a myth. Research shows quite a different and prosaic dialogue. The first transmission was a series of ‘V’s from Kemp to establish contact. Marconi’s all-important first transmission was actually “So be it, let it be so…”, to which Kemp replied “It’s cold here and the wind is up.” The conversation progressed: “Tea here is good”, “How are you?” and “Go to hull!” – demonstrating that advances in communication are not always aligned with advances in eloquence.

The means we use to send and receive messages influence the language we use, from the considered etiquettes of letter writing and the enforced brevity of the telegram or postcard, to the obliviousness or indifference of the mobile phone user giving a prefixed report on their location. The disposable email allows scant time for reflection on what has been written before being sent. Text messaging is another case in point: the thumb works over the keys, encompassing letters, numbers and punctuation to create a hybrid language that is dispatched in seconds.

Text messaging has shown how quickly a new language can develop. A fast and evolving version of shorthand, its present vocabulary is more fluid than that of Pitman’s squiggles. Text messaging has been rapidly embraced by the UK. It is one of the fastest-growing consumer products, made all the more remarkable because it was never intended to happen: mobile phone users discovered an alternative facility on their phones that was reserved for engineers to communicate with each other. The rest is history. Transmitted and received, our position on earth can be pinpointed as we move around, unwittingly carrying a tracking device that silently searches and locates a signal from our pockets.

’>Over’ explores this territory. The artists either engage in methods of communication to produce the work, or they examine the impact, the language and significance of those methods.

Stefhan Caddick explores the text phenomenon. He has erected an LED sign that faces out onto one of the busiest streets in the city centre. The sign displays any text message sent to its receiver. He gives us the opportunity to address the city. Given this opportunity to speak to a crowd there is the potential to speak of great things. But no, when faced with this opportunity most of us clam up or text the first bit of drivel we think of. The intention for the project is to encourage members of the public to find a new use for these signs, which usually carry important but mundane traffic and road safety information. Instead the Variable Message Sign will carry text messages, which by their nature are often deeply personal.

The project has involved the development of a bespoke program by Chris Evans (http://www.coolpants.co.uk). Chris has adapted open source software from Gnokii (http://www.gnokii.org) to create a program, which interprets the information received from the public, then delivers it for presentation on the mobile VMS sign. BLOC and Chapter who generously supported its development, premiered it as part of the ‘May You Live In Interesting Times’ festival of digital technology organised.

Lizzie Hughes’ two sound pieces expand and compress time and space by way of a simple telephone inquiry. In Second Empire State Building Piece, she telephones each of the building’s eighty floors, asking each occupying company in turn which floor they are based on. Their responses create an image of the building, but not one we might recognise or expect. Similarly, in a second piece, Hughes telephones various locations around the globe to request the local time, which differs from call to call. She phones the same regions again over the course of 24 hours. This time each recipient reports identical times. The piece draws attention to the geographical and temporal scale of the world, its diurnal movement and our place within it.

On the top floor Jennie Savage’s work Note To Self compels us to reflect on what we consider important enough to communicate to our future selves. We are invited to write a personal log that takes on archival significance because it will not be sent until 2011. By reverting to letter writing, a method of communication that now seems archaic, Note To Self gives a simple but enduring voice to our everyday, which would ordinarily pass without record. These small details get lost in the conversation between a mass culture and local interest where, increasingly, ‘reality’ is seen on TV.

Trivia seems so much less trivial when it is scripted, transcribed. The visitor is invited to project their current self on their future self and then in five years’ time on receiving their letter they will re-visit their self of 2006. Reality and truth are fundamental concerns at the core of Savage’s practice and she constantly questions the mechanisms in place for the recording of ‘the truth’. She sees her role as an instigator, researcher, collector, mediator and organiser, intervening within a given system to bring disparate elements together before placing or leaking them back in the public domain. Through this process she works with specific networks in order to articulate a set of concerns.

If Jennie Savage opens out the communications loop by expanding the gap between sending and receiving, Paul Cabuts short-circuits it. On the ground floor images of transmitters across South Wales are sent to monitors within the gallery. These masts enable telecommunications across Wales and the UK, sending and receiving a constant stream of information. They maintain communication between communities but also introduce the global to the local. He recognises that telecommunication and broadcasting play a key role in globalisation, but with the local feel to these photographs he highlights other points of cultural divergence within these structures.

The towers seem oversized or misplaced in the scaled world of cottages, mountains and trees. In the production of this work he recalls the potent symbolism of these structures during the battle for Welsh language broadcasting which sparked a campaign of civil disobedience. Programme broadcasts were interrupted, television masts were scaled by protesters and licence fees withheld in attempts to affect change. The photographic series Transmissions illuminates the didactic nature of these structures, which can seem like beacons or benign sentinels, projecting signals to produce flickering guiding lights. They are at once fixed yet transient, anchor points in the ebb and flow of cultural expediency and information exchange.

  • Stefhan Caddick