Semiotics of a Technological Sublime
On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse transmitted four words from Washington to Baltimore: “What hath God wrought!” With this verse, spelled out electrically in dots and dashes, the relationship of communication and presence was fundamentally altered. The selection of Numbers 23:23 from Scripture points to a spiritually charged cultural response to telegraphy and the channels it opened. For many, it was difficult to conceive of a connectivity that spanned such distance so quickly and Morse’s invention seemed to possess a kind of supernatural power. Architecture, engineering, and the emerging field of electromagnetic telecommunication all contributed to an aura of technological sublimity during the mid-nineteenth century. It is this history that my thesis draws from and builds upon.
Light, Sound, Text: Semiotics of a Technological Sublime is a research-based, site-specific installation that explores language encoding and mysticism through the early history of telecommunications. The project incorporates neon light, synchronized sound, and printed matter within the institutional architecture of New York University. It is here that Samuel Morse, a professor of painting and sculpture, realized his vision for telecommunication.
Sensing human presence, the installation conveys messages to visitors in Morse code, which can be received by them as language, sensory experience, or both. The printed piece—a typographic treatment of Numbers 23:23 overlayed with a GPS drawing—adds a layer of historical context and references movement across a landscape. Meanwhile, sound is sampled directly from electricity passing through the neon tube. The signal is processed and output in time with the patterns of light. Each of these aspects of the project are intended to operate within the framework of a technological sublime in the way that they convey language, appeal to our sense of the infinite, or create an atmosphere of contemplation.
My research process began with an investigation into the history of language invention. I’ve long been interested in the possibilities and limitations of language and began to wonder about the potential of a conceptual writing system that could represent abstract states of being and experience. This utopian vision was tempered by a survey of like-minded projects dating back to the seventeenth century when René Descartes supposed that if one could “explain correctly what are the simple ideas in the human imagination out of which all human thoughts are compounded . . . I would dare to hope for a universal language very easy to learn, to speak, and to write.” In reality, languages are fluid, malleable systems, the ambiguities and inconsistencies of which are assets rather than imperfections to be eradicated. “It is society that creates meaning,” notes Arika Okrent, “and therefore language.”
Surveying the cyclical history of language invention helped me to narrow in on language encoding as central to the approach I would take. Light, Sound, Text is intended to be a platform for the investigation of various forms of language encoding and their relationship to the built environment.
I’m particularly interested in how acts of encryption and decryption resonate with the semiotics of mysticism—of hidden signs and their receptors. For this phase of research, I’ve circled back to the beginning of electronic telecommunications with the invention of telegraphy. As the project poses new forms out of historical material, Light, Sound, Text effectively draws a line between New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and the groundwork laid for it 135 years earlier.
1844–1979: From Telegraphy to Interactive Telecommunications
Though best known for his invention of the telegraph, Samuel Morse began his career as an artist. Born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Morse graduated from Yale College and went on to study painting at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Flush with ambition, Morse set his sights on the City of New York where he took up residence in the fall of 1823 in a single room on Broadway.
Two years later he was selected for a high-profile commission of a portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette. Morse had eagerly begun working on the painting in Washington when a letter arrived. His wife, Lucretia, who just a few weeks earlier had given birth to their fourth child, had suddenly died. The distance between them prevented Morse from returning before Lucretia was buried.
The sorrowful Morse carried on with life in New York feeling, nonetheless, a need to get away. This soon lead him to cross the Atlantic again, this time to visit Italy and France. While the trip was productive for Morse’s painting, the six-week journey home was particularly significant as it occasioned conversation about electromagnetism with Dr. Charles Thomas Jackson, an expert on the topic. Morse, who had taken a keen interest in telegraphy, began to envision a form of communication that would convey electromagnetic impulses through long circuits.
Within a month after his return, Morse accepted an appointment as Professor of Painting and Sculpture at the University of the City of New York. The rooms he rented on campus housed him and some of his students with additional space for painting and experimenting with a system for long-distance communication. Oliver Larkin describes the scene: “Around the walls of the Cabinet at New York University were coiled seventeen hundred feet of wire. With Yankee resourcefulness Morse had built his contrivance with the materials at hand—an old table, a discarded wooden stretcher intended for a painting, and various cogs, ratchets and springs from dismantled clocks.” With the help of others, Morse’s vision for a simple, easy-to-use electric telegraph was realized. The United States granted Morse a patent for his invention in 1840 and its major public debut came four years later.
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“What hath God wrought!” was the text selected by Annie Ellsworth, daughter of the Commisioner of Patents, for the opening of the Washington–Baltimore line. It was she who brought Morse news that the Senate had passed the bill funding the line’s construction and he thanked her with the honor. Wonderment spread soon after as the usefulness of the telegraph was demonstrated at political gatherings and elections. The most common description of Morse’s device was that it “annihilated space and time.”
As the telegraphic medium spread, it seemed poised to unify the human race in a utopian interconnectedness. “The sublimity,” writes David Nye, “lay in realizing that man had directly ‘subjugated’ matter, and this realization was a collective experience.” Comprehending this new media condition required a shift in the conceptual framework with which people understood communication—linked, up until then, with notions of travel. Alongside of this new understanding emerged a belief in the ability to channel spirits of the dead. The practice of Modern Spiritualism featured prominently across America from the 1840s to the 1920s.
A series of events surrounding the family of John and Margaret Fox in upstate New York in 1848 illustrate how telegraphic and spiritual media began to overlap in popular culture. After a string of sleepless nights punctuated by unidentifiable sounds of knocking and rapping, the youngest daughter, Kate, engaged the source of disturbance in a form of communication. This involved consistent knocking patterns such as counting and rapping once for “yes” or twice for “no.” News of these occurrences, which were repeatable, coupled with demonstrations at the Fox house lead many to believe that Kate had “opened a ‘telegraph line’ to another world.”
Regardless of the legitimacy of these claims, it appears that the cultural response to telegraphy was enmeshed with notions of presence previously only attributed to the realm of the spirit. This perspective is echoed in the concurrent rise of spirit photography, an attempt to capture spirits and ghosts in the photographic process. “American Spiritualism presented an early and most explicit intersection of technology and spirituality, of media and ‘mediums,’” writes Jeffrey Sconce, who goes on to assert that “many of our contemporary narratives concerning the ‘powers’ of electronic telecommunications have, if not their origin, then their first significant cultural synthesis in the doctrines of Spiritualism.” This is the spectrum within which Light, Sound, Text operates.
And this is the electrical discharge spectrum of argon—the noble gas concentrated in this tube of glass.
What’s fascinating to me about neon and argon is that they’re present in the air around us, hidden until revealed by this seemingly alchemical process. And the word mystical comes from the Greek for “hidden,” bringing us back to the semiotics of mysticism I’m attempting to construct.
French Jesuit priest and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes the link-up between technology and metaphysics as an impending “harmonized collectivity of consciousnesses equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness.” That may be. Or is it simply their ability to point us in that direction as signifiers of the unseen?
Light, Sound, Text brings together my interest in this hybrid space of technology and spirituality, the historical development of telecommunications at NYU, and the possibility of forms that speak to a hidden dimension of knowledge and experience.
During the Edo period (1603–1868) Japanese travelers could be found wearing a small carrying case known as inrō. Literally meaning “seal basket” (印籠), inrō were used to store important items like medicine or one’s personal seal for stamping documents. Production of these utilitarian objects of lacquer, wood, or ivory developed into the trade of highly skilled craftsman.
The combination of scale, utility, design, and craftsmanship makes inrō compelling artifacts of Japanese mobility. That they also served to transport small, valuable goods gives the object a kind of special presence along a journey. I thought it would be interesting to create my own version of inrō, drawing from the formal properties of crystal, which also has its own talismanic quality.
I designed the object in CAD software to be printed three dimensionally at NYU’s Advanced Media Studio. This additive manufacturing process involves a computer-controlled laser beam that hardens a liquid polymer as the structure is built up in layers. Here is a wireframe view of the inrō.
When printing is complete, the piece is fragile and needs to be infiltrated with a special epoxy. After infiltrate is applied it can be handled as normal. Two versions of this intial prototype were made. The first is bone white—essentially as it came from the printer—and the second is painted with black enamel.
What would you keep inside an inrō?
Manscan is a collaborative chair project developed in tandem with ITP classmate Greg Borenstein. We set out to fabricate a support structure that playfully references the act of sitting and the form of a chair simultaneously. In doing so, we’re collaborating both physically and intellectually on a project that explores a new approach to CNC milling. A three-dimensional Kinect scan of Greg and me in a back-to-back position provided the data necessary to begin the multi-stage preparation for fabrication.
Translating the point cloud generated with the Kinect to machine code readable by a CNC router occupied the bulk of our project time. This involved bringing the original scan into MeshLab to clean up the image and create solid surfaces. The file was then imported into Vectorworks in order to make additional adjustments and export the project in a format that could be opened by the NC programming software, MasterCam. Once tool paths were defined in MasterCam, we finally had the G-code to operate the router.
Our first prototype was completed at a small scale in blue foam. The finish is rough but the execution was successful. Charting a path from image data to physical object took more turns than expected and, all the while, we were still familiarizing ourselves with the CNC router. I anticipate that, from here, more straightforward applications of the CNC will feel like a breeze. Which is good because I’m enthusiastic about the ways in which digital fabrication opens new channels between media and form—or, in this case, foam.
Light, Sound, Text: Semiotics of a Technological Sublime
Light, Sound, Text is a site-specific installation that explores language encoding and mysticism through the early history of telecommunications.
On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse transmitted four words from Washington to Baltimore: “What hath God wrought,” transforming the relationship of communication to presence. The selection of Numbers 23:23 points to a spiritually charged cultural response to telegraphy and the channels it opened. I’m interested in layering upon this history a formal inquiry into the semiotics of mysticism—exploring the process of language encoding in architectural space. Light, Sound, Text incorporates neon light and printed matter in a sonic installation of Morse code as both text and sensory experience.
These images document a pair of algorithmic portraits materialized in plexiglass with a laser cutter. Each image consists of three layers: two in which the portrait is cut out of black sheets of plexi and one clear sheet, uncut save for the perimeter and screw holes, in between them. This layering adds rigidity and depth to each piece, which together form a diptych. My wife, Sachiko, and I are the subjects of this first iteration.
“We still do not know how much less ‘nothing’ can be. Has an ultimate zero point been arrived at with black paintings, white paintings, light beams, transparent film, silent concerts, invisible sculpture . . . ? It hardly seems likely.”
—Lucy R. Lippard and John Chandler, Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, 1999
“There are trends, or eras, in language invention that reflect the preoccupations of the surrounding culture, and so, in a way, the history of invented languages is a story about the way we think about language.”
—Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages, 2009
Digging around the history of language invention, one soon begins to see patterns emerge. A frustration with the limitations and inconsistencies of natural language coupled with an ambition and zeal to create something better usually results in a marvelous body of work that never generates a critical mass of users. From John Wilkins’s 1668 An Essay Toward a Real Character and a Philosophical Language through Charles Bliss’s 1949 Semantography, the effort to develop a logical, unifying system tends to run counter to the very nature of living language, with all its inconsistencies and adaptations. Learning from this rich history of utopian language projects, my own interest in a language of higher consciousness has been reoriented.
Light, Sound, Text has, from the beginning, been about the exploration of contemplative states in physical space. Architecture is a medium through which experience is constructed and I’m interested in the platform of language’s relationship to the built environment. How can language be—literally as well as metaphorically—encoded into a space? Moreover, is it possible to cultivate mindfulness and beauty within such a site? One node of this question leads me to back through the history of telecommunication and its electronic manifestation.
Samuel Morse, son of a geographer and pastor, was an accomplished painter from Massachusetts. In 1825, his wife fell ill when he was working on a commission in New York City. By the time the message reached him and he could return home to her, she had already died. Morse set to work on a system of rapid communication for long distances that resulted in the binary code still employed today. What interests me about Morse code, aside from its historical significance to telecommunications, is its suitability to the media of sound and light. There is an experiential aspect to these that can eclipse the message they convey. One’s ability to receive a message encoded in sound or light is contingent on an awareness of the patterns they produce. It’s this boundary between ambience and legibility that seems to have some potential for my project.
Dan Flavin’s work is an interesting precedent in the material realization of light in space. His use of industrial, fluorescent light tubes raise their cold utility to a level of the transcendent. To correlate patterns and signals through these, augmented with sound that fills the space is the current trajectory of my efforts. I’d like to gather people in such a space to lift their minds, and lose themselves in a contemplative/meditative act.
Site of passage
Flows of capital, flows of culture
Points interconnected by Descartes, drawing arcs over time
Machines conspiring to clear a way for us
Flight boards publish codes in discrete rows
AMERICAN 142 LHR B4 8:35 AM ON TIME
Announcements reach just beyond the gates they are intended for
Languages overlap as nomads are born
Sunshine through glass curtains
Strangers, everyone, with stories of business or adventure
She’s attending meetings
They’re on their honeymoon
He’s visiting home
A funeral, a reunion, an opportunity, a whim
The politics of this economically perilous situation
To which cathedrals of movement are erected
Structuring invitations to passage through vaulted hallways
And metal detectors
Often awkward, occasionally inspiring
Each with its own shape
Corresponding to a landscape
Arrived at by car
Some want to go home, escape the interstitial space
Of this complex system