by David Finkle
[ artreviews - june 08 ]
Just because EM Forster's "only connect" suggestion has become over-used doesn't mean it has ceased to retain cogent meaning. The terse and slightly anxious dictum is certainly behind Paul St George's need to mount one section of what he calls "The Telectroscope" on the south bank of the Thames in London and the second section on the Brooklyn side of New York City's East River.
The conceit is that St George - who's content to call himself a conceptual artist - has unearthed his grandfather's all-but-forgotten invention: a telescope placed under the Atlantic ocean in the late 19th century through which two populations could see each other through its protruding ends. Unlike standard telescopes, by the way, the images at both terminals are the same life-sized scale.
To honor his alleged grandpapa Alexander Stanhope St George, conceptual artist Paul St George is claiming - wink, wink, nudge, nudge - to have restored the Telectroscope for three weeks so that those at the eastern end and those at the western end can wave at each other and generally take delight in the contraption. The, well, installation opened in both locales on May 22 and will hold forth until June 15 and on a 24-hour-a-day basis. Attendants will stand by at all hours.
If the damn thing sounds like something Jules Verne thought up while lazing with the other Grande Jatte strollers on a Paris afternoon, it looks like that as well. Both ends are identical - brass and leather with wooden fittings and positioned as if erupting from the earth. The resemblance to des choses Verne-iennes is not entirely accidental, because St George admits to reading the science fiction author when a boy and immersing himself in other similar literature. He says of concocting the Telectroscope as if it were a ground-breaking (pun intended) Victorian product, "It's like a what-if story. We imagine possibilities, and then they get invented."
He made the remark when this roving reporter found him at Brooklyn's Fulton Ferry Landing hanging around his great big toy - which is underwritten with undisclosed funds by Artichoke in partnership with Tiscali. A short, swarthy man who seems to have no straight lines on his physique, St George was getting a boot out of spectating the spectators and answering their questions when and if they spotted him as the erstwhile inventor. One blond woman easily passed the gullibility test when she asked St George how it worked and was only mildly incredulous when he explained the telescope-under-sea set-up. "But what if you want to move it?" she wanted to know.
"If you see it, you believe it," St George said to others as she swerved off. But he wasn't so sure of total belief that he didn't take care that viewers at both end knew they were observing something real and not just looking into a characterless makeshift studio. When viewers in New York look through the approximately seven-foot high lens, they see London's Tower Bridge in the background; when viewers in London look through the lens, they see the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
In the foreground, of course, they peer at people like themselves, most of whom are smiling and often jumping about to attract attention. St George likens their behavior to "puppies." What has surprised him about people's reactions is the tactics to which they resort for communication. Often they find pieces of cardboard on which to scribble messages back and forth. (He deliberately avoided a sound element.) Incidentally, the roving reporter typing this report has been a spectator - and participant - on both sides of the so-called pond and seen message-scribblers on both visits.
Though beautiful to behold in its kinship to something a Hollywood shop might have turned out - and tuned up - for a Jules Verne movie, the Telectroscope may disappoint observers who wish for something more mysterious than a fiber-optics device about as arcane as a webcam. Digital projection may be ho-hum technology for today's early adapters. Then again, there's always the believing blond woman and her peers (another pun also intended).
While the Telectroscope itself is the same whether here or there, there are differences. In New York pedestrians need only show up and gawk. In London entry to a make-shift enclosure runs a pound and is obtained from the kind of mechanical fortune-teller found in carnivals. Drop a pound coin in a slot and a moving hand appears to sign an oblong card then sent out down a chute. Along with various straight-forward and comic information, the card features a "Guide to Conduct."
It says, "At times of excessive "Busyness, Visitors will be limited to five minutes in the enclosure. Please do not cause a Rumpus if asked to leave. Persons visiting the Telectroscope must be orderly in appearance. Obscene gestures will NOT be tolerated! No money is to be given to the servants."
This roving reporter observed no obscene gestures being made - surreptitiously or otherwise. Nor was he moved to indulge in any, not when so many people were caught in the act of trying so eagerly to connect. Instead, he began daydreaming about how many other peoples on two sides of other physical and political divides might also connect more than momentarily.