To talk about the history of transmission arts and limit it to the past one hundred or so years (coinciding with the electronicizing of a transmissive impulse) would be needlessly reductive. A sort of temporal provincialism. The art of transmission attends to more archaic, if not primal, origins and can extend to a future point unknown. However, in this short span of reflection, it would be equally perverse to extend the boundaries of transmission arts so that the term lacks termination, standing for both everything and nothing at once. Even though these all-or-nothing objects suit me fine, I will attempt some demarcation, enumeration, and qualification . . . although not, as brevity demands, elaboration.
For we could talk at length of Homeric epea pteroenta or “winged words” (but with preference for the rhapsodic event-space of Homer and not the authoritative texts or authoritarian culture generated by epic pique); we could talk of the always charged and dream-traversed space between gods and men, where variously angels and electromagnetic frequencies carried out their assigned calls (and the art of this space really “takes off” when the gilt letters of Annunciation paintings started to revel in their letterness and less in the golden aura of a message direct from God; thus was born concrete poetry); we could talk of mouth to ear, mouth to horn, horn to horn, mouth to air, finger to clay, and finger to key; of the vast weird interconnected transmission machines of the nineteenth century, of which the artistic side might include the penny dreadful, the serial novel, and the traveling medicine show (the other side of which—small pox on the Plains, forced labor in the Congo—just hints at what goes wrong even, and perhaps especially, when transmissions go right, a disembodied message causing people themselves to disappear in the loping wavelength gallop of time); and then in the limelit burlesque of History enter inevitably the Marconis and the Farnsworths, ricepowdered, backed by an avant-garde chorale of futurists and suprematists amidst the cricket chirp of amateurs sparking the gap, intoning rude cracks, as a panorama with an unsinkable ocean liner nose-up scrolls behind.
We could only then, albeit with a stretch, get into the Golden Throat radios of Cage’s new frontier, but also there would be more quotidian “artistic” uses of radio or television (to limit, yes) that, as befits the subject at hand, we will never hear of; with the ubiquity of these machines, imaginary landscapes are everywhere (New [End Page 41] York City is simultaneously the solution to and the problem of conceiving a truly diverse transmission art practice); we could speak too of amping the noise source in Claude Shannon’s “Mathematical Theory of Communication,” so that whatever engineering flaws compromise the perfect move from data source to its receiver become desirable evidence of the fraught and fragile congress therein; of mail art potlatch, beatniks riding rails, boatmakers, tape-droppers, and blog-pimpers. We could even ask the reader at the next funeral they attend to simply look at the faces arrayed. If it is a family affair, they will immediately sense a kind of intergenerational transmission art afoot (this, of course, brings to mind the soap opera), while other types of funerals—lonely or communitarian—might attest to a subtler transmission or embrace of the void, which faces and names smearing across space and time can’t quite match in terms of dignity.
But I digress. What I would really like to talk about will take you a little further along, curious reader, than the shinplaster of proper names will. It is a simple device that may serve to contain all the rest, and its wide availability could provoke a revolution, and conserve the primal urge at the heart—with its “ear” and its “art”—of transmission. The “message in a bottle”—a product of a collision of two systems of distribution, and a retrofitting of one for the purpose of the other—is an incunabulum for any reflection you might care to have about the way in which one thing getting to another is never a fait accompli. Therein lies the art. With the...