IN 1844, SAMUEL MORSE transmitted the first telegraph message, asking the world via a series of electrical pulses, “What hath God wrought?”
One hundred and sixty-five years later, a group of 20 or so New Yorkers is gathered around a speaker-size black box beside the Gowanus Canal, awaiting the answer.With little more than some wood pieces, 500 feet of wire and a pair of bronze 1930s ham radio keys from eBay, artists Benjamin Cohen and Sierra Pettengill have assembled two telegraph stations linking the banks of the Gowanus. In an exercise that’s part public comment box, part science camp activity and total excuse to brown-bag beers on a Sunday at sunset, the artists are mounting “The Great Trans-Gowanus Cable” to re-create the rush Morse must have felt at witnessing human speech emerge from electricity.
On Friday evenings and weekends through Aug. 7, pedestrians on the Canal’s 2nd Street western bank, as well as at 3rd Street across the way, will be able to exchange their own replies to Morse’s question. On Aug. 8, the telegraph will move to Greenpoint’s McGolrick Park, where it will be installed for the day to coincide with the recurring public dinner/arts fundraiser FEAST, which funded the project with a $1,000 grant.
Back on the canal, the crowd is standing by, grazing on fruit pies served in thematically appropriate (though anachronistic) UPS Express boxes.They’re waiting for the artists—who are stationed at opposite ends of the cable, communicating by iPhone—to get one last part in place. Silence.Then, the sound of buzzing and blipping as a roll of receipt paper slowly begins spilling out of the machine’s mouth. One participant picks it up and begins studying the dots and dashes. “That’s an ‘h,’” she says. “I have an ‘h’!”Translating off the Morse code key is a painstaking process, and before the message can be decoded, the sender, a blond fellow in Harry Potter glasses, appears and reveals his answer: “Yo, bitches.”
A short line forms and the telegraph newbies begin slowly tapping out messages of their own. At one to four keystrokes per character, Morse code feels like a big slow down—no predictive text!—from typing on a cell phone. “Old stuff is hard,” affirms one message. “Phil rules,” says another. Mr. Yo Bitches sends his second message: “The Civil War is over”—a reference, he says, to an 1865 army telegram that failed to reach soldiers fighting in the field. Examining his own code, he says, “It came out perfectly. It’s amazing.”
“It’s a terrifying moment when you realize you can say anything to anyone anywhere, anytime,” Pettengill tells me later during a telegram-decoding session at the Gowanus Studio Space, where Cohen is a director. At the end of each day, the artists will collect the telegrams and, next month at FEAST, they will present them. Later on they hope to move the telegraph to new locations—perhaps spanning Newtown Creek or, Cohen hopes, the Brooklyn Bridge.
Pettengill reads off a sequence of dots and dashes to Cohen, who is typing them into an online Morse code translator. He presses enter, and the website spits out the result: “Hello world.”
For more information on “The Great Trans- Gowanus Cable,” visit www.feastinbklyn.org.