I’m Sam Buchan-Watts, Research Assistant for Crossed Lines and I’ll be chairing this panel, ‘Hello’.
So ‘Hello!’, or ‘Ahoy!’ – which we learn was Bell’s preferred form of introduction.
Thank you Sarah, Will, Elizabeth and Anne for getting us going. And what a rich set of introductions it is.
A question to begin with:
Telephones call across space, but also, as we hear from these compelling accounts, across time. In Will’s rendering, modernism is an ongoing historical period which has seen an epochal shift to bidirectional systems of communication: to networks rather than the hierarchal media setups of the past. In Sarah’s account, telephones are always haunted – an absence which could be temporal or spatial. Elizabeth gives us a vivid picture of the Information Age Gallery, the largest single gallery at the Science Museum, which is underpinned by rich oral histories and where historical periods align with different configurations of telephonic space: exchange, cable, cellular and so on. Anne refers compellingly to the rich BT Archives as housing a ‘corporate memory’.
I’d like to invite each of you to reflect on telephony and states of time. What does it mean to historize a technology as protean or ‘haunted’ as the telephone, whether in the archive, in fiction, or beyond? What medium is best suited to telephony’s strange ‘memory’?
@anne_archer, I find your comments about the fragility of digital archiving (versus paper) really suggestive - 'dark spots' in the archive feels like an inherently poetic idea. It reminded me of a footnote in the poet Sandeep Parmar's great book, Eidolon, about the historical silencing and villainising of Helen of Troy, in part, she argues, in the way that her character has been archived over time so as to deny her voice, record, agency. Parmar writes:
'She makes no attempt to author her story and her keeping schtum is a symptom of the archive. After all, we don’t make archives of things that have not fallen somehow into obscurity or are in no need of preserving, archives are guided by the principles of silence—the fear of silence, the substantiating of silence, the insertion forcibly of the place where silence ends and begins, and this is to a large extent artificial.'
Eidolon is in part a response to this. Im interested in this correspondence between art and the archive, can poetry attend to those dark spots, in addition to - through metaphor - helping us conceive of them?
I’ve been fortunate to see some of the great creative responses and interpretations of the BT Archives by art students from Central St Martins (which we had planned to exhibit at the Science Museum), which produced their own extraordinary map of convergences and crossed wires across the collection. Perhaps Anne and Liz (or others) can comment on the role of the artist in the archive?
Obviously, I too would like to hear others comment but in the meantime I would give the last word (first) to Borges, who (I think, like Walter Benjamin) well understood what it was to be 'at the end of the line', the artist among the archives, unreliable and yet faithful:
The Keeper of the Books
Here they stand: gardens and temples and the reason for temples;
exact music and exact words;
the sixty-four hexagrams;
ceremonies, which are the only wisdom
that the Firmament accords to men;
the conduct of that emperor
whose perfect rule was reflected in the world, which mirrored him,
so that rivers held their banks
and fields gave up their fruit;
the wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again, marking an era’s close;
the secret and eternal laws;
the harmony of the world.
These things or their memory are here in books
that I watch over in my tower.
On small shaggy horses,
the Mongols swept down from the North
destroying the armies
ordered by the Son of Heaven to punish their desecrations.
They cut throats and sent up pyramids of fire,
slaughtering the wicked and the just,
slaughtering the slave chained to his master’s door,
using the women and casting them off.
And on to the South they rode,
innocent as animals of prey,
cruel as knives.
In the faltering dawn
my father’s father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
calling back days that belonged to others,
distant days, the days of the past.
In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
and leagues of dust and sleep surround the tower.
Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
but it comforts me to think
that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the same
to a man whose life is nearly over,
who looks out from his tower on what once was city
and now turns back to wilderness.
Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a time
when I deciphered wisdom
and lettered characters with a careful hand?
My name is Hsiang. I am the keeper of the books –
these books which are perhaps the last,
for we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
or of the Empire’s fate.
Here on these high shelves they stand,
at the same time near and far,
secret and visible, like the stars.
Here they stand – gardens, temples.
I think @dr-don has said it well on the subject of archives by rounding off with Borges's starry books, which also provides me with a neat moment to end this generative 'Hello' panel with 'Goodbye'. Huge thanks to Will, Sarah, Anne and Liz for such stimulating openings to an expansive week of conversation, and to all those who have engaged in the comments. I look forward to seeing many of you for closing remarks and a toast at 6pm BST.