Review of High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Specters and the Object Hereafter
Strange Attractor Press, London, UK, 2018; distributed by The MIT Press
264 pp., illus. 24 b/w. Trade, $21.95
To begin engaging with Kristen Gallerneaux's book, High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Spectres and the Object Hereafter, recall the final scene from the 1981 American action film Raiders of the Lost Ark by Steven Spielberg. A worker wheels a wooden crate, containing the Ark of the Covenant, into a city-sized warehouse filled with thousands of other crates, their contents and purposes unknown, all consigned to forgotten storage. Imagine someone opening those crates and describing and linking their varied contents. High Static, Dead Lines, does this by exploring the entwined boundaries between sound, material culture, landscape, and esoteric belief in the form of a literary mix tape of curatorial reporting, media spectres, and personal experience, primarily with hauntings.
Gallerneaux is an artist, curator, and sonic researcher holding a Ph.D. in Art Practice & Media History, an MA in Folklore, and an MFA in Art. She is the Curator of Communication and Information Technology at The Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Michigan, where she works with one of the largest historical technology collections in North America. She is also "obsessed with the history of anomalous experiences" (152), the space where technological innovation meets speculative thinking (191), and turning up old pasts, giving them legs, and letting them run rampant in the present (242). Gallerneaux introduces a number of technological objects held in the Henry Ford Museum storage room, each ostensibly designed to "mediate fantastical thoughts, attempt contact, and measure things we couldn't see" (62). Brief essays concern, among other topics, trees rigged up to the wireless radio heavens. A fax machine used to decode the language of hurricanes. A radio pill that broadcasts the status of one's intestinal tract while passing through. A radio photo continuous transmission machine. Location-specific low humming sounds heard absent any obvious sound source. The Moog prototype. Prison radios. A salt mine under the city of Detroit, Michigan. The advent of magnetic tape recording. Hijacking television transmissions.
Gallerneaux's focus is on technological developments from the mid- nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when new forms of communication like the telegraph, phonograph, and telephone permanently altered the relationships between belief, reproduction, and creativity. These technologies closed distances on the personal level, but simultaneously opened creative speculation about how these technologies might facilitate communication with the beyond.
A common theme is sound and pathways for the sonic specter, a hypothetical presence, an invisible layer of noise alongside conventional histories of technological artifacts. The recurring presence of sound is audible, self-generative, and remembered. "When we record sound, we store time, archiving our impermanence. When we are haunted by voices that stand outside of the exactly here and now [her emphasis], it is because we are being touched from a distance [her emphasis]" (64). This distance, however, is made short by the "interlocking strata of meanings imprinted upon a vast archive of physical media formats and devices" (64). These devices touch upon military, communications, or cultural history, becoming "part of the quintessential American experience, sufficiently alienating—making strange—what had only just begun to seem familiar" (64).
As with an audio mix tape, one must listen through the choices made by the creator, and suss out connections and meanings. High Static, Dead Lines, as a literary mix tape, presents similar challenges as its entwined explorations mirror the strange phenomena described. The essays, object studies, and autobiographical asides promote a series of networks.
The first network, Dead Lines, provides an approach to hauntings. The second, Up There, segues into extraterrestrial radio and atmospheric explorations. Network three, Frequencies, follows sound waves into multiple contexts and their use as quasi-fictional lifelines. In network four, Broadcasts, ghosts of pure media manifest through interruptions and textual, free-form séances. Network five, Playing the Spectre, examines the collision [collusion?] between creativity, performance, and the sonic spectre. In the final network, Anchors, the sonic specter is linked to the natural and built environment.
Gallerneaux acknowledges the potential of ridicule from scientific communities as she attempts to investigate the "root materialism and causal factors of physical manifestations and objects 'touched' by the supernatural" (15) but remains steadfast in her interest "in exploring the boundaries between the trifecta of material culture, sound, and belief. I value the voice of the object, the thing [her emphasis], above all else, and prefer to give space for its natural narratives to escape. In choosing to listen, as a subject, one almost becomes as ghostly as the thing itself [her emphasis]. One is not supposed to wholly absorb oneself in or become 'contaminated' by his or her research. But I am not the first, nor will I be the last" (15-16).
Because of its historical, curatorial, and cultural curiosity, High Static, Dead Lines: Sonic Specters and the Object Hereafter is an interesting and insightful read for media historians, parapsychologists, sound artists, and anyone interested in technological materiality. Those of you experienced with hauntings may enjoy Gallerneaux's personal experiences as well.