Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson

by David Horvitz

Transmitting from the great beyond: a conversation about Duchamp’s grave, Wikipedia police, Felix the Cat, and the importance of boring tweets.

“Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson” was originally commissioned by Triple Canopy as part of the public-program series Miscellaneous Uncatalogued Material at the Museum of Modern Art, the first session of which was facilitated by David Horvitz on February 15, 2012. (All three sessions have been transcribed and compiled for the second edition of Triple Canopy’s Volume Number series.) “Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson” was also published by Triple Canopy as part of its Thinking Through Images project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Radio Corporation of America, Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson, 1926, photoradiogram, 4 × 5 1/4". The New York Times Collection. Courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art. © the New York Times, New York.

David Horvitz: This is a photoradiogram of Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson by the Radio Corporation of America. It was made in 1926, when photographs were first being transmitted through radio waves and telegraph and telephone wires, which, up until that point, only transmitted language. Barriers between spaces seemed to become obsolete as communications began to travel from one place to another almost instantaneously. With photoradiograms, the image of an event could travel as well.1

1 “The work of art requires witnesses because it sallies forth with its image into the depths of a material time which is also our own. This sharing of duration is automatically defeated by the innovation of photographic instantaneity, for if the instantaneous image pretends to scientific accuracy in its details, the snapshot’s image-freeze or rather image-time-freeze invariably distorts the witness’s felt temporality, that time that is the movement of something created. … It is thus now common to think of our memories as multidimensional, of thought as transfer, transport (metaphora) in the literal sense.” Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994).

How does this work? The machine scans the image line by line and encodes it into an electrical signal—like Morse code—then sends it by radio wave to another machine, which reconstructs and prints the image. (This image was scanned in London; Mitchell-Thomson was the postmaster general of the United Kingdom at the time.) The result is a kind of halftone picture. The photoradiogram machine was a precursor of the fax machine and of what would become the Internet.2

2 João Ribas details the fax machine’s small but important role in recent art: “Artists readily embraced the immediate, graphic, and interactive character of the fax machine, making it an important part of the history of telematic art, nestled between the legacy of Fluxus, mail art and the nascent practices of new media. … The fax machine allowed for the creation of participatory, bi-directional, and collaborative networks over vast geographical areas in real time. This proliferation of media would serve in effect to reposition the value of artistic production—that is, it would shift the emphasis from the production of objects or pictorial signs to creating systems of exchange and interaction whose primary concern was the structure of communication. Moreover, the fax machine’s specific technological condition allowed for a connectivity of experiential time, a simultaneity between transmission and reception, between producer and audience, that could be made as performative and politicized as it was practical and expedient.” João Ribas, Brett Littman, and Kate Fowle, Fax (New York: Drawing Center, 2009).

William Smith: It’s easy to imagine Morse code operating in a visual or mimetic rather than symbolic or coded way here, given that the image is actually composed of discrete marks that vary in density to convey areas of light and dark. At the time, people might have compared the photoradiogram to a coarse engraving; to us it looks pixelated. Was the technology developed in a commercial context or a military or government context?

DH: The government consolidated this technology during the First World War, when it took over the radio industry and put a moratorium on patents. Afterward, there was an efflorescence of inventions. RCA was one of the main companies using this kind of technology for consumer applications after the war. Richard Ranger, who worked for RCA, designed the photoradiogram in 1924. The photoradiogram and similar technologies were used by wire services and to send weather information to ships at sea. But the first image transmitted across the Atlantic was of President Calvin Coolidge, sent from New York to London.

Brian Droitcour: When was the first cat picture sent by radio?

DH: I don’t know, but we could find out.

WS: This photoradiogram is a picture of Mitchell-Thomson, but it might as well depict a LOLcat. The real subject is the image’s own transmission and the technology underlying it. It is a proof of concept. The technology came first; the production of images that needed to be transmitted instantaneously followed.

You say that this image renders barriers between different spaces obsolete through the speed of its transmission. Yet the low resolution of the picture may also represent vast distances as well. The pixelated quality of the image points to an important delay inherent in its production. So while we may view this as a precursor to the Internet, it also makes us aware of the physical dimension of image transmission even at a moment when real-time viewing appears seamless.

RCA began experimental television transmissions in 1929 with a sixty-line image of a thirteen-inch papier-mâché model of Felix the Cat. The desire to share pictures of cats is at the foundation of wireless technology.

DH: This next work is Giorgio de Chirico’s Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), from 1914. We see many symbols of time: a clock tower; a steam engine; the railroad, which led to the standardization of time. The telegraph lines followed the railroad routes and gave birth to wire photos. The shadows in the painting evoke a sundial, which signifies local time, as opposed to the time of industry and commerce. (The part of the sundial that casts the shadow is called the gnomon, meaning “that which reveals” or “interpreter.” We derive the word know from the Greek and Latin root; this suggests that to know something is bound to a sense of time and place.) The perspective is contradictory too.

Paul Branca: There are multiple perspectives in this painting, and they don’t correspond. Because of the two perspectival vanishing points—there are at least two—there is another kind of time that must be taken by the viewer to read the perspectival logic, and that enlarges the painting. The smoke from the train is moving slightly to the right even though the wind is moving in the other direction. And the building doesn’t look like Gare Montparnasse. Why is he calling it that?

DH: I see this painting as depicting a moment of upheaval in our notions of space and time and as a setting for the emergence of technologies such as the photoradiogram ten years later. The steam engine enabled us to move faster than the earth’s natural rhythms, like wind and water—now we’re moving against the world.3

3 “Rhythm seems natural, spontaneous, with no law other than its unfurling. Yet rhythm always implies a measure. Everywhere where there is rhythm, there is measure, which is to say law, calculated and expected obligation, a project. … Rhythm appears as regulated time, governed by rational laws, but in contact with what is least rational in human being: the lived, the carnal, the body.” Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time, and Everyday Life (London: Continuum, 2004).

WS: What about the bananas in the foreground?

DH: They’re not ripe. They’re not in time.4

4 Ancient times, fitful lights and shadows. All the gods are dead. The knight’s horn. The evening call at the edge of the woods: a city, a square, a harbor, arcades, gardens, an evening party; sadness. Nothing.

One can count the lines. The soul follows and grows with them. The statue, the meaningless statue had to be erected. The red wall hides all that is mortal of infinity. A sail; gentle ship with tender flanks; little amorous dog. Trains that pass. Enigma. The happiness of the banana tree: luxuriousness of ripe fruit, golden and sweet.

Giorgio de Chirico, “Meditations of a Painter,” in Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968).


DH: Now we’re looking at László Moholy-Nagy’s Construction in Enamel 3. The artist called the supervisor of a sign factory and, using graph paper and a color chart, provided instructions on how to make the painting. “It was like playing chess by correspondence,” Moholy-Nagy said.

I’m interested in a fundamental shift in how we make and receive images—documentary images in particular—that occurred in the early twentieth century and has been echoed and amplified with the widespread adoption of the Internet: the ability for one person to depict an event and another to view it nearly simultaneously, thousands of miles away. This is the dawn of a certain kind of technological mediation, which is worth revisiting as we think about how our own experiences are informed and shaped by the transmission of images.5

5 “It was the photograph that revealed the secret of bird-flight and enabled man to take off.” Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).
Giorgio de Chirico, Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), 1914, oil on canvas, 55 1/8" × 72 5/8". © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome.

Unknown speaker: Are you placing a positive or negative value on this changed relationship to images—not just the evolution of communication generally, but the way in which images are transmitted—or just describing it?

DH: I’m pointing to moments of transition, one of which is illustrated by a film made in 1937 by Chevrolet to show how photographs are transmitted by wire. At that time there was a sense of actively experiencing a moment of profound change. I do think that the loss of one’s sense of self in a particular time and space—the feeling that I am right here—is negative.

Alexander Provan: It’s interesting that corporations were attempting to educate people about how the technology worked, conditioning them to these changes. Now, very few people think about how digital images are made and disseminated—it’s too complex, but also we’re already conditioned to accept this constant stream of technological advances or updates.

Today it seems obvious that everyone who can will use these technologies: The benefit is clear. But it’s actually fairly difficult to convince people that they need such things, or it was. I’m curious about how people are inculcated with a desire—a common need, even—for these technologies. Early Microsoft and Apple advertisements come to mind. Apple in particular presented the consumer as an almost heroic figure breaking through technological and cultural barriers. In this Chevrolet film, the wire image is clearly a progressive technology. You should understand this if you’re going to be a part of the new world that such technologies are creating.

WS: David, you’re critical of this compression of the time between the capture of an image and its reception, which suggests that reality risks being replaced by representation. But how do you express that sense of loss without being reactionary and while also accounting for the advantages of these technologies? Technologies like the photoradiogram were used to create pseudo-events but also to enhance real journalism.6

6 Wonka: Now I suppose you all know how ordinary television works. You photograph something and—

Mike: Sure, I do. You photograph something, and then the photograph is split up into millions of tiny pieces, and they go whizzing through the air down to your TV set where they’re all put together again in the right order.

Wonka: So I said to myself, “If they can do it with a photograph, why can’t I do it with a bar of chocolate?”

Mel Stuart, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1971.

DH: To me, it’s more a matter of synchronizing your life to a construction of time and space that has little to do with where you are and what you’re actually experiencing.

AP: The generic global village argument would be that one’s sense of place is actually reinforced by a knowledge of it in relation to many other places, and that those two positions—here and elsewhere—are not mutually exclusive and actually enrich each other. The cynical take would be that the creation of a kind of mass consciousness, in which we all share a narrative of time and space, is just a lubricant for mass markets. Magazines like Time—the aim of which was literally to present the image of an event happening in one place to the entire world nearly simultaneously—were essential to this process.

BD: But, David, you deal with this tension, especially in relation to digital-image culture, in your own work. On your Twitter account you often tweet things like, “I’m in Providence,” or, “I’m in Santa Cruz.” These are boring tweets, but they assert the specificity of your location. Twitter is trying to put everyone in the same place at the same time, and you’re just saying, “I’m not there, I’m here.”

DH: I often use Twitter when I’ve just gotten off a plane. I just say, “Los Angeles.” Usually I’m in this headspace of a mental shift. The tweets are telling me something just as much as they’re telling you something. But I have no real intentions or reasons why I type these things.

Peter Russo: You were doing a project last year in which you photographed yourself on beaches in California parks and uploaded the images to the Wikipedia pages for those parks. Are those still up?

DH: Some of them. I photographed the entire coast from the Mexican-American border to Oregon. California’s beaches, unless military property, are all technically public. There has to be public access to all the beaches. I photographed all the sites of public accessibility, placing myself within the image somewhat anonymously—back turned, a shadow, a silhouette, a figure that just happens to be there. I’m standing in the margins of the photograph, irrelevant to the photograph’s central subject.

Many of the photographs were removed because people had noticed the same IP address was uploading multiple images, specifically to the pages of California beaches, and they noticed that each one of them had this guy in it. They were thinking, “What the hell is going on? We’ve got to stop this, this person is messing with Wikipedia.”

Michael Mandiberg: Your body is always in these images. In addition to the beaches you were also photographing memorials and graves, which are markers of passing. You’re trying to assert a part of yourself, your physical presence, into this corpus of history. Are you memorializing yourself? Is this a vanity project, a premonition of death?

Marcel Duchamp’s grave in Rouen, France, 2011. Photo: David Horvitz.

DH: I hope it’s not read as a vanity project. I’m more interested in presence than in myself. This is the first time death has come up in my work, but you can’t ignore it. We’re all going to die.7

7 “The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture. As Klaus Theweleit noted, media are always flight apparatuses into the great beyond. If gravestones stood as symbols at the beginning of culture itself, our media technology can retrieve all gods. The old written laments about ephemerality, which measured no more than distance between writing and sensuality, suddenly fall silent. In our mediascape, immortals have come to exist again.” Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

AP: You complained that these technologies make us lose a sense of place, but you’ve used them to assert your presence in a number of places, in a way that’s allowed that presence to multiply. You’re now wherever and whenever you were, everywhere and all the time. Wikipedia allows you to disseminate this presence—or, really, to have other people do that work. Those people become the audience for the work, but also the authors of it.

DH: You can place an image into Wikipedia’s stream and others will circulate it however they see fit. You have no control over where it goes. I recently found a photograph I had uploaded to Wikipedia in an amateur music video that someone had created for a New Order song—one of those videos that are simply slide shows of random images someone found online. The video’s creator had written: “Oh, I had Googled ‘sadness’ and ‘loneliness’ and found all these images, and there was this one image of this figure standing at the beach.”

WS: Moholy-Nagy presented his telephone paintings as a radical critique of authorship, but the object still comes back into the galleries with his name on it. The art system has recuperated his work. Do you think these Wikipedia images are really out of your control once you post them?8

8 Noting a “popular suspicion of the archive of high culture, which relies on cataloguing, provenance, and authenticity,” Seth Price asks, “Insofar as there is a popular archive, it does not share this administrative tendency. Suppose an artist were to release the work directly into a system that depends on reproduction and distribution for its sustenance, a model that encourages contamination, borrowing, stealing, and horizontal blur. The art system usually corrals errant works, but how could it recoup thousands of freely circulating paperbacks?” Seth Price, Dispersion, 2002—.

DH: My projects are largely about letting go, not about claiming certain images as my own. Once an image has been broadcast it’s out of my hands; it can be received and reused in an infinite number of ways. The term broadcast actually comes from farming—it means “to disperse seeds.”