Sunday, May 25, 2008

Trans-Atlantic Relations in DUMBO

What on earth is a 37-foot long telescope doing on the Fulton Ferry Landing in DUMBO? Giving visitors to the pier a chance to say hi to friends and strangers in London of course! What?!

Basically, between now and June 15, visitors to the Fulton Ferry Landing can look into the giant telescope and see people standing in front of the Tower Bridge in London in real time. Brits have to pay 1 pound to enjoy the view but it's free for those on this side of the Atlantic (maybe because the dollar is so weak;-)). There is no sound but visitors can use white boards to communicate with their friends across the pond.

The project was the idea of British artist Paul St. George who combined a bit of history, make-believe and technology into his trans-Atlantic public art project. And what exactly does telectroscope mean? St. George is quoted by the Times of London as saying:

"A French editor (in the late 1800s) misread a report about the invention of a thing called the Electroscope – which is all to do with static electricity – and called it a Telectroscope. He also misinterpreted its purpose. The fascinating thing is that his misunderstanding of what it did – to communicate face to face over a vast distance – really caught fire. People really liked the idea, which promised what was called ‘the suppression of absence’. Mark Twain and other writers became fascinated by it.”

That's the history bit. The make-believe bit is that St. George says his great-grandfather actually came up with the idea for the telectroscope and started digging a tunnel under the Atlantic to realize his goal. The technology bit is that fiber-optics have brought the idea (real or not) to life.

Erica and I decided to check it out on Friday night. I was a bit skeptical about the idea after reading a New York Times article about the project earlier in the week, but I must admit that it is quite novel. We checked it out around 8pm, which meant that our counterparts in London were, let's just say the post-pub crowd. The Brits teased the Yanks about the exchange rate, we asked if they were drunk; they proudly wrote back "YES." There was also a bit of written banter about the Chelsea/Manchester United soccer match from earlier in week.

There's a bit of a time lag, but it was a riot to watch the Americans (and quite a few foreigners) read the white boards from London and react without being able to respond verbally. There was talking going on amongst ourselves but everyone seemed to realize that hand and facial gestures were the best ways to comment back.

Don't think this post does a justice to the project. I recommend checking it out for yourself if you have the chance:-)


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