On an early morning in September 2011, Erin Colleen Johnson found herself in the historic Marconi transmitting station in Point Reyes, California as Morse code signals filled the air.
These were special dots and dashes because they were from machines that had spent ten years in silence, starting when Morse Code was officially taken off the air in 1999. In 2009, operators Steve and Richard, who had spent most of their adult lives in the station, wanted it back and wanted to send messages again. They reopened the station’s closed doors and began transmitting into the ether, this time with the knowledge that probably no one would be out there listening and writing back.
When asked over breakfast why they continued, even when no ships were calling in, Richard observed, “Even if there were no ships out there, we’d be keeping the faith”.
After spending months at the station, interviewing the operators, photographing the control rooms, and searching through the archives, Johnson began to understand why she was wanting to be there in the first place: As artists we create work, messages if you will, and then send them out, hoping that someone viewing them will connect. She wanted to capture that waiting for connection in Call and Response, the first piece she made at the station. This video installation captures her performance of sending fifty Morse Code messages. On one channel, Johnson’s hands feed the messages which had been typed on a Teletype machine that punches Morse code into strips of paper, through a transmitting machine, followed on the other channel by the sea in its unending response.
Because those messages never received answers, she began to see the ocean not as a stand-in for waiting for a response, but simply the entity with which she was communicating, leading to the creation of To Sea. To Sea is a 16mm film consisting of a 2011 year-end report about the state of the ocean. The report, which covered water quality, pollution levels, and other indicators of ocean health was sent from the cliff-side transmitting station. The report was typed on Morse strips which were exactly the width of the 16mm film Johnson had shot of the ocean. The Morse strips served as a stencil that laid on top of the film which was then coated in varnish and placed into a container of bleach. Everything but what laid beneath the varnish was removed, encapsulating the ocean in dots which represent letters.
As she learned more about Morse Code, she also began to learn about how it had influenced culture. The video Come In explores how Morse history is entangled with the history of the Spiritualist church. The Spiritualist Church was founded by the Fox sisters in the mid- 1800’s. They claimed that they were mediums who could communicate with the dead and they justified this ability by citing the new ability, through Morse, to speak with someone faraway almost instantaneously. After fifty years of practicing Spiritualism the sisters declared the religion a hoax, and many years later Morse Code officially lost it’s role in the commercial realm.
As contemporary Spiritualists continue to send messages to the dead in spite of the sisters’ statements, and Morse operators transmit messages into the ether with hope, Johnson asks: What drives people to seek transcendence or persist in the face of growing obsolescence? Why do these acts of searching and attempting to communicate still exist?
At the Marin County Morse Code station she sent messages out, but a recent move to Georgia afforded her the opportunity to engage the operators in a new way. In CQ, Johnson attempts to contact the Marin County station from the basement of John Playford, a local Morse enthusiast living outside of Atlanta. As the messages between the two sites crackle and fade, Playford ruminates on what compels us to do the work that often, seemingly, has little to no visible outcome and how we know if we’ve been heard. o
Erin Colleen Johnson lives and works in Atlanta Georgia.
More of Johnson’s films can be found at www.erincolleenjohnson.com