Two weeks ago, during the festivities for the Brooklyn Bridge's 125th birthday, a mysterious and massive device was unveiled with little fanfare near the base of the bridge. Called the Telectroscope, the installation was said to optically connect passersby at either end of a forgotten tunnel between Brooklyn and London (near the Tower Bridge). The British artist behind the project, Paul St George, says he's merely fulfilling the Victorian-era dream of his great-grandfather, inventor Alexander Stanhope St George, who left behind designs for the telectroscope, as well as the secret, unfinished trans-Atlantic tunnel.
We spoke to St George while he was in Brooklyn last week to check up on his installation, which is open to the public at the Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn 24 hours a day through June 15th.
What is the telectroscope? It’s a viewing device on either end of the tunnel so that people can see through. It magnifies and also focuses the image so that people can see each other clearly across a long distance.
But how does it really work? There are a series of lenses in the main tube and at the back of the telectroscope there is the equivalent of a periscope that draws the image up from the end of the tunnel. The back part deals with the tunnel, and the front part deals with the image. And we don’t amplify the sound because we don’t want people to use it as a telephone. It’s not to be mean or anything; it’s just that it would be rather boring. If we don’t have sound then people invent new ways of communicating that are more interesting.
In what ways have people been communicating? Well, what’s very interesting and unpredictable is that when people first come to it they may have heard of it but they haven’t seen it. And they come up with whatever preconception they have but the first thing they all do is laugh and wave. It’s very primal. They just enjoy seeing someone else on the other side of the planet. I wouldn’t say it’s childish but it is almost primitive.
Some people start writing on boards but that’s kind of restrictive. Other people have been dancing, jumping up and down, using semaphore, sign language. We have some sign language people acting as interpreters. But there’s one thing that doesn’t get talked about so much.
And that’s the art side. What I really wanted to do was make art that escaped the restrictions of a sculpture. Instead of just being a blob somewhere in a gallery to be walked past I wanted to make art that is part performance and part sculpture. That theater aspect comes in to play when the people in Brooklyn behave as if they’re on stage for the people in England. Another impressive thing – and we haven’t asked anyone to do this – but because of the time difference sometimes it’s the middle of the night on the other side of the tunnel. But there are always one or two people on one end who stay through the night, sometimes in the rain, for the crowd on the other end because they feel responsible; they want to make sure someone’s there.
Have you picked up on any differences between the people in Brooklyn and London? The Brooklyn people are much better physical performers. They are more likely to act out. But then the English people catch on and very quickly they’ll try and outdo them. The people in England take to the back story more. They’re more involved with the London blog, and the idea with that was we would start off the back story and people would extend it with their thoughts of tunneling. And now lots of other cities in the world are asking for telectroscopes to connect them with different cities: Tokyo, Brazil, Russia, etc. It would be nice if instead of me deciding where the telectroscopes were that other people would make tunnels and choose where it would be.
The telectroscope is free in Brooklyn but in London they have to pay a pound to look through, right? No, in London there is an automaton with two hands and the people in London can pay a pound and they get a signed and dated certificate that shows that they were there. We weren’t allowed to do that in Brooklyn. We wouldn’t turn anyone away in London; you can contribute if you want to and you get a certificate.
Any wedding proposals yet? I haven’t seen one but I’ve heard it’s happened. There are also people who’ve seen new additions to their family for the first time.
You’ve said that lots of people thought you were mad to do this. Do you feel vindicated? [Laughs.] Absolutely. But I also feel maybe I was mad. It’s a funny thing, insanity. It’s measured against an index of what you’re saying. And if I’d known from the beginning what was involved with this project – looking back I was mad in a way because it is a very large scale project and I didn’t exactly know what was involved at the time. And I probably wouldn’t have tried to do it. So I think I was slightly crazy.
What’s next for you? Other tunnels. This is just the first of many stories. I’ve spent about five years collecting stories about unfinished inventions from the end of the 19th century. There were many, many inventions at that time that weren’t realized. So my larger project is to complete some of those unfinished stories. This is the first one, which is about seeing through space, and my next project is going to be seeing over time. I’m not mad enough to say that I’m going to introduce time travel, but I have found a way of seeing over time, so you can see something that was.
Is this another unfinished invention left behind by your great-grandfather? No, but when I was researching his inventions I found many, many inventions from that era.
What is the time oriented invention called? Maybe when I know more I can tell you. There are discussions about another project in Brooklyn. But I’m a bit superstitious about saying something before it happens because it tends to jinx it.