In the 19th century, Italian inventor Antonio Meucci emigrated from Florence, worked at a theater in Havana, and eventually settled on Staten Island, where he would invent a device that could transmit voice over wire years before Alexander Graham Bell. His invention lends its name to Telettrofono, the fourth edition of the Guggenheim’s stillspotting nyc series, currently in the middle of its four-weekend run. Sound artist Justin Bennett (who has created immersive soundscape walks around the world) and poet Matthea Harvey have constructed this walk-as-art piece around the life of Meucci and his wife Esterre. Weaving factual history with utter fantasy, Bennett and Harvey create a rich soundscape and poetic narrative that immerses you in a new surreal landscape as you listen through headphones and explore a mapped route through Staten Island’s St. George and New Brighton neighborhoods.
While you weave from the St. George ferry terminal, through parkland, industrial waterfront and residential neighborhoods, the artists envision Esterre as a mermaid who leaves the water for land because of her love for the sounds above ground. This fantastical concept is heightened by Bennett’s surreal and consuming soundscape and Harvey’s rich storytelling, and is juxtaposed by factual, and more rational, interludes of Meucci’s story. All the while, as you try to focus and understand the audio experience, you find yourself walking through a rich visual landscape. Beginning at the ferry terminal, the walk follows a stretch of waterfront parkland with clear views across New York Harbor to Manhattan. It then continues through Atlantic Salt, a facility for receiving and storing massive piles of salt (leftover after the area’s warm winter, these unique “mountains” hosted a series of art installations for a recent festival). As the walk proceeds, the area transitions from contemporary warehouses and garages, to mid-century modern public housing, into a neighborhood of Victorian houses built during a neighborhood boom in the 1880s, after Staten Island ferries were consolidated at the site of the current terminal. The soundwalk ends in the St. George Theater, a palatial 1920s movie house. This grand, dimly lit hall exudes a former greatness and potential unfulfilled, mirroring Meucci’s life.
The audio piece draws from the built environment. The vastness of the harbor and the sea beyond and the surrealness of the mountain of salt and post-industrial landscape create fertile ground for Esterre’s fantasy. As you move away from the sea, so does the story, as it progresses through her life on land. You are overwhelmingly immersed in sound, poetry, history, fantasy, and unfamiliar and constantly changing neighborhoods. Each of the individual components loses some of its strength in the shuffle, but ultimately the piece finds its success in the immersive whole, the experience of the individual elements coming together.
When we experience the city in our everyday lives, most of us use all of our senses. This walk removes all audio connection to the surrounding physical world, and instead constructs another one. The built environment is experienced strictly visually; you soon realize how different that is.
The power of the artists’ constructed world becomes clear when something suddenly yanks you out of it — a vista of New York Harbor or the Manhattan skyline. You become very aware of the experience that you are having, but soon lose yourself again.
Staten Island’s physical distance from the other four boroughs and its disconnected and limited transit network have made the island both part of yet distinctly separate from the rest of the city. That detachment meant that it developed at a more gradual pace than the other boroughs. Areas like Brooklyn were an integrated part of the city’s economic engine, with the demand and the financing that follows it to develop large areas at once. Staten Island was never convenient enough to attract those massive building efforts, and so it built up much more slowly. When industry was in demand, a few warehouses were built; when housing was in demand, a few houses were built. There is a feeling that things were developed lot by lot. The result is brick warehouses, art deco apartment buildings, Victorian houses, and mid-century public housing projects all interacting with each other, and the 90-minute walk takes advantage of all of these different contexts.
This is the fourth of five stillspotting nyc events across the five boroughs, with the final edition to be held in the Bronx this October. You can read reviews of the Manhattan and Queens installments of the projects here. To purchase tickets for Telettrofono, visit the stillspotting website.
Daniel Rojo is a project associate at Urban Omnibus. He is a designer, writer, and urbanist interested in the power of the urban environment to enrich people’s lives. He lives in Brooklyn.
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.