MOCA to screen experimental film featuring the very first trans-Atlantic radio broadcast

Joshua Bonnetta
  • Joshua Bonnetta

Strange Lines and Distances, a film by Joshua Bonnetta that screens tonight at 8 at MOCA, features two screens of 16mm footage set side-by-side. One side consists of shots taken at Poldhu Cove in the United Kingdom and the other side is shots taken at Fever Hospital, St. John’s, Newfoundland. These two locations were the transmission and receiving sites for the very first trans-Atlantic radio broadcast in 1901.

“It’s about a 30-minute long meditation on these two locations, and what it does is it visually shows scenes from both places that are similar in makeup,” says Chris Auerbach-Brown, Program Manager at MOCA. “You’ll have one side of the screen as a coastline, and the other side of the screen will be a coastline too, but one side is in England and one side is in Newfoundland. It’s also very meditative when you watch it. There are no characters in the movie, no dialogue. It’s a montage of these scenes that are filmed in these two locations.”

The film’s title comes from a passage found in New Atlantis, a book by Francis Bacon.

“Bacon imagined this utopia of a perfect society, and the main characters in the book travel along the ocean for months, and they end up going from one spot to another,” says Auerbach-Brown. “Part of the book talks about the technologies that are in this new utopia and Bonnetta connects that to Marconi’s first radio broadcast. [Italian electrical engineer and inventor Guglielmo Marconi] envisioned in his own way a new utopia for humanity because in some way they were going to communicate over long distances and it was a new era being born.”

Marconi broadcast this very first long-distance radio transmission across the Atlantic on December 12, 1901. His message of the letter S in Morse code was reported to have been heard faintly among the background noise of the atmosphere. He later established many high-powered stations along both coasts of the Atlantic, and those stations eventually allowed the distress call of the Titanic to be heard.

The film’s soundtrack of noise consists of field recordings taken at the two sites, shortwave and longwave radio recordings, and archival material.

“The audio in the background consists of radio static, some ambient music in the background from time to time,” Auerbach-Brown says. “[There are] some radio noises, radio transmissions and it provides this constant backdrop of noise in the film, that’s kind of like you’re imagining listening to radio broadcasts going from between these two points on the globe.”

What’s more, Marconi believed that sound never truly stops. Instead, he believed that it simply becomes fainter and fainter, forever around us as pieces of the past. When you take that into consideration as you watch the film and listen to its noises, the original broadcast starts to gain a hauntingly real aspect. There’s nothing digital about it, but Bonnetta’s film is a riff on modern technology.

“It’s sort of a look-back and a look-forward at the same time,” says Auerbach-Brown.

Bonnetta will give an artist’s talk before the screening. Tickets are $8 and access to the galleries is included. You can watch a trailer for the film here.

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