Hobart Current (2020) Hobart, AU
The Optical Telegraph of 2020
Site visit enabled as part of creative development support for the inaugural Hobart Current exhibition by TMAG and the City of Hobart.
Sarah Jane Pell comparing her Hand-held Optical Telegraph Signal to the replica Semaphore Signal Station at the Port Arthur Historic Site. Photographer Louise Convoy, 2020
A state-of-the-art Optical Telegraph once connected Hobart and Port Arthur. The Southern Tasmanian Semaphore Signal system was the second of its kind in the world, and the first global state of the art upgrade in long-distant communications since the smoke signal and bullroarer. Station operators were on call from dawn until dusk on aloft towers, hilltops and outlooks flanked with snow and raging winds. They carried monoculars to read the signals given at the previous link in the chain and then passed the message on to the next station. Ropes and pulleys moved tiered wooden 'arms' aloft a mast into various positions, to send these coded messages. The combinations of arm positions represented specific letters, numbers or phrases. The system expanded under Captain Booth who ran the Port Arthur penal settlement however much of the codex remained a secret. The Tasman Peninsula Semaphore Code dictionary 1868–1868 lists about 3,000 phrases. According to Booth’s dictionary, the code 2616 means “Liberty”. However, cross-referencing the Telegraph Dictionary, and Seamen's Signal Book: Adapted to Signals by Flags or Other Semaphores and arranged for Secret Correspondence “Liberty” is 4929, followed by 4930 …”men are ashore on liberty”, and 4931, …”give the men liberty”, while 2616 is shown as code for “Crush, ed, ing”. Can we interpret Booth’s “Liberty” as coded instruction to “crush the liberated man”? The last signal sent from the Mount Nelson station to Hobart signal station was 343 meaning “forgotten”. What would happen if this part of our colonial history was “forgotten not”? What is it that we ultimately awaken and remember to create connections to people and place through this artistic engagement with the Australian landscape and history?
Sarah Jane Pell during a creative development visit of the Commandant's House Semaphore Signal Station at the Port Arthur Historic Site, Tasmania. Video Louise Convoy, 2020
During a site reconnoitre, Pell tied herself to the six rope three-tiered Commandant's House Semaphore Signal Station at the Port Arthur Historic Site. The artist began signalling "Attention, Liberty, Forgotten", and "Received, Forgotten Not" over and over until it morphed into a choreographed language. The mast resonated like a percussive instrument: with metals arms creaking and clanging, ropes shearing over metal, and artist physically punished by the expressive exertion, the wind and rain. The 3-hour improvised performance was captured by local cinematographer Louise Convoy. This was the first in the sequence of ritual engagements and photo essays along the signal route. They travelled to the next station, and the next with the blessing of land holders. Documenting and embodying the psycho-geographies and legacies of the time/place/space and its message today. Some sites had ghostly ruins and remains now returned to the original custodians and last photographed in 1972. Outcomes from essential sites and performance signals are in post-production. Pell produced a marquette leading to the design of a contemporary Semaphore Station for fabrication to enable deeper work on a creative ritual to translate the signals from the historical codex into a contemporary message of 'Liberty: from Here to There'.
Extracts of historical references and codex discovery to create a site-specific work responding to the original semaphore station network between Hobart town and Port Arthur.
The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) and the City of Hobart contracted artist Sarah Jane Pell to participate in Hobart Current 2020. This Inaugural Biennale Art Prize is curated by Rosie Dennis and includes ten artists responding to the theme of ‘Liberty: From Here to There’. Pell was invited to devise an entirely new public art work for a city location. She proposed to reactivate the semaphore signal lines connecting Hobart and Port Arthur with the send and reply signal "Forgotten", "Forgotten Not" relayed at dusk and dawn. With revision, this new project achieved all milestones: from successfully demonstrating clear proof of concept and demand for the project; due diligence in preparation and research including site visits; demonstrated potential impact locally and nationally; a clear, concise and accurate budget; and evidence of significant partnerships and community good-will; and yet there were still matters outstanding in terms of stakeholder progress, and creative resolution heading into the late development phase. It was recommended that the creative development of this version of the project be suspended from 20 April 2020 due to the COVID-19 impact on resources, access, and public utilisation of space. Accordingly, the curators invited Pell to pivot back to the original bell work to produce Ringing Change, 2020 to show inside as part of the TMAG exhibition. There is a certain irony here. As we dilligently tack away from risk to fulfill stakeholder needs for certainty and confidence in robust deliverables, the pandemic environment demands the most essential aspects of its industrial interconnections: signal, transmission, metabolism, elements "Forgotten Not".
Hobart Current is presented in partnership between the City of Hobart and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. For more information, please visit: www.hobartcurrent.com⇐ Return to Performances ⇐ Return to Exhibitions