"Gray Matter" (c) Paul DeMarinis 1995

Our electronic media may be regarded, in large part, as the outgrowths of nineteenth century laboratory apparatuses designed to isolate & investigate the functioning of human sensory organs. Viewed thus, they fracture the wholeness of sensation in an effort to preserve, replay or transmit over distance the specters of our sensory experiences. But Victorian science, obsessed as it was with isolation, analysis and reduction, had a goofy side too, a far reaching interest in the discovery and creation of chimeras - impossible combinations of two distinct beings, griffins gargoyles etc - both natural and artificial. In particular, the age of the inventor was also the age of the tinkerer, the combiner, the patenter of hybrid forms. No natural zoology could have engendered derby-hat cameras, bicycle hammocks and swearing tops. Perhaps every attempt to reconstitute the sensory wholeness allegedly lost by recording & transmitting media may be regarded as a chimera, the foremost survivor which has been the sound-cinema with its uneasy pact between sight and sound serving to perpetuate a myth of synesthesia. But a host of other teratogeny were, and are, being spawned, tried, rejected and occasionally marketed in a ceaseless attempt to achieve multimedia.

There is a popularly promoted belief that technology drives culture forward, and that our changing relationships to one another, material and informational, are the result of advances made by science and are manifested in the development of new materials, processes and tools. Gilles Deleuze points out the flaw in this thinking: "... technology makes the mistake of considering tools in isolation: tools exist only in relation to the interminglings they make possible or that make them possible." A glance at the incredible variety of possible technologies that have fallen along the wayside serves to support this view.

The present work lurches forward to examine one such forgotten technology - one that failed to acknowledge the rupture between hearing and feeling that is, touching. There is no clear cognitive border between feeling and hearing. Most certainly indistinguishable in the womb, these are the two sensations with which we have the longest continuous experience. The invention of sound recording, initially incapable of reproducing low and palpable frequencies, exacerbated a rupture between touching and hearing that had been building through several centuries of notated music. By the last decades of the 19th century, audible and feelable vibration had become so dissociated that inventors were having a difficult time understanding the relations between waves, vibrations and electrical undulations. A great many chimeric inventions resulted, among which is the telephone, commonly regarded as the work of one man.

Alexander Graham Bell had won his renown as a teacher of the deaf - patients who conveniently manifested the aforementioned rupture by being able to feel but not hear. Bell's teaching methods relied upon lip reading only in part - the greater part of his expertise lay in conveying missed auditory information to his pupils by touching their hands in a defined grammar of strokes. This special knowledge gave him a distinct advantage over the many other inventors racing to formulate and patent what was to be the invention of the century. When the great race was won, Bell was the victor, filing his caveat on February 14, 1875. As bad luck would have it, five hours later that same day Elisha Gray staggered breathless into the patent office with his application for the telephone.

There is no room here for an examination of the trajectories Bell and Gray had followed to arrive at the similar apparatus in 1876. Suffice it to say they were different and in their diversity had given birth to many technological curiosities and chimeras, not least of which was Elisha Gray's "musical bathtub" of 1874. In "Mechanization Takes Command" Siegfried Giedion has pointed out the Victorian era's preoccupation with the mechanization of bodily functions, from weaving and skinning to cooking and bathing. Elisha Gray's fusion of bathing technology with audio technology and playing music is one more chimera ornamenting the den of 19th century monstrosities.

"In late January or early February of 1874 [Gray] heard the refrain of the rheotome issuing from his bathroom, where he found his young nephew 'taking shocks' to amuse the smaller children. With a vibrating rheotome in the circuit of a primary induction coil, the boy connected one end of the secondary coil to the zinc lining of the bathtub and held the other end in his hand. When the boy's free hand glided along the bathtub lining, it produced a whining sound in tune with the rheotome. Gray tried the effect and found that quick, hard rubbing made the noise even louder than that of the rheotome itself. When he varied the pitch of the rheotome, the noise followed suit."


By some obscure and little studied phenomenon, a vibrating electrical field seems to modulate the coefficient of friction of our skin, so that when we bow across an electrified surface with our fingers, we excite mechanical vibrations. These mechanical vibrations, suitably coupled, give rise to audible sounds. I discovered this phenomenon, as Gray did, quite accidentally in 1976, and I'm sure other people run across it every day. In a sense, Gray's discovery was likelier than ours, being as he was much closer to the era of Benjamin Franklin and Mary Shelley, when electricity, life force and neural sensation were believed to consist of one in the same fluid.

As we stroke the wires of "Gray Matter", we both feel as texture and hear as sound the faint electrical stirrings within the wire - melodies, scales, creakings and glissandi inhabit a world in which touch and hearing are for a moment unified. This phenomenon may someday find a fit to the structure of our relations - perhaps as electrically definable surface textures, audio communication in a vacuum, or other applications. But for now it languishes in the backwater of the culturally inappropriate, insignificant and obscure.


Several pieces in this collection are based on Gray's later version of an electrical sound maker. Using a more familiar electromagnetic design, it was a direct forerunner of the familiar loudspeaker and became part of Gray's telephonic apparatus of 1875. Of interest to me is that it retains the connection to bathing apparatus in the form of a washbasin. Wisdom aside, one wonders, had Gray beat Bell to the patent office, if our telephones might not "ring", and if we might not enter the washcloset to speak afar, stroking small tin tubs as we listen.

My thanks to Xerox PARC for their support in the development of this work, and to Eiko Do Espirito Santo for her assistance in preparation of the sound materials.