Night falls over the Brisbane River and the facade of the old Brisbane Powerhouse begins to emit light. From gaps in what was once the turbine-house wall, lights flash Morse code messages into the New Farm night, calling to the city across the darkened park, the river and the surrounding suburb. In devising this work and fitting it to the existing fabric of the building, artist Robyn Backen has paid homage to the old structure’s industrial beginnings. At the same time her work - technologically complex, elegantly spare - signals the building’s revitalisation as a centre for creative activity. Each evening from 5 pm until 11 pm its pulsing lights beckon the audience to come.
The default-message coded into the work reads: calling all. this is our last cry before our eternal silence. This signal, one of the last Morse code messages ever to be transmitted, was sent by a French vessel in 1997. The notion of calling is ever-present in the work - calling across space to a community, calling across time to the ghosts of an industrial past.
Inside the building, in a switch room tucked away on the ground floor, the visitor encounters the second part of the building that speaks, its inner heart. Next to a bank of old of switches, a touch screen invites the visitor to an intimate exchange with the work. Developed by computer programmer John Tonkin and graphic designer Joshua Raymond in collaboration with Backen, this interactive allows visitors to compose their own messages for translation into Morse and transmission via the facade to the world. Gradually accumulating as an archive, these messages will add another layer to the building’s long history of use and habitation. Virtual visitors can write their messages and leave them for transmission on the work’s own website (address).
In the building that speaks a universal industrial language (Morse code), now obsolete, has been wedded to the most up-to-date information technology. It is a work which, acutely mindful of its time and place, uses technology itself to reflect on the processes of technological change and history.
Powering up the house by Zane Trow, Real Time no 41, Feb/Mar 2001
Programming: John Tonkin
Lingo: Wayne Carnshaw
Graphics: Josh Raymond
Text editor: Anne Ferran
Voice: Heather Mitchell
Acknowledgments: Brisbane Powerhouse staff, Fodor Matic, Peter Roy, Ian Hobbs, Urban Art Projects, Julie Ewington