TOPSY TURVY, with Patty Wallace & Anna Scime, Beyond / In Western New York Biennial Exhibition, The Carnegie Arts Center, Tonawanda, NY. This exhibition features 70 artists at multiple venues and is presented by a consortium of museums & galleries organized by The Albright—Knox Art Gallery, and including The Castellani Museum, The Burchfield-Penney Art Center, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, & CEPA. [collaborative installation and performance]
One hundred and twenty-three years after an experiment by Luigi Galvani sent electrical current into a dead frog, making its muscles dramatically twitch and contract, a crowd gathered at Coney Island waiting to see a highly publicized execution. Topsy the elephant had killed a man after he fed her a lit cigarette and the vengeful crowd would not be placated by anything less than the poor pachyderm’s electrocution…
This is an installation / performance that addresses the theme of Alternating Currents. The installation element recreates a fully functional Edwardian radio room employing a period Tesla invented spark gap transmitter and a Marconi pattern crystal radio receiver – both tuned to the supposed “Jurgensen frequency” of 1485.0 kHz – the purported frequency of the spirit world. The purpose of this equipment served as the ground for a performance enacted at the opening and re-staged on a regular weekly basis for the duration of the show, that endeavors to contact the dead! Specifically, we seek the elephant “Topsy” electrocuted by Edison at Coney Island in 1903 during his epic struggle with Westinghouse and Tesla over whether Alternating Current or Direct Current would prevail as the means of electric power delivery in this country. In the course of the performance, two female mediums took questions from the audience addressed to Topsy’s restless spirit to be transmitted on the “wireless” and listening for her replies on the crystal receiver (like the Delphic oracle). It was Edison who had convinced New York State to use Westinghouse’s “deadly” Alternating Current for the newfangled electric chair. Executing Topsy offered an opportunity for a public spectacle of death that Edison simply couldn’t resist. What better way to demonstrate the “horrible” consequences of adopting Alternating Current than to roast a full-grown elephant?
Despite Edison’s cruel theatrics, the technical advantages of his commercial competitor’s Alternating Current system couldn’t be overcome and Topsy’s gruesome execution by Edison was something of a desperate attempt to discredit a technology that had already won out. Tesla and Westinghouse had designed the equipment that transformed Niagara Falls into a hydroelectric power source and once Buffalo began receiving power generated at the falls, it was transformed in short order, into a mighty industrial center.
Attempts at contact and conversation with the dead employing the new invention of radio was commonplace in the first decade of the 20th century. Both Edison and Marconi were vocal proponents of this bizarre notion. Until his death in 1937, Marconi endeavored to pick up voices from eras as distant as ancient Rome and the Crusades and even hoped to record the words spoken by Christ on the Cross! As Thomas Edison put it, when working on his own device for contacting the dead: “I am inclined to believe that our personality hereafter will be able to affect matter. If this reasoning be correct, then, if we can evolve an instrument so delicate as to be affected, or moved, or manipulated by our personality as it survives in the next life, such an instrument, when made available, ought to record something” (Scientific American, October 30, 1920.) Despite his immense talents for invention and self-promotion, Edison never managed to build a device to allow him to capture the voices of the dead. The general idea was to employ Tesla and Marconi’s visionary radio technology as well as the textural feel of the era and its rampant mysticism in order to give voice to an unjustly murdered elephant as a specific and direct challenge to the commonplace utilitarian mythologizing of Edison “the wizard of Menlo park” and patron saint of American exceptionalism.