Mediamatic Off-Line Vol. 11#2 Arie Altena



In 1999 Morse was abolished as an official communication language. The last message that the French marine sent was: Calling all. This is our last call before eternal silence. And since then, Morse is a dead language, or at least, officially a dead language.

Throughout the world there are still radio-amateurs and enthusiasts that use this primitive form of digital communication, this Morse code, albeit only out of love. Morse is also used as a kind of joke in commercials for IT-companies. And last but not least, there are also artists that use Morse in their work. The British Cerith Wyn Evans made an installation (Cleave 0.2) in which poems by William Blake are translated into Morse code: short and long flashes of light are projected onto a spinning disco ball, which spread a pattern of light throughout the room. It was on display at Documenta XI.

The Dutch-Belgian artists’ duo Jodi (Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans) has an affinity for obsolete digital technology. All wrongs reversed©1982, their DVD from 2003, was an ode to one of the first home computers, the ZX Spectrum, and its users. It is a 45 min registration of writing code and activating it on a ZX Spectrum.

Distorted images and crashing or dysfunctional computers fascinate Jodi. A lot of their work is about bugs in the system, about digital technology that goes its own way, excluding and misleading the users. Apparently broken technology shows that our technological world and the way we deal with it is full of rigid conventions. Their work is undermining, disorienting, but nevertheless still full of humor. One would almost forget that their work is not only a merry game or a joke on technology's 'free will' but actually also has a strong visual impact.

The contribution of Jodi to the Mediamatic Screen was Morse. In Morse a film is projected of a flashing light bulb (a 'night light accordion' according to Dirk Paesmans). A small disco ball reflects the light. The flashing of the light is controlled by a computer program that translates Morse code into impulses, a program that is used by radio-amateurs. Morse: a message in Morse, spread by a light bulb.

Is it an ode to the silent language? A game with a binary language that precedes the computer times? I was wondering what kind of messages Morse was spreading throughout the city. They probably were secretive, poetic messages, because Morse has, just like SMS, its own jargon and spelling methods:


is Morse jargon for:

Good afternoon dear old man. You are RST 599 here.
I'm located in Timbuktu. The operator's name is Mike.
How do you copy?

But I’m just dreaming it up. Dirk Paesmans telephoned to inform me: It actually started as more of a joke, that it's Morse is actually not so very important. The message is just random words, even though the Morse code is real. The empty code shows that they wanted to make something with no content, no detail, a non-computerized and non-synthetic image. Visual impact. What we see is a flashing light in the distance. That way, it fits in with the tendency towards abstraction in Jodi's work – they previously distilled the 3D-game Wolfenstein to pure black and white. Now we only have light.

If you walked towards the IJ-tunnel in the evenings of late 2003, you could discern a flashing light in the distance. A flickering light that drew attention in the midst of the other lights of the city, the lampposts, the fluorescent lights shining out of the office windows, the lit commercials, the headlights of the cars emerging from the IJ-tunnel. It was Morse, Jodi's contribution to the Mediamatic Screen.

From afar you could think, what is that flickering light over there? It couldn't possibly be a signal? For a semiotic animal like the human, suppressing the urge to decode and find the message can be quite difficult. Especially if there is a way you could find the message, by sitting next to that little bit of highway and writing it all down to decode it later. Perhaps they were random words, but you never know if the random words do not somehow still have a meaning. "Proverbs for Paranoids, 3" If they can get you to ask the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers. (Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow, p. 251).

If you'd like to quote something: Altena, Arie. "Morse." Mediamatic Off-Line vol. 11 # 2 (2006).

Translation: Nadya Peek