Museums

Staten Island and the Man Who Really Invented the Telephone

by Allison Meier on July 23, 2012

Listening device for stillspotting nyc on Staten Island (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Sounds scratched from the urban streets or imagined for the world under the water are mixed with a story of both fact and fiction in Telettrofono, presented by stillspotting nyc on Staten Island. Sound artist Justin Bennett and poet Matthea Harvey used the inventor and Staten Island resident Antonio Meucci and the waterfront neighborhoods of St. George and New Brighton as touching off points for the audio walking tour, submerging it all in a fantastical tale of a mermaid coming to shore for her love of sound.

The Guggenheim Museum is staging stillspotting nyc for two years as a mutlidisciplinary project of its Architecture and Urban Studies program, offering immersive experiences around New York City. Before journeying to Staten Island, the Guggenheim had stillspotting events in Queens (Transhistoria by SO – IL), Manhattan (To a Great City by Arvo Pärt and Snøhetta) and Brooklyn (Sanatorium by Pedro Reyes). Telettrofono is the most introspective yet, and one best experienced alone with no distractions, as you listen to the layered audio and spiral from the Staten Island waterfront to a salt factory, peaceful residential streets, a secret woods and a theatre of old world elegance.

Kiosk for Telettrofono in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal

A kiosk in the St. George Ferry Terminal on Staten Island, at the far right of the hallway if you are exiting the ferry from Manhattan, is where the stillspotting experience begins. The audio tour, being offered over four weekends in July and August, takes around an hour and a half (although I took just over two hours). Your provided iPod, or telettrofono as the audio states (some audience imagination is definitely required for this experience), is carefully timed to the guided walk, and transports the listener across time and space. A separate bicycle tour is also available, which goes even further into the neighborhoods of Staten Island, including to the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum, which is in the former home of Antonio and Esterre Meucci. For a year during their lives there, they sheltered the then refugee Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi, and the home was first adorned with plaques and memorials in his memory before the honor of the museum was shared with the equally important Meucci.

View of Manhattan from Staten Island

Stepping out from the ferry terminal to the view to Manhattan across the harbor, the tour starts by introducing the voices of Antonio Meucci and his wife Esterre, who in this version of the story is a mermaid who trades her tail for legs in order to experience sounds out from the muffle of the ocean. I found some of the mermaid segments a little beyond my suspension of disbelief, and I think that the enthralling real-life story of the inventor Antonio Meucci would have stood on its own without the added whimsy, but once I accepted the narrative and the tour delved into unknown sections of Staten Island, I was lost in it.

Walking along the waterfront of Staten Island

I would not ordinarily issue spoiler alert notices for an art event, but it is most interesting to go to Telettrofono with no idea where it will take you. If you know the original, and rather dark, version of the Little Mermaid fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, where the mermaid felt every step on land as a stab through her new feet, you will not be surprised that this one has a tragic end. Antonio Meucci’s wife Esterre was in fact afflicted with severe arthritis and condemned to her bed in her later years, and the telephone inventor hooked up a machine from her room to his office so that they could speak during the day. Now you may be thinking, wait, isn’t Alexander Graham Bell the inventor of the telephone? It is true that he was the first to patent an invention for the first practical telephone, but Meucci is often credited as the first to use the idea of sound traveling through wires in a telephonic communication invention (the telettrofono).

On the route of stillspotting nyc: staten island

Justin Bennett’s soundscapes mix noises from the cacophony of the city with those inspired by Meucci’s inventions and ideas, which in addition to telephonic devices included a marine telephone for divers, a noise prevention method for elevated railways, smokeless candles and numerous studies on acoustics. At one point in the tour, you are asked to look up and listen to the telephone wires as you walk beneath them, and at another you gaze beyond the water to Manhattan and are suddenly flooded with the riotous noise of the city until it fades and you walk along to the growing sound of the waves. Matthea Harvey’s words for the characters start them at the beginning in Florence, where Antonio met Esterre while working as a stage technician at the Teatro della Pergola Opera House, where she was a costume designer.

Salt Factory on Staten Island

The couple married in 1834, and in 1835 they moved to Havana, Cuba, where they worked at the Gran Teatro de Tacón. Likewise, you are taken from the drifting shore to a suddenly different landscape: the Atlantic Salt Company. The old industrial complex with its massive mound of unused road salt (which was also the stunning setting for the recent Lumen Festival) is one part of the tour where you have to be accompanied by a stillspotting volunteer, but the derelict warehouses and strange sight of the salt pile by the water keep the transporting mood.

Street sloping down to the harbor

Once the story follows the inventor and his mermaid wife to Staten Island in 1850, their lives become grim. Antonio would never gain a patent for his teletroffono, first conceived in 1849 when he discovered how sound could course through electrical wires when he was experimenting with electro-medicine (inspired, in this story, by mermaids using electric eels to shock away headaches, according to the audio guide voice of Esterre). After numerous models, he filed a patent caveat in 1871, which was a now discontinued intention of a patent that only lasted a year, but was cheaper and quicker to receive and prevented similar inventions from being filed. However, the impoverished Meucci was unable to afford to renew his patent caveat after 1874, so that in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell was able to file his own telephone invention.

A walk in a garden

Antonio’s Staten Island business ventures brought little financial success, and they were bankrupt in 1861. Things only got worse in 1871, when Antonio was horribly burned on a ferryboat fire. Desperate for money, Esterre sold the teletroffono models to a second-hand shop for six dollars. Your walk at this point takes you to what feels like a hidden forest up on a hill, which in the story is where Antonio carries the bed-ridden Esterre for a place of peace, and you likewise are asked to find some quiet among the trees.

St. George Theatre

Balcony of St. George Theatre

St. George Theatre

The story of Antonio and Esterre ends in a heartbreaking way, which if you’ve made it through the tour without losing focus will be very effective. Entering the recently restored St. George Theatre, you sit among the crowd of empty seats in the 1929 cinema palace, which was extravagantly designed by Eugene De Rosa and Nestor Castro. Antonio narrates as if the final scene is playing out before you, the stooped old man bringing a woman wrapped in a blanket to the sea, which here is a dark stage. She slips beneath the water, the stage trapdoor, and the curtain falls. The sound dies out on your headphones, and taking them off the silence around you is shocking.

stillspotting nyc: staten island

In real life, Esterre died in 1884 and Antonio followed soon after in 1889. A monument outside the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum includes an engraving of a man representing Meucci listening to a woman in the water, draped so that her legs, if looked at with a certain mindset, might appear as a tail. That willingness to accept the fantastic alongside the real, keeping it afloat over the present topography of Staten Island, is the force behind Telettrofono, and it can be a moving one if at the end you let it pull you under its waves.

stillspotting nyc, organized by the Guggenheim Museum, will offer Justin Bennett and Matthea Harvey’s Telettrofono for $12 in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal on Staten Island July 28-29 and August 4-5. 

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