No Answer is collaboration between mixed media artist Martine Corompt and sound designer/composer Philip Brophy. The work results from a commission from the 2006 Laneways Project, organised by the City of Melbourne Public Arts Programme. From the original submission, this outdoor public site-specific installation is described:
"A dead-end lane-way. From the main street you hear the faint ringing of a public phone. As you near the mouth of a dead-end laneway, the ringing is clearer. It is not one phone: it sounds more a mass of phones, chiming intermittently. Now standing at the mouth of the laneway, you see a cluster of public phones, each covered by their Perspex dome. These domed-phones are distributed across the laneway's end-wall at varying heights, between two to four stories high. All are completely inaccessible. All the phones continue to chime intermittently, gently filling the spatial volume of the laneway space. Unable to reach or pick-up the receivers, you are left listening to the sound of ringing - the sound of no answer."
No Answer was installed in Lush Lane - off Flinders Lane between Russell and Swanston Sts. Melbourne City - from July 2006 through to September 2006 inclusive.
Sculptural components and installation - Martine Corompt
Sound design & mix - Philip Brophy
Lush Lane, Melbourne
No Answer is an exploration of the 80s/90s style of public phone (domed 'half-booths' rather than the earlier full booths with swinging doors). The focus of the installation is on the spatial reconfiguration of this once-commonplace 'public object'. Instead of working with the public space of the laneway, No Answer is based around the audio-visual spatialization of the laneway through employing a pre-existing 'public object' like the domed phone booth.
The historical lineage of this type of 'modified object' is to be found in Duchamp's notion of 'the readymade', as well as both Surrealist and Fluxus transformations of commonplace objects for satirical effect. The irony embedded in No Answer is central to the work through its connecting the public space of the phone booth to the private space of its user. Absurdism is foregrounded in this artwork through the denial of access given to the public: the phone is ringing but you cannot answer it.
The socio-political themes of No Answer are centred on the shifting sands of public and private ownership of our telecommunications systems and networks. Possibly more than any other form of broadcast media, issues and ramifications of phone usage circulate around the nexus of public and private zones. Today, people loudly discuss private details on privatised 'public transport' while switching public networks assigned to 'private telecommunication companies'.
The 'private space' and the 'public sector' continue to conflate, invade and erase boundaries and distinctions. As labels and categories, they are becoming increasingly meaningless due to their fluid applications. This particular state of affairs is the conceptual crux of No Answer. The unanswerable ringing phones and their implausible and preventative positioning in the public zone of the laneway is born by this current state of affairs. The city is now a place where the sight and sound of the public phone are disappearing signs of an earlier epoch of telecommunications.
Immediacy, instantaneity and simplicity have been key factors in the development No Answer. The concept, form and configuration of this audiovisual installation have been designed to communicate an effect quickly and efficiently. People passing through the city are doing so more often with urgent haste than leisurely pace. Sound is a primary means by which signage works in the noise of the city-sphere (warnings are mostly sonic rather than visual). Hence, the ringing phone is sonically positioned as the introduction to No Answer: the audience will faintly hear the work prior to seeing it.
The sound of the ringing public phone in a public space is itself a slightly surreal event. For those that have encountered it, perplexing questions arise: do I answer the phone or do I ignore it? Furthermore, one would know that the phone-call cannot possibly be for you, so a level of incongruity arises in one's urge to answer the ringing phone. Humour becomes evident through the self-realization as to how Pavlovian and programmed is one's response to the ringing phone in any place or situation. All these issues are invoked by placing the sound of the ringing phone central to No Answer.
Once encountering the visual spectacle of the domed phone booths in the laneway, the comical irrationality of the artwork will become apparent. The deliberated display of the phones in unreachable positions wryly mocks the automatic urge to answer the phone. Should the audience persist in their reflex to answer the phone, the permanently-fixed phones will confirm the absurdity of the installation to those who attempt to lift the receiver.
No Answer uses a common street-level everyday object as direct means to engage a reflective audience with the wider issues of the current state of telecommunications. Today, the frustrated attempt to answer a ringing phone in a public space is an apt symbol for attempting to comprehend the wider effects of a major industry (now on the brink of complete privatization) typically ensnared by the currents of global deterritorialised economics.
Just as the phone system is a matrix of accessible channels and networks, so too is the grid of city roads and laneways a map of channels and networks. No Answer envisages the site specificity of the laneway as an example of this kind of channelled networking, and aims to point to the similarities in the two form of media.
No Answer is comprised of actual and processed recordings of a single phone ring. The phone used is a common household cordless phone with a electronic ring tone. A score has then been constructed in 3 layers - two of which are processed and stretched MIDI transformations of the sampled ring, while the 3rd layer is a simple and direct double-ring of the actual phone.
The score structure lasts for about 6 minutes and has been mixed down into a 6-channel version. This has then been configured into 3 stereo CDs. The 3 CDs are played back on-site through 3 sets of stereos speakers, placed at the mouth of the laneway in 3 progressively spaced pairs moving back into the lane. The effect is of a near, mid-field and far sound field. The 3 CDs have waves of filtered-down sound as well as and passages of total silence. The design is based around the spatial effects of the sound mix then appearing to move forward and recede in wave of sound, replicating the dispersive effect of a phone ring carried from inside to and outdoor space.