Antonio Meucci, a Staten Island resident of Italian birth, was the unacknowledged inventor of the first telephone (or telettrofono), conceived in 1849, when he accidentally discovered, while administering electrical shocks to a man suffering from rheumatism, that sound could travel along electrical wires. Many of his inventions – a marine telephone, a lactometer, flame-retardant paint and smokeless candles – went far beyond the imagination of his contemporaries.
For Telettrofono, Bennett and Harvey meld ambient sounds from the borough with invented noises, such as pianos of stone and glass, or a bone-xylophone, with a poetic script for an audio walking tour that weaves Meucci’s tragic true-to-life story together with fantastical elements. Bennett and Harvey envision Meucci’s wife, Esterre – a mermaid who leaves the water for land because of her love for the sounds above ground.
The walk in search of this storied couple meanders along the waterfront, past salt mounds and industrial sites, through historic residential neighborhoods and into places of discovery. The route is designed as a spiral to lead visitors out from the coast into the land, while the recorded story transports listeners out from the external urban environment into a state of introspection. Participants listen to the narrative soundscape through an imagined present-day telettrofono, a phone that is “smart” in the sense that it can enable listening under and across the water, dialing into fairytale and fact, mermaid choruses, and real and invented patent applications. The telettrofono guides the listener through changing perspectives on sound and place within the tale of the Meuccis from Florence and Havana, as well as the stories, sights, and silences distinct to Staten Island.
Telettrofono was created for stillspotting nyc: staten island, a Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum project.