PROFILE: IRIS TOULIATOU – Electricity, She: Vespers of Palermo, Records of Woman, Songs of Affection (After Felicia D. Hemans)

  • 06.01.2019

O how many deaths there are in the world for the affections.
Letter from Felicia Hemans to Joanna Baillie, 1828

VII. 1. Electric Machine. Hesperian Dragon. Electric Kiss. Halo round the heads of Saints. Electric Shock. Fairy-rings, 335. 2. Death of Professor Richman, 371. 3. Franklin draws Lightning from the Clouds. Cupid snatches the Thunderbolt from Jupiter, 383. VIII. Phosphoric Acid and Vital Heat produced in the Blood. The great Egg of Night, 399. IX. Western Wind unfettered. Naiad released. Frost assailed. Whale attacked, 421. X. Buds and Flowers expanded by Warmth, Electricity, and Light. Drawings with colourless sympathetic Inks; which appear when warmed by the Fire, 457. XI. Sirius. Jupiter and Semele. Northern Constellations. Ice-Islands navigated into the Tropic Seas. Rainy Monsoons, 497. XII. Points erected to procure Rain. Elijah on Mount Carmel, 549. Departure of the Nymphs of Fire like Sparks from artificial Fireworks, 587. —Argument from The Botanic Garden, “The Economy of Vegetation”: Canto I, Erasmus Darwin

I. Vespers and Matins

I arrived at night. I touched the walls of the house searching for the switches to an electrical pathway; on or off made no difference, most of their bulbs burned out, these lamps like corpses connected to power. I walked in the dark, felt the edge of a corridor and the contours of my room.

By my bed, two small lanterns fixed to its sides, their light yellow and dim. I hate this soft light but kept these lanterns switched on. I kept them on constantly during the following nights and days. My bed a lighthouse on the edge of an island, a phare watching out for my crashes, for my thoughts. Diogenes strolled in the market with a lamp in broad daylight, in search of the honest man. Does a ship need a lighthouse in the day?

In the morning my presentiment of electrical inadequacy was confirmed. The plugs in this house are old, she explained; my appliances are new, I complain. Nothing can be charged, our autonomy is challenged. You will need adaptors, my estranged relative suggested. But apart from these outlet relics, I can tell the issue to be more complex for the flow in my circuit, between my thoughts, emotions, and physiological functions. I thought of my stored energy, of my wireless economy, the chemical fluids of my batteries draining out, of my tungsten filament and its breaking point. Flow current flow, heal break heal, my rituals, my conductors, my adaptors.

PLACE. —A small alcove with dark curtains.
The class consists of one member.
SUBJECT.—Thomson’s Mirror Galvanometer.

The lamp-light falls on blackened walls,
And streams through narrow perforations,
The long beam trails o’er pasteboard scales,
With slow-decaying oscillations.
Flow, current, flow, set the quick light-spot flying,
Flow current, answer light-spot, flashing, quivering, dying,

O look! how queer! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, sharper growing
The gliding fire! with central wire,
The fine degrees distinctly showing.
Swing, magnet, swing, advancing and receding,
Swing magnet! Answer dearest, What’s your final reading?

O love! you fail to read the scale
Correct to tenths of a division.
To mirror heaven those eyes were given,
And not for methods of precision.
Break contact, break, set the free light-spot flying;
Break contact, rest thee, magnet, swinging, creeping, dying.
James Clerck Maxwell, “ Lectures to Women on Physical Science”

II. The Human Circuit

The following days were spent outside, negotiating mostly the same issues, resources, transmissions, autonomy, resistance, shelf life, the weather and shelter at night.

A strong and vocal working class, chants of a democratic citizenship.

Heat developed quickly from the circuit to form affection, electricity became a connector of individual human bodies with one another, a machine to produce friction between political and emotional consequences and sparks of (what?): a connection.

When a connection is made, this sudden flow of electric current across a social air gap and the electrons that may leap to the wrong area, can cause a serious spark. A spark: small, medium, or large. Any spark is enough for the start of a fire.

It was true, some of the incandescent particles in the air were so charged by that intense rubbing of bodies, of voices, of currencies, their positive and negative charge negotiating between the selves and the world, pulling off electrons and resulting in dense smoke. That was the figure of a human electric chain that inspired our related simulations.

A spark of electricity of the communication, of circulation, of transmission, of emotions, and of the affection.

A human electric chain: its multiple voices, its foreign rhythms, its double pulses, a shock to middle-class values, a slight shock to the system. A small spark jumps from the finger rubbing a metal doorknob. A universal feeling: an intimate connective tissue, its presence and affects are everywhere. Significant electricity of high enough temperatures caused the air to have a blue glow. Such a democratic experience. We all valued it as a high-energy construct. Some of us lit a cigarette at day’s end.

III. Outside Electrics

Throughout the city I see her power lines, hanging, a loose live chain, her wires are bare naked, weaving inside and outside. I stumble on them, I look up to follow their routes, free electrons hit me straight in the face.

How did she leave the house? A woman opened her door, a man made a hole in his wall, children took their bikes, a dog chased a bird, fish migrated.

Electricity is she, domesticated then left unleashed in the wild. She is a wild animal, untamed, as you find her roaring in the streets of the market. Coming from inside, to outside, heroic in her public-ness, bold, fearless, ready. Some of us bargained a piece of her. We hunted for the extensions, borrowed energy through prolongations of female and male connections or parent nodes and future nodes, south nodes or north.

Somebody asked: How many metres of cable from here to there, how many volts for a day, how many surfaces to touch, how many times, how many words exchanged, how many steps, how much of it can you handle, how much can you load without burning the circuit, how much for interrupting it, how much voltage is enough for your machine, how important is this function, how important is the connection?

Voltage: that force which is generated to cause current to flow in an electrical circuit. Voltage: that force that you measure in others but you discover in you.

IV. Conductors

Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound[.]
Byron, “Childe Harold” (1818)

And how and why we know not, nor can trace Home to its cloud this lightning of the mind,
But feel the shock renew’d, nor can efface
The blight and blackening which it leaves behind, Which out of things familiar, undesign’d,
When least we deem of such, calls up to view
The spectres whom no exorcism can bind,
The cold—the changed—perchance the dead—anew,
The mourn’d, the loved, the lost—too many!—yet how few!
Byron, 2:132, lines 199–216)

One day that rain came and electricity was made from air and clouds rubbing. I thought again of her naked wires, her exposed sockets, her rebellious electrons, her negative charge and of our collective electrocution. The end coming with an extraordinary danger, a great shock, a collective death. Was I afraid of electricity? Water is actually a terrible conductor, I read. What makes water conductive are the particles that dissolve into it. Once you get part of your body in the water, salt from your skin will mix and make the water a significant conductor.

In the beginning, bodies and electricity were intimately tied, as various experiments were made to decipher the vast nature of electrical charges.

In April 1746, for example, Jean-Antoine Nollet, a professor of experimental physics and a member of the French Royal Academy of Sciences, transmitted an electrical shock through 180 of King Louis XV’s royal guards while the King and his entourage looked on. Nollet later performed a similar experiment on 200 Carthusian monks, all “volunteers” recruited from a nearby monastery. The King, who had no special love for the church, apparently watched this experiment with particular glee.

In some cases, popularisers designed special experiments just for their female audience. In one of his more popular experiments, Nollet hung a small boy from the ceiling by silk cords and electrified him by means of an electrical machine, causing his body to act as a magnet. Various objects such as bits of metal and paper, placed within his reach, leapt toward his outstretched hand.

Frequently, Nollet hung a young girl alongside the boy and encouraged her to reach out and touch him or, better yet, to give him a kiss. He would then dim the lights in the room and the boy and the girl, facing each other, moved close enough together for sparks to pass from one to the other. Nollet believed that women particularly enjoyed viewing this experiment, nicknamed the “electric kiss.”

Electric deaths in the rain puddles: water mixed with body salts, caffeine and cures, sweet water with seawater and electric fish. Electric kiss, electric towns, electric fruits, electric borders, electric deaths, electric bodies, electric sea, electric air.

V. Short Circuits Songs

Savage untam’d! she smiles to drink our tears, And where’s no solid ill, she wounds with fears;
—Anna Matilda, “Ode: To Indifference”

More women would appear when the day started to lapse. They put on the fires, they cooked outside, they gathered and sang of the imminent shock, of the upcoming short circuit and of their voltage before expiration; between night and day, between public and private, between personal and social, between the fear of loss and the gift of loving, of growing, of transforming & of losing oneself slowly and then starting all over again from scratch.

Of their amorphous, elastic boundaries approximating the expiration. These are songs for short circuits, electrical shocks of sensibility and the conflict between passionate feeling and reasoned thought.

She raises a voice of resistance: a short circuit happens when electricity has an optional path to travel—and she will take it. She leaks and spills, she swells, she shrinks, she is penetrated, she sacrifices.

There, somewhere between or after bodies become water and when sculpture vapours in fumes, I heard the songs about this minimum amount that remains.The least quantity or matter possible, a last phone breath before the hang up, the flickering of light signs, the lowest speed permitted on a highway, one single Saturday, the lowest temperature to sustain thought process, the lowest value, or degree attained or recorded, the next to the last drop, the minimum amount of matter needed to form a galaxy, the absolute minimum of form that still shapes the idea, the point in the domain at which the least is there, a critical mass between and from why things occur, or even the reasons behind the way that things act, these are the songs for short circuits. They are freedom, punishment, sacrifice, dying, and creation.

"The Last Song of Sappho" and "The Indian Woman’s Death Song" and "No More" and "Passing Away" and "The Broken Lute" and "The Parting of Summer.”

These are some of her songs.

VI. Epilogue

we sat on a stoop
one day in the
late afternoon
we had very little
money. enough for
a strong cappuccino
which we shared
sitting there &
suddenly the
city was lit.
Eileen Myles