That Newfangled Telephone Gizmo
- tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
January 24, 1979; Baltimore: Richard Ellsberry (aka "The International Dateman"); tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE; & Doug Retzler (aka "Sumu Pretzler") launch the 1st of 4 "phone stations": TESTES-3 ((301)837-8373). These were phone #s that people could call for unusual & unpredictable media experiences.
TESTES-3 was run anonymously & advertised with graffiti stickers that read "FOR A GOOD TIME CALL TESTES-3" & other such things. Callers often phoned apparently thinking they were tapping into an underground gay sex scene. What they reached instead was an answering machine outgoing message followed by a beep to signal a variable recording time. In those days the answering machine was a fairly new invention - not so much in use that everyone knew what it was. As such, not everyone realized that they were recorded after the beep. This lead to alotof candid tapings of conversations between callers like "What the fuck was that all about?".
The tapes they heard were mostly made from these incoming recordings. 118 of them were made in the next 5 months. The (unexplained) TESTES-3 purpose was to stimulate a more active role in mass media without leading people by the nose. We provided the medium & callers had to be adventurous enuf to call & smart enuf to figure out that they could participate. Given that this was Baltimore (one of the worst hellholes in the so-called United States - if not the world), a large percentage of the callers did little more than leave messages 'insulting' us as "faggots" or otherwise being abusive.
Nonetheless, some people fell into the spirit of the thing & tried to leave calls that they thought would be worth rebroadcasting. Other people, inspired by the potential of running a mass media network out of their home for very little money, started their own phone stations. Before long, there were as many as 8 of these in what we sometimes called B.U.T.N. (the BalTimOre Underground Telectropheremoanin' Network). Keep in mind that this was before people could have their own webpages. These "phone lines" (as they were also sometimes called) were the precursors to the web.
We later learned that a similar phenomenon was happening in California &, eventually, in NYC. Typically, the later art project "Apology" in New York became the subject of a mainstream movie - while Baltimore, as usual, was ignored as too far off the beaten track of the money flow.
I (tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE) was the one who created the majority of the TESTES-3 tapes. Given that my theoretical inclinations were heavily steeped in the denser & 'noisier' works of 20th century classical music, my outgoing 'messages' were uncompromisingly 'difficult' - to the annoyance of almost ALL the callers & often to my 2 collaborators.
I was recording the incoming calls from the machine cassette to a mono track of a reel-to-reel recorded at a slow speed so I could save tape & money. The outgoing tapes were then edited back to cassette from the reels. This was very low-fidelity. In one long-lasting series, I simply chose 2 tracks to play simultaneously - with no editing out of silences & phone signals. Raw data.
On April 20, 1979, an article appeared in the Baltimore City Paper about us. It was written by Franz Lidz (whose boyhood was much later given movie treatment by Dianne Keaton in Unstrung Heros). Franz had made unsuccessful attempts to find out who we were but we'd remained anonymous. We wanted to be Mystery Catalysts not media stars. The article was entitled "Underground Telephone Network" & helped spread the word about the station.
A month or so later, we finally granted Lidz an extremely disorienting interview which lead to his next article "VD-RADIO Goes On The Air". This announced our branching out to a new phone number & new engagement tactics. VD-RADIO ((301)837-2346) was born.
VD-RADIO was no longer run anonymously. At that time, one could have extension phones with the same # in different houses - as long as the exchange was available in that area. SO, we had a VD-RADIO phone in the group home that TESTES-3 started in (in my bedroom closet), in a warehouse group home where Richard & many other of our collaborators were living, & in one other group home. There may've been answering machines at all these places - or, perhaps, the original machine travelled from place to place.
The new emphasis, however, was on answering the phone. Since so many people were now involved on the receiving end, there was always a good chance that someone would be home at at least one of the 3 locations & that these folks might answer & get into a conversation or give a performance. At the warehouse, 4 Magnus Chord Organs were near the phone - in case anyone wanted to play them as 'entertainment' for the callers.
Callers were encouraged to send us tapes. I've published 2 collections of this material. Callers were encouraged to tell us their dreams, etc.. VD-RADIO's popularity increased dramatically as more & more people found it an interesting way to spice up a dull day at home or work.
By January 24th, 1980, we decided to move on again. (301)962-0210 began. This was run out of my basement bedroom in yet another group house. It was at this time that we began to get technically trickier. Special phone services were just beginning to be offered & we decided to take advantage of them. Most importantly there was call-forwarding.
We could offer to forward calls to 962-0210 to other people's homes. A few brave folks (mostly, if not entirely, young people living at home with their parents) took us up on that. But in those days call-forwarding was so new that it was often a problem to get the calls un-forwarded again. These poor volunteer 962-0210 hosts would choose to receive the calls when their parents weren't home & would panic as the time of the parental return closed in & we were struggling to stop the flow of calls to them.
How many calls were there by this point? For the brief while that we used call waiting, we discovered that incoming calls were almost continuous. There were thousands of strangers calling us, maybe even tens of thousands.
We'd also forward calls to phone booths. It seemed that kids would hang around the booths and answer the calls. One clever (presumed) phone phreak experimented with making a long distance call from a booth next to the one we were forwarding to 'charged to his home phone' which was, of course, 962-0210. That way he could accept the charges without the phone company being any the wiser. He didn't rip us off, he just demonstrated that this could be done. We may've taken the warning at that point & stopped the forwarding to booths.
But it was our own inventiveness, rather than the phone co's services, that most interests me. During the 962-0210 era, we'd acquired a type of answering machine called the "Call Jotter" (or something like that). This was a poorly designed device that had the outgoing message followed by the recording space followed by the outgoing message, etc. Its usefulness revolved around the new feature of being able to call one's own phone to hear a playback of one's incoming messages. This was done by playing a signal tone into the answering machine which then rewound the tape & played back everything on it. Unfortunately, that meant hearing the outgoing over & over again since it was repeated between every incoming message.
Richard (the main participant other than myself at this point) realized that we could create a message chain that began with a message, was followed by an incoming space, & was ended by the tone that triggered the rewind & playback. Callers could call & hear an explanation of this process. They could then leave a message. The next caller would then hear the trigger tone, the rewinding, the explanatory message, &, most importantly, the last caller's message. This way our machine could act as an intermediary between anonymous callers & we could record it all! One guy called repeatedly offering his 9" dick, drugs, his sister's body. It didn't work for him as far as I 'know'. Other people did connect with each other though. They left their phone #s (something I thought was foolish to do) & people would call each other outside of our system.
Some readers of this article might wonder what any of this has to do with music. To put this project into a classical continuity one need only refer to the wonderful John Cage / David Tudor collaboration entitled "Variations IV" at the Fiegen/Palmer Gallery in Los Angeles in 1965(?). In this performance, records, tapes, & radio were mixed live with sounds picked up by microphones in & around the performance space. With the phone stations we simply took advantage of the telephone network's ability to provide us with a huge network of microphones to tap into for our Concrete Mixing. I'm not truthfully concerned with whether people accept this as music or not. Calling it sound art will do just as well. Either term is disposable.
Richard's brother John had taught me that one could create a primitive sound-on-sound system by putting a piece of thin cardboard over the erase head of a tape recorder. That way I could use the same tape for recording incoming messages over & over - accumulating layers of input. This is what I did, using our original more conventional answering machine, in a project I called "Accumulation".
Many of the callers would just hang up instead of recording their own message. Since our machine had a fixed recording time, this put me, as the person who listened to these recordings, in the position of hearing the phone-off-the-hook alert sound way too many times on the tapes. I decided to just record over & over on these incoming tapes & just play back excerpts of the multi-layering. The idea being that if people just hung up & I got the alarm sound then that's what they would hear too but if they did something creative that would gradually become the top layer of the sound-on-sound & they'd hear something less designed-to-irritate instead. I recorded & played back for 5 months straight & the callers never got it. They mostly hung up. Oh well.
Another innovation of mine was to 'program' the answering machine so that it could make outgoing calls if callers hung up before the outgoing message was over. That way, I was more likely to record something other than the alarm sound. I made an announcement tape that explained that if callers hung up the machine would make a call. This was interspersed with touch-tone recordings of other phone station #s &/or 'random' #s. If the caller hung up & a dial tone came to the machine while touchtones were playing then it would 'dial' out. If the dial tone caught the tones at the beginning of a phone station # then that would be called. But there was always the chance that, eg, the last 3 digits of one # would 'dial' 1st followed by the 1st 4 of another. An automatic process was initiated where a 'random' person might be called. This person might pick up the phone just as the outgoing message was ending - hearing some touchtones & a beep. Then they might be recorded saying "Hello. Hello, who is this?" or some such before hanging up.
By 1981, we'd moved house again & changed the # to AGENT-11. This was a series of AGENT #s that constituted a small semi-secret network of friends. There's still at least one in use as of 2006. AGENT-11's main innovation (thanks again to Richard) was to combine both of our answering machines to play together at the same time! This might not sound like much, but the results were fabulously complex.
The original machine would play our tape & then record at the same time that the Call Jotter would. But the Jotter was once again programmed to play, record, rewind, & playback. Since the machines were set to different loop times, each machine might record fragments of the other - automatically creating montages incorporating both prerecorded & incoming material. Someone might be recorded on the Jotter saying something simultaneously with the playback of the other machine's message. This might then be played back by the Jotter while the other machine recorded that. Callers could hear themselves & others mixed & played back automatically. Alas, by my birthday, September 4th, 1981, AGENT-11 stopped our lineage in B.U.T.N. due to a lack of enthusiasm amongst its operators.
tapes from the 1st 3 of these stations are available from Widémouth Tapes
the catalog from which can be seen online @:
both of the Franz Lidz articles are reproduced in
"Street Rat magazine No. 2"
- which sometimes comes with an accompanying relevant CD-R.
Widémouth Tapes & the Street Ratbags can be written to c/o the author @:
idioideo at verizon dot net
an article about the "disorienting interview" given to Franz Lidz entitled "Lidznap"
is printed (well, sortof) in OVO magazine 12 - Science (November 1991):
& in How to Write a Resumé: Volume 2: Making a Good First Impression (both editions)
Good luck in finding either edition.
Further mention of "Accumulation" can be read in my article
"& the Deadbeat Goes On & On & On.."
published in: MUSICWORKS magazine 63 (Fall, 1995)
tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE
idioideo at verizon dot net
to the tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE as Interviewer index
to the tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE movie-making "Press: Criticism, Interviews, Reviews" home-page
to the "tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - Sprocket Scientist" home-page
to the "FLICKER" home-page for the alternative cinematic experience
to find out more about why the S.P.C.S.M.E.F. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Sea Monkeys by Experimental Filmmakers) is so important
for A Mere Outline for One Aspect of a Book on Mystery Catalysts, Guerrilla Playfare, booed usic, Mad Scientist Didactions, Acts of As-Beenism, So-Called Whatevers, Psychopathfinding, Uncerts, Air Dressing, Practicing Promotextuality, Imp Activism, etc..
for info on tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's tape/CD publishing label: WIdémoUTH
to see an underdeveloped site re the N.A.A.M.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Multi-Colored Peoples)