Stillspotting Staten Island: An Urban Telettrofono Experience in New York City

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I heard it on the telettrofono, is it true, mermaids in New York City off the Staten Island coastline?

Enticed by mermaids, the Antonio Meucci’s telettrofono, and the idea of finally making the trip out to Staten Island this past Saturday July 14th I got on the 1 train towards South Ferry and made the trip across on the Staten Island Ferry (free) to take part in the Guggenheim’s Stillspotting Telettrofono experience. As a New Yorker I had heard of the previous Guggenheim Lab Stillspotting installations in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens but had not actually made it out for the experience. Now after going on the Staten Island sound walk there is a bit of moral regret that reflects at the fact that I didn’t go to the others.

I have never actually been on a “sound” walk before. I did not even know such an artistic form existed, but now I do. The tour brings you into a fairytale story that intertwines the real life of Antonio Meucci – the man credited by many as inventing the first telephone – with an enthralling fascination for sound, mermaids and inventions. The tour and its guiding narrative are as much about discovery as they are about enchantment. Channeling the inventor spirit of Meucci, sound artist Justin Bennett and poet Matthea Harvey invent the rumor that Meucci’s wife is mermaid who leaves her aquatic home for land because of her love for human and city sounds. As a part of the magical realism tour I was led to a series of stillspots that were a part of Antonio and his wife Esterre’s life in Staten Island.  The waterfront adventure led me to treasures like the stone piano, mountains of salt, historic homes, patriotic murals, a hidden park at the top of a public staircase and the St. George Theater.


The sound walk concept made a lot of sense as I sat in the quietness of Staten Island (well at least compared to its other island sibling) and heard the sounds on the tour of that “Manhattan.” Those sound waves that are ‘so’ Manhattan – the swift rhythm of crowds and traveling through the streets with backdrop of ambulances, fire trucks, telephones, loud New Yorker voices talking all at once, etc. – have become all too familiar to my ears and for a moment I thought I was back on the other island, but no, it was just Justin Bennett’s genius with city sounds at play.

Bennett and Harvey brilliantly compose the story to allow for enough time to take in the sites and reflect on the unique surroundings and on Antonio and Esterra’s life on Staten Island. They even included an inconspicuous yet clever metaphor for socio-economic tensions as I passed in front of housing projects.

This is certainly an adventure worth the trip to Staten Island. It takes you to another time and while at times Matthea’s sweet words and Justin’s sounds may romanticize everyday things like the telephone, love, candles, and patents; they also keep it suspenseful, revealing tragic moments in Meucci’s life that expose the gritty truth and potential outcomes of corporate greed and retirement.

There are remaining tour dates on July 28 -29 and August 4-5, 2012. The tour runs from 12pm-7pm. You can get more information here.