Man: I’m sorry, I guess I dialed the wrong number.
Casey: So why’d you dial it again?
Man: To apologize.
“Didn’t you ever consider that the phone might be broken?” “No,” I said, “I thought a lot of things but I never thought of that.”
Lynne Tillman, ‘Hung Up’, Tellus #7 (1985)
Better use telepathy ‘cause you can’t use my phone
Erykah Badu, ‘Caint Use My Phone (Suite)’ (2015)
Every repetition, to be what it is, brings something new with it.
Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book (1989)
For society, culture, and politics, press mute.
To complain about the environment, press dollar.
To complain about the demiurge, press sterling pound.
For complaints related to physics, press four.
Press ten to hear these options again.
Camille Henrot, excerpt from Enough is Enough (2015)
A maid answers the landline in her employer’s house. “Hello,” says a man’s voice, “is my wife around?” “No, sir,” the maid responds. “She’s upstairs with the gardener.” Enraged, the voice at the end of the line orders the maid to kill both the lady of the house and the gardener. Having committed the murders, the maid returns to the phone to ask how she should dispose of the bodies. “Toss them in the pool,” the voice replies. The maid is silent for several seconds. “Pool, sir?” Silence at the other end, and then: “Is this 417 – 6739?”
In another version, the voice—always a male voice—announces to the maid that he’s finally ready to run away with her, but first she must dispose of his wife. As long as there’s a mouth at one end, an ear at the other, a body count and a missing signifier, what’s said on the call can change with each retelling—which is what makes the joke feel odd, or somehow out of focus. Was the maid bloodthirsty or coerced? Was the voice who he claimed to be? The ‘real’ content of the call remains uncertain, as if there actually was a call and the person telling the joke saw the events play out without hearing what was said. The call is powerful; even as a fiction, it circumscribes and occludes the joke itself.
Confusion, diversion, even tragedy attend connectivity and exchange—the telephone didn’t make this true, but its mechanism introduced new, or greater, awareness of mediation and interruption as integral to communication. To hear via, to speak via; true to its origin in machines for the speaking-impaired, the telephone locates the voice beyond the body, where it becomes at once privileged and more tenuous, its identity less certain, its passage less sure. Messages are wont to scramble; bad reception haunts a good line. A conversation might start well but end with one’s good intentions wrecked on the rocks inside the other’s head. Freud famously analogized telephony to the role of the analyst, who’s own unconscious attempts to decode the “transmissions” of the patient in the same way a telephone converts electric current back into soundwaves. But the father of talk therapy also refused to keep a telephone in his rooms, fearing another ‘ear’ would perforate the hermetic relationship.
The telephone’s portentous quality, with which it vibrates even or perhaps especially in its resting state, makes it a singular trope in popular culture: at best, the call comes just in time; at worst, it comes from inside the house. In The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell notes that the telephone is fateful, even fearsome, because to answer a call is to answer the call—to make ourselves answerable. The call begins even before we accept it: phones ‘ring’; morphologically, they belong in a category of things that alert and surprise. Bells and alarms, instruments of arrival and departure—rings, not dissimilar to a wedding ring, or the rings inside a tree trunk, or the rings of a fungus that calls for treatment, that tell us when it’s time. Ominous yet luminous, “the telephone operates both sides of the life-and-death switchboard”.
This logic of starts and ends also accounts for the telephone’s particular ability to make us wait. The call is framed by liminality— after “Hello?” and before “This is…”, after “Goodbye” and before disconnection—a condition of distance that structures telephonic space, requiring us to proceed linearly and with patience, minding the temporal and geographic gap: first an ear, pause, then a hand, or first a mouth, pause, then an ear.
Landline telephony’s organization of our space, time and selves finds its least desirable form in Interactive Voice Response technology, also known as Automatic Attendants, those intermediary answering systems that prompt the caller to input selections from successive sets of options in order to route a request. Ostensibly tree-like in structure, they are inevitably closer to a thick hedge or a bundle of sticks. Yet they persist, frustrating contemporary ideas about networks as smooth, navigable fields of instantaneity. We are left to press buttons, suspended in anticipation of an answer that may never arrive, in the apparent service of service itself.
In her 2015 solo exhibition at Metro Pictures, the artist Camille Henrot invited visitors to luxuriate in this fugue with nine interactive telephone sculptures—eight wall-mounted and a desktop-style on its own wooden table with one leg torqued at Fibonacci-like intervals—programmed with individual scripts co-written by Henrot and the poet Jacob Bromberg. Instructed by gallery staff to “pick up the phones,” people held the Seuss-like receivers, pressed the variably shaped keys and dialed something like the headquarters of the bureaucratic uncanny.
“Maso Meet Maso” (2015), with its globular purple receiver and spiral of buttons, contained an IVR-style menu that began as a dating hotline (“Welcome, guest. 16 men are currently waiting to meet you.”); “Is He Cheating” (2015), a grey rectangle warped in a sensible curve and set with six turquoise QWERTY tiles, aggressively cautioned against its own forthcoming content in the style of reality TV. If the scripts started benignly enough, they unfurled into variable cacophonies of attitude and mood, with the ‘speaker’ becoming more disinterested or accusatory or hysterical at each prompt. The experience was familiar: attempting to communicate with an automation that is at once inherently impersonal and overly intimate, unquestioning yet demanding, and unassailably in charge.
And yet, Henrot’s phones didn’t ring. Visitors both sounded and answered their own “calls to action.” If the joke was that interactivity parodies communication and confuses agency, the punch line was that the calls still got made. We still attempted connection. We still put ourselves on the line. Entertaining if vaguely stressful, the narratives about bad dads and abusive dogs became poignant when the characters seemed to acknowledge—irritably or resignedly or with deranged loneliness—the insurmountable distance between them and us. “When did you stop loving me?!” the “Is He Cheating” bot cries. “Answer me!”
But we couldn’t ever, not really. In The Surprising Phenomenon of Human Communication, Vilém Flusser argues that telephones cannot satisfy our urge to dialogue because “we get at the message but we cannot get at the other person”. Flusser was writing in 1975, when the inability to achieve “admittance of the other” via phone was attributed to the landline’s lack of full-bodiedness and the inescapability of delay. Mobile telephony has inverted the problem, rather than solved it: always with us, the phone reclaims the entire body as its proxy; we’re no longer a fixed point at a discoverable distance but a moving target. Whether we answer or not, we’re always there, so the time is always now.
Perhaps what’s interesting, finally, is the way the phones looked. At once retro and futuristic, their shapes and colors spoke of the film adaptations of Less Than Zero and American Psycho, iconic depictions of corporate psychosis, pastel-colored cynicism and the disappointments of modernities past. When did you stop loving me? Perhaps the landline’s clearest call is to our anxious present, but at Henrot’s table, we phone it, dialing back and calling forward in order to stand apart, and still.