Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Pressures of the unspeakable : a nervous system for the City of Sydney

Gregory Whitehead

I arrived in Sydney on October 3,1991, carrying an "impossible object" a concept of the Screamscape - inside its fictive institutional vesicle or envelope, a bogus institution named The Institute for Screamscape Studies. Through the establishment of a series of cross-media circuits, I would then attempt to transform this object, both as an idea and as an acoustic phenomenon, into an "Invisible City": the invisible city of Sydney nervous system. Everything that happened in, across or through the circuits of the screamscape would become part of the nervous flow, culminating in a broadcast radiophonic "theatre of operations".

The circuit was wired across three synapses:

1. The elaboration of the nerve impulse path itself: founding of the Institute, establishing a 24 hour answering machine, called the "screamline" in reference to the acoustic "line" representing the journey that screamers take into their own interior space; the designation and "opening" of the scream room within the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC); and the circulation of "scream discourse" within various news media: column eight, ABC television, and various talk/cultural affairs programs within ABC radio. In addition to framing the nervous system, the telephone-microphone-tape recorder-radio circuitry also provided the key for the acoustic demarcation of pressure in the system: distortion, the disruption of digital codes, pure unmanageable noise. The scream as an eruption in excess of prescribed circuitries, as capable of "blowing" communications technologies not designed for such extreme and unspeakable meanings.

2. Monitoring of the scream flow, and the development of various techniques for scream hermeneutics that would allow individual screamers to find their own rightful place in the city screamscape. At this stage, periodic memoranda and reports were circulated through the ABC and the University of Technology, Sydney on genesis of the screamland and on the indivisible "Rights of Nerves" (courtesy of Marie Curnick). Secondary publicity accomplished through release of select screams to television and radio programs. Lubricated by the greasy jelly of discourse and publicity, the scream trickle soon became a flood, in both the scream room and on the screamline, and the producer "nodes" at the Institute began to feel the first effects of The Pressure on our own increasingly jangled nervous systems.

3. The completion of the circuitry, the breakdown of the last nodes of resistance within our own nervous systems, the passage of all screams fluidly through a now massive network of private and public ganglia. Strange things began to happen as we listened again and again to hundreds of "blown" and distorted screams. As needles pinned in the studio, bones rattled in the body, and the brain began to play curious tricks on the rest of us, our dreamlands turned into screamlands. At last, the narrative authority of Dr. Scream himself simply dissembled into pieces and he left the Institute to start a rhythm and blues band in Louisiana.

Without him, though, there still followed the national BROADCAST of the assembled "report", transmitted by The Listening Room, followed by the accumulation of hundreds of additional post-broadcast screamline calls: objections, responses, post-screams, reflections, wrong numbers, confessions, and bold polemics.

Two days after the repeat broadcast, after a moment of silence, the screamline is unplugged, and the nervous system is put, at least for the moment, to rest. The last memo and "ultimatum" from The institute (lodged as it was at the Ultimo ABC) circulates, embracing a quote from one of the truly remarkable nervous systems the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein:

When you are philosophising you may descend into primeval chaos and feel at home there.

At times, the "clinic" of the production studio felt like a Room 101 of my own design, the psycho-acoustic descent into screamland chaos registered through the rattle of my bones. Yet the magnificent, affirmative, ecstatic, violent, explosive and celebratory nature of the materials, restored me, if not to my "home", at least to my real place.

The Screamscape Nervous System would not have been possible without the help of many associate ganglia, most notably: Listening Room executive producer Ros Cheney, who walked me patiently through many a conceptual convolution; the discriminating ears of my associate producer, known to others only as "Weird Heart"; the formidable "Klout Sisters", Sarah Miller and Barbara Campbell; and the unflinching airborne dasein of one Martin Hessler-Harrison.


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