“Bald-faced Transponder” is a temporary installation in an elevator car. There are two central components of the work: a hornet’s nest, and live air traffic control communications.
The bald-faced hornets nest was purchased from a Pittsburgh resident who found it on his private property. It has a viscerally alarming presence, and a faint but noticeable smell, like decomposing compost. Whereas animals are made to live under conditions that we set for the them, the bald-faced hornets have set the conditions for this work, and by extension the experience of the elevator riders.
I have an uneasy relationship with aviation, and it is this relationship that prompted my investigation into aviation sounds. I’ve been in small airplanes since I was two weeks old, and I have strong associations with sounds I heard through headphones. I still don’t understand the coded language and protocols of ATC, and I suspect that the communications will be even less familiar to my audience. The nest heightens this sense of the unknown.
Hornet architecture is biological; nests are made of saliva and chewed wood fiber. The creatures’ careful use of natural resources recalls prehistoric homes, made of hand-gathered materials. But although the nest is a dwelling, it has none of the warm resonance of human homes. Instead, it radiates a primal hostility. (Note: the cliche “to stir up a hornet’s nest.”) Although ATC communications are not as obviously dangerous as the nest, they have a militaristic quality, and it is rare to hear plain English that is as obfuscated as ATC.
The transponder (the nest) is situated in a corner of the ceiling. Depending on the activity of the ATC feed, it is either twitching or still. The intermittent sounds from the feed are produced by a speaker hidden in the nest, which is connected to a smartphone running the “LiveATC” app. The feed streams the communications from a tower at Perth International Airport in Western Australia. PER (as pilots refer to it) is chosen as the site of transmission since it is the closest city to the point directly opposite from Pittsburgh on the globe. This physical distance (which can be detected by the accent of the tower operator) suggests orchestration on a global scale, that this transponder might be part of a larger operation.
The movements of the elevator in its shaft parallel the stages of flight, namely, takeoff and landing. These stages of flight involve following specific directions from the tower on the ground. “Bald-faced Transponder” questions the agency of the human in the elevator – the ATC sounds suggest that the nest is the tower, relaying coded instructions to the elevator.