Commissioned by UK arts orgs The Cutting Room and Phoenix to mark the centenary of the First World War, The Crystal Line is the latest work by critical engineer and media artist Julian Oliver. Re-creating an authentic (often improvised) crystal radio design that was used widely during WWI, the device broadcasts a transmission of military news and ‘future of warfare’ chatter culled from various defence blogs that is translated from text to speech. Initiating a bit of a temporal loop, an encounter with the radio curiously juxtaposes the crucial moment that the ‘zone of control’ in warfighting extended into the electromagnetic spectrum with military R&D’s ceaseless march forward.
The Crystal Line draws on content collected by a web-crawler that Oliver describes as “trawling military feeds for the latest in future combat systems, military communications, and AI advances.” This text is formatted and synthesized with the mbrola text-to-speech engine and passed to an AM transmitter which broadcasts over an aerial at 1MHz. The receiver deploys a Zincite crystal detector and sliders for tuning and coil, and the system plays back through floor-mounted speakers. Oliver lights up when asked about the set’s sound quality and says it is “ever-so slightly dusty and powder-smooth” and—keeping the target demographic in mind—delivered in the accent of an “old English gentleman”.
Oliver is precise in framing the significance of radio in warfare, as until its adoption “all messaging on the battlefield was through animal and human means—the carrier medium was itself alive.” He describes how radio changed the tempo and spatiality of conflict and “allowed higher levels of organizational and strategic abstraction.” Jumping forward a century, he finds the content of his broadcast uniformly worrisome. “Frankly there is little of the world of future combat that isn’t disturbing: from the cold taxonomies (drones have a ‘kill matrix’), to DARPA research into animal/bomb hybrids, to mind-controlled fighter jets.”
“What we hear” in The Crystal Line, Oliver writes in his statement on the work, “is the bleak and bleeding legacy of Cybernetics, of a landscape rationalized … [to] Harry Truman’s Cold War dream of a world contained by a skin of threat-alerting sensors.” Beyond this instrumental ‘systems level’ view of the work, he concludes on a note of empathy for the grunts and their prized radios. “Troops were often isolated for long periods of time and this was a very significant moment in their lives—being able to tune into music or hear the news from back home was vital for morale.” Oliver describes how photographs from WWI show soldiers “huddled around” their improvised crystal sets “as if they were a fire” and it appears he’s fused century-old know-how and contemporary tools to rekindle that flame.