PRINT September 1971

“Paul Revere”

The film is an adaptation from two sources: Kinesics and Context by Ray L. Birdwhistell, and Choreomania, a performance by Joan Jonas.

Off-camera narration determines actions, (some direction given by cameraman)

narration off-camera

THE FILM YOU ARE VIEWING will demonstrate, with your attention and cooperation, aspects of an operative process in communication. A simple two-message system will be employed: The informational model of Paul Revere’s signaling light tower will be the example, that is a lone light signaling that the British are coming by land △ two lights conveying the warning that they are coming by sea. △ This is a clear clean informational model. To modify this into a communicational model requires the recognition that as soon as there is a body of communicants united by the knowledge that one light means “by land” △ and two means “by sea” △ the communication is in operation. The message introduced by the recognition is: “As long as there are no lights the British are not coming.”

There are thus immediately a series of elements isolable but interdependent in this structure: △

1. The continuous signal, no light: “No British.”–
2. Presence of light: “British are coming.”—
3. One light (which cross references absence of one light): “British are coming by land.”
4. Two lights (which cross references as absence of one light): “British are coming by sea.” △

Now let us imagine two contingencies which are statistically probable for 18th-century New England. Let us suppose that Farmer Tutt looks up at the tower of North Church and sees no light but begins to worry that the light has blown out. Or, let us suppose that Farmer Stone, noted for his eyesight, becomes so anxious that he hallucinates a light. △ Our case is not so simplified if he is also able to hallucinate the fact that the light has blown out. △

Let us conceive of the breakdown situation which would occur if Boston teenagers decided to arouse the farmers out of bed now and then by slipping into the church and lighting the lanterns in the window. △

Even though the informational system has a minimum of uncertainties, it is clear that the farmers will soon become anxious for they will be alerted by darkness in the tower, and insufficiently aroused by a light in the tower. △ The alerting alarm system is too simple and fragile to meet the needs of the group.

The reliability of the system can be further reinforced by cross-referencing it from a second church tower.—In a second tower a lantern will be placed that will send the message that as long as it is not lit the message sent by the other tower is correct.—That is, as long as there is no lantern in church tower number two the absence of light in church tower number one indicates that the British are not yet coming.—

However, if there is a light in church tower number two the absence of light in number one means that the British are coming. If number two is lit and there is one light in number one this means that the message is a lie. △△ However, we cannot yet know the content of the lie. We do not know whether this translates △ (A) The British are not coming, or (B) The British are not coming by sea.

The system is still too simple. It is sensorily inefficient. △ It is dependent upon the vigilance of a group who maintain all-night watches. Furthermore, because of the non-penetrating qualities of light, other sensory modalities must be readied (alerted) for stimulation and communicative activity.—To solve these problems we arrange to have a sexton ring a church bell as a signal to look at the lights in the tower of churches one and two. △ However, this church bell is already being used as the channel for a message system which sends both the integrational message “all is well” △ and the specific message denoting the hour, the quarter, and the half hour. △ Upon the hand-held clock in frame: approach of the British, the sexton is bell rings once at hour, instructed to do one of two things. If quarter hour and half hour the British arrive within a period of five as clock indicates minutes prior to the time of striking, the sexton is to omit the next ringing of the bell.—If, on the other hand, the British arrive during the ten minutes immediately following the ringing of the bell, he is to ring it again. △ Either the ringing or the absence of ringing, if appropriately performed, send the signal "Look at the bell wipe on statement towers.” — △

The introduction of the bell demonstrates how much of a communicational system depends upon the proper internalization of the system. A listener would not be alerted by the unusual bell unless he had already internalized the rhythm of the time clock bell. Any mislearning or distorting of this piece of pattern would leave the individual unwarned and vulnerable. To say nothing of the viewer who confuses the identity of the two towers.—The example is simple. We are dependent in this instance for the British to come by night so that our lights can be seen. This system has built into it that the British can only approach with a plan of attack. What if they are landing on a peaceful excursion? Or what if the French decide to take advantage of this situation or are mistaken for the British?

This is a simple model of one phase of the communication process. It is intended only to direct attention to certain problems of communicational analyses. If we think of the simple example and imagine it multiplied astronomically, we gain some insight into the task faced by a child in becoming a sane member of his society. Finally it enables us to focus on the fact that if the child internalizes the logic of such a flexible, dynamic, and ultimately uncomplicated system he has learned to solve the problems solved by normal children in every society. △ This process may tell something about the nature of sanity and, by extension, insanity.

Joan Jonas and Richard Serra


Props: two 2000-watt light bulbs, one bell, one clock, one pane of glass, one lantern, instructional cards.

normal light (house light) with two hand-held light bulbs in the frame

△ one light bulb on and off

△ two light bulbs on and off (entire frame becomes white)

△ one light bulb on and off

△ two light bulbs on and off (entire frame becomes white)

both light bulbs removed from frame

△ wipe on card (1234)

finger points to statements as they are read

△ wipe card off to normal lighting

△ house lights turned off—frame black

△ head center framed—back lighted, haloed

△ light out, frame black

△ hand manipulated lantern lighted and turned up revealing window pane

lantern off, frame black

△ one light bulb on and off

← frame black →

△ lantern placed in frame revealing second system (number 2 over lantern, no. 1 over bulbs

△ one light bulb lit

△ wipe on card (message . . .)

△ first card wipe off to reveal second card (A & B)

△ AB card wipe off to reveal white card with numbers 2 & 1

△ hand-held bell in frame

△ bell rung seven times

△ hand-held clock in frame: bell rings once at hour, quarter hour and half hour as clock indicates

△ bell rings
bell rings again

△ wipe on statement “Look . . .”
statement remains on → △ card wipes to reveal statement “This process . . .”