Orphans of Beauty

Unmarketable inventions, often called orphan technology, are generally considered useless. Paul DeMarinis considers them precursors to art.

I am standing in front of an elegant bird cage, staring through the gilt bars. There is a gas flame trapped inside, a flame the color of molten amethyst with bright red filaments burning at its center, and it is speaking to me. The delicate tongue of fire undulates and oscillates with the cadence of its own utterance. The voice is powerful, familiar, inciting me to join its cause. I am hypnotized. A light breeze rolls over my shoulder, causing the flame and the voice to waver and cut out briefly. I am struck by an immeasurable sadness and the urge to protect the voice from the wind, but as I turn to find the source of the air current, I am reminded that this is not the only bird cage in the large white room where I stand. There are other cages, each with a fiery voice urging me to heed its call. I am overwhelmed, staggered by beauty and impossibility.

What does it mean?

"A bird cage can represent a loss of freedom or the inability to express one's inner nature, while a well-controlled fire indicates inner transformation," explains a friend who fancies herself a masterful interpreter of dreams. "The wind often represents turbulent emotions, but a gentle breeze suggests a lifting of the spirit. As for the crackling voices of the world dictators, I think that's obvious: You're all kinds of fucked up."

It seems a reasonable assessment of the situation, except that I did not see the talking flames in a dream. I saw them in the Braunstein/Quay Gallery, tucked away in an alley between Fifth and Sixth streets. The installation, called Firebirds, used electrical fields to modulate gas flames, transforming the fires into omnidirectional loudspeakers.

"It's a trick that every high school science teacher knows," says artist Paul DeMarinis. "But it's not commercially viable, so it became another piece of orphan technology."

Much of DeMarinis' art is informed by early explorations in technology. Gray Matter, the centerpiece of which was a claw-foot zinc bathtub that produced sound and sensation when the rim was stroked by hand, was based on a chance discovery by Elisha Gray, the inventor who raced Alexander Graham Bell to the patent office during the nascent days of the multiple harmonic telegraph, or telephone. The Messenger was inspired by a disturbing model of the telegraph proposed during the French Revolution. The installation had three parts: In the first, 26 electrolytic Leyden jars, each representing one of the letters of the alphabet, were attached to metal electrodes and filled with green liquid. The liquid in a particular jar bubbled when electricity was passed through it, denoting that particular letter. Incoming e-mail messages were spelled out letter by letter on this sluggish but beautiful telegraphic receiver. Meanwhile, in a second portion of the installation, 26 "talking" washbasins intoned the letters in Spanish in response to the electrical signals. And, in the third piece of the artwork, a chorus line of dancing skeletons in red ponchos stood in for the 26 illiterate servants who would have received electric shocks in Barcelona to spell out each letter of the message as it traveled down the historically proposed telegraph line. "History is littered with these seemingly improbable technologies," says DeMarinis. "They are technological artifacts, inventions, or discoveries that are forgotten because they are not deemed useful or marketable."

In DeMarinis' hands, such inventions become beautiful -- 20 streams of water modulated with audio signals that play "Singin' in the Rain" when they hit a passer-by's umbrella; a handmade lacquer phonograph disc on which the face of Joseph Stalin appears as he speaks, his countenance actually drawn by his own voice -- and rife with symbolism.

"Nothing is free of cultural connection," says DeMarinis, "but these forgotten technologies are not bound by our preconceived notions; they create their own connections, and because of that, each piece can embody metaphor, like the incendiary power of speech captured in flame. Things only other artists are really interested in, but that I think about all the time."

After viewing his work, I half expect DeMarinis to resemble a mad scientist or a wild-eyed Bolshevik, but he is a mild-mannered, middle-aged man with a soft belly and dark eyes.

"Electricity permeates almost everything I do," says DeMarinis, whose studio looks like a cross between a salvage yard and a lab, "but sound has always been elemental. I remember being fascinated with the human voice as a child, shouting into our piano, listening to my voice come back at me. Sound, music. The lyrics of a song so easily become a subconscious script for our lives. We remember them without trying. Sound connects us to our great unconscious."

DeMarinis' early love of sound sent him to the family attic, where a collection of dusty shortwave radios and phonographs became a habitual distraction. As an infant, it was light bulbs and electric switches that fascinated.

"My parents were patient and supportive," says DeMarinis, who, despite his interests, knew at an early age he would not follow in his scientist father's footsteps. "I was interested in art and music, and technology in regards to that. I always tell my students to picture themselves when they were 8. Whatever they were doing then is what they should be doing now."

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