fine print

What we habitually call

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Hospitality has a lot to do with interiors. It is of the home.

Rosie Isaac delivers What we habitually call over the phone for fine print’s READING CIRCLES #2 at ACE Open, Tarntanya (Adelaide). Photos: Sia Duff.

The work began with an invitation.

I took the invitation and sent out another forty. I asked friends, family and colleagues to make a call on my behalf. On the afternoon of the performance at ACE Open, each caller was assigned a phone number. They were provided with instructions and a script. On receiving a text message telling them to begin, the callers contacted an audience member via mobile in the gallery and read the script to the person on the other end. The instructions allowed for the call to simply end or for a conversation to ensue. For the most part the calls ended quickly.

A producer tells me to smile while reading, for the sound of it.  

They tell me the first read of a script is always your best. Too many attempts and the words lose their meaning or mean too much.  

When you read, not knowing exactly what you mean, you sound honest and real.

An invitation is an offer of hospitality. If you boil it down, you’re offering proximity. To be with another person in the same space. At this point, it is almost sacred. But before you are admitted, you cross the threshold. The line between the public and private sphere. The line is not always drawn on the ground and who gets to cross over is determined by invitation which also implies an exclusion.

The Greeks and Romans practiced versions of hospitium, rules that set out what you must give a stranger who arrives at your door: clothes, entertainment, a parting gift, no questions asked. You’re interested in how law and religion mix in the phrase the divine right of the guest and the divine duty of the host. You’re interested in how control and space coagulate at the threshold.

I dread teaching and learning on zoom – the technology of blank stares. I wonder if there is some intimacy left in the phone call. The disembodied voice of a loved one passes down a phone line that is as disembodied as the voice. Of course, there’s also the work call, the robo-spam call, the institution hold call. The phone call isn’t an intimate form necessarily. But it permits intimacy.  

The immateriality of the phone is a trick. Before the trick, trunk lines spread like trees, a way to share cables and avoid the expense of closed loops. The telephone exchange handbook of 1929 explains:

there are three parties to a telephone call – yourself, the exchange, the distant subscriber.  

It warns:

The distinctive sounds of consonants become blurred in the transmission of speech by telephone…Greater care is, therefore, necessary in speaking by telephone than is required in ordinary speech...


Once I sent that message saying “GO!” I made my single call, read the script, and then had no idea what was happening. I got some text messages from the gallery attendant letting me know that it was done, I got a few messages from callers. Had they read too fast? Too slow? They hate performing; they love performing; it was creepy; they could only hear breathing; the person said nothing; it felt like the receiver wanted to get away.

Kalinda, one of the callers and an artist who also performs, sent the most detailed notes via email. She also sent a photo of her cat from behind, tail up, the cat had been there on the grass in her backyard during the performance. She began:

He said “Hello” and I began reading. I was trying to keep my head up and diaphragm full and I was trying to annunciate.

         I felt that I was reading in a reading out loud voice....

         I could hear him breathing or sighing and it distracted me.

She finished:

And he had a nice voice and because I could hear his breathing and sighing it was maybe a bit erotic?

I'm such a voyeur though.

The phone call brings two people into aural proximity. The mouth and the ear aren’t anywhere near each other but there’s the technological echo of a whisper. Proximity, as we all know, in the wrong context, can be a skin crawling, get me out of here, vom in the mouth experience. The call was a risk. The potential reward was another strange intimacy, intimacy with a stranger. The possibility had something to do with inviting the caller and the listener in and excluding myself. A mutated reflection of the pairs: artist/audience, mother/child, teacher/student, caller/receiver. I wanted them to be together: mouth and ear.

You learned some things young.  

You learned from your parents, siblings or pets as a baby.  

Who said there is no such thing as a baby? Because a baby is always part of a pair. This, you understand, is a challenge to the individual body-brain.

In literature on the science of learning, animals are often used as examples—test subjects and then metaphors. The idea is they are simpler, less imaginative, haven’t made so much stuff up. Like babies but without history.

But what happens if the animal escapes the metaphor, turns pair, refuses to be the learner and becomes the teacher?  

Now the lab rat’s the caller and you’re the receiver.

Watching the stream of the falcon chicks, you realise what looked like one body, is two, three and then four.

Despite zoom, teaching is a small pleasure. I find the energy somewhere, or the students bring it with them. We trundle along, we’re not necessarily getting anywhere, we’re just managing and finding small sparks. It’s an invitation to think in the way that you do. I’m in their homes—in their lounge-rooms, kitchens, back gardens, lying on their beds. We’re so much further away from each other and at the same time we are getting domestic.

Is teaching a transmission, like a radio broadcast or a telepathic signal?

Is learning receiving? Are you the receptor in a neural pathway, shaped to respond to the chemical transmitter that fits?

What is the shape that you’ll receive? And what is the sound heard as silence that has made it so?

What if a noise heard loud and clear cannot be received?  

What if it never becomes chemical?


I’m thinking of retraining as a high school teacher but I’m suspicious of schools. Do they operate within a logic of hospitality? The divine right of the student and the divine duty of the teacher. I began by saying that hospitality is fused to the domestic. I worry about furnishing children. Does education domesticate?


The hands of three half-smiling women pull cables on the last day of operation of the Central Telephone Exchange in Adelaide in 1955. Their jobs are presumably about to be replaced by an electronic then digital switch. Today they work the camera, plugging cables in familiar jacks and smiling for the sound of it.

If I’ve let my smile go, I pick it up again.

The producer might say, it gives words ‘life’ and even if I think the sound is disingenuous, you’re still more likely to listen when it’s there. The words are brighter, fuller, more assured.  

If you learn to speak this way, it might one day appear natural.

The trick is the result of cellular towers and radio frequencies. Tall metal structures reach into the sky to minimise the reflection of signals from buildings and vegetation. One tower might be home to multiple antennae owned by different providers. What looks like one body is two, three and then four.

The name cell comes from the unit of land covered by the tower. The size of the cell is determined by the density of callers in the area. Almost anything can be divided into rooms.

I can’t find any legal consequences associated with failing to provide hospitium, just the wrath of the gods.

I pause at the threshold and then I hang up.

Listening to what we habitually call silence.  

Listening for what you know you can’t hear.