Robert Caskey: "morse Code Phone Event 1978 - 3 min.
In 1978, I designed a project to ask the question, "Can the telephone be a medium for art?"
To do this, I had an announcer machine. It's like a an answering
machine, except it didn't ask for a message at the beep. When a
caller dialed the number, It simply played a tape of 3 minutes
duration or less and hung up.
A number of artists made
tapes to put on the machine for a two week period. Only artists,
poets and musicians who were Creative spirits who were capable of
profound expressions, Individuals who would recognize the potential of
the situation and could design an experience that would break new
ground were invited to make a phone event tape
Bob Caskey was such a person.
Phone Event was unlike any of the 18 others. It went on the line
August 27, 1978. It consisted of 3 minutes of beeping sounds.
Most callers didn't recognize that it was a message in Morse Code.
Bob never gave me a written translation, so I have to content myself
with my memory of what he told me it was. As I recall, the
translation was something like "Paid round trip transportation to New
York and lunch at the Guggenheim, second weekend in December. See
message for Starless in September 20, Detroit News Personals and
follow the clues . See you in NYC. Trebor."
Trebor, of course, is Robert spelled backwards.
told me he made the recording himself and that it was very
difficult. He borrowed a telegraph machine. It took him
hours of trying before he was able to tap it out the dashes and dots
that make the letters of the words with enough speed to keep it to 3
minutes and make no mistakes.
On Wednesday, September 20, 1978,
a three line item appeared in the Personals on page 14 D of the Detroit
News Classified ads. It was inserted below an ad offering
Spiritual Readings for $15 and above a plea for
Tickets to a U of M and MSU football game."
The item read::
"Starless - Sunday 9/24, quarter past one. D.I.A., due west to Rosenberg. 701.18 R7230. Trebor."
can be revealed now that D.I.A. is art code for the Detroit Institute
of Arts and due west of it lies the Detroit Public Library - Main
Branch. Before the ad appeared, Caskey borrowed a book by
Harold Rosenberg with the Dewey Decimal designation of 701.18 R7230.
planned to insert into the book a prepaid round trip train ticket and a
note inviting the person who followed the clues to lunch at the
Guggenheim Museum in New York City. However, he ran into a
I forget why, but he couldn't purchase the ticket. I
don't remember if it was that the train didn't go there any more, or
the ticket wasn't for sale that far ahead or what it was, but he
couldn't get the ticket. So he put the cash in the book,
something like $160, which was a significant piece of change for a
struggling artist in 1978.
On that Sunday, he headed down to the
library at Woodward and Kirby. He intended to go up to the second
floor where the fine arts books are and, at five after one
o'clock, ten minutes before the appointed time, place the book in
its proper place on the shelf in the stacks.
When he got there and saw the abundant parking spaces out front and the darkened main entrance, it hit him.
The Library is closed on Sundays!
a momemt of panic, he looked around. No one else was on the esplanade
that led to the entrance. No one was sitting on the stairs or the
stone ledge surrounding the lawn. No one sitting in a parked
car. If someone had deciphered the Morse Code and correctly
interpreted the personal ad, they hadn't showed up yet.
five after one, Caskey walked up to the main entrance and placed the
book, with its cash and note, against the library's locked
door. He then walked back to his car parked in front. it
was about 100 feet from the door where he could watch the book.
He got in, sat, waited and watched. Nothing happened. A few
pedestrians walked down Woodward Avenue, but none turned to approach
Pigeons pecked at cracks in the steps.
precisely 15 minutes past one o'clock, a figure walked around the
corner of the library and headed for the front door. Good.
Somebody did figure it out. Now they were here to claim the
prize. A man, shabbily dressed, his shoes too big and a tattered,
too-small suit jacket, stretched over a hooded sweat shirt.
thought he could an artist but maybe not. The man spied a trash
can near the entrance and shuffled over to it. He rummaged
through the top layer of trash with a particular interest in the food
containers. Caskey figured he's probably not a artist and he's
probably not here because he figured out the clues.
The book was
in plain sight 20 feet away but the man was facing away from the
entrance. The man found nothing edible in the discards. He
did turn up two redeemable pop cans. He shook out a balled up
plastic bag from his pocket and put the cans in it. He
turned and walked toward the library entrance.
Caskey might have thought "That's it! There goes the money."
situation probably felt familiar to Caskey. It was like the
other "money pieces" he did. At some point, they spin out of
control. Stuff happens. Unforseen events take twists and
turns that no one anticipated. And it's at that point that they
get most interesting.
Like the sculpture of fragile balsa wood
strips Caskey constructed around a fifty dollar bill. It
was impossible to remove the 50 without damaging the
construction. He put it in a group show at a university gallery
and instructed the staff not to interfere with anyone taking the
$50. Which was probably unnecessary since university art
galleries have practically no security anyway.
that he would make no claim against the gallery for loss or
damage. Shortly after the exhibit opened, the $50 was
taken. The balsa wood construction was damaged in the
process. The piece became the center of a hugh
controversy. People accused Caskey of tempting some poor weaker
soul into crime. Others defended him saying that he was making
the point that for some in our society, money is more important than
art. The gallery came under intense criticism from people who
accused it of colluding with Caskey by encouraging theft.
supporters asked how was it a theft if the money was placed there
with the intention that someone take it and its owner not object?
His detractors said the sculpture was now broken, an ugly reminder of
the criminal act Caskey had instigated. His defenders claimed
that the damaged construction was part of the process of the piece and
that art can be broken and ugly and still be good art.
gallery asked Caskey to remove his sculpture from the show. He
refused. It was only after the threat of a walk-out by many of
the other artists in the show that the gallery relented and permitted
the sculpture to remain for the duration. The affair was talked
about for weeks.
Caskey also remembered the time that instead of
cash, he put a $100 check made out to "cash" in a church
style collection plate on a pedestal in a show and again got the
gallery staff to agree not to interfere. He knew that if it were
stolen, the thief would have to sign it to cash it and he would, unlike
his previous "money pieces" at least learn the name of the
individual who took it.
But, at the opening of the show, one of the
dumber artists present got the idea that if enough people signed the
back of the check, there would be no room for the thief to endorse it
and thus the check would be rendered valueless. This benighted
artist convinced a large number of other artists at the opening to
endorse the check and return it to its plate.
Again aruments arose
about the morality of the sculpture. The instructions to the staff not
to interfere were condemned as an invitation to crime. Others
defended them as necessary to remove legal restrictions and thus create
a pure tension between a person's desire for the money and that
person's real integrity. In any case, the focus and controversy
on that slip of paper resting on the plate dominated the event.
Two days later the check went missing. Two months later the check
was cashed and Caskey got it back from the bank.
Unfortunately, because of all the names on it, Caskey was unable to identify which signature was the thief's.
I'm afraid I must confess I am that dumb artist who thought everyone signing it was a good idea.
at the library, the man with the shoes too big suddenly stopped.
He looked around as if he were being observed. He spied another
trash can on a distant corner. He walked to it, rummaged thru it,
and disappeared forever around the corner of Farnsworth and Woodward.
Caskey waited until 25 after one, then he walked to the library`s entrance and retrieved Harold Rosenberg with the money.
Although I loved him, I know only a few things about Caskey.
I never heard him say or do a mean thing.
He was accepting of people and events.
He was a good listener.
had a sense of humor - especially when the joke was on him. Not that he
wan't capable of testing others' sense of humor too: like the time he
lovingly poured a pitcher of beer on David Barr's head.
me, there was always something mysterious about Caskey. I
remember him saying " life is like throwing a boomerang into the night."
I sensed a vast interior I was never really privvy to. He seemed uncomfortable talking about himself.
never heard him say a lot about his art, what it meant to him or why he
did certain things. He never revealed to me how he felt about the
reaction of others to what he did as an artist.
But there is one thing I know.
know that one afternoon in the winter of 1978, in the city of New York,
on Fifth Avenue, Robert Caskey completed his Phone Event art project.
He went to the Guggenheim Museum and ate lunch.
Jim Pallas 2004
Ed. Note: Written for Casky's funeral in 2004.