|The GEOMETRY of SILENCE
|As I write this (expanded) English version of a text originally written for a symposium in Vienna there is silence on the radio: "Folie/Culture" (1998-91), a piece by Jocelyn Robert aired on RADIA 89.9 in Banff as part of Radio Rethink, contains soundless elements - silences - that force each listener, where ever he or she may be, to become conscious of the sounds in the immediate surroundings.
It is certainly not by chance that the Radio Rethink station-identification is announced as RADIA 89.9. La Radia is the title of a Futurist manifesto published by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Pino Masnata in October 1933 in La Gazetta del Popolo. According to one analysis, this significant article emphasized the new sensibility that Marinetti felt was inherent in modern experience. Sound waves, creatively used, could offer a "universal cosmic human art." This was a world without "time, space , yesterday and tomorrow." Futurist radio art would utilize the characteristics of the medium. Interference, static and the "geometry of silence" could play a part in the general Futurist overturning of conventional values.
Seen today, La Radia - and other Futurist manifestoes - possess an iconic force: they are statements about the contemporary world, images of the industrial age, that have changed the world entirely. Inside the Futurist manifestoes we find ideas very close to those sought today by philosophers and media theorists to describe the state of a society which is characterized by the rapid development of electronic technology. The Futurists were able to "see" the image of a worldwide network of distributed electricity just as well as they "saw" the image of the crisis of timespace in today's telecommunications. Moreover, informed by utopian enthusiasms about predicted technologies which, in their opinion, required a rethinking of all cultural attitudes, the Futurists were able to develop in their writings such as La Radia the image and concept of an art that they themselves could not put into practice. Even now - when the predicted technologies are all around us - anything resembling the concept of art formulated in the Marinetti/Masnata manifesto has been, at best, only partially realized and, if so, only by that small group of people who still (sometimes reluctantly) call themselves artists, for the lack of a better word. The activities of these people - who come not only from the visual arts but from music, literature and even technology - have often very little in common with the notions of art propagated by the traditional art institutions and their constituting and legitimizing forces. The traditional meaning of concepts such as the author, the piece/work of art, the original, the object, the medium, and so on, are constantly and consciously challenged by the practices of those artists, who confront the conditions of postindustrial society and situate their work in the immaterial space of new communications technologies. Radio, as one of the ever-changing media that collects, stores, manipulates and radiates information, serves some of these artists as one possible site and/or object for activity.
Marinetti, together with fellow Futurist Fortunato Depero, made a first radio broadcast in Milan in 1933. There is no recording of this broadcast, which was devoted to phonetic poetry, or other broadcasts: we know Marinetti's voice only from the records he made. In 1934 Depero published Liriche Radiofoniche, poetry especially created for the new medium: Marinetti himself left the scores for a few pieces of his radio art which were constructed in the 1970's. These Cinque Sintesi dal Teatro Radiofonico demonstrate an understanding of the medium that goes much further than its definition as a distribution medium of phonetic poetry or compositions, including noise. This is indicated in the titles of Sintesi, which were not realized by Marinetti simply because the necessary radio technology hat not yet been developed: Un Paesaggio Udito (A Sound-scape), I Silenzi Parlano Tra Loro (The Silences Talk to Each Other), Battaglia di Ritmi (Battle of Rhythms), La Costruzione di un Silenzio (The Construction of a Silence) and, lastly, Dramma di Distanze (Drama of Distances). The scores for the Sintesi read (approximately): "ten seconds of dishwashing, one second of rustling, eight seconds of dishwashing" or "forty seconds of pure silence, 'do' by a trumpet, crying of a doll, eleven seconds of pure silence; ooooo! surprise of an eleven-year old girl." In scores like this, Marinetti underlines the character of sounds and/or recorded information material, a strategy that continues - even after all these years - to play an important role in media art, especially now with the advent of digital equipment such as the sampler. In addition, if, as in The Construction of Silence, he constructs a terrace open on two sides using recorded sounds, he displays a very sculptural concern with sound and radio. It is this sculptural concern that makes it possible for artists today to conceive of their work with new technologies as art in the electronic or digital space. In his Drama of Distances Marinetti anticipates a worldwide net of live radio lines (eleven seconds of a military march played in Rome, eleven seconds of tango danced in Santos, eleven seconds of Japanese religious music performed in Tokyo and so on). In other words, Marinetti works with the specific characteristics of the radio medium, its lines and channels, its mix of live and recorded material, its ability to be in many places simultaneously. By using network like images and concepts, as in Drama of Distances, Marinetti can be seen from today's standpoint as referring to newer communication technologies such as electronic mail and conferencing systems. Friedmann Malsch has pointed out that the manifesto La Radia would be too narrowly interpreted if only related to the medium of radio, which in Italian is also called "radio" and not "radia"."The wordplay in the title of the manifesto relates much more to the way radio functions - by transmitting radiating waves - than to the institution radio." If La Radia anticipates television, this anticipation is very relevant today because, as Malsch shows, television in the context of this Futurist manifesto isone of several metaphors for an electronic culture, as it has been described much later by Marshall McLuhan. In this culture of La Radia we now discern a dissolving of the media, as this press release for the meeting of the heads of several international computer manufacturers in Vienna, 1991, suggests:
Newspapers, magazines, books, radio, TV will just be different contents. They will have one common node: the personal computer, which via powerfull dataline networks will plug us into global gathering points of information.
It is again the manifestoes of the Futurists that contributed formulations of the "socially already existent and aesthetically intended 'confusion des differences entre les disciplines de l'image, de l'ecrit et du son' of many artists of the avantgarde," long before this "confusion" was contained in (computer) technology itself.
Contemporary radio art defines itself within issues raised by the Futurist manifestoes. The development of a sound language, of new narratives, does continue but such approaches reside in a tradition established before the digital revolution. This was the special brand of European Public Radio that supported the development of artists in Neues Hörpsiel, electroacoustic music and the radio program Ars Acustica, all of which contributed to the notions of the avant-garde at the beginning of the century - albeit mostly within the traditional framework of the "original work" by an "author" with a copyright and, most significantly, within the conventional definition of radio as a specific medium in its own right. Self-referentiality was more or less a problem of acoustic art or audio art - art for the ear - and did not necessarily carry any wider notions about communications technology or cultural change in general. However, there is another form of radio art that is only incidentally related to the ear. This art deals with the public space of radio as one among many that, together constitute an electronic space. Rapidly becoming a digital space, this construction envelops the world and reaches out into orbit. Artists working in this realm, in which radio is just one point of reference, are not so much concerned with the recording and representation of sound or music as with the delineation, by using its lines and channels, of electronic/digital space itself. For these artists, radio art cannot be reduced to program slots devoted to Ars Acoustica nor to the many different forms assumed by the institutions of radio under the different national broadcasting laws and even pirate radio. Radio art, in the tradition of La Radia, is less concerned with sound than with transmission, the radiation of data - ham radio, CB radio, surveillance tramitters, electronic warfare, television, picturephone, taxi radios and many others.
In Radio/Zeit (Radio/Time) , a performance for the Styrian Autumn Festival and ORF KunstRadio/RadioKunst in Graz in 1989, Richard Kriesche underlined this contemporary definition of radio art by bringing the line signals of a weather satellite into his studio in Graz. The signals triggered a keyboard to play Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik; at the same time the signals were represented as a weather map projected onto the wall. In the darkened studio the artist sat by a lamp in the mixed light of this projection, reading a text on radio art that was completely unintelligible for the audience. With unassisted human ears, the audience could not differentiate between the voice of the artist, the white transmission noise and the music from the keyboard. An image developed that underlined the fact that "the digital representation of form loses its identity as form and ... digital recording media do not give up their content without appropriate decoding technology." A mix of excerpts from Kriesche's text and recording of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik was broadcast later, but the real piece of radio art was the performance itself. It was a strinking image of our situation - immersed in and surrounded by the white noise of transmitted data.
In autum 1991, Richard Kriesche developed his Radio/Zeit project even further and organized ARTSAT, another project that delineated the electronic/digital space of communications technology as the site of a contemporary non-object-oriented art in the public space. Kriesche managed to get an art project accepted for inclusion with the projects and experiments to be carried out by the first Austrian cosmonauts to travel in space aboard the Soviet MIR space station. This was an artwork using radio as a technique and strategy to connect to and control populations of electronic systems in the mostly militarily defined extraterrestrial space. To make and keep his project visible admidst the patriotic drumbeating of the media, Kriesche appropriated social and artistic cliches, for example, transmitting a live message from the austrian cosmonaut, as his orbit carried him over eastern Central Europe in the MIR space station, to a television studio in Graz.
This message sent via a ham radio device, triggered a synthesizer to play the Danube waltz, directed an industrial robot to weld a pattern onto a huge steel disc and was also recorded on audio tape. The tape was mailed to ten Austrian composers who turned the data of the message into short compositions that were aired first on KunstRadio and then published as a compact disc. The compact disc is an audio (and visual) counterpart to the huge welded disc that has in the meantime become a public monument. The project had many layers, the most important of which was perhaps that Kriesche succeeded in getting, at very short notice, a live national television program on a Sunday that leasted exactly as long as the full MIR orbit - one hour and thirteen minutes. The project also made clear that a profound change had taken place in recent years in art, especially an art positioned in public (electronic) space. For instance, Christina Weiss could write in 1984:"the artist ... used sign material, communications material with the aim sharpening a 'critical' glance of the reader ... and by that to make the manipulative behaviour of everyday information media more transparent." After the Gulf War and media events such as the "revolution" in Romania, everyone knows about the manipulative behaviour of the everyday information media. Attempts by artists to critically "make visible" the mechanisms of the media often end up in the involuntary affirmation of media structures and contents. In this situation many artists have consciously adopted affirmative strategies; their art is concerned with the balance between its own visibility and disappearance. Well-defined roles may be appropriated, disguises adopted, fictions created, just to balance barely perceptible forms of appearance and the sensation of drowning in the white noise of data.
The hollowness of concepts such as author, work, object, original, (knowing) sender and (learning) receiver, the dissolution of disciplines and media have been proclaimed again and again by individual artists and art movements. However, artists' work has constantly been defused and undermined by the art market, art history and art museums - and even now, when these concepts have been irrevocably built into the technological fabric of our society, we witness, in catalogues, exhibitions, art magazines and art fairs, a series of rescue operation for the traditional concepts of an object-oriented art.
"Everything I decide to record belongs to me and I can do with it whatever I please", says Australian Radio Artist Rick Rue whose strategies are "appropriation and piracy." The Austrian/Swiss group Radio SubCom calls a very similar working method the "recycling of cliches." Everything that can be recorded and stored becomes material or fragments of material that can immediately be changed into something quite unrecognizable. Altered and manipulated fragments can be merged with fragments recorded and stored at other times and other places into everchanging mosaics, which in turn can be transmitted to become material of a new and completely different form. "If we create a digital analogy or representation of something, this representation is subject to the logic of the host system and no longer belongs to the logic of the former context."Material, cut off from any original context, is stored in the datenbank of culture, floating in a permanent value-free present or non-time and non-space. If there is an appropriate decoding technology (including electricity), the stored data can be called upon everywhere and be put into any historical, political or art context. The data can become "an art that passes down phone lines, that proliferates as invisible electromagnetic waves that can be broadcast." Such an art demand a different model of communication than the hierarchical one of an artist creator on one side and a (passive) recipient on the other who must be in an "adequate attitude" or receiving mode. As Roy Ascott suggests,
In telematic art, meaning/content is no longer something which is created by artist, then distributed through the network and received by the recipient. Meaning is rather the result of an interaction between the observer/participant and the system, the content of which is in a state of flux, of endless change and transformation. In this state of uncertainty and instability the content becomes ... embodied in data which themselves are immaterial - pure difference - until it is reconstituted at the interface as image, text or sound.
There are artists who, especially if they work for a mass medium like radio, renounce their copyright and do not care wheter their name is mentioned or not. Some of them produce works with variable beginnings and endings (or no beginnings and endings at all) so that the piece fold into the flow of radio, sometimes surfacing to catch attention of a listener only to dissolve again into the background of other radio sounds. Work of this kind is not usually comfortable in the increasing number of gallery-like programms (such as KunstRadio) that public radio stations in Europe dedicate to radio art. This type of work tends to seek a place in the public space of everyday radio broadcasting - popular music, regional and local programs. Of course, as with works in physical urban space, the users of that space will exercise their rights to comment on, debate and eventually make decisions about the sculpture, artwork or radio art in their territory. Artists who want to position their work in the public space of the mass media must employ similar strategies, patience, strength of concept as in any other public space.
The following examples of an art in the public space of broadcasting medium radio indicate, together with the other projects described above, the range of possibilities this space offers to artists. In 1989, during the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Chris Mann, Australian performance and radio artist, philosopher and writer, had the listeners of the regional radio tell dog stories interspersed with usual daily programs. The dog stories could be sent by cassette or phoned in and they were broadcast in their original form without commentary.
One of the radio art projects that was most successful in infiltration the public space of Radio was Bill Fontana's Landscape Soundings a co-production between KunstRadio in 1990 - representing the ORF (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation) - and the Vienna Festival. Fontana used both analogue and digital technology to have sounds transmitted into the centre of Vienna from microphones carefully positioned about thirty kilometres away in the Danube marshes. This was a politically sensitive site (the Stopfenreiter Au) because it was the scene of mas protests and sit-ins which, several years earlier, had saved the marshes from destruction by a hydroelectricity project. The ÖPT (Austrian Post and Telecommunications - the state communications monopoly) installed sixteen lines from the marshes to a nearby village, reactivated sixteen old disused telephone lines and connected them to the new ORF digital microwave transmission equipment (newly purchased for remote television sports reports) which had been mounted on a farm for line-of-sight transmissions in Vienna. The sounds from the microphones in the marshes were converted to video signals for digital transmission to the ÖPT Kahlenberg relay station, a high point in the Vienna Woods, and from there to the roof of the Kunsthistorische Museum Vienna, and finally down to an improvised studio in the museum. The digital signals were changed back into analogue and distributed live to seventy loudspeakers installed in shrubbery and topiary of the Maria Theresia Platz, a formal garden (with a statue of Maria Theresia) and on the facades of the Kunsthistorische Museum and Naturhistorische Museum which flank the park. A spectacular live sound-sculpture unfolded (twenty-four hours per day without interruption) for two weeks. The work had another dimension: the signals from sixteen lines went into a stereo mixer and at the same time were transmitted in stereo to the radio station. Bill Fontana controlled the live mix both in the park and for the radio at all times - either personally or by means of a "score" based on his intimate knowledge of what sounds would arrive when and on which lines.
Originally Fontana was to do two forty-five minutes live mixes for the KunstRadio program on Thursday evening during the event and produce short live mixes on the same days for other programs on Österreich 1, the ORF cultural program, as a kind of introduction to the longer KunstRadio mixes. But very soon, program makers at all three channels of the ORF started to tune into the live line, which was open twenty-four hours a day, and to incorporate the real-time sounds of frogs, birds, water, thunder-storms, and rain into their broadcasts. By the end of the fortnight, the piece became so popular that the radio director decided to have the last five minutes of the sculpture transmitted live on all three channels of Austrian Radio.
An increasing number of artists, like Fontana, consider their radio work as a sculpture, not in the sense of transmitting sound sculptures but rather a declineation of scultpture itself. Austrian sculptor and conceptual artist Gottfried Bechtold makes it very clear that his radio sculptures exist for the duration of the transmition, the sound travelling from the transmitter to all the places where a listener is located and thereby defining a sculpture. It ought to be mentioned here, as Robert Adrian X has pointed out, that it was conceptual art which made it possible to conceive of an electronic space at all. Artists like Lawrence Weiner and, in Austria, Gottfried Bechtold have made it possible to consider the radio (broadcast) space as a public sculptural space in which music, sound and language are the material of sculptures. In the same way that Jocelyn Robert sends out silences that make listeners aware of the environment, Bill Fontana sees his radio work as developing into individual sculptures for each listener wherever she or he may be. With such works it becomes very obvious that the author has no means of knowing the actual shape of the piece. The artist knows only that, at the moment of the transmission, the sounds will be perceived by a dispersed audience simultaneously. There is no way of knowing in what spaces the transmitted sounds are mingled with other material or wheter the listener is paying any attention at all. This element if dispersal becomes even more obvious in artistic events that make use of e-mail networks or conferencing systems. Since his first involvement with network projects in the late 1970's, Roy Ascott has used the term "distributed/dispersed authorship" for events of this kind. Software such as HyperCard or HyperText faciliates the development of non-linear and, in their sequence, unrepeatable narrative forms, in which again the relationship between author and user is changed to such a degree that the user becomes co-author. Under such conditions a work of art cannot be experienced as a closed or neatly repeatable original by either the author/participant nor the user/co-author/participant. The piece grows in many different places simultaneously and is kept in a state of flux by the cooperation of many unknown people, who compromise anything but a traditional "audience".
An art of this kind, which demands the cooperation of experts in a variety of disciplines, is difficult to grasp for theoretical analysis and classification in the traditional sense. On the other hand the artists themselves must be knowledgeable about theory in order to position their work in electronic space. In order to approach an understanding of this type of work, new forms of documentation, theory and criticism will have to be developed that not only pay attention to the last stage of the work but observe the entire process of the development. The critic and theoretician may have to become a user, an active participant in such a piece of art and, like the artist/initiator and all other participants, will have to work from the memory of his or her personal experience when evaluating a piece that cannot be reproduced, reconstructed or repeated.
|Heidi Grundmann: The Geometry of Silence. In: Radio Rethink. ed. by Daina Augaitis and Dan Lander. The Banff Centre for the Arts, 1994|