Radio Art Zone
Hatje Cantz Verlag GmBH, Berlin, 2023
236 pp., illus., 150. b/w. Trade, £38
Reviewed by Mark Leahy
“This book is the culmination of more than twenty years of dedication to a cause, the result of a process to establish the conditions for radio to become a flourishing genre of art.” (Sarah Washington, ‘Introduction’, p. 5)
Radio Art Zone operates as an anthology, an exhibition, a manifesto or series of manifestoes, and as the staking of a claim in the ground of art practices, finding a space for radio art among other genres and working to define or develop a definition for this genre. The editor, Sarah Washington, has been working with radio as a medium in various iterations across Europe and internationally. Her projects include radio stations, music and sound, and radio art works, and supporting networks of broadcasters, radio artists and communities. This volume collects traces or evidence of Radio Art Zone (RAZ), a series of 22-hour-long works for radio, broadcast in Luxembourg over one hundred days in the summer of 2022. It was a project of the European Capital of Culture Esch2022. RAZ works with existing radio and sound technologies, existing models and systems, but uses them in resistant, disruptive or other ways.
“In the following pages you will find examples of various attempts to repurpose radio. More specifically, we are concerned with the possibilities of hitchhiking on terrestrial radio waves to allow art to travel in mysterious ways.” (Washington, ‘Introduction’, p. 5)
In working to claim a space for radio art and to propose a definition or a model for the genre, the projects continue to hold to a sense of the gap, the interstice, the in-between as a space of potential and of messiness, a zone that is less fully defined, that retains some mystery. Some of this mystery arises from the specificities of place and space and time that are essential to radio.
“Radio is a function of the space in which it is created; meaning that what is able to take place, how work comes into being, and the incidental sound you hear creeping into the microphones, are specific qualities arising out of a particular location.” (Washington, ‘Radio Art Zone on air’, p. 9)
As part of her work to support radio art to become a ‘flourishing genre of art’, Washington has assembled a compendium of examples, of instances of radio events and projects. These works connect to other media and practices including music, performance, installation, social sculpture, drawing, and writing. The argument of the RAZ volume is that there is some unique feature or characteristic of radio art that connects these diverse works and that serves a useful purpose for audiences, makers and commissioners to distinguish this from other practices. If the purpose of a genre is to help recognise examples of itself, then this volume may operate as a field guide to possible hearings; if the purpose is to support a community of practices by offering a focus or centre for their variety, then this book can function as a gathering place for practitioners. Whatever function of genre is dominant, there remains a sense that the definition and classification remain porous, retain some of the excitement that an undecided or undetermined practice can have.
“The term radio art entered my life as an apparition equal to a blind spot in visual perception. Blurred contours and in the middle an undefined space. Meanwhile I appreciate this vague appearance and try to preserve it with every new expression. Carried by radio waves, the works spread out without being bound to physical spaces and institutions. Boundless to the edge of audibility.” (Konrad Behr, p. 209)
The mixed pieces are presented in diverse ways across the pages of this rich publication, rich in variety of paper stock, printing styles, languages, photographic images as well as drawings, diagrams and plain text. They all in different ways document the responses to the call or invitation of the Radio Art Zone project. They are responses to an open call, an open invitation and something of this openness, this call and response mode, this reciprocity is key to the understanding of radio as a medium and of radio art as a practice. There is an awareness always of the possibility of the message being sent but never received, the call made but not heard, so that the response (from the listener, the audience) must be imagined, anticipated, wished for: “because I have no idea what the situation is where you are receiving this transmission. I’m not even sure if you are receiving this at all” (Irina Gheorghe, ‘The Day They Come’, p. 35).
The pieces collected in some cases document the event of RAZ itself, in some cases they present memories, recollections or personal links to radio as a medium, or an experience of radio from childhood, for example, being captured by a glitch:
“The song, apparently played from vinyl in the broadcasting studio, started skipping. Whoever was responsible seemed to have stepped out of the studio for a moment and left the turntable unattended. The record continued to skip as I was listening in growing awe, for about two minutes or so.” (Tomáš Procházka, p 92)
There are accounts of the engagement with the material, physical fact of the radio receiver as a device, with antenna, wiring, valves. “My childhood naivety and carefree curiosity soon tempted me to open the device. Suddenly I had the antenna and loose cables in my hand. I didn’t know what to do and couldn’t put it back together” (Ralf Schreiber, p. 89). This material fact, the stuff of radio, the metal and wire that the device is made of is reflected in a number of the images in the book e.g., Reni Hofmüller, ‘antenne, lichtschwert’ (p. 83) or an image of multiple-coloured wires by Martiensgohome (p. 29). There are also images that reflect the materiality, the messiness, the mix of the mundane, the ordinary, the technical of a small radio studio, with Jasmina Al-Qaisi (pp. 86-7) showing the desks, tools, laptops and other furniture of the studio for her contribution to RAZ and documenting an interaction with a neighbour concerned about how much noise they were making. Heidi Neilson describes extending the dimensions of an antenna from 8 feet to 11 feet in diameter. She writes, “for this expansion we added metal mesh with fairly big holes – of the same type used to house my pet guinea pigs when I was a child – as the radio transmission at this particular wavelength “sees” the mesh as if it was a solid surface it can bounce off. Working with this mesh was a connection to the tactility of radio.” (p. 149)
There are elements of the RAZ collection that connect to the political or social or community possibilities of art and/or community radio. The potential to operate in a different way, in a different space or direction to commercial radio is foregrounded.
“Instead of imagining ourselves as passive end users, we can find additional value in any technology by rethinking its given purpose. In the case of traditional broadcast radio, which typically operates as a hierarchical one-to-many infotainment system, self-determination could take many paths: from building a mini transmitter for personal use to developing musical instruments, art installations, or even entire radio stations with unique and democratised content.” (Washington, ‘Introduction’, p. 4)
Radio can get between and around things, it can offer different people, communities, groups, the opportunity to be heard, to tell their tales, to share their experiences, among themselves as well as with others. “Radio and touch have a deep relation. We became the antennas for transmitting and receiving from/to communities, politicising the listening process, amplifying the silenced. . . . Then the regional/planetary networks were born, the opening of dialogues to try bigger and louder projects and actions to improve the radio/world” (Fabiano Kueva / Resonant South, p. 133). Radio’s mobility, its transportability, its decentred nature allows marginal or marginalised voices to enter the field of discourse. The relative low cost of production, and the ability to set up quite quickly in places away from centres of population or power means those who otherwise might be excluded from public speech or public address – by age, ability, education, ethnicity, or other factors of life or experience – may participate in the making and broadcasting of radio material. The form of community radio can be considered in ways that encourage participation, that include, that prioritise access, in her piece ‘Some questions for community radio’ Lucinda Guy asks “how do these technologies and traditions support or disadvantage producers and presenters to find their voice, share their stories and ideas? […] Are the chairs comfy? […] Are there dogs at the studio? […] Do we care about each other, listen to one another, create new things and inspire each other? Is there a way of being together, that emerges through the technologies and out into the air?” (p. 28).
This collection of material, presented in an attractive, well-designed, and physically exciting volume, makes an argument for the value and interest of an area of creative practice that works across borders and boundaries, of nations, of generations, of abilities, and of experiences: “like warmth / radio is an invisible energy that occupies the space in between” (Florencia Curci, p. 216-17). As a medium radio exists at an intersection of the amateur or non-professional with the expert and the trained. It can foreground lived experience with less mediation, less filtering than some other publication forms, and allows for a DIY or ‘try it and see’ method, as well as having room for the polish of carefully constructed and edited broadcasts with smooth transitions and balanced levels. The physical encounter with this book offers a taste of this, but the fuller experience can be found by following links to the archived broadcasts or exploring the work of the many contributing radio stations and artists.