Radio as art, art as radio

Sarah Washington

In 2005 at the birth of the radio art network Radia, whose members are community, university, and free radio stations (plus affiliated public broadcasters), the big question hanging in the air was: ‘What is Radio Art?’ At that time the founders of the network, some of whom had been long involved in producing art for the radio, wanted to start a debate around this question – in the hope that somebody would come up with a clever formulation for precisely what it was that we were trying to promote.

In the end the discussion never fully took off, as people were far more concerned with the day to day issues of keeping their radio stations running. Those who needed to invite artists to make shows for the network repeatedly asked the seemingly big and important question, but after a few months settled down with the notion that anything was possible which could in some way be conceived of as an artistic offering for radio. It was far easier to define what we thought radio art was not, therefore a few things were passionately discouraged: standard DJ sets, recordings of live concerts or talks, and sound art recordings lifted from CD. We wanted specially created works from artists.

Running only on goodwill and enthusiasm, by some small miracle the Radia weekly rota: whereby each station in turn offers a show to be played on all stations, is still going strong in 2016 – being broadcast on 28 stations in 17 countries. In September the Radia show will reach its 600th edition of unique works, and the network continues to grow.

In the years following the foundation of Radia it became clear that it was not necessarily desirable to reach any kind of definition of ‘Radio Art’, primarily because we had always wanted artists to constantly redefine the term through their work. We certainly did not want to spawn the development of a specific style that may one day reach a dead end simply through the process of becoming an object of academic study. That was a relief, we could now simply refer to radio art without any need for justification or attempt at self-aggrandisement, and could get on with producing and encouraging others to do the same.

There is a very good reason that radio art is difficult to define, and that is because it is not one single thing but in fact many different things, which may be related only by their association with the medium of radio. If by way of comparison we wanted to talk of the totality of writing as an art form (which is rarely done) we could be describing a varied and ever-changing variety of forms: novels, poetry, essays, lyrics, film & radio scripts, graffiti, calligraphy, musical notation, diary, biography, letter writing, hieroglyphics, computer code. Some of these are not stand-alone forms because they function within another media, yet others can be simultaneously assigned to more than one category of art. And of course the same is true of some of the varied forms of art made ‘for’ or ‘with’ radio.

It is relatively easy however to identify these two main areas of activity, as they form the basis of Radio Revolten. They can be interrelated but are more often entirely separate spheres of operation. Firstly the ‘for’. This is a category with a history as long as the medium: radiophonic production, not in the dictionary sense of electronically produced music, but in the broader understanding of fictionalised sound specifically intended to be heard on radio. This type of work accepts any condition of reception from lo-fi to hi-fi to blending in with the sounds of everyday life. It’s what you hear out of whichever black box you choose to listen to, which nowadays doesn’t have to be a radio. Still, the work is crafted for your ears; using or rejecting accepted rules of dramaturgy, sound design, and musical scoring. It often employs the human voice as a main or secondary component, but when there is no voice it still manages to distinguish itself from music or sound art by its radiophonic ‘inclination’.

That’s a difficult quality to pin down, but easy to identify when you hear a particular piece. Some questions may help us here: does the work elicit a particularly fluid imaginative response? Does it create the space for itself to be received differently upon each exposure? Does it drift, have various layers, is the colour of its reception dependant upon mood, concentration or external circumstances? Does it work together with you in tandem, as an evolving soundtrack to your state of mind? However abstract or literal a work may be, radiophonic sound takes you on some sort of intimate internal journey. It may contain elements of drama, soundscape, documentary, poetry, comedy, music, news, spoken word or live performance; the use of various sound elements in combination with variations and subtleties of narrative form are in the end what come to define it.

Radiophonic work takes on a dual manifestation when performed in front of an audience at the same time as being transmitted live on air. The broadcast takes on an extra dimension as the performer strives to communicate with two audiences simultaneously (the known and the unknowable). These parallel audiences are interlinked by transmission and reception: alongside audio, the radio listeners receive the energetic liveness of a performance in its particular acoustic space, whilst at the broadcast site a radio sensibility develops as the audience becomes an elemental part of the transmission. This is an area of radio art that we have a particularly strong interest in exploring further, thus we have commissioned many live-to-air public events for the festival.

The second main area of work, the ‘with’, is involved in exploiting the technology of radio; that is to say work which concerns itself with the apparatus or condition of transmission. This covers all types of installation work (sound and/or visual) and sonic performance which employ an aspect of transmission or reception as the material of the work. It may feature any aspect of the technology such as the hardware of transmitters, receivers, antennae, wire, valves and other components; typically as feedback instruments or else in conjunction with the electromagnetic effects of static, interference, or atmospheric events. Such effects occur across the radio frequency spectrum: from the very low frequency (VLF) of natural radio where the activity of sunspots, lightning and other atmospheric artefacts may be found, through to the bands of communications transmission such as shortwave, FM, AM and the frequencies for amateur radio operators and Citizens’ Band (CB).

Ever more technology incorporates a form of radio as the essential tool for today’s ubiquitous wireless operations. Even the broadcast signal from a radio studio to a transmitter may be sent via a line-of-sight uplink in the microwave super high frequency (SHF) range, other parts of which are used for deep space radio communications, radio astronomy, satellite communication and radar, among other things. It may be mind boggling to contemplate the amount of radio waves passing through your body right now. Whether you would like to talk about artists (who choose to work with radio) or radio artists, one thing is clear: there will never be a shortage of material to work with!

Before I finish I’d like to mention the curious area of work that I am primarily concerned with, which has emerged in recent decades due to a confluence of factors, one of which is the transformation of communications into a new technological paradigm. This has led to radio as an art practice concerning itself fundamentally with society: by forging specific interest groups into robust local and global communities. Here is the place where barriers are broken down and art becomes less detachable from everyday concerns. Today it is not beyond the realms of possibility for a specific radio station to be called a work of art, and that kind of art becomes indistinguishable from activism for social justice. When you establish a new radio art project, whether that be as ambitious as creating an entire radio station, or more simply starting a radio show, building your own transmitter, or performing a transmission action in public space, you are learning to take control of your own media. You are shaping the discourse and critiquing conditions of power, access, propaganda and surveillance. This is an art never to be lost or forgotten; such skills may become even more critical in the future.

Sarah Washington, Curator