RADIO RETHINK - ART, SOUND AND TRANSMISSION
Edited by Diana Augaitis and Dan Lander, Banff, Walter Phillips Gallery, 1994
Canadians say that TV is American but radio is Canadian. In fact, the concept of "Canada" as a nation was based on building the national railway and the national broadcasting system. Radio, supported by the state, served as the means of developing national identity and legitimating territoriality against the United States. The Platonic ideal which demands that the proper size of a city should be indicated by the number of people who could hear the voice of the public speaker was implemented on a national scale through the ether. No wonder that Canada is characterized by a hypersensitivity to acoustics and, of course, to radio: many artists have dedicated themselves to radio art, and several publications, and CD-ROMs deal with this topic. Yet Radio Rethink is not just one among these publications. It is a part of a complex project by the same title which was designed by Walter Phillips Gallery in 1992. This project covered broadcasting programs from the gallery´s own radio station, installations, performances, and a series of lectures. This volume includes the papers read at the symposium and introduces the reader into the Canadian radio art of the nineties, as well as, into the brief history of the genre and the art activities related to this field. The book is supported by a CD ROM with pieces composed for radio by seven Canadian artists ranging from a political-ecological manifesto to a feminist radio opera.
Let me linger upon two of these works which, I think, represent the dualistic character of radio: a paradox described rather poetically in an essay by Gregory Whitehead: "I have been struck by radio´s profoundly split identity. Into one ear plays the happy folk band of Radio Utopia, brainwaves and radiowaves mixed into a grand electromagnetic community. Whilst into the other ear, a different band marches on, the trigger-finger crash band of Radio Thanatos, straight into oblivion. Most forgotten are the lethal wires that still heat up from inside out, wires that connect radio with warfare, brain damage, rattles from necropolis. When I turn my radio on, I hear a whole chorus of death rattles: from voices that have been severed from the body for so long that no one can remember who they belong to, or whether they belong to anybody at all." The cherished dream of the avant-garde imagined radio as a force that creates a universal community on the basis of freedom. Brecht saw radio as a Babelian confusion, as an agora in virtual space where everyone can send and receive messages. Khlebnikov thought that radio would be the central tree of mankind´s consciousness, and the main Radio station, where clouds of wires cluster, should be protected by a sign with a skull and crossbones in order to avoid any disruption which might produce a mental blackout all over the world. In his manifesto La Radia, Marinetti anticipated a network of live broadcasting that would unite the world through which the language "liberated" from syntax, the utopia of the wireless imagination could be realized. Not unlike the Internet fans´ dream of the Global Village, the radio art of the nineties renews the grand ideas of the avant-garde as it considers radio as the means of starting communication among the different layers in society, of creating a community, and of transforming the traditional role of the recipient.
Colette Urban´s piece was a week-long performance based on radio with seven performers. Each day another person transmitted his own choice from the broadcast booth at Walter Phillips Gallery - the broadcasting time growing by one minute every day mixed with the previous days´ broadcasts. While the other six members visited public spaces with hats on their heads equipped with a small receiver pretuned to Radio Rethink frequency. The acoustic performance was a success: the citizens of Banff were ready to take part in the show and engaged in conversation with the artists. Yet on the last day, the bomb burst at the local swimming pool. The broadcast of the day was met with prudery, and communication broke down. Urban´s live radio was an attempt to examine the points where conversation began and where it ended and in fact showed that the transformation of the model characteristic to the relationship of the artist and his audience was rather an utopistic end of art than a concept to be realized.
In his work Écrit bruts, Christof Migone translated writings by the insane into a subjective aural reading. Speech fallen apart, sounds cut off from the words, stammers, silences and cries evoked the fragmented and disembodied sounds of Radio Thanatos. The utopia of identity either personal or that of the community broke off in this Artaudian schizophrenic theatre - where the voice strives against the body to get free - and radio manifested itself as technological presence. An installation by Migone presented as a part of Radio Rethink project was centred around the same topic. "The radio booth resembles an inanimate brain rather than a great communicator", he says. "And radio stripped off its hardware, without a transmitter is like a confessional." He installed a "confessional" feigning a radio booth in which a computer was talking to the audience. The sequence of questions and answers did not make up a conversation and the words spoken did not reach anybody but immediately disseminated as there was no transmitter. The person interviewed did not understand his position: he did not know where he was - in the ether or at an exhibition - and to whom he was talking. These fragments of "conversation" that lacked a context belong to the theatre of the absurd and join in the parody of communication.
Urban´s concept is an attempt full of humour to encourage communication through the application of the potentials that technology offers while Migone studies the ontological abyss behind technology. Their approaches are, after all, complementary to each other: Radio Utopia and Radio Thanatos being one and the other side of the picture.