This post is part of the series ‘Thesis Highlights‘ in which recently graduated master students affiliated with LGC are invited to give a short insight into their research. This posting is by LGC researcher Marta Maria Wódz.
At first glance, radio may seem to be an example of dated technology, overturned by other, newer media. However, multiple artistic projects created during the last two decades seem to indicate the opposite: the upsurge of radio-related artworks or initiatives in both: grassroots artistic practices and projects carried out under the auspices of the biggest institutions (the examples from the Polish art-scene are Radio Kapitał [Capital] hosted by Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw or the series of audio programs Out Of Office as a part of Plac Małachowskiego 3 by Zachęta National Gallery of Art – both projects launched in summer 2019).
Why, out of all possible forms, do contemporary artists choose radio as a tool, medium or a way of presentation for a particular project? In what kind of context does it appear? To put it shortly, I was interested in radio in arts, rather than art in radio (radio art). For that reason I find useful the term transmission arts coined in the end of the 1990s by Wave Farm – a collective originating from New York which later developed into a bigger organization. By placing wireless transmission in the center of interest, it can broaden the notion of radio art and embrace a much wider spectrum of artistic practices not necessarily (or maybe even not at all?) happening inside a broadcasting studio, but including installations, live performances, etc.
In his manifesto The Radio of the Future, futurist Valimir Khlebnikov envisioned the transmissions of image and text alongside with sensations such as scents or flavors. In the first two chapters I have paid close attention to the history of radio, its use and social reception in its early stages also in relation to the development of science and technology: for example so-called ‘radio sense’ was a popular belief in the beginning of 20th century that some people can receive radio waves directly via their brains. Even if such ideas may now seem somewhat amusing, in the 1920s, described by Flora Lysen as the “early 20th century world of fuzzy boundaries between mind and media,” the existing imagery of over-encompassing, invisible oscillations which were already materialized in laboratories as epistemic things could render even surprisingly peculiar ideas as entirely plausible.
In my thesis, I am especially interested in radio as a tool used in artistic projects addressing issues connected to the civil disobedience or resistance – its potentially emancipating capacity to transgress borders and physical, architectonic barriers, contrasted with its history as a powerful propaganda tool. What I find fascinating is this self-contradictory tension between radio as a fundamentally state-controlled medium with broadcasts aimed for particular countries separately and its intrinsic impossibility to fit into dimensions demarcated by the national borders. Can radio, especially when understood as prehistoric, all-encompassing, natural phenomenon, become a counter-force to visuality or a response to the pictorial turn described by W.J.T Mitchell?
Although throughout the course of the text I refer to many other artworks, as the core examples I have chosen the projects by Katarzyna Krakowiak and Radio Earth Hold because rather than presenting finished products, the solutions they introduce are opening up a wide mesh of further possibilities. They touch upon political topics in a way that can profoundly challenge our thinking and encourage to reexamine not only the role of radio, but also the transmission and communication in or via art – perhaps in this sense they can be understood as a form of countervisuality.
Historically speaking, radio (understood as technology) has always been influenced by plenty of external factors such as weather and closely connected to the presence of the listener who can adjust the antenna to receive a better quality signal. But what happens when, as in case of Katarzyna Krakowiak’s works, these two become one and the artist both metaphorically and physically turns into a part of the device via which the signal is broadcasted? The analysis of her works The Human Antenna – Rozgłośnia Stocznia 94FM and Free Radio Jaffa constitutes the third chapter. By recreating the broadcasting station that used to operate in the Gdansk Shipyard, Krakowiak presented it as a tool of communication on the local level and has put forward the community-building or maybe even identity-building quality of radio. Her artistic strategies are based on hijacking or (as the artist herself calls it) borrowing radio frequencies to create space for the messages that often remain unheard. Especially in relation to the colonial history of radio in Palestine, Krakowiak’s Free Radio Jaffa emphasizes the emancipatory potential of the medium.
The fourth, last chapter revolves around the topic of the radio voice with its potential to become authoritarian as well as to create an intimate experience of listening. Both of these aspects are rendered apparent in the works of Radio Earth Hold collective created by Rachel Dedman, Lorde Selys and Arjuna Neuman. Their broadcast REH#1: The Colonial Voice balances between curatorial and artistic practices; it presents the outcomes of their research but also offers a conceptualization of the link between the Palestinian and the Native American political struggles combined with the concept of sonic solidarity. Their approach hinges on the phenomenon of natural radio and the idea of acousmatic sound – a sound without recognizable source, the disembodied voice of authority, often compared to the omnipotent voice of God. This voice appears in Radio Earth Hold’s research on history of radio in Palestine, both as a tool used by the colonizer and as incorporated in resistance practices.
In my interview with Dedman, she has put forward a quality which was rendered ostensibly visible during the COVID-19 lockdown: the fact that radio can provide an alternative in response to the endless online activities eventually causing a “push-back reaction” or an answer for “a need for something more physically constructed.” Paradoxically, even if transmitted digitally, radio can create the feeling of presence that is more real or unmediated than other media. To describe this phenomenon, the choice of vocabulary becomes difficult – almost all the adjectives could be used between quotation marks since we know that digital radio is not really real, unmediated or materially present but it sells an illusion, as if it was. According to Dedman, radio “evades a sleek proliferation of the digital as a format of form.” In this case, I also understand ‘the digital’ as a category encompassing everything that gives an impression of being digital, rather than a strictly technical term. With its innate intimacy as if the voice was addressing the listener directly, radio can hide perfectly well the fact that it also functions in the digital space. Perhaps in this sense, the need for a more direct connection (in art, but not only) woken up by the pandemic circumstances, can in a longer run prepare the ground for the sonic turn to happen.
Supervisor at KU Leuven: prof. dr. Hilde Van Gelder, Art History
Supervisor at University of Warsaw: dr. hab. Marcin Lachowski, Institute of Art History
Tutor at University of Warsaw: dr. Łukasz Zaremba, Institute of Polish Culture