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On Lunacy – a radio piece

January 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I was one of the Nordic artists (even if as a theorist) commissioned for the 2017 Works for Radio for the radio station The Lake. Based in Copenhagen, and transmitting via the Internet, the station asked the four commissioned artists to produce a piece between one and eight minutes in length and to relay the invite to four other Nordic artists.

The works are launched on Saturday 14th of January in Copenhagen and can be then listened as part of the programme flow at http://www.thelakeradio.com/.

You can download my piece, On Lunacy, here.

The original call for artists described the idea behind the commission:

“Radio art as a genre has a long tradition in the European public service institutions. Especially in the 1960s, the different national broadcasters commissioned new works from artists, writers, and composers made specifically for radio. This practice has declined over the years, and in Denmark it is almost lost. As a radio station The Lake wants to revive this tradition! Furthermore we want to bring more sounds into the aether, that are not necessarily music. How can art for radio sound? Through the project Works for Radio, The Lake is commissioning eight new sound pieces from Nordic artists.”

A short context for my piece is described below.

On Lunacy

The piece is a speculative theory performance for radio. Jussi Parikka’s text and reading together with artist, researcher Dr Jane Birkin (Southampton) starts with a reference to the German media theorist Walter Benjamin’s (1892-1940) radio play Lichtenberg (1933). On Lunacy is less a commentary on Benjamin’s play than an attempt to bring some of the themes into a discussion with contemporary issues of politics, technology and ecology. It starts with the roar of approval at the Tory conference in October 2016, after the prime minister Theresa May dismisses the work of human rights lawyers and activists. This roar is chilling and it resonates across many countries as a wave of populist, destructive contempt that takes different, varying forms in Europe, the USA, Russia, Turkey, etc.

On Lunacy discusses the media technological conditions of politics of voice and lack of voice, of what is heard and what is too painful to listen to. It enters into a discussion with a range of current debates about media technological transmission and interception, as well as nods to many relevant contexts in the history of radio too – from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds (1938) to the satellite broadcasts since the 1960s. I also had in mind the various sonic and artistic voices of past decades; from Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon (1970) to the various sounds of Afrofuturism since the 1970s to name some even if they do not feature as explicit references in this work.

Radio is approached not merely as a medium of entertainment but one of military communication as well as the tactics of misinformation, confusion and mind control. Radio persists and is constantly reinvented, and the signal worlds persist in and out of the planet. The narrative trope of the moon and the interplanetary play a key role in this theoretical voice piece, but also offers a way to resurface back to the contemporary politics that features the return of the mainstream acceptance xenophobia, racism and politics of violence against particular ethnicities as well as the ecocide that haunts the contemporary moment.

On Lunacy ends with the recurring, burning question of politics (that also for example the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari posed): why do people desire their own enslavement?

Stephen Cornford offered assistance in editing and post-production of the sound. Thank you also to Ryan Bishop, the co-director of AMT research centre, who offered key thoughts on the cold war contexts of satellites and sound transmission.

The work stems from the new research and practice platform Archaeologies of Media and Technology (AMT) at Winchester School of Art.

Cue in Gil Scott-Heron, Whitey on the Moon.

works_for_radio_poster_til-print

Humm your code, “dah-dit-dah-dit”

Media amateurism has been an integral part of modern culture way before social media kicked in with its own DIY spirit. The electronic hobbyists and tinkerers of 1970s were themselves too preceded by so many earlier forms of learning communication and building circuits. Code-based culture does not then begin with software as we know it – from the emergence of computing and the much later emergence of computer languages as separate entities that relate to the mythologies of coders, hackers and controlling the hardware through the magical language of code (for a wonderful recent excavation into ontologies of software, see Wendy Chun’s Programmed Visions).

“Thousands of Radio Amateurs find it easy to Learn Code”, read a main title in Popular Science (March 1932), describing the process of getting a radio amateur license and the earlier technological discourse concerning machine-knowledge. Radio amateurism and wireless DIY of the earlier decades of 20th century represents itself perhaps one of the most important media archaeological reference points when thinking about contemporary technological DIY culture, and one can find interesting ideas from that discourse.  The way knowledge about machines, code and the professionalism is standardized and practice is itself fascinating – DIY as a crash course into key scientific discoveries of modernity, practically applied. Electrical functions needed to be internalized into a hands-on skill, as the article describes: “You must first master the elementary principles of electricity as given in the simpler textbooks on the subject. Then you must apply the principles of magnetism and electromagnetic action plus an understanding of the radio vacuum tube to mastering simple radio transmitting and receiving circuits. […] You don’t have to know all the ins and outs of complicated radio broadcast transmitting circuits, nor do you require a detailed knowledge of elaborate receiving circuits such as the heterodyne.” (72)

This class of amateurs was however someone who was part of a nationally regulated standardization process flagging the importance of this system of transmission – this regulation had to do with technical knowledge, ethics and legalities as well as speed of communication, or skills more widely: The amateur operation license test was the way to become an operator – the mythical figure still living in such discourses as The Matrix-film(s), the one in charge of the communication field – what message goes where, interpreting of code, sending of things, packets, people to addresses.

But it was grey, this area of knowledge – or at least reading through the regulations. Take paragraph 9 of the Radio Division Regulations for Operators: “Amateur Class. Applications for this class of license must pass a code test in transmission and reception at a speed of at least 10 words per minute, in Continental Morse Code (5 characters to the word). An applicant must pass an examination which will develop knowledge of the adjustment and operation of the apparatus which he desires to use and of the international regulations and acts of Congress in so far as they relate to interference with other radio communications and impose duties on all classes of operators.” Speed – speeding up of communication as part of modernity – was something that was still tied to the skills of the operators, and slowed down by the human needing to be trained.

Code, as indicated in the passage, meant of course Morse Code. Dit-dit-dit-dah. A tip given in Popular Science relates to a sensory approach to code as not only abstract pattern but something that relates to your ears and mouths: “In memorizing the code, try to think of the letters as different sounds rather than as so many dots or dashes. Think of the letter C, for example, as “dah-dit-dah-dit” and as dash followed by dot, followed by dash, followed by dot.” (73) Carnal knowledge?  Code in the flesh sounds much too poetic, but at least we could say, code in your mouth, ringing in your ears, feedback to your fingers tapping. Code, signal processing, transmission share so much with cultures of music, rhythmics, sound and voice.

(Forthcoming and related: a podcast interview with Paul Demarinis about hands-on, carnal knowing of technical media and media archaeological art.)