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/.
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.
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.
Update: This text is published inGerman in the Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft‘s blog, translated by Florian Sprenger. It is also published in Turkish in Biamag, translated by Doğan Terzi. Here is the original English version, which is also published on the Theory, Culture & Society journal’s blog.
Earwitnesses of a Coup Night: The Many Media Infrastructures of Social Action
The particularly cruel scenes in Ankara and Istanbul from July 15th and 16th circulated quickly. From eye witness accounts to images detached from their context, media users, viewers and readers was soon seeing the graphic depictions of what had happened with the added gory details, some of them fake, some of them not.
Still and moving images from the hundreds of streams that conveyed a live account of the events left many in Turkey puzzled as to what is going on. Only later most were able to form some sort of a picture of the events with the coherence of a narrative structure. By the morning the live stream on television showed military uniform soldiers raising their hands and climbing down from their tanks. What soon ensued were the by already now iconic images of public punishment: the man with his upper torso bare and the belt as his whip, the stripped soldiers in rows shamed and followed up by the series of images of expressions of collective joy as most of Turkey was relieved again. The coup was over. The unity in resisting the coup was unique. As it was summarised by many commentators: even the ones critical of the governing AK Party’s politics agreed that this was not a suitable manner of overthrowing an elected government.
However, what became evident immediately in the wake of the actual events was the quick spread of narratives and explanations about the coup night and its extent. As one journalist aptly and with a healthy dose of sarcasm put it:
Also some rather established organisations like Wikileaks got quickly on the spectacle-seeking bandwagon of the coup attempt’s repercussions. Turkish journalists and activist soon read and revealed that the so-called “AKPleaks”-documents were not really anything that interesting as it was advertised to be. As Zeynep Tufekci summarised: “According to the collective searching capacity of long-term activists and journalists in Turkey, none of the ‘Erdogan emails’ appear to be emails actually from Erdogan or his inner circle” while actually containing information that could be considered harmful to normal Turkish citizens instead.
Of course, besides commentators inside and outside Turkey, there was no lack of people with first-hand experience. Besides the usual questions that eyewitnesses were asked in many news reports about “how did things look like”, another angle was as pertinent. How did it sound? The soundscape of the coup was itself a spectacle catered to many senses: the helicopters hovering around the city; the different calibre gunfire that ranged from heavy fire from helicopters to individual pistol shots; individual explosions; car horns; sirens, and the roaring F-16 that descended at times so low so that its sonic boom broke windows of flats. Such sonic booms have their own grim history as part of the 21st century sonic warfare as cultural theorist Steve Goodman analysed the relation of modern technologies, war and aesthetics. As has been reported for years, for example Israeli military has used sonic noise of military jets in Palestine as a shock technique: “Palestinians liken the sound to an earthquake or huge bomb. They describe the effect as being hit by a wall of air that is painful on the ears, sometimes causing nosebleeds and ‘leaving you shaking inside’.”
In the midst of sonic booms, a different layer of sound was felt through the city: the mosques starting their extraordinary call to prayer and calls to gather on the streets. The latter aspect was itself triggered by multiple mediations that contributed to the mobilization of the masses. Turkish President had managed to Facetime with CNN-Turk’s live broadcast and to call his supporters to go on the streets to oppose the coup attempt. By now even the phone the commentator held has become a celebrity object with apparently even $250,000 offered for it.
But there was more to the call than the ringtone of an individual smartphone. In other words, the chain of media triggers ranged from the corporate digital videotelephony to television broadcasting to the infrastructures of the mosques to people on the streets tweeting, filming, messaging and posting on social media. All of this formed a sort of a feedback-looped sphere of information and speculation, of action and messaging, of rumours and witnessing. Hence, there was more than just traditional broadcast or digital communication that made up the media reality of this particular event.
The mosques started to amplify the political leadership’s social media call by their own acoustic means. Another network than just social media was as essential and it also proved to be irreducible to what some called the “cyberweapon” of online communications. As one commentator tried to argue commenting on the events in Turkey: “But, this is the era of cyberpower. Simply taking over the TV stations is not enough. The Internet is a more powerful means of communication than TV, and it is more resilient — especially with a sophisticated population.” However, there were also other elements in the mix that made it a more interesting and a more complex issue than merely about the “cyber”.
Turkish artist and technologist Burak Arikan had already in his earlier work mapped the urban infrastructure of Istanbul in terms of its mosques, malls and national monuments. “Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism” (2012) employs his critical mapping methodology to visualise how structures of power are part of the everyday whether we always realise these relationships or not. Based on his research, Arikan devised three maps of those architectural forms and how they connect. According to Arikan, the “maps present a comparative display of network patterns that are formed through associations linking those architectural structures that represent the three dominant ideologies –Islam, Republic, Neoliberalism– in Turkey.”
During the coup weekend, it was the network of the mosques and their minarets that became suddenly very visible – or actually, very audible. While the regular praying times have become such an aural infrastructure of the city that one does not necessarily consciously notice it, the extraordinary calls from imams reminded how dense this social, architectural fabric actually is. The thousands of Istanbul mosques became itself an explicit “sonic social network” where the average estimated reach (300 meters) of sound from the minarets is too important of a detail to neglect when one wants to understand architecture as solidifying social networks in contemporary Turkey. In the context of mid-July it was one crucial relay of communication between the private sphere in homes, the streets and the online platforms contributing to the mobilization of the masses. The musicological perspective has highlighted how sound and noise negotiate conflict across private and the public and we can extend this to a wider media ecological perspective too. This is where art and design practices can have an instrumental role to play in helping us to understand such overlapped media and sensorial realities.
Artists such as Arikan have investigated the ways how online tools and digital forms of mapping can connect to issues of urban planning and change. The visual artwork helps us to also understand how there are other social realities, less front of our eyes even if they are in our ears. This expands the wider sense of how media is and was involved in Turkey’s events, and it gives also insights to new methodologies of artistic intervention in understanding the coupling of media, architecture, visual methods and the sonic reality of urban life. And in this case of the bloody events of the coup weekend, much of the personal experience of “what happened” is now being narrated in Turkey in terms of what it sounded like – another aspect of the media reality of the coup attempt’s aftermath.
Jack White might not agree but White Stripes’ “Rag & Bone” goes at the top of my list for the theme tune for zombie media and media archaeology. Listen to it.
If you don’t want it, we’ll take it; if you don’t want to give it to us, we keep walking by.
Keep going, we’re not tired.
Got plenty of places to go, lots of homes we ain’t been to yet.
West side, southwest side, middle-east, rich house, dog house, outhouse, old folks house, house for unwed mothers, halfway homes, catacombs, twilight zones.
Looking for techniques, turntables to gramophones.
So take a last lick of your ice cream cone.
And lock up what you still want to own.
But please be kind.
And don’t rewind.
All of your pretty, your pretty little rags and bones.
All that obsolete stuff and junk, piled up, ready to be used, reused, modified and reappropriated – your rags and bones that fill the attic, the junkyard, the garage.
Of course, this applies to Jack White/White Stripes more generally too. He might not acknowledge that also the pre-digital is technological but still, this is where it actually gets interesting. For instance recording in non-digital studios (Elephant was recorded in London, at Toerag Studios):
It’s all tech, and scholars of music technologies and sound recording could tell much more about that. For Kittler, of course, it was about the reuse of war technologies in the studio, from Stockhausen’s late 1950s use of “the pulse generator, indicating amplifier, band-pass filter, as
well as the sine and square wave oscillators “, all remnants “ discarded U.S. Army equipment” (1999: 97) to Abbey Road . Microphones and tape technologies, all points to the primacy of the studio as this set, place of experimental modes of time axis manipulation and hence reality manipulation. Continuing with Kittler: “Berliner’s primitive recording technology turns into a Magical Mystery Tour. In 195 4 , Abbey Road Studios, which not coincidentally produced the Beatles’ sound, first used stereo audiotapes; by 1970 eight-track machines had become the standard; today discos utilize 3 2 or 64 tracks, each of which can be manipulated on its own and in unison.226 “Welcome to the machine, ” Pink Floyd sang, by which they meant, “tape for its own ends-a form of collage using sound .” In the Funkspiele of the Abwehr, Morse hands could be corrected; in today’s studios, stars do not even have to be able to sing anymore. When the voices of Waters and Gilmour were unable to hit the high notes in “Welcome to the Machine,” they simply resorted to time axis manipulation: they dropped the tape down half a semitone while recording and then dropped the line in on the track.” (109)
Similarly, it’s the operative technics that allows Jack White to do his rag & bone sort of technicity, completely technological too, and why not even a bit of zombie mediaesque in some of its valorisation of the media archaeological moment. Obviously, part of the narrative of rock is the insistance on the authencity which itself is consolidated through technical media.
And that is the trick. In the perceptive note by Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, in their book on avantgarde aesthetics and military/modern technologies they write of this constitutive role of media as environments for such a narrative that keeps on recurring — and is itself recursive in relation to the technological platform sustainining it: ” […] recording technology – like military surveillance technology – is designed to reduce the evidence of the technology itself, bringing the performance into your living room or bar, replacing “live” music, perhaps to the detriment of live performers.” (2011: 89).
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.)
This one-question mini-interview with Dr Katy Price (Anglia Ruskin University) is a follow-up on the interview I did with Aleks Kolkowski. Katy has collaborated with Kolkowski on the old sound machine remediations, and has herself done various projects on sound and word art – as well as being a researcher interested in the interchanges between science and literature. I find her take on materialities, appropriation of science and tech, and experimental, playful and inventive take on these themes fascinating. I asked Katy to elaborate a bit how she sees working with obsolete technologies, and how does her word art intertwine with media archaeological themes and Kolkowski’s work with old recording tech:
Katy, you have recently collaborated with Aleks Kolkowski on a project that involves working with old media, appropriating old recording technologies such as Edison wax cylinder discs for creative practice, creative writing. Already before you have been interested in your word art (see for instance here) in working with sound, and creative music technologies, but what specifically makes working with these kinds of “obsolete” technologies interesting? Could you elaborate a bit on your artistic methodologies and interest in these themes (old media, co-curation with audiences as the project now with Science Museum, etc)?
Dr Katy Price: Thanks for asking about this Jussi. For me it is all about the relationship between our use of the latest consumer items and our making through history. A heightened awareness of this relationship – and ways to share this as entertainment.
The past informs how we use and think about our bodies and their companions or additions or substitutes. One way to experience this is through reading about the past and receiving inspiration from historians. Somebody like Paul Fussell points out that memory of the First World War – mud, wire, slaughter and filling in surreal forms – shapes everyone’s identities, even if we weren’t born yet. Or Paul Théberge traces how we assumed the identity and practices of consumers: not just of music but consumers in the act of music-making. All the way from the pianola to MIDI and sampling.
Those are both stories that begin around the start of the twentieth century and there is a great appeal for me in this period because you can almost see, taste, hear the past and the future washing up against each other on the street and in people’s homes: bowler hats and horse-drawn carriages collide with illuminated advertising, cinema, ‘noiseless’ typewriters. I think we would laugh so hard if we suddenly found ourselves on Piccadilly in 1925. And instantly want one of everything. People had a lot of hopes and vision – you could dream about inventing anything, from a new type of escalator to a new society. At the same time there was a lot holding people back – no such thing as maternity leave; lots of brothers, fathers, lovers, left behind in the mud in France or falling apart at home. Under those circumstances, dreaming about the future is both necessary and tough, even impossible. I think we could do with knowing how to be a bit like that now.
The audience for academic books is quite restricted and also the mode of experiencing messages from / about the past is limited to reading the book and perhaps making images in your mind or writing some notes. I found a different angle from the experience of musical artefacts on display and in performance. At the Science Museum in London there is a brilliant case in the Making the Modern World gallery. It is a jumble of items (actually organised by inspiration from a curious thinker called Patrick Geddes) and in one corner you have a Stroh violin next to an ammoniaphone – for use by opera singers and the clergy, to improve their voice before performance with a gust of ammonia – phew! Nearby there is a prosthetic arm. Because the case isn’t directly telling me how to relate these items or how to think of their place in history, I feel almost the privilege of having come across them in a curiosity shop.
But you can’t play with the items in the museum case, or see them in use.
Aleks Kolkowski has collected and restored the only working Stroh quartet: two violins, viola and cello. Instead of wooden bodies they have a metal horn (enormous on the cello). Completely mechanical: no electricity! The horn is attached to a diaphragm which picks up the sound – you play it with the bow as normal, but it sounds almost reedy, and much louder in the direction of the horn. It was used until the 1920s to make the strings audible on early gramophone recordings, before microphones. The group Apartment House played a concert on the Strohs in Cambridge a few years ago, including a piece by Aleks which incorporated two cylinder phonographs. They were all attached together with plastic tubes, which struck me as a mechanical parody of electronic connectivity. It got me thinking about how artefacts in performance can give the audience a chance to think about today’s technology in our lives by seeing an amusing or strange performance with obsolete items.
The next thing I saw was a concerto for Pianola and iPhone composed by Julio d’Escriván, which he performed with Rex Lawson. Rex is a great showman and he is happy to show the audience how the pianola works. Julio is interested in how audiences perceive the minimal gestures of laptop musicans, and he works with the iPhone in ways that make us aware of our own need for a correlation between gesture and output sound. The combination made me think that performances like this can invite us to see the new gadgets as artefacts for a moment.
I am now working a little bit with the Science Museum on how to use creative writing as part of the process of co-curation / co-creation. This means that audience groups are invited to select objects and tell stories about or through them, for display in an exhibition. So far we spent 2 days with a group of young people. Aleks showed them his phonographs and gramophones, and talked about these mechanical objects. I got them to write monologues and poems. For example: what the gramophone said to the ipod and the other way round. Then we recorded these works onto wax cylinders and gramophone discs. They were captivated by the items from Aleks’ collection: the look and feel, the sound of themselves coming back in this ghostly form. They found the mechanical process mysterious and intriguing – which it is. How can sound be captured and played back without electricity?They learned a bit about the history of sound recording and we had a lot of fun. Their writing was amazing and I think there is a lot more we could do with speaking through these artefacts: unlike other forms of object writing, you have the opportunity for double voicing when it is recorded and played back using this item.
Aleks is building up a phonograph archive of wax cylinder recordings of contemporary artists and musicians. I won’t say too much about this for now but prepare to be amazed when it is launched… I have heard some of the cylinders and the effects are stunning. They will be digitised and online soon. For the archive I wrote a poem in two voices: Thomas Edison and Charles Cros, who had the idea for the phonograph at the same time but Edison got it on the market first. We recorded one voice on the cylinder and the other one over the top, so that they weave in and out of each other. When Aleks told me about Cros, his interest in language and plans for communication with extra-terrestrials, I recognised him as one of those hopeful impossible figures of his time. He clearly deserved to be reincarnated on a wax cylinder, interfering with Edison’s confidence.
One of the highlights of my pre-academia career as a freelance journalist when during a phone interview the interviewee, a female at a telecommunications company marketing department or something of approx. 35 years of age, interrupted me: “Oh I am sorry to interrupt the interview but I just have to say you have an amazing telephone voice.”
I blush, stutter, and for a second wonder if my future career is somewhere where I could put my voice into better use, such as in some of those dubious 0800-numbers that offer services of very wide variety.
Instead, I end up as an academic.
Despite the shortness of the flirtation with the idea of using my voice to make money, I have been drawn into something again where I need to talk – publicly. The shock horror at first, but then realizing its actually enjoyable despite the fact that there is always a tiny region in your brain that is probably trying to say something very inappropriate.
We label it as
“A podcast on technology and creativity, technology mostly misused, unintentionally artistic technology and music technology with the odd splattering of digital economies” and hope it to be usually a 30 min aberration into the interminglings of technology, net culture, a slight dash of political economy, academic stuff and lots of media arts.
It features interviews of creatives, techs and academics, and aims to throw a spotlight both on the work done at CoDE institute in Cambridge but also more widely (as in globally) on creative technology and arts. I am suspecting it turns out to be quite focused on sound, knowing Julio’s interests and expertise in sound art, sonicity, but it will definitely splash into other fields of expression too and I am sure to throw in a nice dose of media theoretical meditation.
Its hopefully soon available on Itunes, but meanwhile episodes can be downloaded here.
Please get in touch if you have feedback, or suggestions for themes, sites, projects, etc. to be featured!