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Someplaces: Radio Art, Transmission Ecology and Chicago’s Radius

Jeff Kolar with Radius' mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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This week Sounding Out! is proud to present the first post in Radio Art Reflections, a three part series curated by radio artist and senior radio lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University Magz Hall. Focusing on innovative approaches to radio art, the series will bring together three leading practitioners who have been researching the field from Canada, Australia and the U.K.

We begin with a fascinating exploration of “transmission ecologies” in recent works in Chicago, Iceland and elsewhere, written by Canadian sound and radio artist Anna Friz — one of the most exciting radio artists working today — who discusses how transmission art has shaped her practice.

– Special Editor Neil Verma

From the early avant-garde Futurists to present-day, utopian dreams litter the history of art meeting technology. When it comes to radio and wireless, these often include the dreams that each new technology will conquer space and time; that the overcoming of distance will enable the symbiosis of human with machine and the union of self with other, while the overcoming of time will bring about a simultaneity of experience. For many radio and transmission artists (myself included), our work with so-called “trailing edge” media seeks to critically engage these myths, positing wireless transmissions instead as time-based, site-specific encounters between people and devices over distances small or large, where the materiality of the electro-magnetic spectrum is experienced within a constantly shifting transmission ecology in which we all, people and devices, function.

If one hallmark of radio art is the desire to appropriate broadcasting by rethinking and re-using technologies of transmission and reception in service of crafting new mythologies and futures for the medium. Artists have long questioned the policies and norms established by state and market around radio broadcasting which delimit experimentation and autonomous practices. Bertolt Brecht‘s call in 1932 for radio to exceed its one-to-many broadcast format in favor of a democratized, transceptive (or many-to-many) medium still resonates with contemporary artists and activists alike. What else could radio become, we ask, if not only a disseminator of information and entertainment, acoustic or digital? If radio so far has largely acted as an accomplice in the industrialization of communications, artistic appropriations of radio can destabilize this process with renewed explorations of radio and electromagnetic phenomena, constructions of temporary networks small or large, and radical explorations of broadcast beyond the confines of programming and format norms.

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

My first transmitter, built on the Tetsuo Kogawa model, as modified by Bobbi Kozinuk, 1998;

Curators, producers and art historians typically describe radio art as the use of radio as an artistic medium, which is to say, art created specifically for the technical and cultural circumstances of broadcast, and which considers these circumstances as artistic material. Today these circumstances have exceeded terrestrial broadcast to include satellite, online, and on-demand forms; similarly radio art has also expanded to include sprawling telematic art exchanges, online podcast series, and unlicensed temporary interventions into the radio dial. As a further reclamation of radio as a medium, many artists pull radio out of the studio to create installations, performance works and public actions which consider not just the act of transmission or the creation of artistic content, but also the material aspects of the electro-magnetic spectrum, and the circuits of people and devices which activate and reveal them.

Japanese media theorist and artist Tetsuo Kogawa describes broadcast radio art as art radio, where art is the content of a transmission. By contrast, radio art involves directly playing with electro-magnetic waves as the artistic medium. Galen Joseph-Hunter of Wave Farm further expands Kogawa’s formulation of radio art with the term transmission art, so as to include audio visual broadcast media and artistic activities across the entire electro-magnetic spectrum, such as work with Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) waves, or high frequency wireless networks. These definitions of radio and transmission art emphasize that radio is not a container for content, but is defined as relationships between people and things, occurring in the context of the electro-magnetic spectrum within a transmission ecology.

I apply the term transmission ecology in reference to both the symbolic spaces of cultural production such as a radio station, and to the invisible but very material space of dynamic electromagnetic interactions, both of which feature the collaboration between people and things. Transmission ecology asks more than “who owns the airwaves” by questioning the shifting relationships between all actors in the environment, from human to device to localized weather system to nearby star, and thus is not defined by homeostasis but by constant change. These relationships also support a theory of technology where people are not the absolute controllers of things, but where a push and pull of collaboration occurs within complex material and cultural environments.

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009. 

Photo of Respire by Anna Friz, a large installation of radios from Nuit Blanche Toronto, 2009.

All activities in the electro-magnetic spectrum form ecologies in relation to one another conceptually, performatively, and materially. Consider the Radia network, an international alliance of independent radio stations who share radio art programming as an alternate transmission ecology within the broader culture of private broadcast radio stations. Another kind of ecology is formed by radio receivers all playing the same station diffused across countless cars and households, as they function in relation to other kinds of wireless devices and electronic systems nearby. Such a muster of receivers can be physically brought together, for instance, in a multi-channel radio installation, to reveal the complex relationships among devices, as each receiver also becomes a sender by electronically effecting its neighbor. A mobile phone receiving wireless internet likewise functions within the instability inherent in the surrounding transmission ecology shaped by all aspects of the built environment, such as the electrical grid and other urban infrastructure, as well as weather or time of day or solar flares. Human bodies and devices alike register the invisible electromagnetic activity that surrounds us as physical, measurable, and affective.

With this in mind consider radio art as occupying “radio space,” a continuous, available, fluctuating area described by the reach of signals within overlapping fields of influence and the space of imagination that invisible territory enables. The extrasensory nature of radio space allows for a productive slippage between real material signals and audible imaginary landscapes. Many radio art and transmission art works specifically draw attention to the transmission ecology in order to question the naturalization of mainstream communications systems, the normalization of practices within those systems, and the pervasiveness of electrical infrastructure, proposing alternate narratives and experiences.

So what is some of this work like? In the past year I have had the pleasure to work with Chicago-based Radius, an experimental radio-based platform which curates monthly episodes broadcast locally using the Audio Relay Unit, an unlicensed autonomous low-watt FM radio transmitter system developed in 2002 by Temporary Services and the Intermod Series. Radius neatly unites radio and transmission art by embracing the production of artistic content for broadcast, sampling existing content for artistic expression, and artistic use of the electro-magnetic spectrum generally. Radius functions as an intermittent exhibition space and as an intervention into the predictable daily grind of the FM dial. Artists compose their pieces specifically for the interference-prone radio space where their work may only be heard in fragments, as the instability and fluctuations of the relatively small Radius signal in relation to the big commercial stations broadcasting from downtown all form the context for experiencing the radio art works. Radius broadcasts one episode per month, on a schedule determined by the artist, with pieces varying in length and repetition, and some following a strict schedule related to cosmic or social timing.

Friz_Transmission_from_skaftfell1

Photo of my private transmitter + antenna pointing out the window in Seydisfjördur, Iceland

Recently I crafted an episode for Radius while on an artist residency in Seydisfjördur, Iceland. The town was the site of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph link between Europe and Iceland in 1906, which was also the year that Reginald Fessenden first broadcast a human voice over radio from his workshop in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Iceland is remote enough that the electro-magnetic ‘pollution’ from human signal activity is notably absent, and located far enough to the north that in October the light disappears rapidly, so that each day loses eight minutes of daylight. The piece was called Radiotelegraph, a beacon crafted from spoken morse code and sampled signals, then sent from north to south, simulcast on my own low-watt FM transmitter in Seydisfjördur at sundown each day as well as on Radius in Chicago. The transmission marked time passing, beginning earlier each day as it followed the path of the sun. My intention was not to overcome but to experience and recuperate distance through the relation of a remote radio outpost to another minor outpost further south within a metropolis; to hear distance and feel it; to understand that distance, however finite, is a necessary condition for communication and relationship, and that distance is the key ingredient of situated, time-based, spatialized sonic experiences.

Here is the Radius episode featuring Radiotelegraph:

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Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

Power station across the parking lot from the Radius studio at MANA Contemporary, Chicago

As part of a recent yearly theme on “Grids” Radius tackled the electro-magnetic field space of the city by inviting four artists to create new works to be performed near power stations. In his piece electrosmog, Canadian artist Kristen Roos utilized a high frequency receiver to sonify signal activity in the 800 MHz – 2.5 GHz range, which includes mobile phones, wireless phones, wifi, and microwaves. His site-specific performance took place overlooking the Fisk Generating Station in Chicago, and included microwave ovens and micro-watt transmission to a sound system made of radio receivers. Thus the work was site-specific to both the transmission ecology of urban Chicago and the field effects of the electrical grid, mixing material signals with a speculative approach as to what the cumulative effects of living in this built environment characterized by centralized power could be. In Roos’ work, radio space contextualized and revealed the real–though naturalized and often invisible–relationships between people, things, and systems, where a microwave oven gestured at both danger and musicality.

Listen to the Roos piece here:

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Kristen Roos' set up for his Grids performance

Kristen Roos’ set up for his Grids performance

These radio art works enact places in radiophonic space, and experiment with transmission to question the status quo of how the airwaves are controlled and used. As radio trickster Gregory Whitehead notes, it is position, not sound, that matters most with regard to radio. Artists remain committed to making radiophonic someplaces, however temporarily constructed, inhabited by interpenetrating and overlapping fields and bodies.

Featured Image: Jeff Kolar with Radius’ mobile transmitter, the Audio Relay Unit, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Used with permission.

Anna Friz is a Canadian sound and radio artist who specializes in multi-channel transmission systems for installation, performance, and broadcast. Anna holds a Ph.D. in Communication and Culture from York University, Toronto, and recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the Sound Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has performed and exhibited widely across North America, South America, and Europe, and her radio art/works have been heard on the airwaves of more than 25 countries. She is a steering member of the artist collective Skálar |Sound Art | Experimental Music based in Iceland.

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Sounding Out! Podcast #32: The World Listening Update – 2014 Edition

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Listen in as Eric Leonardson and Monica Ryan celebrate World Listening Day 2014 by reflecting on the work of R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project. Interviewees Professor Sabine Breitsameter of Hochschule Darmstadt (Germany) and Professor Barry Truax of Simon Fraser University (Canada) discuss the impact of Schafer’s ideas and offer commentary on contemporary threads within the field of Acoustic Ecology. How does does Acoustic Ecology help us to think through today’s complex environments and how can listeners like you make a difference?

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Co-Authors of this podcast:

Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based audio artist and teacher. He has devoted a majority of his professional career to unorthodox approaches to sound and its instrumentation with a broad understanding of texture, atmosphere and microtones. He is President of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology and founder of the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology, and Executive Director of the World Listening Project. Leonardson is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Monica Ryan is an instructor and audio artist from Chicago. Currently her work explores spatialized sound recording and playback techniques along with interactive sound environments. She teaches in several institutions in Chicago, including The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia College.

Tom Haigh is a British post production sound mixer, composer, and phonography enthusiast, now residing in Chicago. As a staff engineer at ARU Chicago, he works with clients in advertising, media, and independent film.

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Featured image: Used through a CC BY license. Originally posted by Ky @Flickr.

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That Infernal Racket: Sound, Anxiety, and the IBM Computer in AMC’s Mad Men

IBM_System360_Mainframe

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Folks Not Caught Up with Season 7, Episode 5!]

In one of the more memorable – and squirm-inducing – scenes of this season of AMC’s Mad Men, brilliant but eccentric copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) presents his colleague, agency copy chief Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) with his own severed nipple, placed carefully in a gift box. Ginsberg explains to the understandably horrified Peggy that the gift is both a token of his affection and a means of relieving pressure caused by the arrival of Sterling, Cooper & Partners’ (SC&P) newest acquisition: a humming, room-sized IBM System/360 mainframe computer. Explaining his enmity for the machine and his increasingly erratic behavior, Ginsberg tells Peggy that the “waves of data” emanating from the computer were filling him up, and that the only solution was to “remove the pressure” by slicing off his “valve.”

The arrival of the IBM 360 in the idealized 1960s office space inhabited by Mad Men is obviously an unsettling presence – and not only for Ginsberg. Since its debut in Episode 4, commentators (e.g. WaPo’s Andrea Peterson, Slate’s Seth Stevenson) have meditated on the heavy-handed symbolism surrounding the machine – both in terms of its historical significance and its implications for plot and character development. Typically cued through noise (or lack thereof), it is worth reflecting upon the role of sound in establishing the computer as a source of disruption. Between the pounding and screeching of installation and the drone of the completed machine’s air conditioner and tape reels, the sonic motifs accompanying the computer underline tensions between (and roiling within) SC&P staffers grappling with the incipient digital age. Likewise, the infernal racket produced by the installation and operation of the IBM 360 adds an important dimension to the tensions resulting from its presence, which can be read as allegories for the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with technology.

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The tone of the conflict is set even before we meet the IBM 360 toward the end of Episode 4: The Monolith – a reference to Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Slate’s Forrest Wickman ably discusses the references). Like the unnerving silence used with such great effect in that film, the absence of sound frames our first encounter with the computer – or at least its promise. Early in the episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), newly rehabilitated from his forced exile from the agency, arrives one morning at SC&P to find the office deserted. The ghostly sequence is clearly meant to symbolize Draper’s detachment from the firm. But as the episode progresses and tensions mount over the possibility that the IBM 360 will render jobs obsolete, the desolate office suggests a more ominous meaning – a once lively space muted by cold, impersonal automation.

In following scenes, successive stages of mainframe installation are marked by convergences of conflict and cacophony. First, there is the din of the creative team as they evacuate their beloved lounge – now earmarked as computer space – and during which a distraught Ginsberg projects his indignation onto art director Stan Rizzo, who appears more accepting. “They’re trying to erase us!” Ginsberg exclaims bitterly. Later, Draper lounges on his office couch as a clop clopping of hammers outside signifies tangible change. As if this weren’t enough of a distraction, two men in the corridor begin to chat loudly over the noise. Going out to investigate, Draper strikes up a conversation with one of the men, Lloyd Hawley, installation supervisor and founder of a small technology company competing with IBM. “Who’s winning?” Draper asks innocently, “who’s replacing more people?” Clearly irritated by Draper’s tone, Harry Crane – SC&P media director and the computer’s lead cheerleader – offers Draper a condescending apology for the loss of his “lunchroom,” assures him the change was “not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal,” Draper retorts. Unabated, the pounding and screeching of construction work emphasizes his point.

For the remainder of the episode, the raucous noise of construction acts as a leitmotif underscoring tensions between characters – between Peggy and Lou Avery (Draper’s priggish replacement at creative director), and between Draper and the interloper Lloyd. Finally, the end of construction is punctuated by a return to silence, as Peggy arrives one morning to see workers glide mainframe components noiselessly into the office.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

With this emphasis on technology as a source of symbolic, physical, and sonic disruption, Matthew Weiner and the creators of Mad Men draw upon a rich literary tradition. A relevant example contemporaneous with the show’s “present,” is literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 text The Machine in the Garden, which examines the complicated relationships between a “pastoral ideal” and technological progress within American literature and popular imagination. Marx’s analysis reveals that sound is often used to convey the disruptive presence of technology within the bucolic landscape of the American continent. In Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow for example, it is the interrupting shriek of a locomotive whistle that breaks the author’s harmonious reverie: “Now tension replaces repose: the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety” (15). In the decidedly un-pastoral modern office space, the noise of the computer installation nevertheless signifies a momentous social change and irrevocable loss. Picking out these tensions has always been one of the show’s strengths – whether it is the computer, Draper’s double identity, or the quiet endurance of women to the misogyny of midcentury work and domestic life.

Change, however, has significant consequences for Ginsberg, the young copywriter and Holocaust survivor who, as CBS’s Jessica Firger observes, has been deteriorating psychologically for some time. The proximity of the IBM 360, and the incessant drone of its mind-controlling waves eventually puts him over the edge. As Draper and Peggy enter the office early in Episode 5, Ginsberg glowers into the room housing the IBM 360. “Stop humming, you’re not happy!” he explodes. As Peggy attempts to soothe her colleague, our perspective shifts to look out at them from inside the glass-encased computer room. From here, the mainframe’s ambient noise muffles Peggy’s words, suggesting isolation between human and non-human. This play of speech and silence reoccurs later in the episode as Ginsberg, working alone on a Saturday with tissues wedged in his ears, spies Lou Avery and SC&P partner Jim Cutler inside the computer room, their voices made inaudible by the droning computer in a delicious homage to 2001 (see Vulture’s amusing gif). But the noise is clearly affecting Ginsberg. “It’s that hum at the office! It’s getting to me!” he tells Peggy later that evening. He even claims the computer has affected his sexuality.

Ginsberg’s noise complaints would have resonated in 1969 New York. In November of that year, the New York Times ran a feature on the city’s nerve-shattering noise pollution, calling it a “slow agent of death.” In addition to the myriad construction projects, subways, car horns, jet planes, and standing machinery populating the city soundscape, office workers found scant respite indoors where phones, air conditioners, “computers and typewriters and tabulators” whirred, whined, and clacked throughout the day. The article went on to report that scientists studying the impact of prolonged noise exposure on the human body had concluded a variety of ill effects on the heart and nervous system. Though no connection was made between computers and sexuality (as Ginsberg claimed), the article reported that laboratory rats under prolonged noise exposure had indeed “turned homosexual,” an opinion that underlined deterministic associations between sexuality, psychological disorder, and external stimuli.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

As SO! editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued, noise in midcentury New York also signified a sonic-racial politics, in which the mainstream “listening ear” recoiled at the “noise” created by Black and Puerto Rican others. In terms of Mad Men’s computer however, it is technology, economic anxiety, and mental illness, rather than ethnicity that frames sonic disruption. The basis of these tensions are similar however, and various interactions with SC&P’s IBM 360 demonstrate, as Stoever-Ackerman writes in SO!, “the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant [and] dangerous.” Though similar, the conflict with technology on Mad Men does not suggest a clear us/them, or us/”it” binary. The banging of construction may be at first antagonistic, but it’s finite – eventually the computer is normalized within the SC&P office space to the extent that Peggy chides Ginsberg’s exasperation in Episode 5 by insisting “it’s just a computer!” Ginsberg’s reaction is more complex however, implicating a contradictory relationship with technology: once fully installed, has the droning computer become “natural, normal, and desirable” despite previous ambivalence? Is the keen awareness and anxiety towards technology symbolized through Ginsberg (albeit in a extreme form) suggested as the “aberrant” listening practice, or could it be Peggy’s apparent acceptance?

Like most cultural texts set in the past, it is possible to read Mad Men allegorically, as suggesting a certain ordering of meaning and values. From the perspective of those who have long since domesticated computers, the controversies and tropes activated by SC&P’s IBM 360 might strike us as familiar, even quaint. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued however, we would be wise to consider how technology exerts a kind of social agency that structures and impacts our daily lives. As historical symbolism, the sounds and noises of the IBM 360 on Mad Men should remind us that technological progress is not teleological, but a struggle over meaning in which anxieties (about jobs, mind-control, surveillance, subjectivity, etc.) may be variously accommodated, suppressed, or dismissed as irrational.

Featured image: An IBM 360 Mainframe. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013)and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled The Play of History.”

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