BUT IS IT RADIO?
Heidi Grundmann, Kunstradio
The history of telecommunication art contains many examples of "sovereign media." It may suffice to refer to two quotations, 16 years apart, which suggest that, in spite of the speed of change in telecomm technology - with all its social ramifications - our culture still needs to be reminded of the difference between broadcasting and networking.
" [Artists' use of] electronic communications means that no actual object is exchanged. It is in the ephemeral immediacy of the exchange that the meaning of the work exists. Slow-scan TV, like mail art, is a sharing activity. It cannot be passively viewed like TV or video or a painting or a performance, it demands a reply...a dialogue between producers." (Eric Gidney quoting Robert Adrian in: ART and TELECOMMUNICATION, 1984)
"Many-to-many communications....tend to ephemerality and instability, and are easily and typically altered in the process of interpretation. Unlike a film, the 'text' of a dialogue is an evolving fabric. Even where the dialogue is mediated by technologies like e-mail and IRC, each contribution is unstable, like a move in chess, a challenge awaiting a response, incomplete in itself." (Sean Cubitt: Virilio, Ecology and the Media, 2000)
Kunstradio, a weekly program of radio-art founded in 1987 is what one would call a minority program - late at night (every Sunday, 11 - 12 p.m.) on Oesterreich 1, the cultural channel of the Austrian National Radio (ORF). As all cultural channels, Oesterreich 1 itself is also a minority program, and as far as the late night programs are concerned, the usual instruments assessing listener figures are incapable of measuring their audiences. In Austria these programs usually register in the category "between 0 and 18.000 listeners" (finer tuning impossible). And indeed, a program like Kunstradio is not kept on air because of listener-figures but in spite of them - as a fig leaf for the system of Public National Radio as a cultural institution, which otherwise is surrendering all too readily to infotainment pressures and the tyranny of audience ratings.
In the context of zero-audience, a radio program has to seek its contributors and public beyond the borders of conventional radio by developing strategies that circumvent the bureaucracy of the broadcasting institutions. Kunstradio, by producing international events, symposia, special projects like "Long Nights of (Live-) Radio Art", exhibitions, installations, CDs and catalogues, became known in Austria, Europe and around the world to people who had never heard the actual radio program itself. In this respect, Kunstradio could be said to have created a "public" but not an "audience" - gaining recognition and attention (in the sense of the notion of "the attention economy") which in turn attracted artists (local and international) as contributors, supporters and listeners.
While radio-drama or new-music programs - sharing the same 0 to 18000 category as Kunstradio - are attractive to writers and composers as opportunities for the distribution, and occasionally even realization, of their pieces, radio artists, working in the low-budget/high-motivation framework of Kunstradio-projects, are much more concerned with radio as a specific cultural space and context. Today, this also means that radio artists, who come from diverse media and backgrounds (visual art, literature, music, etc.), are conscious of the fact, that the space of Public Radio has become just one aspect of and entry-point to the contemporary hybrid mediascape. Thus, these artists, by reflecting on the metamorphosis of the radio medium itself has undergone through the impact of digitalization and the hybridization/convergence of communications media, inherently challenge the conventions of broadcasting.
The position of Kunstradio – however marginalized - inside a public radio institution (in the belly of the beast, so to speak) has made it possible for artists to exploit not only the institution's technical resources but also its mainstream program formats. There have been projects where artists were able to infiltrate other programs and/or channels of the ORF beyond the late-night ghetto, inserting radio-art into Oe3, the pop music channel, or into one or the other of several regional channels. Such interventions outside of the gallery-like space of the weekly national radio-art program are most successful, when they are not announced/perceived as art but are left to be incidents in the public space of everyday radio, anticipating an audience of passers-by who may or may not stop or hesitate for just a brief moment of irritation or even reflection. The message of such interventions is usually just their "difference", their being something other than the accustomed to every-day radio content or format: e.g. dog stories phoned in by listeners, sounds from steelworks, tap-dancing, etc. inserted into the usual daily programs, when and wherever there is a small break, phone-in projects asking listeners not to talk but to transmit everyday sounds, etc.
One such by now legendary project, Landscape Soundings by Bill Fontana, inserted, for a fortnight and on all Austrian Radio channels, live sounds of birds and frogs from the Danube marshes using a complex collage of high-tech equipment, usually intended for the broadcast of major sport events or papal visits. This was only possible because the artist considered it part of his work to make the institution itself an accomplice in his project (by this he also undermined the usual image of the artist as a person incapable of coping with complex structures of everyday economical, technical, social-political life).
But institutional resources have also been utilized in another, almost opposite way: artists, with the help of friendly engineers, have e.g. made unauthorized (pirate) use of local ORF frequencies (usually used for live reports from outdoor events) to open up the space of exhibitions and installations - not so much to audiences, who could only come upon these unknown frequencies by chance, but rather as a statement of principle referring to a desire to render the traditionally closed exhibition space 'radiant', in the sense of radiating/ transmitting/connecting. For instance, during Zeitgleich (1995), an exhibition of sound installations, several projects were broadcast on the "internal" 107.7 FM frequency of the regional Tyrolean channel of the Austrian Radio.
2. Hybrid Radio
In the early 90s, artists with a background in telematic art began to explicitly integrate radio into their horizontal, telephone-based projects - projects in which radio, being just one medium in a collage of many different media -, was infected with other models of communication (one-to-one, group-to-many, many-to-many). With these projects it was slowly becoming apparent that the privileged few-to-many broadcast paradigm was not sustainable in its classical form in the new horizontal media landscape. By granting artists, and their own networks, the possibility to hook up to the whole range of technology of the mass medium public radio and its institutionalized international infrastructure, i.e. to its various networked systems of transmission lines and its networks linking producers, technicians and broadcasting time in radio stations all over the world, the existence of a program like Kunstradio inside this institutional structure became itself a symptom of this new medial environment. By collaboratively developing elaborate strategies to appropriate all these facilities at different locations, the artists created, "... virtual stages, based on interaction and telepresence, on which the participants temporarily meet ... Instead of vertically demarcating sender and receiver, they were aiming for platforms of reciprocal transmission." (Horizontal Radio, Ars Electronica catalogue, 1995).
In projects like Horizontal Radio '95 and Rivers & Bridges '96, hundreds of artists, collaborators and participants were linked for 24 hoursh in a unique world-wide community collaging old and new media - using all possible lines and connections between radio stations around the world from telephone to satellites plus the growing WWW. By having won access to mainstream, even primetime broadcasts and popular channels, these projects involved an on-air audience of millions of radio listeners/participants and/or on-site audiences of hundreds for performances and installations in some locations and some (a dozen?, a hundred?) on-line participants in the still new internet. The short wave service of Ostankino Radio (Moskow), multicultural FM channels in Australia, youth channels of national radios, pirate radios, community radios, a vast Eastern Mediterranean sub-network with unknowable dimensions mushrooming out from Italy, etc., were all producing their own radio versions of Horizontal Radio or Rivers & Bridges and feeding them back into the network. This simultaneous horizontal flow between dozens of stations and many more artists, created bizarre - sometimes chaotic, often exhilarating - mixes incorporating fragments from pieces based on many different styles, traditions and theories of art. Such networked hybrid radio art projects, being collages not only in the "few to many" but at the same time in the 'many to many' communication mode, are intrinsically subject to "ephemerality and instability " as well as the loss of control by the artist/contributor: an instability defining the shared space in which individual interpretations are constantly being absorbed into new versions of a collective work which is not perceivable as a whole. It seems that in such projects, a finished piece of art no matter how elaborate it may be in its formulation or intention, is overridden by a paradigm which is not only informed by the notion that "the finished work of art is a thing of the past" (Tom Sherman) but also the knowledge that the radio artist "has no control over the experience of a radio work" (Kunstradio Manifesto).
3. On line radio/Radio on-demand/Hyper-Radio?
Preoccupied by their struggle for survival in the face of the current neo-liberal broadcasting ideology, it took a very long time for the public radio institutions - at least in Europe - to recognize the dynamic changes in media consciousness and realities created by the internet. This meant that it was minority programs like Kunstradio, which (against incredible institutional resistance) joined the alternative groups in the exploration of the WWW as a medium for art before the institutions themselves went on line.
In April 1995 Kunstradio On Line was founded with the support of 'The Thing Vienna' (no help from the ORF). Announced as "Radio in Colour/Radio To Look At", Kunstradio On Line was conceived as a site of art as well as a means for announcing the weekly radio program and making it available on demand inside the on line archive of Kunstradio programs and artists' bios. Keeping pace with the development of the internet, KR On Line soon began to experiment with RealAudio (1995) and, in response to the rapid improvement in web browsers, started the development of complex project web-sites which, since 1997,were the basis of the collaborative multi-channel, 'on air-on line-on site' concept of a series of Kunstradio projects. These web-sites are designed to provide simple interfaces to all the network nodes of collaborative productions, to be easily accessible during the run of the distributedly produced projects themselves and just as easily updated in real time and after to form the basis for an on line documentation.
4. Listening to the sound of the internet
So, when Kunstradio On Line started in 1995, it was primarily understood as an extension - and/or visualization - of the weekly radio broadcast. But, since, the rapid improvement in streaming technology, compression algorithms and bandwidth have effectively reversed the roles: the non-stop flow of the internet now increasingly dominates the clock-dependent, scheduled broadcast medium. This shift from radio-oriented to web-oriented production is demonstrated very clearly in 'on air-on line-on site' projects in which the radio programs, once the point of origin of every collectively produced project, has gradually become merely a short, time-framed window, listening to a much larger - potentially unending - networked world, frequently streaming generative sounds and images. The physical space of the 'on site' installations and the broadcast 'on air' space of radio, once viewed as the 'real' project - with the 'on line' network creating/describing the links - have now become elements or episodes in the continuum of WWW-based "on line" projects. Three recent 'on air-on line-on site' projects illustrate this shift quite clearly: Immersive Sound,1998 (5 weeks non-stop), Sound Drifting, 1999 (9 days and nights with 16 nodes processing sounds around the clock), and the one year on line-installation devolve into, 2000, which – as a work in progress – is taking a revised shape as an open-ended on line structure of sounds and images collaboratively produced within an extended network (2201/002).
The redefinition of radio as one potential listening point into the ongoing sound of the Internet also means that any radio can become the audience of any other radio program which happens to be on line. This changing role of radio - a cause for angst and panic among the managers and producers in the traditional broadcasting institutions - is understood by some people both inside and outside the institutions as an exciting and positive challenge to explore new hybrid forms of communication and content and to deal in a creative way with issues of intellectual property. Disregarding the cumbersome institutionalised product-oriented program exchange infrastructure of the big radio institutions, individual programs like GOLEM (a cult program on RAI - the Italian National Radio - dealing with media) or Kunstradio and probably many others can now use their slot on the National Radio as a possibility to explore the "sonority" of the Internet: "sounding the sounds of the Internet" - and thereby producing/offering/floating, unstable "images" for the ever-changing hybrid mediascape.
5. Loss of control/control-sharing with humans and machines
The collaborative preparation, conceptualizing, setting up of parameters for the development of on air-on line-on site projects in on line discussions and/or face to face meetings as well as the raising of money and other resources at each location etc., makes the participants in such projects the first vitally interested and participatory "audience" of what is happening at all the other nodes. Of course the adage, "the audience of an artist is other artists" also applies to other genres of art, but in collaborative, networked projects the existence of the whole project depends on the capability of each location to function successfully as a node in the network. So participating artists really need to check out and refer to what the others are doing and, in that sense, the term "zero audience" turns into an oxymoron as an actual "zero audience" in that sense, would lead to the demise of the project as a whole.
The distributed, shared authorship the success of which is intrinsically related to the development of linkable parameters means that in the 'Immersive Sound' and 'Sound Drifting' projects, machines generating sounds and, in some cases images, took over from the human initiators once the project got going. (The complex history of arriving at this state of affairs cannot even be touched upon here). The artists stayed on as an active "audience" checking for failures and break-downs. At some locations the networked generating and processing system was rendered for temporary 'on site' or 'on air' audiences while 'on line' it was just there, actively streaming from many locations around the clock - an 'on line' installation simply communicating with the other machines in the network and oblivious to human visitors.
As radio becomes what Andrea Sodomka (in an interview with the author, 1999) called "a multi channel reality, which can function interactively and in which the user has choices to link the different channels," artists are positioning their work in awareness of control-sharing with machines and other artists and of the importance of site- or channel-specific parameters. In spite - or because - of the inevitability of the loss of control involved, the artists do have to keep very different kinds of "audiences/participators" (machines, other artists, passers by, listeners, gallery-visitors etc) in mind from the very beginning of conceptualizing a project- an audience, which co-creates, taking over as part of a specific or undeterminable community of producing. Listener figures, ‘eyeballs’ or whatever those who are selling products call ‘their’ consumers, very definitely are not of any concern whatsoever. "Processing not Producting" is one of the guide-lines for working with a radio which has (also) become pure flow, and as a multi-channel experience, is more than ever available only in very personal versions and never as a whole – not even to the initiators nor to the most avid contributors of and to such projects.
6. Remembering/documenting "ephemerality and instability"
The translation of data in networked on line- on air- on site projects may include references and discourses relating to the history of radio- and communications-art, i.e. to art forms which, due to their processual fugitivity and their inherent disinterest in a finished work of art as well as to their usually underfinanced self-exploitative conditions of production are hardly ever documented according to art-historical standards. Much of what one knows about earlier projects resides in the individual memories of participants, or - as fading residues of obsolete technologies - in the archives of individual artists and some artist-run spaces which – such as Western Front in Vancouver or, later, Avatar in Quebec City - were part of early telecommunications-projects as well as more recent on air-on line-on site developments of the paradigm of collaborative exchange between nodes in multi-'channel' networks.
So it was not entirely by chance, that the on going projects "devolve into" and "devolve into II" originated in Vancouver. These open ended generative projects process and translate related visual and audio data from an increasing number of nodes in an ongoing process of decay and growth, whether anybody visits their on line version or not. Occasionally somebody renders the on line installation into on site and/or on air versions. Like some prior projects initiated by Vancouver-based media-/radio- artist Peter Courtemanche, both, "devolve into" and "devolve into II" refer back to the specific estethics of Slow Scan TV as they were documented in one of the rare videos of an early telecommunication-project. Slow Scan TV, an early picture-telephone, was one of the potential 'channels' of the hybrid conferencing techniques (Multi Mode Node Electronic Conferencing or 'MMNEC' as they were called at the time) used in educational and cultural communication-projects in the late 70s. These projects mostly connected nodes around the Pacific Rim - places way outside the international centers of academy and arts. It was not surprising that some of the Canadian so-called "parallel galleries" - artist run (media-)art spaces which attempted to strengthen regional cultural and art-developments against the overpowering commercial influence of big neighbors - already played an important role in early telecommunications art. Each node in these early projects used whatever media were available to them, and at some nodes it was human beings who translated data from one channel or media to others in order to keep the network of partly incompatible media from being disrupted. Then, as now, it was the connectivity - the translation of data between diverse media and nodes and the reflection of these processes, which counted much more than the distribution of any specific content. These projects were (and sometimes still are) by nature quite exclusive of passive ‘audiences’, which tend to withdraw due to boredom, or eventually become active participants themselves.
In other words, the notion of 'sovereign media' seems to have a very interesting root in the history of telecommunications art, a history which in itself presents a challenge to the traditional recording, documenting and evaluation strategies of art history. The history of a collaborative art of telecommunication lacking an audience as well as a 'work' or even 'content' of the traditional kind, asks for the development of an art history in and of (a) parallel control-sharing universe(s). An art-history which does "not criticize the baroque data environments or experience them as threats, but consider(s) them material, to use as (it pleases)" ... maybe?
A first version of this short text was written for the target.audience=0 panel at net.congestion -International Festival of Streaming Media, in Amsterdam, October 2000; a second one was printed in ACOUSTIC SPACE 3, published by Xchange - Net Audio Network.
about Heidi Grundmann >>