Radio Art: The Sense of Building Communities

Lines of Research

by Daria Ghiu

Radio art, a transgressive genre that regards radio as an art-medium in itself, creatively explores its unique possibilities. Taking into account the conceptual and historical genealogy of this concept, a discourse about it has to focus on the relation between radio, art, and politics. My personal interest in radio art questions the manners in which radio art builds its communities of listeners and the possible political consequences of this construction. It represents a means for grounding my present activity as a radio author working for Romanian public radio. This is the context in which I have made the acquaintance of and dealt with radio´s great critical capacity, that of re-creating an un-mediated political ambient. I am equally interested in analyzing the creative revival of radio on the ashes of paranoiac television. Three key concepts define my interest in radio art: the dialectics between sound and the visual; the sense of community through radio (living radiophonically); and the specific processes of subjectification.

Today the realm of the visual and the technologies of the spectacle (Debord 1994) have managed to reach worldwide domination. It is only because the moving image loses its critical dialectical other (Jacques Derrida’s poison-cure “pharmakon”) that this situation occurs. Television is a prime case of a paranoiac univocal development where the visual is reduced to a medium for transmitting ideologies of the ruling classes, a poison which has lost its inner antidote. Thus, there is a need to find a strategy to counter this process. It is my belief that such a strategy could be based on what we could call a contemporary “sound turn” that receives artistic support, among a multiplicity of examples, from “sound venues” (such as those of the Manifesta Biennial in 2008 and 2010, the temporary public spaces organized by the LIGNA group or the digital net-art projects dealing with radio). My hypotheses are that sound could be the generator of a radical political imagination and that radio art can become an active agent of micro-politics, a tool for building communities and for addressing different sorts of critical political questions. I am asking myself: In what ways does the conjunction of radio waves, sound and art support a radical political imagination? What kinds of communities does radio art build? What are the political expressions of these communities?

I consider it necessary to investigate the genealogy of the concepts of community and radical political imagination from modernity to postmodernism, passing through Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Giorgio Agamben, Jean-Luc Nancy, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, Franco Berardi and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. I believe that this genealogy helps us understand how radio can become an agent, an operator for contemporary types of communities “without communitarianism.”

It is equally important, as well, to research the history of artistic experiments using radio, starting from the early avant-garde and ending with the present day when the concept of “radio author” is clearly delineated.

Almost mirroring the dispersive state of contemporary art, the German writer and radio author Helmut Heißenbüttel has stated that “radio art is everything that you listen to in radio” (Ghiu et al.). However, one cannot forget Joseph Goebbels’s famous advice given to his radio editors, that of “hammering and chiseling away at people for long enough until we have captured them” (Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv. et al. 1972: 10). These two statements mark the unfolding of an entire history of duality and internal duplicity. Radio is, on the one hand, a transmitter of ideology and propaganda, and on the other, redemption and creative imagination. Through this complicity, a historical pharmakon develops: both a poison and a cure (Derrida 1981). Thus, the art of freeing imagination at radio, of achieving a wireless imagination (for example, Marinetti’s readings of his Parole in libertà) (Kahn and Whitehead 1992, Introduction) has been doubled by “the art of manipulation” through radio, a tendency strongly criticized by Bertolt Brecht (Hanhardt 1986) and Rudolf Arnheim (Arnheim 1972) in their attack against the fascist “broadcast monopoly” (Augaitis et al. 1994). Brecht’s suggestion was that radio could be transformed in “a vast network of pipes ... if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers” (Brecht and Willett 1964: 52). Walter Benjamin would also argue that through radio “as many voices as possible should be heard” (Jensen and LaBelle 2007; Leslie 2005).

Starting with Brecht and Benjamin and ending with Berardi and Agamben, twentieth century thought has continuously focused on the dialects between sound and the visual. What becomes clear is that radio recreates presence and proximity precisely because its wave flux does not depend on representation: sound signals are indices that keep and recreate proximity. In contrast with the visual image, which offers ready-made representations, dominant and un-attackable (because of the beholder’s quasi-lives on the tele-visual scene), radio restitutes the possibility of a political imagination. If the image, as Guy Debord once noted, managed to include and interiorize the separation and the exclusion, then radio seems to be able to reestablish the conditions of existence for communities.

Until the Second World War the meaning of “community” was shaped by the so-called essences or identities of race, blood, territory, or class. This premodern meaning was finally compromised by the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. What we today call “community” is not shaped by essence: communities are open, a-territorial, mobile, reflecting a new sense and desire for communion (sharing) that is currently under construction. When stating the need for reestablishing a community through radio, I am referring to a post-metaphysical meaning unveiled by the triumph of the nihilism produced by mimetic-representational visual technologies of communication. The concept of “radio communities” is thus deeply influenced by Giorgio Agamben’s book The Coming Community (Agamben 1993): communities of “whatever singularities”, “absolutely unrepresentable communities,” where the negative condition of “being-within an outside” becomes the positive condition for creating de-territorialized senses of togetherness. The radiophonic spaces are inhabited by “the first citizens of a community with neither presuppositions nor a State” (Agamben 1993: 82-83), “mediated neither by any condition of belonging nor by the simple absence of conditions, but by belonging itself” (Agamben 1993: 84). Against all communication technologies based on images, radio offers chances of singularity, in a deconstructive movement which ends where a “whatever” is formed. A reform takes place, that of a “community without identity,” which ends in the intensive state of a modulated desire for belonging. 

In this context the processes of subjectification become a key issue. According to Agamben (Agamben 2009), radio is the only dispositive that intervenes in a situation of emergency. But this intervention rather seeks redemption, liberation, since its acting is molecular, as a line of escape and mobility, and not molar, as a rigid and fixed line of re-territorialization (Deleuze and Guattari 1980). For Agamben, the purpose of radio, as any other field-dispositive in the context of the total triumph of the image-spectacle, lies in the processes of subjectification. In contrast to other media, radio works not by conquering subjectivities, but by redeeming them. Radio recreates the presence, the possibility of a community without communitarianism, thus following Derrida’s deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence (Derrida 1998). Radio is presence at distance, but without an intermediary, or any mimetic representation-image.  

Franco Berardi’s Radio Alice, for example, is a case where art reaches its fullest political expression through radio (Berardi 1978; 2001). Alice was constructed as a laboratory for creation against social control, meant to transgress the divisions that society had created. Starting “from the lessons of Dadaism” (Rasmussen in Jensen and LaBelle 2007: 43) it continued to turn real the dream of the Dadaists and the Russian avant-garde, that of a “direct democracy.” An explosion of radio language followed, activating the passive audience through “phone-in” strategies and “Mao-Dadaism.”

A similar way of living radiophonically was developed in Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain, in the case of the listeners of Radio Free Europe. The absence of television and of images of democracies was replaced by a radical political imagination of democracy based on the auditive. Entire communities had to imagine what democracy should be like, following words and sounds. It was these communities of listeners that later took the main role in the political turnovers of the late 1980s. In 2013 Gianina Carbunariu, a Romanian dramatist and stage director, conceived the play called Tipografic majuscul, which is still on at the Odeon Theater in Bucharest: a play that tells the real story of a high-school teenager who, in 1982, in a small Romanian city, Botosani, wrote critical messages in the public square, with white chalk, against the Romanian politics of the moment, against the communist regime and Nicolae Ceausescu. The adolescent was haunted, caught, intensively interrogated and followed by the Romanian Securitate. The play, based on real documents and reports from the Romanian secret police, explains how the teenager´s unique source of information about external and internal politics was Radio Free Europe, that he used to listen every day, alone, in his room. Almost at the end of the play, a secret service officer states that “information is made possible with and through people,” as simple and cynical as this sounds. Gianina Carbunariu´s play makes use of an austere scenography, where the voice plays a main role: the voices (of the teenager himself, of his parents, colleagues or police officers) hurt, are misunderstood or transformed into an evil force.

In the realm of contemporary art, projects such as LIGNA in Germany use nowadays radio units in the public sphere in order to construct alternative communication strategies and new ways of collectively being in public. The popularity of Internet-based radios, net art, and online communities have contributed to the art world’s increased interest in radio art. Neuer Berliner Kunstverein (n.b.k.) in Berlin organized an exhibition entitled Sounds. Radio-Art-New Music (curated by Marius Babias, Gaby Hartel, Frank Kaspar, and Katrin Klingan) that ran in February and March 2010, where the play between intellectual experiment, political manifesto and the artistic heritage of the historical avant-garde, Fluxus movement, or artists such as John Cage was placed at the center of the curatorial approach and translated into contemporary forms of expression.

A current model for using radio through contemporary art is the case of Manifesta, the nomadic biennial for contemporary art. After Manifesta 7’s Fortezza: Scenarios, an entire Habsburg fortress “squatted” by sound artists in 2008, Manifesta 8 (Murcia, Spain) proposed to use radio as a tool for dealing with social issues and for building new types of communities (Ghiu and Fijen). From October 2010 until January 2011, one group of curators involved in Manifesta 8 -Chamber of Public Secrets-, worked with the concept “radio as venue,” aiming to use radio as a means of connecting the south of Spain with northern Africa.

Finally, another case study, which is yet in nuce – still a proposal – comes from Romanian artist Matei Bejenaru from Iasi. Bejenaru was the creator and organizer of the Periferic Biennial, one of the best known international biennials in Europe, which took place between 1997 and 2008. At this moment, the artist´s plan is to continue the project of the bienniale in a different format, entitled Radio Periferic. Radio Periferic is “a fluid radio for cultural resistance,” an art project expressed through an online radio, based on “streaming technology.” The artist states that “choosing the radio as a format is an ideological statement: if images can be a fundamental vehicle for promoting the dominant values, sound might develop other modalities of perception and understanding of the real, it could coagulate communities around other ideas and values. To the power of concreteness promoted through visual communication we oppose the imaginary induced by the radio format, which might be seen as a social software different from the dominant one (mainstream) from the social media, which permits the development of interactive, in-depth and atypical dialogues between people” (Bejenaru 2014).       

Experiencing nausea after watching the invading moving images on the TV screen, the political subject of the new millennium has no line of escape, other than the realm of sound. The deterritorialized coming communities arrive with the coming sound turn: and it is here that radio reaches its full potential, once it receives the graft of art. The trans-spatial radio and the un-corporeal, un-stereotypical voice might be the main actors of the millennium.






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