Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications
When we think of radio transmission, what comes to mind? For most, communication and navigation are well-known uses of the technology. Radio has been used for centuries in countless practical applications, but in the 1990s, a new form of contemporary art sought to use radio transmission as an artistic medium, using radio frequency spectrum to create unique experiences for the audience through sound, sculpture or a combination of the two. Radio engineers and system designers have never lacked for creativity, but the radio art movement may be the first use of the technology for purely artistic effect.
As contemporary art forms took hold in the 1960s, rapid advancements in technology allowed artists to experiment with various new media such as color video, photography, and large installations. Considering the progress of modern society and the increasing prevalence of radio broadcasting in popular culture, it seemed only natural that art should find its way into the air waves. Contemporary art had taken a turn toward the cerebral during this period. The concept behind the art and viewers’ reactions to the art were considered more significant than the physical object itself. Artists now relied on additional elements to create experiences that went beyond the visual; creating immersive experiences often meant incorporating more than one of the five senses into a work.
Just as technology offered a new means with which to expand artforms into uncharted waters, the critical disclosure within the arts also evolved, providing additional motivation to experiment. Art was no longer simply about creating beautiful things. Modernism had upended the institutionalized view of “fine art” that exalted painting as the most prestigious artform, and then only if it followed the traditions of the renaissance masters. Contemporary artists focused instead on creating experiences with a deeper meaning behind the image or object. Movements such as Abstractionism, were meant to make art more accessible to the public, not only an elite audience. This was done by using commonly recognized shapes, figures, and objects; for example, Andy Warhol’s image of the Campbells Soup can, a popular and easily recognizable image presented in bright color. The radio art movement is an example of this deviation from tradition, as it was influenced by the art movements happening around it.
By way of very brief introduction to new media and conceptual art, consider Eric Siegel’s famous piece, Einstein. The piece is a visual installation of a five-minute, 41-second-long video featuring a single image of Albert Einstein’s face played to music by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. What makes the video interesting is Siegel’s ability to manipulate Einstein’s appearance with constantly changing colors and patterns. Einstein is an example of how using both visual effects and sound can create a more captivating experience for the viewer, drawing them deeper than merely seeing would.
Radio art may be understood as an extension of the tradition Siegel helped to establish. The artists who pioneered radio art sought to use radio signals as the source, subject or medium with which to create an emotional experience or environment for the audience – an art completely based in technology. The movement originated through experimentation with sound that was broadcast through low-power FM radios, but later broke the boundaries of sound and emerged into the physical world through interactive sculpture. Many radio artists create compositions using instruments, electronic sounds, recorded noise from an event or place, or a combination of these techniques; this is called a soundscape.
Eventually, new (often unlicensed) radio stations dedicated to broadcasting forms of radio art began to emerge around the world such as Radio Alice located in Bologna, Italy, and Radius located in Chicago, Illionois. These stations were aired over low-power FM transmissions that were only powerful enough to encompass a single town or neighborhood, typically 100W or less. Broadcasting operations at 100W or less are considered “microradio” stations, by the FCC, and did not qualify for licenses at the time because of their limited range.
In the early 1990s, an activist effort known as the US Microradio Movement helped create opportunity for small broadcasters to gain licensing, which was finally granted by the Federal Communications Commission in January, 2000. The movement served as the social catalyst for this new artform to be accepted as artistic expression and thus shared with society. With the new licensing opportunity, these microradio broadcasters were better able to fulfill their mission of supporting artists who used radio as an experimental artform.
One of the more famous examples of microradio broadcasting that has helped grow the community of radio artists and enthusiasts is Wave Farm / WGXC broadcasting from Acra, New York, which remains operational today. It began broadcasting in 1997 in the midst of the US Microradio Movement. Its first operation was out of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York through their station free103point9. Wave Farm operated out of this location from 1997 to 2004. The Brooklyn venue provided access to transmission technologies and supported artists that thought conceptually about the broadcast radio as a creative artform. In 2003, Wave Farm was granted a license by the FCC, successfully transitioning the station from an artists’ collective to an arts organization. This gave them greater ability to explore the transmission arts and find artists from various genres and techniques with the funds they were now able to raise from sponsors as an official non-profit organization.
In 2005 Wave Farm expanded to their current, 29-acre location in upstate New York. Here, they host workshops for the public, live-in residency programs, as well as live performances. Wave Farm is also home to many installation pieces that populate their vast property.
One current installation on the Wave Farm property is Jeff Thomson’s piece, Every Radio Station. This work consists of 95 handmade radios, one for each radio station in the FM band. The radios are connected side-by-side in a horizontal line, covering the expanse of four white walls, while each radio plays one of the 95 stations. The audio experience of the installation is constantly changing as the stations cycle through their various songs, talk shows and advertisements. Thomson has brought the auditory radio experience into physical being, something that can be heard, seen, and felt. The shear volume and density of information given at any moment in the presence of Thomson’s piece is an all-consuming experience. The viewer cannot focus on any one broadcast but is forced to listen to all 95 broadcasts as a single entity. This creates a powerful experience that can even come off as unpleasant or overwhelming.
However, not every radio artist uses physical structures to achieve their desired effect. Anna Fritz, a Canadian sound and media artist, creates radio broadcasts and compositions, and participates in live performances. Fritz began to compose transmission works in 1998 and explores the public media culture, environment and infrastructure that materializes from the progression of modern industrial technology. Fritz has composed many pieces that have been broadcast over Wave Farm Radio, as well as other broadcasts in 25 countries (Anna Fritz, Sound Cloud: https://soundcloud.com/annafriz).
One of her compositions titled, Vacant City Radio, explores the sounds of abandonment in urban spaces and industrial centers. In this piece, Fritz is particularly interested in conveying the moment of silence that occurs between the period that factories are in use and the period in which they are reclaimed after abandonment. In her search through these silent places, she uncovered the ominous feeling that cavernous empty spaces offer lost sounds in dark halls. To create her composition, Fritz recorded the hollow, vacant sounds she experienced in abandoned factories and warehouses along the Lachine Canal in Montreal. She then superimposed these echoing noises with synthesized sounds of her own making. The entire soundscape lasts around 35 minutes, successfully conveying the dark, gloomy sentiments she experienced.
As with most artforms, radio art can manifest in many different ways depending on the artist’s intention. This relatively new movement that uses radio both as a medium and an overarching theme is one example of how art and technology intersect as technologies proliferate and become an increasingly prevalent feature of contemporary society and culture. The artists experimenting in the radio medium remind us that while technological advancements serve practical ends and enhance the convenience daily life, they also represent an exciting conceptual frontier for creative experimentation and new potential for artistic experience.