5 Jul 2009

radio cegeste presentation at critical-digital-matter, the 5th Aotearoa Digital Arts symposium

RADIO CEGESTE short presentation for the 5th ADA Symposium, 28 June 2009


apologies to Zita for also doing exactly what she suggested to presenters not to do, and bringing my own laptop....

...hi, I’m Sally Ann McIntyre. In the time permitting I’m going to present a brief overview of - and some associated thoughts around - a performance I did here in this very room on Friday – which coincided nicely in time with this symposium – and hopefully might be of interest to this community, considering I’m jumping on lines of thought that have come out during the symposium concerning post-Tetsuo Kogawa radio practices and questions of NZ and remoteness.

The event in question was an net radio icecast to a festival called Noise! 2009, at the Ontological Theatre in downtown New York, which I was invited to while in discussions about setting up a New Zealand presence in the radia network of distributed radio art stations and producers. This festival was organised by the New York state transmission arts organisation free103point9. The programming for each of this festival’s four nights began with one performer casting in from somewhere around the globe. So, in practice this saw various transmitted presentations from localities as far flung as New Zealand and Greece turned into data and streamed, in order to emerge again, combining with on-site performances by local practitioners in the space. The respective dispersed performers were transmitting to a performance venue for experimental music and sound art to listeners they couldn’t see, which most had never been to, and remained invisible themselves. All this dis-location does interesting things to the notion of 'live' performance, taking it back to a situation very much like traditional radio broadcast, in which you have no idea who is at the other end of your transmissions. So here, as there, I’ve chosen not to use any images, in the service of emphasising that sense of focus on listening. As Allen S. Weiss puts it in Phantasmic Radio:

“Radio is, a foriori, the acousmetric medium, where the sound always appears without a corresponding image.”

radio cegeste is an artist project which is also a functional one-woman radio station. It emerges out of a multi-faceted history of working as a broadcaster, a DJ, a writer, and a curator of sound, art, and sound/art projects, and is part of my ongoing search to both engage productively with these forms and contexts, and to make some some kind of personal sense of the variety of my outputs and interests, to, as Samuel Beckett says, "find a form to accommodate the mess". I’ve been doing radio cegeste formally since December of last year, 2008, and it has been largely 'live' or event based in that time, with site-specific performances conducted via the broadcast source a very low powered Mini FM transmitter and some commercially purchasable small hand held receivers, which demark a very localised transmission area, probably about 150 metres at the most optimistic. I am programming this station on a fairly sporadic basis to include a variety of shows, and here I am following the thoughts of the Japanese radio artist and theorist Tetsuo Kogawa when he says:

“For as long as radio has been considered as a means of communication, as a means for the circulation of information from one place to another, mini-FM has been different. How can you define radio that reaches a small audience in a very limited area? It could be possible to define it as a kind of performance art. Perhaps radio art might be a more appropriate term for mini-FM. But it is not quite adequate because mini-FM is still radio.”

the transmitter I use – this is it here - is something I made in a group workshop with Tetsuo in 2006, when he was invited to New Plymouth to be part of the exhibition From Mini FM to Hacktivists – a Guide to Art and Activism, curated by Mercedes Vicente for the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Doing a workshop and emerging with a radio transmitter was itself a form of participation in and engagement with Tetsuo’s practice, and in that sense every time I use the transmitter, which has an object-status and is a kind of multiple, I am engaging in a material appropriation of his very specific technological reaction to a certain set of media conditions in Tokyo in the 1980s, when the Mini FM movement became a way of addressing the monolithic nature of the hierarchies of public media in that city. The set of conditions found in that time and place are about as far away as you can get from the current situation I find myself in, based loosely, if nomadically, in the sparsely populated south island of New Zealand. But using Kogawa’s ideas and materials, and taking that act of making further into usage by turning my back, however temporarily, on established broadcast media to engage with a more localised, performative, 'hand-made' or even 'craft-based' form of radio-making with the transmitter, I certainly consider the history of its use, and the politics of that usage to be embedded within its materials.

I was talking to someone connected to this symposium last night, who mentioned, when I described my project, that radio was over as a medium, and this is of course true in one sense, but his statement also brings up the idea, which i'd like to speak to, that the point of disappearance of the commercial use of a medium is a place where the artistic re-investigation of it can be most illuminating, and which can be a window of critical focus that can serve to cast light on the use of media in general – as Kogawa once again points out at the beginning of his essay Toward Polymorphus Radio :

“Throughout its history, despite efforts by the Futurists in the 1920s, radio has been considered largely a means of communication rather than an art form. Therefore, it is ironic that just as traditional forms of radio are in decline, its possibilities as an art form are reaching extreme potentials. If, as Heidegger suggests, extreme possibilities are reached at the end of something, what then ends with radio?”

I thought in terms of addressing the theme of this symposium – critical digital matter – and in the context of ADA in general, one interesting thing to very briefly talk through would be that sense of end point, and the use of obsolete or near obsolete media and its relation to materiality.

in its manifest form radio cegeste certainly isn’t a digital media project – ostensibly it’s about as far away as you can get, with a technological base in the simplest of hand made lo fi DIY electronics, and a manifest performative or situational base in narrowcast radiophonics. The project is digital in the most simple and offhand of ways, which might seem almost facetious to mention; reflective of the fact that in New Zealand in 2009 I live with the everyday accessibility of basic domestic digital technologies, and the associated fact that the project wouldn’t exist in its current form without the portable office, edit suite, storage and playback device which is my laptop computer. Even without the prospect of icecasting, I use domestic digital media such as an ipod and mp3s in playback, and gather my field recordings on a digital chip recorder, and the aleatory nature of each performance is informed by the amount of physical electromagnetic traffic which the transmitter reads, competes with, and which bleeds as noise into its improvisational soundscapes.

in another and very real way radio cegeste also wouldn’t really exist in the form it does without an awareness of its placing in digital contexts, and is a comment on them to some degree. The question - which I do get asked - 'why not just do a podcast?' can probably be answered with the thought that one of the key features of many contemporary technologies is their drive toward increasing standardisation and commodification.

If the mainstream usage of radio as a communicative broadcast medium belongs to the history of Modernity, then its ghostly recurrence in critically minded radio art projects like radio cegeste is also a re-analysis of that history, and in this context probably ties somewhat into what Nicholas Bourriard calls the Altermodern. He explained this in 2005 in the following way :

“‘Altermodern’ is a word that intends to define the specific modernity according to the specific context we live in – globalization, and its economic, political and cultural conditions. The use of the prefix “alter” means that the historical period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end, and alludes to the local struggles against standardization. The core of this new modernity is, according to me, the experience of wandering — in time, space and mediums.”

then he goes on to say “We have to get out of this dialectical loop between the global and the local, to get rid of the binary opposition between globalization and traditions


Artists are looking for a new modernity that would be based on translation: What matters today is to translate the cultural values of cultural groups and to connect them to the world network. This “reloading process” of modernism according to twenty-first-century issues could be called altermodernism, a movement connected to the creolisation of cultures and the fight for autonomy, but also the possibility of producing singularities in a more and more standardized world."

Jonathan Crary talks very eloquently about this situation also in his book, Suspensions of Perception : Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture :

"...at the end of the twentieth century, the loosely connected machinic network for electronic work, communication and consumption has not only demolished what little had remained of the distinction between leisure and labour but has come, in large arenas of western social life, to determine how temporality is inhabited. Information and telematic systems simulate the possibility of meanderings and drift, but in fact they constitute modes of sedentarisation, of separation in which the reception of stimuli and the standardisation of response produce an unprecedented mixture of diffuse attentiveness and quasi-automatism, which can be maintained for remarkably long periods of time


what once might have been called reverie now most often takes place aligned with preset rhythms, images, speeds and circuits that reinforce their relevance and dereliction of whatever is not compatible with their formats... the question of how and whether creative modes of trance, inattention, daydream, and fixation can flourish within the interstices of these circuits


it is particularly important now to determine what creative possibilities can be generated amid new technological forms of boredom."

I hear radio cegeste as radio reconceived as a mobile medium, a medium which is artist driven, and body-sized. Its technological and spatial constraints are strategic; their technical simplicity, and fragility makes radio technology transparent to its listeners, and their scale – deliberately restraining things down to the portable and localised – is a downscaling of the technologies of radio to the size of intimate space. partly these limits are practical – I tend to be quite nomadic, so the essential question is – what can I take with me? - this then becomes a structural organising principle for the work, a kind of formal constraint, which in stripping things away to allow space, engages with the aesthetics and history of minimalism and a certain form of poetics, as well as political ideas around the accessibility of media and DIY. Doing radio cegeste constantly reminds me that no matter how mobile we get, human life remains tied to specific spaces, times and places – and that shifts in media do not actually destroy the placed materiality of human existence.

I’m inspired in this by other people working in experimental ways with radios around the world, such as Ricardo Reis of radio zero in Portugal, who wrote in a recent email to the radia mailing list:

“It seems to me that right now the new emergence of local/community/art radios (is it a renaissance or just my wishful thinking?) is another way of fighting and holding ground against a more and more every-where look alike culture. Notice that I'm not saying that is something done with such aim in conscience.

This kind of niche promotes the existence of works that are in themselves individual and so more closely related to the environment the artist is moving in. Generally this means also a more in touch contact with specific cultural references, and so, extending, some sort of lighthouse/anchor on a more desolated cultural landscape...”

this attention to the "environment the artist is moving in" is something that comes through in many ways in the content of radio cegeste performances - unfortunately I haven't yet done anything in a lighthouse, but I have played back field recordings of empty gallery spaces collected over a few hours in Christchurch, which were then transmitted as a 5 minute event-score project for a local artist run space, and I’ve collected field recordings of 80 year old men speaking about the architectural history of Port Chalmers, which were arranged as part of a transmission not far from the place where they were gathered. Other forms of attention to locality are connected to the inclusion of the audience and the engagement with particular music subcultures. I have handed out receivers to audience members, and I have played the transmitter as an instrument in situations involving improvised music, in collaboration with (other) experimental musicians. I’m also planning a radio station for native birds, which looks at the cultural history of the birdsong in NZ broadcast, and thinks through connections around of the idea of the birdsong as territorial imperative and the notion of mini-FM as bounded radio.

So, the project’s awareness of its technological, physical and historical placing informs its use of media, and its aim is transparency around the social, the economic and certainly sometimes the ecological ramifications of that use – for example here I have a solar panel which can power the transmitter quite adequately on a sunny day, replacing the 9 volt battery I normally use. In these aspects, and in its priviliging of the moment of live presence over recording, the project engages with the concept of "slow media", a borrowing from the Italian Slow Food movement which, like the latter, addresses the need for the preservation of local traditions and attention to detail within the expedient commercialism of a fast paced globalised context, and is described as follows in an article by Helen De Michiel:

"The concept of "slow media" characterises a practice that all members of the media arts field hold in common: we share the ability to do a lot with little. Our work, which is framed by a fast-moving, fickle, and overstimulated communications industry, is done slowly and deliberately"

I introduced radio cegeste as an 'artist project', and now I feel like I should qualify that slightly. You could say that as much as the station is about post-Cage authorlessness, the whole concept of having one’s own personal radio station, one that is mobile, that can be staged anywhere you go - on a bus, in a shopping mall, on a deserted beach - is also very much about the strategic recovery of artistic subjectivity, its personalisation within media structures as a way of tempering the sometimes sterile and passive aspects of today's saturated media contexts.

radio cegeste in this way is a perfect artist project for someone who has worked mainly within cultural frameworks as a commentator, a DJ, an organiser, and a listener, with, as an old english teacher once put it, "building hoops rather than jumping through them", and it extends all these things into the more personalised, or centralised space of production, while remaining pleasingly blank in it's authorial gesturing. In this way the project helps me to continue to ask – if not to answer - the question of whether (artistic) subjectivity is an antiquated notion at the beginning of the 21st century, or just something that requires new conceptions. I'm certainly engaging with 'the death of the author' in quite a deliberate way, and via formations which include everything from Roland Barthes own idea of the text as a space where 'a variety of quotations blend and clash', to questions around musicianship in the situations in which the transmitter becomes a noise music instrument, and which necessitate a certain amount of intentionality, although because I’m engaging with improvised music the ideal is always to give away intentionality.

to return to the event which began this talk, the internet radio cast to the Noise!09 festival, i was thinking afterwards about the ways in which the exciting prospect of a radio link to the other side of the world, a radiophonic hole to China, or a 'radio wormhole' as Zita Joyce might put it, extends a historic situation we are very familiar with, in terms of the presence of communication technologies being a way to address isolation with connectivity, something deeply embedded in Antipodean culture. This recurs - a few years ago you may remember there was an advertisement on NZ television which depicted the bucolic scene of a small boy alone on a pristine, isolated beach, dragging a flax flower, until he noticed a rope in the waves. Pulling on this rope, which trifurcated, the boy was shown dragging recognisable Metropoli – Paris, and New York among them - impossibly large and distant Leviathans looming toward his coastline, in an near-comical semiotic clash. The ending shot shows the boy standing triumphant on a rocky pinnacle, with his audience of cities, to the voiceover “the isolation age is over” – this was an advertisement for the New Zealand telecom network’s broadband service.

There is a wonderful passage from a 2002 interview with two ADA related artsts, radioqualia's Honor Harger and Adam Hyde, in conversation with Zita Joyce for Log Magazine issue 10, which speaks fairly humorously to this sensibility :

Adam - Also coming from New Zealand we had no intentionality of an audience. Because coming from New Zealand, you have no audience and the mythos surrounding creating music in NZ is that actually the best music is created by people who don’t give a fuck who’s going to listen to it. So from that the fact of having an audience is necessarily secondary to making good art.

Honor - So the whole idea of there needing to be people listening to the broadcasts has never been an issue for us. For a lot of people that really raises the question of why broadcast then. For us, the question is why not?

Another, perhaps more poignant take on such mythologies is found in the liner notes to a five part radio series commissioned by Kunstradio, and curated by radioqualia, called ISOL:

"Isolation and migration work in symbiosis. Geographical remoteness meant inhabitation was contingent on long journeys. Argonauts navigated firstly from the South Pacific, and laterly from Europe to arrive in New Zealand. In the 1920s radio began to further erode isolation, by connecting New Zealanders firstly with each other, then with their neighbours, and and finally with the world.

But the intervention of air travel, broadcasting and digital technologies does not completely nullify the impact of sheer physical distance. In an itinerant world criss-crossed by fibre-optics, copper wire and invisible latices of radio waves, isolation still causes a cultural lag. The huge watery spaces between New Zealand and the rest of the world still seem to slow down the speed of the information revolution. Isolation causes a kind of info-drag. But the distance from the super-highway, though often frustrating, can have it's advantages. Culturals fads and trends have less impact in a country where they arrive 3, 6 or even 12 months late. Indigenous phenomena can sometimes be left to incubate and evolve entirely localised peculiarities in the absence of the distraction of international influences. Consequently, experimental New Zealand music and sound art from the 1980s till the present day has developed its own evolutionary quirks entirely specific to the country. In comparitive isolation, experimental sound manifests specific auditory adaptions, distinctive sonic qualities, unique phonic mutations, and new interpretations of the pervasive themes of isolation, distance and remoteness."

This 'rare bird' mythology of a lack of audience being productively strategic holds, in its way, within the very small peer based communities of New Zealand experimental music culture. It can also be said to function with another obsolete medium without a visible audience – poetry – which the name radio cegeste is a reference to – specifically, the name of a character from Cocteau’s 1950 film Orphee, who is a dead poet who speaks through the car radio. My work in such underground and marginal artforms means I am fairly used to working in small communities, which doesn't necessarily mean working without feedback or with only the faintest signal flickering across the sea, it just means a lack of acknowledgement from the wider culture, which is both why the intimate spaces of performance are quite rewarding, and why in terms of casting out to that mainstream culture for listeners, asking the legitimising question “is anyone out there?” seems the wrong approach. Indeed it is a more fertile strategy, visible now more than ever perhaps, within the work of organisations such as ADA and the Audio Foundation, as well as a variety of related grass roots artist initiatives, to value and cultivate the small but concentrated communities we do have at hand, and to see the potential freedom in working within artforms in which the pressures to be commercially viable simply do not apply. The prospect of building these immediate localities, while at the same time utilising more lateral community-building opportunities presented by technologies such as icecasting, and networks such as radia, seems both excitingly new, and familiar as a footnote to the long history of artists distributing their work via similarly non-hierarchical networks of exchange, and perhaps here we consign the small lost child, the "pale intruder on an unknown beach", as Peter Jefferies once put it, to history. Or perhaps not. There was a recording of my voice speaking a poem by Jack Spicer buried somewhere in my cast to the New York festival the other day, so I’d just like to leave you with that, as part of a short re-broadcast of some of the performance from Friday.


Jack Spicer - Thing Language

This ocean, humiliating in its disguises

Tougher than anything.

No one listens to poetry. The ocean

Does not mean to be listened to. A drop

Or crash of water. It means



Is bread and butter

Pepper and salt. The death

That young men hope for. Aimlessly

It pounds the shore. White and aimless signals. No

One listens to poetry.

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