Mar 3, 2010

'SiB (sounds-in-between) Radio Gowanus' - narrowcast radio project at Cabinet Magazine gallery, Brooklyn




When radio cegeste was invited by free103point9-associated, US-based curator Maria Papadomanolaki to participate in her narrowcast installation project SiB (sounds-in-between) Radio Gowanus, a radio station operating from 16-19 March as a component of the exhibition Postcards from Gowanus (at Cabinet Magazine's gallery space, Brooklyn), mail-art was on my mind. As was considering the near-obsolete medium of the postcard, from the perspective of the history of distance-based communications and its associated media and artforms, as being less an object than a postal circuit, with conceptual links to other communicative mediums (eg. narrowcast radio, the internet), with a focus on its similar potential for one-to-one relationships between transmitter and receiver within networks of exchange. As John Held writes, in his historical analysis of mail-art in Annemarie Chandler and Norie Neumark's At A Distance : Precursors To Art and Activism on the Internet : "...the Mail Art community... was fixated not on the postal exchange, but rather on the aesthetics and distribution of communication".

As a sometime collector of haunted sounds and haunted images, my starting point in looking at postcards as communicative devices was to ignore any monumental, touristic or nationalistic aspects, the glossy, mass-produced surfaces, and turn to the flipsides, the 'b-sides', if you will, of this media, the scrawled notes and memos of which are not spaces of public, shared, already-agreed-upon meaning. (Re)reading the lost, potentially long dead messages of a collection of randomly selected postcards from the first half of last century as a form of broadcast, I searched through their voices as a way of activating the wider medium's poetics of the personal. This process was greatly helped, practically speaking, by my amateur-collector's interest in vernacular postcard photography and the micro production-scale of the Real Photo Postcard (RPPC), a form of community driven, folk-photographic exchange of small runs of images, which New York based writer Luc Sante refers to as a "ghost telegraph".

As Sante puts it in his recently published Folk Photography : The American Real Photo Postcard 1905-1930 : "The real-photo card was typically a product of the small town, particularly the small town isolated on the plains, whose newspaper did not have the capacity to reproduce half-tones, and whose lonely citizens felt an urgent need to communicate with absent friends, distant in those days even if they lived only three stops down the railroad line."

A second aspect to the project's development was also to consider the notion of a 'sonic postcard' in an entirely more literal and formal sense, by looking at the 78RPM phonographic postcard, a truly odd and fascinating footnote in the history of audio-visual media, briefly in existence in the early 20th Century. Some images can be found above, and here is their place within a timeline of sonic media on the Museum of Technology site. These sometimes twee, often awkward, highly ephemeral hybrid objects are spatially and temporally bounded transmitting devices, with their messages constrained to 'postcard size' spaces; they are also notable for the way their production and dissemination through postal networks exposes a shift in the cultural function of sound recording and playback media, in the early stages of their popular usage, from agency- or user-driven toward something more passive and receptive, with the audio component of these home-recorded, directly communicative 'real phono postcards' (as they were, early on, carrying messages from speaker to speaker, like an audio telegraph, or an answerphone message, before becoming a more symbolic transfer, via the transmission of a novelty pop jingle); tracing a similar process as can be seen contemporarily, perhaps, in the difference between sending a personalised email and an online social networking mass gesture, in the form's evolving from one-to-one communicative device toward its later standardisation and commodification of communication.

The brief lifespan of this hybrid medium is traced in an online history of Tucks 'talking postcards', which can be found here. It's interesting in particular to note the shift from Max Thomas's conception of their usage...

"On October 7th 1904 Max Thomas, manufacturer of phonographic machinery and requisites at Berlin, claimed a patent for Phonogram Cards, for which he also applied in the United Kingdom in August 1905: "It has been proposed to enable persons, each provided with a gramophone, to converse one with the other by sending through the post a postcard or lettercard composed of paper or celluloid which has been previously impressed by the recording device of the sender's instrument..."

... toward the highly successful, and slightly suspect, popularising of the short-lived medium by the Tuck company :

"Judging by the numbers of cards still turning up at flea markets, the only company that succeeded in manfacturing Gramophone Record Postcards commercially in large amounts seems to have been Raphael Tuck. The Raphael Tuck Company published their first Christmas greeting card in 1871, and the first picture postcard in 1894. The Tuck Company entered the American postcard market in 1900 and maintained an office in New York. American artists designed the postcards and they were printed in Germany and England and returned to the U.S. for sale. In 1929 Tuck went into the business of producing Gramophone Record Postcards. As all kinds of postcard designs (landscape view, greeting cards, art reproductions) turn up, and the pictures are largely obscured by the dark-brown opaque recording material, it is thus probably safe to assume that Tuck used obsolete old postcard stock as raw material for their product. The cards do look much older than 1929, and the designs hardly ever have any logical relation to the (electrically) recorded sound pasted upon them. Any recording could be pasted on any postcard – and, discographically speaking, noting details of the postcard designs would be irrelevant. The musical selections are exclusively public domain, no money was spent on music rights and royalties.[...] In the absence of recording ledgers or other factual evidence, it is difficult to identify the performers and to date the performances. The repertoire mostly consists of undateable standard repertoire pieces - folksongs, Christmas carols, marches, spoken greetings etc. No doubt this helped Tuck to avoid paying royalties"

The relation of the phonographic postcards to certain concerns in contemporary media art practices is an intriguing one. In a way, Tuck's clunky, imperfect, oddly charming, failed-acousmatic layering of a sonic communicative medium onto a visual one is formally, if accidently, in alignment with the strategies of 'SIB Radio Gowanus' itself, if this email description from curator Maria, of the non-synchronous layering process of spectatorship around the radiophonic / visual elements of the show, emphasising the slippage and gaps between media, and distance between participants, is anything to go by :

"They way it will be set up is as follows: Signal goes into the transmitter and then visitors will be given radio headsets to tune in as the wander around the gallery. Many of the exhibits have a very prominent visual aspect so I am pretty sure that this very intimate second layer of sounds will create interesting correlations. Apart from the imagined soundscapes sent by the translocal participants, the program will also feature field-recordings and sonic artworks produced using the local sonotopia."

As yet another broadcast project involving participation via casting over networked distance, this time not with the associated immediacy of live streaming, but instead through posting recorded audio through the internet file sharing service 'sendspace', to a gallery-based localised transmission on the other side of the world, i took the project, inevitably, as an opportunity to self-reflexively explore the poignant relation New Zealanders have to communicative distance, and the associated history of media within NZ culture. A focus on nostalgia and folk-related forms perhaps digs deeper into the networked surface, underlining that the 'translocal' nature of such contributions mostly works best when it doesn't elide the exploration of a specificity of location (or the history of that specificity) in its drive toward the 'transnational'.

I'm looking forward to the feedback, from a distance.

----

this is what the organisers had to say, generally, about the show (from the blog, readable here) :

“Postcards from Gowanus” is a creative research program exploring a multitude of approaches to mapping the immediate vicinity surrounding Cabinet Magazine’s gallery space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Drawing upon the psychogeographic tradition of critically and creatively engaging with public urban space, “Postcards from Gowanus” will examine the ways that mediation fundamentally alters our relationships to the environments in which we conduct our daily lives.

"Sib (Sounds-in-between) Radio Gowanus" is a narrowcast audio exhibit that will run in conjunction with the exhibition "Postcards from Gowanus". The program will host a series of sonic artworks ranging from field recordings, drones, micro-sound to ambient and electro-acoustic compositions by US and International artists, including works by the participants of the "Postcards from Gowanus" exhibition.

"Sib Radio Gowanus" essentially bridges the space between the inaudible, invisible (and yet real) ethereal and the physically present exhibits inside the gallery.

"Sib Radio Gowanus" is curated by Maria Papadomanolaki and is sponsored by free103point9. Participant Artists (so far): Tim Arndt, Giancarlo Bracchi, Peter Cusack, Penny Duff, Gabrielle Herbst, Amir Husac, Lina Lapelyte, Daniel Lopatin, manekinekod, Sally Ann McIntyre, murmer, Michelle Nagai, Naono, Dimitris Papadatos, Maria Papadomanolaki, Heidi Prevost & David Smith, Jase Rex, John Roach, Sawako, Janek Schaeffer, Jeremy D. Slater, Hans Tammen, Mark Peter Wright, Bryan Zimmerman.