24 Nov 2015

guest artist talk to the class DIY Broadcast Media, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

a colleague in the Transmission Arts, Brett Ian Balogh, invited me to participate in a guest lecture programme for the class, DIY Broadcast Media, which he has taught for many years in the Dept. of Art Technology at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

I joined an illustrious programme of speakers discussing their own and others' artistic uses of the radio spectrum. The transcript of the very beginning of my talk, which I skyped in from my home in Dunedin at a strange hour, is below:


Hi everyone and thanks again to Brett for inviting me to speak today.

I’m a sound and radio artist from New Zealand, and I wanted to talk about some projects I’ve been doing lately involving live radio transmission, that consider how transmission might interact with environment, and with silence, and with discourses of the local.

The idea of ecological media using solar panels and batteries that we have made ourselves from cheap or recycled components might appeal to many of us at the moment, as we look at what some of our more eloquent media theorists are increasingly catching up on – artists have perhaps been doing this for much longer – that our expensive laptop screens and our mobile phones which are so quickly destined for consumer obsolescence in the landfill are the thin end of an intensely material wedge which gives the lie to notions around the supposed dematerialisation of the cloud – the toxicity of this technology and our need to acknowledge its tangible weight as part of a geological strata that collapses time scales. the search for a way of shifting attention to what Jonathan Sterne calls “the stuff beneath, beyond and behind the boxes our media come in” includes a variety of artistic responses that lead us out of an obsession with technological futures toward other time scales, and the resuscitation of memory.

Jussi Parikka, speaking in his book The Anthrobscene about mobile technologies using rare minerals, says that “Technology constructs new pragmatic and epistemological realms where geology turns into a media resource. And similarly, geology itself transforms into a contested technologically conditioned object of research and a concept that we are able to use to understand the widespread mobilisation of nature. It also transforms questions of deep times from the merely temporal past to futures of extinction, pollution, and resource depletion, triggering a huge chain of events and interlinked questions: the future landscape of media-technological fossils.” In this reckoning, an ecological media might include the sounds not only of the earliest radio transmissions, or phonographic wax cylinders, but the sounds of earthquakes which have shaped whole mountain ranges like the grooves in a recording, and the charting of networks of bird migration whose quantum bio-technologies pre-date our digital technologies in their ability to use electromagnetism for navigation on a global scale.

I’m currently participating in two exhibitions which are about to overlap, one came down yesterday here in Dunedin, an independently curated show called “in a blessed parenthesis, in a vacuum full of promise”, and one is starting in Atlanta, a bit closer to where you are, on Thursday. The latter show is called “Extreme Weather” and I won’t get to see it, but according to its press it “explores the complex entity that is our atmosphere. With discussions of climate change constantly looming and debates of net neutrality pervasive, the atmosphere continues to be a contested site. Combining artworks that engage various aspects of our environment, EXTREME WEATHER seeks to illuminate the ways in which we understand our place as beings, both materially and immaterially, in our ethereal world.”

The Dunedin exhibition includes two new works of mine called ‘tidelines for water street’ and ‘152 high street silence’ which are both variously themed around using the tools of transmission in order to question the idea of land use in the physical and social spaces of the built environment in a certain locality in Dunedin, and how artists have used the area historically, in largely buried or unofficial ways. I was interested in looking at how silence and the act of recording function there alongside memory, both in terms of human lifespans and in terms of non-human scales like geological deep time.

'tidelines for water street' involved a score in the form of a material map of the area that turned a certain street into a series of marks that I interpreted through music box transcriptions and transmitted zither pieces, as well as ground-up shellac records being put back onto the street, and part of my research into the area was that this part of the city was reclaimed from the sea in the colonial era by colonists essentially throwing their rubbish into the ocean and then paving it, and I was also thinking of the original meaning of the word “broadcast” that meant “scattering seeds” before its co-option in the twentieth century for broadcast media like radio and television. And that the anniversary of the first radio broadcast in New Zealand history was just the other day on November the 17th, which occurred down the road at the Otago University physics department

 “152 high street silence” is a piece which uses small radius – mini FM – transmission to narrowcast a field recording, made by another artist, who's a friend, in his studio almost exactly 20 years ago, back to the space where the room it was recorded in used to be, even though that space has been transformed in the interim into a casino carpark. The work is about the pressures of the gentrifications of neighbourhoods on artists, and the small moments of memory that hang in the air, which the recording of sound can dimly perceive.

These works join the work in the Atlanta show which was made a few years ago for a radio art platform called radius – and I understand you talked to Jeff Kolar from radius a couple of weeks ago. That work collected together 8 five minute recordings of gallery spaces which I made in my neighbourhood before the Christchurch earthquake of 2011, all of which were subsequently destroyed along with the buildings that housed them, and transmitting them back into another artist space, located in the neighbourhood I now live in, in the more southern city of Dunedin, at midnight, on the last day of the space’s lease before it became a gymnasium.

I wrote about the transmission in the casino carpark Dunedin, 152 high street silence, in a little book we just finished making for the exhibition with a local publisher called Point, and printed beautifully on a Riso, as follows:


title: 152 high street silence
date: 17th November 2015
time: 5:35

notes: a field recording, taken from the window of an artist’s studio on a particularly rainy day, is transmitted back into the place it was recorded. This done with a delay: it is 20 years later. The building no longer exists but it is not merely metaphorical to say that the spaces which once stood here are audible in the historic recording. Within its structure, the particular spatiality of the heavy, coldly incessant density of raindrops hitting the roof of the building and the street beyond, seems to create a dry region in the aural foreground, an audible hollow like a nest that shelters the ear, that braces it against both the substance of the rain in the foreground and the hollower space of the room positioned behind the microphone, all of this creating a particular shape within listening, which is the room appearing again, as a ghostly architectural-corporeal orientation, a set of coordinates that find solidity as phenomenological and physical planes around the body of the listener. In this, the recording exhibits the paradoxical status of most time-based observations, as they recede from their temporal referent: it slowly inches closer to being a document which mainly reveals the inaccessibility of the thing lost, as much as it can also be said to preserve it within memory. A split perceivable, perhaps most acutely, when what is captured is the sound or image of someone or something who has died; although a recording of the space of a lost building is no different; such experiential air as its room contains is likewise a relation no longer open for editing. Perhaps what such documents teach us, when we listen to them in our present, is that it is time-keeping devices which construct time, which surround us with the ghosts of past experiences, our own and others, that they render unreachable through their very capturing. Perhaps the bittersweetness of such notions appears best in the ostensibly uneventful, the durational recording, nothing but an extended moment of time on an ordinary day. Yet what also becomes audible in this particular trace of a solitary day at home in an artist’s studio, is a portal for thinking, which is also the silence of the recordist’s attention to that which is heard. This silence, this listening, is the sound of a domesticia in which such contemplative space, as is represented in the recording, is possible. This possibility is what circles through the carpark, on this day 20 years later, carried by what is audible, the thinness of what is now extant: the hum of the casino air conditioner, the seagulls bickering on the concrete wall, the sparse but constant noise of cars, the noise of commercial stations trying to compete with the signal which carries the recording (of silence, of rain, of observation, of possibility), back into listening. It is not always clear; the little signal struggles with the weight of radiophonic space, with the wind, with the materials around it, with all that it is not; creating what it can in the air, a small room, in which a silence can appear, a sketch of something barely-there in the trace of itself. Just as the only extant physical remnant of the building which contained this observational silence, this listening space, is still here: a partial stone wall, which stands, incongruously and somewhat mysteriously, bisecting, like a kind of ruin, the regulatory partitioned architecture of the carpark space, its asphalt sealant, a place without memory, adjacent to the casino. It is oddly like the jutting backbone of a mountain range, a buried landscape, another possible map rupturing the flatness of the bitumen, the screen-picture, from physical deep time. The geology of this wall-remainder is a composite, and includes red brick, bluestone, and various miscellaneous items which seem to have been permitted to stay here: a dead bird, a discarded packet which once held AA batteries. The lead heart, the swallow, the pile of ashes. The signal drowned out by noise, but not before the apparition of a rainstorm.    

nigel bunn: field recording, 1995 
sally ann mcintyre: re-transmission and re-recording: 2015


Sometimes as an experimental artist you don’t set out knowing exactly what you’re doing and you only really find out exactly what you’re interested in by actualising projects, and having these suggest a variety of questions through their ways of articulating a set of formal or ethical problems, and I’ve been really interested to see these three works seem to have a few thematics that could be identified as a trajectory.

Perhaps in these works I’m realising that on the radio, silence isn’t silence. It is not even the silence that John Cage heard. It is the transmission of an audible gap, a double silencing, which has its own ontology. Steve Bates writes about Walter Benjamin’s radio silence in his essay “Clearing the Air: notes toward a minor transmission” that “This undefined, open space is completed by the listener as a sort of vacant lot in a field of buildings. While one’s circumstance might welcome this undefined, open space, another may imagine it as ruin. For Benjamin, the silent radio was imagined as ruin. A visceral wreckage that weighed immensely on the ears.” (...)

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