24 Sept 2016

'Das Große Rauschen: the Metamorphosis of Radio' at Radio Revolten Zentrale, Halle.

arriving in Germany to be resident for the month of October in the city of Halle (Saale) to participate in the Radio Revolten International Radio Art Festival, I am joining more than 70 artists from 17 countries who will visit this month to contribute in a variety of ways to the festival, at the invitation of artistic director Knut Aufermann, and co-curators Anna Friz, Sarah Washington, Ralf Wendt and Elisabeth Zimmermann. That’s 30 non-stop, exciting and exhausting days of contemporary radio art, at 15 locations around this small and picturesque city, in the form of performances, site-specific installations, concerts and events, and live radio broadcasts, as well as discussions in the upcoming symposium Radio Space is the Place. The festival will be transmitting 24 hours a day on Radio Revolten Radio, on the FM frequency 99.3 MHz in Halle, further afield locally on the AM (middlewave) frequency 1575 kHz, and reaching a worldwide audience via the festival livestream. Additionally, 35 radio stations around the world will integrate parts of Radio Revolten Radio into their own programming, including Resonance FM, Radio Zero, Wave Farm/WGXC Hudson Valley NY, and other stations involved in the Radia network, whose members will also take the opportunity to converge for a two-day meeting and thinktank at the studios of Halle's Radio Corax during the festival.

A week out from the opening, I am currently setting up my installation within the walls of room 106, once the office of a certain Frau Dieter, on the first floor of Radio Revolten Central in Rathausstraße 4, for the contemporary art exhibit Das Grosse Rauschen: The Metamorphosis of Radio (2nd–30th October 2016), which also features Steve Bates (ca/qc), DinahBird and Jean-Philippe Renoult (fr), Golo Föllmer and friends (de), Fernando Godoy M and Rodrigo Ríos Zunino (cl), Jeff Kolar (us), Emmanuel Madan (ca/qc), Kristen Roos (ca), with Maia Urstad (no) installed in the Stadtmuseum Halle as part of the “Unsichtbar Welle” historical installation. The curator of Das Grosse Rauschen, Anna Friz describes the exhibition as grouping “international artists working on the cutting edge of art with a trailing edge technology,” focusing on the expanded context of radio art: “What other possibilities might exist for radio in the popular imagination, what significance might radio have outside of it’s usual functions of broadcasting information and entertainment? Artists working with radio have consistently sought to re-imagine the medium itself: to subvert the standardized and institutional approaches to broadcasting, to challenge ownership (state or corporate) of the airwaves, to rethink what counts as transmission infrastructure by pulling radio out of the studio and into new spaces for public actions, installations, performances, infiltrations, and interferences.”

My contribution to this exhibition is threefold, with an interconnected suite of works exploring the indeterminacies of historical memory via the medium of transmission: site-specific iterations of Collected Silences for Lord Rothschild and modified radio memorial (a fissure in the line of a public silence) will be joined by a new work, study for a data-deficient species (grey ghost transmission). More detail follows:

study for a data deficient species (grey ghost transmission)

audio recordings, mini fm transmitters, radio receivers, destroyed nest, archival photograph, archival materials, installation.

this work re-situates, as a room-sized transmission, a sound library of putative calls of an endemic New Zealand bird, the South Island kōkako, collected by New Zealand wildlife ecologist Rhys Buckingham in remote forested areas of the deep South Island and Southern Stewart Island, while the species was officially declared extinct. Buckingham, who has been hunting for the bird for nearly 40 years, was instrumental in gathering the evidence to overturn its conservation status from "extinct" to "data deficient" in 2013. 

Colloquially known as the "grey ghost" and as mythic and elusive as such a designation implies, in New Zealand the cultural script written around this bird includes the lost memory of a hauntingly beautiful song. This is a sound only amplified by its absence, as well as by its echo in the continued presence, in secure eco-sanctuaries, of the equally beautiful, if different, song of its endangered cousin, the North Island kōkako. The song itself is portrayed as unearthly, as having a 'natural resonance', as one of the slowest and loudest of any song bird. Such cries were perhaps most memorably described by pioneer colonial explorer Charlie Douglas from his camp on the South Island's rugged west coast in 1892, as "indescribably mournful. The wail of the wind through a leafless forest is cheerful compared to it. Perhaps the whistling of the wind through the neck of an empty whisky bottle is the nearest approach to it, and is sadly suggestive of departed spirits."  

Buckingham's recordings do not present us with this sound. They fail to capture the grandiosity of such a yearned-for aural romanticism. Insubstantial and compelling as a blurry photograph of bigfoot, the collected calls of the elusive bird clock in at a total time length of 1:26. Fragments of uncertain provenance and legibility, the recordings reveal the contradictions of the field recording as presence or "evidence," and the limitations of recording technologies to transparently document, pointing toward the fiction of the total 'natural archive', and asking questions about what value an archive of the sounds of a species is, once that species has become extinct. In these recordings, the bird hovers on the edge of audibility, refusing to be pinned down to monumental extinction narratives, just as it destabilises the set narratives of imperial ecology, by remaining outside Western scientific forms of knowing which rely on the verification of empirical evidence. The slippery subject of this bird's continued existence is compounded by the fact that it is a bad match for the tools of empirical observation, both visual and aural. 

Perhaps all we are hearing is the sounds of 'data deficiency', the slow degradation, through repetition, of an imperfect copy, in the faint traces the bird has left within the New Zealand soundscape, its slow fade-out in the mnemonic resonance of the songs of mimic birds such as the tui, and other voices of the forest which retains fragments of a living memory of a now-lost ecological community. The recent re-classification of "data deficiency" places the bird, ironically, into an even more unknown space. It means we know even less about it, even something as basic as whether or not it exists. 

In a contemporary era in which observational tools are being re-invented toward worlds of global digital surveillance and data-driven knowledge, which includes projects cataloguing the very building blocks of life (as I write this, the genome of every single member of another extremely rare New Zealand bird species, the kakapo, is being sequenced, alongside associated speculations around cloning extinct species), the grey ghost only becomes more and more elusive. As a case study, the South Island kōkako gives us another way of looking at the invisible infrastructures that permeate our world, the human specificity of knowledge, and all that is left outside of it, that continues to resist empirical codification. Out of our airspace and off our radar, it becomes analogous to the poetics of radio itself, the medium's ability to evoke the non-representational, the unknown and unheard, the invisible but ever-present spectrum. 

this installation also builds on the previous work Radio d'Oiseaux (kōkako variations) (2012), a document of a live interaction between a mini FM radio station and a North Island kōkako on the offshore sanctuary Kapiti Island, a work which explored interspecies communicability, and analogies between small scale radio transmission, bounded eco-sanctuaries and bird territory marked by refrain. This piece was a contribution by radio cegeste to series #33 of the radia network. at the time this work was made in 2012, the South Island kōkako was still classified as extinct. 

collected silences for lord rothschild #1-4

audio recordings, cassette tapes, archival index cards, installation.  

a sound archive of recorded silences of four extinct New Zealand endemic bird species held in the collections of National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. The recordings were gathered in July 2010 using standard environmental field recording techniques alongside the paranormal research method of EVP (electronic voice phenomenon), the latter in collaboration with James Gilberd from Wellington-based paranormal investigation society Strange Occurrences. This field trip was conducted partly in reference to the connection of paranormal sound to ornithology, with the discovery of EVP by Swedish artist and filmmaker Friedrich Jurgenson, while playing back birdsong he'd recorded onto reel to reel tape near Stockholm in 1959, but also hinges around what Dugal McKinnon, writing about this work in Leonardo Music Journal, has termed "ecological silencing". The archive of Te Papa EVP recordings were subsequently narrowcast as a silent (receiverless) transmission within a biosecure island environmental sanctuary 3 miles of the coast of New Zealand's North Island in 2012. This eco-sanctuary, called Kapiti island, was founded in 1897, and was earmarked to become the secure refuge of the last remaining captured breeding pairs of two species represented in these recordings, the laughing owl and the huia. Unfortunately the birds were instead diverted further afield, through the covert flows of colonial economics, where they became exhibits in the private museum of Walter Rothschild, eccentric son of the major banking dynasty, and one of the major collectors of New Zealand avifauna in Victorian Britain. Both species are now extinct. Collected Silences for Lord Rothschild accordingly becomes a dead (or perhaps a deaf) letter, in its failure to find even a faint trace of signal in the hundred years of dead air since these colonial extinctions. More optimistically, the collection originally included a recording of a fifth species, the South Island kōkako. As this bird is no longer classified as extinct, its presence in the archive has also been de-classified. 

modified radio memorial (a fissure in the line of a public silence) 

10 unique lathe-cut records, portable record player, installation.

a counter-monumental memorial which repurposes a two-minute public radio silence, originally broadcast on all New Zealand stations one week after the earthquake which devastated the city of Christchurch on 22 February 2011. Initially captured as a restless browsing of stations which layered the silence into a live radiophonic palimpsest, in its recorded form, the work solidifies the nation-wide radio silence within an edition of 10 lathe cut records, individually cut by Peter King with locked grooves at particular points in the narrative. these ten 'transcriptions' then become idiosyncratic cyclic extensions of the broadcast silence, extending into potential infinity the problematic politics of a truncated, awkward mourning ritual which, in its efforts to find a substitute for a silence which couldn't literally be represented in the mainstream media, includes birdsong, prayer, and the extended diatribes of commercial radio shock jocks.

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