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Activating the Medium Festival explores Radio as Source Material for Sound Art

21 April, 2011 in news

Radio doesn’t always begin and end with a broadcast over the airwaves. Sometimes radio transmissions are used by artists as another tool for creative expression.

This year the arts organization 23five is curating the Activating the Medium XIV festival in San Francisco and will present several performances and radio broadcasts focused on the theme of radio as source material. The festival began on April 7th with performancesby Richard Garet, Jim Haynes and Allison Holt at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will continue with events at The Lab on April 22 and 23. In addition to these live events, the series will also feature a number of radio broadcasts on KALX (on Information Overload April 7 and 21), KPFA (April 12 and 19) and on my home station KFJC (April 16) . The next radio special will air tonight starting at 11:59pm on the KPFA program No Other Radio.

To learn more about this year’s festival, I spoke with Jim Haynes of 23five. Jim is not only an artist, but he is also the principle curator and organizer for the 2011 event. According to Jim, the annual Activating the Medium festival is always designed around a particular theme and is meant to be a showcase for works by “sound artists, avant-garde composers, and experimental musicians.” Past themes have included  “the field recording, sound & architecture, the simulacrum, and ice.” When I asked Jim about how radio came to be the theme for 2011, he explained that, “Radio has long been a tool within the history of avant-garde composition, tracking back to Stockhausen, Cage, and Tenney; but within the history of 23five, the first Activating The Medium festival evolved out of Randy Yau’s radio show at Cal Poly called ‘Dark Market Broadcast’ — this being a reference to an incredible album by sonic provocateur John Duncan, who heavily uses radio within composition. It seemed a logical theme to employ given my own preferences for shortwave radio within composition and performance and Randy’s background with the medium.”

In addition to artists using radio as source material for their work, during the festival many of these pieces will also be broadcast over radio stations in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. Jim explained that,

“It seemed self-evident to us that if we were going to be curating works sourced from radio, then we should try to broadcast such work over the radio. So, we sent out a call to a number of artists to contribute to a radio series. The response was incredible, and we have well over three hours of material from an impressive array of artists, including such acclaimed artists as Leif Elggren, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Dave Phillips, and Giancarlo Toniutti. There’s also a considerable amount of material from emerging artists, who will hopefully receive some exposure from this series. Within the series, there’s quite a wide variety of works such as those by Vertonen and irr. app. (ext.) who use static, noise, distortion, and sonic detritus; then one will find the culture jamming media collage from Lisa Seitz and Adam Sonderberg; and this would be coupled with the sublime contributions of slippery surfaces and hazy impressionism from Richard Garet and Colin Andrew Sheffield.”

Jim said that in terms of his own art, he’s particularly drawn to exploring the concept of decay and radio has been a useful tool for his work. He explained this, as well as his interest in shortwave radio and numbers stations, saying,

“My own visual and sound constructions work with systems of decay, and radio had proven to be a rich tool within composition to speak of corrosion. While there is the very concrete actualization of decay by means of radio by tuning into weak and/or interfered transmissions which breakdown in static and grey noise, I find that shortwave radio, in particular, is loaded with metaphors of instability and the unknown. An obvious example of shortwave’s mystery would be numbers stations, whose mechanical recitations of coded messages are downright spooky in their delivery, doubled by the likelihood that these transmissions originate from intelligence organizations around the world (i.e. CIA, M16, MOSSAD, etc.). While I have used numbers stations in very early works, I typically use sine waves from the upper & lower side bands of the spectrum, shepard tones of noise, and streams from utility signals.”

Although Jim told me that there aren’t many radio stations willing to play sound art, he did find willing participants at several college and community radio stations, including KFJC. KFJC DJ Nozmo King (former host of “Psychoacoustic Soundclash”) will be presenting his Activating the Medium special this Saturday, April 16 from 3 to 6pm (Pacific Time) on the Foothill College station (89.7 FM) in his old timeslot. I spoke with Nozmo King (aka Dan Kletter) about what he has in store for the radio special. Dan said that he’s been attending the Activating the Medium festival for many years and has always enjoyed helping to promote it over the airwaves. In terms of Saturday’s radio show, he told me, “Over 30 artists were asked to contribute a piece that was 10 minutes or less. We’ve got about 28 or 29 tracks right now. Since the Psychoacoustic Soundclash was all about looking at things sideways, I have been thinking about how I can present all the material as a performance. Sort of an homage to Negativland.”

Dan said that he likes the idea of composers using radio as source material and explained that there is a rich history of artists doing just that. He said,

“There are so many ways to use any sound source. This reminds me of a quote that often gets attributed to Picasso: ‘Good artists copy. Great artists steal.’ As long as whatever is taken is used to make something entirely else — and this is key — as a reflection of themselves.

I’ve heard some great things done with radio. I’m thinking specifically of Negativland who produced radio performances and sampled radio for use in their performances. I rely on field recordings quite a bit. Sampling radio, whether it’s static in between stations, interference, shortwave or just sampling directly from other programs is fun to work with. There was a DJ who tried using radio as a live instrument of decaying feedback on KFJC a few years ago. I owe a lot to J.C. Clone and crew with their Pumpkinhead performances.

Historically, radio has been put to good use by Stockhausen, Tenny, Cage, Maxfield, AMM, John Duncan, Stereolab, Kraftwerk, The Silver Apples, etc. etc.”

When I asked Dan if he knew the origins of the radio sources being used in the festival and if there were samples from radio broadcasts from KFJC, he said, “That would be pretty cool!”, but admitted that he didn’t know if there were. He added, “Camilla Hannan sampled an interview from Australian radio. The person speaking is complaining about the failures of his government in Paupa New Guinea and there’s a thunderstorm brewing in the background. I love it when intention is interrupted by the unanticipated. I try to nurture happy accidents whenever I do radio.”

More details on the Activating the Medium festival, including a schedule of performances and radio broadcasts can be found on the 23five website.