Radio, Radio: Zita Joyce, Ivan Mršić, Sally-Anne McIntyre and Jay Hollows’ Simulcast

By Andrew Clifford

Writing on the exhibition ‘Simulcast’ by Zita Joyce, Ivan Mršić, Sally-Anne McIntyre and Jay Hollows

7 - 30 March, 2013 
Audio Foundation
Hours: Mon-Sat 12pm - 4pm

The origins of radio are deeply embedded with experimental sounds and social revolution. As writer Douglas Kahn reminds us, radio was heard before it was invented, as a natural phenomenon waiting to be discovered. In 1876, when Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with transmitting sound along telephone wires, his assistant Thomas Watson would spend nights listening to the crackles of atmospheric activity from this accidental antenna – possibly the first experience of electronic noise music.

This anecdote anticipates the formative experiences of electronic music pioneer, Pauline Oliveros, growing up in Houston, Texas, enjoying the whistles and pops of wireless noise late in the evening. These, and other qualities of radio, were put forward by Italian futurists F.T. Marinetti and Pino Masnata as a new technological art in their 1933 manifesto, La Radia. Atmospheric transmissions and electromagnetic interference have since provided a rich source of experimentation for artists, including Joyce Hinterding, radioqualia, Disinformation, Simon Ingram and myself.

The arrival of radio was a liberating force. It allowed access to information and entertainment for people without access to concert halls or published information, especially in areas where literacy might be an issue (even if it was primarily a one-way medium where the voice of authority is broadcast to a ‘captive’ audience, who cannot respond). With radio, an audience can be reached beyond the physical walls of any single space. For New Zealand, as a developing country with a minimum of infrastructure, radio would have helped connect remote communities. At a time when conservative corporate interests controlled the newspapers, for a period the emerging medium of radio offered an alternative voice, much like today’s blogs.

One of the most powerful broadcasters of the 1930s was Colin ‘Uncle Scrim’ Scrimgeour, whose broadcasts were so feared by authorities that his 1935 pre-election broadcast was jammed by the incumbent conservative government, which caused a public outcry that is said to have helped bring in New Zealand’s first Labour government. The new government appreciated the way public radio could counter the conservative media and Scrim initially had a key role but was marginalised by changing government alliances, effectively forcing him to leave the country, so he helped establish radio and television facilities in Australia and the China. These events were the subject of projects by James Pinker (The Jamming Incident, Artspace, 2005) and Chinese collective, the Long March Project’s No Chinatown project, in collaboration with local artists Daniel Malone and Kah Bee Chow (also involving a low-power radio station, relayed to transistor radios and the surrounding city streets, set up by this writer).

Although high-power transmissions might increase access to culture and information, Japanese theorist Tetsuo Kogawa would argue it can also increase distance, creating a centrifugal effect that pushes the audience away from an increasingly remote and alienated centre, usually controlled by large corporations or government authorities. Instead, Kogawa has advocated for micro-FM broadcasting to reach very small distances within the high-density urban environment of Japan, usually resulting in extremely localised community broadcasts that would draw people to the source of the transmission in a ‘centripetal’ manner. Kogawa also worked to democratise radio by developing DIY micro-FM transmitter kits with a convivial, open-source approach to simple and understandable technology, an approach echoed by Rachel [surname?’s] contribution to this exhibition. Kogawa visited New Zealand in 2005 and 2006, at a time when low-power FM broadcasting had opened up in New Zealand. His micro-transmitters (and the philosophy behind them) became an important element in the practices of artists including Sally McIntyre, Adam Willetts, Stella Brennan, The Electric Biorama group, and many others who attended his workshops.

Experiments with more established radio platforms has also played a part in radio practices – let’s not forget that public radio, and especially their well-resourced electronic studios, played an important role in the development of musique concrete in Europe. In Auckland, commencing in 1989, an occasional series known as Art-on-Air was run by the Elam School of Fine Arts in partnership with student station, 95bFM (then broadcasting on 91.8FM). Full-length programmes were organised as a supplement to the inaugural Sound/Watch Festival, and later released on cassette by Peter McLennan’s Dinosaur Tapes. In subsequent years, for better or worse, broadcasts were reduced to short ‘bites’ that were inserted into the station’s regular programming, sometimes acting as a kind of intervention. The programme was briefly revived as a full-length feature in 2000 and 2001 under the auspices of this writer’s tenure at 95bFM, and later on low-power FM station, Fleet FM.

Given the usual fixed nature of the audience-broadcaster relationship and locations, there is great potential for the radio artist to disrupt or destabilise concepts of space and time. One memorable Art-on-Air contribution had Matthew Brennan and an accomplice, at time when cellphones were just becoming accessible to more than just upwardly mobile corporates, phoning the studio from a public bus with live performed material, which was then rebroadcast over radio. Similar programmes also appeared on other student stations throughout the country, and for a few years state broadcaster, Radio New Zealand, commissioned projects for Revolutions Per Minute, including Bruce Russell’s recordings of changing radio reception as he drives through the Lyttelton Tunnel.

Radio’s invisible voice also opens up dramatic potential for using sound to conjure imagined landscapes and soundscapes that would be difficult to produce in visual media

– Dadson’s Strokerphonics (1987) is another ArtonAir classic, in which a narrator introduces a variety of sounds, created by rubbing or stroking increasingly fantastic materials, including a purring tiger.

Although its primary usage makes it hard to imagine radio as anything more than a corporate or governmental institution, the expressive and social possibilities of radio as a medium provides limitless ways to upend this monolithic tradition. Artists can transcend these usual functions to exploit the potential of the ether as a creative space for a timeless “wireless imagination” that predates our own existence, and will continue for much longer.



Image Credits: Exhibition Texts: Sarah Callesen - exhibition poster

SoundBleed is an online journal of critical writing around sound in NZ/Aotearoa – a forum for discussion around sound-related activity and practice.



SoundBleed is an online journal of critical writing around sound in NZ/Aotearoa – a forum for discussion around sound-related activity and practice.

Image Credits: Exhibition Texts:
Sarah Callesen - exhibition poster