Monday, December 14, 2009

Out of the Dark: Notes on the Nobodies of Radio Art, Gregory Whitehead

© Gregory Whitehead. All rights reserved.

The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold,yet will I walk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of thee! —Captain Ahab

For most of the wireless age, artists have found themselves vacated (or have vacated themselves) from radiophonic space -- the history of radio art is, in this most literal sense, largely a history of nobodies. Periodic visitations have remained isolated occasions, provoking little cultural resonance. In the context of radio's more entrenched and ubiquitous commercial and military identities, such fleeting interference decays quickly.

The nobodies of radio art have been diminished even further by the numbing absence of critical discourse. Such silence can only feed upon itself, eventually making even the thought of radio as cultural space seem remote, far-fetched, improbable. By consequence, when radio has appeared under the name of art, it has most often under the degraded guise of industrial artifact, with its commercialized cacophony providing one sound source among others. In this reduced state, radio is no longer an autonomous public space, but merely an acoustic readymade to be recontextualized, switched on and played.

Alternately, the investigation of radio has disappeared into the investigation of sound, the wireless body stripped and redressed to provide a broadcast identity for the nebulous permutations of diverse ars acoustica . In this variation, radio art is defined as simply whatever any artist from any medium happens to represent, acoustically, on air.

Radio's gradual drift into such a flatly pedestrian state of mind contrasts sharply with the high flying and exuberant aspirations first triggered by Marconi's twitching finger: promises of communication with alien beings, the establishment of a universal language, instantaneous travel through collapsing space and the achievement of a lasting global peace. "It would be almost like dreamland and ghostland, not the ghostland cultivated by a heated imagination, but a real communication from a distance based on true physical laws." However breathless in formulation, this author's coupling of "dreamland and ghostland" roots radio in a vibrant double infinity, the dreamland infinity of the human nervous system oscillating with (and against) the vast ghostland of deep space.

If the dreamland/ghostland is the natural habitat for the wireless imagination, then the material of radio art is not just sound. Radio happens in sound, but sound is not really what matters about radio. What does matter is the bisected heart of the infinite dreamland/ ghostland, a heart that beats through a series of highly pulsed and fricative oppositions: the radio signal as intimate but untouchable, sensually charged but technically remote, reaching deep inside but from way out there, seductive in its invitation but possibly lethal in its effects. Shaping the play of these frictions, the radio artist must then enact a kind of sacrificial auto-electrocution, performed in order to go straight out of one mind and (who's there?) then diffuse, in search of a place to settle. Mostly, this involves staging an intricate game of position, a game that unfolds among far-flung bodies, for the most part unknown to each other.

Radio art does have something of a prehistory in the variously electrified adventures recorded in nineteenth century literature, one conspicuous example provided by Poe's M. Valdemar: a mesmerized Recording Angel. Less obviously, why not rewind Melville's narrative of the Nantucket whaling vessel Pequod as an early journey into charged ghostland air? However improbable such a reading may appear at first glance, it is hard to resist including Moby Dick within such a discussion because Ahab so persuasively prefigures at least one persona for the twisted, schizoid nature of wireless telegraphy. Mad Captain Ahab, himself split from the head down by a "rod-like mark, lividly whitish", resembling, in Ishmael's awe-struck description, "that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded." Indeed, Ahab's split body is so unseemly to Ishmael's narrative eye that he almost fails to notice "the barbaric white leg" which for the duration of the voyage will telegraph, through coded tappings across the wooden quarterdeck, the slow unwinding of the captain's mind.

Binding Melville's story to its foregone conclusion and Pequod's crew to his doomed hunt for the White Whale, Ahab's brand haunts Moby Dick. The most stunning demonstration of its unearthly spell occurs late in Pequod's ill-fated voyage, when the ship is illuminated by an eerie outburst of corposants in the midst of a violent squall. Her three masts "silently burning in that sulfurous air, like three gigantic wax tapers before an altar", the Pequod falls dead silent, her crew transfixed by the spectacle of "God's burning finger" . Overruling Starbuck's pleas for mercy, Ahab sets the authority of his own electrocuted body against the lightning that cuts its wild course through the moral fibre of his crew, proclaiming "Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee."

When Ahab's harpoon, fired by his own hand to spear the scarred blubber of Moby Dick, is momentarily transformed into a lightning rod, the crew panics, pushed by the uncanny fireworks display to the brink of mutiny. Without missing a step, Ahab snatches the torched harpoon, waves it among the terrified whalers and pronounces his single most piercing ultimatum:

"'All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and by heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound. And that you may know to what tune this heart beats; look ye here; thus I blow out the last fear!' And with one blast of his breath he extinguished the flame."

Inflicted by some nameless confrontation with nature, Ahab's brand, doubled by the steel transmitter of his inflamed harpoon, names the Pequod's destiny. The old navel of the Pequod (the gold doubloon, nailed to the mainmast as a reward for the first seaman to lay eyes on the White Whale) is displaced by the flare of Ahab's wireless signature or, perhaps closer to the mark, by his call sign. So many agitated and authoritarian wands wagging about must invite catastrophe, and Pequod herself is soon punctured by Moby's battering brow. Fittingly enough, Ishmael saves himself by seizing upon a floating book jacket: the coffin crafted by Queequeg to store his own dead body-book, inscribed with the intricate cosmogony of his native tribe by a needle driven recording device: the tattoo.

Though killed by a whale in a novel that predates the first transatlantic transmission by almost exactly half a century, Ahab still stands as one chilling prototype for the wireless persona: suspended between life and death, between redemptive dissemination and lethal degeneracy, what is it made of and what does it want? With its scorched skin, aching eyeballs, prosthetic limbs, shocking tail, brain on fire and blasted breath, should we follow to eternity, or stage a mutiny, cut the mindless thing off, tune it out? Is the twitching finger of the telegraph an invitation to electromagnetic pleasure or is it pulling a trigger, pushing a button?

The radiobody cannot give a straight answer, but challenges the audience to cross and recross the obscure boundaries that separate radio dreamland from radio ghostland, living from dead, utopia from oblivion. Just beneath the promise of a lightning connection to a world of dreamy invisible things lurks a darker potential for spotlessly violent electrocution, for going up in smoke, or going down with the ship. Begin in a radio dreamland, end in a radio war.

Incorporating the promise of universal communication bound together with the more immediate prospect of irreversible decay, the radiobody (still in pieces, still in the making) is a composite of opposites: speaking to everyone abstractly and no one in particular; ubiquitous, but fading without a trace; forever crossing boundaries but with uncertain destination; capable of the most intimate communion and the most sudden destruction. Radio is a medium voiced by multiple personalities, perfect for pillow talk, useful as an anti-depressant, but also deployable as guiding beam for missile systems. Over the course of the twentieth century, the radio ghostland has come very fully into its own. No surprise, then, that the most notable artist proposals for radio should air on frequencies populated by so many zombie bodies, limbo dancing, inside out.

In 1921, Velimir Khlebnikov's Futurist brand of brain fever produced a proposal for radio as "the spiritual sun of the country", built to sing the strange unearthly songs of "lightning birds" . Pushing buttons at master controls, the Great Sorcerer of Radio Khlebnikov would have the power and means to mesmerize the minds of the entire nation, both healing the sick via long distance hypnotic suggestion and increasing labor productivity through the seasonal transmission of prescribed notes, "for it is a known fact that certain notes like 'la' and 'ti' are able to increase muscle capacity". Depending on the ornithographic predispositions of the wizard-in-the-main-station, human bodies might well be recast as passive receptacles for bird droppings.

Once radiowaves have fused with the nation's mental life, the slightest interruption of broadcast projection would provoke "a mental blackout over the entire country, a temporary loss of consciousness". Given the constant threat of black-out, massive brain damage and collective death, the critical feeders in the main aviary of the Great Sorcerer must be protected, insulated, fortified; fantastic radio projections require protective signage equal to their high security voltage, and are represented in Khlebnikov's vision by the universal Danger icon of skull and crossbones. Though Futurist artist-engineers would not be permitted the opportunity to orchestrate the polyphony of the Russian revolution, the design of Radio Khlebnikov's control station anticipates the telecommunications bunkers that would monitor and control the next World War, as the intermingled modulation of birdlike radiowaves with the rattle of human bones certainly provides the wireless imagination with another chilling call sign. Indeed, one of the most accomplished Radio Sorcerers (and bone producers) of all time would spend the last days of his own spellbinding dissemination in just such a "stronghold of steel", searching frantically for the magical "la" or "ti" that might restore muscle power to the atrophied protoplasm of the Thousand Year Reich.

A dozen years later, F. T. Marinetti and Pino Masnata undoubtedly woke up with grave headaches after building the foundation of La Radia into their piles of assorted corpses : the corpse of theater, "because radio killed a theater already defeated by sound cinema"; the corpse of cinema, deceased from a variety of "agonizing" wounds, including "reflected illumination inferior to the self-illumination of radio-television"; the corpse of the book, "strangled, suffocated, fossilized"; and the corpse of the The Public, "always retrograde." La Radia also mounts an explicit bombing raid on Marinetti's own Variety Theatre, singled out for its crippling dependence on the physical constraints of the earthbound performing body. There is also the sinister (though rarely cited) threat of future corpse production, in "warning the Semites to identify themselves with their different countries if they don't wish to disappear."

Amidst the general carnage, who is left to animate the La Radia ? In contrast to Khlebnikov's Grand Sorcerer, whose mission is to conjure up enchanting sensations for airborne delivery to enthralled masses, the Marinetti/Masnata radiasta is the engineer of pure emanation, charged with the "detection, amplification and transfiguration of vibrations emitted from dead and living beings". Disdaining the illusionist fantasies of lightning birds and other synaesthetic projections, the task of the radiasta is nothing less than the realization of an entirely new electromagnetic being, a "pure organism of radiophonic sensations". In sum, the artist-engineer radiasta represents the personification of a longstanding Futurist aspiration, underscored by Marinetti/Masnata in La Radia as "the overcoming of death with a metallization of the body".

In the post-war period, the feverish condition of the ghosted radiobody explodes through Antonin Artaud's blistering To Have Done With the Judgement of God. Artaud's urgent address to The People of France, which at some moments seems almost to consume him, was canceled at the last minute by the director of French national radio, who solemnly intoned the usual litany of objections: obscenity, sacrilege and anti-Americanism. After listening to a tape of the broadcast, the sense of a deeper fear hangs in the air, the fear of just what might happen should the unprepared public be exposured to such an enraged and afflicted persona. The threatening power of this address resides not only in its pure acoustic projection of Artaud's psychic condition, but in his instinctive grasp of radiophonic space, the space of the two infinities. Modulating among the diverse vocal/linguistic frequencies of news report (bulletin: sperm donation a condition of enrollment in American public schools), hallucination, incantation, talk show (his furious self-interview), glossolallic ejaculation, death rattle and political tirade, Artaud's performance mirrors the perpetually slipped and mutating demi-dead dreamland/ghostland of radio itself. Dispersed, self-cancelled, splintered, intoxicated, unprecedented and out of its mind, the hybrid, polyphonous body of To Have Done With the Judgement of God is tailor made for post-war air.

With Artaud in mind, let us now return for a moment to the deck of the Pequod on the third and final day of Ahab's quest. Locked into Moby Dick's (yes, and Moby Dick's) "infallible wake" and addressing nobody in particular, Ahab casts out yet another remarkable series of ruminations, first professing that his body is a hot medium: "Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels; that's tingling enough for mortal man! (...) Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that."

Ahab next tunes his tingling to the invisible wind, which has consistently interfered with the wail of his obsession. At once praised and despised, the wind stands for everything Ahab cannot get his hands on: "Would now the wind but had a body; but all the things that most exasperate and outrage mortal man, all these things are bodiless, but only bodiless as objects, not as agents. There's a most special, a most cunning, oh a most malicious difference!" Within a matter of hours, Ahab is finally yanked to his death "voicelessly as Turkish mutes bowstring their victim" by the line of his own harpoon.

In the concluding section of To Have Done With the Judgement of God, Artaud announces and puts on display his Last Will and Testament, fresh from the autopsy table of the production studio at Radiodiffusion Fran�aise. Here at last is a theatrical bequest designed to explore, explode and exploit that most special, cunning and malicious difference that throbs between object and agency - a body without organs. For Artaud, only such a body could be free from the maddening god-itch, free from the plague of human desires and from "microbial noxiousness", free to "dance inside out", delirious but also purified, dead to the world but living on air. Like Ahab, Artaud had ample experience of lightning flashed through his skull, though conducted by means rather more earthbound than God's burning finger. But through the exasperated and outraged agency of his radiophony, he could at last find relief from the "infinitesimal inside" of his tortured flesh. Staged within this most charged scenario, technically primitive but conceptually so electric, Artaud's shocked and shocking body could at last find its real place.

Evidently, inhabiting such an infallible wake is not without concurrent risk. As Artaud himself had already written a few months before: "The magic of electric shock drains a death rattle, it plunges the shocked one into that death rattle with which one leaves life." Enter the territory of Bardo, a Tibetan concept designating the limbo region between living and dead but for Artaud also recalling the limbo region of electroshock, the suspended sentence of Artaud's own corporeal nightmare. For Artaud, it was this most special, cunning and malicious difference that marked the destiny for a body without organs, rolling on some stunning ground: "The world, but its no longer me, and what do you care, says Bardo, it's me".

Yes, the circuit from Ahab to Artaud is a circuit powered by magnetic death drives and the sick hunger for signal omniscience - but so beats the pulse of twentieth century broadcast. The alternative potential for casting conceptual, linguistic and acoustic commotion into an entirely fresh radiophonic dreamland has hardly been tapped.

Out of the dark: Voices in every conceivable incarnation, heating up the airwaves, interrupting the flow of everyday informations, breaking wind and chilling out, releasing a powerful resuscitation of the playful, libidinal and liberating radiodream from the danse macabre of the ghostland boneyard.

A revitalized practice of radio art languishes in cultural limbo because today's wireless imagination applies itself exclusively - fervently! - to questions of intensified commodity circulation and precision weapons systems. So far, all "real" radio really has to show for itself is a ceaseless cacophony of agitated sales pitches, pop song patter and several mountainous piles of corpses. If the idea of radiophony as the autonomous, electrified play of bodies unknown to each other (the unabashed aspiration of radio art) sounds at times like it has been irretrievably lost, it is most likely because the air has already become too thick with the buzz of commerce and war, too overrun by radar beams, burning harpoons, wagging fingers, body brands and traffic reports to think of anything else. "Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of thee!"

Above copied from:,78

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