By Joan Schuman, Sept. 2019
When you go to an art festival, you mean to experience everything. And you do. Then you gravitate to a performance, an event, an intriguing conversation and make your home there for a bit. You can only be in so many places at once.
When you read a kaleidoscopic book documenting 720 hours of an international radio art festival, it’s a similar experience—particularly if you weren’t there in person. You pay special attention, meaning to absorb each chapter and every image—ephemera mirroring the bustling, buzzing, radio-centric activities as if you were there with your ringing ears and your resonating body.
And you land somewhere to ‘listen’ for a while. Especially when its very first page whispers, “FM for Culture,” as its pre-festival manifesto yowled.
The organizers suggest Radio Revolten, held in Halle (Saale), Germany, in October 2016, was an elusive moment in radio history.
The book takes the same name. Subtitled “30 Days of Radio Art,” and written entirely in English, this collection published by Spector Books/Leipzig (2019) more than documents the proceedings. As the organizers anticipate, it “embeds” them such that there’s a dialogue and a chance for art to alter radio, for radio to sway the art.
• 2 adjacent old buildings were restored to create a performance venue (with bar, café and garden) • one FM and one AM frequency • 84 commissioned artists from 21 countries • 100 additional artistic collaborators • participation of 200 local and visiting radio activists and media scholars • 10,000 festival visitors • 40 radio stations from 17 countries who syndicated broadcasts • 100,000 listeners • 69 partners and sponsors • 100 people coordinated, organized and volunteered
There have been other festivals, before and after Radio Revolten (and Revolten itself had a previous incarnation ten years before, in 2006). And likely there are post-festival catalogs or copious links to explore online. Radio Revolten seems to bridge both this textual documentation and the analogue experience of the festival—the sense of things happening and then dissipation; the real and the ghostly sounds and signals and circuitry float by.
Images of people, eyes closed, deeply listening make you feel like you’re seated together in the darkened space or high up in Halle’s old towers above the market square. Holding a book is more tangible than scrolling through images online, ironically for a medium that is inherently ephemeral. Perhaps it can be read as a consideration of the challenges of documenting a fleeting sound to the page, pulling from the air towards the eyes and the ears.
With hefty corpus in hand, you enthrall to so many listening heights and stances, eavesdropping on stammerings, on conversation snippets and interviews with radio artists. But after more than 300 pages and diverse conceptual explorations and essays, it is also natural to gravitate to one specific element described as if it were whispering in your own ears, rattling your singular set of bones, three years after those on the ground went home.
The gravitation pulls. The festival’s Radio Oracle mesmerizes; it fires up the imagination, sitting high up in one of the twin Hausmann’s Turme (church towers), near to the Roter Turm (Red Tower) on the market square. Sound and music and an aerie of radiophonic artistry were nested deep atop the 2016 festival’s towers.
Radio Oracle at Radio Revolten: READ MORE + LISTEN …
Halle as radio signal
It took nine hours to open all the exhibition’s sites across Halle: greenhouses of the Botanical Garden; vaults of the 15th century Moritzburg castle; the top of the tower of the former Department of Physics and the cellars and attic of the former Department of Zoology; in an old printing press building and in the impressive towers on the city’s market square.
At the heart of the festival was radio, naturally. But that’s not a simple thing for a month-long festival. There were two new frequencies created (Radio Revolten on 99.3 FM and 1575 AM). And Radio Corax at 95.9 FM also played host. Corax (the raven) has been broadcasting independently (non-commercial and local) since 2000. It’s the biggest nonprofit radio broadcaster in Eastern Germany. The station cooperates with national and international partners. Their philosophy is dual: to build up a local community—radio as locale—and to bolster global networks, such as Radia, of which they are a working member along with Wave Farm in the U.S., ResonanceFM in London, Radio Orange in Vienna, Radio Papesse in Italy and numerous radio organizations across Germany and elsewhere.
One wonders how Halle itself fared, how its inhabitants responded to a 24-page festival newspaper landing on their doorsteps, invitations to events, nearly all free of charge.
A city must have a porousness or a transparency—a ‘landscape’—conducive to such liveness, performance, improvisation. Organizers used some familiar vocabulary (of music) to talk about radio genres such as durational art, as a signal away from the radio ‘box’ itself.
Even before getting to the middle of the book, one realizes the dilemma asked by those editing it: Knut Aufermann, Helen Hahmann, Sarah Washington and Ralf Wendt—also curator-artist-organizers for Radio Revolten along with Anna Friz and Elisabeth Zimmermann. The editors rightly ask how to convey detail of such an endeavor. The book itself “seeks to awaken, stimulate, encourage and extend faith in the provision of collective artistic radio spaces.”
[a conversation with Radio Revolten organizers about the re-invention of Halle] – READ MORE
In her preface to the book, Anna Friz says that Radio Revolten did not ask “What is radio,” or even try to describe what is radio art, but asked how to radio, and how radio might be and what it is in the process of becoming. It’s a useful set of questions as it keeps rotating, revolving, spinning into new ideas and around to existing ones.
Though as many voices sing throughout the book’s three sections of a scrolling of manifesto-like ideas about the rigors of radio artistry, a quote stands out to offer a resonance with Friz’s calling upon the reader to ask ‘how’ and ‘why’. Tetsuo Kogawa’s inquiry into radio as radiation could be a mantra for the festival, going forward.
Radio artists, naturally, rely on technology to create, capture, transmit, receive and reproduce sound, says Knut Aufermann. Some blast across divisions with these spirals of form and content.
An overtly political combination was sounded in Steve Bates’ work, Concertina. Barbed concertina wire was strung across the ceiling of the largest exhibition room as if it was sitting atop an invisible fence. Its function was transformed with a radio transmitter on one end, turning it into a giant antenna.
Aufermann explains that the work was installed at a time when some European countries, in fear of an influx of Syrian refugees, decided to drape their borders with these lethal defenses. Bates used wire from a company who had refused purchase by governments who would use it against refugees. Functioning like a rebel guerrilla radio station, his work “transmitted a beautifully meandering drone of low frequency harmonics mixed with sounds recorded from a concertina.”
When you visit a new city, there’s overwhelm—where to go first? what to do now and tomorrow? Sometimes, meandering down a side-street, venturing into a crammed shop allows for a deepening understanding of the city itself.
Similarly, after nearly an entire book devoted to the wonders of such an event as Radio Revolten, there is a further expansion by way of contrasting critique. In one of the final chapters of this compendium, there is a side-by-side collection of statements that, as the organizers suggest, “shine light on the outcomes” of the festival.
It’s an intriguing way to invite the reader to find the common threads among the six statements. It’s a way to hear echoes of some of the ‘protracted fractures’ that ruptured at the festival but also the intense ways in which Radio Revolten impacted its participants. Good and bad are simple terms and rather than devolve there or, worse, avoid talking about any disagreements, the editors allow for this space at a ‘meta-level’ (and the chapter’s very title reflecting this self-referential mood).
Despite not wanting to upend the ‘revolution still in progress,’ the organizers willingly offer these clefts—between conceptual queries about form and content; between understandings of what a radio activist is and how an artist functions amid their community.
READ MORE [Radio Revolten organizers address questions of radio activism]
There are hours of listening from festival events and broadcasts.