Agile Critics

Key to making this new agile criticism work is not an understanding of the ‘art critic’ … but rather a sensibility for the always-changing and fluid nature of sound and sound art production itself.

Daniel Gilfillan

A Medium of My Own

Cathy FitzGerald

It was a dark mid-winter afternoon and we were waiting for the train. My friend Chris was telling me why he loved Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I was only half-listening: it’s never been one of my favorites and really, it was too cold to think. But then he said, “It’s a chain of stories—how it’s structured. A series of conversations between lonely men.”

And suddenly, this book that I’d never cared much about, never thought much about, started to glow. That’s criticism’s mighty power. It can take an art-work—something already wondrous—and make it more. Partly that’s an act of revelation, but also of creation; at its very best, criticism is close to an art-work in its own right, a surprising, idiosyncratic, deeply felt and deeply thought response.

That kind of criticism I’d like to read more of. I don’t think it matters too much whether it’s written by someone from inside the field or outside: what’s important is that it’s done rigorously, brilliantly and with some writerly panache. It needs to give us something: new concepts, new language, new insight. It has to move beyond appreciation of craft and simple review.

We have theories of sound and noise, but I think there’s, perhaps, less work on documentary audio. I’d like to see historical surveys of influence that analyze different geographical and institutional traditions of documentary-making and which identify moments of stylistic innovation. I’d like to understand more about how what I make fits into the long history of the field–and I’d love to see recognition of contemporary producers who ‘make different.’ 

A caveat though. I don’t subscribe to the idea that we’re adrift as a medium without criticism. The creators who have done well out of artistic canons, historically, are white, male and middle-class. When I started in the field, I think the lack of that critical history—and the attendant anxiety of influence—was actually helpful. To borrow from Virginia Woolf, radio was a medium of my own—somewhere I could make myself heard without having to shout.

This current desire for more criticism stems in part from a desire to be taken more seriously; for audio documentary to be understood as an art-form, not just an ephemeral entertainment. But it’s not just up to the critics to give us that status; it’s up to us to claim it. We are a shy, modest bunch generally—and on the whole I like that. It might not make for the wildest parties, but it does make for the deepest chats. But maybe that’s one of the (many) reasons why the medium doesn’t get the respect we think it deserves. As makers, we have to stop being so humble and say I’m an artist; I’m an auteur. There now, I’ve said it. Your turn.

Cathy FitzGerald is a multi-award-winning documentary presenter and producer, and the caretaker of Strange & Charmed, a school for audio storytellers. The Radio Times calls her “one of radio’s most original voices.” She has a PhD in the work of Charles Dickens.

RadioActivity: Saving Public Sounds
Dragan Todorovic

When I think of radio, of the noun and its content, I think primarily of the meaning used in physics, where ‘radio’ as a prefix means something related to rays, radiation, radioactivity. This same notion applies to all forms derived from radio: sound art, podcasts, everything. It is all public sound.

Although it can contain translucent, sublimely aetheric pieces, works that are red and loud, and anything in-between—at its best public sound is disturbing. However, this inherent power does not mean that it is not vulnerable. Like any other space of freedom public sound needs to be defended and maintained. Silent audience is a complacent audience. Governments hate disturbing radio and love complacent audience. Every time there is a cut in funding, every time there is a grant opportunity lost, a tooth in that serrated knife that radio is—is gone. Forever.

Critique is one of the ways we can keep public sounds in focus, and there lies a very important reason for establishing here a permanent field of influence. There where publicly funded radio exists it is considered a public service. This political category is strangely ambivalent. On the one hand it emphasizes the democratic nature of the medium, but on the other hand it shields it from closer scrutiny. You either take the bus or you don’t take the bus, but you don’t delve into the quality of the ride.

We need to reclaim radio—and with it the whole area of public sound—as an artistic form. With radio it has always been difficult, because it is many things at once, from utilitarian to high art. Plus, there is a lot of mimicry today and various tricks and cons are passed under the noble name of radio: computer-generated playlists, distributed phonoteques, etc. But there where real radio is still holding, mixing art with the mundane, we need to give it a full critical attention because without it artistic forms wilt and die.

Here, we need to be careful. Social networks as potential fields of critical thinking have proved catastrophic. They are almost never constructive and mostly serve for self-promotion or, worse, for trolling. On the other hand, the mainstream media has long ago revoked the space for reviews of all kinds, with a possible exception of Hollywood. This all leads, I think, to a situation where we need to organise strong communities, strong international communities of artists, curators and sympathisers of our dark arts. In this sense, sites like Earlid become crucial.

This, in fact, could be beneficial: tightly knit units tend to be purifiers and they are what has organised every revolution in history.

Dragan Todorovic’s novel, Diary of Interrupted Days, was shortlisted for Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Amazon First Novel Award and other awards. His memoir, The Book of Revenge, won The Nereus Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. His collection of interactive poetry, Five Walks on Isabella Street, was the winner of the Astound International Competition. His radio art, In My Language, I am Smart, is featured at Earlid.

Towards A Poetics of Audio—The Importance of Criticism:
A continuation by Sarah Montague

It was exciting to have been asked by The Sarahs to contribute an essay about the importance of, and relative paucity of, established criticism of the radio, audio, and sound arts. Like all such essays, it aimed to simply raise and briefly follow an argument, but not to be a comprehensive survey of all the ways our field defines itself and has been explored.

With the current forum, there will be an opportunity to further explore the underpinnings of both my initial argument and to envisage through a look at the past what our possible future might look and sound like.

Even on the textual side, our field can certainly boast some groundbreaking personages—Helen Thorington, Gregory Whitehead, Douglas Kahn, Allan Weiss among them, and the important texts they helped create. Still, we can’t be said to have consistent, established field of criticism, so what I want to explore here is what needs to be in place for that change to take place, and then, how might that change actually affect us.

In order to do that, I propose looking at two different patterns in art forms where independent criticism exists, such as art, dance, film, photography.

First, does a critical movement need a catalyst? Did the astonishing flowering of dance companies in the 1930s-1950s call forth a critical language? At what point did that happen—the point at which dance ‘reviews’ moved a higher plane? In art, one of the seminal essays was Roger Fry’s appreciation of Cezanne—it established the Provencal painter as the abiding master of post-Impressionism. Did it also frame the larger discourse? In the 1970s, did Andrew Sarris’s branding of the concept of the director as auteur also open up the field for more nuanced language in discussing this form? Did Sarris’s subsequent (not always flattering) celebrity in this area generate a movement? A following?

So exploring this notion for us might be trying to locate the moment when for various art forms criticism began to separate itself as a distinct discipline. When and why did that happen, and what was the result? Then, did having more complex language, and baseline standards, change the way practitioners worked (one of the points made by A.O. Scott in his book Better Living Through Criticism).

Second, one of my contentions is that one thing that distinguishes the discipline of criticism is that it exists outside the frame of creation, answers to its own standards, and has its own evolving language. And that we have few examples of that at the moment—most discussions of audio productions are still limited comments from inside the field, sometimes addressing technical issues, sometimes production values, sometimes social-political positives and negatives, but still in the realm of camaraderie, and still rarely moving the debates to an aesthetic plane. Once again, it will be interesting to look for examples from outside our field, for example, the dancer and dance writer Deborah Jowitt and the photographer—and New York Times photography critic—Teju Cole.

Sarah Montague is an award-winning radio and audio producer and director of documentary, drama, features and spoken word programs including Selected Shorts. She is adjunct professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College/The New School, co-founded the Internet radio station, and teaches courses in media, audio theatre, and journalism.

The Path Not Taken: Or, How to Avoid the Long (and Immediate)
History of Radio and Sound Art Criticism — Daniel Gilfillan

I am not a producer or practitioner of the radio and sound arts, but I am a listener, a theorist, an academic, and a critic of these art forms.

Sarah Montague laments an absence of critical voices writing about audio media (podcasts, radio broadcasts, sound art), stating that, amid all that characterizes our new vibrant sound culture, what we are missing are a “critical language” and a “critical practice.”

By invoking A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism (2016) as her central measure for understanding what constitutes a critical language and a critical practice, Montague adopts the same limitations that surround Scott’s arguments regarding criticism, that it is something that exists somehow outside or above the medium and artistic practices of production, rather than as an inherent product of these artistic practices and media formats.

In the very vibrancy of our contemporary radio and sound art culture, characterized as much by an old-fashioned set of industry standards as it is by a DIY experimentation, the critical language and critical practice deemed missing are, in fact, readily apparent and in use. At the same time that artists working within the realm of sound have become more agile thinkers and practitioners of the various media that comprise our contemporary soundscape, critics and criticism (and whom we allow to be thought of as critic) must also become more agile and more fluid as to the formats they engage and the identities they assume.

The artist as critic engages an immediate and retrospective understanding of what informs their art in any one socio-cultural moment.

The academic as critic engages a longer historical, philosophical, and theoretical understanding for how the artwork functions.

The listener as critic engages an even more immediate understanding for how the piece they are hearing helps them make sense of the world around them in that
moment of listening.

All are viable forms of criticism, all undertake a critical language, and all assume an understanding of critical practice. Key to making this new agile criticism work is not an understanding of the “art critic” who serves as the clearinghouse for taxonomies and definitions, but rather a sensibility for the always-changing and fluid nature of sound and sound art production itself.

These writers are ones I return to in order to help understand notions of boundaries within radio as broadcast and radio as spatial construct:

Anna Friz – Radio as Instrument

Gregory Whitehead – Radio Silence & Radio Play is No Place

Heidi Grundmann – But is it Radio?

Daniel Gilfillan is Associate Professor of German Studies at Arizona State University. He is the author of Pieces of Sound: German Experimental Radio (Minnesota, 2009), and has published widely on German/Austrian radio and sound art. His current book project is titled Sound in the Anthropocene: Sustainability and the Art of Sound.

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