[rumori] Out of the Dark (fwd)

From: { brad brace } (bbraceATeskimo.com)
Date: Fri May 11 2001 - 17:50:45 PDT

Gregory Whitehead: Out of the Dark: notes on the nobodies of radio art

� 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

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.

I 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

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.

II 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.

1. 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.

2. 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

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".

3. 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.

III 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".

IV 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!"

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