Re: [rumori] Out of the Dark (fwd)

From: Don Joyce (
Date: Sat May 12 2001 - 01:43:27 PDT

...The essay below is almost as difficult to read as Moby Dick, but Gregory
is much appreciated for his constant dedication to the IDEA of radio art,
an idea that does seem to attract about as many devotees as Melville does,
in other words practically no one outside academia. But poetic
possibilities aside, I too love the idea of radio art, though my tack tends
toward reveling in it's almost total disdain for poetics. Nothing get's
turned off quicker than poetry, like it or not. Getting turned off by an
audience, admittedly and thankfully unknowable but nevertheless
guaranteeably mundane of mind and plagued by short attention spans,
produces only silence.

The lack of cultural attention to the few radio art nobodies that do exist
is actually a plus to me, something that allows these nobodies to approach
all those unsuspecting and distracted audience nobodies on the grounds of
SURPRISE. We can catch them unawares, in their perfectly normal,
uncontemplative states of mind which occupies almost all brains just going
about living daily lives with the radio on. No expectations is the mental
bed I want most to flop into unnanounced. This is a unique condition of
delivery that NO other artists plying any other mediums have available to
them, and it is the one where art most accurately finds out what it's
REALLY worth to the at-ease psyches encountering it. Opening a book does
not get this, going to a movie does not get this, and certainly passing
theough the entrance to a museum or gallery does not get this. Today, ONLY
radio carries this potential of ungroomed revelation. It is the forgotten
medium in terms of art delivery, and so it is the most interesting one of
all to actually try it in. A mental mode of artistic "appreciation" is
expected and prepared for in all other mediums where art is at least
possibly "the point." Since live or original art is no longer an even
suspected point in almost all broadcasting today, it has the most mind
jogging potential of all when it somehow DOES appear there. Context is half
the battle.

People will still tell you they have been moved more by the art-expected
mediums of literature or movies or even TV than they have ever been by
unexpected radio events, but that is a DIFFERENT kind of moving, just as
real but different. The way radio creativity can catch one off-guard,
almost subliminally because we really aren't supposed to listen to it
carefully anymore and don't expect it to require that, gives carefully
crafted radio art a MIND CHANGING aspect simply missing in other mediums.
This most powerful combination of a totally indeterminate, unspecified, and
unprepared audience, and its audio only form, is extremely unusual and
desirable in the modern world of expression. The old adage, "theatre of the
mind" is as much in play as it ever was even though so little radio is now
actually geared to exploit it, and it implies being BOTH part of a large
and anonymous audience while receiving something intensely personal and
intimate - as only ears-only stuff can do. (Even CDs can't achieve this
combination because they are sought out and bought by those who already
know what they are looking for and when you listen to it you are the ONLY
one listening at that moment.) This transmitting condition of simultaneous
group AND personal surprise is very important to changing the landscape, as
any military expert will tell you. The subversive potential of radio art to
prevailing esthetic complacency far surpasses the same potential in any
other medium.

And finally, the fact that radio IS the generally forgotten medium for art
among all others is what actually ALLOWS one to use it, no matter how
rarely and unrecognized, in actually subversive ways. No one with esthetic
influence or power is paying attention to ANYTHING there. NO ONE is paying
attention to anything there except obscenity! It is the last open to
ANYTHING medium precisely because nobody special, innumerable nobodies, are
all that's involved on both its sending and receiving ends. A medium now
completely untied to ANY noticeable cultural expectations except news,
sports, weather, public opinion, and selling music that sells the best.
It's easy to think this is bad for art, but once you're in it, it's GOOD.
That stuff ain't at all hard to beat with almost anything actually
creative, and when nothing around you matters it also represents the
complete freedom to EXPERIMENT - something NO other mass medium now allows.
Radio, its past glories now rarely even a memory among the living, has
NOTHING to lose.

If radio ever gets rethrust into the forefront of cultural importance for
some reason (as opposed to exclusively commercial importance) and important
art pundants begin paying careful attention to what happens there - poof -
many of its greatest present artistic potentials now open to persistent
individuals will disappear under the weight of prestige, curating, and
critical scrutiny. Ugh - there goes the power of esthetic surprise, as it
so often does when guaranteeing whatever is thought to be known about
"quality" becomes an important issue of access and control. And worse,
there goes the ability of ANY artist (who does not need to be paid for it)


>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
>FranÁaise. 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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