PRINT April 2004


Resonance FM

“A RADIO STATION that is an archive of the new, the undiscovered, the forgotten, the impossible. That is an invisible gallery, a virtual arts centre whose location is at once local, global, and timeless.” This adventurous mission belongs to Resonance 104.4 FM, “London’s first radio art station,” an artist-initiated and artist-run organization launched by the London Musicians’ Collective on May Day 2002. Resonance founders Ed Baxter and Phil England won a grant from the Arts Council of England, secured a temporary broadcast license through the Radio Authority’s Access Radio pilot program, and began transmitting first eight and finally thirteen hours of new programming every day on a three-mile-wide FM signal and simultaneous webcast. With dozens of volunteer show hosts and engineers, the station has become a headquarters and gathering place for London’s experimental-music, sound-art, sound-poetry, spoken-word, and activist communities.

At their most sophisticated, the programs broadcast on Resonance incorporate radio space as their subject. Sound-artist duo Greyworld present “Big Ears,” a fortnightly abstract collage of interrupted ambient sounds seeming to mimic the act of turning the radio dial. Ergo Phizmiz’s Sticky White Glue, a twelve-part series of sound montages—voices, music, and plunderphonic juxtapositions of the two—reminds us why radio has been described as “schizophonic,” packing more disembodied sounds and voices than the ear can process. Robert Simone offers weekly meditations on extraterrestrial activity and the paranormal, while Sarah Washington hosts the twelve-segment series Thirteen Minutes of Heaven, on which different artists and writers present (mostly nonverbal) takes on the sublime. Harmon e. Phraiysar performs an ongoing radio play of fractured dialogues that ignores continuities in time, space, context, and persona and exploits the placelessness that radio represents. Indeed, all of these surreal trips into imaginary worlds thrive on the invisible abstraction that is radio space.

With or without listeners, radio is always on, calling attention to the omnipresence of sound, a phenomenon that has captivated many, from Pythagoras, with his Music of the Spheres, to Erik Satie, the Futurists, and John Cage. Each Saturday on Resonance, Caroline Kraabel and her baby go for a stroll through London’s streets, fitted with a cell phone attached to mum’s head and connected to the live broadcast board. One is reminded of Cage’s famous proclamation that he doesn’t listen to music anymore, preferring instead the sounds of Sixth Avenue. But Resonance is resolutely higher tech: On Sundays, the Wireless Soundscape collective, exploiting the tech-savvy metropolis’s myriad wi-fi nodes, beams the sounds of intersections around the city to radio listeners, mapping a sonic portrait of London.

Resonance FM is a radio station about radio space, its reflexivity mirroring the art that it broadcasts. More than a collection of individual shows, Resonance as a whole is a loosely structured laboratory for artists of all kinds to reimagine what radio can be and the different ways sound can inhabit radio space. Its dizzying variety is itself an experiment in prodding the limits of what the medium can contain. A documentary about climate change is aired one day on ClearSpot—“our regular spot for irregular programming” (at 7 PM each weekday)—and “animal imitation” music from Tuva and Siberia the next. A walk through a typical day’s programming sounds like the very act of spinning the radio dial: Academic music from an Eastern European spectral composer segues into an interview with the Ministry of Fun, a performance art–slash–PR company who perform street stunts—dressed as blue ferrets or magicians—to promote various products. Then comes a careful investigation into the career of illustrious midcentury African-American singer Paul Robeson. Recordings borrowed from New York’s South Street Seaport Museum that feature a Staten Island Ferry captain’s recollections of 9/11 are followed by Xollob Park, a show where everything runs backward. Late night brings a live transmission of performances from this year’s Transmediale festival in Berlin. At any time, musicians passing through the city—or the neighborhood—might stop by unannounced for an impromptu live set, a welcome disruption to the day’s programming that feeds the spirit of spontaneity the station treasures.

New developments in the materials and languages of art often call for readjustments in how curators and institutions develop an interface for it, and Resonance joins several other art radio-station initiatives in pursuit of a novel type of exhibition space: Vienna’s Kunstradio, a weekly program on the city’s ORF radio station, has been broadcasting since 1987. Last year’s Venice Biennale saw the participation of Radio Arte Mobile, a nomadic station-in-a-van. New York’s WFMU often incorporates radio art. Resonance’s newest peer—WPS1, a new Web-based radio station run by P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York—allows the museum to extend its programming to embrace, on an ongoing basis, music, radio plays, sound poetry, storytelling, and other sound-based materials, including lectures from MoMA’s archives, interviews with exhibiting artists, and informal chats among figures in New York’s art community.

At a moment when a relational aesthetics celebrates encounters, meeting places, and unresolved trajectories that hover between a here and a there, radio celebrates the porous nature of sound and resurfaces as a relevant and lively platform for contemporary art to find new ways to flourish. With Resonance FM, have the sounds of Sixth Avenue finally met their match?

Anthony Huberman is program director at SculptureCenter in New York.