New York

“The Territory of Art”

“The Territory of Art,” a series of 16 half-hour radio programs about contemporary art, has impressive packaging. (Produced by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the series is being broadcast by public radio stations around the country; check your local listings.) The intro theme, by John Adams, is a sharp electronic ululating pulse. The credits for many of the shows are announced by the up-and-coming Whoopi Goldberg. The trailers for succeeding shows are provocative, tantalizing.

All of which is good. Packaging is important in any attempt to put art on the air—or anywhere else, for that matter. People like their art in frames, if possible with an accompanying wall label. At least implicitly, art holds out the possibility of a rupture in things-as-they-are, with viewers free to make of it what they will; but for most people, it seems, art is a foreign language, and they want to have it translated. The galleries of our museums are alive with the sounds of hordes of crickets, as people listen intently to the voices coming through the headsets of their rent-a-guides while they gaze blankly at the work in front of them, seeing everything they’re supposed to.

Inside its packaging, “The Territory of Art” is a grab bag, no doubt intentionally. The series includes programs (one each) about poetry, new music, film and video, photography, architecture, collecting, and children’s art, among other subjects. Most are presented in the usual radio-documentary sandwich of voice-overs, interviews, and snippets of music, or “effects.” The weaker programs of this sort (the one on photography, for example) are simply lame promos for the art being considered; others range from informed gossip, to intelligent commentary, to profound analysis—in some cases, all in the same half-hour.

But no matter how smart the script, how astute the experts being interviewed, most of this is just more packaging—aural wall labels. Only a few shows actually try to present some art, and these are the most interesting. Lee Breuer’s mock epic The Warrior Ant, read by Leslie Marie Mohn to music by Robert Telson, is a chantlike drama I’d love to find on the radio late at night on the Interstate. In Remy Charlip’s Imaginary Dances, the choreographer offers a series of funny story-concepts for dances along with interview fragments. Some of these art segments don’t work: Paul Bob Town, by performance artist Paul Bob (formerly of the Los Angeles duo Bob and Bob), is a dark art-world in joke about the difficulty of finding an apartment in Manhattan. Jacki Apple’s Last Rites After Angkor Wat, about picking up a handsome hitchhiker in the desert at night, has all the substance and depth of characterization of a teen-romance comic book. Even these programs, though, are more involving than the informational segments; for better or worse they are themselves, and not about something else.

“The Territory of Art” is an ambitious, wide-ranging attempt to present contemporary art on radio—no easy task. Occasionally it succeeds wonderfully, but too often the package hides whatever it’s meant to hold. At least the package is appealing.

Charles Hagen