What is Radio Art (Colin Black)

March 13, 2020 | 00:40:13

What is radio art? It’s a rather unfamiliar term in the United States, but in other countries, it’s a something of an artistic tradition. Today’s guest, Dr. Colin Black  is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning radio artist and composer. He speaks to us about his practice as a radio artist and the influence the Australian radio program The Listening Room had on Australia’s sonic avant garde. We then listen to his piece Out Of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1, which both explores and exemplifies the possibilities of radio art. It’s both informative and a total treat for the ears!

The piece was originally commissioned by the Dreamlands commissions for Radio Arts, funded by the Arts Council England and Kent County Council.

Out Of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1 is a meta-referencing poetic reflection and meditation on radio art underpinned by an artistic treatment of dislocation, transmission, reception and place as a thematic underscore. The work is in the form of an abstract song cycle that chiefly oscillates between “songs” originating from High Frequency (HR) radio static/broadcasts between 3 and 30 MHz and those from interviewees replying to questions relating to radio art. Location recordings, sound effect and musical composition weave this originating material together to form a sonic confluence and juxtaposition of elements to stimulate the listener’s imagination while offering an insight into the work’s subject matter.

Interviewees (in order of appearance): Armeno Alberts, Tom Roe, Jean-Philippe Renoult, Gregory Whitehead, Götz Naleppa, Andrew McLennan, Elisabeth Zimmermann, Heidi Grundmann, Andreas Hagelüken, Teri Rueb and Kaye Mortley

Producer and Composer: Colin Black
High Frequency (HR) radio receiver operator: Dimitri Papagianakis

Duration: 00:25:10

Music for this episode is by Blue the Fifth.  We also hear a brief excerpt of Things Change,Things Stay the Same by Rik Rue.

[Ethereal Voice]

This is Phantom Power

[Robotic Noises]

Mack Hagood: Episode 20: What is radio art?


Colin Black: That’s a good question: What is the difference between sound art and radio art? If we think of radio as an art form rather than a media device…

[Theme Music]


Mack Hagood: Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power. The podcast about sound in the arts and humanities. Cultures of sound, histories of sound, philosophies of sound.

I’m Mack Hagood. and today we’re focused on a single question: What is radio art? I don’t think it’s a particularly common term here in the United States, even among, folks who are pretty into sound. We have sound art and sound installations and field recordings, but those things don’t have a very strong presence in American radio.

And then on the radio side, we do have people like the late Joe Frank, who did experimental, freeform radio, but that never went by the name of radio art. And by the way, we do have really cool, independent and internet-based radio stations, shouts to Radius in Chicago and Wave Farm in upstate New York.

But in terms of some kind of radio art tradition, you really have to look to countries like Germany and Australia. And so that’s why I invited my guest today: Dr. Colin Black.

[Theme Music Fades Out]

Colin Black is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning composer, sound artist, and radio artist. His works have been heard on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The BBC, and on stations in Germany and New Zealand and South Africa. He has a PhD from the University of Sydney, where he wrote his dissertation on radio art.

And he also composed the piece called, Out of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1. It’s a fantastic experimental audio essay that both explores and exemplifies the possibilities of radio art. So, we’re going to hear that piece in its 25-minute entirety. But first I wanted to talk to Collin about his practice as a radio artist and about the differing histories of radio in our countries and how that affects the kinds of sounds we hear over the air.

[Transition Music]


Mack Hagood: I think you’re the third Australian sound artist that we’ve spoken to. We had Leah Barclay and Lawrence English.

Colin Black: Yes.

Mack Hagood: And I think there’s just a really strong tradition of experimental sound in Australia. Would you agree with that?

Colin Black: I totally agree with that. I think it comes from our background in radio where there was a really strong presence in sound art on how public broadcasted. Every Monday night at nine o’clock, they would broadcast some major work or collection of short works that were always interesting to listen to. The program was called: The Listening Room, and it was basically kind of like a room where you listen to anything. Then it had kind of died and came back in a program called Soundproof, where they tried to do a similar sort of thing.

And one of the pieces of The Listening Room made was called The Listening Room where they recorded the sound of the room.

Mack Hagood: That’s very meta.


Colin Black: It was a very meta piece at the time. It doesn’t exist anymore, but this is where I think the Australian artists, not the current generation, but the people that remember that program, it was a real platform for where you could exhibit these soundbite pieces nationally.

So, it went right across the country and it didn’t matter where you lived, you could just tune in and listen to these really bizarre collection of sound pieces. Some of them had words and were a bit like radio plays and others had no words at all.

[Transition Music]

Female Voice: Things Change, Things Remain the Same by Rick Rue, is created from sampled and process sounds from the road, get comfy and settle in for this Outback road trip of the mind.

[Transition Sounds]


Colin Black: All different types of works came out of that station.

[Snippet from Things Change, Things Remain the Same]


Mack Hagood: Do you think the historical relationship between government and the radio networks has had an influence on what nations have a strong radio art tradition and which ones don’t, because I think in the United States, it’s not a term of art that we hear very frequently.


Colin Black: Yeah. I think it absolutely does. Like when I interviewed American practitioners, they would say it’s barely on FM radio. Usually you might find it in an art gallery. I think that comes down to the fact that, if I’ve got this right, in America there was no state owned public broadcast that was broadcasting across the United States. You’ve got PBS, which is privately and publicly funded. Right?

Mack Hagood: NPR. National Public Radio.


Colin Black: And NPR, but that’s a different kind of beast to a radio station that gets a lot of money to reflect the diversity of its community and no consequence of any relationship between sponsors and the content of the programs.

So, in Australia, we had things on the state-owned broadcaster, that couldn’t be on community stations that were sponsored based because the sponsors wouldn’t sponsor such a thing. And on the state-owned broadcaster, they gave it space and budget and commissioned artists and got international artists and created a platform.

Same thing happened in France and Germany and a lot of European countries where there’s a strong tradition of state-owned public broadcasters.

Mack Hagood: One of the things I wanted to ask you was how do we distinguish between sound art and radio art?


Colin Black: That’s a good question: What is the difference between sound art and radio art?

Between 2008 and 2011, I went around the world asking practitioners what they thought radio art was and what they thought sound art was. A lot of them when I asked, “what is radio art?” they didn’t want to answer. It’s just like when you say, “what is art?”, art can be anything. And same if we think as radio as an art form rather than a media device, then anything is radio art.

And one of the themes that came out in my research was that people didn’t want to be locked into a definition. By locking the definition down, they were restricting what the art form could be. So the range of radio art forms they spoke about was things that kind of sounded a bit more like radio documentaries to pure soundscape pieces for radio. The Germans have this approach to a sound art or radio art for radio where the difference between a radio drama and a sound art piece would be that in a drama it is the spoken word narrative drives the whole narrative forward.

Whereas in sound art for radio, all the elements, meaning vocals or spoken narrative, musical composition, and soundscape, or sound effects at whole equal devices to make the piece and to tell the story. So they have quite a tradition of making very abstract sound pieces.

Mack Hagood: So maybe we can talk a little bit about how you make a piece like this. Can you sort of walk us through the stages?


Colin Black: Oh. To make a piece like that, or the way I make pieces in general is that I pick a topic, I research the topic, or read about the topic. If the topic is about a place, then I go to the place and I record as much as I can about the place. It’s basically, in my mind I’m researching something, but instead of writing about it, I write an audio piece about it or a sound art piece.

It’s not a literal journalistic approach, it’s more of an abstract approach of how to communicate my findings from a topic.

So what you’re listening to on the podcast today is my research findings from investigating what is radio art and some of the protocols of making an audio or sound art work for radio medium and how that’s special or different to other art forms.

[Transition Sound]


Mack Hagood: That’s radio artist and composer, Collin Black.

And in just a moment, we’ll hear his work Out of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1.

[Transition Music]


Mullock: Hey, what’s up guys. It’s Mullock, The Dark God of Information Capitalism. Mullock, who’s eyes are a thousand blind windows. Mullock, who sold his electricity and banks. Just taking a quick break to remind you guys to rate Phantom Power on iTunes or Apple Podcasts, and even better write a review of the show.

That’s what we in the industry call: engagement, and it lets Apple know that this podcast rocks. Today, we want to give a big ol’ shout out to Steph Sirasco, who wrote an iTunes review called: “Sound Nerds, Unite.” “Really thoughtful and provocative,” she writes, “great podcasts for sound nerds.” Thanks Steph.

So remember, do Mack a solid and leave a review.

And who knows, maybe you’ll get a shout out for yours truly Mullock, The Dark God of Information Capitalism. Now back to the show.

[Transition Music]


Mack Hagood: And now to continue our inquiry into radio art, we present in its entirety, a piece that both explores and exemplifies this experimental form.

Out of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1 by Collin Black.

[Transition into Out of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1]

[Random Noises]

Male Voice (Repeated): In radio art or art created by radio

Ano Albert: I’m Ano Albert. But when you put it together and when you use the contemporary ways of doing that. So when you go beyond the use of linguistic meaningfulness of words, and you go beyond the classical point of view of music, like musical instruments where you have a melody or what not. When you come into the regions of soundscape or acousmatic music or whatever type of contemporary way of structuring time with sounds.

Then you come to specific fields of art, which you could say is a nice form of autonomous radio art.

[Water Dripping]

[Voices Talking, Robotic Noises]

Tom Rowe/DJ Dizzy: Tom Rowe, but sometimes I’m DJ Dizzy, like tonight I’ll be DJ Dizzy.

A lot of what I do is very layered so there’s many things going on at the same time, and sometimes I’ll separate the things and play them in different transmitters and have different radios around the room so that the sound is 5.1.

I do that sometimes or I’ll have two things going on so they can kind of talk back and forth so one at either end of the room. Sometimes I do it just right next to each other to get the static and the feedback loop going. I’ll feed the same thing into a transmitter or two transmitters and be able to go back and forth on the radio dial between the two things I’m feeding into it.

Every performance is different.

French Male Voice: I’m [insert name].

We’re in Paris, in a community garden, close to an old railway, which is not in use anymore.

I think that you could describe radio art by what it is not in a way. It’s not music. It’s not a documentary. It’s not journalism, and probably a dozen of other stuff.

But in a way it could introduce music, documentary techniques, even journalism effects.

[Random Noises}


Male Voice: Subjectivity to subjectivity.

[Random Noises]

Male Voice: Subjectivity to subjectivity between one’s own subjectivity and then the listener.

[Random Noises]

Male Voice: Subjectivity to subjectivity.

[Random Noises]

Male Voice: Subjectivity to subjectivity.

[Random Noises]

Male Voice: Subjectivity to subjectivity.

[Random Noises]


Colin Black: Gregory Whitehead.

Gregory Whitehead: To think about this relationship in space between one’s own subjectivity and then the listener, whether it’s a collective consciousness, a community, or just the individual listener, you know, subjectivity to subjectivity. But the nature of that relationship can be quite convoluted and quite fascinating. And that I think is part of the material as well.

[Helicopter Noises]

Male Voice: [insert name]. In radio play, you have normally three elements. You have a text procured by actors, you have recorded sounds, and you have music. But music and sound are serving the text. Text first, and the music and sound is illustrative. The lovers walk in the forest and the birds are singing and the music is playing because they are in love. Cliché.

This is an example of how music and sound serves the text. In sound art you have exactly the same elements. You have the text (speakers, singers), you have music and you have sound. But they are material in the hands of an organizer and the organizer is the composer. They are equal. There’s not text first and music serving, nor text serving to the music. It’s neutral. It’s material, And the composer decides which balance the elements can have. You can tell the story only by birds. Or, you can tell a story only by music. You can tell a story only by noises, sounds, recorded songs. This freedom of semantic, I didn’t have to answer all the time the question, what does that mean?

I could ask the listener just to travel in my sounds, in my story. If you hear it, and your friend hears it, you hear two different stories and you interpret them, you make them in your head yourself.

[Jumbled Voices]

[Random Noises]

Andrew McLennan: I’m Andrew McLennan.

They proposed that radio art is nothing more than what artists do with radio, which is kind of simplistic in a way. But when you think about it, it’s quite radical because what artists do with radio is not necessarily what radio people want done with radio.

Radio people want done with radio what’s normally expected of them. Artists don’t do expected things.

[Ethereal Noises]

[Glass Breaks]

Heidi Grundmann: Heidi Grundmann.

We are in Vienna and we are at a restaurant or a gasthaus as we call it in Vienna. It’s called [restaurant name] and it’s in the fourth district of Vienna and very close to the broadcasting house.

[Random Noises]

But also, there was the dematerialization of art that is going away from the object. The saleable object. That, of course also made it much easier to move on to the radio and see radio, as many artists state at the time, as a sculptor space.

[Water Dripping]

[Glass Breaking]

And, an Austrian artist explained it once. He said he sees that sculptor space defined by all the listeners, listening at that moment. And of course, the sculptor only being alive and there while the transmission goes on. Afterwards, it’s over. Any recording of it is then just a document if it’s not part of that sculptor space.

[Spacey Tones]

I guess radio art, for me, is always done specifically for the radio, although in a sense radio is hard to describe. Also, in that extended or expanded version so not in the broadcasting sense only. It’s always done by artists

And for me it’s also opening up, not always, but most of the time, other communication spaces.

[Random Noises]


Male Voice: [insert name].

First of all, radio art is the future of radio. So kind of a laboratory wherein different and new forms and unknown forms are developed for radio and for communication systems. That’s a very main issue of radio art.

[Water Splashing]

On the other hand, you might know the definition of Austrian [insert name], Heidi Grundmann, and Elizabeth Zimmerman. They argue radio art is art on air, but the problem with that, it’s true on the one hand, but on the other hand, it means that it has to be live produced. So a live broadcast.

And that’s a problem because in the German history, for example, in the early twenties or thirties, you have the Hierschbeil, the radio drama. And this is pre-produced, so it’s not live. So, you go into the studio and produce the radio play, and then you broadcast that. But Hierschbeil is one of the most genuine forms of radio art in Germany, the base, the roots of all that has been developed afterwards. Because of that, I don’t share the Austrian opinion.

[Random Noises]

On the thought you have, for example, you have very different kinds of ways how radio art or how the society, or how the radio or the artist have found radio art. For me, one is acoustic I think, a created at the WDR and Cologne by class running, which in between the pure definitions.What is literature? What is music? What is Hierschbeil? As kind of radio art.

So it’s a kind of working with acoustical materials inside the communication system or inside the radio and broadcasting acoustical materials via the radio, the media radio.

This is also very close to the definition of radio art I guess.

[Radio Feedback]


Colin Black: Gregory Whitehead.

Gregory Whitehead: I’m aware that, for example, Australia has its own independent history of radio art. Certainly that’s the case in Canada, which is quite distinguished and suppressed. Of course, many of these histories are suppressed by the corporations that should be sustaining them and celebrating them. But in many cases, they’re rather all too successfully erased from public memory.

[Wind blowing]

And in the U.S. that erasure has happened I think almost totally and that’s why I haven’t really been functioning in the United States context because there is no context for the type of radiophonic work that continues to inspire me right now.

That’s very sad. And then of course, Europe has its own traditions that go right back to Khlebnikov and Marinucci, and they’re very much really back in futurism and the early days of the avant-garde.

And all of that I think is a much more inscribed in the practice of current European artists. They’re much more conscious of that history than we are. I mean, in North America, there’s almost no consciousness that anything has a history. I mean, if any, if you can find somebody who even knows what Fluxus is, you’re lucky.

You know, but Fluxus didn’t introduce in north America. Fluxus does, I think, introduce interesting questions for radio and certainly you know, Burrows and so forth.

So that whole, those histories that go back to the late fifties and sixties, those are certainly consequential. I’ve drawn, quite a bit of inspiration from there.

[Water Splashing]

But are there distinctions? Absolutely. Very much the same as you would see the same kinds of differences in European, Australia, and North America that you would find in painting or in sculpture or even architecture.

[Random Noises]

Female Voice: Terri Reeb.

It’s a history that doesn’t get conjured enough when we talk about wireless art and the current fascination with cell phones as mechanism of delivery often gets cast as new which in fact it’s anchored to the history of radio.

[Random Noises]

Female Voice: insert name

[Random Noise]

It seems to me once as I recall this art, radio art, maybe because we don’t understand it. Maybe because it’s just not journalism. Maybe because it’s beautiful or aesthetically highly developed. Therefore, we put it into the art category on the radio side, and somehow it seems to me there’s something which doesn’t quite connect there.

[End of Out of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1]


Mack Hagood: And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Big, thanks go out to Colin Black. Out of Thin Air: Radio Art Essay #1 previously aired on Resonance FM in London. Thanks to the Dreamlands Commissions for the Radio Arts, which are funded by the Arts Council England and Kent County Council.

You can learn more about Phantom Power and find transcripts and links to some of the things we’ve talked about at phantompod.org. You can also subscribe to our show there or wherever you get your podcasts.

We’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell your friends about us on social media.

Today’s show featured music by Blue The Fifth, our intern is Gina Moravick and Phantom Power is made possible through the generosity of the Miami University Humanities Center, The Robert H and Nancy J Blaney Endowment and The National Endowment for the Humanities.

[Closing Theme Music]