Interview with Heidi Grundmann

published: 
July, 1997

 

This is an interview with Heidi Grundmann, the woman behind ORF Kunstradio, one of the first main Internet radio experimentators in Europe. The interview was made in Ljubljana, during the nettime meeting 'Beauty and the East'. It also has interesting connections to the net.art discussions. What I particularly like is what Heidi Grundmann says towards the end of this interview, when I ask her how she experienced her transition from visual arts to audio/radio art. The early seventies with its extreme conceptual art, which was so rudely swept aside by early eighties primitivism and expressionism, with its dematerialised art seems to have connected more smoothly then ever between different media and specificly electronic/invisible media and the arts. There is no real seperate media then of course, but all art(de-)material. But this is my very personally stimulating discovery of missing links, to expand my thoughts.

Heidi Grundmann: My background is radio journalism. I used to report on contemporary visual arts and took a strong interest on the subjects of art and technology and art in the public space. Because I'm working for an organisation like the Austrian national radio, I should say that we still have almost a monopoly in Austria. We don't have a multitude of radios like in other countries. Now it’s changing a little bit, but it is still a very monolithic structure.

 

Anyway, I was working for the cultural actuality program, - the "Kulturredaktion" - and then I changed from being somebody who reported on contemporary visual art to somebody who had a program in the features and radio drama department. I just shifted inside the organisation. That was in 1987. Because of my work before, talking to so many many artists in the field of art and technology, art in the public space and art and telecommunications, I was somehow in the position to define my new program as a space for radio art and, what is more important, as a kind of entrance point for artists of all kinds, visual artists, composers or writers, whatever, who wanted to position their work in the context of public radio.

 

The space of public radio can of course be defined and delineated in many different ways and that is what these artists did. There are people who define it as a sculptural space, others defined it as a public space comparable to the public urban space, where art is confronted with everyday life. Others want to make interventions in that space, others again want to remix the material that is being broadcast; yet others are very interested in the communicationside of it all. Some make complex layerings of sounds and enjoy using the production facilities of a National radio; others only deal with live-radio etc.

 

Around what was originally a weekly radio program, that over the last ten years helped artists to produce and develop ways to reflect the context of public radio as it reaches into society, somehow a body of theoretical discourse also evolved. It evolved out of the practice of the artists and was tested in the framework of several radio-art symposia where the artist-theoreticians met with media- theorists. I still think some of the artists are among the best theorists, because they don't come from books but from the practice of positioning their work in very complex cultural-technological contexts.

 

Over the years there has been a string of projects connecting live- radio, the space of radio-transmission to other public spaces like museums or the urban space from shopping malls to big open squares or a whole network of different locations in one or different cities. >From the very beginning there has been a group of artists connected to the Kunstradio that were very interested in telecommunications and actually belonged to the pioneers of telecommunications art in Europe. They informed the theoretical background of the Kunstradio very strongly.

 

It is a specific Austrian development that there has been a relatively long and strong tradition of telematic works in the field of art. During the late 70s and the 80s this telecommunication art developed outside the radio using all kind of new technologies connected to the telephone. But some of the artists involved in telecommunications would sometimes also produce radio-art. Only in the beginning of the 90s a younger generation, I think it was the third or fourth, started to develop projects in which they connected the space of electronic networks with the space of the public radio into one single space of artistic action and intervention. Issues that had been at the heart of the telematic projects of the 80s and that some of the radio-artists had tried to deal with by going into the archives of the radio, by developing pieces without beginning or end, by involving listeners and technicians etc. now suddenly had a much more powerful and much clearer impact on the radio: the question of authorship; the question of everything becoming material that can be fragmented, sampled, recycled, put into different contexts; the question of the traditional notion of work of art being completely redefined; the question of copyright -- all these issues were suddenly swept clearly to the surface by the kind of projects that connect the space of traditional radio to the space of electronic networks.

 

Q: Can you tell me what you call telematic art?

 

Heidi Grundmann: Telematic .... I've always had a problem with an exact definition. It is one of those words that are really just notions to keep a dialogue going, to be able to talk about something evolving in connection with new communication technologies. Everybody interprets it differently but it was used quite early to refer to projects in which artists used telecommunications media. It is about art that works at a distance. Art that deals with simultaneity, telepresence, distributed authorship as Roy Ascot called it, who in the early 80s initiated a very examplary telematic project called "La Plissure du Texte". It was a global fairytale that was told by sixteen different stations in the world over two weeks - using a forerunner of the Internet in e-mail and conference mode. And nobody knew how many people participated, nobody was *the* author but everybody who participated was one author of many. The work itself could basically only be experienced by the participants and each of them experienced his or her own version. It was not possible to mediate this kind of fairytale to a traditional passive audience...

 

Q: Was this all in your radioshow?

 

Heidi Grundmann: These early telematic projects were not radio. But strangely enough, what in hindsight looks interesting was the first telematic project in which European artists participated. It took place in 1979 and was called "Interplay". There was a worldwide set up with this IP Sharp timesharing system that functioned quite similar to the Internet. There were people in Vienna participating, because there was a local office of this IP Sharp firm that was quite interested in having artists working with it. These artists were Richard Kriesche and Robert Adrian. The artists were in the office and the man who ran the IPSharp office was in my live radio studio, trying to make the listener understand what was happening. It was a radio program really *about* art activities. The man was sitting there with his terminal trying to type in his messages and to participate in the project in which artists in over 10 cities around the world were connected. Meters and meters of paper were running out of the printer. We just couldn't read everything that was coming in to the listeners. We could not say, now this is from San Fransisco and this is from Sydney.- there were just too many messages. It was extremely difficult to give the listeners any impression of what was going on. The radio studio had become one more live node in a telematic network. But what went out on the radio was just read texts.....mostly in English and in between helpless attempts to explain something quite incomprehensible to most people including me. This was the first connection that I know of between live radio and a telematic project.

 

Ten years later, because not only the technology had developed so much further, but also the thinking, the conceptualising and the practice of an art that kept three generations of visual artists, composers, musicians, technicians busy, it was possible to formulate what was then called simultaneous telematic radio projects There were, as you know, the projects in which Gerfried Stocker was involved (Others involved were Seppo Gruendler, Horst Hoertner, and then Mia Zabelka, Andres Bosshard, Isabella Bordoni, Roberto Paci Daló, Andrea Sodomka, Martin Breindl, Norbert Math, Martin Schitter and on several occasions Dutch artists connected to V 2 and many others. Gerfried Stocker was one of the people who came to Kunstradio in the beginning of the 90s and said: "We have this sculpture standing at the Expo in Sevilla and its run via telephone, modems, midi and computers. Why don't we make a concert where I am sitting in the radio studio in Vienna and I have all kinds of samplers and sequencers. The people in Sevilla will then trigger the sounds in the studio in Vienna. We can broadcast them live, but we can also send back what they have triggered, so they can mix it there with other sounds and resend it to us and the radio just becomes one outlet in a recycling process really - recycling and re-assembling of material".

 

>From then on Kunstradio helped organise a series of similar projects: simultaneous telematic radio (and at one point even TV-) projects. Finally two very big worldwide projects were developed and realised: Horizontal Radio in1995 and Rivers and Bridges last year. And this year we are planning another one with the title "Station to Station" in December. The EBU (European Broadcasting Union) Ars Acustica group also got involved. This is a group made up of all the radio-art producers and editors in public radios in Europe, North America and Australia. The Ars Acustica group is getting bigger and bigger and each country has a completely different tradition and definition of radio art. It was possible to involve the Ars Acustica group in the Horizontal Radio, Rivers & Bridges and now Station-to-Station projects - actually the Ars Acustica Group took them on as its annual projects.

 

The basic principle of the projects was really developed from the early telematic projects. Horizontal Radio even explicitely referred to the project "The World in 24 hours" that Robert Adrian had initiated in 1982: Every 'station' could participate according to the means they had, according to the art notions they had, according to whatever they wanted to do. But the contributions had to be fed into the network of radio- and telefone lines within a negotiated slot of 24 hours. Everybody had to give and take. There was no central event that was transmitted to all participants. The event consisted of everything that happened during the 24 hours in the very complex network between on site, on line and on air activities at over 20 locations on three continents. Five internet servers were participating in 1995 and the users could influence the output by triggering all kind of material on on-site CD's, which then was flowing back into the network of the radios and was then broadcast in differet parts of the world in completely different contexts. All the programs were live and all the programs took fragments of the incredible wealth of activity going on all over the world and rearranged the material with their own material and sent it back to the other nodes. There were many performances and installations taking place in front of a live audience.

 

The next year Rivers&Bridges did something very similar but with a much more important role for the Internet (18 hours of Real Audio Live) and with more connections between public and independent radios. Again it became a huge network between many locations on three continents.

 

Since Horizontal Radio the name "Horizontal Radio" has become a general name for this genre of international simultaneous projects connecting the radiospace in a different way filling it with a different content handling it in a different manner: horizontally, opening up the medium of radio to other physical and virtual spaces - collaging these spaces in live situations.

 

Q: Is Ars Acustica connected to Ars Electronica?

 

Heidi Grundmann: No, Ars Acustica is a name that I think does not really fit what has happened in the Ars Acustica group during the last two years. To me Ars Acustica refers to the traditional sound-radio: a medium that functioned by itself in a very specific way. A very interesting and rich acoustic art developed since the avantgarde of the beginning of the century, an acoustic art that eventually found its place also in radio - reflecting it with the means of transmitted sound, often produced in the elaborate studios of National Public Radios. One organisation that was, and still is, very active in this field is the West Deutsche Rundfunk in Cologne, with Klaus Schoening, who also developed the whole notion of Neues Hoerspiel. He worked a lot with FLuxus artists and developed, over many years, a huge body of what he calls "Ars Acustica". He was one of the founders of that group in the EBU and its first coordinator, and so the group took on this name.

 

Not very long after that, about the end of 80s, radio started to change noticeably because of digitalisation, under the impact of the so-called convergence of massmedia, the computer and telecommunication. And so today I am convinced that radio is not only about sound anymore. I am not happy with the term internet-radio myself, but definitely if there is such a thing, if you webcast something, if you do live activities in the internet, then its definitely also visual radio - radio to look at. It’s by no means only about sound.

 

The way radio - commercial radio, the big national organisations, but even independent or pirate radio - is developing, it is no longer simply the smaller of the Radio/TV massmedia twins, but has become part of what we call a "Medienverbund" (media combination/union), a new type of network of different media. And the leading medium in this Verbund is the computer as Wolfgang Hagen has pointed out. Sound is then only one form of many possible representations of data. For instance, digital radio can lead you through traffic (by visual maps or text or sound), open your garage door, start to cook your dinner, display the text of the bio and a photo of a composer whose music you are listening to etc. Now we are in a situation where we just start to try to grasp what this megamedium that looms on the horizon might mean for our culture.

 

Today we are dealing with many different hybrids between old and new forms and the old familiar radio, as an isolated listening medium that brings you news, drama, music, talk and is a reliable companion, whose clocklike habits accompany you as a flow of sound. is a nostalgic relic. There are many artists working in and for the context of this nostalgic medium but there are many others working in a hybrid-networked space of constant change.

 

Now the big, culturally very relevant thing is that there is a very powerful commercial conglomerate in this 'Medienverbund' and even most of the public radio and televisions are looking at the new media not as a cultural field but as a field for business. They are hoping to make money! Also with cultural programs - I can see that the environment in which my radio-program is located has changed completely: even the cultural channel that is really funded, by law, by listeners fees is doing 'marketing'. All these commercial concepts have entered the daily functioning of non-commercial radio - including firms and banks coming in by the backdoor to sponsor things.

 

I think the lines are suddenly running on different borders, between the commercial sector and the cultural non-commercial sector. I think it is strategically very important to form new alliances there. A program like Kunstradio and the work of the artists working for Kunstradio is something alien to the structure of that commercial or semi-commercial culture, even on a cultural channel. In a way, we have much more affinity to free radio, independent radio or to media-activism reflecting the Internet etc. It is different alliances that come together now and it is very necessary that they do come together. There is a new type of marginalisation going on ...I mean, the commercial pressures are at any rate so strong that there is a need to save some place for a process of reflection, whether you call it art or whatever. What is happening to our culture needs to be reflected, thought about. Some of the artists that I have the pleasure to work with are very important figures in this kind of reflection process. Again: because they are very strong theoreticians and because they also have very strong attitudes towards what is happening to our culture. And both, their theories and their attitudes are informed by their practice in the new mediaspace.

 

Q: What exactly would you like to see happening? You painted a bit of a picture of something that might be called a danger to free art radio. Is there something that absolutely needs to be part of this new free media network?

 

Heidi Grundmann: I don't see any solutions at all. Solutions are not at all visible in any discussions going on. For example; the one on net.art shows that nobody knows a solution, nobody has an answer. Everybody is asking questions. But what I think is very important, if one is interested at all in culture and what culture is, that strategies be developed for different groups forming again and again for the purpose of realising different projects or whatever you may call the different frames from which people work, certain aspects of the question 'how is our culture changing now?'. The groups are very important because it is a territory where no individual art is really possible. You can do a little tiny thing, like send a virus into the web and things like that (as an individual). But basically individual artists cannot work there. I can only see that groups and constantly changing groupings of so-called artists and non-artists are forming all the time.

 

One very strong aspect of Kunstradio, even as far as the normal weekly radioprogram is concerned, is that the artists have, since many years, recognised that a certain type of technician has become co-author of their pieces. They could not do it without this type of very engaged technician, who are in turn challenged by the artists to find different solutions and so on - plus the the aspect that people from different disciplines are suddenly working together. Some people come from music, others come from dance; there are the people from the visual arts, people from literature, and they constantly reshuffle in groups to do things. They take on different tasks, and they are developing new production strategies for this new kind of conglomerate of media. It is a constant learning, developing and researching process that needs groupings of some sort. They don't need to be groups for life, but for certain projects. They also have to look over the borders of one organisation or one country or whatever. It’s a constant looking out and putting energy together. Acting to the moment, which is difficult enough to grasp.

 

As long as this kind of networking also among people is taking place, I think, even when we don't know where it is going, there is a lot of hope.

 

Q: You come from the visual arts, but you are now mostly into audio art. How did that change occur and did you like it? Now with net.radio we are moving more towards the visual realm again, do you regret that?

 

Heidi Grundmann: I started out to report and write about visual arts, but I did it in a medium that was not visual at all. There was not even an Internet where I could have made little reproductions of what I am talking about. It was really just a medium where you could talk and make interviews. Also at the time when I got into that there was performance art, there was conceptual art and all kinds of dematerialised art. The theories of the artists doing this work were very important. So my move was very natural. I met a lot of people who were working as artists in the radio, with live radio for instance. That was a very very natural thing. It was not necessary to have images, physical images for this type of visual art activity. It had dematerialised, away from the physical image or object. Now there are images on the web, but they are only one aspect, they are one way that data can be interpreted. I think most people working in the field see it also like that. They see a whole range of possibilities to do something with data. The basis of it all is dealing with information and data.

 

The whole notion of art has changed to a degree where the name itself is in question. Many artists question whether they want to call themselves artists at all. But there is still something going on, which I think is very important to our culture, whether you name it art or not. I find it fascinating. I myself am not an artist, definitely never was and never will be. I changed from reporting on things to being involved in the organisation and the developing of projects. Thats of course a very very interesting field......