From net.art to net.radio and back again - rediscovering and enlarging the entire radio spectrum

published: 
August, 1998

Published in Ars Electronica Catalogue 'Infowar'

infowar ars electronica

Webcasting has been one of those hot words on the internet the last year. Funny thing is however that it never got the attention or discussion that for instance hypertext had. It seems like the term from the beginning was perceived as a balloon, a bubble of hot air, ready to explode and proof obsolete any moment. The reason for this is not its lack of potential. The reason is its lack of potential for the kind of marketdomination and power massmedia conglomerates like to have. Or in short: it is not as profitable as was hoped. The goldmine many look for when it comes to undertaking on the internet is not one that easily shows its treasures. The internet is still about developing new paths, and these paths extend into the offline world most literally with webcasting. This makes webcasting one of the ultimate platforms for experimental artforms now.

 

When the term webcasting is used it usually refers to web-tv. As television is still the most powerful massmedium the idea of a possible crossbreed of television with the internet has triggered many to write quite shallow future scenario's. For the arts it is important to view the entire potential of a medium. With webcasting this means we have the possibility to reinvent all massmedia, like text or print, but mostly radio and television. They can be used in any variety and combination, supported and de/reconstructed by the internet. Webcasting is sound and vision, it is static and moving at the same time. It offers past (archives) and present (livestreams) in one take. When connected to the offline world, be it through radio or television or through performances and presentations in 'real space', the depth of a work created there can be unfathomable and dazzling. We have text, sound, moving or still images, real space with many electronic and connectable devices and the human body at our disposal. The audience does not necesarely have to grasp the whole of the work to appreciate it, it can take the work in in chunks, during the actual proceedings of the work or afterwards. This means an artwork in this way does not have one possible interpretation and it also means that a part of the work is as valuable (to the audience mostly) as is the entire thing. It is object as well as performance.

 

Radio is the most flexible and practical in a tactical sense of the mass media. Taking it literally it can be even more effective then print: when working with it illegally, discarding broadcasting laws, it is the cheapest medium with the largest reach (*). One should not let jurisdiction narrow ones understanding of the medium. It is highly mobile, the equipment for broadcasting is cheap and small. Television is in this respect closing in on radio maybe, but it is not quite there yet. On top of this, in a space sound reaches an audience anywhere, eventhough its 'colour' changes with the movement of the audience/receiver through the space. One important reason for sound art now becoming more important is what Helen Thorington of New American Radio says: "it brings the body back". Sound does not just reach the body from any angle, it enters it, it touches it, inside and out, literally. This is an important feature in the bodiless society that shapes net.culture. Net.art makes art intangible and elusive, but net.radio makes radio visible and takes it back to its basic varieties, thus making it accessable again while also expanding it.

 

Important is not to confuse net.radio completely with net.art, as happens occasionally when my pleas for a more varied usage of this medium are misunderstood. Net.radio is a medium and therefore its features can be discussed like any other tool. Art is another story. It is the combination of the two that is explored at Ars Electronica this year. Webcasters in general can learn a lot from art and net.radio, but that is not the point now. What I maybe should add to make you understand my -personal- vision better, is that I use the term net.radio often for webcasting in general, trying to subvert the dominant visual aspect of it, in an attempt to make space for a more creative and innovative usage of both radio and television through and on the net. Confusion intended.

 

A comment from Adam Hyde of Radio Qualia:" Net.radio is a PRACTICAL science, art can be for arts sake but net.radio has a more vital context - net.radio MUST respond to its environment and justify why it is prefered above other media if it really wants to be something other than merely an 'art project'...otherwise net.radio = net.art"

 

What is radio then? Everybody knows its mass media presentation. A broadcast bound to legislation which shape its content and form sent out from a central point reaches receivers anywhere in the world. This form of radio is often misunderstood as being the only form of it. Radio however, like the internet, started as a military communication tool. It can be used for one to one communication, or it can be used in a closed circuit. It can be used to steer and control objects at a distance. It can even be used to send data from one computer to the next. Different wavebands and frequency ranges are used for all sorts of practices. Not only this literal variation of radioforms is possible. Within mass media broadcasting there are the choking and expensive authorship rights, the costs of hiring a frequency and the dedication of airspace to rarely surprising content due to laws of commerce and national security which determine our perception of the medium heavily. Radio pirates or illegal stations have been able to develop more playful and interesting programming ignoring legislation completely or partly. In Amsterdam, where one of the reasons some of the existing illegal stations have lasted up to fifteen years is their careful use of radiofrequencies and good equipment, a long, practically uninterrupted ability to play with radio content has enabled highly experimental programs to emerge there, programs which sometimes told the listener to "throw their radiosets out of the window", to turn off the radio, or listeners would witness the actual hijacking of his or her favorit radioshow by strangers entering the studio to take over the show.

 

I use these examples to show that radio and thus also net.radio do not need to be perceived or approached as public or 'audience friendly' media. It should be clear when we talk about an international net.radio network like Xchange, one of the invited groups for the OpenX part of Ars Electronica this year, that the term net.radio has little to do with the 'traditional' narrow definition of radio. Radio, being more then this narrow definition, is now used in the setting of the internet, plus it is used in the context of net.art.

 

Experiments with artworks for the internet or collaborative pieces that involved telephoneline based networks of computers started in the late seventies, early eighties. These works hardly ever were designed to be entirely net.based, as it is called. They involved live performance or mass media like radio. They were public events in the sense of a set up in front of an audience, inside a radioshow or a combination of the two. The network however was an essential part of the projects. Computernetworks have moved the approach and direction of art away from the influential centralised and hierarchical character of mass media. One could say mass media are the crude and undeveloped baby fase of electronic media, that have created a simplistic perception and approach of art we are now moving away from. ORF Kunstradio was one of the first, if not the first, to support these works and partake in them. Later VanGoghTV included television in similar set ups, making use of the increasing accessability of television equipment and satelites. Both these names covered a varying group of people and artists at different occasions. The same can be applied to Xchange, which is in this sense an even more loose group. Xchange is a relatively young group, in the way that it has been existing for about a year now.

 

When looking at ORFKunstradio, VanGoghTV and Xchange one can see an interesting development, which is no quality judgement whatsoever, but which shows nicely a development of media art towards a more free, individual and varied fase, as a result of the development of cheaper and simpler technology. ORFKunstradio, the oldest one, is a relatively small radioshow on an etherstation (ORF), which has expanded itself outside of its ordinary public broadcasting territory by partaking in performances, organising festivals and large events and by creating artworks themselves. Its 'net.presence' has been clear and effectively innovative ever since this radioshow entered the net. The high involvement of ORFKunstradio at the basis of net.art and net.radio would almost make one forget its basis however is public broadcasting, radio in its common use.

 

VanGoghTV did not have this kind of clear connection to any broadcaster. They were an independent group of artists, that managed to use the existing networks of television, radio, telephone, computers and satelites to produce a series of networked artpieces and broadcasts that were supported by existing mass media networks in many countries. Cheaper technology and early network individualism created a daring project, that managed to inspire and reach many 'media virgins' because of their radical 'programs' and television presence.

 

Xchange, as in contradiction to the two previous groups, started as a mailinglistnetwork of artists and radiomakers, some of which knew each other from conferences and net.art events. The physical basis of this group is the most dispersed and so is their approach of their work. There is no or hardly any connection to mass media (considering the internet not a mass medium here), and the individual (outer public or maybe anti-public) aspect of the works produced collaboratively (mostly RealAudio loops between a variety of the mailinglist members at the moment (July 98)) is high. It comes closest to radio as pure communication, yet it is a communication extacy. Xchange is 'a method for communicating ideas', more even then it is a group.

 

Xchange consists of many groups and individuals, even more so then did ORFKunstradio or VanGoghTV. These different groups have their own networks and approaches of 'net.radio', their own territory almost, both in the literal sense of the area they cover or work in, and in the sense of their approach of both art and the medium of net.radio. This means the perception and representation of net.radio depends on the specific 'dominant' approach at each venue. When Convex TV (one of the sub-groups, if one can use that term at all) from Berlin organises an event, it will seem different then when for instance Ozone (Riga, Latvia) or Radio Qualia (Australia) organises it.

 

Of course net.radio in the sense we are discussing it here (audio art in its entire variety in connection to the internet) has not been limited to the mentioned groups. Individual artists worked and work on it, like Jerome Joy from France, Tetsuo Kogawa from Japan, Joyce Hinterding and Zina Kaye from Australia... to just name a few more or less recent ones. Not every one of them would consider themselves as making 'net.radio'. The context of the work and idea behind the work is very different each time, as the medium, or maybe we should say media, net.radio invites to use a variety of artistic styles that is even bigger then in, for instance, dance productions or painting. It is in fact layer upon layer upon layer of different media and discourses which provide an rich dish of possibilities for artists to indulge in.

 

These indulgements often include the traditional, common use of the centralised pre-fab or live broadcastshow as well. The three groups I mentioned as examples would produce them and still do (except for VanGoghTV), but there are many more of these 'stations'. These audiospaces on the net act as curator, producer and 'workspace' at once, each having their own specialities. Usually the word 'radio' or the format is chosen with a big wink. One such station is Radio Lada, which has started in 1995 with the help of and inspired by ORFKunstradio. Like ORFKunstradio Radio Lada is involved in projects itself and it organises a festival each year. On the net, besides the projects, it acts mostly as a curator, of audio or performance works on the net as well as of texts. According to Roberto Paci Dalo of Radio Lada the aim is to keep the selection of works limited and the set up of the site simple, to give the works maximum 'space' and avoid overkill. It is very much like a gallery, yet does use the net well. It presents works of established artists mostly. Radio Ozone (which was also the initiator of the Xchange mailinglist) started as a kind of curator as well, or as an open exhibition space for audioworks. All submitted work was accepted. With a quarterly presentation of the next 'issue' it was very much like a magazine. When the possibility arrived to have livestreams from their basis in Riga, Radio Ozone became a weekly radioshow that presents a determined program plus it started to engage in the previously mentioned RealAudio looping. Pararadio from Budapest is like the previous an internet only enterprise. It too has a weekly show, which is in Hungarian, and involves chat 'on the side'. There is an archive of previous shows now, and lots of texts. It is very youthculture driven, is loosely based in a hackerscene and has no desire for public broadcasting whatsoever. There are many examples of very different and yet similar approaches of this traditional webcasting, from Convex TV, which approaches both radio and the internet in a conceptually radical art-way, to Backspace (from London) that plays with the medium in a very loose way in the setting of a rather 'open access' workspace, to Radio Qualia which next to its announced radioshows does experiments with a selfdesigned data base-loop that anyone can connect to their own website amongst other things.

 

Databases will be more important in the near future. Several net.radio workers are building one. The first of these databases exists since the beginning of 1997: Radio Internationale Stadt (RIS) from Berlin. The concept of net.radio as a sample machine has been uttered many times, but little experiments have happened so far. Thomas Kaulmann, initiator of RIS, is now building a searchengine on his site which will be able to search audio databases on other sites too, if they have the same basic set up. As a treasure of databases will grow, and it looks like software is growing with it in both variety and capability, the desire to involve them in net.radio set ups of any kind will grow.

 

Experiments with audio, performance and net.radio in the context of art or otherwise are no easy accomplishment though. As Marko Kosnik, from the Ministry of Experiment in Ljubljana and involved in Extended Live Radio (XLR) which is the most physically seperated group amongst the physically seperated groups that inhabit the Xchange mailinglist, says, it cannot be emphasized enough how hard work it is to organise decentralised work, to get the people together at the right time, to have the hardware in place and working, and then to deal with the different layers of the work, both for the artists and the audiences.

 

Hopefully the complexity and depth of net.radio will be able to show itself at Ars Electronica this year. It is interesting enough to last longer then this years hype, and solid enough to resist it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(*) A radio transmitter, even for shortwave, is about as expensive as a pc which can stream audio. The costs lie mainly in electricity to support the hundreds of watts necesary to reach far. The costs that are connected to the data traffic a big net.radio station generates are similarly high however. The question is how this might change in the future. The question then would be if pc's will become as portable and easy to use as radioequipment or receivers, how fast the costs of such pc's will drop, and what will happen with legislation for webcasting.