Radio as a broadcast technology was designed with the intent to conquer distance wirelessly, but is perhaps best suited to transmitting both distance and intimacy. The socio-technical relations that characterize radio broadcast allow unknown spaces to meet, such that radio listening enables the spaces of daily physical life to entangle with invisible spaces via transmissions from elsewhere. In the early days of radio broadcasting of programmes in the 1920s, advances in microphone design and studio technique allowed singers and announcers to communicate with a new eroticism of the electrified voice, crooning or whispering into the ear of the listener at home 1. Radio amateurs, using two-way radio rigs on shortwave bands, experimented with radio technology to discover skywave propagation: the practice of reflecting AM (middle wave) signals off of the ionosphere in order to transmit over much greater distances. Soon ‘clear channel’ radio stations were able to broadcast across North America from coast to coast after dark using skywave propagation, such that the sounds of a concert in Toronto might be heard three time zones away in the west. With the radio dial filled with a mix of radio stations, radio broadcasting might also address distances between political opinions, aesthetics, musical styles, or audience address 2. Radio art, as in the engagement of the airwaves by artists, would not find its way onto the radio dial in Canada until much later in the twentieth century. However, these early circumstances of an intimate if promiscuous voice whispering into countless unknown ears, or of a listener tuning in to signals across the dial which might have far-flung or very local origins, or of amateurs tinkering with equipment to send and receive, would be part of the inspiration for artistic experiments decades later. Radio programming typically cultivates familiarity, while radio art proposes an experimental space, and often brings an ephemeral unknown or a twist on the familiar into the spaces of listening in order to reveal or deepen these relationships of public and private.
Canada, much like the United States, has never had a state radio monopoly nor any official state radio; national public radio in Canada did not enter the largely commercial market until 1936 with the establishment of the English language Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and French language Société Radio-Canada, operated at arm’s length as a non-partisan corporation. Like commercial radio, early public radio in Canada did include on-air advertising (though this was dropped in 1974). However, Canadian radio also developed a third broadcast sector which distinguished itself from commercial or public radio—the non-profit non-commercial local stations licensed in the community radio sector (often referred to as campus/community radio or c/c radio), which had its roots in university radio clubs and northern indigenous trapline radio. The oldest campus-based station was CFRC established in 1923 in Kingston Ontario, while the first community stations were licensed in 1974. The conditions of licence for c/c stations stipulate that the stations must function as non-profit entities and serve communities and groups who are not usually well-represented by either mainstream commercial or public radio; which is to say, campus and community stations are explicitly mandated to provide access to and to respond to local and minority interests, to eschew pop music “hits,” to broadcast in multiple languages where possible, and to support emerging forms of music. C/c stations are volunteer driven, where programmers operate all studio technology themselves, and where anyone from the community might potentially come to the station, receive training, and eventually secure themselves a programme slot.
Though individual programmes and producers on the CBC and Radio-Canada have supported radio art on programmes otherwise devoted to experimental music such as Brave New Waves with host Patti Schmidt, or Hélène Prévost’s Le Navire Night, there has never been a culture of dedicated radio art programming such as those that have existed in European public radio contexts 3. Some producers fluidly move between these spaces of c/c radio and public radio, such as Montréal-based artist André Éric Létourneau, who made radio art on pirate radio, on the c/c station CKUT FM as well as Radio-Canada in Montréal, or Broadcasting for Reels, a project out of Halifax which curated new works to be aired on both c/c radio and on CBC. But the bulk of radio art practice in Canada has evolved in the c/c radio sector, created by unpaid volunteers. Thus experimentation with programming, and with an art form such as radio art, may actually be part of a station’s purview if the volunteer will exists to create the programmes.
Additionally, radio art events and programmes often have strong connections to independent non-profit art institutions such as artist-run centres and collectives, or what one might broadly term artist-run culture. The means of making media or electronic art was made accessible to artists through such centres which provided studio access, equipment access, and peer-to-peer learning of techniques and technology; c/c radio is likewise a training ground for anyone interested in working with sound. C/c radio programmers do not report to a senior producer when creating their programmes; once the show concept is approved, the programmer goes on air and manages their own content, subject to basic policies such as Canadian content requirements and occasional review by a station programming committee. As a result of this very open environment of full artist autonomy, Canadian radio art evolved with a less formal, academic or canonical approach. Programmers who began to create radio art were often drawn to using the studio itself as an instrument, and drew influence and inspiration from punk rock and sonic bricolage as much as from visual art or electro-acoustic music traditions. Aesthetically, a variety of scenes evolved, with distinct aesthetics or styles on the west coast in Vancouver versus eastern cities like Montréal or Toronto.
I began making radio as a volunteer programmer at CiTR FM (one of two c/c radio stations in Vancouver) in 1993, with no training from art school or music conservatory. As I became better at pre-producing interviews and show content through editing on reel-to-reel tape machines, I also started to become interested in the potential for sampling and remixing live in the radio studio, and eventually undertook my own field recording, mixing and sound making, using the full potential of the production and live radio studios to make original live shows and produced radio art pieces. Many sound artists whom I would later meet and collaborate with also had a similar experience, where the c/c radio station was a means of discovery or of amplification of their nascent sound art practice, and radio art became an important part of their eventual professional practice.
In writing this article, I interviewed several Canadian artists and curators to discuss their experiences with making and programming radio art, all of whom have a connection to c/c radio though they have also produced radio art works for a wide variety of international contexts over the course of their careers.
Peter Courtemanche, aka Absolute Value of Noise, is a sound and installation artist who began experimenting with sound on Vancouver’s CiTR FM in the 1980s. Courtemanche had been inspired by another experimental sound and noise show on CFRO called New Sounds Gallery, hosted by G.X. Jupitter-Larsen, blackhumour and others. Together with Brian Charles, Courtemanche started their own noise show on CITR:
Brian and I came up with the idea of doing a noise show on CITR and the “absolute value of noise” stemmed from there. Brian wasn’t so interested in doing weekly radio shows, but he did field recordings and dragged some people into the studio to make noise—including GX [Jupitter-Larsen] and some of the other folks from New Sounds Gallery. We would mix field recordings, tape loops, and live sound into a mostly intolerable sound collage.
GX would bring cassette tapes that people had sent him from around the world. He gave me a list of about 40 addresses of radio shows, cassette+vinyl labels, and noise artists who liked to trade tapes. That was my first introduction to the idea of noise-art as a network or mail-art collaboration.
Shortly after I started “absolute value of noise” radio show, several CITR radio show hosts approached me to express interest in doing similar things. There were some DJs doing creative mixing late at night, but suddenly it was okay to do creative radio in the daytime. The result was the creation of a local network of radio show hosts on CITR and Co-Op and a connection with the Western Front.
Courtemanche notes that he was first introduced to the term “radio art” by Hank Bull, one of the early members of the Vancouver artist-run centre Western Front Society with strong ties to the international Fluxus scene and who had been doing a radio art programme called The HP Radio Show with Patrick Ready on the community station CFRO FM in Vancouver since 1976. Bull was also a significant figure in correspondence art and international telematic art projects such as The World In 24 Hours 4.
I didn’t come across the term “radio art” until I meet Hank Bull in the fall of 1988. Hank was interested in doing a simulcast with a number of community radio stations. This was to happen on [the Fluxus ‘holiday’] Art’s Birthday, and was the first time Art’s Birthday was celebrated in an electronic-network fashion. It was also 1 year and a month since [Fluxus artist Robert] Filliou had passed away. Hank introduced me to the term “radio art” and we put together this odd piece “hyperspace radio” with CITR, Radio Radia in Banff [Alberta], Co-op Radio in Calgary, and the Western Front (acting as the hub of communications). Norm Van Rassel was the hyperspace voice of Vancouver for the event and Anthony Roberts made effects-pedal noise in the background.
In the 1980s and into the early 1990s, there was a very non-academic community of people who were making radio and sound art. A lot of the work was very experimental and visceral. Many artists didn’t explain their work in words or text. It was a very raw form of art at that time.
Steve Bates is an artist and musician now based in Montréal and originally hailing from the province of Manitoba. When we met in 1999, we were both programme directors at c/c radio stations in our respective cities of Vancouver and Winnipeg, and both of us were curating and making radio art. Bates remarks that his early volunteer work abroad inspired his understanding of listening, sound, and community media:
My interest in radio art came about after working from Canada with community media outlets in El Salvador during the civil war. As my understanding of the situation increased and my involvement grew, I eventually started doing support work for one of the guerrilla radio stations, Radio Farabundo Marti, who were operating in Chalatenango province. That period of my life, and the Salvadoran people involved in that struggle, changed the way I listened to the radio and other people. It actually changed the way I listened to everything. Around that time there was a group of people in Winnipeg trying to start a community radio station and I started making pre-recorded radio programs on 1/4” tape. So access to an open format station and reel-to-reel recording technology opened up a lot of things for me. Having a background in punk rock also gave me some courage to start making noise.
The most basic thing radio art revealed to me was that anything was possible and the means to make really interesting, inspiring work can be very basic. Access and basic, simple tools to make noise made me realize that nothing just ‘is’. […] So when there is an open structure like community radio, there will always be something interesting happening.
Bates’ media art, music and installations may still incorporate radio and transmission in an expanded sense of working with radio for installations and performances, including the 2011 installation work inspired by Salvadoran guerilla radio entitled Concertina 5.
If Courtemanche and Bates found their way to radio art via punk and noise, Darren Copeland (Ontario) and Chantal Dumas (Montréal) both came from electro-acoustic music backgrounds. Both have significant connections to c/c radio, artist-run culture and are active in Canadian and international radio art and sound art contexts. Chantal Dumas is a sound artist well known in Europe for her commissioned and award-winning radio art works created for national public radio in Austria, France, Germany, Sweden and UK, but she notes the importance of c/c radio to the development of her listening and compositional sensibility:
As a audio artist, I wanted to express myself through sound and do it differently than music. I wanted to develop narrative forms, where realism and fiction would coexist and which would be fed into the sound world of my environment. It was also important that these “fictions” be anchored in the present time. The materials I would work with would be the voice, the music and the ambient sound. The radio medium allowed that. On the one hand by the sound texture of the content that is broadcast and secondly by the type of listening that the radio causes.
I must also say that these ideas came to me when I was working on a community radio. All day long, I was listening to the programming that was being broadcast. […] We have great creative freedom in Canada, in part because these productions are not subject to any formatting, are not subsidized or broadcast on public radios since the 2000s. The production and distribution contexts are flexible, free and imaginative. We know how to do it with little budget.
For Dumas, radio art is fundamentally an exploration of human communication across distance :
What unites the creators and even the curators is the communication aspect. For some, the research will be around technical issues, the broadcasting device and reception, others will develop live performance, some like me will be on the side of the composition. For everyone the question is: what do I communicate and how do I do it? We question the medium from different angles. We focus on different characteristics, the flow of the signal, its immaterial matter, its immediacy, its particular context of physical listening as well as the mental position of the listener; from where he listens, with which sensitivity, or simply physical activity.
Similarly to Dumas, Darren Copeland was also interested to bring text and narrative into musical composition, and radio art allowed this expansive approach:
For me it started when I started using words and texts in my electroacoustic soundscape works as well as when I started creating pieces that were longer durations. So in a sense it was an evolution of my personal artistic growth. A personal inspiration for me came from the radiophonic works of Francis Dhomont which were important for their dramaturgy as much as their musical conception. Francis is not often thought of in the radio art context, which is unfortunate.
Also like Dumas, Copeland affirms the positive aspect of an autonomous radio sector which allows for true experimentation, and unusual uses of the airwaves. However, he cautions that for all its autonomy, the c/c radio context is also limited for these lack of resources, such that artists may develop projects but have difficulty sustaining a radio practice professionally in Canada.
The arts council funding system in Canada along with the presentation and studio resources of campus/community radio have provided artists here lots of autonomy and free time to experiment and explore. Dan Lander’s Problem with Language program on CKLN [Toronto] in the 80s is one such example. Similarly the 24 Hours of Radio Art at CITR [Vancouver]. […] I think the scene here is dynamic but also volatile. The autonomy afforded by the funding systems also affords artists the flexibility to leave radio art behind and move onto other, possibly related, fields of interest.
Chantal Dumas notes that like the connections between the Western Front and ORF Kunstradio, Austria, artist-run centres in Québec also became part of international radio and telecommunications exchanges in the 1990s, with Avatar in Québec City becoming one of the nodes in the sprawling Horizontal Radio project, and Oboro in Montréal regularly taking part in Art’s Birthday events on January 17 and celebrated each year in Vancouver through the Western Front and CITR radio. In other Canadian cities, numerous temporary art events and festivals have brought c/c radio stations and artist-run centres together, such as This City is a Radio in 2006, a collaboration between the community station CFCR and paved Art + New Media in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, curated by Janna Graham 6. Darren Copeland founded the annual radio and transmission art festival Deep Wireless in Toronto in response to the dearth of venues in which to listen to longer form radio art works. The festival commissioned artists to collaborate on live performances or multi-channel presentations that were also meant for broadcast, partnering with several Toronto-area c/c stations over the years such as CKLN and CIUT.
Deep Wireless became a remarkable platform for an expanded definition of radio art, embracing the term “transmission arts” as proposed by the artist-run centre Wave Farm 7. This understanding of radio art includes wirelessness and art practices that focus on electro-magnetic waves from across the spectrum, and ranges from radio art as programming made for a broadcast context as well as installation, live performance, and fixed media works. Galen Joseph-Hunter of Wave Farm describes transmission art as “more loosely defined as a multiplicity of practices that engage aural and visual broadcast media, where in some instances works for broadcast are created, and at other times artists harness pre-existing signals as source material.” This definition unites production of artistic content for broadcast, sampling existing content for artistic expression, and artistic use of the electro-magnetic spectrum generally (in the sense of playing with waves) under a common umbrella, enabling critical consideration of what these approaches share (i.e. an engagement with wirelessness) as well as how they diverge (i.e. broad- versus narrow-casting, and sound as indexical rather than representative). Copeland states that such instances of live and broadcast radio art engages the paradoxical sense of distance and intimacy that characterize radio:
I think what is interesting with bringing broadcast into the performance context is the creative challenges of playing to two audiences at once. Doing this forced artists who were visually- minded to consider sound and for those more audio-focused to think of the visual presentation. Bringing those artists together in a collaborative situation produced work that would not have happened any other way.
In 1994, the anthology Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Transmission was published by the Walter Philips Gallery at the Banff Centre for the Arts as a final element in the Radio Rethink project. which commissioned new works by Canadian artists like Hank Bull, Christof Migone, Colette Urban and Hildegard Westerkamp, as well as hosting an international symposium to provide background and critical assessment of radio art practices of the time 8. Canadian artists were introduced to Japanese media theorist Tetsuo Kogawa’s ideas about mini-FM and his transmitter design was adapted by Bobbi Kozinuk and circulated. The anthology served to bring a more formal knowledge of radio art to the Canadian context that had been highly improvisatory but not well theorized up to that point. In the intervening decades, there has been little writing or documentation of Canadian radio art though similarities to the mid-90s remain. Public radio in Canada has no support at all for radio art, but c/c radio remains the vital hub for emerging and senior artists alike. Regular programmes such as Martine H. Crispo’s live radio art show on CKUT Chaud Pour Le Mont-Stone have been on-air since 1994, while special projects continue to collaborate with stations for airtime such as Emmanuel Madan’s overnight durational radio art series SIMULCAST 1.0b 9. CFCR Kingston and CKUT Montréal have joined the international Radia network, which exchanges radio art across 20 stations in 13 countries. What is notable is the continued expansion of radio art beyond the radio studio as more artists work directly with the means and forms of transmission, using self-built transmitters, sculptural antennae, and incorporating embodied performative and ambulatory explorations of the city 10. Artists who engage with radio and transmission art today may not have had any experience of making programmes for broadcast, but their interest in the circumstances of wireless communications and sending across distances continues, supported by independent artist-run culture and autonomous community radio.
A selection of Canadian radio art and transmission art works:
Hank Bull i Patrick Ready
The HP Show / The HP Dinner Show (1976–1984)
New Sounds Gallery (1983–1987)
Türen der Wahrnehmung / Doors of Perception (1989)
Talking to a Loudspeaker (1988–1990)
Radio Naked (1992/2012)
Chantal Dumas i Christian Calon
Le Petit homme dans l’oreille (1997)
About Time (2006)
SIMULCAST 1.0b (2008)
z udziałem: Magali Babin, Martine H. Crispo, GX Jupittera-Larsena i Harolda Schellinxa
Liminal Transmissions (2012)
Amber Dawn Christie
Requiem for Radio: Full Quiet Flutter (2017)
Absolute Value of Noise
Tapelooping: 30th Anniversary Stream (2018)
See Taylor, Timothy D. “Radio”, Music, Sound, and Technology in America: A Documentary History of Early Phonograph, Cinema, and Radio, eds. Timothy D. Taylor, Mark Katz, and Tony Grajeda. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012). pp. 239-254. ↩
See Douglas, Susan. Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922. Baltimore, M.D.: Johns Hopkins University, 1987.; Helms, Harry. All About Ham Radio. San Diego, CA: High Text Publications, 1992.; Vipond, Mary. Listening In: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting 1922-1932. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992. ↩
Examples of dedicated radio art programs on national public radio include Kunstradio on Ö1, the long-running radio art program and platform on cultural channel of Austria’s national public radio ORF, Klangkunst heard weekly on DeutschlandFunk Kultur in Germany, or the now-defunct Listening Room on Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Lydmuren on Danmarks Radio. ↩
See Bull, Hank and Ready, Patrick. “The Story of the HP Radio Show”, in Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Transmission. Daina Augaitis and Dan Lander, eds. Banff Alberta: Walter Philips Gallery, 1994. pp. 47-60. For more on telecommunications project from the 1970s and 80s in which Hank Bull and the Western Front were important nodes, see Grundmann, Heidi, ed. Art + Telecommunication. Vancouver Canada: The Western Front, 1984. Canadian artist Robert Adrian X, who had relocated to Vienna Austria, was a key figure in these exchanges, and one of the founders of Kunstradio, the radio art program on the cultural channel of the Austrian national public radio. Artists’ collaborations between Vancouver and Vienna would continue through this link between the Western Front, CiTR and COOP radio, and Kunstradio for decades under the rubric of “Wiencouver”. ↩
Concertina includes a micro transmitter and two lengths of concertina wire or razor wire which serve as the antenna. Radios placed on the floor of the installation receive the transmit composition. Bates was inspired by the practice of using fencing wire as antennae for guerilla radio stations in El Salvador. https://stevebates.info/project/concertina/ ↩
Full programme for This City Is A Radio: http://www.pavedarts.ca/galleries/this_city_is_a_radio/this_city_is_a_radio_program.pdf ↩
Wave Farm is a transmission arts centre located in Acra, New York, and was formerly known as free103point9. For more discussion on Wave Farm’s notion of transmission art, see Joseph-Hunter, Galen. “Air Design, Air Rights, and Air Support: Foundations of Transmission Art.” In Transmission Arts: Artists and Airwaves. Galen Joseph-Hunter with Penny Duff and Maria Papadomanolaki, eds. New York: PAJ Publications in association with free103point9, 2011. xi-xxi. ↩
Augaitis, Daina and Lander, Dan, eds. Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Transmission. Banff Alberta: Walter Philips Gallery, 1994. ↩
Chaud Pour Le Mont-Stone is heard biweekly on CKUT FM: http://www.macaronimusic.com/chaud-pour-lemont-stone/; SIMULCAST 1.0b 2008: http://www.undefine.ca/en/projects/simulcast/simulcast-1-0b-saskatoon/; SIMULCAST 2.0 2009: http://www.undefine.ca/en/projects/simulcast/simulcast-2-0-sackville/. ↩
Canadian artists whose work falls into the category of transmission art for installation and performance include Absolute Value of Noise, Steve Bates, Amber Dawn Christie, Andrea-Jane Cornell, Anna Friz, Gambletron, Kathy Kennedy, Emmanuel Madan, Émilie Mouchous aka gmackrr, Andrew O’Connor, Kristen Roos, Erin Sexton, and many others. See for instance PirateBlocRadio: In Situ produced in 2017 by Eastern Bloc Montréal: https://easternbloc.ca/en/exhibits-events/events/pirate-bloc-radio-in-situ%20. See also Langlois, Andrea, Sakolsky, Ron and van der Zon, Marion, eds. Islands of Resistance: Pirate Radio in Canada. New Star Books, 2010, which includes chapters on radio art made with unlicensed transmitters by Anna Friz, Kathy Kennedy, Bobbi Kozinuk, André Éric Létourneau, Christof Migone, and Kristen Roos. ↩