“Men have always learned from animals, and even in this age of electronics and atomic structure we still have much to learn.” Stefano Perna – the young curator and sound-art expert of this show – starts from Donald R. Griffin’s statement above to give shape to his latest product, published by the online Austrian radio Kunstradio, a reference point already from 1995, as far as sound experimentation in the radio field is concerned.
A short guide to becoming-bat (www.kunstradio.at/PROJECTS/CURATED_BY/BAT/index.html) is a radio piece focusing on sounds produced by bats, some kind of FM-creatures, able to modulate a system of echoes and resonances that define a non-visual space, within which they fulfil their bodily functions. Immersed in complete darkness, bats build an undulatory space made of signals, of frequencies and amplitudes, “a pulsating space that constantly changes, evolves, expands and contracts. Bats inhabit a radiophonic-world.”
This programme includes works developed by artists such as Ventriloque Media Collective, Pietro Riparbelli, Davide Tidoni, Anna Raimondo, Younes Baba Ali e Sec_), to demonstrate the charming thesis formulated by Perna (Sound-Design Academic at the Naples Academy of Fine Arts and Sound Art curator at PAN – Palace of Arts in Naples – up to 2010): “Radio is not a privilege of the human species. With radio, humans are caught in a becoming-animal process that brings them closer to other regions of the living kingdom. Ethologists and natural scientists have shown that long time before humans began to exploit the properties of the electromagnetic spectrum to link each other at great distances, animals had already developed a sophisticated system for the manipulation of waves and the transmission of sound signals, for the purpose of communication and orientation. Many species of dolphins, whales, insects and birds are in effect radio-creatures.”
This is a sort of “Praise of Blindness”, by clearly quoting Rudolf Arnheim, it is an invitation to all radio-listeners to become-bats (or at least to “become” aware of this becoming process): “With the radio on, the listener enters the cave, the darkness falls and its space is suddenly changed. This spatiality defined by sounding coordinates conflicts with the tangible places that surround our body. Where are exactly the sounds and the voices I’m hearing? And where am I exactly, when I listen to the radio? Once abandoned the perspectival space of our home, our kitchen, or our car, we enter a waveform space, whose geometry is unknown to us, a kind of non-human spatiality populated by forces and signs, to which our perceptual system is not perfectly tuned. To understand and manage this uncanny space that materializes every time we turn a radio device on, we need – most of the time unconsciously – to quickly reposition ourselves into a new “place” made of a matrix of spatial and temporal relationships, defined only by the propagation of waves, data and sound signals. In other words, to inhabit this place, we are forced to practice a rough form of echolocation.”
The series of works presented by Stefano Perna are focused on the conceptual implications and on the metaphorical exploration of these transversal connections, this strange form of kinship between bats and humans as living forms immersed in a radio space. Artists were invited to create pieces that could work as a sort of instruction booklet to guide the listener along the path of this technologically mediated becoming-animal process.
Let’s ask the young Neapolitan curator some questions, also to get a deeper sense of the manifold facets of his research – always intertwined with digital media. – Pasquale Napolitano: How did you come up with the idea of “A short guide to becoming-bat”? Stefano Perna: The idea informing my work is the result of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. Nearly a year ago, I was reading some old texts with meaningful titles (“Listening in the dark” and “Echoes of Bats and Men”, 1958 and 1959 respectively), written by Donald Griffin, an American scientist. He discovered the so-called “echolocation”, i.e., the ability of some animals (in particular bats, whales, dolphins and some insect species) to “see” with sound, that is, to use a complex system of of production and/or reception of resonances, in order to create a kind of “mental map” of the space they move in, even in the total absence of visual information.
This principle employed by the extraordinary capacity of this animal kingdom , is the same on which the significant technologies of sonar and radar are based, as well as some techniques used by blind people to orient themselves in space. Unlike more contemporary specialist texts, Griffin’s has something vaguely poetic: his great awe for animal kingdom is understood as something not to conquer, to simply explain, or to protect from an eco-friendly point of view; rather, it is understood as a deep, inscrutable and ever-changing universe to learn from and to let oneself lead towards regions of humanly unthinkable experience.
At the same time, I was working on a text (coming out soon in a collective volume) that I was commissioned to write by Kunstradio. Here, I handled the “listening” issue in relation to Radio-Art, by dealing with it as something very different from what is involved during the enjoyment process of music or sound-art. This has just to do with the problem of the creation of a virtual space definable only by means of sound coordinates. So, some possible connections between “radio-listening” and “animal-listening” started to take shape in my mind, and immediately afterwards, ORF – Kunstradio asked me to commission some artists a series of radio pieces around a subject of my choice. Therefore, I had a “ready-to-use” idea: radio as a tool to get out of the strict borders of human “listening”, as tool to “see” in the darkness like electromagnetic creatures do, just the way bats do. The title then is the result of a third theoretical coordinate I was following in that period: a half-serious tribute to the concept of becoming-animal, theorized by Deleuze and Guattari.
Pasquale Napolitano: How did you shortlist the roster of your artists? In which fields did you go look for them?
Stefano Perna: At first, I came to a standstill regarding where to direct my choices, because I had initially decided to call Italian artists (although they didn’t expressly ask me for it). This, despite the fact that in Italy, at the present time, unlike in other countries, an observation and an artistic practice specifically addressing radio aren’t common, especially in terms of conceiving Radio-Art as something more and different from the pure and simple radio-transmission-of-artistic-contents (but I’ll talk about it later). That being stated, I obviously thought to go looking for artists in the field of local experimental music and in the Sound-Art scene, although Radio-Art is – potentially – a field that encompasses a wider spectrum of subjects. I have to say that the artists I finally called are the one I had previously and unconsciously shortlistened for a forthcoming project I hadn’t named yet and which I wasn’t sure I would develop. Each and everyone of them struck me for his/her tendency to work at the limits of the perceptible, on the discovery of sensorial systems beyond the closer thresholds of everyday perception. So, let’s say that the choice wasn’t on a particular “type” or “scene”, but rather on an attitude to consider the artistic practice as a process addressed to, as Paul Klee would say, make forces or processes -usually imperceptible- perceptible. I’m not that interested in a particular reflection or in a kind of art centred on human beings and their events, rather, I am interested in practices that try to take humans away, towards sensorial regions of a mineral, an inorganic, animal, artificial, electromagnetic, etc., kind. The artists who took part in this project had to respond to these relations: radio space/animal space, vision without images, acoustic space/wave space, perceptible/imperceptible.
Pasquale Napolitano: Your collaborative relationship with Kunstradio started thanks to “Radioaktivitat”. I think this is one of the most significant cooperations between radio and art in the last years. Would you like to tell us – also for those people who didn’t live it – your experience?
Stefano Perna: On the one hand “Radioaktivitat” symbolized an attempt to bring the attention to artistic-radiophonic experimentation (which elsewhere flourishes, develops and expands) back to Italy (later I’ll explain the reason why I’ve used “back”); On the other, to the desire to think about the curatorial possibility of an event aimed at the “listening arts” that moved away both from the “festival” pattern (experimental music/digital electronic arts, etc…) and from the “exhibition”/”show” of Sound-Art, etc.. I had the change of doing this thanks to curiosity and to the open-mindedness of then director of PAN Marina Vergiani, with whom we were organising – along with Lucilla Meloni – the third edition of an international Forum on documentation and current languages. “Radioaktivitat” was a day of work addressed to European radio stations (FM and Web) specialized in Radio-Art productions. The idea was to turn PAN’s places into a “radio-active” zone, within which various talks, listening, actions and interferences around what Douglas Kahn – based on one of Marinetti’s writing – defined “wireless imagination”; could take place.
The audience, equipped with small radio receivers with earphones (those usually utilized for simultaneous translations during conventions), was asked to explore the space within which performances, theoretical talks, “live broadcasts”, radiograms and installations were taking place on different frequencies as well as live in the physical place. As you were saying before, it was roughly around that period that my collaborative relationship with Kunstradio started, whose representative on that occasion was its founder Heidi Grundmann, one of the main personalities not only regarding Radio-Art, but also in acoustic arts in general and contemporary data transmission issues. Along with her, there were many other protagonists of the past and present European scene. For those people who are interested, you can go to http://www.mixcloud.com/radioaktivitat/ , where you can find all the documentation on the event.
Pasquale Napolitano: At least as far the Italian scene goes, it’s very difficult to find personalities who deal with “Radio-Art” in an analytical and specialist way, and it’s also very interesting to be able to give such a theoretical substratum to a cultural product. How did you come up with the idea of approaching this subject and undertaking a curatorial project of this type?
Stefano Perna: What a shame… Italy, unlike other fields of media arts, could boast the “primacy” in this sector. The first theoretical manifesto on the artistic use of radio – much mentioned still now – is La Radia by Marinetti and Masnata 1933, a very visionary piece of writing; Prix Italia was able to support and give space to many strongly experimental and international projects (one only needs to think about the fact that “Ceneri”, a radiogram by Samuel Beckett, was awarded in 1959!). And then, last but not least, our country hosted up to 1998 one of the most original, disruptive and innovative radio spaces of all time, Audiobox by Pinotto Fava, which was on the air first on Rai Radio Uno (!) an then on Radio Tre for many years. We mustn’t forget also the interrelated Festival Audiobox, which at the turn of the ‘90s took place first in Cosenza and then in Matera, and which represented an amazing moment not only with respect to performance, experimental music, sound installations, Radio-Art and productions (for example, some great works by Alvin Curran were commissioned for the festival).
Thanks to Audiobox Italian radio was interconnected with the most interesting things occurring in the world of sound research: from Canada to Australia, passing through Austria (Kunstradio and Audiobox were steadily in touch with each other). After that period it was the void. there hasn’t been nearly any kind of experimentation in this direction. It’s also for this reason that in Italy, above all the new generations of young artists aren’t familiar with the term – and its practice – “Radio-Art”. Its maximum expression can be found in a sort of “window” into traditional programming or podcasts, within which some sound contents – less orthodox than usual – can be heard. But Radio-Art isn’t only about this. It deals with thoroughly exploring its potential and specificity, it’s not about transmitting sounds only. “Radio art is not transmitted sound art” Kunstradio’s manifesto states. Radio, be it by air, Web, satellite, or by GPS, is the result of the setting-up of an undulatory and dispersed space, of a dislocation of bodies and sounds at very far distances; it’s localization and dispersion, simultaneity and records, nearness and distance.
The art of radio measures itself against all these elements, and not only against sound features, but against the prospective of an expanded and a dilated listening construction up to cosmos’ borders (radio waves travel thorough universe undisturbed by human beings and Earth itself, as well proved by some works developed by artists such as Radioqualia...). I had a chance to approach this new world a few years ago, when I was working on the making of PAN’s webradio – a project carried out now -. It dealt with creating – in the wake of similar experiences like PS/1 of New York radio, or the Italian RadioPapesse – an acoustic space where contemporary arts could freely circulate, by means of a work of documentation and production, promoted by a museum institution. I think that the most considerable result of that experience was just the organization of Radioaktivitat.
Pasquale Napolitano: Throughout your work one can see a particular focus on the representation of the imperceptible. Even your first book “Form Flows Data”, published by Rubettino a few days ago, compresses your long and careful research on the subject of visualisation of artistic data. Is there any relationship between these two research aspects?
Stefano Perna: Yes, of course there is. Although we’re talking about registers and contexts very different from each other, the guideline is the same. The most interesting thing is what bonds human feeling to forces and processes that outstrip it from any angle: this is either due to their complexity, to their size, or to the inadequacy of our biological systems. Obviously, I’m not talking about anything spiritual, but rather about very material processes, like, for example, animal communication, mineral processes, non-human intelligence, energy and data flows, electromagnetic field, etc. I believe that the work of those artists trying to give a sensory shape to all this, by giving birth to works tuning our perception to unheard channels, is very exciting. On this point I agree with you: it’s possible to find a connection between my book, dealing with the “visual” theme, and my work, which I dedicate to sound. I have to say, however, that the field of data art (or infoviz, dataviz, and all the other names used to define it) isn’t so interesting. In my opinion it deals in great measure with nothing more than a fashion, joined to an ideology of latent technicality, according to which “visualize” – i.e., showing “latent patterns of information” – is in itself something aesthetically right from an aesthetic point of view. Things become interesting when we find an attempt to combine the human with something, though set in motion by the species, which gains features that transcend it, to the extent that it becomes a kind of an unknown otherness. I’m thinking, for example, about Rioji Ikeda’s or Semiconductor’s works.
Pasquale Napolitano: Finally, coming back to the aspects purely linked to sound and radiophony, which developments do you think there will be for such articulated and so contemporary art form?
Stefano Perna: For the time being, web hasn’t shown much, because as often as not, it is limited to the repetition of the “flow” pattern typical of traditional radio. Podcasts’ features haven’t been exploited yet, I’m talking about their characteristic of portability and about what could be done. Locative media have been doing some interesting things through the development of geolocated sound transmissions, but at the same time there’s a new wave (from a technological point of view) of very traditional “neighbourhood” or “community” radios, which transmit by FM in very limited areas and simultaneously by web that are becoming out-and-out breeding grounds of radio experimentation and creativity (Resonance FM, just to mention one). On the whole, I think that a lot of work has to be done in this direction and that anyway – since there’s an increasing interest in the auditory sphere, both within the context of contemporaneous arts, and of media studios – there are all the conditions necessary for a new interest wave in Radio-Art – provided that with the term “radio” we don’t mean only that old device based on air waves, but also a more complex system of (both old and modern) technologies and of languages that revolve round the essential issue of letting sound freely circulate through time and space.