Tuning in to Transmission Art

Editor’s Note: The Following article was previously published in Monitoring Times, Brasstown, NC 28902.

Radio hobbyists have always seen the beauty in radio. From QSL cards, to station schedules and letterhead, to vintage advertisements for household receivers, radio hobbyists will be the first to admit that the world of radio is full of art. The art world seems to be catching on as well, with artists beginning to use radio technology, radio’s artifacts, and even the radio spectrum to produce audio and visual experiences that challenge people’s perceptions of what radio means in our world.

Originally founded as a mobile microcasting collective in Brooklyn in 1997, free103point9 is now a nonprofit organization at the forefront of the “Transmission Arts” genre. Galen Joseph-Hunter is free103point9s Executive Director and she says transmission art encompasses a variety of practices, and doesn’t always involve broadcasting.

“Works in this genre are often participatory live-art or time-based art, and manifest as radio art, video art, or light sculpture,” she says. “Performance-based transmission works harness, occupy, or respond to the airwaves that surround us.”

Free103point9 supports transmission art through a variety of programs which include hands-on learning in radio fundamentals and electronics, sponsored events, a regular series of new artistic works released as “Dispatches”, and a retreat space in upstate New York called Wave Farm that hosts an annual gathering of transmission artists and others interested in the genre. Currently, they have three artists whose works may be of particular interest to radio hobbyists.

Todd Merrell’s Music from the Ether

Todd Merrell is a free103point9 transmission artist who is passionate about music and radio. He traces his fascination with both back to his early childhood. At age eleven, he discovered the magic of shortwave radio while playing at a friend’s house. He was so taken by the mysterious, otherworldly sounds coming from the inexpensive tabletop radio, that he and his friend used it to improvise a War of the Worlds radio play which they then recorded on cassette. That experience was the inspiration that would lead him, thirteen years later, to use shortwave radio as a musical instrument.

Merrell is trained as a vocalist and in traditional methods of musical composition but, in 1991, he teamed up with his friend Patrick Jordan and, using a Hammarlund HQ-145A as well as some audio processing equipment, returned to the idea of making music from the radio. They began performing what Merrell calls “short wave playing” (SWP).

“We played slot frequency, slot depth, crystal phasing, crystal selectivity, antenna polarity, band spread, sensitivity, CW pitch, and audio gain,” he says, describing how they used the receiver as a musical instrument for their first recording.

Calling themselves “Single Side Band,” Merrell and Jordan recorded a composition in two movements they named “SWR.”  Merrell says it was an experiment that showed him the potential in his idea.

“This piece was at once an exploration of the sonic possibilities of shortwave radio as a musical instrument, but it also served in many ways as a kind of template for developing an aesthetic and a praxis for the making of shortwave music,” he says.

Since then Merrell has continued to explore the use of short wave radio receivers as musical instruments. Today he uses a Grundig YB400 for its portability and selectivity and has worked solo, and in collaboration with other artists, producing several other CDs of SWP music. All his recordings are from live performances where Merrell eschews any form of written score in favor of a more spontaneous, site-specific sound that harnesses whatever he finds in his favorite part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

“I seem to get the best sounds in long wave and in some AM frequencies, both through single side band (SSB). My old friends are 279 kHz to 283 kHz. Why I get results there is beyond me, but these frequencies have been remarkably reliable. Also 836 kHz and 900 kHz work well for me, but again with SSB,” he says.

Merrell never knows what those frequencies are going to give him but takes the received sounds and reinterprets them, in real-time, through the use of processing equipment, to produce a meditative, ambient music.

At times, while listening to his music, listeners, especially radio hobbyists, may be able to pick out familiar “radio” sounds, but they will also be surprised by the range and depth of audio tones that Merrell extracts from the ether. Rhythms build, sounds morph, chimes, bells, whistles and percussive elements are all developed from the raw material being broadcast at the time, and Merrell artfully guides all these elements to produce haunting, beautiful, and complete musical scores.

His latest recording titled “Nagual” is a collaboration with Patrick Jordan also on shortwave radio and Aidan Baker playing an electric guitar. While maintaining the ambient elements of short wave playing, the addition of the guitar gives the four songs on this recording the feel of more traditional music.

For someone who spends so much time listening to a shortwave radio, Merrell admits that he finds it difficult to pursue as a hobby. “Every time I listen to shortwave radio, I want to turn it into music,” he says, “The process of tuning in and DXing always introduces fascinating sounds, which I find incredibly inspiring.”

Radio Ruido’s Homage to Spy Numbers

Radio Ruido’s founder, Tom Mulligan, can trace his interest in radio to his childhood as well. On road trips, his father kept a Citizen’s Band (CB) radio on, with the volume turned up to high, and Mulligan was fascinated by it. “The CB would be silent for long passes, and then burst out loud,” he recalls. “It’s probably an early electronic noise experience that has worked its way into my psyche.”

Trained as a painter with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Buffalo, Mulligan began experimenting with sound while sharing a studio space with film and video makers. He experimented with feedback from walkie-talkies, and made audio “collages” from oscillator circuits that he processed through a lap-top computer. Mulligan also experimented with microcasting, using a 50 watt FM transmitter, and still hosts a regular streaming on-line program of experimental sound art called “Triangulation.”

Radio Ruido’s latest work was recently released as part of free103point9s dispatch series, and is titled “False Rosetta.” This recording is an audio collage that closely mimics the sounds of “numbers stations” heard on shortwave frequencies. “False Rosetta” is a documentation of the phenomenon of numbers stations, mysterious broadcasts of unknown origin that feature operators reading long lists of numbers. The most prevalent explanation for these broadcasts and one of the most compelling is that these stations are passing coded information to foreign intelligence agents, spies. This may be true, but it could also be false, and Mulligan’s work offers another interpretation, an electromagnetic rosetta, that interprets numbers stations as a benign side effect of our technologically-advanced culture, a culture which spews so much gibberish into the spectrum that we can no longer decipher its original meaning or intent.

“My interest is not so much in ‘spy’ stations and political intrigue, but in the idea of encoded information,” he says describing his work. “And in a set of recordings that, in theory, could be broadcast to simulate numbers recordings that defy translation, or have no translation.”

“False Rosetta” was recorded in various locations, and Mulligan asked the vocal participants to come up with their own code. Many different styles of numbers stations are simulated with both male and female operators, various languages, and even Morse code used. The audio was processed with Mulligan adding sounds of various types of radios to produce the final work.

“False Rosetta” was released on a double set of 7” vinyl records, and Mulligan says the antiquated format complements and completes the entire project. “In a sense, it is a mini DJ tool,” he says. “I liked the idea that it could be slowed down and the voice could be remixed and pulled back to repeat itself, creating yet another code from the voices.  I also liked the ‘artifact’ quality of a record. It goes aptly with the archeological reference within the title.”

The QSL Cards of Max Goldfarb

Maximilian Goldfarb is a licensed radio amateur and a transmission artist. He holds call sign KC2MIN and, though not very active on the amateur bands, he frequently listens to his scanner, a practice he says has become a ritual in his studio. Goldfarb is not a member of free103point9’s core group of artists, but his work “QSL Serial” was recently featured in their “Dispatch” series of releases.

QSL cards, traditionally sent by post, have been used by radio hobbyists since the inception of amateur radio to acknowledge and confirm on-air contacts. They offer a documentary paper trail that remains, once the trail of electromagnetic radiation that carried the original conversation between distant operators has dissipated. Like other post cards, QSLs tell us stories – stories about the operator who sent the card, stories about the conversation that occurred – and Goldfarb says they also tell a deeper, cultural story as well.

“QSL serial” features eight cards that Goldfarb uses to tell the story of the M49 Emergency Response Unit, a semi-fictional network of amateur radio emergency responders.

“The M49 takes its name from its origins as Mobile 49, a radio/equipment truck previously used by a volunteer fire department in my area,” he says. “When I found it, it was being used as a junk shed. It is an old Grumman step van. It has now become a roaming studio.”

The idea of reclamation and reinterpretation run through Goldfarb’s “QSL serial” but the themes he explores are darker and more ominous. Each card contains an image that hints at danger, invasion, or the encroachment of technology into everyday life, which he says reflects the amateur radio community’s preoccupation with crisis and doom.

“The justification of the slice of allotted space in the radio spectrum for amateurs is based on this sense of back-pocket caution,” he says. “That amateur emergency management groups are always considering possibilities of how to manage periods of social unrest, system failure, and natural calamity through dependable back-up communications systems is a subtext to the utopian promise of technological progress.”

Many of the cards in “QSL Serial” feature Goldfarb’s own call sign and, despite being works of art, he says they are viable and could be used for exchange with other amateurs. All the cards contain full or partially detailed reception reports which, through the use of amateur Q codes, hobby vernacular, and abbreviations, lend a sense of authenticity to the cards. The images vary, from a grainy sepia picture featuring four towers and a faint UFO off to one side, to a passenger jet whose engine is on fire and descending rapidly, to operators sitting at their home based stations. Goldfarb says he chose images to reflect different time periods and expand the narrative of the M49 Emergency Response Unit across a century.

“QSL serial” offers the art world a direct glimpse inside the amateur radio hobby. In the past Goldfarb has proposed curating a whole exhibition featuring QSLs, but so far has been unsuccessful in finding a venue for that project. His serial only contains a few cards, but Goldfarb says there is more to come. “The set will be expanded upon, but the initial eight cards work as an armature for the larger story,” he says.

Free103point9 supports and produces many other projects in the transmission art genre but Galen Joseph-Hunter says that since most performances take place in studio spaces, and since any actual broadcasts use low power, there aren’t many monitoring opportunities for the radio hobbyist. There are other ways that radio hobbyists can get involved, by attending an exhibition or performance, or by offering technical advice and experience to the artistic community, something Joseph-Hunter says she would welcome. “We would love to formalize a way to connect radio hobbyists with transmission artists,” she says.

But for that to happen, the two communities will need to figure out some way of communicating with each other.

For more information please visit: http://www.free103point9.org and http://www.toddmerrell.com.

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