When you will have made him a body without organs, / then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions / and restored him to his true freedom.
~Antonin Artaud, To Have Done with the Judgement of God (1947).
Thinking about radio art in spatial terms, we begin to see it not in terms of a broadcasting technology, but, rather, as a “set of relationships, an intricate triangulation of listener, ‘player’ and system,” as radio artist Gregory Whitehead terms it (quoted in Hall 2015, 114). From that moment onwards, the question of dis/embodiment in radio art practice begins to form a key component in considering radio art as a spatial practice. As Anna Friz argues in her dissertation “The Radio of the Future Redux: Rethinking Transmission Through Experiments in Radio Art” (2011), the conceptualisation of radio by Futurists, an example of which is manifesto La Radia (Marinetti and Masnata 1933), has exerted considerable influence on radio art scholars, such as Douglas Khan, Alan S. Weiss, Whitehead, LaBelle, and others (Friz 2011, 60). According to Friz, this avant-gardist genealogy of radio art is problematic and must be re-visited with a critical eye, not least because of the relationship between Futurist’s “utopian optimism” and “the dystopic realities of fascism, totalitarian socialism” and the destructive drive of their technophilic discourse (2011, 10). Above all, Friz critiques the drive towards the abolishment of physical manifestation of body in space and time and the vision of complete disembodiment, or the fusion of the “man” with the machine, that the Futurist discourse champions: “La Radia shall be: […] A pure organism of radio sensations. […] An art without time or space without yesterday or tomorrow.” (Marinetti and Masnata 1933)
Ever since the Futurist Manifesto, the fascination with the disembodying effects of radio has been present in radio art discourse. Another important figure who influenced radio’s relationship with the body was French dramatist and poet Antonin Artaud, whose work Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (To Have Done with the Judgement of God) (1947) introduces the concept of “body without organs” as a manifestation of a schizophrenic, fragmented body. The disassociation of the voice from the voicing body and its transmission through wireless networks of radio underscores the creation of a schizophrenic subject, whose body “would be transformed into electrical impulses heard simultaneously across time-zones and continents.” (Friz 2011, 9) This condition is employed by later theorists, such as Weiss, who claims that,
“The body without organs is the ultimate deboning of the voice, a recreation or disarticulation of the corporeal structure that takes on cosmic dimensions. It is thus no accident that this corporeal phantasm first arises in conjunction with a radiophonic work, radio being the site par excellence for such anatomical revisions, and ultimately for the loss of the body.” (Quoted in Lander 1994, 21)
The loss of the body allows the subject to traverse the virtual or even extra-terrestrial space of radio broadcast, defined by Whitehead, as “a place of constantly shifting borders and multiple identities, a no place where the living can dance with the dead.” (1996, 97) This desire to leave the material conditions of one’s physical body behind echoes the 1990s’ obsession with virtual reality, demonstrating another point of convergence of radio and cyberdiscourse.
The tendency to champion disembodiment in radio art is contested by various feminist theorists. Elisabeth Grosz argues that “the generic category ‘the body’ is a masculinist illusion. There are only concrete bodies, bodies in the plural.” (Waterman 2007, 124) The singular utopian vision of virtual radiophonic space does not encompass the multiplicity of bodies, voices and experiences. If disembodiment is a decidedly masculinist dream, as Sadie Plant further argues in her lecture “Seduced and Abandoned: the Body in the Virtual World” (1994), the feminist tactic would be precisely to foreground the link between bodies, as physical entities, and their role in production and reception of radio art.
(In the lecture, Plant argues that “the tendency to make cyberspace […] into a matter of metaphor or representation is really a matter of repeating the great idealist project, which has characterised the Western patriarchal culture, which has always been an attempt to somehow climb out of matter, to get into some immaterial zone.”)
The aim of Friz’s practice (further discussed in Cyborgs, Hackers, Pirates) is “to temper avant-garde ideas of radiation, speed, time and space overcome, disembodiment, ghosts, and schizophonia with ideas of resonance, slowness, hearing distance and experiencing time, embodied relationships to technology which describe aggregate circuits of humans and things, transception, and minor media.” (Friz 2011, 7)
Similarly, in “Radio Bodies: Discourse, Performance, Resonance,” Ellen Waterman seeks to contradict the dominant narrative of radio art as a disembodied practice and, instead, she seeks to “explore the performative force of radio bodies: bodies in and out of studio, bodies improvising and collaborating, noisy bodies and authoritative bodies, and especially gendered bodies.” (2007, 119) Waterman thus links radiophonic practice with Judith Butler’s concept of gender performance, or an interplay of voice and the body in the performance of an essentially fluid identity, open to reconfigurations and recontextualisations. (Waterman 2007, 127)
Rather than allowing bodies to dematerialise in the process of sonic transmission, contemporary feminist radio artists constantly emphasise the interplay between bodies, gender identities and their sonic expression. Resisting the fetishisation of “body without organs,” or the disembodied voice, feminist radio art practice seeks out ways in which a new manifestation of the female identity may be expressed through the use of technology. The focus on female embodiment in digital technologies, however, carries with it another set of contradictions. While Friz’s critique springs from a contemporary feminist thought, the ideas populating cyberfeminist discourse in the 1990s were quite different. The fusion of woman and machine, theorised by Donna Haraway in her seminal text “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1908s” (originally published in 1984), presents a fundamental revision of how female bodies are perceived. While this manifesto radically challenged patriarchal assumptions about female bodies and technology, it was a response to a much older vision of women as “desiring machines” (after a term coined by Deleuze and Guattari 1972), deeply embedded in popular cyberdiscourse. While some cyberfeminists adopted Haraway’s focus on material conditions of female bodies, others advocated for the emancipatory effects of virtual reality. The contradictory pull towards disembodiment and embodiment in feminist radio art in the 1990s echoes the larger debate on the possibilities and/or hindrances that the physical body can experience in the realm of digital technology, especially crucial in cyberfeminist theory.
Image credit: Hershman Leeson, Lynn. 1995 – 1998.The Dollie Clone Series. Installation with doll, video camera, web cam, internet connection, custom software. https://anthology.rhizome.org/dollie-clones