Radio becoming Space

“Radio is that extension of the central nervous system that is matched
only by human speech itself. It is not worthy of our meditation that radio should be specially attuned to that primitive extension of our central nervous system, the vernacular tongue?”

~Marshall McLuhan, Radio: The Tribal Drum, 1964.


The history of radio broadcast has always been permeated by tensions between ideas of national versus international space. As the broadcast spectrum became monopolised by governmental institutions, radio network has been mapped alongside national borders. Nevertheless, as Brandon LaBelle has argued, ever since the medium’s popularisation, there has been attempts at re-mapping and extending the borders of radio broadcast; this has been achieved primarily by pirate radio (2008, 83). The first pirate radio, Radio Mercur, was set up on a ship stationed off the shores of Denmark in 1958. Pirate radio extended the understanding of the relationship between broadcasting technologies and space:

“Offshore transmitter is a radio on the waves, spread out over this nebulous and vague territory of the water, to interrupt the signal space of national broadcasting with, what Matthew Fuller terms, the ‘medial organ’ which inaugurates new forms of connection and thus knowledge by always already promising another consciousness.” (LaBelle 2008, 83)

Broadcasting spectrum in pirate radio has been extended to encompass a vast, unexplored space, unmarked by any national borders and tightly controlled network of radio towers, studios and stations. The placement of early pirate radio in “the nebulous and vague territory of the water,” as a new metaphorical understanding of the radiophonic space, has influenced the role that piracy has played in the new media discourse. From its inception, pirate broadcast has been perceived in spatial terms, as creating an alternative reality to the one demarcated by national borders, shifting the boundaries of the traditional media landscape. That is why the persona of the pirate and the idea of piracy were easily transplanted into the early Internet discourse, specifically in relation to the new modes of accessing and disseminating music online (see Denegri-Knott 2004). The operational modes of pirate radios and “music pirates” on the Internet were similar: both “aiming directly for the public listeners set within their own place inside the medial environment.” (LaBelle 2008, 83)

The advent of the Internet has caused a significant cultural shift in the way we perceive space. While partially indebted to the idea of the radiophonic space as an immaterial data space, occupied by electromagnetic waves, the concept of cyberspace imbued the immaterial data space with a new quality of interactivity, previously largely missing from radio artworks. Lev Manovich describes this shift in the 1990s media theory in an essay called “The Poetics of Augmented Space”: “The images of an escape into a virtual space that leaves the physical space useless and of cyberspace—a virtual world that exists parallel to our world—dominated the decade.” (2003, 75) Computers were seen as gateways into this parallel world, where one might “surf the Web,” “go to a website,” or “navigate a page.” This terminology emphasises the paradoxical shift in the understanding of space: the mind leaves the physical body behind and is free to wander the cyberspace.

At the same time as an understanding of virtual reality developed, theorists began to define the characteristics of this new spatial mode. In an essay called “New Space in the Electronic Age” (1992), Peter Weibel argues that: “Signs travelling at electronic speed create new spatio-temporal arrangements. Here, time dislocates space and produces a placeless space.” The idea of “placelessness” has entered the new media discourse of the time and influenced how we perceive transmission technologies, including radio. As I would like to argue further in the next chapter, there has been a cross-fertilisation between cyberdiscourse and radiophonic discourse in terms of the visualisation of virtual space and the radical strategies of navigating its particularities.

While the fascination with virtual reality belonged to the 1990s, as Manovich argues, the artists and theorists have been recently fascinated with the idea of augmented space, which sees layers of data superimposed onto the physical space (Manovich 2003, 78). This shifted the attention to the physical space and the material body which occupies this space. The interest in developing radio technology as a bi-directional international communication medium which has dominated radio discourse in the 1990s has likewise been replaced with the interest in ways in which radio art can work on an intimate scale, within a specific community, limited space or within one’s own body. Recently, there has been a proliferation of exhibitions exploring this idea of radio not as a technological device but as one possible manifestation of humanity’s relationship with electromagnetic waves. Examples of such exhibitions are Waves (part of The 8th International New Media Art festival, ART + COMMUNICATION, 2006, Riga, Latvia), curated by Armin Medosch, Rasa Smite, and Raitis Smits or Nina Czegledy’s exhibition Resonance: The Electromagnetic Bodies Project (touring internationally from 2005 until 2006). As Katja Kwastek argues in “Art Without Time and Space? Radio in The Visual Arts of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries:”

“In comparison to the projects of the nineteen-sixties, a shift in interest can thus be discerned from the device as theme to a preoccupation with the frequencies such devices allow us to pick up, and then further to a general exploration of the electromagnetic spectrum. Hertzian space is not explored as a neutral data carrier, however, but rather in its relationship to real space, in the varying shapes it takes in different places […].” (Kwastek 2008, 138)

The idea of Hertzian space, developed by artists Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, is an acoustic equivalent of Manovich’s “augmented space” as an immaterial data space superimposed onto the physical space. Dunne and Raby’s project tuneable cities (1997) questions the mechanism of car radio, which instead of automatically tuning to a chosen radio station, picks up signals and broadcasts from different stations approached with the movement of the car through different city districts, as well as “domestic sounds” emanating from mobile phones, baby monitors and other electromagnetic devices. In her work Drift (2004, GPS-based sound installation set along the Wadden Sea in Northern Germany), German artist Teri Rueb likewise explores human interaction with the immaterial data flows, transposing the activity of roaming and searching from cyberspace onto the physical space. The locative art project thus makes tangible the augmented data space through “physical and emotional response of the participants […].” (Kwastek 2008, 145-6)


Up until early 2000s, radio art reflected McLuhan’s vision of becoming world’s nervous system through establishing a network of communication outside of the constraints of time and space. Piracy, in connection with early cyber culture, has been transformed from local and communal pirate radio into a means of addressing the world at large. The cyberbody disappeared into the network of electromagnetic signals. This avant-gardist drive towards disembodiment and the fusion of “man with machine” (Friz 2011, 10) has been questioned by contemporary radio discourse, which strives to re-conceptualise the relationship between human bodies and new technologies. tuneable cities and Drift demonstrate a tendency in radio art to shift the focus from radio as a means of communication to radio as a natural phenomenon. The space encompassed by electromagnetic waves is also the territory of one’s own body.



Image credit: Rueb, Teri. 2004. Drift. GPS-based sound installation. Video still. 

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