“Pump Up the Volume: Listening to Radio Break” by Zachary Kaplan
Google Image Search: How Radio Works
A technology defined by an innate imbalance of power between speaker and receiver, the primarily validated function of radio is talk. In fact, even if two individuals speak via radio, their conversation is an alternation of talking at, because one cannot broadcast and receive on the same band at the same time. The exhibition Radio Break challenges this model: it prioritizes listening.
II. Talk Radio
In the United States, talk radio—that programmed block of topical discussion, the domain of pundits, shock jocks, and, of course, concerned callers—was an invention of the 1950s. With the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the end of the FCC-mandated balance of political viewpoints on air, however, the form became what it is today. The next decade saw a near-complete takeover of the AM dial by interests promoting a Republican Party agenda. Corporate radio’s blend of blather and bombast superseded radio’s anachronistic technology, in the face of cable TV and the emerging internet, by delivering an under-the-radar and symbolically undervalued rhetorical space capable of entertainingly distributing reactionary discourse. Rush Limbaugh talks. His audience—the so-called Dittoheads—responds, well, “ditto.” Limbaugh’s voice has been influential to a degree that is difficult to ascertain. (Witness only the immediate shift in Republican etiquette vis-à-vis criticizing the President after his 2009 on-air hope that the Obama presidency would fail.) Ed Schultz talks too, but he, along with his fellow ineffectual left revanchists, is only belatedly making a play for the now-occupied topos of politicized mainstream radio space. These days all radio sounds like talk radio. And all talk is political.
Title Card for Pump Up the Volume (1990
The critic Gregory Whitehead wrote, “For most of the wireless age, artists have found themselves vacated (or have vacated themselves) from radiophonic space—the history of radio art is, in this most literal sense, largely a history of nobodies.” Whitehead was historicizing Velimir Khlebnikov’s and John Cage’s sonic broadcast experiments; they had no place on the air except the place they made. When, in 1994, Whitehead lamented that artists who worked in radio were nobodies, he managed to articulate the medium’s definitive character. In the 1950s, Frantz Fanon realized that French-language radio psychically bound the colonists of Algeria; in response, he proposed a radical broadcast and reception for those “nobodies” shunted aside. The colonized, he advocated in his essay “This Is the Voice of Algeria,” needed to listen to the words of their fellow oppressed and, in response to that listening, broadcast themselves back to each other again and to the world at large. What talk radio did was take the historical nobody and repackage the figure into the “disenfranchised” middle-class white male speaking “truth to power.” That this strategy succeeded does did not negate the place on air for actual nobodies. And considering the relative ease and low price of construction, a radio transmitter can be a great tool for the disempowered to take control of his or her voice and build some kind of alternative community. Here a mainstream twin to Fanon is particularly illustrative: Pump Up the Volume (1990) similarly potentiated a communitarian radio. While the Christian Slater alt-rock film pulls the truth-to-power shtick (via a high-schooler), its title prioritizes listening and its narrative illustrates the technology’s unique potential to knit together an exurban community.
ANSWER Coalition “Speak-Out”
IV. The 2000s
The last decade was for somebodies. To speak, we were often told, was to act. Indicative was Bush’s infamous and, from then on, seemingly mandatory avowal just after September 11th: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” By 2005 the older left was haranguing the newer; we didn’t speak out like they did, we were made disparate by our technologies and our tastes, and when we did speak, we needed to say something different, something that actually worked. On one hand, this is a plausible diagnosis of a generation told to stay indoors who did so. On the other, we spent a lot of time saying a lot of things to little effect.
An example of ‘Up Twinkles,’ a mode of assent in the Occupy Movement, on bottom-left.
Image by Ruben de Haas.
V. Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street
The old left’s fantasies of politically efficient mass protest were made manifest in 2009. Ironically, of course, those nobody protesters—mining the technologies and tactics of the 1970s antiwar left—were vociferously denouncing their Democratic president and his plans for the incremental socialization of medicine. If there was some indication of the increasing outmodedness of the standard twentieth-century mass-protest models, it was the Tea Party—in short, a lot of talking. Occupy Wall Street, in 2011, was different. Its logic wasn’t “speak out,” but “sit in.” Everyone could talk (and nearly everyone would), but the movement required that everyone listen (and most everyone did). The General Assemblies that facilitated decision-making and conflict resolution defined the collective not by voice, but by the wagging of fingers either up (to assent) or down (to dissent). It’s called twinkling. No list of demands was to be written; speech was to be provisional and flexible. Where there was speaking, there was failure—when an avowal was requested, “I am the 99%,” the phrasing, both cumbersome and unrepresentative, became a central lightening rod for the reactionary. To Occupy is to listen.
VI. A Critique of the Passive Listener
One best articulated by Hakim Bey: “To speak too much and not be heard—that’s sickening enough. But to acquire listeners—that could be worse. Listeners think that to listen suffices—as if their true desire were to hear with someone else’s ears, see through someone else’s eyes, feel with someone else’s skin….”
VII. Deep Listening
If done right, to listen is to learn how to talk, and vice versa. Figuring generative reception constitutes the bulk of composer Pauline Oliveros’s efforts. She crafts experiments in Deep Listening, “a practice that [intends] to heighten and expand consciousness of sound in as many dimensions of awareness and attentional dynamics as humanly possible.” Sound carries intelligence, Oliveros maintains, and careful listening can clue us into an array of realities around us otherwise missed. Oliveros’s work ran alongside trenchant feminist methodology, one also embodied by the Redstockings’ consciousness-raising discussion groups, which created a space for women to come into their voices through other women listening without interruption.
VIII. A Listening Exercise by Pauline Oliveros
Ear Piece, 1998
- Are you listening now?
- Are you listening to what you are now hearing?
- Are you hearing while you listen?
- Are you listening while you are hearing?
- Do you remember the last sound you heard before this questions?
- What will you hear in the near future?
- Can you hear now and also listen to your memory of an old sound?
- What causes you to listen?
- Do you hear yourself in your daily life?
- Do you have healthy ears?
- If you could hear any sound you want, what would it be?
- Are you listening to sounds now or just hearing them?
- What sound is most meaningful to you?
IX. Radio Break
Most simply an exhibition, Radio Break is not a moment, but of a moment. It invites its public to listen to sounds and their own intelligence. It is, in effect, a Deep Listening exercise. What those who tune in will listen to might not be “political” in content, but broadcast and reception are always political statements. Or, to put it another way, Radio Break’s radio waves twinkle up.
Special thanks to James Rojas for introducing me to Pump Up the Volume.
 Gregory Whitehead, “Out of the Dark: Notes on the Nobodies of Radio Art,” New American Radio (1994), available at http://somewhere.org.
 Frantz Fanon, “This Is the Voice of Algeria,” in A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 35-97.
 See Talk Radio, dir. Oliver Stone (Universal Pictures, 1988) and Private Parts, dir. Betty Thomas (Paramount Pictures, 1997).
 Pump Up the Volume, dir. Allan Moyle (New Line Pictures, 1990).
 George W. Bush, “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People,” September 20, 2001, available at http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html.
 See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Rachel Churner, “Questionnaire,” October 123 (Winter 2008): 9–10.
 See Jarett Kobek, “Jarett Kobek’s Portrait of a Hijacker,” interview by Noura Wedell, BOMBLOG, available at http://bombsite.com/articles/6362.
 Editors, “A Song for Occupation,” n+1 13 (Winter 2012): 3-15.
 Hakim Bey, “Critique of the Listener,” in Radiotext(e), ed. Neil Strauss (New York: Semiotext(e), 1993), 193.
 Pauline Oliveros, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice (Lincoln, Neb.: iUniverse, 2005), xxiii.
 See Martha Mockus, Sounding Out: Pauline Oliveros and Lesbian Musicality (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2008).
 See Feminist Revolution, ed. Kathie Sarachild (New York: Random House, 1978).
 Oliveros, Deep Listening, 34.