“Slow Listening” by Gladys-Katherina Hernando


"Roy Cohn/Jack Smith," performed by Ron Vawter and directed by Gregory Mehrten. Adapted from “Roy Cohn” radio broadcast written by Gary Indiana.

Los Angeles has a distinctive relationship to radio. Its vast system of highways fosters a contained existence, one that is dependent on cars and treacherous to pedestrians. However, the city’s grid and its implications have produced an ongoing relationship of its inhabitants to radio, a medium that fosters connectivity across the endless roadways and regions and crosses socioeconomic conditions and educational boundaries. Radio has long established itself as a democratic platform that endures everyday experience, and it remains one of the most accessible mediums in public life. The return to radio in recent years is part of a larger impetus to pull away from sophisticated technologies and return to the basic experiences of life. Along with recent cultural slow movements, such as slow-food, slow gardening, and slow parenting, radio has a natural place in this shift. Harnessing the semiotic ambivalence of aurality turns a focus onto sensory experiences that can instill meaning into a fast-paced society; with slow listening. A brief history of radio art as it has developed in Los Angeles shows a consistent motivation for exploring sound as a way to subvert the complex grid of information culture.

Cover of catalogue for “Sound: An Exhibition of Sound Sculpture, Instrument Building, and Acoustically Tuned Spaces” at the Los Angeles Institute for Contemporary Art (LAICA), July 14-August 31, 1979.

Radio art is defined generally as whatever any artist from any medium happens to represent on the airwaves—whether experimental narrative, sonic exploration, noise, or performance, just about any aural strategy may be entertained.

The investigation of sound in the 1970s and 80s, energized by the development of a theoretical language for this “new” medium, was transformed by artists’ ability to access the equipment to produce and distribute audio works on cassette tape or through broadcast transmission. California, and Los Angeles in particular, was a fertile zone for radio broadcasts and the development of audio artworks. With increased access to public radio on the FM dial, artists produced programs for public radio, using it both as an alternative platform for art and as a means to subvert commercial radio. Jacki Apple’s Soundings radio broadcasts (1982–95) and Carl Stone’s radio show Imaginary Landscapes featured content that came to be classified as radio art. The experimental program Close Radio (1976–79), organized by John Duncan, Neil Goldstein, and Paul McCarthy, aired weekly on KPFK and is one of the few radio projects to be documented as part of a group exhibition on performance at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2007.

By the beginning of the 1980s, Los Angeles art spaces were increasingly accepting of sound art, as exemplified by the 1979 exhibition “Sound” at the now-defunct Los Angeles Institute for Contemporary Art. However, it was not until 1984 that a Los Angeles art institution utilized radio as the medium for an exhibition.

In 1984 an ambitious program of radio events called “Territory of Art” was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). Produced by curator Julie Lazar with the support of chief curator Richard Koshalek, the program expanded on a previous collaboration between Lazar and Koshalek at the Hudson River Art Museum in Yonkers, New York. The MOCA exhibition, conceptualized shortly after the museum was created in 1980, was part of an initiative to establish it within the Los Angeles cultural community, especially because of its then-removed location at 1st Street and Temple near Downtown.[1]

Airing on KUSC (L.A.’s classical music station) and KCRW (a local public radio station), “Territory of Art” comprised free and accessible half-hour broadcasts that involved collaborators from the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Austria.

The first iteration of “Territory of Art” focused on contemporary art, architecture, and a diversity of disciplines, featuring The Collectors, a piece on the new corporate and private collectors of the 1980s written by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, and One Hundred Miles of Art, a conversation between Llyn Foulkes, William Brice, Ilene Segelove, Michael Brewster, JoAnn Callis, Suzanne Lacy, and the East Los Angeles Streetscapers.

As the program developed into second, third, and fourth iterations, its broadcasts became even more diverse and experimental, reflecting the complex issues of the mid-1980s, including gay identity and the AIDS crisis (Roy Cohn, written by Gary Indiana and performed by Ron Vawter) and immigration (Border-X-Frontera, written and performed by David Schein and Guillermo Gomes-Peña). Other works were more performative, such as Peter Sellers and David Warrilow’s rendition of Velimir Khlebnikov’s Futurist poem Zangezi. This small sample of audio artworks (the few currently available for streaming on MOCA’s online archive) conveys awareness on the part of the museum of the multicultural landscape and diverse audiences of Los Angeles. Moreover, the “Territory of Art” works exhibit the postmodern impulse of the 1980s to manipulate mass-media culture by offering art as an aural experience rooted in a commercial medium.

Promotional poster for “The Territory of Art” at MOCA. Courtesy of Julie Lazar.

One work in particular stands out for its ability to capture the distinctive characteristics of radio. In Snake Bride, written, produced, and performed by Marina Abramovic and Ulay, the artists narrate a story of traversing the length of the Great Wall of China. Ulay tells of their experience of the various modes of transportation they used to get across the Great Wall. He describes the chaos of the trains, the life of the passengers, and a scene where Chinese passengers carrying watermelons, a favorite food during the summer, share the slices with other passengers along their journey. When Ulay and Abramovic can find a seat on the train, all they can do is be still and listen to the sounds that envelope their reality: the ambient noise of street cars, a radio playing regional music, and the indistinct murmur of distant voices.

In the second part of the work, Abramovic recalls waking at dawn in a Peking hotel room to the very loud sound of birds singing. When the artists leave the hotel to explore the Temple of Heaven Park nearby, they discover elderly men have been carrying covered birdcages there. Unveiling their cages so their birds can sing, these men look for worms and bugs under the dewy morning stones, returning again in the evening. Abramovic then gently describes the Four Pests Campaign, which demanded citizens kill all the birds in the cities as part of a hygiene initiative instituted by Mao Zedong during the cultural revolution in China. The piece crescendos with the sounds of birdcalls, singing, and the ambient noises of the city, leaving the listener hypnotized.

In its strategy, Snake Bride shows the unique relationship that listening can create. In context, radio has managed to retain a significant alignment with a type of slow-paced consumption of information: listening. An artwork like Snake Bride functions on multiple levels to narrate the viewer into another reality, a kind of engagement that disconnects with the saturated image culture and reconnects to the self and the mind towards active listening.

Snake Bride by Marina Abramovic and Ulay

This distinctive set of broad-reaching exhibitions further established radio art as a new mode of performative, audience-directed listening experience. Even as the history of radio art continues to be uncovered, it has resurged in the last few years. Shortly after we conceptualized Radio Break, several radio events took place in Los Angeles with the artist collectives Neighborhood Public Radio at MOCA and KChung Radio in Chinatown. So why radio now? As technology is imposed onto our everyday existence, attributes of personal connection, communication, and interaction are further meditated or removed. Could it be that the fundamental act of listening can return a certain sense of slow order to our fast-paced culture? Alongside the return to radio as a medium for art is the return to other analog mediums and handcrafted or slow processes. Slow listening can generate an awareness of our state as humans to regain the sense of experience that may be lost in a predominantly visual culture.

The slow food movement (started in 1989) for example states in its manifesto, “May suitable doses of guaranteed sensual pleasure and slow, long-lasting enjoyment preserve us from the contagion of the multitude who mistake frenzy for efficiency.”

The need to return to a focused sustained experience of life informs these cultural movements, and it relates to the return of the analog in the arts as well. In some ways this focus on sensory experience attempts to compensate for a real or virtual loss of human experience, one we hope to temporarily recapture with the conscious experience of listening.

[1] Conversation with Julie Lazar, April 2, 2012.

“1990 by Guillermo Gómez-Peña,” co-organized with the Los Angeles Festival and coordinated for MOCA by Julie Lazar, and presented at the Temporary Contemporary. Courtesy of Julie Lazar.

Special thanks to Julie Lazar.