Mute Frequencies

Installation view at Dilston Grove, 2016

Mute Frequencies
Installation and performance (w/ Laura Michelle Smith), 2016
Transistor radio, mp3 player, mini-FM transmitter, local field recordings, assembled found objects, looped audio (32 min).

Mute Frequencies explores the characteristics of radio as an electromagnetic phenomenon. Although radio waves are ubiquitous, their presence is not felt unless technology is used
to access and demodulate carrier signals (Kaye & Popperwell, 1992, pp.13-15). In this way, the sound that is embedded within radio waves can be considered both present and absent in our environment. Furthermore, storms in the Earth’s atmosphere produce their own radio signals, otherwise known as Very Low Frequency (VLF) radio. These signals are vast and varied in their nature, but are often drowned out by interference from consumer electronics, power lines and underground cables (Romero, 2010, pp.20-23).

My work with radio stemmed from two principal sources: the personal discovery of sound mirrors and a reading of Douglas Khan’s book ‘Earth Sound Earth Signal’ (2013). Sound mirrors are acoustic devices originally designed to listen out for enemy aircraft as they approached the British coast. These structures were built between the two world wars, but were soon rendered obsolete by radar (Collyer, (n.d.); Scarth, 1999). Most were demolished, but a few remain, dotted around the landscape like large concrete ears hunting for an elusive signal.

Douglas Khan’s aforementioned study of transmission in the arts opens with a story about the discovery of radio waves by Thomas Watson, assistant to Alexander Graham Bell. Watson listened to and noted the musical potential of pure Earth signal twenty years prior to radio’s appropriation, by Guglielmo Marconi, as a means of wireless communication. The sculptural aesthetic of the first example and the secret allure of the second got me thinking about mining for invisible resources.

Reading texts about radio was my primary method of research. Of particular interest was radio’s use by avant-garde artists. The practitioners that stood out were Antonin Artaud, Joe Banks aka Disinformation, Joyce Hinterding, Sally Ann McIntyre and, of course, John Cage. Whilst Artaud saw the opportunity to construct a new hallucinatory language through “his instinctive grasp of the radiophonic space” (Whitehead, 1992, p.259), Banks, Cage, McIntyre and Hinterding all used radio to “make available to your ears what is already in the air” (Kahn, 2013, p.117). The sonic potential that lies in the discovery and attenuation of stray electromagnetic activity can be harnessed with a normal AM radio, but for more nuanced results VLF receivers may need to be built.

Building a VLF receiver is not very complicated and parts can be purchased online. However, my first two attempts (INSPIRE VLF-3 and Techlib’s Super-Tiny VLF receiver) ended in failure. Out of frustration, I began putting various discarded objects together and recording the sounds of their construction. Some of these objects – old antennae, copper wires et al – had obvious connotations with radio. Conversely, their wooden counterparts lacked a progressive technological conviction. This aesthetic shift ran parallel with the mute allure possessed by the concrete mirrors. I became increasingly more interested in recording interference from buried power lines and thinking about how the propagation of these radio waves contributes to our acoustic ecology.

It is often useful to look back at the early stages of an idea and see how far it had developed over time. At the very beginning, this project was a loose attempt at social praxis. Taking cues from the radio-building workshops, led by Japanese artist Tetsuo Kogawa (Kogawa, 1994, pp.287-297), my intention was to move away from composition (in the sense of using sonic materials to construct linear pieces) and instead, enable the formation of creative communities through shared learning.

Although this approach has not been abandoned entirely, it has become apparent to me just how much personal learning one has to undertake before attempting to organise workshops, lectures and seminars. The radio play is the first step in this direction, although I’ll be first to admit that the format chosen offers little in the way of challenging established radio conventions: what Frances Dyson describes, for example, as “the dominant radio voice”, which is connected to “the deepest symbolic and epistemological structures governing thought, speech and media” (Dyson, 1994, p.167).

Reflecting on the physical results, it is possible to draw a line under the research that maps my personal and professional development. Learning to construct simple electronic devices led to making a series of sculptures, an avenue not considered at the very beginning. Investigating the aesthetic possibilities of background radio noise paved the way for new research pathways in Electronic Voice Phenomena (Banks, 2012), a performance at a radio festival abroad (Radio Revolten, Halle) and a collaboration with Disinformation.

The research resulted in a triangulation: a project that incorporated mute sound sculptures, invisible noises made audible only by the electric ear (VLF receiver) and a collection of field recordings that alluded to the notion of failure. Concurrently, a radio documentary was written and produced in order to contextualise the project.

The mute radio objects recall dada readymades and require no further intervention other than appropriate presentation in a gallery space. The utilisation of radio waves and field recordings is a little more complex. These recordings are presented in a performance that is composed of four movements: a) an acoustic representation of Earth radio using found objects such as leaves, tissue paper, thistles etc. b) the modulation of local electromagnetic interference via a chain of guitar pedals and other filters c) the transmission of local field recordings through mini-FM stations in order to bring the outside in and d) a live mix of various VLF streams found on the internet used to suggest an accurate depiction of the Earth’s radio activity in real time.

The last element, a documentary about radio in the arts, was broadcast on Resonance 104.4fm on Wednesday 30 November and Thursday 1 December 2016.

Selected References
Artaud, A., 1956. Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. First California Paperback Ed. (1998)
Berkley: University of California Press, pp. 555-571
Banks, J., Grigson, C., 1997. Roadside Picnics – Disinformation and Sound Mirrors. [online] Available at < articles/jbanks2/index.php>
[Accessed 19. October 2016]
Banks, J., 2012. Rorschach Audio: Art & Illusion For Sound. London: Strange Attractor Press
Collyer, D., (n.d.) Kent’s Listening Ears: Britain’s First Early Warning System, an Aeromilitaria Special. London: Air-Britain
Dyson, F., (1994) The Genealogy Of The Radio Voice IN: Augaitis, D., Lander, D., 1994. Radio Rethink: Art, Sound And Transmission. Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery Kahn, D., 2013. Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies And Earth Magnitude In The Arts. Berkley: University of California Press
Kaye, M., Popperwell, A., 1992. Making Radio: A Guide To Basic Radio Production And Techniques. London: Broadside Books Ltd.
Kogawa, T., (1994) Towards Polymorphous Radio IN: Augaitis, D., Lander, D., 1994. Radio Rethink: Art, Sound And Transmission. Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery Romero, R., 2010. Radio Nature: The Reception And Study Of Naturally Originating Radio Signals, 2010 edition, Bedford: Radio Society Of Great Britain
Sutcliffe, J., 2012. To Wage War With Ghosts: Joe Banks Of Disinformation Interviewed. The Quietus [online] Available at < banks-disinformation
-rorschach-audio> [Accessed 3 Nov 2016]
Whitehead, G., (1992) Out Of The Dark: Notes On The Nobodies In Radio Art IN: Kahn, D., Whitehead, G., 1992. Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio And The Avant Garde.
Paperback edition [1994], Cambridge, MA: MIT Press pp. 253-263

With special thanks to: Knut Aufermann, Joe Banks, Steve Bates, Ed Baxter, Caroline Devine, Thomas Gardner, Ciaran Harte, Peter Lanceley, Sally Ann McIntyre, Sarah Nicol, Irene Revell, Paul Richardson, Andrei and Katya Rogatchevski, Laura Michelle Smith, Michael Umney, Salome Voegelin and Mark Peter Wright.