Liberating the Airwaves: Free Radio’s Broadcasting Communities

– Kareem Estefan

Radio is, famously, a location-less medium. It exists in the “ether,” neither here nor there. Often it meets listeners in transit: on the road one catches broadcasts from the local station, or tunes in to more remote content from satellite transmissions. Depending on where the dial (or on-screen arrow) lands, one hears either corporate content assembled by automatic playlists or carefully selected regional voices; however uncommon the latter, radio remains a rare haven for independent production. With Free Radio, Brian Gillis and Robin Lambert aim to expand the social space opened by community radio, helping underserved community groups to develop and transmit their “voices” through a DIY radio station that could be heard across the New York metropolitan area from CUE’s gallery.

Free Radio is the first collaboration between two artists who have recently expanded their practices into more relational territory. Gillis, a professor at the University of Oregon, gradually shifted from fabricating objects to fabricating situations that evoke human potential through the excavation of buried social histories. (He credits Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for helping to inspire this approach.) Lambert, who teaches at Red Deer College in Alberta, Canada, sets up situations with the possibility—sometimes curiously narrow—for strangers to interact. For example, in The only thing I know for sure is that while I am looking for you, you are looking for me (2009), the artist invited two strangers to live in Montreal, a city they hadn’t visited before, in order to find each other. After a month of searching, they never met.

As for Gillis and Lambert, the two first met at a ceramics residency in Maine, where they bonded over their interest in relational art practices. Influenced by the “social turn” of the 1990s, Gillis and Lambert separately began to set up conditions in which visitors would creatively interact with one another and their environment and thereby make the work of art. In such socially grounded practices, the meaning of the work—which may be understood as the performative process of the art event and/or objects resulting from the event—emerges from the context of the exhibit and its participants as much as it does from the artist’s intentions. Writing about the as-yet unseen relational project by a new collaborative duo, then, is a strange and difficult task: Free Radio may arrive at results and implications entirely different from the artists’—and this writer’s—expectations.

Gillis and Lambert have plotted a course for Free Radio, and chosen multiple collaborators for their endeavor, but they have also kept many paths open within the trajectory of the exhibition. The two invited four other artists and educators to comprise the Free Radio Project, which will be the first of a number of groups to assemble at CUE Art Foundation for a week, build a makeshift radio station and produce a broadcast (they will determine its content and form that week). Members of this team selected the communities that will work in CUE one by one for the following five weeks, collaborating in workshops led by the Free Radio Project, as well as discussions, research, programming, and broadcasting. Within the workshops, each community will critically reflect on what unites them in order to develop a collective voice and then discover the most effective means of disseminating it, on the radio or otherwise.

As of this writing (early January 2012), Gillis and Lambert have confirmed four of the participating communities: their own Free Radio Project; UpBeat NYC, an organization that provides free music lessons to children living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn; Verbal Pyrotechnics, an online magazine of young adult literature, with contributors ranging from emerging writers to Beat poet Hettie Jones; and Brooklyn Youth Company, a theater group whose children recently participated in the very adult Performa biennial. Gillis and Lambert have empowered each group to produce a broadcast that will strengthen its community’s voice, whether that means airing a one-hour radio program, making prints, or building web pages.

The term “broadcast”—once used exclusively to signify radio and television transmissions—today more broadly describes the act of communicating information, and often refers to dissemination through a Facebook status update or Tweet. For the purposes of Free Radio, Gillis and Lambert use the word to encompass creative activities, in any medium, that will propagate a community’s message. To facilitate a diversity of approaches, they have set up workshops on a wide spectrum of communication methods and technologies, both electronic and analog, including “FM Radio, telegraph, photocopying, talking drums, homing pigeons, flower anatomy, and sign making.” (Their predecessors include numerous artist collectives of the seventies—such as Paper Tiger Television—which offered workshops in video production to diverse groups, although they thought of it more as public service than art.) After establishing this range, members of the Free Radio Project aim to provoke discussion as to which technique will best serve the voices of the communities, both in terms of clear articulation and wide proliferation. But Gillis is quick to note that the team of artist-teachers will cede all decisions to the communities participating in the project: “The choice will be solely theirs.”

CUE then becomes, in the artists’ words, a laboratory: “We’re thinking about this as something akin to us building a laboratory, stocking it with labware and raw materials, giving folks a cursory understanding of the principles that can be explored in a lab, giving them a specific problem to solve, and turning the lab over to them completely.” This analogy places the artists in a role that might be classified as curatorial, pedagogic, or even administrative: they will organize source texts and resources but leave production to others. In this case, how are visitors to evaluate the show? On what aesthetic, social, or educational grounds might Free Radio be assessed? The artists’ intentions are, in a sense, quite modest: in their minds, the experiments can only fail if the lab lacks the materials necessary for communities to develop their identities. At this point, there remain many open questions, including what the communities will produce and whether gallery-goers will participate in workshops or observe as groups learn to broadcast—in short, how the laboratory will look, from the people involved to the art made.

If questions about the relations and objects to be produced in this laboratory will only find resolution during the exhibition itself, Gillis and Lambert raise a more fundamental problem: what do we mean by “community,” and how can we better understand communal endeavor? A community, in the artists’ words, emerges through “a shared space, a shared cultural ethos, a shared need, a shared mode of communication, a shared voice, and a shared system for the distribution of information.” But for a community to exist, must its individuals share each of these diverse features? The tensions among these potential commonalities often come to define the nature of a community. For example, the six artist-teachers of the Free Radio Project have worked together largely through Google Docs and Skype, lacking common geography but sharing information and purpose remotely. In an era of networked communications, people are frequently linked across vast distances by cultural ethos or information, but lack a shared space. If the Free Radio Project is a “community” forged for the purposes of this exhibit, one wonders whether the already-existing communities will be adaptable enough to interact with visitors, the Chelsea neighborhood and even, in a new setting, each other.

These questions ultimately return us to an interrogation of the notion of “community broadcasting.” Can it spread creative forms of communication rooted in shared experience?  While any single Free Radio broadcast is likely to have limited geographic reach, the project is a genuine test of how to extend communal expression beyond the art gallery—something each of the artists have individually worked to achieve in recent years. With this collaboration, Gillis and Lambert offer something utopian, especially in its optimistic trust in the community members who are tasked with the most important transformations of all. They must amplify their voices, by using the tools at their disposal. Perhaps more importantly, they will help re-define the words “broadcast” and “community” in the process.

The writer, Kareem Estefan, is a critic, poet, and curator living in Brooklyn. His writing has recently appeared in exhibition catalogues and in publications including BOMBlog, Le Salon, and the Poetry Project Newsletter. He recently curated the Segue Series at the Bowery Poetry Club and hosted a WNYU radio program for conceptual writing, “Ceptuetics,” which is now archived on PennSound. He studies art criticism & writing at the School of Visual Arts.

The mentor, art historian Robert Atkins, has written for more than 100 publications, ranging from The New York Times to Wired. He is a former columnist for the Village Voice, and co-author, in 2008, of Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression (New Press). His widely-known texts ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords (Abbeville Press, 1997) and its modern-art companion ArtSpoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords (Abbeville Press, 1993), are among the best-sellng art books of recent decades. He teaches and lectures widely about art and media. These interests have catalyzed more than 20 exhibitions including From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS, the first international traveling museum show of its kind, and Fusion! Artists in a Research Setting, for Carnegie Mellon University, where he is a Fellow of the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. Since1995, he has originated pioneering online media including the CUNY-sponsored TalkBack! A Forum for Critical DiscourseArtery: The AIDS-Arts Forum, the Arts Technology Entertainment Network, a NY Times start-up for which he was Editor-in-Chief, and, in 2010, ArtSpeak China, the first bilingual wiki devoted to contemporary Chinese art. A co-founder of Visual AIDS—the creators of Day Without Art and The Red Ribbon—he is the recipient of numerous awards for his writing. For more information, please visit RobertAtkins.net.

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