I listen to the radio a lot. “The radio” is perhaps a misleading description, as I listen in the car, streaming on my laptop (which sometimes includes real time video), and I listen on a number of actual freestanding radios as well. I have a combination radio/cassette player in my studio, a combination CD player/radio in the kitchen and a Radio Shack transistor radio with the extending antenna near my bed, which is perhaps the object that I most enjoy. While I love the objectness of it, its complete arcane, last century, limited bandwidth–its disfunctionality–is what I am most drawn to. It is implacable and unremarkable. It is not a product of “design thinking” by any stretch of the imagination, yet its function, either implied or imagined, is simply stated through its user-friendly interface which consists of a dial or two on the side and a two-level panel of numbers on its front, one for AM and one for FM. Other than that, there is a headphone jack and the aforementioned extending antenna. What I love about the transistor radio is its completely undependable ability to actually lock into a frequency. The tuner resists being locked onto a particular broadcast station and a Moth Radio story gives way to a religious sermon or a baseball game, seemingly without logic and at random. The drift of the signal often morphs completely into static, a sort of interstitial no-space of found sound, the way a VHF television signal used similarly wander into the “snow” that would replace a sitcom of or TV movie before digital signals displaced analog. Now when we lose a digital signal we get silence; the complete lack of data of any kind producing nothing but loss or empty space.
The kind of signal drift that I am describing is a metaphor for the way in which contemporary artists move with fluidity between the materiality of historical practice and the use of an entirely new kind of material culture, one in which we often find, like the aforementioned Moth Radio, a story at the core of the work. Story or narrative or literary allusion seems to be the focus of much recent art, whether it is abstract, performative or otherwise literal. There is so much to say in the present era and so much of it is simultaneously local and global, blending and hybridizing the concerns of both into a still not-quite-manageable undertaking of social conscience.
The cultural critic and philosopher Marshal McLuhan noted (way back in the 1960’s) that:
“In a culture like ours…in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.”
This quote is often misinterpreted to mean that the “channel” or method of broadcast supercedes the “content” in importance.
In the same way that the signal loss of my transistor radio often creates a kind of fascinating static, so too does the mediated flow of news from the contemporary political landscape; it is easy to become hypnotized by the noise. As artists, we have the tools and the opportunity to roll the dial back to where the signal is clear and we can again hear the narrative above the static; to clarify the broadcast in a way that amplifies Marshall McLuhan’s notion that the medium is (indeed) the message, and that the massage is “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that a new invention or innovation “introduces into human affairs.”
“The medium is the message” tells us that noticing change in the cultural condition of our time indicates the presence of a new message, a new set of circumstances, whether it be in art or cultural and social advocacy as McLuhan points out, and that control over the changing landscape of the present requires staying ahead of such changes; anticipating change empowers both artists and citizens to push back against the tide.