At the Well blog


Radio As Method

Is streaming media the same as radio? What is unique about what radio does? Sumugan Sivanesan’s project ‘fugitive radio’ approaches radio as a network medium — as an event that is collectively produced and distributed across networks. The project will feature in Pixelache Festival 2021, a transdisciplinary platform for emerging art, design, research and activism taking place in Helsinki from 6 to 13 June.

fugitive radio approaches radio as a network medium. Rather than a one-to-many broadcast model, with the privileged broadcaster sending out a signal to listeners who tune in from different locations, fugitive radio pursues radio as an event that is collectively produced and distributed across networks. ‘By many for many’, or more accurately, by a few with other like-minded enthusiasts. For me such radio is poetic, in this atomised era of pandemic when we are locked-down at home dependent on our devices for the vestiges of physically co-present social life.

fugitive radio approaches radio-making as a social practice. If we come together to make radio and are relieved of the expectation of anyone listening — then what is it? ‘If a radio broadcasts in a forest does anyone hear?’, Sophea Lerner, co-founder of {openradio}, once asked me. One of my interests has been to discover ways of performing or playing a network, like one might play a musical instrument or toy as a radiophonic game. Aside from troubleshooting tech, broadcast events also require tending to the kinds of sociabilities that entangle people across networks. Perhaps this is what Sophea means when she describes her occupation as ‘radio gardening’?

In 2019 my latent interest in (internet) radio and sound systems brought me to Helsinki and specifically to Pixelache. I first came to know of the association via particle/wave, a mini-festival of radio organised by Sophea and artist Jodi Rose for Pixelache’s 2005 festival ‘The Dot Org Boom’, concerned with open source communities, open content initiatives and media activist networks. Fifteen years ago I was living in Sydney and co-directing Electrofringe, a festival for emerging media arts that also showcased, discussed and experimented with ‘bleeding edge’ technologies to nurture free and open (source) cultures. Aside from the joy of meeting like-minded people, what I learned from organising such grassroots gatherings was to be prepared for anything and to expect nothing. Experimental technology is not standardised, stable or always accessible, so working with it can often lead to both frustration and surprise. It reminds me of what the Helsinki-based artist, musician and instrument builder Suva Das describes as ‘jugaad technology’ in his birthplace India; a kind of ad-hoc street science of putting together what can be scavenged, rescued and repaired to seemingly ‘make something out of nothing’.

These days, radio-on-the-internet is no longer a novelty and now there are dozens of apps available for numerous devices to stream sonic media from around the world. Indeed, in Helsinki I’ve found it more difficult to source a second-hand AM/FM radio receiver than to find a cheap used smartphone.

But is streaming media the same as radio? What is unique about what radio does? In his book Cinema By Other Means (2012), Pavle Levi discusses how ideas of montage existed prior to cinema, but cinema was the medium by which it was best expressed. Levi traces how practices of montage in European avant gardes passed through cinema and carried on in other forms such as literature, theatre and indeed radio, and also in relation to new waves of cinema. Certainly, I am interested in radio as ‘a species of cinema’ as the Lettrist Isidore Isou proposed (cited in Levi 2012 p. 87). Numerous examples of the way cinematic montage has ‘enriched’ radio can be heard in radio plays and serials, audio essays and documentaries and other storytelling formats that combine voice, music, field recordings and foley using techniques of sound design and dramaturgy. Such forms are readily transposed into podcasts, like those explored in fugitive radio’s monthly upload ‘fugitive frequency’.

While I find pleasure in production, what I find compelling about making radio is liveness and spontaneity. With Suva, fugitive radio convened a collective radiophonic ritual for the closing of his recent exhibition at gallery Myymälä2, for which the artist led participants in the gallery and online in a happening of improvised singing.

In collaboration with the writer and curator Irina Mutt, fugitive radio has sought to develop her notion of the ‘audio fanzine’ as a cheap, immediate and accessible form of hybrid publishing/performance. Our forthcoming event, La Cabaret, will broadcast live from Irina’s shared apartment in Rastila, to connect listeners with the post-porn communities she is a part of in Barcelona.

For Pixelache Helsinki Festival 2021 #Burn___, fugitive radio is collaborating with {openradio} on a series of ‘outside broadcasts’. In the past media channels would deploy a mobile studio housed in a van or a truck for such events, now the required equipment required fits into a backpack, and often all that one needs is a smartphone and a pair of earbuds. Arguably, radio as a device that scans for signals in the atmosphere became a trope of media/audio art in the 1990 and early 2000s. In this era of digital communication, static and hiss are rendered as aesthetic signifiers of analogue media and the radio antennae its symbolic form. Now we have wifi.


Sumugan Sivanesan

Sumugan Sivanesan is an anti-disciplinary artist, researcher and writer. Often working collaboratively his interests span migrant histories and minority politics, activist media, artist infrastructures and more-than-human rights. He initiated ‘fugitive radio’ to research anticolonial and migrant media activism and music. The project will feature in Pixelache Helsinki Festival 2021 #Burn (6–13 June) and has been supported by the Kone Foundation.