“Meanwhile, somehow, something …”

April 9, 2011 § 9 Comments

Skyping with Maia Urstad. A conversation about radio on our private globe-spanning channel…


A couple of days ago I sat in my Parisian bedroom, looking out on a busy avenue with a nervous traffic rushing towards the Place de la Nation and back again. There I talked with Maia Urstad a Norvegian artist, who meanwhile, at that very same moment, was in her Bergen studio, overlooking the calm water surface of a small harbor.

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Maia Urstad is one of the artists that, as part of the European sound art network Resonance, produce a new sound work for the Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk, Belgium, which takes place next month, from May 5th until May 22nd. As communication technology, its fate and its ‘ruins’, are topics central to Maia’s work, it was in hindsight rather appropriate to have this conversation over Skype, which these days is one of the main ubiquitous technologies used, not only to privately talk with people all over the globe, but also to transmit lectures and performances from one place to another, as nearby or as far away as one wishes. With its blurry images, failing connections, freezes and drops in the sound transmission, it comes with a pretty lo-fi feel. It is a bit like having your own home-built radio transmitter and receiver, and a frequency that allows you to broadcast to whoever you allow to listen in. We are all ‘radio amateurs’ these days, without even knowing…

The (idea of) radio is pivotal in a still growing number of Maia Urstad’s works, reflecting her fascination with radio as an object, as a technology, as a source of sounds and as a means for globe-spanning communication. Reflecting a fascination also for how radio somehow seems to manage to survive current technological changes that follow one another in ever more rapid succession.

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‘Structures of stone have been built since time immemorial, and are still erected today,’ it says in a series of short notes on her web site. ‘Monuments will stand after us, as they have stood after our ancestors. But will the remains of our technology be understood in a hundred years or more? Will these remains be accessible when our descendants attempt to discover our everyday concerns? What do we erase as we progress?’

Indeed, what do we erase? Will a next generation have the slightest clue of what is a ‘Skype’, and how that was like? Does it matter?

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“My work with portable radios actually goes back to 1996,” Maia said, smiling into the small lens of her computer’s camera in Bergen. “At that time I was working with sound in the context of experimental theatre. These were the kind of productions in which each of the makers contributes a part of equal weight: The director had one voice, the writer had one voice, I had one voice … So the sound was an integral part of the performance. I then got four radio cassette players. Because these provided a nice way to move the sound and move with the sounds that I had recorded onto cassette tapes. A bit later I was invited to Krakow for a project, where I decided to improvise with portable radios. Again, because they make it very easy to move the sound around and blend in with the actors. So I got four more radio cassette players. At the time I was working with the radio sound, but transferred onto cassette tape. because that was a nice way to make textures. So then I suddenly had eight of these radio cassette players. In 1998 I did a project in the mountains in Bergen. There I hung four radios in some trees, and I worked with these medium wave sounds, that, you know, can sound almost like birds. So I was working with space and birds and medium waves, communication…”

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“I realized more and more that these machines, that then already were quickly becoming obsolete and were very easy and cheap to get, would be very interesting material for constructions. The radio’s are blocks, they are construction bricks. So I started to build with them, like the classical arch of ‘Stations’, which is a 3 meter tall portal, that I made in 1999 with some 50 cassette radios and CD players, at the Fortress Bergenhus.”

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“Since then one project has been leading to another. What I began in 2004, and still continue to do, is the construction of this big wall, the ‘Sound Barrier’. It is changing all the time, but the main structure is there. I just adapt it to each new space. Also the sounds are always changing, depending for instance on whether it is a group installation or a solo installation. In constructions like ‘‘Stations’ and ‘Sound Barrier’, I use radio cassette players and CD players, with technology that makes the CD players play in a synchronized way. So I can start many of them at the same time, and use several separate layers: I can start one layer, and then another layer and then add another layer, and so on…”

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“The Resonance installation that I will produce for the Festival van Vlaanderen in Kortrijk is a continuation of these projects. I now am also very interested in the radio again, and I felt the need to dissolve…”

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It somehow gives me the impression as if you just have been taking the big wall apart again. Or maybe it exploded and you captured the moment just before a part of the machines hit the ground again?

“The radio’s are floating in the air, each of them separately. I was in Kortrijk in February, to work on the piece and try out things in the space where the installation will be. It is a very interesting place, an old brewery, I believe. I like the floor, and I like the material used in the spaces. The organizers in Kortrijk collected radio’s for me, and they will continue to do so for the Festival. I actually asked for 96 of them, but for the tests in February I got 16. I believe that they even intend to put out a call on the radio in Kortrijk, to ask people to give or lend their radios…”

“But when you use so many radio’s, there are quite a few technical challenges: with noise, and interference… I would like to transmit the sounds with four short-range transmitters. But maybe four frequencies will be hard in Kortrijk. I will have to find more or less empty spots on the radio, and it’s on the FM. So. It is not completely clear that I will be able to find these. When I was there in February, there was a lot of interference and a lot of noise. And it seemed to me that the stations were very strong.
I want to use the sounds of the radio’s as textures. If there are 16 of them, then I can frame the space, if you see what I mean. But if I have very many of them, I can install them in the space so that it becomes, as it were, one texture. So you don’t walk around in it, but you just get into it. You become yourself a part of the installation.”

You want to give the impression that the radio’s are freely floating in the space. What sort of wires do you use to hang them?

“I want them to float, but on the other hand, of course everybody knows that they are hanging from the ceiling… The first thing one does when one wants something to look invisible is use fish string. But I think that is not really working. It is also too elastic, so that after a while the radio’s are hitting the floor. So, you see, I do not know yet. I tried out a few different possibilities, but I haven’t decided yet. If the wire is too thin, then it will not carry the radio. And if it’s too thick, it takes the energy away from the radio. So it’s a fine balance, you know.
Another interesting technical problem to be solved is how to provide the electrical power for all of these little machines. I would like to work with batteries, but that will not be very practical, for all sorts of reasons. For instance, it would probably mean that during the period of the Festival someone would need to turn on every radio every day, and maybe also change batteries over time. With wires for the electricity it will be possible to switch all of them on and off at once. But it also means that we will have to solve an interesting visual problem. There is always this negotiation between what is visual, what is not visual, what is main, what is accessory, and what is practical, what is needed in the installation. “

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“The title of the piece is ‘Meanwhile, in Shanghai …’, which is inspired by the thought bubbles that are so often used in comic books. For the sound part, I am collecting many details about the time and the place, as they are being transmitted continuously by radio stations all over the world. Announcements like: ‘Es ist drieundzwanzig Uhr in Deutschland’, ‘Cinco de la Manana en Madrid’, ‘Het is nu middernacht’, and so on. I collect such announcements when I am travelling, but that is not always easy, especially when you don’t know the language, and are not quite sure what exactly is being said. So there are some blank spots… but if I like the voice, I can use it anyway. These messages I want to put together with other radio-specific sounds, in a polyphonic sonic image. Like a phonogram of a 24-hour cycle on the air. All of this I will have to develop and clarify when I am in Kortrijk to continue my research and the development, during the month before the opening of the installation on May 7th.”

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“I can’t really start composing before I am Kortrijk, because I will have to consider what material there is already. All the Beyoncé and who knows other music… and I have to see for the volumes. As I said before, I work very much with layer upon layer upon layer upon layer upon layer. I work with textures, with background, with foreground… It still is not very clear to me how the composition will sound in the end. Though the idea now is more or less articulated, in a way, the sound is not there yet. At other times I started with the material. Maybe that is easier. But this time I started with the idea.
The way I see it now (but that still might change) is that there will be no frame. You will not be able to go around the installation, you will have to go into it, and become surrounded by the sound.
In fact, it will be around your ankles. I mean, the radio’s do not hang at ear height. I want to have them close to the floor, so that, acoustically, you won’t have your ear towards the radio.”

I like a lot the idea to built the installation with radio’s that are collected locally, that come from within and around Kortrijk.

Maia laughs. “Yes. Maybe we will empty Kortrijk of its portable radio’s. So then people will have to listen on the internet. I had an interesting experience this autumn, when I was in Brasil. I was doing a workshop with a group of artists. I asked them to bring a radio, and in my mind they would come carrying something. And then they popped in, but nobody carried anything at all. so I asked: ‘Oh, you didn’t bring your radio?’ But they said, ‘yes! sure we did!’ And of course, they had the radio on their cell phones, or computers.”

You will agree that listening to the radio on the web or on your iPhone (where you simply will ‘click’ to chose and listen to one among a range of available channels) is a very different experience from roaming through the ether turning the dial of your radio, with new voices and other music crackling in and out of ‘focus’…

“Yes, it is! But maybe that is also sort of a generation thing. My kids do listen to the radio, but I don’t think they turn the dial to search for channels. They simply pick the station that they want to listen to. They don’t search in the same way. I think that has something to do with memory. But I still think they have a memory for radio as well, it ‘s just a little bit different. It is true that things are changing…”

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Do you listen yourself to the radio at home, Maia?

“Oh, actually I do. Yes, I listen to the radio. To a real radio. There is this one station left in Norway that has a lot of topics, that often before I didn’t even know that I would be interested in. So yes, I like to switch on the radio, and listen to that station.

I actually always envied friends of mine, who are also artists, but who can listen to the radio all the time when they’re working. I cannot do that. I cannot listen to the radio when I am working with all those radio’s that diffuse my sounds…”

The Festival van Vlaanderen Kortrijk 2011 takes place in Kortrijk, Belgium, between May 5th and 22nd. Sound City (Klinkende Stad) is the title of the Resonance exhibition (with sound installations by Pierre Berthet, Esther Venrooy, Paul Devens and Maia Urstad) that is part of the Festival. The exhibition’s opening (in the Budatoren, Korte Kapucijnenstraat), will take place on Saturday May 7th.

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