so near...

Review of 'Wish You Were Here'

Kelly Large, with support from Static Gallery, Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art, 2002

Liverpool, Sunday 23rd March 2003, 9pm. Tune into 87.9fm to see if there’s anything left. Just some fuzz. More of a hiss than a low rumble. The last strains of Åke Hodell’s Structures III (part 6) are long gone. 87.9fm is now an empty space, one of thousands on the dial. Somewhere out there, maybe in some of the flats opposite, someone is transmitting Morse signals. Six words a minute for beginners, shifting up to thirty words a minute for the more experienced. Three thousand miles east there’s a war going on and we’re not hearing any human noises.

Wish You Were Here was a twelve hour temporary restricted service radio station project last November at 87.9fm, spread across four Sunday nights during The Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art. An incredibly ambitious and partly successful project, initiated by artist Kelly Large with support from Static Gallery, WYWH covered musings on communication, Morse Code, war, talking to yourself and rambling.

Structured thematically across four three-hour sets, the project began and ended with its strongest sections – Is there anybody out there? and The real thing? It is no coincidence that the work of Åke Hodell was included in these sections – three major pieces from the sixties and seventies, exemplary examples of what audio works on short-wave radio signals can achieve. Ear pressed to the speaker, then withdrawn, mind buzzing with a series of images and implications, picturing the creators tackling vast themes by piecing together sounds to say things that could not be said in any other way.

WYWH explored notions of the near and the far and when it worked at its best – Hodell, Williams, the first half of Shaw & McNally, Cole & Larson or the gaps between Large speaking and the music beginning – it created a special place that was near the speaker yet far from a local transmission.

The possibility that you are the only person listening to events such as WYWH adds to the frisson. Listeners were not offered any means of communicating with the programme makers (no phone number or e-mail) and as such the hope that somewhere someone else was listening was given no outlet. A kind of cruel joke, until one sees that the strong works required that closed door. Artists that imbued their audio excerpts with such intensity that they could only have been made for themselves or the very least one other. There was just them and you in a lonely place.

Beginning with an overly long and problematic piece from Paul Frank Lewthwaite (seventeen minutes, same text repeated in four languages) the first evening settled down with Hodell’s Orpheic Revelations. What to make of stumbling across barely audible heavy breathing or incessant howling like an old Severed Heads track (epilepsy?) once heard on John Peel? Is there anyone else out there hearing this? Doesn’t matter. Wolves tear at Mozart. Did the creator create for just the single listener? We are informed by narrator Mark that Orpheic Revelations was “originally composed as a stage work” but even Mark doesn’t sound convinced that anyone else is listening. Hodell sits comfortably with the contemporary and commissioned works of WYWH and his inclusion was a commendable choice. It introduced early on the possibility of telephonic one-to-one dialogues. Forget the crowds. Even forget the possibilities of radio. There’s no room.

Steve Williams comes into the room with a piece called ‘3 tales of near and far’. Spoken words cut up, possibly taking odd phrases from songs and creating dialogues inbetween, the way the mind can drift while the ear stays open. Or is he tuning a radio? Playing with the remote control mute button. We hear a Mancunian accent over some heavy dub and the speech becomes more disjointed from the second hand lines. The whole thing sounds beautiful, crackling like someone stuck inside an old piece of machinery. The sounds are near and far, depth and lack of it. Have to press your ear nearer the speaker. Nic Cage in Adaptation frantically flicking on and off his dictaphone. Heavy breathing. Michael Stipe interviews the Happy Mondays backstage and gets arthouse. Chase scene after chase scene. Williams earns the right to last for ten minutes. Running up hills and down them. Inner city life type music. The crackling. Have to decide what is pre-recorded and what is produced by your own tuner. Clever and breath taking.

Atomic Kitten are singing The tide is high. The sound quality is tinny. Artist Kelly Large is asking a series of people to select one piece of music which is then played by holding the microphone to the record player. Only on careful second or third listening – a feat not possible during the live transmission – does Large’s series offer something else. In the gap between her saying ‘we’ll play it now’ and the music beginning, many of the interviewees keep talking, unaware that the mike is picking it up. In these few short moments we hear people at ease as the needle drops or the play button is pressed. Someone utters ‘My god, that was horrible!’ Others lower their voice and add crucial details to the story of why they chose the track ‘I’ve actually got two copies of Hotel California you know, one was from my brother...’. Someone even asks what it’s for (was it not explained?) and during ‘Tonight you’re mine’ a group of people can be heard in the room singing along. Desert Island discs with the mike left on, a strange space to be listening to on the airwaves, people peculiarly at ease and something we’re not used to hearing.

Hodell, Williams and those snippets inadvertently induced by Large created the necessary audio depth to succeed as radio sounds. Too often other works, particularly the unedited spoken transcripts, came across as naked and devoid of the subtle professional filling in of silence. These artists transposed you somewhere else, into that space between speaker and not-Liverpool. Yes, that could have been achieved by releasing a CD of the same playlist and distributing it citywide, but the sense of event, even the hope – then quashed hope – of simultaneous experience would have been gone.

The second installment - Location Location – unfortunately did not manage to take us anywhere, despite tackling the very topic of tuning into other people’s experiences of elsewhere. And after a somewhat confused third edition - you’re not from ‘round here are you? - too literal and unedited except for cole & larson’s humble but effective ambient meanderings, the final evening was more cryptically introduced as The real thing? Narrator Mark informed us to “be aware that this evening you may hear things you don’t want to or that other people don’t want you to”. Nice idea and The real thing? presented a valiant attempt at exploring the “covert and invisible space of radio”.

Richard Prince’s Doctor jokes (tell me everything), shared with Bob Gober, akin to eavesdropping on two American taxi drivers outside your window. Sometimes these same speakers pick up passing cab transmissions. Medium or environment again.

Hodell’s Structures III from 1967 attempts to span both World Wars with all human presence removed. What is left is a barrage of bullets like huge elastic snapping, near and far, electrical signals fading in and out. Machine guns. No commentary. Explosions. No breathing. Helicopters. No crying. Shoot-em ups allowing annihilation but removing the screams.

Lewis, Lowe and Robey’s whispers eavesdrops on someone at home tuned into Radio 1’s start of the weekend and a Bingo scene complete with dubbed heavy breathing. Rikke Benborg continues our access to the private drawing of breath, extracting the inhalations before and after lines from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Attempts at signs of life. McCormack + Gent’s Collaboration by committee could have done with some such indicators of life. A deliberately deadpan discussion on hypothetical artistic issues, it lacked the passion or interest in the subject that has to be earned to be on our airwaves.

In contrast, Becky Shaw’s chat with Stan McNally of The Liverpool Marine Radio & Electronics Society exuded excitement and interest in the subject. It helped that the subject of the interview – Morse Code – led to ten minutes of audio double entendres. The piece should have been cut once the conversation moved away from the issue of communication but as it unfolded, the true potential of WYWH as an art project became apparent.

We begin with a series of bleeps and blinking electronic pulses. McNally starts to translate these abstract sounds into English for the listener. Someone out there is tapping away and McNally paints a vivid picture of amateur Morse Coders sitting at home sending audio signals at their own level or standard out while astutely filling in key historical details of the medium’s development. We learn that beginners can achieve around six words per minute and can build up to thirty with practice. There are licences for slow-speed Morse. The quality of the interview with all three voices (McNally is joined by a colleague) sounds like it was recorded in an extremely small underground cabin. All three voices retain similar levels. Huddled around the mike. Throughout the discussion, feint pulses can be heard. McNally speaks of coded Morse, the Japanese and Native American Indians’ versions, the theme tune to Inspector Morse and with passion about the Wirral Amateur Radio Club. McNally and colleague occasionally break into verbal Morse with each other, a Dada-esque presentation over how to pronounce punctuation: da-da dedee da-da is a comma, da de-da da diss is an oblique stroke.

Through its twelve hours WYWH touched upon only three of the four major strands of audio art: spoken word, field recordings and reworking of existing audio.

Spoken word – interviews, stories or readings – relies as much on delivery, duration, editing and audio quality as it does on the content. To this extent the works by Lewthwaite, Voegelin, George Shaw, Gibson, Reilly & Reilly and Markowitsch focussed on substance to the detriment of the medium through which they were carried. The field recordings such as Ramsden’s glider lesson (soaring) or cocosolidciti’s scalene series fared better with their depth and timbre as did the examples of reworking existing audio – Furlong’s a short history of sound or Autonomy Group number 7’s remix of the 1971 spotlight on the moog, kaleidoscopic vibrations.

Where WYWH fell short was the lack of voice as sound. With perhaps the exception of Williams and McNally (unknowingly), the history of Burroughs, Schwitters and Monk taking apart the human voice and restructuring new languages was not reflected. The interview with McNally managed to be three things at once – interview, field recording and voice as sound. In Hodell’s words, text sound composition. It also contained key questions relating to WYWH as a whole – who is listening, what are they anticipating, what language is appropriate, passion or deadpan, relevance, local licence versus wide thinking and how to allow the medium to enhance the subject.

Whether these issues were raised intentionally is up for debate but it is the role of the curator or programmer to have the overall vision. The difficulty with thematically stranded output is that works are chosen to suit rather than to create or suggest themes. WYWH was an audio art work for radio and as such needed to respect that genre’s history to reach its full potential. The thread of human breathing as indications of life in a non-contact medium was perhaps unintentional. Similarly, the huge gulf in audio quality of selections inadvertently echoed a desire to explore near and far. The possibility of creating that space between the tuner and somewhere else and the foundations of almost a century of artists playing with non-visual forms should have been the platform for a fuller realisation. Wish You Were Here was at times an extraordinary experience but most of the time it was way off the dial.