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Nothing (Repeated)
The beginnings of this project lie in a response to a brief text by Walter Benjamin, entitled, On the Minute, published December 6, 1934, in Frankfurt, and secondarily, a text by Heinrich Böll called Merk’s Collected Silences. Throughout the 1920’s and into the 1930’s, before it became impossible, Walter Benjamin broadcast numerous times on German radio. His friends Wolf Zucker and Theodor Adorno fondly recalled his “beautiful full voice” and “his way of speaking like a poker gambler”.

In the text, Benjamin describes the horror he experienced upon the moment he realized he was accidentally broadcasting dead air. He was overcome, he says, “…by a new shudder, which was related to the oldest shudder known to man. I lent myself my own ears, which suddenly perceived nothing except the sound of silence.”

A moment before his realization of dead air he was happily recalling his just-completed performance with gusto. A sideways glance to the studio clock was like an explosion in the room as he realized he was no longer broadcasting - although his strictly managed time-slot was still on air.

For Benjamin, it was a recognition of the silence of death, which, at that moment, was “…snatching him away in thousands of ears and thousands of homes.”

In two and a half pages, Benjamin’s text can feed the imagination for at least the next five years. And probably more to come.

Here are a few examples:

-What was the connection between silence and death? Not the obvious relationship of the silence of inert matter, but what is the connection between silence and a death of the still-living?

-Benjamin’s way of describing the act of listening as lending oneself one’s own ears still seems peculiar. What is it to lend oneself one’s own ears?

-And hIs description of being snatched away in thousands of ears and thousands of homes sounds like a contemporary horror screenplay.

It is useful to consider French philosopher and author, Michel Sair’s thoughts on thermodynamics in regard to Benjamin’s trauma.

Sairs’s ideas around systems might take us further into what this shudder could have represented, short of death. Outlining the age of thermodynamics as an age where direction was ultimately given to time, that systems lead to entropic behaviours, that surroundings influence systems, that death awaits everything. A silent radio broadcast was the ultimate system end state. A moment where radiophonic energies were dissipated in all directions at once with no way to gather up all the spilling electrons. A completely chaotic Myth of Sisyphus.

A physical system... is isolated-closed. One must understand by this that no flow of matter, no circulation of heat, light, or energy, crosses the walls that define it and demarcate it in space. Under this condition and this condition only, the two laws of thermodynamics apply and are valid. With the slightest opening, the system is no longer governed by general equations.
Hence the general displacement of philosophical discourse from the nineteenth century to Bergson's posterity. Once couched in terms of differences, reservoirs and circulation, energies, power and relations of force, time and motors, deviations, oppositions and dissolution, suddenly this discourse, as if reverting to the conditions of its own practice, begins speaking in terms of open and closed, of isolation and closures.

There are many more thoughts on this text but we will carry on for our purposes here and discuss the idea that may resonate the most in our time; and that is the experience of clock time versus experiential time. The time-piece of the German radio factory versus the durée as outlined by Henri Bergson.

Benjamin discusses two strict rules he was to follow during his broadcast; 1) Speak to the radio audience as individuals, not as a mass, and 2) he was to strictly hold himself to the time allotted the program. A second over this and he would simply be cut off mid-sentence.

A Year of Radio Silence

From November 3rd 2012 to November 3rd, 2013, on 88.0 FM from the radiating point of 45 degrees 31 minutes 49.7186 seconds North / 73 degrees 36 minutes 23.8114 seconds West (with a position error of plus or minus 213minutes, a signal of 25 mega watt strength broadcast silence was transmitted.

This broadcast was in the form of a community service to quieten the FM radio band at this frequency for a period of one year. At present, a naturally occurring broadband noise is saturating this frequency. It is unclear, at this point in time, what the concrete benefits of this action will be other than a quieter FM band. We can only imagine some of the outcomes.

The limits of broadcast and receiving equipment and weather will greatly effect the quality and strength of this signal. As a non-profit community service, we offer no guarantees. In short, we will do what we can to maintain this quiet space with the limited resources we have.

When installing a pirate radio, one turns the transmitter on with no input to insert a silent space into the static of the dial. To find this broadcast signal, one scans the radio dial until the static gives way to a quiet, open space of stillness. One can imagine this as a quieting of the electromagnetic spectrum creating a sort of reverie in the dial. A place for contemplation or meditative listening. Similar to the quieting of Cage’s Silent Prayer, a broadcast of silence over a department store’s muzak playback system. For Cage, it was a rupture in noisy capitalist space.

It is also a space of pure radiophonic potential. What could a community imagine to fill these airwaves?

In part, the history of radio, or more specifically of radio-time as commodity in Capitalist culture, can explain the pressure to avoid silences. Not only can they be awkward, they are also moments left un-commodified. They are lost currency. Wasted resources. Dividends uncollected.

Contemporary radio has developed technological means to actually eliminate and shorten time between words and to eliminate gaps so as to condense capitalist time. A sort of Taylor-ist acoustic space.

But there is also something inherent in the technology of radio that breeds awkwardness in silence. It is unnerving. Even in a de-commodified community radio context where the pressure of economic value by the minute is radically reduced or even eliminated altogether.

The longer the silence, the more tense the situation becomes. And so why not a year of it.

I then extended this project of radio silence one step further. I took recordings from these broadcasts from radios around my home and brought them to the broadcasting studios of the Österreichischer Rundfunk, the ORF, in Vienna. Working with the producers and engineers of the weekly radio art program, Kunstradio, we set up a system of blasting, at incredibly loud levels, these silent broadcasts at a grand piano in the studio. With weights holding down piano notes and a system of audio drivers rattling the piano and the sheer volume from PA speakers, we were able to get the ‘unplayed’ piano to make some noise. When we instantly shut off the PA, piano notes would ring on in the studio. A long, slow decay.

Once the program was assembled, I instructed the playback engineers to broadcast the piece as quietly as regulation would allow. It seems the ORF has a government regulated system to have an emergency announcement kick in if there is more than 20 seconds of broadcast level below -20 dB. I had secretly hoped I would be able to set off the emergency signals. In this regard the project was a failure.

Of course with Nothing (Repeated), I am really not speaking or thinking of nothing. Perhaps a more accurate, if less poetic, description is the almost nothing. A field that is as reduced as can be. And curiously enough, this threshold is different for different people.

The second dramatic license here, is that if we are speaking of nothing, or almost nothing, wouldn't it be more interesting to repeat it?

And so Nothing (Repeated) gathers the work of six Canadian artists whose work I am framing here as the almost nothing, the barely-there. While some of them may have similar interests in mind, these works were not commissioned for this broadcast. And so the fault of filing these under the almost-nothing is mine but with their blessings.

Description of Works

In the radio program of Nothing (Repeated), crys cole contributes a live performance recorded in Köln, Germany. cole’s performance is reduced to sounds from the mouth, a series of gestures activating and amplifying the surfaces and textures of objects and materials usually left silent. The performance is still and one’s scale of listening reduces to another threshold. Something we might describe as an exquisite minutia.

Peter Courtemanche from Vancouver, provides a rumbling, rolling soundtrack (Groove: hand-cut) of an object whose surface, once smooth and near-clinical, is now rendered as a rollicking noisy landscape. By hand-carving a groove, borrowing from vinyl record topography, into the blank surface of a compact disc, this new noise-maker leaves behind its smooth past and joins the world of animated vibration.

Christof Migone’s study of trauma, Quieting, and its aftermath, reveals the many types of silence left in the wake of fracturing events. The piece includes numerous silences, a recording of the cannon fired at 12 noon each day from Citadel Hill in Halifax marking that location’s site as a key naval base for the British Empire, the sound from a videotape of the infamous Chris Burden performance piece, Shoot, and the soundtrack to the film First Contact, a story of armed colonial oppression. The residue of trauma is a quieting of many layers.

Douglas Moffat’s soundtrack to The European Rooms, is a study in miniature - room tones recorded of the Thorne Rooms Collection housed at the Art Institute of Chicago. These meticulously modelled miniature rooms built at a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot are intended to give viewers an idea of the design and detail of European architectural history from the Middle Ages to the first half of the 20th century. The rooms were commissioned, designed and with construction overseen by the Chicago heiress Mrs. James Ward Thorne. The piece is book-ended by a violin and viola piece that is an interpretation of music on a miniature sheet music in one of the rooms. Having to match the dry acoustic space of the violin and viola recordings, Moffat conducted an impulse response recording, creating a large bang, often with a cap gun, so as to model the acoustic signature of the rooms. The hyper visual field of these interiors contrast with the reduced humming tones of the rooms. The room tones almost reveal themselves more in contrast with each other rather than on their own. In this room they mingle with the noise from the fresh air feed that is keeping us all alive. As Moffat states, there is also the strangeness of how the sound cannot be miniturazied. Its scale cannot be adjusted to the visual field simply by lowering the volume. Here volume of the rooms cannot be in proper scale to the volume of sound.

jake moore’s Area is a room tone of another kind. Recorded in a Montréal artist -run centre’s exhibition space we have the sound of a room as daylight slips through it. This space has recently been given up by the centre in a budget-adjusting tactic to survive. This passing sunlight will soon be lost forever to this space as a new tower block is being constructed. This new structure overlooking Montréal’s controversial Quartier des Spectacles will block out the direct daylight to this space. This loss of light is directly tied to the production of spectacular space. A newly engineered space to easily funnel crowds and offer pre-packaged circus events.

In a sense, Area is a sort of homage to lost light. Using filtering techniques of a room recording, a different sort of register emerges. The filtered tones of the room and surrounding space are heightened to a different scale. If we listen closely can we hear the shifting light patterns cause and effect?

Scale is also something to consider with Erin Sexton’s microscopic crystal world as it comes alive with the crackling, pulsing sonics that may as well be the whole universe. Sexton performs with handmade analog electronics and circuits to sonify physical processes using crystals she has cultivated herself and electrified. These amplified electromagnetic fields create and sustain feedback systems linking her work to early cybernetic visions. Her work transduces intangible frequencies allowing us to hear events normally outside of our body’s experiential capabilities to reveal how these tiny worlds begin to sound enormous in contrast with their size. While it’s true the amplification shifts the scale, but almost more in tune with the effect these materials have on the universe. Tiny elements coming together to make… everything.

And finally as part of the opening evening, Montréal artist and scholar, Marc-Alexandre Reinhardt presented a new work, Sappho (now again), based on the writings, and missing writings, of the ancient lyrical poet, Sappho. Marc-Alexandre is currently completing his thesis dissertation on the task of translation. To borrow a quote from Marc-Alexandre, “In a way, this performance is a series of variations of physical silence and metaphysical silence that compose Sappho's poetry. These are also inspired by Anne Carson's thought's on translation in an essay « Variations on the right to remain silent » “

Some of Sappho’s poetry, recorded on papyrus, has survived to this day. The remaining sheets are largely missing leaving only fragments of text still visible. Sappho is also credited as inventing , the Mixolydian tuning mode in the 7th century B.C. For Sappho (now again) Marc-Alexandre has performed and recorded a piano piece, based on this tuning system, to cassette tape. Puncturing holes in the tape meticulously by hand, Marc-Alexandre’s work is also full of voids. And something altogether whole.

Serres, Michel. ‘The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory, & Thermodynamics’. Harari, Josue V. And David F. Bell, ed. Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1982. 72.