by Nico Carpentier, Respublika! curator.
Community media(¹) are more than media organisations. With diversity, contingency and fluidity as key characteristics, community media act as crossroads of civil society (Santana and Carpentier, 2010), bringing together a wide variety of people: Educators, experts, activists, visual artists, sound artists and musicians, journalists, and many more. Their alternativity allows community media to transgress fixed borders, and to shift into areas that are not traditionally associated with (mainstream) media organisations, including the arts. To use Deleuze and Guattari’s words (2004: 8), which are very appropriate for community media: “A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences and social struggles.”
Respublika! aims to tap into community media’s artistic dimension, and community media’s relationships with the arts, in order to invite people that are closely, or only peripherally, connected to these community media – Respublika! calls them ‘community media affiliated artists’ – to explore, expose, construct, deconstruct, visualise, represent, and critically reflect upon the relationships between media, democracy and participation.
Community media’s artistic dimension has been recognised by a variety of institutions. For instance, research has shed light on their artistic abilities, as the CapeUK The Arts and Community Radio report illustrates:
Although the sector as a whole is at an early stage in its development we found many rich examples of innovative arts practice, particularly in the more established stations which have been broadcasting since 2001 as part of the access programme and in stations which had grown out of arts based organisations.
We can find other examples that validate the artistic practices of community media by producing overviews. One example is arts.community.media, the “platform, producer, partner for the arts” that is supported by the Arts Council England. This platform is an “online showcase of arts and community media collaborations from around the UK”, and provides quite some interesting examples of community media art projects.
In many cases, though, the artistic activities of community media remain ever so hidden, located under the radar, just as is often the case with community media organisations themselves. This does not mean that there are no examples of community media art projects to be found. These artistic practices are simply fairly well hidden, and require more effort than a quick and sloppy search. One key example, that brought together more than 70 artists at the end of October 2016, was the International Radio Art Festival Radio Revolten, organised by the German community radio station Radio Corax. Another example is the Radia Network, which groups “radio stations, of the independent, non-commercial, community, cultural species.” (http://radia.fm/about/) They describe their remit and activities as follows:
Radia has become a concrete manifestation of the desire to use radio as an art form. The approaches differ, as do the local contexts; from commissioned radio art works to struggles for frequencies to copyright concerns, all the radios share the goal of an audio space where something different can happen. That different is also a form in the making – radio sounds different in each city, on each frequency. Taking radio as an art form, claiming that space for creative production in the mediascape and cracking apart the notion of radio is what Radia does. (http://radia.fm/about/)
Of course, radio art and sound art are not the exclusive territory of community media, but there are natural links. One could argue that it is no coincidence that it was Bertolt Brecht (2001), who developed a radio theory in the second half of the 1920s, arguing for the use of radio as a tool of communication and not as a tool of distribution. In these very early works on radio, we can witness the alignment of the arts, radio and participation, with the latter being one of the foundational principles of community media. Later publications about radio (and) art, such as Neil Strauss’s (1993) Radiotext(e), Daina Augaitis and Dan Lander’s (1994) Radio Rethink, Erik Granly Jenssen and Brandon LaBelle’s (2007) Radio Territories, and the 2008 Re-inventing Radio, edited by Heidi Grundmann, Elisabeth Zimmermann, Reinhard Braun, Dieter Daniels, Andreas Hirsch and Anne Thurmann-Jajes, all include chapters that refer to community media organisations (again using a wide variety of labels for them), and their ways of integrating sound art and radio art in projects, programmes and entire radio stations.
One particular example, that shows this intimidate connection between community media and radio art is Resonance, a British community radio station in London. Founded in 2002, “Resonance seeks to discover, encourage and support a diverse range of artistic voices through radio – from first-timers to seasoned broadcasters.” (https://www.resonancefm.com/about) Their programme schedule includes, for instance, programmes such as ‘Listening Across Disciplines’, which is edited and produced by Salomé Voegelin. This programme “presents methods of listening as they are used by astrophysicists, urbanists, architects, audiologists, artists, anthropologists, writers, neurologists and more.” (https://www.resonancefm.com/programmes). Another example is the Belgian Radio Centraal, which was founded in 1980. Again, using one programme as example: De ‘Gebraden Zwaan Zingt’ (‘The Fried Swan Sings’) defines itself as “experimental noise pollution” (http://www.radiocentraal.be/Realescape/programmatie/83). Daniel Renders, the programme’s producer, has released several sound art albums as Cassis Cornuta, and is a performing artist, sometimes solo, sometimes as member of the trio Aluda Lextherni.
The photograph below comes out of my own archive, and shows a Radio Centraal mobile studio at the MUHKA in Antwerp, for the 1993 exhibition ‘On taking a normal situation and retranslating it into overlapping and multiple readings of conditions past and present’, conceived and curated by Yves Aupetitallot, Iwona Blazwick and Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. Arguably, the radio studio itself, and the social practice of broadcasting, becomes integrated in the museum exhibition as art work in itself, while simultaneously broadcasting about it. The picture also shows – apart from myself in a slightly younger version – George Smits (1944-1997), a visual artist, musician and radio producer of ‘Zbolk Night Radio’, at work at the mixing board. George Smits described ‘Zbolk Night Radio’ in the following terms:
“How far can someone go in constructing acoustic instruments from junk, playing and then recording them, to compose songs on cheap digital equipment with samples of that music, able to mix these songs live on a weekly radio broadcast with the original sounds, and all this without somebody saying: ‘You’re out of tune, you’re a freak, you can get out!’” (George Smits, quoted in https://www.muhka.be/programme/detail/418-inbox-george-smits-mafprint-experimentele-zeefdrukken-affiches-underground-comics-de-verhalen-van-jan-super-8-films-the-colour-company-presents-schilderijen/artist/2773-george-smits)
Of course, community media’s artistic reach spans beyond sound art. If we stay within the realm of community radio, then radio drama, and other theatrical forms should be mentioned. In the case of community television, the close relationship with video art needs to be highlighted. Here, the US-based community TV broadcaster Paper Tiger Television is a case in point. They describe themselves as follows:
“Paper Tiger Television, through the collaborative efforts of artists, activists and scholars, has pioneered experimental, innovative and truly alternative community media since 1981. An early innovator in video art and public access television of the early 80’s, PTTV developed a unique, handmade, irreverent aesthetic that experimented with the television medium by combining art, academics, politics, performance and live television. […] PTTV is recognized internationally for its contribution to video art, theory and documentary tradition” (http://papertiger.org/about-us/history/)
But we should move away from an exclusive focus on audio-visual community media. There is a vast richness of community media that used (and is still using) print to communicate with their audiences. And, when the internet gained popularity, community media organisations migrated to the internet, using a mélange of technologies, or simply started as online-only community media organisations (while still remaining community media organisations). If we focus on the ‘old’ print community media (which continue to exist, sometimes as online community zines), then we find a fascinating overview of their artistic capabilities in Jean-François Bizot’s (2006) Free Press: Underground & Alternative Publications 1965 & 1975. The text on the cover page of the first part of the book is a fascinating illustration of the artistic ambition and reach of these publications:
We are the future. The free press is everywhere. Pop art, irony, collages, surrealism, cybernetics, happenings, road movies, activists, poets, angry young men, psychedelia, beatniks, Situationists, Buddhism, Native Americans, revolution, ghettos. (Bizot, 2006: 9)
Community media organisations, in their rich diversity and creative fluidity, sometimes activate artistic repertoires, in combination with, and grounded in, their participatory-democratic dimension. They are not the only types of organisations that are characterised by this combination, on the contrary. This combination positions them in close proximity of the field of community arts, a form of cultural practice in which art is produced and used by local people within their communities as an instrument for social change (Adams & Goldbard, 2002; Fotheringham, 1987; Kelly, 1984). As Cultural Studies researcher, George McKay (2010) argues in his book chapter Community Arts and Music, Community Media, the community arts movement and the community media movement share a concern for their communities, and both wish to empower them by democratically opening up the artistic sphere and the media sphere and giving ordinary people (non-professionals) a voice.
Moreover, the desire to increase audience interaction and participation has a long history in the arts, even if it is not shared by all artists (at least not in similar ways). One seminal arts exhibition which thematised the role of participation in the arts, entitled ‘The Art of Participation’, took place in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2008-2009). While also others (for instance, Claire Bishop (2006)) have significantly contributed to reflections on this matter, this exhibition catalogue is still an impressive reference point for understanding the relationship between the arts, democracy and participation, and it continues to be a source of inspiration for community media affiliated artists.
Adams, Don, Goldbard, Arlene (2002) Community, Culture and Globalization. New York: The Rockefeller Foundation Creativity & Culture Division.
Augaitis, Daina, Lander, Dan (eds.) (1994) Radio Rethink: Art, Sound and Transmission. Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery.
Bizot, Jean-François (2006) Free Press: Underground & Alternative Publications 1965 & 1975. New York: Universe.
Brecht, Bertolt (2001) Brecht on Film and Radio (ed. Marc Silberman). London: Methuen Drama.
Claire Bishop (ed.) (2006) Participation. Documents of Contemporary Art. London/Cambridge: Whitechapel/MIT Press.
Cochrane, Pat, Jeffery, Graham, with Churchill Dower, Ruth, Garnham, Jo, McGregor, Sheila (2008) The Arts and Community Radio. A CapeUK research report. Leeds: CapeUK.
Fotheringham, Richard (ed.) (1987) Community Theatre in Australia. North Ryde, NSW: Methuen Australia.
Frieling, Rudolf, Groys, Boris, Atkins, Robert, Manovich, Lev (eds.) (2008) The Art of Participation. 1950 to now. London: Thames & Hudson.
Grundmann, Heidi, Zimmermann, Elisabeth, Braun, Reinhard, Daniels, Dieter, Hirsch, Andreas, Thurmann-Jajes, Anne (eds.) (2008) Re-inventing Radio: Aspects of Radio as Art. Frankfurt Am Main: Revolver.
Jenssen, Erik Granly, LaBelle, Brandon (eds.) (2007) Radio Territories. Los Angeles / Copenhagen: Errant Bodies Press.
Kelly, Owen (1984) Community, Art and the State: Storming the Citadels. London, U.K.: Comedia Publishing Group.
McKay, George (2010) “Community Arts and Music, Community Media: Cultural Politics and Policy in Britain since the 1960s”, Kevin Howley (ed.) Understanding Community Media. London: Sage, pp. 41-52.
Santana, Maaika, Carpentier, Nico (2010) “Mapping the rhizome. Organizational and informational networks of two Brussels alternative radio stations”, Telematics and Informatics, 27(2): 162-174.
Strauss, Neil (ed.) (1993) Radiotext(e). New York: Semiotext(e).
¹ Their diversity is also played out in the labels attached to community media. Community media is here a semantic short-cut for a wide range of media organisations that relate to labels such as community media, alternative media, participatory media, rhizomatic media, citizen(s) media, and civil society media.
² The author has done his utmost best to locate the photographer. S/he is requested to contact the author, so that due credit can be attributed.