Alanna Heiss: The Definitive Interview (Part 2)
In Articles | Interviews8 March 2012
KR: Can you speak about your pirate radio experiences with Radio Caroline and nationalist guerilla radio in the hills of El Salvador?
AH: I was living in London during the time that Radio Caroline became a beacon, not a virtual beacon but an absolute beacon, a real beacon / sound vehicle for untrammeled popular music. Since I left classical music, my interest was almost zilch with the possible exception of Max Neuhaus’ work. I was fascinated by this idea that, because you’re offshore, you could program your own radio without being tethered to the concerns of either the BBC in this case or in America the concerns of the, now we largely learned, be rut radio broadcast system. It became possible for me one time to go out on a boat with people who were dropping off a DJ or composer at Radio Caroline. I got to spend the night running around the boat and looking at everything. In no way was I a part of running Radio Caroline, but I certainly got to see it and see how the people were running it, and how much fun such a situation could be. Though not on a boat, I vowed I would have a radio station in my life. Radio Caroline was much more than a radio station, it was a symbol of the feeling at the time that breakaways were possible and that we represented, as an age group, an alternative form of government and belief. Obviously it was just a silly, huge bad boat with average DJs on it and everyone was drunk and drugged all the time so the programs were very low quality. But the idea was that you could have a capital of this imaginary fantasy world that all of us were members of Some groups printed passports and one group, twenty years later, called NSK – Neue Slowenische Kunst – were growing up and into the revolution at that time, and were imitating a government function in every area. They had five departments – one was philosophy, of which Slavoj Žižek was the director, one was dance, one was theater and one was music, which the great band Laibach came out of. They had these parallel agencies to paralyze the Soviets and the administration. Because it was a tiny country and these artists were extremely charismatic, convincing and powerful, two things are worth mentioning. One is that they were able to have passports printed by the same printers making the actual passports for the government. All of us got NSK passports with our names on them, and they worked in many countries. They not only looked official – they were official. You could call a number and a person would answer for NSK passports. I mention this because it was a twenty-year later scheme that NSK came up with, and I’ve talked with many of the members about this, that was inspired by many of the quasi-governmental wild-eyed situations like Radio Caroline. NSK’s identity was the opposite of loose, crazy and drugged. They were involved in absolute irony, and we were certainly not.
You asked me about El Salvador so this is a new story with an old story. The new story about El Salvador is that I was invited to be on a jury for a biennial happening in the Caribbean, and I was very attracted to the idea of the title. I had an incredible vision of these five days spent in a luxurious resort and meeting very relaxed and pleasant artists who didn’t really have careers but who were sort of Caribbeanish. So I accepted the invitation with alacrity. I was sent the ticket, packed flower shirts like I have on today, jumped on the plane and started sleeping. After two hours I started thinking that this was kind of a long way, and I wondered which island we were going to. Then after three hours I thought “this is a longer flight than for any island”. Max Neuhaus had a boat in the Bahamas, and I spent a lot of time in the Bahamas on that boat with him. He was doing underwater sound recording, and that’s where he lived, and I was just having a good time. So at hour number four I asked the stewardess where this Caribbean island was and she said, “It’s not a Caribbean island, we’re going to Central America, we’re going to El Salvador.” I said, “Oh my God!” Now this was really quite different from what I anticipated and what made it even more serious was that I had nominated two artists for this project, who had agreed and were already there. So I arrived in El Salvador with a great deal of foreboding – it wasn’t a Caribbean wonderland, it was a country that was a huge parking lot. We’d bombed it to smithereens and covered it over with cement. It was a very anti-American underneath, pro-American on top situation, and I had such distinct memories of our involvement with the CIA in El Salvador that I was extraordinarily apologetic as I was coming down the steps of the airplane. How could I make up for this in my own way with the artists? What happened which was of any interest to this story was that I was moping around the strange, boring, dull Holiday Inn, looking at people at the bar, looking at the work in the biennial which was not in any way unusual or unconventional, just normal art, and I finally wondered how I could make contact with some of the people who had been involved in the revolution as administrators. My thinking is always administrative because that’s what I am. I was talking to some of the artist guides and they said, “It’s very hard because there are not very many roads, but we can take you on a trip to meet some of the retired guerillas and talk with them.” I thought this could make a good radio interview so it took some money and some arrangements, it wasn’t dangerous or anything, it was just inconvenient. So I went off and took a couple of colleagues who I had nominated for the biennial. We all got into this gigantic Hummer with an underground guide and so-called guard and went into the mountains to meet the guerillas. They’d made appointments for me based on the fact that I ran a radio station out of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center called WPS1, and we went through four hours of incredible driving – crawling up ravines to see the first retired guerilla. I found out what was mind boggling and has very much affected the programs here at the Clocktower, is that radio is the single most important thing to the guerilla movement in any country. Radio’s cheap, you can make a radio –fourteen-year-old boys are the best people to make radios–, and you don’t need to have roads, so in all these places with difficult access, where guerillas are in pockets all over hiding, communication is by radio. The second thing is that those with the most power can always control the television media. They control the stations and those waves are never used by radicals because they don’t have the equipment. But not so with radio.
The guerillas who had retired and made deals with our government were living not in splendor but in a certain comfort. In one camp I visited they had no television – they would have liked to have television, but didn’t. They had a bunch of broken down horses, very beautiful wives who were cooking fantastic food, and we sat around and through translators talked about radio and how they had run their revolution with radio. Two of them had decided they wanted to start radio museums – so my next visit was to this guerilla with a radio museum. I was fantasizing about what this radio museum would look like. Mainly I had this idea about a futurist spaceship that had been built with a big antenna on the top. It was in a town of about nine or ten people, very dusty tiny little town, with no street life, because everyone was very afraid. These villages are quite dangerous because of drug runners. The radio museum was on a second floor above a bodega and had a hand-lettered sign saying “radio museum” with an arrow pointing up. I went up the stairs, and I encountered what you could encounter in the Clocktower right now. The studio is very, very messy. The studio of every radio in the world is very messy. They have illegal cigarettes because you’re not supposed to smoke in radio studios and they have some sort of liquor in paper containers in which they put the cigarettes out. I’ve been in radio studios in throughout Russia, China, France, everywhere – I lived in a radio studio the summer before last and we were doing recordings for six months. They’re always the same. Then there are some dirty clothes around, there are always some dirty socks, and always some clean laundry so they can go out. In fact radio is timeless, so people who work in radio are never paid anything and they more or less live there, and they don’t know what time of day it is, because it doesn’t make any difference what time it is in radio time. There’s no time in radio time. The guerilla with the radio museum was wonderful and he said, “If you want to move here, you could be our producer.” I think of it a lot. Not speaking Spanish is a drawback.
DKR: What was the initial impetus for your founding WPS1?
AH: It was the romantic desire to have a radio station. Because P.S.1 was very isolated in Queens, and we had the advantage of being able to go under the radar very easily, I thought I could put an antenna up. But I quickly found out that if you have an antenna, you are discovered immediately. Wanting to keep my non-profit status, though I wouldn’t have lost that, I had to keep on the right side of the law and radio stations are extremely self-protective. So the only thing you can do with a radio station is to invite all the new people in as fast as possible and get them on the air, which is what we do here. So after the antenna thing was shot down, I then tried a low-signal radio in a van that we would drive around the area so we couldn’t be caught because it wouldn’t be from any single place. We would park, do some programs and then go somewhere else, park and do programs. We did that for a couple of years just off and on. For me it created a delusion of being an outlaw. It wasn’t in reality at all effective, it was just fun. Most of the things that I do are fun for me or I just wouldn’t do them. Starting in 2000, I fundraised to make the project more substantial, and I turned to the Clocktower, which I’d kept as an alternate to P.S.1. P.S.1 was an alternate museum, and the Clocktower was an alternate artist’s space, and we made the Clocktower the broadcast station. When I left P.S.1, I freed WPS1 and its audio archives, and restarted it as its own station at the Clocktower, and now we have the gallery and the radio all together
DKR: How do you see the rapport between visual art installations in the Clocktower Gallery and your radio programming?
AH: Before I came to work full time I made it a pretty clear connection, but working here what we really have is a kind of artistic colony of anywhere between five and fifteen artists doing projects. Radio is an extension of the ability of the artist to communicate to a large group of people without having them physically present. At P.S.1, until MASS MoCA, I had the largest space in the world for contemporary art of a non-collecting institution. It’s the same size as the Prado, different as the interior may be. But here at the Clocktower is a thirteenth floor which is a sinister, macabre, gloomy, rooms-thrown-together but beautiful place, and we have artists inhabiting these rooms, and anything that happens here in a visual art capacity can be, if needed or wished by the artist, promoted through the radio to a vastly expanded audience. The shows I do tend to be more like laboratory shows and be up for a number of months. They have a certain archival nature. James Franco, for example, produced a series of radio programs that had to do with his films and sound for his films. Our archive is so huge, it’s like a collection. So for the first time in my life, the most radical activity, which is a radio station here, became also a collecting institution which I never was involved with. I think that’s interesting.
DKR: How do you think social media and internet radio are transforming contemporary art?
AH: Social media and the internet are certainly transforming contemporary art – they’re transforming everything. I’ve never learned how to use computers. One of my problems was that I couldn’t and can’t type. I took typing in high school but I cut class all the time. In the summer I went fishing instead of typing and in the winter I took tap dancing instead of typing. So I would hide from computer-related activity, and I wrote everything on legal paper. When faxes came in, I was a fax queen because I hand-wrote, and Harald Szeemann (the greatest curator who ever lived) and I always communicated by fax. He had the same problem I had. To actively work with our radio station, however, I had to learn something, so I’ve adjusted to iPads. Now that online radio makes use of look-like-a-radio-instrument computer software, I’ve overcome all these problems, but before, I did everything in my imagination because I didn’t know how to work the internet. As an outsider to the internet, I can tell that it has changed everything. It’s impossible for insiders, who have grown up with the internet, to understand that. Visual art tries to claim that it is excluded from this mass ultimatum, but it isn’t, because I look at the invitations now to shows on my iPad and I have a different relationship to the invitations and the pictures of the work. Backlighting and the luminosity have become very important to art because you’re always looking at it on a computer. Even the most pedestrian designer can either make a beautiful invitation card for an artist and make everybody want to go to the exhibition, or completely kill the work so artists have to learn to do their own graphic design or they can’t survive. All visual information is transferred by the internet. There are no slides anymore. I’ve traveled the world for forty years with slides. It’s so ludicrous to even think of conveying information by slides anymore, that people talk about Robert Smithson’s slideshow (which is, by the way, owned by the Whitney) as an art piece. The kids at the radio here say things like, “wouldn’t it be wonderful to go and see the beautiful Robert Smithson slide piece?” This is ludicrous! He had the slides like I did and other people did, just of some geographical conditions and it was always a good slide show but it wasn’t a Slide Show. Slide shows now are Theremins.
DKR: What’s a Theremin?
AH: Theremins are instruments that were popular for just a few years in the forties and fifties. It’s a keyboard with electronic waves coming out of it, and you play it by breaking the sound waves and waving your hands around. It would be familiar to you only if you’d seen old science fiction television programs in the sixties. Speaking of Theremins, my colleague David Weinstein, the Program Director at the Clocktower, is a Theremin addict so he’s very interested in it, and when we did a big project in Venice this past summer we had a Theremin player, Massimo Simonini, every night in a sound lounge we did off the Piazza San Marco. Of course there were crowds of people because no one had ever seen one before and they’re very antique instruments.
Will art as a visual object just become unimportant? Who knows? In many cases the need has become more desperate to have something that is not flipped away immediately so people are clinging to art objects. Our youngest curator, Joe Ahearn —in fact only curator but I like to say youngest because Beatrice Johnson and I are sort of curatorial tycoons here— is twenty-five years old and a very important young artistic talent. He is involved with all the music houses which are in Brooklyn and was one of the key members of Silent Barn. Silent Barn is a great bad place to go and there’s music all the time, people live there, there are bands there and Joe is instrumental to it. Unbelievably, Joe and his friends produce a newspaper on newsprint every two weeks and it has no use whatsoever because as internet children, which is what they are, they know that all this information could very easily be conveyed on by the web – but no. They list every single band, every single time, every single alternative music place, even bars, in the whole area of New York, Brooklyn the Bronx and parts of New Jersey. They assemble all this information together, and probably do that from the internet, and then they typeset it, design it, and then they have artwork made for every issue, and they print it. It’s called Showpaper and they print it in Long Island City, and then twenty or thirty of these young artists get together in a distribution system and distribute it throughout this gigantic area by hand. Artists of their ilk and age have built newspaper stands, which are so tasty that they’re constantly stolen, but they keep building them and you can go to the stand and get the paper and the reason for all this effort is to have something you can touch about something you can hear. Isn’t that phenomenal?
DKR: So it’s about community too and the physicality of a connection you make with another person beyond the ether?
AH: They’re internet children so they’re rejecting this method of communication. I think it’s the most interesting thing that we could talk about today. Your magazine is not going to be printed. A person deciding to start a magazine today like ARTERY who was determined it would only be in print, would have to be a mad person. Maybe not mad but odd or very eccentric.
DKR: But the fetishism of a beautifully printed magazine on paper as an object you can interact with in that way is very different and appealing.
AH: I think you’ve really hit the right word and even Joe Ahearn has agreed that what they’re doing is fetishistic even if it’s really innocent. It’s innocent of time and innocent of money. I’m very curatorial and love the thing they’re doing so much, so I wondered how I could make it mine with this great idea and great effort. I can’t even cover the printing costs because I don’t have any money but also it’s unviable, and they won’t print an ad. We’re very friendly with the Brooklyn Rail and Phong Bui is a close, close friend of mine. The Brooklyn Rail and radio have always been together and everything. Phong gives us the only ads we’ve ever had. He says it’s an act of rebellion these kids are doing, and The Rail is very close to that. It’s old-fashioned, they hand it out, it’s all-volunteer, only one person is paid, so they’re very, very close but they’re not as crazy as Showpaper. Showpaper has the craziest people around, the next craziest of course are at The Rail and the third craziest would be us here at the Clocktower Gallery and ARTonAIR.org.
To be continued…
Special thanks to Francine Hunter McGivern
Photo Credit: Daniel Rothbart (unless otherwise noted)
Director: Alanna Heiss
Writing Credits: Daniel Rothbart is an artist and writer. A former Fulbright Scholar, Rothbart is the author of Jewish Metaphysics As Generative Principle in American Art (Ulisse e Calipso) and The Phoenix (Ulisse e Calipso). His work can be found in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Orsini Foundation in Milan and numerous public and private collections.
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