When Radio Goes Silent

Radio Silence is the latest installation piece by digital media artist Zach Poff, and it was on display at Devotion Gallery in Brooklyn, New York from July 2 to July 11. Sponsored by free103point9, the piece is concerned with the natural and unnatural pauses in speech that occur during radio broadcasts, and these sites for reflection or response become charged with a certain potency. Poff engineered a system whereby eight radios would be tuned to different stations on the broadcast spectrum and only one could “speak” at any given time; when two of them spit out a silence of any sizable length at the exact same moment, the installation would switch between stations. What emerged was a dialogue across speakers, across stations, and across languages.

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“The technology behind this piece is kind of a union between the physical handiwork and the less physical—but still physical—handiwork of wiring it together in the mind of the computer.” Poff was careful, though, to make sure that discussions about the piece did not devolve into questions of what sort of computer programming he used, or which wires are connected to which radios. Radio Silence is concerned with technology, but only so much as it allows us to open up a discussion about our relationship to that technology, and how broadcasters are manipulating it to forge dialogues. In a nod to John Cage, Poff accepts that his role in the creation of the work was just to manufacture a potential for this dialogue: “The details are left to chance, but the structure is very clearly constructed. In doing so, my sense of authorship here is purely in the discovery of a structure, or the conscious creation of a structure. I let all of the details bump into one another as they may.”

When the average listener thinks about their radio consumption, it is generally which personality on the AM dial they subscribe to, or which FM station jives the best with their musical taste. We very much curate our own radio experiences, while remaining aware of a fundamental rift between the AM and FM bands that has been cultivated by broadcasters over the last several decades. There’s a lot of strong personalities on AM radio in particular, and FM “seems to represent this newer kind of focus on a massive variety of programming. In a way, it’s like cable television: little niches grow up and become these channels.” Both Radio Silence and his earlier Video Silence disrupt the standard broadcast communication model of single transmitter reaching multiple receivers by forging connections between the transmitters, and thereby rendering them as receivers to the radio brethren. By bringing different radio speech acts into a manufactured dialogue with one another, Poff is interested in revealing moments of simultaneity that can be “just as telling as if there was a real conversation going on.”

“My original goal in a way was to say: If I talk really quickly with no pauses, I leave behind a residue that’s extremely compact. And that residue has a certain kind of volume curve to it. Its negative space—which is how I’m considering silence in this context—has certain contours that would reflect something about the voice.” Think of the difference between an angry, loud shock jock and the slower, more reflexive pacing of a preacher on Sunday morning prayer service and the well-modulated, calm voice of a public radio journalist. “We’d notice something,” Poff says, “in those silences that would inform us about that voice that we’re not going to be able to hear.” In the end, Poff’s original goal didn’t lead to the intended statement about some sort of discovery of the use of silent pauses in different speech acts—the pauses are just a change in signal, and he turned to these as potential entrypoints into constructing a dialogue.

One of the most startling effects of Radio Silence—particularly when placed in relation to Video Silence—is the myriad silences evident during radio broadcasts, but which we choose to tune out. Because video broadcasts are typically more carefully constructed and edited before going live, and because there are many more genres of broadcasts populating television (drama, comedy, etc.), the silences that exist on television are there to lend meaning to the surrounding dialogic space. A well-placed moment for character reflection—that not-as-rare-as-you-think shot of a character just looking or thinking—has the potential to be at once comedic, heart-wrenching, thoughtful, and revelatory. Poff found in Video Silence that, because of the compression of television broadcasts, every silence or breath was just as loud as the surrounding speech or music, creating a highly equalized sound environment. On the other hand, and because of the dearth of narrative and fictional programming on American radio stations, radio broadcasts exploit their silences mainly in order to allow the listener to simply make sense of what they are hearing. Pauses occur between words and sentences in order to indicate phrasing, and although these silences might have been inserted to incite the same comedic, heart-wrenching, thoughtful, or revelatory feeling, without the visual clues they seem like just part of the cadence of the speaker. When you listen closely to Radio Silence in its installation setting, what immediately pops out is the shuffling of papers, constant pops, flat-line hisses, and empty static occurring on the seven non-speaking radios. It calls attention to the actual sound of radio, the aural byproducts of someone sitting before a microphone, attempting to cover up with their voice the natural state of that frequency on the dial.

In the installation piece, Poff further played on our assumptions about radio by stripping away from the device everything that we normally associate with radios, leaving just the speaker. Gone are the tuning dials, the antennae, the digital presets, and in their place is simple aluminum armature wire bent into the shape of a traditional radio. “The idea here is that each one of these has a potential to it—it’s empty, you can literally put your hand through it,” he says. It’s a nod to the notion that we all think that technology “comes down to us from the heavens,” and that the things that make the radio work cannot be understand, and that’s perhaps not the point. The shapes themselves seem just as crucial as the dialogue going on aurally or technologically: Poff has chosen to allude to eight standard radios that we all can place within a historical trajectory in the development and maturation (and perhaps recent downfall) of radio—a cathedral-style early monolith, the standard tabletop model, those awkward-looking cube radio alarm clocks, a small transistor radio. These shapes are all familiar to us as remnants from the history of broadcasting in this country, and it is significant that the radio as a physical object has undergone a much larger transition in form than that of the CRT televisions Poff used in Video Silence.

Whereas television is just now making its first move away from its earliest technology of CRTs and curved glass toward impossibly thin LCD screens, the guts of radio have remained astonishingly the same, while the shape and size of the device has shifted around it. Radio Silence forges a dialogue across the stations on the spectrum, but it also encourages considerations of the long and storied history of radio, from families sitting around cathedral-style radios to single individuals plugging in to their iPod Nanos, now complete with FM radio bands. “The device, as though it were just airdropped down from some foreign government, arrives at our doorstep and in a way,” he says, “we build our own model of how to interpret it these forms that we are surrounded with.” Our relationship to these devices and the role they play in our lives is constantly shifting, and it is almost our duty as listeners to pay attention to what’s left out of the broadcast stream so as to better understand why we do choose to tune in when we do in an era that is overflowing with media options.

“Even as the broadcasters freak out about peer-to-peer sharing of whatever form, we’re still in many, many ways dealing with the reverberations of broadcast,” Poff states. “There is a part of Radio Silence that is concerned with that. What happens when you take sound bites from a variety of sources and put them together?”

What emerges is a deeper understanding of how we interpret media conversations, and conversations between media. And this isn’t about ideology or political stance—Poff is not concerned with pitting the Right against the Left or vice versa, but rather revealing how we construct those “battles” in the first place. Perhaps it’s worth returning to Video Silence, in which Poff used a similar mechanism to exploit the silences on network television, to answer the question of what does silence mean in broadcasting. Is it just dead air, or is it a site for potential?

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