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naturally, electromagnetic

peter blamey: douglas kahn interview


Douglas Kahn in the Red Box, State Library of Queensland, Douglas Kahn in the Red Box, State Library of Queensland,
photo Chloe Cogle
AS THE RECENT RE:LIVE MEDIA ART HISTORY 09, THE THIRD INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON THE HISTORIES OF MEDIA ART, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY IN MELBOURNE CLEARLY DEMONSTRATED, MEDIA ART IS THE AESTHETIC NEOPHYTE NO LONGER. SHORN OF ITS AHISTORICISING PREFIX ‘NEW’, THERE IS A RAFT OF WRITERS, RESEARCHERS, ACADEMICS AND ARTISTS KEEN TO EXAMINE THE ROOTS OF MEDIA ARTS PRACTICES AND MOVEMENTS, AND THEIR BROADER ASSOCIATIONS WITHIN SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY AND CULTURE.

Many of these lines of inquiry can be traced back to the social, scientific and cultural spaces, institutions and situations of the mid to late 19th century that brought forth the mediascape with which we have become progressively familiar. However, discernable within these investigations lies a related history of a phenomenon waiting to be discursively unearthed, that of electromagnetism. Whether considered simply as the physics behind electronic consumables or as the invisible frequency spectrum of radio, television and data transmissions, electromagnetism is to some degree intrinsic to most conceptions of media arts, and has a social and cultural history stretching beyond the arts into the natural philosophy of the 19th century which traverses perceived contemporary divides between analogue and digital, between art, science and technology, and between the synthetic and the natural (and, for some artists, the earthly and the spiritual).

American academic and writer Douglas Kahn has spent the last 10 years researching the intersections of electromagnetism, science and art. He is perhaps best known for his book Noise Water Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts, which sought to inject a discussion of the sonorous, audible and noisy practices of artists into the otherwise ‘silenced’ histories of 20th century aesthetics. Kahn recently visited Australia and expanded upon the theme of electromagnetism and the arts during his keynote address at Re:live Media Art History 09, along with a national lecture tour, sponsored by the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT).

This is fitting, as Kahn cites an encounter with the works of Australian artist Joyce Hinterding that explore both natural and synthetic electromagnetism as pivotal for instigating this study: “I was familiar with Joyce Hinterding initially because she was one of the most interesting artists working in sound. But, frankly, I didn’t fully understand what she was doing with pieces like Electrical Storms or Aeriology. Not merely sound pieces, they involved whistlers, atmospherics, Very Low Frequency radio, energy harvesting and the like, ie physical phenomena and concepts that enhanced the poetics and politics of the works. The larger research project that her work occasioned eventually organized itself around electromagnetism. Just as I had experienced in the 1980s with sound in the arts, there was not much scholarly or theoretical work to fall back on. In comparison, however, sound has been ingrained in the culture since antiquity whereas it wasn’t until the 19th century that electromagnetism began to get off the ground, so to speak, in transmitted waves. In ‘historical years’, sound is very old whereas electromagnetism is very young. Aristotle talked about sound but didn’t tune into radio. In one respect, there is little cultural grasp because there hasn’t been time.”

However, Kahn sees an overriding necessity to understand and contextualise electromagnetism, especially as it is the basis for contemporary communications. “To understand Joyce Hinterding, I had to go back to the 19th century, to the birth of modern communications technologies, and become familiar with scientific, cultural, environmental, military and aesthetic engagements with the electromagnetic spectrum. It has demonstrated for me how difficult, time-consuming and invigorating it can be for an arts historian to understand just a few works. Meanwhile, Joyce’s work and her collaboration with David Haines have continued to go from strength to strength. So, they’re not making my job any easier or less interesting.”

Hinterding’s work links back to that of American experimental composer Alvin Lucier and his compositions such as Whistlers and Sferics that also captured the sounds of electricity far above the Earth’s surface, such as solar flares and lightning strikes resounding through the ionosphere. Additionally, an earlier Lucier work, Music for Solo Performer, where amplified brainwaves were used to sound percussion instruments, sourced its natural electrical activity from the biological realm. Hinterding and Lucier’s interest in audible electromagnetic activity in turn harks back to the experiences of early radio and telephone pioneers for whom the seemingly extraneous sounds of electrical interference encountered over the wires were not simply discounted as noise but instead became sources of fascination and pleasure: “The media archaeological precedent for the natural radio work of both Joyce Hinterding and Alvin Lucier comes surprisingly from one of history’s great sidekicks—Thomas Watson—the first name in modern communications: “Watson, come here…” The first telephone test line over the rooftops of Boston acted unwittingly as an antenna.

This was the decade before Heinrich Hertz gave the first empirical proof of the existence of electromagnetic waves, and before anyone knew what an antenna was. Watson listened to the sounds of natural radio for hours at night and into the early morning. They were noisy, musical and mysterious. He was clearly listening to noise for pleasure, predating Luigi Russolo and the Art of Noises by over a third of a century, and listening to electronic music long before its time. Most importantly, he was listening to radio before it was invented.”

The activity of listening out for, and listening in to, electromagnetic activity by artists, inventors and scientists plays an important role in Kahn’s history of electromagnetism, especially as he attributes sound as having played a somewhat prescient role both in the shaping of electronic media in general, and in interpreting the electromagnetic nature of our environment. For example, the principle of electroacoustic transduction—where electrical energy is converted into acoustic energy, and vice versa—enabled these acts of audification (listening in on events and phenomena that are otherwise inaudible, such as atmospheric lightning strikes) and sonification (the realisation of ‘silent’ data or activity as sound, such as brainwaves) to effectively make natural electromagnetism audible, and therefore a potential subject for artistic and scientific exploration.

Kahn has coined the term “Aelectrosonic” to characterise this productive historical interrelationship between sound and electricity: “Music and nature have long performed a duet in ideas of the Aeolian. In the 19th century, many people commented on the Aeolian effects heard in the wind blowing through telegraph lines, heard in the air or with an ear to the poles. Henry David Thoreau wrote effusively about what he heard in the ‘telegraph harp.’ It was along similar lines or, rather, within similar lines that Watson heard the nature of the electromagnetic. There was no word to describe what he heard so I have chosen to call it Aelectrosonic to denote the transduction from electromagnetic to acoustical, with the ‘Ae’ a mark of continuity of natural sound in the Aeolian and a commonality in turbulence.”

In positing the Aelectrosonic, Kahn also seeks to restore some of the implicit, physical specificity to definitions of transduction in order to enrich its application elsewhere: “Metaphors are well-suited to a movement of images whereas ‘transduction’ pertains to a movement of energies, from one energy ‘state’ to another, even though the way ‘state’ implies stasis doesn’t do justice to the movement involved. There is transduction-in-degree and transduction-in-kind. If you imagined the physiological fact of hearing in terms of the former—vibrations in the air moving to the vibrations in eardrum, bones and fluid in the cochlea (some people call this ‘tympanic’)—it would provide an inadequate model for what really happens: the movement from vibrations to the electro-chemical signals of the brain, at the moment of opening ion channels in the cochlea, not to mention the process of reverse transduction in the ear, the brain making vibrations in the cochlea. Thus, what happens in the ear played out along the lines of 19th century communications technologies when the transduction-in-degree of the Aeolian effects on telegraph lines moved to the transduction-in-kind, Aelectrosonics. The nature of music moved into media along the same lines.”

This project is not solely an aesthetic one for Douglas Kahn, who sees it as having both a political and environmental dimension. He cites the conventional technocentric narrative that surrounds communications technologies as the “last/best hope for modernist ideologies of progress: an unimpeded march into the future”, whereas other technologies have “hit the wall of nature.” Uncovering a discourse that locates electromagnetism within the realm of natural phenomena stymies this lionisation of technology as something separate from nature, instead making it subject to, rather than apart from, environmental and social conditions: “Communication technologies have no ‘nature’ primarily because the noises and instability of nature have been exorcised as interference. There is no nature because historians have painted a picture of inventors, patent disputes and business models, imperial and demographic trajectories in which nature does not play a part, despite the fact that the earth was ‘in-circuit’ for decades during the 19th century and the ionosphere from the 1920s through the 1960s.

“This makes it easier for us to imagine, among other things, that there are now innumerable social communities bereft of affiliation with the earth, without any physical habitat. An unnatural reserve is created where communicative activities appear unfettered from materials, energies and environments during a time of accelerated degradation and a fleeting period of opportunity for fundamental ecological transformation. The way that contemporary artistic and activist practices are putting notions of the Earth back ‘in-circuit’ are better aligned with the turbulences and energy systems at the geopolitical and geophysical scales that define the present day.”


Douglas Kahn Lecture Tour, presented by ANAT and Art Monthly Australia, Nov 2009

Joyce Hinterding, www.sunvalleyresearch.net; Alvin Lucier, http://alucier.web.wesleyan.edu; Live VLF Radio, http://abelian.org/vlf; Douglas Kahn, www.douglaskahn.com; ANAT, www.anat.org.au

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 44

© Peter Blamey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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