- When Airwaves Swing:Confessions of a Radio Enthusiast
Sound examples and other resources related to this article are available at <www.brettbalogh.com>.
When airwaves swing, distant voices sing.—Kraftwerk 
Radio was a gift to me that I did not initially appreciate. One holiday around the turn of the 21st century, I was presented with a Grundig Satellit 800 worldband receiver. It sat unused in its box until one day a pianist friend of mine asked me to join him in an experimental performance. I showed up with the set under my arm and I have never been the same since. A few years and many radios later, I found myself listening to the chatter on the HAM bands as I was performing my morning rituals. I mused over the pre-caffeinated conversations regarding Yagi antenna arrays, finding the early-morning shop talk odd. Then, as I looked at myself in the mirror, I realized that I, too, had become a radio enthusiast.
As an artist, I am interested in elucidating fundamental relationships in nature through the creation of instruments and systems that present themselves as tools of exploration. My works are objects to think "with" rather than to think "of." The radio has the capacity to be such a device; however, it is usually overlooked as an instrument of discovery. This is in part because of its ubiquity in our lives, having been a major source of information and entertainment in our media diets for many years. However, its reign as a portable entertainment device has been usurped by the advent of Walkmans, Discmans and now iPods. Perhaps this is for the better: As the radio sinks into the backwater of our commercial gadget lust, its aesthetic role in our lives can be reinvented.
I would like to present the radio in the role of translator, mediating the languages of space, time, matter and energy. The vibrations of the physical world, perceived as sound, and those of electromagnetism, conceived as energy, are fundamentally related in terms of their motion. However, these two phenomena inhabit distinct worlds, differing in both their makeup and their media of transmission. Because of these differences, we can directly sense sound, but it may not always be possible to do so with electromagnetism. The radio is a physical object and an electrical circuit that sits between these two worlds, allowing communication [End Page 35] between them. It resonates not only with the movements of the "ether," but also with the sounds contained within. The radio augments our senses, allowing us to perceive those motions of the environment that we perpetually inhabit that are just beyond our apprehension. Sounds are part of the physicality of a place as much as the objects that define it.
I set out to explore the relationships between tangible and intangible space in my most recent installation, When Airwaves Swing (Fig. 7). It consists of a Pathe-Marconi five-tube superhet AM receiver whose antenna not only receives radio signals, but also acts as the radio's loudspeaker. The radio and audio signals vibrate simultaneously along the long wire antenna. Each signal behaves according to its unique nature even as they occupy the same medium. The resonant properties of the wire antenna allow for the clear reception of the radio signal, but distort the audio signal. The appearance of the installation is similar to a scene one may find in any home. The radio is flanked by two easy chairs that invite the visitors to sit by it, bathed in the intimate glow of a small lamp. The experience of listening to the radio is not, however, what one might expect, due to the sound being "processed" by the physical nature of the wire antenna. The resulting soundscape is without center, and the echoing voices and music float throughout the space. I had the opportunity to tend the space during the exhibition and I encountered something I did not expect. Visitors sat with me around the radio and talked about their experiences with sound and radio, about their childhood memories or their imaginary worlds. I discovered that the radio also provides an environment that enables us...