- Transmission Art in the Present Tense
Transmission artists consistently engage in processes of cultural transception and feedback in their works. Their methods range from media archaeology and explorations of the phenomenology of waves, to critical engagements with current state commercial communications systems, to alternative mappings of the spectrum, including some that challenge the very notion of a spectrum itself. For many transmission artists, their aesthetic practice functions as research; a process of exploring the properties and materiality of communications (for instance, working with electromagnetic waves themselves) as much as a poetic study of reality or a political intervention. I make no attempt here to represent all of the highly diverse field of practices that might fall under the rubric of Transmission Art; however, I will reflect upon a few key paradigms taken up by contemporary artists as they renew the potential of transmission through work with predominantly electronic media such as telegraphy, telephony, radio, television, and the ever-expanding proliferation of wireless communication systems.
If the idea of “transmission” invokes the subject position of senders engaged in a “sending across” or diffusion/distribution of content, then contemporary transmission art practice can be characterized by a persistent interest in displacing one-way or point-to-point communications with polyvalent transception. Conjoining sending and receiving, a transceptive approach to transmission is not only a statement (“I am”), but also an orientation towards active, engaged listening; a question asked, however conditionally (“who’s there”)? Transmission is understood not only as a radial description of space, but as a circle of relationship.
Bertolt Brecht is the oft-quoted champion of transception, who in 1932 envisioned that radio transmission could enable more than a “mere sharing out” of information. For Brecht, the radio could be a means of connection, a medium that could link communities as well as individuals: “to bring him [sic] into a relationship instead of isolating him.”1 He claimed that radio had so far only served as a poor substitute for theatre, newspapers, concerts, and the like, as radio had developed as a technology before society was ready to accept or fully utilize it: “This stripling who needed no certificate of competence to be born will have to start looking retrospectively for an object in life.”2 His ideal radio was a transceiver, an apparatus for both sending and [End Page 46] receiving, which would eliminate the mute mass audience and build a network of communicators. Even within the confines of radio’s one-to-many state-controlled format (German radio was under state monopoly in Brecht’s time), Brecht wrote that radio should at least be more educational, democratic, and publically accessible, such that regular people could speak and contribute on air, and there be a place for radio art and experimentation: “Any attempt by the radio to give a truly public character to public occasions is a step in the right direction.” Walter Benjamin agreed with Brecht’s sense that radio must become more popularly accessible by any means possible: “The crucial failing of this institution has been to perpetuate the fundamental separation between practitioners and the public, a separation that is at odds with its technological basis. A child can see that it is in the spirit of radio to put as many people as possible in front of a microphone on every possible occasion . . . .”3 Transception, then, would function as a means for the community to engage with itself, to enter into deeper relationships in a complex circuit of transmission that implied not just sending across, but sharing around: a feedback loop of sociality and expression.
Currently, cellular phone networks, CB radio, or walkie-talkies fulfill the technical requirements for transception, but the AM/FM broadcast apparatus that is most commonly known as “radio” is characterized by one-to-many transmission, where the spectrum is locked down under state control and international protocols for use. Of course the radio listener has always been more than a passive recipient of the broadcast radiating from a downtown tower or cross-country relay. But the circle of transceptive communication as Brecht imagined it (calling as he did for something resembling contemporary independent radio with public access and...