Relationships in Radio: MCA Installation

Back in March, Jon Cates and Jeff Kolar took over a space in Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Using radio as their medium, they explore what it means both as a physical object and a cultural symbol, questioning our experience of broadcasting and online music streaming. We were excited to hear they planned to use the Touch Board in their performance, so sent a couple for them to try out. We caught up with Jon and Jeff after the performance to hear how it went and get a deeper understanding of their working process and interests.

Photo Credit: Danielle Campbell

So, can you tell us about where and how the project started out?

We received the invitation from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and began to experiment with how we could collaborate on this installation and performance. We have collaborated previously and decided to activate the museum in a new way.

How did you come across the Touch Board and why did you decide to use it in your project?

We have both worked with Arduino before and follow developments with these technologies. The Touch Board offers a very simple way to integrate hardware and software with objects. Our MCA performance was deeply focused on bridging analog and digital transmission technologies, so the Touch Board was a perfect tool to develop and implement these conceptual ideas further.

Why radio as a medium?

Radio is about human relationships. Those relationships are both visible and invisible and they take place within the electromagnetic spectrum. Radio is material, within the airwaves, and simultaneously immaterial, floating above and flowing through you. Radio travels through bodies, architectures, urban and rural spaces. It can quickly mobilise a large amount of people in a short amount of time. Radio is also inherently unstable. These are the reasons we chose to work with such a complex and interesting medium.

Would you agree that you’re viewing radio as a material to be manipulated rather than just a tool?

Yes, radio is shaped by the surrounding environment, as a cultural space. Radio is affected by and impacts everything from our brain waves to background radiation from outer space, the electrical grid of urban infrastructure to solar patterns and human bodies. All of these forces operate on and register inside this invisible electromagnetic spectrum that we hear on the radio.

How do you feel that the physical form of the tools that you use (both musical tools and tools that produce or receive radio waves) influences your work or the way you use them?

We are attracted to different kinds of devices, from antique radios to open circuits, various kinds of microphones to hand-built systems. These devices all have different physical forms and we like to wire them together. We also often open up systems and use them in ways that we not intended or imagined. That is one way we interface with Glitch Art, an approach within New Media Art, in which artists alter or exploit the forms and limits of the systems they are using.

Can you tell me about the experimental electronic artists that you play out?

The goal is to support work that engages the tonal and public spaces of the electromagnetic spectrum.. NUMBERS.FM features live streams from art galleries and noise festivals, performances by artists such as Keith Fullerton Whitman, regular shows from experimental music DJs. Radius is an experimental radio broadcast platform based in Chicago, IL, USA. Radius features a new project monthly with statements by artists who use radio as a primary element in their work. Radius provides artists with live and experimental formats in radio programming.

Your work is very technical and I assume that it occasionally requires a technical mind to solve problems. Where does this sit in your artistic process? Is the technical aspect of your work part of this process or separate to it?

We understand technical aspects as being a part of our artistic processes. However, we are interested in how process can shape, transform, and progress a piece of work. We think of these tools as less technical, and we both share a very lo-fi aesthetic and working process. Often digital and new media arts focuses on technical modes and tools, but we are more interested in using technology to talk about technology in ways that comment on what is new and what is old, and how electronic media has adapted to this change. Ultimately we hope our work can be viewed and listened to in terms of technical proficiency and also as active, living piece of art.

Do you have any further plans with the Touch Board?

Jeff recently integrated the Touch Board into a live performance tour, a scaled down version of our MCA installation and performance. We have also considered how the Touch Boards can be activated in an art installation context in many different ways, which will certainly drift between our collaboration and solo practices.