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Making (air)waves: how artists are finding inspiration through, and on, radio

Radio offers an opportunity for artists to experiment in new ways, invigorate their practices and find different forms of community

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British artist Mark Leckey has been producing a monthly radio show for online station NTS, which he sees as a form of collage Photo: Suki Dhanda © Guardian / eyevine. All Rights Reserved

British artist Mark Leckey has been producing a monthly radio show for online station NTS, which he sees as a form of collage Photo: Suki Dhanda © Guardian / eyevine. All Rights Reserved

“I always look at anything as an opportunity,” says the Turner-prize winning artist Mark Leckey. “I’m always looking for a way to produce, and this has been another example of that.” Leckey is referring to the monthly radio show he makes for London-based station NTS, in which he has played everything from digicore pioneers David Shawty and Yungster Jack to Deep Purple prog-rock epic Child in Time to his own field recording of a silent disco.

There’s something I’m trying to grasp in this music that I then cultivate back into what I’m doing
Mark Leckey, artist

Leckey has been making the show since 2016, and it represents another area of activity for an artist known for the diversity of his work, which takes in film, video, collage, music, audio and more. Leckey says that originally he simply wanted to play his favourite music and then move on to “more ambitious ideas, like stories, or lectures”. But in the event, when he had got through his own record collection, he started to engage with more contemporary, current music. “At the time I had the sense that music had been completely exhausted, that there was no futurism left in it,” he says. “When I was forced to dig deeper I realised there’s loads of people making very experimental forward-facing music. It really re-engaged me.”

For Leckey, the radio show appears to be another form of collage that he has found inspiring. “The most interesting thing about it is how much it’s changed my head,” he says. Every second month he invites a guest—a fellow artist, or a set of students—and has tried out more elaborate concepts: one hour-long show consisted of different versions of the song Easy to Be Hard from the musical Hair. “There’s something I hear in music that I want in my work,” he says. “There’s something I’m listening out for, something I’m trying to grasp in this music that I then cultivate back into what I’m doing.”

Ed Baxter, the co-founder, chief executive and programming director of Resonance FM, points out that unlike, say, film and video, there has been virtually no tradition of experimentation on radio in the UK. “When we started Resonance in 1998, that was ground zero,” he says. “Hardly anybody knew what they were doing but everyone had something they thought they could do. It was a kind of punk attitude: everyone has a radio show inside them.”

In the years since, Resonance has found a sizeable audience for its wildly varied activity, from Caroline Kraabel’s walking tours with saxophone and pushchair to Bob and Roberta Smith’s sound-art montages to 48-hour live broadcasts with the Resonance Radio Orchestra that Baxter developed with Chris Weaver. “Access is the key thing,” Baxter says. “At the entry level it’s a very straightforward transaction: pull up a fader and make a noise. Everything else is nuance.”

Live radio seems to have caught on with a younger generation of artists too. Based in Norwich, the writer and curator Jonathan P. Watts spent lockdown broadcasting on the gaming platform Twitch and inviting friends and collaborators to make their own shows. Like Leckey’s shows, Watts’s programming revolved around music, but Twitch’s ability to host live chat as well as incorporate visuals gave it an extra dimension. “People like radio because it’s intimate,” Watts says. “But that space on Twitch is a different proposition. It throws it open.” Watts points to other show organisers, such as fellow artist Liv Preston, who performed under the moniker Spacetooth and incorporated a live gaming element into her show, and musician/DJ Geiger, an NHS nurse who created a radio show for the fictional East Brantwich Hospital.

As well as the show’s content, Watts says that building a community was vital. “My background is in artist-led spaces which have an autonomy outside the institutions, and I’m really interested in how you bring people together. People were mixing in that space who would never mix in a gallery—including my granny. It was about producing something during a tough and isolating period, creating a community. And then, importantly, we did have a physical festival.” Watts cites the effect of livestreaming music platform Boiler Room. “Livestreaming is great, but the big thing is when people meet up in physical space and interact.”

Baxter, meanwhile, prefers to concentrate on being as innovative as he can with “sound art”; he doesn’t have a lot of time, he says, for the “repackaging” he sees in much digital-era art. He talks approvingly of other radical radio pieces, such as a show with climber Jim Perrin, who talked over the sounds of another climber going up a cliff face with an open mobile phone, or the work of Christof Migone, who used radio as a receiver rather than a transmitter. “People have to call in for anything to happen,” he says. “You get a lot of dead air, but that is provocative in art.”

You get the feeling, as far as Baxter is concerned, that radio has only just begun to scratch the surface. “It’s a post expressionist arena,” he says. “If you think of [Robert] Rauschenberg, his big Monogram piece has got every kind of visual media in there. You can do the same with radio: music, phone-in, drama, feedback noise. You can bring them all into some kind of equilibrium. It’s that potentiality where it gets exciting.”

Mark Leckey on NTS Radio: nts.live/shows/mark-leckey; resonancefm.com; Jonathan P. Watts’s radio shows were at twitch.tv/tier_plus but are currently offline

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