Urban Radio

article by Tim Westbury

originally published in Radio Rethink (ISBN 0-920159-66-4), 1994

Technology has contributed to the development of a strong visual bias in the western (Eurocentric) cultural milieu, according to Marshall McLuhan, whose media theories to a large extent examine cultural change as oral/aural societies become more literate and visual. While this might indeed be the case in general, subjective experience provides most of us with constant reminders that even if sight is predominant now, it does not occlude hearing - our ears remain a vital component in the experiential environment mapped out for us by the senses.

This fluid and mutually dependent relationship between seeing and hearing also defines a possible context for the work of Colette Urban. Consider Blind Spot, a performance work of the late 1980s. Blindfolded, bound by bungee cords and facing into a darkened corner of the gallery, the artist's physical presence prompted questions about sight. Tango music and the disembodied voices of children defined the performance area aurally - while every twenty seconds, the flash from a camera momentarily illuminated the visual space. For the audience this piece relied centrally on sound; the single visual aspect, the performer herself, vainly struggling against the tension of black elastic, seemed increasingly reduced to a trope with each sporadic appearance. The artist herself, of course, was effectively isolated from the visual component of the piece, except for the series of post facto documentary photographic images. In its use of several different media, this work confronted the spectator with the awareness that sensory experience ts often mediated, so that eyes and ears are forced to negotiate new ways of interaction. Aural/oral relationships, as McLuhan pointed out, are considerably influenced by changing technologies.

More than thirty years have now elapsed since the early days of broadcast television, when McLuhan was producing his most widely read texts. The intervening period has seen the development of cultural phenomena which he probably never could have conceived of from his own historical vantage point - among them the rapid development of the music video (via cable television) and the introduction of the Walkman, both in the decade following his death in 1980. These two technologies question, though in almost opposing ways, McLuhan's hypothesis that the "magic world of the ear" has yielded to the "neutral world of the eye."

In the case of music video, the sensory experiences of hearing and seeing are forced together - rendered equivalent to each other so as to almost eradicate any differentiation between the two very separate streams of information. A rapid succession of video images, whether or not they are narrative, can now become as vital a part of the experience of music as the traditional audio component.

The Walkman, on the other hand, effectively severs the aural experience from the other senses, isolating it in a singular, almost virtual "space" that is delineated by the hearing mechanism of the person wearing the headphones (unless, as is all too often the case, they have it turned up too loud). Self-contained personal audio devices temporarily privilege sound in the hierarchy of the senses - you can carry your own environment with you, in your head and on your head.

Wearing a Walkman, you can easily forget how unusual that technology can make you appear to others who are not in the same aural environment, despite their physical proximity. While you may occupy the same physical space, Walkmans disrupt the previously seamless aural continuity of a shared environment.

Several recent performance works by Colette Urban may be read as experiments that publicly elucidate the subjective phenomenon of shifting sense ratios. The same pataphysically inspired'logic evident in Blind Spot surfaced later in her 1992 performance in Banff, It's On Your Head, It's In Your Head. This week-long performance, both for and with radio, involved seven collaborators. Every day, a different, predetermined member of the group remained behind in the Radio Rethink broadcast booth at the Walter Phillips Gallery. The others met in the gallery exhibition space and each performer would don one of six special radio hats that the artist had constructed for the piece.

The performers' hats were ordinary-looking Canadian winter headgear: dark, navy blue, wool caps with a black fun-fur flap that folds down to cover the ears. However, sewn on to the front flap was a nylon mesh pocket designed to hold a small AM/FM receiver eqUipped with a built-in LCD digital clock and timer. Each radio was pre-tuned to Radia 89.9 FM, the Radio Rethink transmission frequency. Topping it off, the antenna wire dangled haphazardly down to the wearer's shoulder like a long, unruly lock of jet black hair.

Outfitted with hats, the group travelled to one of seven public locations in the Banff townsite which had been designated as performance sites for the piece. As each clock reached noon, the radios would turn on automatically and the piece for that day would begin.

The oral/aural component of the work was cumulative. On the first day, the member of the group who remained in the booth at the Walter Phillips Gallery transmitted anything of choice for exactly one minute. On day two, another member of the group would broadcast for two minutes and, after one minute, the recorded version of the previous day was "mixed in" at the soundboard by Dan Lander, sound engineer for this project. By Sunday, the end of the performance, the seven-minute broadcast was composed of individual audio segments from each of the seven days layered upon each other.

Although Colette Urban conceived the piece and decided on the seven locations, it was important to her that she did not dictate other aspects of the performance to the rest of the group. By drawing numbers from one of the radio hats, each performer selected a turn in the booth; what would be broadcast was unknown to the roaming members until it was emitting from their own hats - and soon after, at always slightly different times, heard from the hats on the heads of the five other performers nearby.

It's On Your Head, It's In Your Head began on a Monday morning with Neil MacInnis in the radio booth. The other six performers arrived at the first broadcast reception site, the local Alberta Liquor Control Board store, a little before noon. We browsed the aisles as normal shoppers while, after a few seconds of radio static, Neil's disembodied voice occasionally emanated from our hats - reading from Dylan Thomas about a drunken couple getting into a bath with their clothes on. This one minute, which ended with the strains of Kurt Weill from Brecht's Three Penny Opera, seemed to pass very quickly. After several more seconds of static, the radios fell silent. By the time anyone within earshot realized the hats were emitting sound, it was all over.

While wandering around inside the liquor store we quickly discovered that the radio receivers picked up the signal better in some spots than others and that clarity varied dramatically, depending on the direction you were facing. Urban felt that perhaps the flexible antennae were partially to blame and, overnight, modified the radio hats so that for the rest of the week, each antenna was held erect, the wire running through a thin white plastic tube about two feet long, so that just a short tail hung out the top. The hats were all the more conspicuous when I took my own turn in the radio booth the following day.

Day two constituted the "blind spot" for me as performer. While I knew that everyone else would be sitting in a different kind of booth at the Rundle Restaurant at noon, my knowledge of what happened to the rest of the group during the two-minute broadcast would necessarily forever be indirect, mediated: I was both absent and present at the same time. Ironically, I read the opening paragraphs of the 1967 Time/Life Science Library edition, Sound and Hearing.

Allison Cameron was on the radio on Wednesday, while the rest of us went down to the Banff Post Office. This day's performance was high profile because we were accompanied by a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) television news crew - the presence of television cameras an easily visible signifier that an "event" was occurring. The spectacle was neatly detourned, however, by Cameron's last minute decision to replace her prepared text with the sounds of children's farm animal noisemakers. When her transmission began, the six of us lining up in a queue to buy stamps spoke eloquently through our hats.

The performance on the fourth day took place in the large Safeway grocery store downtown. A tongue in cheek response to the site - as a place typically providing sustenance to suburbanites - Sheilagh O'Leary read a text adapted from the diary of a midwif~, repeated several times in the course of her four-minute broadcast. Here the radio hats caused their first little bit of trouble as well. After passing through the check-out with our purchases, the group was approached by the store manager. He had watched this episode from behind the one-way glass window in his office overlooking the produce aisles. Urban described to him the intent of the piece as an artwork that functions outside gallery walls - intended to stimulate awareness of the environment for viewers by presenting the unexpected. In addition, she explained, as a former resident of Banff, she was interested in bridging the distance between the art world of the Banff Centre and aspects of downtown life in Banff.

Colette Urban herself was on the air on day five. The weather was unseasonably warm so the rest of us were very content with the performance location that day: the sunny side of Banff Avenue. Emphasizing the small-town intimacy that characterizes even this most overtly commercial part of Banff, Colette's voice greeted tourists and locals alike with a friendly "Hi! Hello! How are you? Oh, hi there ... " Because we were outside and the transmission signal was unimpeded, the reception was exceptionally clear - consequently, many people turned around to see who was recognizing them in the street; but while the words may have momentarily suggested identification, the speaker remained invisible. Like a character in a Beckett play, craving basic human contact but encountering only the silence of a void, Urban's component essentially formalized the temporarily disembodied voice, which characterized the piece as a whole.

Punctuating the stereotypical differentiation between working week and leisure-filled weekend, Saturday's performance occurred at the mini-golf course in the Banff Springs Hotel convention centre. Loosely based on the world-renowned, full-size course run by the hotel during the summer, artificial turf and stones provided an idyllic setting for Jocelyn Robert's turn in the booth. His text, read from an advanced geometry textbook, was abstract mathematical theory that underscored the architectural precision of the golf course, pointing to the politics of getting the ball in the hole.

It's On Your Head, It's In Your Head culminated, outside once again, in the Upper Hot Springs bathing pool. Rita McKeough was pleased to be the person in the booth on the final day - she really did not care much for bathing in the sulphurous hot pool. For the rest of us, a week of getting used to the radio hats seemed not long enough when our only other item of clothing was to be a National Parks-issue bathing suit. As we gradually entered the pool from the changing rooms, we drew a few sidelong glances. Several other bathers were soon intrigued enough to approach us and ask what the hats were for. We were in the midst of trying to explain the artist's intentions for the piece when the clocks reached noon.

Initially, McKeough simply pretended that she was in the pool with the rest of the group: "Oh, it's so hot ... I'm burning up ... " Then, without warning, ''I'm up to my neck in spit, piss and pubic hair ... I'm up to my neck in hot water now, aren't I, Colette?" As one might expect, these words emanating from our hats very suddenly t~ok the performance out of the realm of the whimsical for a few members of the audience, including a woman I was speaking with. After telling me that what we were doing was clearly illegal, she approached the lifeguard, urging him to have all of us immediately removed from the pool. McKeough's voice, its speaker invisible, had evidently encroached upon a blindspot. I tried my best to explain the work to her, knowing that whatever was said would increasingly become submerged in the mix. After almost three minutes had passed, she had had enough. Pausing only long enough to collect her children, she headed back to the changing room. As the radios returned first to static and then dead air, our group left the pool.

Although her art has often attempted to work outside the framework of the gallery, Urban was drawn to use radio for this piece because broadcasting literally carried it into public space. Having worked in downtown Banff years earlier, and knowing firsthand of the distant relationship that existed with the Banff Centre, Urban was interested in addressing a lack of communication between two communities from the outset. She conceived the whole performance as a catalyst to jolt people out of their normal routine: "By throwing something at them in this way, it may help them question what it is that they are doing, possibly stimulating a different relationship to the environment that they are in." The several episodes where artistic intervention was perceived as confrontation served to crystallize areas of dissolution, to identify points where communication begins, and where it begins to break down.

It's On Your Head, It's In Your Head relies on radio as a tool to both expose and attempt a renegotiation of these complex social relationships. Aural/oral technologies rely on the existence of a "public." In Urban's piece, the performers, as radio (re)transmitters themselves, address a storyteller-size public from the much larger one made possible through broadcast technologies. The structure of the piece defers accountability by distributing it evenly amongst the seven performers, but those seen wearing the hats assume the ultimate responsibility. The artist's and performers' interactions in this case emphasize the responsibility that lies with broadcasting to a public.

Humour, a thread which seems to run through much of Colette Urban's work, functions here both to diffuse the act of intervention and make way for people to engage with each other - she acknowledges the performance as existing at "that edge where, at any moment, things could turn in the other direction," concurring with McLuhan's suggestion that environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The groundrules, pervasive structure, and over-all patterns of environments elude easy perception. Anti-environments, or countersituations made by artists, provide means of direct attention and enable us to see and understand more clearly. The interplay between the old and the new environments creates many problems and confusions. The main obstacle to a clear understanding of the effects of the new media is our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point of view.

Through the use of voices and sounds, It's On Your Head, It's In Your Head, effectively attempts to disrupt that artificial rigidity demanded in a visual universe defined by the laws of Renaissance perspective. It serves as well to remind us that the relationship between the aural and visual senses has not likely ever been a static one. Just as each new technology seems to require the invention of new relationships between the senses, negotiating new methods of interaction seems to be necessary for continued communication in mediated environments.


1 Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage - An Inventory of Effects (New York: Bantam Books, 1967), 44.

2 Ibid., 68.