Gregory Whitehead: Out of the Dark:
Notes on the Nobodies of Radio Art

© Gregory Whitehead. All rights reserved.

The lightning flashes through my skull; mine eye-balls ache and ache; my whole beaten brain seems as beheaded, and rolling on some stunning ground. Oh, oh! Yet blindfold,yet will I walk to thee. Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of thee!
-- Captain Ahab

For most of the wireless age, artists have found themselves vacated (or have vacated themselves) from radiophonic space -- the history of radio art is, in this most literal sense, largely a history of nobodies. Periodic visitations have remained isolated occasions, provoking little cultural resonance. In the context of radio's more entrenched and ubiquitous commercial and military identities, such fleeting interference decays quickly.

Radio art does have something of a prehistory in the variously electrified adventures recorded in nineteenth century literature, one conspicuous example provided by Poe's M. Valdemar: a mesmerized Recording Angel. Less obviously, why not rewind Melville's narrative of the Nantucket whaling vessel Pequod as an early journey into charged ghostland air? However improbable such a reading may appear at first glance, it is hard to resist including Moby Dick within such a discussion because Ahab so persuasively prefigures at least one persona for the twisted, schizoid nature of wireless telegraphy. Mad Captain Ahab, himself split from the head down by a "rod-like mark, lividly whitish", resembling, in Ishmael's awe-struck description, "that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded." Indeed, Ahab's split body is so unseemly to Ishmael's narrative eye that he almost fails to notice "the barbaric white leg" which for the duration of the voyage will telegraph, through coded tappings across the wooden quarterdeck, the slow unwinding of the captain's mind.

"'All your oaths to hunt the White Whale are as binding as mine; and by heart, soul, and body, lungs and life, old Ahab is bound. And that you may know to what tune this heart beats; look ye here; thus I blow out the last fear!' And with one blast of his breath he extinguished the flame."

Incorporating the promise of universal communication bound together with the more immediate prospect of irreversible decay, the radiobody (still in pieces, still in the making) is a composite of opposites: speaking to everyone abstractly and no one in particular; ubiquitous, but fading without a trace; forever crossing boundaries but with uncertain destination; capable of the most intimate communion and the most sudden destruction. Radio is a medium voiced by multiple personalities, perfect for pillow talk, useful as an anti-depressant, but also deployable as guiding beam for missile systems. Over the course of the twentieth century, the radio ghostland has come very fully into its own. No surprise, then, that the most notable artist proposals for radio should air on frequencies populated by so many zombie bodies, limbo dancing, inside out.

In 1921, Velimir Khlebnikov's Futurist brand of brain fever produced a proposal for radio as "the spiritual sun of the country", built to sing the strange unearthly songs of "lightning birds" . Pushing buttons at master controls, the Great Sorcerer of Radio Khlebnikov would have the power and means to mesmerize the minds of the entire nation, both healing the sick via long distance hypnotic suggestion and increasing labor productivity through the seasonal transmission of prescribed notes, "for it is a known fact that certain notes like 'la' and 'ti' are able to increase muscle capacity". Depending on the ornithographic predispositions of the wizard-in-the-main-station, human bodies might well be recast as passive receptacles for bird droppings.

A dozen years later, F. T. Marinetti and Pino Masnata undoubtedly woke up with grave headaches after building the foundation of La Radia into their piles of assorted corpses : the corpse of theater, "because radio killed a theater already defeated by sound cinema"; the corpse of cinema, deceased from a variety of "agonizing" wounds, including "reflected illumination inferior to the self-illumination of radio-television"; the corpse of the book, "strangled, suffocated, fossilized"; and the corpse of the The Public, "always retrograde." La Radia also mounts an explicit bombing raid on Marinetti's own Variety Theatre, singled out for its crippling dependence on the physical constraints of the earthbound performing body. There is also the sinister (though rarely cited) threat of future corpse production, in "warning the Semites to identify themselves with their different countries if they don't wish to disappear."

With Artaud in mind, let us now return for a moment to the deck of the Pequod on the third and final day of Ahab's quest. Locked into Moby Dick's (yes, and Moby Dick's) "infallible wake" and addressing nobody in particular, Ahab casts out yet another remarkable series of ruminations, first professing that his body is a hot medium: "Ahab never thinks; he only feels, feels; that's tingling enough for mortal man! (...) Thinking is, or ought to be, a coolness and a calmness; and our poor hearts throb, and our poor brains beat too much for that."