Neighborhood Public Radio mixes up art and radio
Reyhan Harmanci, Chronicle Staff Writer Friday, December 28, 2007
Every now and then since 2004, while scanning the lower end of the FM spectrum in certain parts of the Bay Area, it's been possible to cut through the static and hear something unexpected.
You might have heard a raucous noise band performing live, or a teenager interviewing another teenager about life in Hunters Point, or a roundtable of artists discussing their work, or a man-on-the-street-style interview done on the street, all courtesy of NPR.
That's not NPR as in National Public Radio, but, rather, a conceptual art project and mobile pirate radio station called Neighborhood Public Radio.
The loose collective, headed by artists Lee Montgomery, Michael Trigilio and Jon Brumit, typically sets up in an art gallery with little more than a banner, booth, microphone and transmitter and a rough schedule of hyper-local programs aimed toward maximum neighborhood participation.
There are no rules for the content on this NPR: expletives and mistakes are neither bleeped over nor edited out, nothing is off-limits and everyone is invited into the studio.
After spending the summer as residents at the Marin Headlands Center, NPR was recently added to the lineup at the prestigious 2008 Whitney Biennial in New York City, where, among other actions, it'll be occupying a storefront on Madison Avenue for the three-month duration of the big Whitney Museum art show.
Hundreds have participated in NPR programming since its inaugural five-day run at Oakland's 21 Grand art space in 2004, and NPR has set up shop in Serbia, Chicago, San Jose and Hamburg, Germany. Its long-standing partnership with San Francisco's Southern Exposure gallery carried through to the gallery's 2007 Off-Site project, a successful venture that programmed work outside the gallery's walls. The radio collective has also spent time ensconced in the Mission District storefront space of Artists' Television Access on the corner of 21st and Valencia streets. Staying visible is key to NPR's programming, which feeds on interactions from people just passing by.
"Radio is a deceptively powerful medium," says Oakland's Montgomery, a Diablo Valley College art professor, in a recent interview over coffee at Ritual Roasters, "even if commercial radio has lost a lot of its magic."
While simply parodying the original NPR was never the point, obviously the founders intended to critique the state of public, as well as commercial, radio. They've taken NPR's logo, slightly altered it to avoid copyright issues, and often riff on public radio's programming decisions. For instance, Montgomery once edited 24 hours' worth of NPR thanking its sponsors. Even at a few seconds per shout-out, the piece ended up being 12 minutes long. "It turned out that the top sponsor was Burger King," Montgomery says, noting that the relationship had something to do with Burger King sponsoring frequent traffic reports. "But even the Foundation for Public Broadcasting is funded by McDonald's. It's very much about corporate support."
For the Whitney, they are planning a project called "American Life," not unlike "This American Life," with different segments coming in from portable radio instruments (otherwise known as PRI, which also happens to be the acronym for "Public Radio International") live from different parts of the country.
"It's not that NPR is that bad," Montgomery says, "but is it really the best we can do?"
NPR was born, oddly, in a moment when Montgomery wasn't thinking about making an art project. He had a student, Jim Ryan, who wanted to collaborate with him on a radio project, and Montgomery has been a DJ at KALX and experimented with radio transmitters intermittently over the years. Artist Brumit came onboard to contribute his artistic ideas, and because Montgomery knew that he had traded a digital camera for a working transmitter and antennae.
"It's an interesting platform for us to experiment with sound and public interaction. We do it in an art context but in a way that involves the general public," says Brumit, who recently relocated to Chicago and is locally known for creating the annual tricycle races down Lombard Street. "We use broadcast as an artistic medium, as an alternative to alternative radio stations."
Montgomery also asked fellow (now former) Diablo College professor and multimedia artist Trigilio to help out with the fledgling NPR. As a graduate of Mills College's music program, he had messed around with transmitters before and even built one of his own, but to no great effect. Trigilio, who moved to San Diego to teach media arts at UC San Diego this past summer, ended up contributing more than technical expertise and an NPR station jingle: Before Stephen Colbert wowed America with "truthiness," Trigilio adopted a left-wing, Bill O'Reilly-like persona with a talk show called "The Starve Zone."
21 Grand founder and curator Sarah Lockhart says that she saw possibilities from the get-go. "The NPR concept, as I understand it, is not about being a radio broadcast from a remote location - it's performative," she says, "It takes place in front of the audience, as people can see it happening."
The project caught the eye of Southern Exposure Artistic Director Courtney Fink, who was curating the gallery's 30th anniversary show, "The Way We Work." For the better part of 2004, they worked together to develop programming for the six-week residency, which took place from September to October. NPR's contribution was called "Evenings and Weekends."
"It was beyond active," Fink remembers, estimating that more than 150 people participated in the project. "Every weekend was insane."
In 2005, NPR took its show on the road. It received a grant from CEC ArtsLink to go to Serbia to collaborate with kuda.org in Novi Sad, Serbia, after which it spent time working with sound artists from the European radio tradition in Hamburg and Berlin.
While NPR has never been cited by the FCC for any regulatory crimes, the nature of the project is rebellious. Even a low-powered transmitter can cover a neighborhood with illegal FM radio offerings. Officially, NPR is only streaming broadcasts on the Internet, although, as Montgomery says with a wink, "We can't stop people from rebroadcasting."
Some of the projects - like "Talking Homes," with small transmitters placed in houses - broadcast within legal transmission boundaries. Other times, word-of-mouth about a gallery show brings out people with low-level transmitters who help put NPR on the airwaves.
"We couldn't do a lot of the things we do with the organizations that support us if it was illegal, but if we were broadcasting, we would consider it to be an act of civil disobedience," says Montgomery, showing a politician's knack for spin.
Others say that the questionable legality of the work is part of NPR's message of expanding radio possibilities. "On a ground level, they are political," Fink says. "They are challenging what makes it possible for people to communicate."
Montgomery says their European trip opened the door to more experimental radio possibilities. NPR could have kept occupying storefronts and bringing in novice radio personalities into the studio, but it was not content to find a format and stick with it. Montgomery laughs at the suggestion that if the radio outlet got too good at programming, it could be in danger of becoming an actual community radio station - that would be playing it safe. "We are open to failing," Montgomery says, "and see that as a necessary part of the process."
With a grant from the Creative Work Fund and a base at SoEx, NPR developed the eight-month "Radio Cartography" through June 2007. It was a chance for contributors to NPR - including the three principals - to use it as a testing ground for experimental projects.
For instance, Trigilio produced "State of Mind Stations," in which he set up stations across San Francisco for people to record their state of mind. People could call in and leave messages to describe their emotional state, and Trigilio himself hit the streets to record what people were feeling.
While NPR is part of a larger movement in the Bay Area to do social practice work that expands the possibilities of public and performative art, Whitney Biennial curator Henrietta Huldisch says that the collective is "emblematic" of work being done in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest - but not everyone agrees that NPR's faux community radio approach has worked. Lockhart of 21 Grand says that she found the initial, more music-based offerings of NPR to be more compelling than its later work. Good intentions don't necessarily make good art. "It brings up questions on how you evaluate that art," Lockhart says. "Is it based on the service or some sort of aesthetic, art-based criteria?"
But NPR's ability to keep evolving bodes well for its future, as does its open-door policy on collaborating. Already, it has inspired people to start programs on their own. "I grew up with radio. I grew up with old radio plays," says Sigi Arnejo, an M.H. de Young Memorial Museum sales associate whose work with NPR led to the creation of Transistor Radio Theater, a group that produces radio plays. "When my uncle was in the Vietnam War, we'd sit in front of the TV and the radio. It's a form of history that's being lost, and I wanted to make sure younger people don't lose that."
Radio, heard streaming on the Internet, in a car radio or through a boom box, remains relevant. "Radio," Arnejo says, "it teaches people to listen."
Neighborhood Public Radio will be in New York City beginning in March for its three-month residency as part of the Whitney Biennial, but thanks to the Internet, you can listen to its broadcasts live or dig into its archived offerings. www.neighborhoodpublicradio.org.
To hear a clip from Neighborhood Public Radio's "State of Mind Stations" project, in which random people on the street discuss their present state of mind, go to sfgate.com/entertainment.
28 dicembre 2007
Arte, pirateria e radiofonia di strada a SF
Davvero molto bello questo articolo del San Francisco Chronicle dedicato all'esperienza artistico-radiofonica di una stazione "pirata" molto particolare attiva nella Bay Area. Dovete assolutamente andare sul sito del giornale per ascoltare il clip audio proposto.