A Weekend at the Wave Farm

Last weekend I had the distinct honor and pleasure of attending the first-ever Transmission Arts Colloquium, hosted by free103point9 – a non-profit organization whose mission is devoted to advancing transmission arts (loosely defined as the creative manipulation of the electromagnetic spectrum) and access to the airwaves more broadly.
free103point9 has an interesting history. One of its principals founded 87X, a pirate radio station in Tampa, Florida at the height of the pre-LPFM microradio movement. After moving to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, free103point9 was born in 1997. This microradio station provided an outlet for lots of programming, but became quite well-known for its sonic experimentation. Following the passage of LPFM, free103point9 evolved from rogue broadcaster to thriving arts organization.
In addition to being the licensee of community radio station WGXC in Hudson, New York, free103point9 also runs the Wave Farm, located on a 30-acre plot of bucolic woodland outside of town where transmission artists reside to work on projects. The Wave Farm not only has a beautiful two-story building with a library, studio-space, and lodging, but there’s trails through the property on which artists have built interesting (and functional) installations that creatively blend technology and nature.
The Colloquium brought together about a dozen invited artists and scholars from around the world to explore three broad and intense questions:
1. If we define transmissions arts broadly as encompassing broadcast, installation, communication networks, composition and performance – in public spaces or on airwaves – what is your understanding of the potential of this mode of work for the future? What is your definition of “the contemporary” in transmission arts? Where is it pointing for the future?
2. Transmission art engages with…complex socio-technical conditions and circumstances of transmission, often as direct critique of state and/or corporate communication infrastructure and systems. How [does such art] rethink transmission media in order to engage with the issues of power, ownership, and access to the electromagnetic spectrum? How do transmission artists approach the deep and unavoidable philosophical tension between utopian dreams of union and the status of interference and noise?
3. If we think of artworks as part of an elaborate ecosystem – a community, incorporating artists and the public in cultural, economic, and political interconnectedness – how can we work toward sustainability? What tools do the different species of transmission arts have to develop creatively in this wider network of understanding? How can they evolve in the context of contemporary social and economic systems and the intermingling of art forms?
We spent the better part of a day and a half exploring these questions. Each question was addressed initially by a panel of four who had prepared statements and thoughts, which the rest of the group interrogated and built upon.
I spoke on question #3, and did so from the perspective of building on the collaborations that led to the Colloquium, with an eye toward establishing “transmission arts” as a publicly identifiable field of expression and inquiry, so as to increase the network of participants and evangelize for the use of radio and other “transmission technologies” in broader social, political, and economic contexts.
During the weekend, all of us participated in an afternoon program on WGXC (streamed live from the Wave Farm) in which we got to introduce ourselves and begin the process of processing what we were learning at the Colloquium. All of the event’s discussions were taped for later transcription and possible publication.
Being primarily a teacher, journalist, and policy wonk, I often felt way over my head when issues of aesthetics and theory raised their heads (as they did often). I tried to employ policy-knowledge to help us suss out just where points for the fruitful transgression of communications law and regulation exist. Overall, engaging with these aspects of the larger world of transmission was a mind-expanding experience like none I’ve ever had.
I’d been dying to visit and collaborate with the Wave Farm for years and feel extremely lucky that I got the chance. There’s a perception among communications researchers that radio studies is a dead field because nothing interesting happens in the medium anymore; this Colloquium positively exploded that myth. Here’s hoping that such gatherings become a regular thing and grow in both participation and expressivity.