1 April 2024

Wave Farm

Franziska Lamprecht takes a winter walk
through a Transmission Art Park and chats
with director Galen Joseph-Hunter

In rural Greene County in Upstate New York, most people drove alone to work in 2021, and their average commute time was 28.5 minutes. What the statistics don’t tell us though, is how many people listen to the radio during this commute, or specifically how many listen to WGXC 90.7-FM: Radio for Open Ears, a not-for-profit, listener-supported radio station serving the Upper Hudson Valley and international listeners online.

Hands-on access and participation distinguish WGXC as a public platform for information, experimentation, and engagement, and access to the airwaves gives individuals and organizations the means to tell their own stories. Yet the radio station is only one part of this ever-growing artist support network called Wave Farm, which has operated for 27 years. As a media arts center, media platform, and artist residency focused on Transmission Art, the organization features a study center, a publicly accessible research library, and an Art Park situated on 29 acres of the ancestral homelands of the Mohican, Haudenosaunee Mohawk, and the Munsee Lenape people.

In a time where social media polarizes communities and isolates individuals, Wave Farm is a unique role model for what it means to create collaboratively, giving community a voice and artists space and support for experimentation.

In this conversation, artist and writer Franziska Lamprecht talks with Wave Farm executive director  Galen Joseph-Hunter about how this organization came about, its mission and focus, and the power of sound.

 

Franziska Lamprecht:

I would like to start with some general questions to lay the ground for our conversation. What is Transmission Art?

Galen Joseph-Hunter:

My mood today wants to respond with: Anything you want it to be. But I don’t mean that, really, probably. Transmission Art is a term that we may or may not have coined—possibly it was the result of a collective, unconscious moment. When Wave Farm was becoming a nonprofit arts organization in 2002, we evolved from a microradio artist collective, which was working with unlicensed radio transmission, and we wanted to formalize to support artists who were using radio as a creative medium. Radio was more for them than just a delivery device. We were thinking: Is it Radio Art that we are talking about? Of course the radio is much more than FM and AM, but when you say radio, to most people that is what they think of. 

There is a beautiful U.S. radio frequency allocation chart, which includes all sorts of maritime, amateur, and satellite transmissions, which made us think: why stop ourselves there? Why don’t we look at the electromagnetic spectrum, which has seven elements, radio being one of them? We thought the word transmission was perhaps a tool, which we could use to talk about airwaves at large as a creative medium, and so we landed on Transmission Art.

Franziska:

How did the name Wave Farm come about? 

Galen:

That is an excellent question, and I don’t really know the answer. Tom Roe, Wave Farm’s artistic director and I always reflect fondly that some of the best ideas that have come out of the organization can’t be traced to one origin, and how we aren’t quite sure who came up with it. My recollection is that we knew that we wanted to name this property, the 29 acres of land we are sitting on, talking right now in Acra, New York. The organization was originally called free103point9, and when we expanded up here from Brooklyn in 2004, we were having conversations with people, and at some point the idea of Wave Farm and farming the airwaves struck someone, and it seemed like the right fit. You know, the origin of the term broadcast means to cast seeds, so the relationship between the act of broadcasting and transmission and farming is pre-existing.

Rainsticks used by John Cage and Merce Cunningham in the Wave Farm archive

Franziska:

What kind of waves are artists working with when they engage in that sort of farming?

Galen:

It depends on the day of the year and the program. We have an international Artist Residency Program and a Fellowship Program that are both specific to Transmission Art. The Fellowship program historically has been even more focused on the idea of radio art for FM, AM, and shortwave broadcast. But for the Residency Program and its expansive idea and definition of Transmission Art, it could be someone working with satellite or infrared, or someone who is working with DYI FM transmitters or baby monitors, or someone who is creating a radio play for broadcast on our radio station WGXC, which has a unique commitment to this sort of content and is a wildly adventurous as a result.

Franziska:

In 2011, you, together with Penny Duff and Maria Papadomanolaki, published a book called Transmission Arts: Artists and Airwaves, which identifies a genealogy of 150 transmission artists. The book is an incredible resource that reflects on the scope of historical and contemporary works by artists working with airwaves. What are some of the earliest examples that you identified as Transmission Art?

Galen:

I was just this morning taking a photograph from a page of that book and sending it to one of our finalists to our residency program. It’s a 1921 piece by the Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov called The Radio of the Future. It is an early description of the possibilities of transmission space, imagining that at some point in the future one would be able to broadcast and transmit scents and flavors via the radio.

There is also Hans Flesch’s Zauberei auf dem Sender, the first Hörspiel (radio play) broadcast on German radio in 1924, exactly one year after the official launch of German public radio. The radio play was an experiment with the idea of grotesque and absurd radio making—everything went horribly wrong.

Franziska:

Transmission Art is often related to transmission technologies, and one important mission of Wave Farm is to provide access to the transmission spectrum so that practitioners can engage and experiment with the airwaves for artistic purposes. In which ways do you see Wave Farm as a place of “media activism?”

Galen:

I think with DIY radio FM and AM in particular, there is this history of activism that uses radio for communication in the context of protest but also for sharing information with a community that has not been entitled to have their own means of communication. There is the early microradio movement, which was about trying to get the federal government to create a pathway for low-power FM licenses which would serve small communities. An important figure in this history is the activist and radio pioneer Mbanna Kantako, who lived in high-rise, low-income housing in Springfield, Illinois, who realized that with a tiny radio transmitter he could connect a population of hundreds, who then could self-advocate as a result of being connected and having a voice. And there are lots of other examples of radio tools being a source for community organizing.

Franziska:

And where do you see Wave Farm in this context of media activism?

Galen:

Running a full-power FM radio station is expensive and difficult, and we often talk about the future of radio. How long will it be important? The artist Anna Friz, who was on our board of directors at the time, contextualized the importance of maintaining that license on 90.7 FM as a kind of occupation—occupying that space and protecting it. Operating a radio station like ours, which is so grassroots, lean, and experimental, is creative activism—is media activism. The community value aspect of WGXC is very unique in terms of really being committed to people having their voices on air. In what is sadly pretty unprecedented, citizens can truly walk up to or call into WGXC and have their voices on air.

Yvette Janine Jackson, Underground (Codes), 2022

Franziska:

Hearing you talk about occupation in the context of airwaves just triggered a set of questions about the seen and unseen modes of ownership and use of resources: Who owns the land? Who owns what part of the land? Who owns the mineral rights, who owns the air, who owns the airspace, who owns the airwaves? 

Galen:

Yes, Tom Roe, even before I knew him, was always advocating for the airwaves being public parkland and a community’s entitlement to have access as a result.

Franziska: 

The airwaves as a public park.

Galen:

Yes, it’s interesting to think about it. Someone was telling me about someone operating an unlicensed radio station at a residency program in the West of the U.S. and how the adjacent landowner was extremely upset that the signal could reach his property, even though he wasn’t listening. This is how the idea of invisible ownership comes into play: that someone could feel violated, because of an invisible signal that one has to intentionally tune into was present in his airspace, is a fascinating concept. 

Franziska:

The moment of claiming something that has not been claimed or even fully defined yet often turns into a power struggle. I think it’s about the future potential of exploitable resources… 

Galen:

… which also plays into the idea of eminent domain, the power of the government to re-allocate the transmission spectrum. The demand for wireless allocation, for all the obvious reasons, appears to only be growing exponentially. At some point, it could be decided to eliminate or change the low-end of part of the FM band, and then anybody who is in that section could lose their frequency.

Franziska:

A few of the works installed at Wave Farm’s Art Park made me think of the human role in creative production. One of these works is Pond Station by Zach Poff from 2015, which transmits audible activities of aquatic insects, fish, air bubbles, etc., within the pond by using underwater microphones, or hydrophones. The sounds are generated by the pond. How do you think about this work in the context of current technologies, such as generative AI? 

Galen:

Generative in the sense that nature is continuously changing and ongoing, yes. But nature is authentic, so in that sense, counter to AI. We love talking about Zach’s piece because there are so many ways one can engage with it. One of the aspects of the Art Park at large is to reveal what otherwise is unheard or unseen, and we also talk about the works as a stand-alone, as well as an instrument for collaborations with visiting artists. You can tune into what’s happening via Zach’s custom-built hydrophones within the pond and you hear what’s underwater, but you also hear what is going on above trickling through. You can participate by shouting or playing an instrument or you can play with the feed of the pond as a duet as for example the artist Jeffrey Lependorfhas done, on a number of occasions, for radio.

Franziska:

So Zach’s piece could be used as a database or as a tool for other people to generate new works?

Galen:

Absolutely. All of the projects here are in the Creative Commons.

Franziska:

Is that a requirement for installing a piece at Wave Farm?

Galen:

It’s not a prerequisite, but it’s kind of a beautiful thing about the nature of this place and the ideology that one inevitably feels aligned with to do something here.

Franziska:

Next to the pond is Solar Radio, created by Absolute Value of Noise and Anna Friz in 2022. The installation uses a small artificial intelligence that generates audio compositions in response to its natural environments. Have you witnessed any local non-human audience engagement with the broadcast of Solar Radio? Has anything changed in this particular spot near the pond since the piece was installed?

Galen:

No, and I don’t think it would, other than for the physical presence of the truss and the solar panels, because there is nothing amplified. In order to hear Solar Radio you have to tune into a web-based audio stream.

Anna Friz has visited Wave Farm for years and has collected over a decade-worth of field recordings at Wave Farm. Working with Absolute Value of Noise, she composed with these field recordings, and the Solar Radio AI is compiling and drawing from that database of recordings based on how much sun is directly hitting the panels. Conceptually, the artists talk about the piece as though maybe this AI is in a future time or another dimension where humans may still exist or not. The AI is trying to remember what the sound of this place was, so it’s trying to recall and compile these memories.

Franziska:

I see, it’s like creating or experiencing the state of pre-nostalgia, the feeling of missing something before it’s gone, missing the moment while it is happening. The AI is using this database of the past to create our presence, based on its current relationship with the sun. 

Galen:

Yes, exactly. And both those projects have these online live-streams where people can tune in remotely.

Absolute Value of Noise and Anna Friz, Solar Radio, 2022

Franziska:

How many audio installations are currently installed in the Art Park? 

Galen:

There are 13 installations, and all of them relate to sound in some way, even though two of them don’t make any sounds.

Franziska:

Are they considered to be permanent installations? 

Galen:

I usually say long-term, just because nothing is permanent.

Franziska:

Right. But how far into the future does Wave Farm plan to keep these works accessible to the public, and what sort of practical implications come with such a commitment? 

Galen:

We first installed works on the property in response to an open call for installations in 2007. There were four or five projects, and none of those are here anymore. Through that process we learned a tremendous amount, mostly about what sort of technology you could put out into the Northeast of the U.S. to endure twelve months of the year but also what the commitment from the artist has to be, and what our relationship with that artist needs to be. It isn’t that you can install the work and disappear. 

Zach Poff, who we talked about earlier, is easily here twice a year, if not more, to check on things and repair something. We had a beaver eat through the hydrophone cable in the pond, for example. Being in nature, everything is constantly in flux. So in terms of your question about duration, the majority of the projects do not have a contracted duration, with one exception, which is Barrier. This is the piece that does not on its own make sound, but relates to sound. It’s 20 Jersey Barrier concrete casts in a curvature that are placed near the Wave Farm entrance in the shape of a waveform of someone uttering “SOS.”

That project was installed in 2021 by the artist Type A, and because moving 20 Jersey Barriers is not an easy thing to do, the artist wanted to get a sense of how long we were committing to the piece. At the time, which was 2021, we said fifteen years.

Franziska:

I would like to talk about Underground (Codes), two radio operas by Yvette Janine Jackson, which are broadcast into the pine forest section of Wave Farm through two huge metal tubes that stick out of the ground like the smoke stacks of steamboats, which have been buried in the ground. The operas are themed around the Middle Passage stage of the transatlantic slave trade. I would like to learn more about the piece, but I am also curious: Is there a special significance to these metal tubes? How do they relate to the project?

Galen:

The tubes are modeled on air intake vents on 20th-century steamers. They were fabricated by the artist Charles Lindsey in preparation for an exhibition first shown at the Solinas Art Museum in 2014 for A Centennial Celebration of Marconi & RCA Wireless Radio. They were fabricated by Wayne Campbell. 

Charles Lindsey had a property nearby, and right before the pandemic was preparing to relocate to Kyoto, Japan, and asked if Wave Farm would like to inherit these two structures that he had used for sound and video projections. I thought this would probably be something interesting acoustically and we could have circulating sound programming in there. But then I recalled Yvette Janine Jackson’s 2017 piece called Destination Freedom, which in the most cursory description imagines the sounds of being inside the hull of a ship during the transatlantic slave trade.

I thought this structure could be really powerful with that content. So, we spoke to Yvette and asked her about citing the piece at Wave Farm in this way. For the second structure, thanks to the Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, we were able to commission her to make a second composition, which she calls Undergound (Codes).

Yvette talks about the second piece being a response to—or a letter to—Destination Freedom. They are installed on two opposite sides of a path, and the work is audible as one approaches from a distance.  The frequencies of the piece are very low and move through the earth, so it’s very easy to viscerally feel the piece in your body, and it’s quite moving. We had a number of people weep standing there. 

Franziska:

Yvette Janine Jackson has written about this work: 

The Earth-planet is the archivist of our past and future (selves)
While we fight for truth(s) with soil underfoot
She transmits atemporal memories to the heavens

This idea of the earth-planet as the archivist, brings me back to my earlier observation of how many of the art installations in the Art Park enable us, either through the technologies they employ or through their stated intentions to open our minds and ears and perceive a much wider array of data and information, but it also brings me to this other endeavor that Wave Farm has continuously grown since its inception, which is the Wave Farm Archive. Why do you think it’s important to invest an incredible amount of resources into this record keeping, or in other words, how is the future of Wave Farm connected to its past? 

Galen:

Those are big questions. The archive at large is something I always fantasize about, some sort of dream retirement scenario, when I do nothing but work on the archive. But I think the answer to why we spend so much time and effort in trying to build the archive is both to celebrate the work that’s happening here, but also demonstrate a real commitment to this idea of access. Similar to the Creative Commons status that is pervasive throughout the installations in the Art Park, we archive in order make content available to others, to cultivate that idea of Transmission Art, and to support the artists we are working with—and of course, also to preserve the organization’s legacy.

Wave Farm Library

Franziska:

What are some of the practical and/or conceptual challenges of building this archive, especially in terms of works that thrive in what we call “live,” fleeting, or time-based works and performances that thrive in the moment?  

Galen:

These are good questions. For example, the daily transmissions from Zach Poff’s Pond Station that happen from sunrise to sunset are not being recorded. It would be nice if they were. Our radio station is being recorded and archived 24/7. We were just talking about the storage volume that we have on Dropbox currently, which I think exceeds twelve terabytes. It’s a lot of content, and this amount of data presents real questions: How do you structure something that allows people to find what they are looking for? And where does the curatorial come into play with this? We say: the archive. But if you go to our website, there is the Wave Farm Organizational Archive, which is basically our search, and it’s everything that we have ever done that made it to our website.

Then you have the Transmission Arts Archive, which captures the book’s works from 2011 and every resident and fellow and every special project that has been tied into this idea of Transmission Arts since the organization’s formation. You also have the Broadcast Radio Archive, which is a more recent effort, where we have had fellows build an archive of radio art practice to create a resource, especially needed in the U.S., where people have a place they can access and learn about this art form.

Franziska:

While your main focus is on supporting the experimentation of contemporary transmission artists, Wave Farm has also continuously engaged in presenting and/or reimagining the works of historical Transmission Art works by artists such as John Cage or Hans Flesch. Can you talk about the motivation behind these projects? 

Galen:

Back in 2002, when we were sitting around saying, OK, now we are making an organization: What is the mission statement, and what is our focus? We were first discussing the terminology of Transmission Art. At that time we intentionally didn’t want to fully define it because we wanted it to grow from what we saw as an emerging community of practitioners, but we also wanted to validate it with a history and a genealogy. So it was for that reason that we were looking backwards saying: These are actually really important projects that help validate, foster, and define, even though they were not cognizant of this genre Transmission Art, which would not have been identified yet—what we are trying to cultivate now. 

Franziska:

Institutions dedicated to present art, such as museums, galleries, or sculpture parks mostly focus on visual arts, where the audience uses their eyes. Historically a lot of education has been invested in training our eyes (and minds) in being able to see certain forms of beauty, rigor, mysticism, ideas, etc. within the visual realm. Wave Farm is very much dedicated to our ears. What sorts of listening do you want to foster?

Galen:

We were fortunate enough to know Pauline Oliveros, who of course is behind the idea of Deep Listening. She lived nearby and was involved in a number of projects at Wave Farm, so I can’t help but mention her when we talk about listening. But I think we are really invested in this idea of “open ears,” the slogan for our radio station is Radio for Open Ears, and we talk about the power of listening and how much good can come from listening to each other and listening to what’s around us. We are not audiophiles, in terms of wanting to have the most high-fidelity, most pristine listening experience, though. For intentional and practical reasons, we embrace messy sound.

Franziska:

What’s the future of listening?

Galen:

Something is really changing in human behavior around listening, and I think it’s tied into people’s relationship to their phones and their devices. Ambient sound used to feel very invasive to people. I remember years ago, there was a graduate from the Bard College Center for Curatorial Studies who had organized a sound program at the Rhinecliff Train Station, which had some fairly inaccessible sound work, and people were up in arms. They were really upset that they had to be exposed to or contend with that sound while they were waiting for their train.

But here we are, a decade and a half later, and you can’t really go to a restaurant or public transportation or even the grocery store without someone watching a video on a phone with the sound amplified. People don’t seem to consider it, or they don’t consider each other, or they don’t consider it a rude thing to amplify sound now—in a way that is super shocking to me. I think there is that shift in how people consider sound, their own sound, versus communal sound. 

Keep up with Wave Farm updates on Instagram.

Learn more about Franziska Lamprecht.

Zach Poff, Pond Station, 2015

All photos by Franziska Lamprecht

Header: (Foreground) Barrier by Type A, 2021. (Background) Heidi Neilson and Harry Dove-Robinson, Here GOES Radiotelescope, 2020

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