Douglas Kahn - Earth Sound Earth Signal – Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts
“Radio is not always a technological control device supplied with energy from a battery or a plug in the wall; sometimes it is the energy. Unlike other forms of 19th century media that developed upon a tried-and-true base of writing and storage, the sphere of telecommunications technologies of telegraphy, telephony, and wireless resonated with energetic environments and received signals from terrestrial and extraterrestrial sources. Thus, receiving radio may mean that someone is listening but not always that anyone is sending. Communications technologies change old ways and provide tantalising glimpses into the future, but the mistake is to think that they are always about communications. They do not always default to infrastructural business ventures upon which humans converse or exchange information with one another; communications technologies also belong among scientific investigations, aesthetic engagements, artistic activities, and environmentalist possibilities. Individually and collectively, communications have hosted communes in the tendentious house of nature. Watson (Bell’s assistant) heard electromagnetic waves a decade before Heinrich Hertz empirically proved their existence and two decades before Guglielmo Marconi was credited with inventing wireless telegraphy. Some of the natural sounds that Watson and others heard in the telephone were perceived as musical, especially short sliding tones and whistling glissandi. Indeed, the term musical atmospherics later became common in scientific quarters, and researchers in the early 1930s described atmospherics along a continuum of musical, quasi-musical, and nonmusical”. And so starts Douglas Kahn’s research into “natural radio” and the artists involved. At its most basic, Earth Sound Earth Signal is an account of the trade between two classes of energy: acoustics (mechanics) and electromagnetism. For those unfamiliar with Douglas Kahn, he happens to be an historian and theorist of media arts, sound and music in the arts, energy in the arts, and science in the arts from the late-19th Century to the present, with an emphasis on the traditions of the avant-garde, and experimentalism. Not only does the good man know what he is talking about, he knows how to bring it across as well.