The Canadian Art Database

Victor Coleman

RADIOS or mediachurch (1982)
an investigation of two-dimensional performance

[ 1,006 words ]

The grassroots of what I'm going to 'talk' about is bag ladies, Donny the Street Arab, and a thousand egos that wear themselves like clothes.

The Radio was invented. Marconi stole the show from R. A. Fessenden. The boats carried valuable cargo. It was a cult of sorts. Mercantile. It signaled the end of Natural Regionalism; and at the same time gave it a voice. It also freed the imagination from the strictures of the page, from the hot lead that led to cold type, from the intimate oral tradition. The Voice Box.

It begins in Processionals and Pipers; it refines itself in Shakespearean collaboration; it falls upon us contemporaneously as Saturday Night Live and Theatre Passe Muraille. Its signs are Burma Shave effective. They strike a small audience, but not a clique or cadre; they appeal to the traveller, the voyageur.

     Drive, he sd
     for Christ's sake
     look out ...

the window is the ultimate proscenium: '... The space between the "scene" or background and the orchestra, on which the action took place. The stage.' (OED) Acting betrays reality. Dramaturgy distorts. Removing the proscenium removes the suspension of disbelief. The frame defines only the light. The sound needs another medium entirely. Get real.

Excuse me, I haven't introduced myself. You may have heard of me before. Mike Fright? Private Ear. I'm looking for the wife of an Electronics magnate. Seems she had been drawn away from him. Maybe you can help.

It starts somewhere between the Minstrel Show and the Donkey Baseball game. It starts with naked Blake escaping his guests. It starts with Allen Ginsberg in a courtroom in Chicago. And it never stops.

The Radio Ghost is among us and he makes us say Yes to the person who's holding our hand. Bloodstains from the tragic death of Radio seep through the colour TV, infecting your lives like the gasses and electrons that fuel-suppliers expectorate into the atmosphere.

Back to Earth ... how can I relate this to what I hear on the Radio now, and what I see in the Theatre?

Well ... let me tell you. Remember Sam Beckett? Harry Pinter? Eugene Ionesco, Antonin Artaud, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie? Need I go on? Jessica Dragonette never met Artaud. Reginald Fessenden never met James Joyce or Ezra Pound. Pound's 'treasonous' broadcasts from Italy cost him his sanity. Ernie Kovaks lost his on an L.A. freeway. Groucho died in bed.

Is there no justice?

Music doesn't need a proscenium. If it's formal, sometimes, it helps; but if it's original / improvised music, you don't need the frame. It's better if it's all around you. Being surrounded by good music is the ultimate punishment, especially if you enjoy it. You're gone. Your purpose has disappeared! Now what do you do?

Turn it off!

Silence. 'Popular Silence' — imagination.

Two If Radio is vacant light and latent action stung to life by sound it is truly a musical instrument. Where it went 'off' — with the advent of Pop TV — was in allowing itself to be cast in the role of live and pre-recorded music purveyor. The DJ took over the commentary, and the newsman was king. Radio Drama still exists, but it has been shelved, or back-burnered, pigeon-holed as intellectual entertainment. The raw edges of a Fred Allen have been abandoned for the cheap / slick drawing room chit-chat of 'educated' people.

My first real awareness of the incorporation of Radio formats and technology into Performance was shortly after the Hollywood Decca Dance in 1973. The collaborative process that attended this celebration of the birthday of Art was an awe-inspiring signal of the importance of Performance Art to the development of visual art in this century. The action painters had led the way with their huge improvisations; Merce Cunningham and John Cage et al had introduced chance and indeterminacy; the Sound Poets used their bodies as props.

The Luxe Radio Players and The HP Dinner Hour grew out of the halcyon days of Vancouver's premiere artist-run centre, The Western Front, where script meetings or rehearsals were sometimes a daily event. As video was being introduced to visual artists, many tinkered about with the new technology; but at The Front they honed their performance and writing skills through the production of an eccentric brand of narrative that utilized elements of satire, nonsense, private jokes, public outrage, and amateur / live / sound effects. These 'radio plays' were performed for live audiences. There was nothing rarefied, nothing overtly preachy about them, so they seemed inconsequential or frivolous to some. Because the form was 'new' — a term often used to describe appropriation — there was little critical response at the time: it wasn't theatre; the actors were reading from scripts into microphones; there were no sets, no props, and the sound effects were frantically executed by persons at long tables covered with noisy junk.

Merciless puns tumbled forth incessantly, bludgeoning the audience into helplessness. The Soni Twin spoke in tandem high-pitched voices. The banal was raised to sublime heights.

HP reinvented Bob and Ray (who had themselves already graduated to TV and the Broadway stage) and produced weekly shows of serious mirth and discovery, introducing characters into the radio pantheon equal to those that existed in the Thirties and Forties: Bonnard & LaFarge & Carolyne In Space!, Tales from the Days of Sail (Arrggghh!), The Cavemen; all of them equally zany; all of them equally pointed.

And out of all this sprang the Canadian Shadow Players, a refinement of the original radio experiments, with the addition of tighter scripts, more pre-recorded sound, rear-screen projection, costumes and props.

postscript (5 / 7 / 88)

With the recent proliferation of community radio across Canada we now enjoy the riches bestowed upon us by the poor. Radio is again refusing to shake the dirt off its roots.

Long live the Radio Ghost. And may his / her ectoplasm cover the globe with a joyous noise.

Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.

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