Radio Narrowcasts - Anton Kats Interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini
Alessandra Ferrini (A F) To date, you have been working with sound and moving images to develop dialogic and collaborative interventions in the public realm. Let me start by asking you how you have come about developing such practice.
Anton Kats (A K) Thank you for your question. For me, the pragmatics of dialogic and collaborative interventions come first and only then suggest a particular aesthetic form. This goes back to my upbringing. I was born and grew up in Ukraine. My early life was marked by the turbulent events of the 1990s such as the collapse of the Soviet Union, the opening up of the country to the free market and privatisation as well as several waves of military conflicts in the post-soviet space. During this relatively violent and chaotic time in Ukraine, my childhood was characterised by the interpersonal relationships of a vibrant neighbourhood as it searched for ways to deal with the challenges of this transition. My practice derives from a series of transitional situations that began with the experience outlined above. Driven by confrontation with a chaotic, unstable and violent situation, my works is premised upon the necessity of learning how to make sense of a particular current moment, respond to it and, importantly, how to do this collectively.
Confronted with an inability to plan or expect anything particularly long term (apart that things might get worse and more violent over time) I see each transitional situation as an in-between space, a ‘neither/nor’ relationship premised upon what is no longer and what is not yet. While this in-betweenness might appear as a passive and neutral state or process of mere passing by, it is in fact the opposite – it is determined through a continuous negotiation in which formal and informal practices, juxtaposed agencies and structures intersect and gravitate in different directions.
Especially the development of Radio Narrowcasts - key elements of my radio practice - and the concept of Concrete Listening that I am developing can be seen in this relationship. Contrary to the conventional radio broadcasts, the Radio Narrowcast can take the form of social interactions, site-specific radio shows, and performances. It is also a way of creating listening spaces in different local contexts with or without the implementation of radio technology. Concrete Listening, on the other hand, can be briefly summarised as a multidisciplinary practice for developing structures of mutual support, solidarity and action.
(A F) Can you expand a bit more on the characteristics and evolution of the conceptual devices and formal strategies that you have developed?
(A K) Radio as I do understand it can be addressed through the film Radio Delo I have made in Ukraine together with my grandfather between 2011 and 2012.
Anton Kats, Radio Delo, (2012)
Also my relationship with radio begins with my grandfather. Growing up in 1940s in Ukraine my grandfather falsified his age as a teenager in order to volunteer in the army and be sent to the front to fight fascism. Being still too small for fighting, yet small and agile enough to potentially remain unseen by the enemy, instead of a rifle my grandfather was given a mobile radio station eventually becoming a radio operator in the force-oriented reconnaissance during World War II. My grandfather’s war experience became significant throughout my childhood. His war stories - told from the perspective of a radio operator - were always pointing towards his experience of being in-between friendly and enemy lines, facing the danger of being shot from both sides. Yet this was not only an extreme experience of in-betweenness but also an everyday discipline in using the radio and in listening for strategic reasons and the planning of action. I believe that we are too often thinking of the act of listening or of radio as practices that are only concerned with abstract modes of culture and knowledge production or with radio- or sound-art-specific content. However, the mere fact that my grandfather was able to survive the war and meet my grandmother, also suggests that a different use of radio has resulted into a very concrete outcome, which is materialised in my persona answering your questions now.
Many years later as I was commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries to develop a site-specific project with young people and residents living around Church Street Market in Westminster, London, I started rethinking how radio could be used more strategically in this context. The contextual point of departure for the project was a vortex of issues and problems surrounding rapid redevelopment, precarity and marginalisation in the neighbourhood. These were often emphasised by young people and adults alike as an experience of not being heard and not being included into decision-making processes in the area. This led the project to focus on listening, in order to develop a particular understanding of radio as a useful tool for art practice, research and learning.
Ever since, the project has developed and travelled quite a bit. One of its iterations was commissioned by Openvizor and developed in Downtown Kingston, Blue Mountains and Tivoli Gardens in Jamaica. It evolved in collaboration with a grassroots organisation, art and education space in Downtown Kingston called Studio 174. At the same time, - while being rooted in collaborative and informal spaces the project continues to move through the institutional landscape including such institutions as Serpentine Galleries, Tate Britain and recently Tate Modern, where Narrowcast Radio is currently being developed with the older visitors of the Day Centres at the South Bank. Navigating these often contradictory spaces I am looking for the ways to explore concrete and abstract dimensions of work in order to develop practical concepts and aesthetic forms that can be useful for the people I am collaborating with.
(A F) Can you please tell us a bit more about the Edgware Road Project: Radio Sonar, especially about the impact it has had on the local community?
(A K) The questions of impact or the usefulness of the work is very important to me. In particular, while developing collaborative work simultaneously in informal and formal, institutional contexts, one is often confronted with the challenge to evaluate informal work through formal protocols rooted in funding structures and institutional agencies. Often there is a demand and pressure to proclaim "success" in naming and quantifying experiences, thoughts, friendships, interactions, networks and moments that are irreducible and resistant to calculation, economics or even to written or spoken language in general. This paradox, I think, is a fundamental problem but also a powerful element of such practice as it cannot be represented in the complexity of its relationships and frameworks. Yet this paradox is omnipresent and extends even further when one considers how the projects that critically address redevelopment or that develop local social networks are partially funded by organisations responsible for the processes of privatisation, marginalisation and displacement on a much larger scale. This again also means being caught in-between and acting upon a diversity of agencies in a useful, pragmatic and practical way.
Anton Kats, Radio Narrowcast.
A map of the Church Street Market intervention.
Operating in Westminster, on this seemingly small yet not less important neighbourhood - and in one small street in particular - lack of communication and this experience of not being heard that I was mentioning above, became some of the few issues that the project has addressed practically. In this sense, developing a series of Radio Narrowcasts can be seen as a practical contribution in developing a local and site-specific dialogue and interaction among different people in the neighbourhood. Here already the mere presence of the events and operations associated with the project impacts on local processes of organisation from the bottom up and it is an important step, beneficial to processes of strategic planning and action.
(A F) Similarly to Edgware Road Project: Radio Sonar in 2015, while in residence in Downtown Kingston, Jamaica, you also employed narrowcasts and a sort of 'assembly' format to work with the local community. Could you tell us a bit more about the motivations behind this project, the book that you produced and the way your collaborative approach was received by the local community?
(A K) My collaboration with Studio 174 and Openvizor in Jamaica began in 2014 and still continues, through taking part in a series of several weeks to several months long residencies in and around Kingston. The first iteration of the project took part in 2014 during 3 summer months in June, July and August in Downtown. Developing Radio Narrowcasts in Downtown eventually merged into an exhibition and launch of an open workspace and sound archive Sound Space Downtown at Studio 174. Providing access to equipment and working infrastructure for local residents, the work space was complemented by the launch of a methodology book Sound Space Downtown: Workbook and User Manual, deriving from the work developed and accomplished during the first residency.
Anton Kats, West Street Narrowcast, (2015)
Here, questions of intentionality and agency are very important to me. Especially because the living and working conditions in Downtown Kingston go beyond the relatively secure and wealthy European conditions. To quote Sandra, one of the residents of Downtown, from the Sound Space Downtown book:
"The violence this nah go weh fi now, yuh mad, it only ease and start and its getting worse each day, a lot of poverty is here." (1)
Similar stories of poverty, violence and survival can be heard daily on the streets of Downtown and regularly address the loss of friends and family members and the inability to make a bare living.
Philip, one of the street market vendors mentions:
"I lost my mother in 2007 died in a house by gun shot. From mi mother dead mi
stress out, mi mother less and fathers less. My father is alive but I don’t known weh him deh. I have four sisters and one brother dem help mi now and then with food fi eat." (2)
Furthermore many of the residents underline stigmatisation of the Downtown Neighbourhood as an area of no interest and considering it the worst area in the county because of extreme violence, extreme poverty and gangs. (3) During the sound walks gunshots are often referred to as the signposts for particular streets and have also several times interrupted Radio Narrowcasts. (4)
I am referring to this statements not to stigmatise Downtown - it is one of the most amazing and beautiful places I have ever been to, with a lot of wonderful people and great artists. Instead, exactly in this context it is important for me to consider my own positionality, agency and responsibility as an artist. Addressing my motivation in this context I am concerned with the following questions: How the organisation of listening spaces (which you are referring to as assemblies) and Radio Narrowcasts in Downtown can usefully contribute to the situation at stake from the bottom up? Moreover how this bottom up approach to collaboration with local residents, which derives from listening, direct speech and contributions of the residents, can reinforce this process? As these questions suggest, I am interested in working on specific solutions for specific problems, together with the people directly affected by these.
Making the Sound Space Downtown: Workbook and User Manual and the developing of a functional workspace and exhibition at Studio 174 can be seen as quite concrete outcomes of this process. Also the workbook contributes to the workspace and is also quite a beautiful object and a learning resource after all. It contains a diversity of oral histories, work manuals concerned with sound walks and sound investigations, reflections and proposals for social interaction, a listening alphabet, variety of interviews and different formal and informal contributions by people involved in the project.
Anton Kats, Sound Space Downtown. (2015) Workspace, Sound Archive, Publication. Studio 174. Downtown Kingston. Jamaica
You can download it here: http://www.antonkats.net/selected-projects/sound-space-downtown-workbook-and-a-user-manual/ and there are also several copies of the book in the library of the Showroom Gallery in London.
(A F) Expanding on this work, while in Jamaica you have also realised Bloxburgh FM: Water Road Education. In this case, you set up a radio programme and developed a collaborative, participated documentary video. I found this project particularly powerful because of its social and political stance. How have you become involved with this cause and what was your drive behind this work?
(A K) Bloxburgh FM is another iteration of the project, which was developed in collaboration with the residents of a small coffee farming community in Bloxburgh, St. Andrew Jamaica and Studio 174. Studio 174 is well known in the region of Kingston due to its mural works in the city. I was approached by the Bloxburgh Community Association, a self-organised governing body of Bloxburgh, asking to propose a project which would assist and benefit the farmers. In June 2015 I had the privilege to stay in Bloxburgh during the whole month developing a series of radio narrowcasts together with the artists from Studio 174 and the residents of Bloxburgh. Bloxburgh is a small rural place 14 kilometres away from Kingston, which, according to Bloxburgh residents, can not be found on the map: it is never heard or seen outside, has no voice in regard to its own political or social demands and no saying in its own living and working conditions. (5) Indeed, Bloxburgh can not be found on neither local nor on Google maps, - which I did not think possible. After spending the first week in Bloxburgh, in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, approximately 3 kilometres above the sea level, and getting to know the place and the people, I was informally introduced to the project brief, which was to address and to respond to the problems encountered by the farmers. These were the absence of water, road and education.
It won't be possible to address any of these issues in greater detail here (perhaps watching the film might be much better), yet even the situation with water is already very severe and sadly not that uncommon. This has caused bushfires, the loss of harvest and wages, and consequently the collapse of road and houses, the closure of the school – which was forced to move out towards the city - and basically an overreaching and gradual decay of the place.
Here, making radio together became a useful tool to articulate the problems at stake which could be used as leverage when communicating with the Water Commission, local MPs, and as a general way for coming together and planning strategic action. Also the film you are mentioning derives from our Radio Narrowcasts, which took place in the rooms of Bloxburgh's abandon school. Directed by the residents, filmed and edited together over the period of three weeks this film is shaped by unexpected and improvised moments, spontaneous performances and general assemblies exploring both: the potential to develop collaborative forms of action useful in the everyday, and radio as a working social power. In this sense, the film was made on demand by the residents of Bloxburgh in order to highlight issues at stake through developing a self-directed and useful form of representation. My motivation and role within this process was to collaboratively develop a practice that could allow it.
Anton Kats, Bloxburgh FM: Water Road Education (2015)
(A F) In this project, your work becomes intertwined with practices of grassroots, political activism. However, I am aware that, although you employ the radio as a medium for socially engaged projects, you are also very critical of this medium. Could you expand on the theoretical issues behind your practice and on what has driven you to such a deconstruction and political use of the radio?
(A K) Thank you for your question. This brings me back to my grandfather fighting in the Second World War as a radio operator. After the war he continued to listen to radios almost without interruption. In my upbringing I was surrounded by many radios, sometimes placed in very unexpected corners of our rather small apartment. Also the older my grandfather grew the louder the radios became. Unable to escape many of the screaming radios during my adolescence I have developed almost a natural aversion towards a traditional radio broadcast. I think developing a radio practice of my own, which is inspired by my grandfather's stories of the Second World War and simultaneously intending to avoid a close proximity to radios for the rest of my life, somehow points in the direction I am moving right now.
In this sense I am thinking of radio less as a part of home entertainment systems or as an Internet stream, but more as a wide ranging mix of listening techniques and an intricate system of social interactions. Also developing Radio Narrowcasts as opposed to Radio Broadcasts became quite useful here. This allowed to explore listening as a method addressing the spatial interdependence between audiences and a broadcaster and proposed expanding the understanding of radio through moving the studio into the streets and breaking up with the predetermined roles we are often taking for granted. In this sense I am not really interested in developing a presentation of radio-specific content like radio shows, radio plays or a particular approach to working with sound or art a priory. Instead I am rather concerned with developing a collaborative and site-specific practice of listening, while developing listening as a useful and concrete method capable of responding to a particular social and political context. Listening for me is a generative and material act. Confronted with the situations, processes and conditions outlined here I see the developing and making use of the ability to listen and to respond to the issues at stake as my overarching "response ability" as an artist.
Anton Kats (b.1983, Ukraine) is an artist, musician and dancer based in London. Anton's practice derives from informal everyday relationships within a vibrant neighbourhood in Kherson, Ukraine and is complemented through necessity and pragmatics of self-legalisation in Europe via entering formal institutions of education. After attending masters programmes in Art in Context at the University of Arts Berlin and Interactive Media: Critical Theory and Practice at Goldsmiths College, Kats continued his studies through a practice-based PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Developing practice-driven research projects, Kats explores ambiguity of art practice as a question of agency and intentionality and develops site-specific work engaging with structures of self-organisation, self-education, marginalised people and the non-normative.
Kats is an editor of Sound Space Downtown: Workbook and User Manual, For a Walk With: Dementia in the City and a lecturer of Contextual Studies at the Ravensbourne University in London. His works have been exhibited and performed in venues including the Serpentine Galleries, Tate Britain, Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Showroom Gallery.
( 1 )
Kats A. Sound Space Downtown: a Workbook and a User Manual. Kingston: Studio 174; 2015. p. 77
Note: Throughout the composition of the book it was a conscious and collaborative decision not to rewrite or translate contributions from Patois into English. Jamaican Patois is a rich creole language, which although does have a strong English influence has its own rules and tradition. Patois a not a written language, it is direct speech. The excerpts from the interviews presented here were transcribed by Sheldon Blake, poet and resident of Downtown with an intention to keep them as close to the original as possible and neither to deprive people of the way they speak, nor to make it too comfortable for any other English speaker.
( 2 )
Ibid p. 102
( 3 )
Ibid, p. 163
( 4 )
Ibid, p. 176
( 5 )
Studio 174. Bloxburgh FM: Water Road Education. Film. [Accessed 4.11.2015]. Available from: https://vimeo.com/144026350 Timecode: 21:28
Documentation USB: Concrete Listening -> Radio Sonar Jamaica -> Bloxburgh FM: Water Road Education