Movements within Small Radio Movements
As I watch CONCILIATION OF SFERICS and ponder these questions, I think about Kogawa’s previous interactions with the airwaves. Kogawa explains that his current practices of radioart resulted from his involvement in Radio Home Run, the very low-powered FM station run by his former students between 1983 and 1996 in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo (Kogawa 2008). This station took advantage of a loophole in Japanese broadcasting legislation, which stipulated that devices under a legally-defined power threshold — usually requiring less than one watt of power — could transmit on the air without a license. Using a legal very low-powered FM transmitter, members of Radio Home Run transmitted a signal able to reach listeners within about 500 meters of the station’s antenna. However, Tokyo’s high population density meant that this relatively weak transmitter still had massive possibilities, since its comparatively small coverage area still contained about “20,000 residents, all potential listeners” (Kogawa 1988: 61).
During the early 1980s, other groups of individuals began using similar transmitters to cheaply and legally broadcast to their hyperlocal communities as well. In fact, there were so many very low-powered FM stations in 1983 that the mainstream press began calling this movement a “Mini-FM” boom, which only increased its popularity and caused even more stations to pop up throughout the country (Chandler, Neumark and Kogawa, 2005: 197). Many of these Mini-FM stations mimicked the techniques of their larger-scale counterparts, featuring charismatic DJs that played hit tunes on the air. Some even constructed relay networks using an array of Mini-FM transmitters to reach a greater number of listeners farther away. However, Radio Home Run embraced its relatively weak transmitter and its ability to distribute the station's signal to listeners only a very short distance away. Members developed new practices specifically tailored to the unique technological and social characteristics presented by their very low-powered FM transmitter. As Kogawa explains, they began thinking about their practice as “narrowcasting” instead of broadcasting, since it focused less on “(possible) listeners” than it did on the producers who were physically present in the studio (Kogawa 1994: 291). Because of this, Kogawa adds, the station saw its function as “centripetal rather than centrifugal: listeners tended to want to come to the station” (Kogawa 2003: 179).
Radio Home Run had an almost anarchic policy where nobody controlled it and anyone visiting the station could become a member. As the station used a room of one of the members’ apartment, nobody had to pay except for the cost of making the programs. Depending on who took care of the program, the content and way of running it differed. Some of the programs were similar to regular radio but most of them used radio as a catalyst for talking, playing and getting together. The interesting thing was that as the atmosphere livened up during the program, listeners couldn’t help coming over to our place. The location was very convenient and in our service area (one kilometer radius) there were a lot of cafes, bars, and restaurants where young people gathered with their portable radios or Walkmans with FM radio functions. Some people visited, first hesitantly, and then within a week started their own program. (Chandler, Neumark and Kogawa 2005: 199)
Kogawa frequently emphasizes the importance of walking to the station. He writes: “The area that a one-watt transmitter covers is within walking or bicycling distance, which is ecologically sound” (Kogawa 1994: 291). Elsewhere, he adds that radio “stations which can only cover areas within walking distance" are favorable to larger broadcasting outlets (Kogawa 2003: 179). As I watch CONCILIATION OF SFERICS, I begin to understand why walking to a nearby radio station — moving around, within, and through the electromagnetic field produced by a radio transmitter — is so important for Kogawa, and my perception shifts.
In this video, Kogawa’s hands move around the invisible electromagnetic field produced by his transmitters in a manner similar to the way that the members of Radio Home Run moved around the station's literal electromagnetic field and its figurative fields of political, intellectual, cultural, material, and immaterial elements. As arrangements within these literal and figurative fields shifted during the station's fourteen years of existence, the sounds produced by the station changed as well — new types of music were played, conversations evolved, and the overall tone of the collective shifted. Sometimes, the station seemed to become more harmonious, other times, more dissonant. Either way, the members of Radio Home Run continued to participate and the experiences of making radio as a collective of producers constantly shifted their perceptions of the medium and its technological, social, and artistic possibilities.
In CONCILIATION OF SFERICS, you can almost imagine Kogawa's hands as a metaphorical representation of individuals moving around Radio Home Run's literal and figurative fields. As their relationships to their material surroundings change over time, strange new sounds emerge, existing sounds evolve, and the overall sonic tone continuously shifts to reveal new aesthetic possibilities of the airwaves.
In this sense, Kogawa's video allegorically illustrates how various movements or what I will call kinetic interactions with the material conditions of radio make the airwaves seem strange in order to reveal previously unperceived possibilities. Kinetic interaction occurs when there is a perceptible change in the physical arrangement of materials in an environment over time. For instance, when Kogawa changes the physical arrangement of materials in this video, he also changes the overall sonic configuration of the performance. Similarly, when Radio Home Run's listeners changed their physical arragnements within the Shimokitazawa neighborhood to become producers, the overall sound of the station's signal changed as well. This literal and figurative reconfiguration of the materials of radio caused the signal to become stronger or weaker, blended now sounds from the urban environment with the station's transmission, and introduced new voices to the airwaves. In both Kogawa's video and Radio Home Run, kinetic interactions with material aspects of radio the made familiar, everyday experiences of this form of electromagnetic energy suddenly seem strange, revealing its potential “as more than just a ‘means of communication’” (Chandler, Neumark and Kogawa 2005: 205).